The Great Inca Rebellion I


While he attacked Cuzco, Manco entrusted Quizo Yupanqui and his captains Ilia Tupac and Puyu Vilca with the conquest of the central highlands. Another general, Tiso, had already been fomenting rebellion among the natives of the Jauja area with some success. At the first hint of trouble, the Spaniards had despatched a punitive expedition of some sixty men, mostly foot-soldiers, under one Diego Pizarro. These operated in the Jauja area while Tiso vanished into the eastern jungles and reported back to Manco at Ollantaytambo.

Governor Francisco Pizarro first heard about the attack on Cuzco on 4 May, in his new capital Los Reyes, or Lima. He at once feared for his brothers and the other Spaniards isolated in Cuzco, and began organising relief expeditions. He sent thirty men over the mountains to Jauja, under Captain Francisco Morgovejo de Quiñones, one of the two alcaldes of Lima. This force marched inland in mid-May, with orders to proceed along the royal road and garrison the strategic crossroads of Vilcashuaman. It travelled through peaceful country beyond Jauja and as far as Parcos, an important tambo above the gorge of the Mantaro. Morgovejo de Quiñones learned here that the natives had killed five Spaniards travelling towards Cuzco. His reprisals were swift and vicious. He gathered twenty-four chiefs and elders of Parcos into a thatched building and burned them all alive. He hoped in this way to intimidate the natives so that he could proceed unmolested to a rendezvous with Diego Pizarro at Huamanga.

Pizarro also despatched another force of seventy horse under his relative Gonzalo de Tapia. This contingent took the middle route, descending the coast for some 120 miles and then climbing inland past Huaitará, which is still graced by Inca ruins, to cross the Andes at 15,000 feet and strike the royal road north of Huamanga. Tapia’s force crossed the desolate puna of Huaitará but was caught by the Indians in a defile on the upper Pampas river -‘ one of the worst passes in the land’. It had run into Quizo Yupanqui’s new army marching north from Cuzco.

These various parties of marching Spaniards were tempting prey to the rebellious natives. The superiority of Spanish horses and weapons was nullified by the Andean topography: for these central Andes are one of the most vertical places on earth, an endless succession of crumbling precipices, savage mountain torrents, landslides and giddy descents. Here, at last, the natives had a really effective natural ally. ‘Their strategy’, wrote Agustín de Zárate, ‘was to allow the Spaniards to enter a deep, narrow gorge, seize the entrance and exit with a great mass of Indians, and then hurl down such a quantity of rocks and boulders from the hillsides that they killed them all, almost without coming to grips with them.’ Using this tactic, the natives now succeeded in annihilating Tapia’s seventy horse – almost as many mounted men as were defending Cuzco. The few survivors were sent as prisoners to Manco Inca.

Quizo continued northwards and soon met Diego Pizarro’s sixty men, who were marching down the Mantaro towards Huamanga. The Indians repeated their successful use of topography. Quizo trapped and exterminated Diego Pizarro’s entire force near the same Parcos where Morgovejo had burned the chiefs a few weeks before. News of these great victories was sent back to Manco, together with some Spanish post, weapons and clothing, the heads of many dead invaders,’ and two live Spaniards, one Negro and four horses’. The messengers reached the Inca soon after he had heard the news of the loss of Sacsahuaman at the end of May. His son Titu Cusi remembered the great rejoicings over the victory. To show his appreciation, Manco sent his victorious general ‘ a coya wife of his own lineage, who was most beautiful, and some litters in which he could travel with more authority’.

When Pizarro learned of the rebellion of Manco Inca, the prince he had crowned and in whom he had such confidence, he resorted to the familiar tactic of finding a rival puppet Inca. He chose a royal prince, probably Cusi-Rimac, who was with him in Lima. This man was given a hasty coronation and dispatched towards Jauja, protected by thirty horse under Captain Alonso de Gaete. Shortly afterwards pro-Spanish native yanaconas started bringing alarming rumours of the fate of the other expeditions. Pizarro decided that Gaete’s thirty men were too vulnerable. He therefore sent a further thirty foot-soldiers under Francisco de Godoy, the other mayor of Lima for the year 1536, and they left in mid-July.

The victorious Quizo Yupanqui was also marching on Jauja. Most of the original citizens of Jauja had descended to the coast to settle in Pizarro’s new capital Lima, but there were still a number of Christians living in the former Inca city. According to Martin de Murua, these Spaniards were too arrogant to post sentries or make preparations to defend themselves. ‘ Quizo Yupanqui arrived one morning at daybreak. He came upon the Spaniards so suddenly that the first they knew was that they were surrounded on all sides. They did not even have time to dress, for they were still in bed. In this tumult they positioned themselves in an usno [temple platform] they had there as a fortress with any weapons they found most readily to hand. Anyone can imagine the confusion: for they never thought that the Indians would have the courage to attack them…. The fighting lasted from the morning when the Indians arrived until the hour of vespers … and the Indians killed them all, and their horses and Negro servants.’

As the thirty foot-soldiers under Godoy approached Jauja they met the pathetic figure of Gaete’s half-brother Cervantes de Maculas fleeing with a broken leg on a pack-mule. This man and one other Spaniard were the only survivors of Gaete’s force, which was reported killed by its own Indian auxiliaries. The puppet Inca apparently succeeded in crossing to the native side in the heat of the battle: a brother called Cusi-Rimache was later prominent in Manco’s camp. Francisco de Godoy decided not to risk sharing the fate of Gaete’s, Diego Pizarro’s and Tapia’s men. He turned around and rode back into Lima in early August ‘with his tail between his legs, to give Pizarro the bad news’.

Quizo had now succeeded in annihilating almost all the Spaniards between Cuzco and the sea, including the inhabitants of Jauja and many travellers and encomenderos along the Jauja-Cuzco road. He had also defeated three well-armed relief forces of Spanish cavalry – over 160 men. The only Spanish force still at large in the central Andes was the thirty men under Morgovejo de Quinones. These continued down the Mantaro after massacring the elders of Parcos. At one crossing they were trapped by hordes of native warriors, who occupied both banks of the deep canyon. Night fell, and Morgovejo’s men camped by the river bank. They left camp-fires burning and were able to slip away in the darkness. There was another skirmish in a defile before the expedition managed to reach the tambo of Huamanga. The men could not rest for long. Throughout the following day native forces massed on the slopes around the tambo, and Morgovejo’s men saw a cluster of handsome litters that evidently contained the general Quizo Yupanqui and his staff. But the Spaniards again escaped under cover of darkness. They climbed the hills behind the tambo, and even took their weeping native women and yanaconas, who feared the reprisals of their compatriots if their European masters were annihilated.

The exhausted expedition now attempted to ride back across the Andes to the coast. There were many days of marching and fighting around the ravines of the upper Pampas river. The Spaniards finally reached the last defile that separated them from the sanctuary of the coastal plain. But the local Indians had prepared another ambush. As the column entered the pass the air was filled with the echoing shouts of the warriors. Most of the Spaniards were trapped. The path was too narrow for them to fight, and they were caught in a barrage of boulders. Captain Morgovejo leaped from his exhausted horse and mounted the croup of another. But this animal was struck by a rock: both riders were thrown and Morgovejo’s thigh was shattered. The Spanish captain fought on for hours before he and his native attendant were killed. Four more of his men were killed at the passage of a river, but the shattered remnants reached the coast road and returned to Lima. They were almost the only survivors of some two hundred men sent into the sierra to relieve Cuzco.

It was now some months since Francisco Pizarro had heard from his brothers in Cuzco, and he feared that they must be dead. ‘The Governor was deeply worried by the course of events. Four of his commanders had now been killed, with almost two hundred men and as many horses.’ When the rebellion broke out, Pizarro at once tried to consolidate his forces in Peru. Alonso de Alvarado was recalled from the conquest of the Chachapoyas, beyond Cajamarca in north-eastern Peru; he eventually reached Lima with thirty horse and fifty foot. Gonzalo de Olmos brought some men and seventy horse from Puerto Viejo on the Ecuadorean coast; and Garcilaso de la Vega, the father of the historian, abandoned an attempt to colonise the Bay of San Mateo and took eighty men back to Lima. Pizarro’s half-brother Francisco Martin de Alcántara was sent along the coastal plain to warn Spanish settlers of the danger and to gather them back to Lima.

But Pizarro could look for help beyond Peru. His invasion of the country was only one tentacle of Spanish colonisation of the Americas. Pizarro hoped at first to crush the rebellion from his own resources: he sent Juan de Panes to Panama in July to buy arms and horses with 11,000 marks of his personal fortune that were lodged there. But he soon realised that the rebellion was too serious and decided to appeal for help to all the Spanish governors in the Americas. In his desperation he even wrote on 9 July to Pedro de Alvarado, Governor of Guatemala, the man who had attempted to invade Quito and been humiliated and bought off by Pizarro only eighteen months previously. Pizarro now wrote him an eloquent plea: ‘The Inca has the city of Cuzco besieged, and for five months I have heard nothing about the Spaniards in it. The country is so badly damaged that no native chiefs now serve us, and they have won many victories against us. It causes me such great sorrow that it is consuming my entire life.’ Diego de Ayala took this letter to Guatemala and sailed on to Nicaragua, where he eventually recruited many good men. At the same time Licenciate Castañeda passed through Panama on the way to Spain, and Pascual de Andagoya wrote to the Emperor from Panama at the end of July that ‘ the Lord of Cuzco and of the entire country has rebelled’. ‘The rebellion has spread from province to province and they are all coming out in rebellion simultaneously. Rebellious chiefs have already arrived forty leagues from Lima. The Governor [Pizarro] is asking for help and will be given everything possible from here.’

News of the Peruvian revolt gradually reached Spain itself. As early as February 1536 the aged Bishop Berlanga of Tierra Firme, who had just returned from a royal mission to Peru, reported to King Charles that Governor Pizarro was allowing his conquistadores to violate the ordinances for good treatment of the natives. He also reported ominously that ‘the Governors have exploited the Inca, Lord of Cuzco, and so have any other Spaniards who wished to’. In April, Licenciate Gaspar de Espinosa wrote from Panama telling the King of the first killings of isolated Spaniards in the Cuzco area. But news of the full siege of Cuzco did not arrive across the Atlantic until late August. The first reports of the rising said that ‘Hernando Pizarro caused this rebellion, for it is said that he tortured the chief cacique so that he would give him gold and silver.’

Manco Inca, delighted by Quizo’s victories, ordered him to descend on Lima ‘and destroy it, leaving no single house upright, and killing any Spaniards he found’ except for Pizarro himself. But Quizo wanted to ensure that his rear would be secure. He therefore spent July recruiting Jaujas, Huancas and Yauyos, trying to persuade these anti-Inca tribes to join his rebellion. Quizo was understandably reluctant to engage Spaniards on the level ground and unfamiliar surroundings of the coastal plain unless he had overwhelming strength. He succeeded in recruiting a large force from the tribes along the western slopes of the Andes, and eventually brought his great colourful army down to the lowest range of Andean foothills, within sight of the hazy waters of the Pacific. The first news of them was brought by Diego de Aguero. He ‘arrived in flight at Los Reyes, reported that the Indians were all under arms and had tried to set fire to him in their villages. A great army of them was approaching. The news deeply terrified the city, all the more so because of the small number of Spaniards who were in it.’ Governor Pizarro sent seventy horse under Pedro de Lerma to try to prevent the Indians moving down on to the plain. A sharp engagement took place, in which many Indians lost their lives, ‘one Spanish horseman was killed and many others wounded, and Pedro de Lerma had his teeth broken’. The native army continued its advance on the European city.

‘When the Governor saw this multitude of enemy he had no doubt whatsoever that our side was completely finished.’ Quizo’s warriors advanced across the plain and some even entered the outlying houses of the city. But ‘the cavalry were hidden in ambush, and at the appropriate moment they charged out, killing and lancing a great number of them until they retreated and climbed into some hills. A strong guard was mounted by night, with the cavalry patrolling around the city’. Quizo now moved his army on to the Cerro de San Cristobal, a steep sugarloaf hill just across the Rimac river from the heart of Lima. This hill is encrusted today with a dusty slum, a tawny wart of poverty rearing above the modern city. Another hill was occupied by troops from the valleys of the Atavillos to the north-east of Lima – men better accustomed to the low, sea-level altitude and heavy atmosphere of Lima than their companions from the highland tribes. Other native warriors occupied hills between Lima and its port, a few miles away at Callao. The Spanish settlement was thus surrounded and almost severed from its communications with the sea.

The Spaniards were desperately anxious to dislodge Quizo’s men from San Cristóbal. Cavalry were useless against its steep flanks. A bold night attack, normally successful ‘since Indians are very cowardly at night’, seemed suicidal against so steep a hill occupied by so many enemy. Nevertheless, five days were spent preparing for such an attack. ‘It was agreed to build a shield of planks as protection against rocks. But when this was made it proved impossible to carry it.’

There was the usual confusion of loyalties during the siege. ‘Many Indian servants of the Spaniards went out to eat and live with the enemy and even to fight against their masters, but returned at night to sleep in the city.’ Francisco Pizarro suspected an Indian concubine of treachery. Atahualpa’s sister Azarpay, whom ‘he had in his lodging’, was accused by Pizarro’s chief love Doña Inés of encouraging the besiegers. ‘So, without further consideration, he ordered that she be garrotted, and killed her when he could have embarked her on a ship and sent her into exile.’ There were, on the other hand, ‘some friendly Indians in the city who fought very well. Because of them the horses were spared from over-exertion, which they could not otherwise have endured.’

On the sixth day of the investiture of Lima, the native commander decided to end the stalemate with a full-blooded attack on the city. This was the critical moment of the rebellion, the attempt to drive the Spanish invaders back into the Pacific. Quizo Yupanqui ‘determined to force an entry into the city and capture it or perish in the attempt. He addressed his forces as follows: “I intend to enter the town today and kill all the Spaniards in it…. Any who accompany me must go on the understanding that if I die all will die, and if I flee all will flee.” The Indian commanders and leaders swore to do as he said.’ The native leader also promised his men enjoyment of the handful of Spanish women then in Lima – probably not more than fourteen women including Francisca Pizarro’s three godmothers. ‘We will take their wives, marry them ourselves and produce a race of warriors.’ The Spaniards had been busily creating the same race of mestizos ever since they set foot in Peru – but their unions with native women were not for eugenic purposes.

Quizo Yupanqui planned a simultaneous attack on Lima from three sides. He himself advanced from the hills to the east; the tribes of the Atavillos and north-central sierra marched in along the coastal road from Pachacamac. The most determined attack was that of the Incas under Quizo himself. It possessed splendour and reckless bravery, the magnificent futility of the French at Agincourt, the British at Balaclava or the Confederates at Gettysburg. ‘The entire native army began to move with a vast array of banners, from which the Spaniards recognised their determination. Governor Pizarro ordered all the cavalry to form into two squadrons. He placed one squadron under his command in ambush in one street, and the other squadron in another. The enemy were by now advancing across the open plain by the river. They were magnificent men, for all had been hand-picked. The general was at their head wielding a lance. He crossed both branches of the river in his litter.

‘As the enemy were starting to enter the streets of the city and some of their men were moving along the tops of the walls, the cavalry charged out and attacked with great determination. Since the ground was flat they routed them instantly. The general was left there, dead, and so were forty commanders and other chiefs alongside him. It was almost as if our men had specially selected them. But they were killed because they were marching at the head of their men and therefore withstood the first shock of the attack. The Spaniards continued to kill and wound Indians as far as the foot of the hill of San Cristóbal, at which point they encountered a very strong resistance from the Indian redoubt.’† Manco Inca had lost his most successful general, the gallant Quizo Yupanqui.

With the slaughter of so many of their leaders, the fight went out of the Indians. The more agile Spaniards were planning a night attack on San Cristóbal, but the native army melted away into the mountains before the venture was attempted. The highland Indians were uncomfortable in the hot, close atmosphere of the coast: their lungs are specially evolved to live at high altitude. They despaired of driving Pizarro from his coastal city: the superiority of the Spanish horsemen was too crushing on a flat, open plain at sea level. The coastal tribes conspicuously failed to join in the highland revolt against the invaders, and the Spaniards had a number of coastal curacas in protective custody in Lima.

The Great Inca Rebellion II

The Spaniards besieged far away in Cuzco at this same time had two urgent objectives. One was to attempt to advise their compatriots on the coast that they were still alive. The other was to strike boldly at the Inca’s headquarters in a bid to destroy the men who were directing the siege. A group of citizens persuaded Hernando Pizarro to send fifteen of his finest horsemen towards the coast, riding an unexpected route, southwards to the altiplano and then west through Arequipa. The fifteen included ‘the flower of the men’, dashing young horsemen such as Pedro Pizarro, Alonso de Mesa, Hernando de Aldana, Alonso de Toro and Tomás Vásquez. The selected men regarded the mission as certain suicide. Alonso Enríquez de Guzman thought that he was included because Hernando Pizarro had a personal grudge against him and wanted him killed. In the end, a delegation headed by the royal treasurer Riquelme persuaded Pizarro that the departure of these fine men would seriously weaken the city’s defences. Hernando wisely reversed the order and the fifteen were spared from annihilation by native ambush.

Hernando Pizarro now attempted to strike at the Inca himself. He had learned that Manco had moved from Calca to Ollantaytambo, a remoter stronghold some thirty miles downstream on the Vilcanota-Yucay-Urubamba river. Pizarro assembled all his best men: seventy horse, thirty foot and a large contingent of native auxiliaries. Gabriel de Rojas was left in Cuzco with the remaining weaker Spaniards. Hernando Pizarro marched his force down the Yucay with great difficulty, for the meandering river often ran against the steep rocky hills that enclose its valley. ‘It had to be crossed five or six times, and each ford was defended.’ The Spaniards finally reached Ollantaytambo after continuous fighting, but they were appalled when they came in sight of its massive pale grey wails. ‘When we reached Tambo we found it so well fortified that it was a horrifying sight.’

The great ruin still stands to this day with its superb Inca masonry almost completely intact. Below the citadel is the town of Ollantaytambo in the bed of a small tributary valley. It is one of the few surviving examples of Inca town planning, with the wall foundations and grid of streets intact. Each town block contained two plots with entrances on to the longitudinal streets, and the original Inca houses are still occupied. Even the Inca names of the blocks survive, as do the houses that once contained the acllas or chosen holy women. The town consisted of five terraced enclosures, all contained in a symmetrical trapezoidal outline, the same tapering quadrangular shape so beloved of Inca architects. The Patacancha stream runs towards the Vilcanota beside the town, and beyond it a great cliff juts out towards the main river. The prow of this hillside contained the fortress-temple of Ollantaytambo. Undulating granite terrace-walls encase the steep slope at the end of the spur, while the hillside overlooking the town is lined with a great flight of seventeen broad terraces. At the top are walled fortifications – a rarity in Inca architecture – and within this sanctuary a platform faced with seven vast monoliths of pale porphyry, each some eleven feet wide. From below, the entire hillside seems to be embellished with the regular rows of polygonal Inca masonry.

Hernando Pizarro’s men occupied the flat stretch of plain between the town and the Yucay river. Because Ollantaytambo lies close to the forested country of the upper Amazon basin, Manco had recruited archers from jungle tribes into his army. One of Pizarro’s troops described the bravery of these terrifying savages: ‘They do not know what is meant by flight – for they continue to fight with their arrows even when they are dying.’

The town was full of these archers, firing from every terrace, and so was the citadel. Across the stream were Inca slingers.’ The Indians were thus fighting them from three sides: some from the hillside, others from the far bank of the river, and the rest from the town…. The Inca was in the fortress itself with many well-armed warriors.’ ‘They amassed such a quantity of men against us that they could not crowd on to the hillsides and plains.’ A single flight of steps led up to the citadel. The gate at its foot had been sealed with a fieldstone wall through which an Indian could pass only on all fours. Two of the older conquistadores bravely rode their horses up against the walls of the town, but ‘it was amazing to see the arrows that rained down on them as they returned, and to hear the shouting’. Another group of horsemen tried to attack the terraces below the citadel. But the defenders ‘hurled down so many boulders and fired so many slingshots that, even had we been many more Spaniards than we were, we would all have been killed’. A missile broke the haunch of the leading horse, which rolled over, kicking, rearing and falling, and dispersed the horses trying to follow. Hernando Pizarro tried sending a party of foot-soldiers to seize the heights above the fortress, but the Europeans were driven back by a hail of rocks. As the Spaniards wavered, the natives attacked. They charged out on to the plain ‘with such a tremendous shout that it seemed as if the mountain was crashing down. So many men suddenly appeared on every side that every visible stretch of wall was covered in Indians. The enemy locked in a fierce struggle with [Pizarro’s men] – more savage than had ever been seen by either side.’ The natives had acquired many Spanish weapons and were learning to employ them effectively. ‘It was impressive to see some of them emerge ferociously with Castilian swords, bucklers and morrión helmets. There was one Indian who, armed in this manner, dared to attack a horse, priding himself on death from a lance to win fame as a hero. The Inca himself appeared among his men on horseback with a lance in his hand, keeping his army under control.’ The natives even attempted to use captured culverins and arquebuses for which powder had been prepared by Spanish prisoners. Manco now released his other secret weapon. Unobserved by the Spaniards, native engineers diverted the Patacancha river along prepared channels to flood the plain. The Spanish horsemen soon found themselves trying to manoeuvre in rising water that eventually reached the horses’ girths. ‘ The ground became so sodden that the horses could not skirmish.’ ‘Hernando Pizarro realised that it was impossible to take that town and ordered a retreat.’

Night fell, and the Spaniards tried to slide away under cover of darkness, leaving their tents pitched beneath Ollantaytambo. But the column of defeated horsemen was observed ‘and the Indians came down upon them with a great cry … grabbing the horses’ tails’. ‘They attacked us with great fury at a river crossing, carrying burning torches….There is one thing about these Indians: when they are victorious they are demons in pressing it home, but when they are fleeing they are like wet hens. Since they were now following up a victory, seeing us retire, they pursued with great spirit.’ The Indians had littered the road back with thorny agave spines which crippled the horses. But the Spaniards succeeded in riding out of the Yucay valley that night, and they fought their way back into Cuzco the following day. Titu Cusi said that the natives laughed heartily at the Spanish failure, and the Spaniards knew that native morale had been raised by the defeat of this powerful expedition. ‘The Inca was extremely sad that Hernando Pizarro had gone, for he was sure that had he delayed another day no single Spaniard would have escaped. In truth, anyone who saw the appearance of the fortress could have believed nothing else…. For … on such occasions, where horses cannot fight, the Indians are the most active people in the world.’

The Indians now provided an unexpected boost to the morale of the men besieged in Cuzco. The relief expeditions sent by Francisco Pizarro had been carrying a quantity of dispatches and letters. These were brought to Manco, who was going to burn them. But a cunning Spaniard who was a prisoner in the Inca’s camp suggested that the letters could be used more effectively: Manco should have them torn up and conveyed to the besieged to show the fate that had befallen their compatriots. A group of Indians therefore appeared on top of Carmenca hill on the morning of 8 September. Hernando Pizarro and other horsemen duly rode out to chase them into the hills. On their return they found that the Indians had left two sacks containing the dried heads of six Spaniards and the torn remnants of a thousand letters. Manco had failed to appreciate the importance of written communication. The arrival of these letters – even in this macabre manner – enormously heartened the besieged. They learned that the Spaniards still held Lima and were trying to relieve them. They also learned from one letter ‘ almost intact, from our Lady the Empress’ that Charles V had won a victory against the infidel in Tunis. Alonso Enriquez de Guzman received a personal letter from Francisco Pizarro, dated 4 May, in which the old Governor admitted that the Inca’s rebellion ‘has caused me much concern, both on account of the detriment … to the service of the Emperor, of the dangers in which you are placed, and of the trouble it will cause me in my old age’. The receipt of these letters put an end to any attempt to communicate with the coast. The Spaniards in Cuzco could only hope that their compatriots would survive the rebellion and would eventually relieve them.

Manco Inca, encouraged by the defeat of the Ollantaytambo mission, attempted to reassemble the army that had almost captured Cuzco four months earlier. The farmers who had returned to their villages were recalled for a fresh attempt on the city, before the start of the rainy season. The Spaniards were now living more normally in the ravaged city. They had mended the roofs of some houses, replacing the original thatch with less inflammable flat roofs of peat and wooden beams. At the height of the siege they had had their horses constantly saddled and bridled, and each man stood watch for one quarter every night. Now his guard duty was only on alternate nights, and the besieged knew that they need fear night attacks only during a full moon – the natives were occupied with religious ceremonies at the advent of each new moon.

The most acute problem for the besieged was food. ‘The greatest hardship endured by the Christians was incredible hunger, from which some died. For the Indians had, with great foresight, set fire to any buildings that contained supplies or stores.’ Hernando Pizarro was able to harvest some maize planted by the natives near Sacsahuana, a few miles north-west of Cuzco. Detachments of cavalry escorted the columns of native auxiliaries carrying the maize towards the city, and fought off Manco’s warriors who tried to intercept the operation. But this maize was not enough. It could be months before rescue arrived from the coast, and the Spaniards, unable to undertake intensive farming, needed immediate supplies to avoid starvation during this period. The Inca quipocamayos were interrogated by the Spanish authorities after the siege. They reported that some important native commanders passed to the Spanish side with large contingents of Indians. These included Pascac, Manco’s cousin and enemy, whom Hernando Pizarro praised as “captain-general of the Indians who were with me in the defence of Cuzco”. These traitors revealed that ‘Manco Inca’s men had brought over a thousand head of cattle, maize and other provisions’, and that this was delayed not far from Cuzco. Hernando Pizarro immediately sent Gabriel de Rojas with seventy horse to seize these llamas and to raid in the Canchas country along the Collao road. Pedro Pizarro wrote of this raid: ‘We went and remained there for some twenty-five or thirty days, rounded up almost two thousand head of cattle [llamas], and returned with them to Cuzco without having had any serious engagement.’ The capture of this food emboldened the besieged. Hernando at once sent another six-day raiding and punitive mission into the Condesuyo, south-west of Cuzco. It was intended to avenge the murders there of Simon Suárez and other encomenderos at the start of the rebellion. ‘But we could catch no one on whom to inflict punishment. So we collected some food and returned.’

These audacious raids saved the besieged from starvation. Although highly successful, they were a calculated risk and were very nearly disastrous. As soon as he learned that many of the best horsemen had left the city, Manco accelerated his mobilisation. The Spaniards left in Cuzco were anxious to learn about the natives’ movements. Gonzalo Pizarro was sent on a night reconnaissance to capture some prisoners who could be tortured for information. He led eighteen horse on to the plateau to the north of the city, and in the darkness passed, without knowing it, between two large contingents of Manco’s army. The Spaniards spent the night on their mission, divided into two small contingents under Gonzalo Pizarro and Alonso de Toro. When dawn came, they found themselves confronted by the enemy, Toro facing men from the northern part of the empire, and Pizarro a force of Manco’s own levies, the finest men in the Inca army. In a running battle, the Spanish cavalry soon found themselves trying to escape to Cuzco, but the natives for once had the advantage. They had Pizarro’s men exhausted. Valiant Indians succeeded in grabbing the tails of the horses while the riders tried to hack them off. The Spaniards were advancing only step by step through the crush of Indians, and were on the point of collapse. The situation was saved by native auxiliaries, some of whom had run back to the city to warn Hernando Pizarro of his brother’s desperate plight. Hernando rang the bells to summon the citizens, and rode out with every remaining horse in Cuzco: eight in all. These trotted and galloped for three or four miles before coming to the scene of the engagement. They dispersed the native troops in a thundering charge. Toro’s men rode up at the same time, and the Spaniards were able to make their way back to the city, exhausted and battered.

All agreed that this was the city’s darkest hour. In another day the natives would renew their attack and would find the defenders with little food, their horses wounded, and many of their effectives away in the Condesuyo. The Spaniards’ answer to this crisis was characteristic: they decided to take every horse capable of fighting and to attack the assembling native forces that very night. The attack was launched on Manco’s own contingent, the best of the native troops. It achieved complete surprise. Gonzalo Pizarro caught a mass of Indians crossing a plain between two mountains and massacred them in ‘ one of the most beautiful skirmishes that was ever seen’. His charge ended with the horsemen riding out into the lake of Chincheros spearing swimming natives like fish. Hernando Pizarro encountered the Inca’s guard of jungle archers and decimated them, despite arrow wounds to his own and other horses. The Spaniards had regained the initiative, and by demoralising Manco’s own troops they emasculated the native attack. To heighten their psychological victory, they again cut the hands off hundreds of prisoners in the square of Cuzco.

The siege had now reached stalemate. The defenders had enough food to survive the rainy season but were too weak to break out of their encirclement. Manco’s men had become convinced that they could not capture Cuzco by direct assault. They apparently hoped to trap the defenders during some sortie and ‘ they were waiting for the spring [of 1537] to assemble a more powerful army and complete the expulsion of the Spaniards’. But they had failed in the main purpose of the rebellion: the annihilation of the invaders in the Inca capital.

While events in the mountains had reached a temporary stalemate, the balance of power in Peru was being altered by the arrival of seaborne Spanish reinforcements. Pizarro’s first emissary had delayed for three months in assembling men and ships at Panama. The desperate Governor therefore sent Juan de Berrio in late September carrying letters of credit from himself and further appeals for assistance. The crusty old Francisco de Barrionuevo wrote to Spain from Panama that ‘ Berrio says that there are plenty of useless men in the city of Lima: some wounded, others fevered, others delicate and effeminate – but no men to go out against the Indians…. What’s needed are men who will suffer hardships and hunger! There are plenty of effeminates down there!’ More virile men began to reach Pizarro towards the end of 1536. Pizarro’s own men returned from the Ecuadorean coast, and Alonso de Alvarado rode in with eighty men of his Chachapoyas expedition. The other Spanish governors also began to respond. ‘Pedro de los Rios, brother of the Governor of Nicaragua, came in a large galleon with men, arms and horses.’ The great Hernán Cortés in Mexico sent ‘many weapons, shot, harnesses, trappings, silk cloth and a coat of marten fur in one of his ships under Rodrigo de Grijalva’. Licenciate Gaspar de Espinosa, Governor of Panama, sent men from Panama, Nombre de Dios and the Isthmus. In September the President of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo on the island of Española sent his brother Alonso de Fuenmayor with four ships containing a hundred cavalry and two hundred foot-soldiers.

When Pizarro’s second appeal reached the Caribbean in November, two more ships went from Española, and its President wrote that ‘the help from here now totals almost 400 [Spanish] men, 200 Spanish-speaking Negroes who are very good at fighting, and 300 horses’. But this proud force wasted three months trying to obtain ships on the Pacific, and did not reach Peru until the middle of the following year.* Juan de Berrio finally recruited four shiploads of men, but did not reach Peru until February 1537. Even the Spanish Crown responded to Pizarro’s appeals: in November the Queen sent Captain Peranzures with fifty arquebusiers and fifty crossbowmen. Manco Inca was trying to expel an invader supported by the resources of a huge empire: he could not hope to succeed against its united determination.



Nowhere did Britain enter the war more confident of early triumph than in the Middle East. With the French solidly based in North Africa and the Levant, and the British themselves in firm control of Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq, London had no reason to doubt the seeming invulnerability of Allied military and naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. This assurance was shaken, of course, by the disaster of the Nazi blitzkrieg in Europe, by the collapse of France, and the subsequent entry of Italy into the war. Almost overnight a thousand miles of North African coast, the entire Syrian littoral, and the French Mediterranean fleet passed into an uncertain Vichy neutrality, under the supervision of German and Italian armistice commissions. Yet, even then, Britain’s position was less than desperate. The Italian forces emplaced in Libya were more imposing on paper than in actual battle. This became evident in the winter of 1940–41 when a numerically inferior British army commanded by General Wavell all but annihilated Mussolini’s legions in North Africa.

The respite was to be short-lived, however. In an effort to salvage his ally’s faltering position, Hitler shipped two German armored divisions under a crack general, Erwin Rommel, to Tripolitania in March 1941. On the last day of that month German advance units crossed the Cyrenaican border. From then on, during the next year and a quarter, the British would be thrust on the defensive, and ultimately placed in mortal jeopardy, at the very nexus of their Mediterranean-Suez lifeline. Their gravest moment was unquestionably June 1942, when the port of Tobruk, defended by some 35,000 Commonwealth troops, fell to Rommel’s Panzerarmee. During the ensuing three weeks the British Eighth Army was hurled back to the gates of Alexandria. At this point the British suddenly were threatened with the most far-reaching military disaster since the collapse of France. If Alexandria should fall, the Suez Canal would become untenable. So would Palestine and Syria. In anticipation of the impending and decisive battle, a mass evacuation of British dependents was begun. In Cairo, all east-bound trains to Palestine were jammed. A thick mist of smoke hung over the British embassy on the banks of the Nile as huge quantities of secret documents were burned.

Throughout the long and painful ordeal of retreat, moreover, Britain derived small encouragement from its Arab treaty partners. The Egyptian government refused at the outset to declare war on Italy, even when Italian bombs were falling on Alexandria. In May 1941, General Aziz Ali al-Misri, a former inspector general of the Egyptian army, left Cairo secretly for Beirut in an Egyptian air force plane. The RAF intercepted his craft, and it was subsequently revealed that the general had intended to defect to the Axis with vital data on British troop strength. Indeed, the discovery opened a window on a far more ramified Egyptian collaboration effort. A month earlier, King Farouk himself had communicated with Hitler through his ambassador in Tehran, stating that “he was filled with strong admiration for the Führer and respect for the German people, whose victory over England he desired most sincerely.… Now that German troops stood victorious at the Egyptian frontier the [Egyptian] people … long for an occupation of the country, certain that the Germans are coming as liberators.…” In subsequent communications, Farouk provided intelligence information on British military dispositions and offered “to come to the aid of the Axis troops at the decisive moment.” In Iraq, meanwhile, a virulently anti-British government was installed under the premiership of Rashid Ali and a cabal of nationalist officers; and in April 1941 this pro-Axis cabinet solicited German “protection” against the British. Hitler immediately responded to the offer, mounting an airlift of guns and ammunition by way of Vichy Syria. It required a costly British military expedition in May to overthrow the Rashid Ali regime, and an even larger-scale invasion of Vichy Syria the following month to abort a growing Nazi presence in the Levant.

No courtship of the Axis was more avid, however, than the one carried out by the emigré Mufti of Jerusalem. Haj Amin had fled al-Zug and reached Baghdad in October 1939, where he was granted an honorific status equal to that of a government minister. From the Iraqi capital he then dispatched his protégé, Naji Shawkat, on a secret mission to Ankara. There the Arab messenger transmitted to German Ambassador Franz von Papen a personal letter from the Mufti. The message extended felicitations to Hitler

on the occasion of the great political and military triumphs which [the Führer] has just achieved through his foresight and great genius.… The Arab nation everywhere feels the greatest joy and deepest gratification on the occasion of these great successes.… The Arab people … confidently expect the result of your final victory will be their independence and complete liberation.… [T]hey will [then] be linked to your country by a treaty of friendship and collaboration.

While Berlin was mulling over this proposal, Haj Amin dispatched yet another emissary in August 1940 to reaffirm the offer of collaboration. Eventually, on October 23, 1940, Berlin and Rome issued a joint statement offering sympathy for Arab efforts to achieve independence.

For the moment the relationship was suspended on the level of generalities. But later, upon the overthrow of the Rashid Ali government in May 1941, the Mufti fled Iraq for Iran, and afterward departed for Turkey. In late July he was spirited out of Ankara in a German plane and flown to Rome. On October 27 he was received by Mussolini. By then, Axis victories in the Middle East had given Arab affairs a new importance. Following conversations between Haj Amin and the Duce, therefore, a draft pronouncement was worked out and—upon agreement with Berlin-issued jointly by Mussolini and Hitler. It committed the two Axis governments to recognize the sovereignty and independence of the Arab countries and promised Axis help in “the elimination of the Jewish National home in Palestine.”

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, met with Adolf Hitler in 1941

The Mufti thereupon departed Rome on November 3, 1941, for Berlin. He was received in the German capital with much ceremony and presented to Hitler on November 30. Again, the Arab leader expressed his profound gratitude to the Führer and his willingness to cooperate with Germany in every way, including the recruitment of an Arab legion. But once more, Haj Amin insisted that Arab loyalty could best be mobilized by an immediate public declaration of support for Arab independence and unity. While agreeing in principle, Hitler replied that he preferred to wait until his armies had broken through the southern exit of the Caucasus. The Reich’s objective then would not be the occupation of the Arab lands (as the British had warned) but solely the destruction of Palestine Jewry. Then, too, the Führer added, the Mufti would become the official spokesman for the Arab world. Haj Amin was gratified by this assurance.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, greeting Muslim Waffen-SS volunteers with a Nazi salute, November 1943.

With Hitler’s approval, the Mufti at once set about recruiting Arabs in Axis-occupied territory to serve in their own Arab legion. The effort failed; only a few Palestine Arab prisoners of war expressed an interest. By the summer of 1942, nevertheless, as German troops reached the gates of Alexandria and approached the Caucasus on the Soviet front, the Axis governments intensified their propaganda efforts throughout the Arab and Moslem world. The Mufti did not spare himself in this task. Broadcasting repeatedly over Germany’s Radio Seesen, speaking in the “name of God and the Prophet,” he urged Moslems everywhere to rise up against the Allies. To encourage that uprising, Haj Amin visited Yugoslavia to recruit units of Bosnian Tatars. Approximately 6,000 of these eventually were dispatched to fight under German command on the Russian front. The Mufti by then no longer entertained great expectations for Arabs living under German and Italian control. His plans were based, rather, upon a mass uprising of Arab peoples the moment Rommel invested the Nile Delta and crossed into Palestine. By late June 1942, those hopes appeared on the threshold of fulfillment.


Although sorely tried, the British were not entirely bereft of local support in the Middle East. The Jews proved loyal. Faced by a common Axis menace, they could hardly have been otherwise. Four days before the outbreak of war, Weizmann assured Chamberlain by letter of the Jews’ determination to stand by Britain, of their willingness to enter into immediate arrangements for placing their manpower and technical ability at Britain’s disposal. “The Jewish Agency has recently had differences in the political field with the Mandatory Power,” Weizmann added, with some understatement. “We would like these differences to give way before the greater and more pressing necessities of the time. We ask you to accept this declaration in the spirit in which it is made.” The prime minister’s response was noncommittal. “You will not expect me to say more at this stage,” he remarked, “than that your public-spirited assurances are welcome and will be kept in mind.” Weizmann’s promises were honored, although not without opposition. Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, favored a struggle to reverse the White Paper, even if this required a policy of militance and serious unrest against the British. Several meetings of the Agency Executive were held in 1940 to discuss the issue, but each time Ben-Gurion was outvoted. In any case, the Nazi blitzkrieg in Europe soon put an end to these debates, as did the appointment of Churchill as Chamberlain’s successor. Acts of violence ceased, and the illegal Haganah radio station closed down.

The Jewish Agency forthwith mobilized the Yishuv’s resources for wartime agricultural and industrial purposes. Soil under tillage was expanded by 70 percent. Two thousand Palestine Jewish factories were operating when the war broke out. Within the next year, four hundred new ones were built, essentially related to British military needs, and the number tripled by 1945. Indeed, the Yishuv’s economy overall was progressively linked to Britain’s defense effort. Among the equipment produced were antitank mines, weapons’ components, tank engines and treads, light naval craft, machine tools, and uniforms. Guns, ships, and machinery were repaired; specialized scientific apparatus, optical instruments, medical supplies, and vaccines and pharmaceuticals were manufactured. By 1943, 63 percent of the total Jewish work force was employed in occupations immediately connected with defense needs. It was a supportive effort that, not incidentally, laid the basis for an expanded postwar Jewish economy in Palestine.

The Yishuv’s identification with Britain’s cause assumed other, equally tangible forms. In the first month of the war, the Va’ad Le’umi announced the registration of volunteers for national service. Within five days, 136,000 men and women enrolled. Their motivation was not simply an understandable desire for battle against the Nazis, but the expectation that an armed and active Jewish force would obligate Britain to reconsider the Zionist case. Additionally, military skills acquired during the war could be put to good use later. It was the Jewish Agency’s hope, meanwhile, to organize these troops as a separate force under its own flag, something akin to the Jewish Legion of World War I. But from the outset, the idea was opposed by British military and civilian officials in the Middle East. General Sir Evelyn Barker, the British army commander in Palestine, warned London that the establishment of a Jewish fighting unit in the region would provoke a renewed Arab uprising. Accordingly, the war secretary, Leslie Hore-Belisha (himself a Jew), vetoed the idea of a Jewish legion “for the time being.” Instructions simultaneously went out to Lord Lothian, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, to avoid commitments of any kind to American Zionists. Jewish support in the war was needed, but “there must be no misunderstandings as to the possibility of rewards, whether in the form of further immigration to Palestine or otherwise.”

It was the Allied collapse in Europe that raised the possibility of a more forthcoming approach. In the spring of 1940, the Chamberlain government was replaced. Winston Churchill assumed the prime ministry. Lord Lloyd succeeded Malcolm MacDonald as colonial secretary. Anthony Eden replaced Hore-Belisha at the War Office. Thereupon Weizmann again requested permission for the Jews to be trained in their own military units. With the growing Axis threat to the Middle East, he observed, it was the “elementary human right” of the Jews “to go down fighting.” Lord Lloyd was impressed by this argument. So was the vice-chief of the imperial general staff, General Sir Robert Haining, who promised to authorize the training of Jewish cadres. Yet once again the Zionists faced disappointment when Lloyd, alerted by General Wavell, reconsidered the matter. For the time being, the cautionary views of the Middle East army commanders were respected.

Their misgivings were not shared by the new prime minister, as it happened. Rather, Churchill was intrigued by the idea of arming Palestine Jewry, if only to release British troops in the Holy Land for other fronts. On June 25 he complained in a memorandum to Lloyd that “the cruel penalties imposed by your predecessor [MacDonald] upon the Jews in Palestine for arming have made it necessary to tie up needless forces for their protection. Pray let me know exactly what weapons the Jews have for self-defense.” Three days later he rebuked Lloyd, who had ventured to protest. “I do not at all admit that Arab feeling in the Middle East and India would be prejudiced in the manner you suggest,” the prime minister insisted. On September 6, 1940, in the most critical phase of the Battle of Britain, Churchill invited Weizmann to a private luncheon and assured the Zionist leader of his full support for the Jewish army project. A memorandum was sent afterward to the chief of staff:

1. Recruitment of the greatest possible number of Jews in Palestine for the fighting services to be formed into Jewish battalions or large formations.

2. The Colonial Office insists on an approximate parity in the number of Jews and of Arabs recruited for specific Jewish and Arab units in Palestine. As Jewish recruitment in Palestine is certain to yield much larger numbers than Arab, the excess of Jews is to be sent for training to Egypt or anywhere else in the Middle East.

3. Officers’ cadres, sufficient for a Jewish division in the first instance, to be picked immediately from Jews in Palestine and trained in Egypt.

The issue apparently was resolved, and a week later Eden officially informed Weizmann that “the Government have decided to proceed with the organization of a Jewish army on the same basis as the Czech and Polish armies [in exile].” Conceived initially as a force of 10,000, including 4,000 troops from Palestine, the Jewish army unit would be trained in England and then shipped back to the Middle East. Weizmann was ecstatic. “It is almost as great a day as the Balfour Declaration,” he informed his friends. In February 1941 the Zionist leader was introduced to Major General Leonard A. Hawes, an officer with extensive service experience in India, who had been chosen to command the Jewish force. Plans already were being worked out for Hebrew badges and insignia.

Then, in the same month, Lord Lloyd died suddenly. He was succeeded in office by Lord Moyne. The new colonial secretary, impressed by Wavell’s and Barker’s objections, was determined to block the Jewish army proposal. In a series of memoranda to Churchill, he referred to delicate political conditions in the Middle East and to the lack of supplies and equipment; it appeared unfeasible to equip a new army under such circumstances. At this point, Churchill reluctantly conceded, agreeing to postpone the matter. A terse statement accordingly was sent off to Weizmann on March 4: “The Prime Minister has decided that owing to lack of equipment the project must be put off for six months.…” A half-year later, on October 23, 1941, Moyne announced a further postponement: “Since the Government has to give every aid to Russia it would not be possible to form a Jewish Division.” In ensuing months the Zionists failed to win any satisfaction on this issue. The rigor with which mandatory officials continued to enforce the White Paper, meanwhile (this page), suggested that political considerations alone were now dictating British policy. Another year and a half would pass before anything came of the Jewish army concept; by then the war in the Middle East itself was over.

In the interval, the Jews found other ways of identifying themselves with the military effort. Smaller Palestinian units gradually evolved, consisting wholly of Jews, with their own Jewish junior and noncommissioned officers. Again, this development emerged out of a tangle of British red tape. At the outset of hostilities, General Barker suggested the formation of mixed Arab-Jewish companies of “Pioneers”—actually truck drivers, storekeepers, and trench diggers—to be sent to the Western Front. The Jewish Agency was offended by the proposal, but chose not to reject it. It was understood that the number of Jews to be accepted was dependent upon an equivalent number of Arab recruits. But inasmuch as Jewish volunteers exceeded their quota within a few days, while the Arab quota was never filled, the parity rule soon had to be eased. The first groups of five hundred Palestine Jews arrived in France in 1940. They were used essentially for repair and maintenance work. After the French surrender, most of them were returned temporarily to Palestine, where they served as ground personnel for the RAF. Soon afterward, upon Italy’s entrance into the war, an additional 1,400 Jews were permitted to fill RAF crew openings. Several dozen of these men eventually were accepted for flight training.

By the opening of 1942, 11,000 Jews were serving with British forces in the Middle East. Nominally they were still members of the mixed Arab-Jewish companies, the “Palestine Buffs.” In fact, the units were almost entirely Jewish by then. On the basis of their predominating numbers, moreover, the Zionists demanded that the various scattered Jewish companies be organized into battalions. London ultimately gave in on this point, and by August 1942, 18,000 Palestine Jews were incorporated into purely Jewish battalions. By then, too, approximately 25 percent of them were given front-line combat positions. During the retreat of Britain’s Eighth Army from North Africa in June 1942, a thousand Palestine Jews served with the Free French Brigade in defending the village of Bir Hacheim; forty-five of these troops remained alive on July 2, the day they were relieved by a Gaullist column under General Pierre Koenig.

Simultaneously with this “official” participation in the British army, there was a second, parallel, Jewish military role. It was based upon the Haganah. It is recalled that the Jewish underground had won a certain unspoken recognition from the mandatory government during the guerrilla uprising of the late 1930s. The tacit understanding broke down in May 1939, however, with the issuance of the White Paper. The Haganah determined afterward to concentrate its efforts on the secret refugee immigration. Yet the war erupted before this decision could be carried out. After several weeks of indecision, the underground command ultimately followed the Jewish Agency’s lead of cooperating with the war effort; but at the same time it maintained its clandestine training activities. As a result, the British viewed Jewish professions of loyalty with skepticism. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, forty-three of the Haganah’s best officers were arrested, among them Moshe Dayan and Moshe Carmel. They were given tough sixteen-month sentences, and it was only upon Churchill’s accession as prime minister half a year later that the forty-three were released, together with two other groups that had been jailed for possessing arms.

Once the military situation turned against Britain, however, following the blitzkrieg of 1940, the government tentatively eased its policy toward the Haganah. Indeed, with France out of the war and Syria in Vichy hands, a method had to be devised to block possible avenues of German invasion into the Middle East. Senior Haganah officers thereupon were invited to collaborate with the British in preparing lists of bridges and tunnels that were vulnerable to sabotage in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Other joint efforts followed. In early spring of 1941, Rommel’s Panzerarmee launched its operations in the Western Desert and the Nazi infiltration of Syria became more overt. Haganah cooperation was urgently needed. Unfortunately, the Jewish defense force was still at less than full strength. Its best instructors and hundreds of its fighters had enlisted in the British armed services, and the training of its civilian reserves was restricted mainly to weekends. The “professional” soldiers at its disposal were only a few dozen veterans of Sadeh’s commando groups and of Wingate’s Special Night Squads, while the reserves alone would hardly have been effective in the event of a combined Arab-Axis attack. The need soon became evident for a permanently mobilized Jewish task force. Such a unit accordingly was established by the Haganah in May 1941, and classified as the Palmach (Plugot Machaz—Strike Companies). One of its purposes was the defense of the Yishuv against Arab bands that inevitably would harass Jewish towns and settlements the moment the British retreated from Palestine. More importantly, if and when Axis armies entered the country, the Palmach would be employed to attack the enemy whenever possible, disrupt his communications, sabotage his transport and airfields. The commander of the new elite force, not surprisingly, was Yitzchak Sadeh. As in the 1930s, the veteran night fighter immediately set about recruiting the Haganah’s ablest young men, mainly from the kibbutzim.

Even as Sadeh and his company commanders were organizing the Palmach, the military situation suddenly worsened in the Levant. It was plain that the British had no choice but to strike across the northern frontier quickly before the Germans ensconced themselves in Syria. Yet, in advance, scout forces were urgently needed to reconnoiter the enemy terrain. It was at this point, then, that the British entered into negotiations with the Haganah leadership, and specifically with Sadeh, who agreed to provide the manpower. In early summer, 1941, nearly one hundred Palmach troops were made available for special duty. A number of these, Arabic-speaking Jews, were charged with infiltrating Syria at night and penetrating various Arab towns to gather information and to mine key bridges and crossroads. The operation was successful. A second Palmach venture was not. British intelligence recruited twenty-three of Sadeh’s best men for an amphibious mission to demolish the oil refineries at the Lebanese port of Tripoli. The vessel was detected offshore and sunk with the loss of all lives.

The climactic joint effort worked perfectly, however. On the eve of the Allied invasion of Syria, June 8, 1941, Palmach volunteers were needed for a final reconnaissance of Vichy positions. Sadeh chose two companies for the task. Their officers were the commander’s favorites, Moshe Dayan and Yigal (Peicovitch) Allon. The troops were divided into twelve squads. Two of these units guided the advancing Australians; others cut wires, ambushed Vichy patrols guarding bridges over the Litani River, blew culverts, and sabotaged roads. In the attack on Iskanderun, Dayan showed exceptional bravery, capturing twelve Vichy troops (later, in an exchange of fire, he lost an eye).

Elated over this accomplishment, Sadeh pressed the Haganah leadership to supply the Palmach with its own bases for additional training. The request was granted, and two camps were established at the kibbutzim of Ginnosar and Beit Oren. They were quite primitive, without tents or decent sleeping accommodations. Worse yet, funds were lacking to maintain the troops. Eventually the Palmach youths worked in the kibbutzim to “earn” the right to serve as a quasi-permanent mobilized force. From these rural bases, their availability was soon to be exploited again. Indeed, collaboration between the British and the Jews reached its peak at the most threatening phase of the Middle Eastern fighting, as Rommel bore down on Alexandria in the summer of 3942. The British set about fortifying northern Palestine and the Judean mountain range. The Zionist defense machinery in turn was rapidly enlarged, as a broadened recruitment effort was launched equally for the British army and the Haganah reserves. At the same time, British staff officers began organizing the Palmach units into a special task force to meet the developing Nazi threat.

The strategy that was devised, the “Carmel Plan,” actually was worked out entirely by the Jews, by Sadeh and Dr. Yochanan Ratner, a Technion professor who served on the Haganah command. It was to establish an enclave in the Carmel Range to which the entire Yishuv could be moved if necessary, there to live out months or even years of Nazi occupation in a state of siege. The population would be governed by a Jewish military administration, supplied by RAF planes and British submarines and by its own agricultural resources. An enlarged Palmach force would defend the redoubt, using former Allied arsenals as well as a variety of its own miniature industries and workshops. Eventually the Carmel enclave would become a major guerrilla base from which attacks could be launched against the Axis occupation troops, disrupting enemy communications and supply lines. This elaborate Haganah scheme of defense plainly did not reflect the mentality of a ghettoized European Jewry, nor even of European nations already under the Nazi heel; it was rather the militant approach of a totally new Zionist community. With considerable admiration (if some doubt), then, the British approved the plan. British general staff intelligence coordinated the training operations. German-speaking and Arabic-speaking Jews were picked for selective espionage and sabotage work. As the operation gradually expanded, 725 Palmach recruits were chosen, and other Jewish underground members were allowed to work in open collaboration with British officers.

The Carmel Plan was never set into motion. In July 1942, Rommel’s forces were hurled back at al-Alamein, and four months later driven out of Libya altogether by a reorganized Eighth Army under the command of Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. By then in any case the joint effort with the Jews was becoming a source of discomfiture to the mandatory government; Zionist spokesmen already were making pointed contrasts between the Jewish and Arab war efforts. Once the danger to Palestine ebbed in the autumn of 1942, therefore, the British closed the various Palmach training bases, allowed the “German Platoon” and the “Arabic Platoon” to dwindle, and even demanded lists containing names and addresses of Palmach members. The alliance finally ended in bad blood when the British army appropriated the weapons it had distributed earlier to the Palmach. Whereupon Palmach units broke into a government arsenal several days later and reclaimed the guns. The British in turn relegated the Haganah to its former illegal status.

Refusing dissolution, however, the Jewish defense force simply became an underground once again. Indeed, its numbers swelled to 21,000 men and women. The Palmach also remained intact in various scattered kibbutzim, training secretly, even organizing a clandestine naval program (Pal-Yam) and developing a rudimentary air arm under the façade of a tiny aviation club. By then, too, having worked closely with the British, the Haganah (and Palmach) leadership understood better the ways in which a European regular army functioned, and what its strengths and limitations were. For example, the British command structure was maintained intact, but several of its more tradition-bound procedures were discarded. Palmach section commanders were taught to rely less on orders than on their own initiative. Sadeh and his colleagues laid their emphasis on unconventional tactics—initiative, surprise, and preemptive attack. Few underground movements elsewhere managed to achieve quite this degree of military sophistication. The training and mobilization effort had served a vital wartime purpose for Jews and British alike. After the war it would serve a Zionist political and military purpose exclusively.


Brigadier Ernest Benjamin, commander of the Jewish Brigade, inspects the 2nd Battalion in Palestine, October 1944.

Men of the Jewish Brigade ride on a Churchill tank in North Italy, 14 March 1945


To the Yishuv, the cause of Jewish rescue abroad was no less critical than the survival of the Jewish National Home itself. For more than a year after the issuance of the 1939 White Paper, a limited clandestine exodus to Palestine still flowed from central and eastern Europe. Inasmuch as the Germans themselves encouraged this migration at the outset, the British viewed it as a fifth column, one that ideally fostered the Nazi purpose of arousing the Arabs and undermining the security of Palestine. As a result, it became the mandatory’s tactics at all costs to prevent the refugees from landing and to intern them elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. The rigorous application of this policy after the war began, when the absorption of as many as 100,000 Jewish fugitives might have been accomplished without Arab knowledge, suggested an unwritten decision on the part of mandatory officials to abort the growth of the Jewish National Home. In support of this decision, Colonial Secretary MacDonald terminated all further land sales to the Jews on February 28, 1940. Soon the Jews were confined to a new Pale of Settlement embracing barely 5 percent of western Palestine.

During the spring of 1940, too, even as the question of Jewish recruitment in Palestine was being discussed, the Colonial and Foreign Offices emphasized repeatedly the importance of placating the Arabs. On May 25, the Iraqi foreign minister, Nuri es-Saïd, demanded that London issue a clear and unambiguous statement guaranteeing the Arabs self-government in Palestine once the war ended. Nuri observed that such an assurance would go far to counteract Axis propaganda in the Middle East. Accepting this view, London on June 12 submitted a draft of a public statement asserting that “the policy of His Majesty’s Government for Palestine continues to be that laid down in the White Paper of May 1939,” and that it was Britain’s intention “when the war ended … [quickly to] permit the various stages of constitutional development to follow one another on the lines which the White Paper lays down.” Had it not been for Churchill’s personal opposition, the cabinet would have approved the draft forthwith. Instead, on July 3, 1940, a shorter declaration was issued stating only: “His Majesty’s Government do not see any reason to make any change in their policy for Palestine as laid down in May 1939, and it remains unchanged.” A few months afterward London decided to proceed with the next step in the White Paper program, the appointment of a number of Palestinian (that is, Arab) heads of departments. The move was cut short only at the last moment by an unforeseen development, the sinking of the refugee vessel Patria in Haifa harbor.

On this aging transport in November 1940, the mandatory authorities had loaded some 1,900 recently arrived, illegal Jewish immigrants. The government’s intention was to carry the refugees away to Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean, where they would be interned at least for the duration of the war. Determined to sabotage the transshipment, the Haganah in turn arranged to blow a small leak in the vessel’s hull, forcing the disembarkation of the passengers. On November 25, the explosion went off, but the ship sank almost instantly, with the death of 240 Jews and a dozen British policemen. Only a month after the Patria tragedy, the SS Atlantic, another obsolescent vessel, reached Haifa with 1,600 new European refugees. In this case, the British transshipped the passengers to Mauritius without incident. A few weeks later the SS Salvador docked at Haifa with an additional 350 fugitive Jews—and was ordered to return to Bulgaria. The ship capsized in the Turkish Straits, leaving only seventy survivors. As the British wartime naval blockade gradually tightened, immigration by sea came to an end.

A later incident occurred, however, which became for the Yishuv the very symbol of Britain’s unrelenting wartime policy toward the refugees. On December 16, 1941, the SS Struma entered the harbor of Istanbul and dropped anchor. It was an unseaworthy vessel of 180 tons. Several weeks before, it had departed the Rumanian port of Constanta and limped along the Black Sea coast with Palestine as its goal. Now, with its engine malfunctioning and its hull leaking badly, the Struma was forced to anchor for repairs. The ship was packed with 769 refugees for a voyage across the high seas. Unable to proceed farther, the Jews implored the Turkish government for sanctuary. The appeal was turned down. Barred from going forward and unwilling to return, the Struma passengers remained in Istanbul harbor for two months, suffering from hunger, overcrowding, and mounting panic. The Jewish Agency implored the British to allow the refugees entrance to Palestine, if only for transshipment later to Mauritius. Once this approval was forthcoming, the Turks would surely allow the Jews to disembark and entrain for the Levant. The mandatory government refused. Eventually, on February 24, 1942, the Turks ordered the Struma towed out of the harbor. Five miles beyond the coastline the ship foundered and sank with the loss of 428 men, 269 women, and 70 children. The horrified reaction of Palestine Jewry was at least partially echoed in other Allied countries. Even in Britain, the tragedy was angrily debated in the House of Commons. A few other isolated vessels remained to test British obduracy. One of them, the Pencho, was similarly lost at sea, although most of its passengers were rescued.

By then the motive for escape was not merely to avoid persecution. It was to remain alive. The first, unconfirmed reports of Nazi mass killings were made by Thomas Mann, the émigré German novelist, in a series of BBC broadcasts in December 1941 and January 1942. In August 1942, Washington received an account of the gas chambers and crematoria from the Polish government in exile. Soon other reports were forthcoming from World Jewish Congress and Jewish Agency officials, who had learned of the killings from transferred Polish war prisoners arriving in Palestine. It is of note that the State Department reacted by imposing a ban on the further transmission of such news through diplomatic channels. When funds were solicited by Jewish organizations for possible rescue efforts, the answer from both Washington and London was that the money would fall into enemy hands; or that it would relieve Germany and its partners of the legal burden of supporting all their inhabitants. In February 1943, Admiral William Leahy, President Roosevelt’s chief military liaison officer, vetoed a safe-passage proposal that would have allowed some 10,000 Jewish refugees to move from occupied Europe via Spain to North Africa; ostensibly shipping could not be provided. The following month, Bulgaria sensed the shifting tide of war and attempted to disassociate itself from the “Final Solution” (Hitler’s euphemism for the destruction of European Jewry); the Sofia government expressed a willingness to allow Jewish departure for Palestine. When Washington raised the question with London, however, it was Foreign Secretary Eden who blocked action. “If we do that then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make a similar offer in Poland and Germany,” Eden explained. “Hitler might well take us up on such an offer and there simply are not enough ships … in the world to handle them.” Besides, “Hitler would be sure to sneak his agents into the group.” In December 1943 the State Department finally authorized the transfer of rescue funds to Rumania and Vichy France, provided the British supplied the necessary certificates. But once more Eden objected, alluding to “difficulties of disposing of a considerable number of Jews.”

The furthest either Allied government appeared willing to go was to send representatives to an international conference in Bermuda, in April 1943, to study methods of dealing with the refugee question. At the gathering, about a dozen remote islands were mentioned as possible refugee sanctuaries, among them British Guiana, Mindanao, and Sesua in the Dominican Republic. Palestine was omitted from consideration. No other government expressed a willingness to open its doors. Ultimately Bermuda proved as much an exercise in futility as the Évian Conference of 1938. In January 1944, therefore, Roosevelt authorized the establishment of a war refugee board to negotiate asylum for Nazi-persecuted minorities in Europe. Yet the board’s representative, Ira Hirschmann, achieved his one limited success in persuading the British to open Palestine’s doors to a few thousand Soviet Jewish refugee children who had been interned under wretched conditions in Turkey.

It was in 1944, too, in one of the most bizarre episodes of the war, that a possibly dramatic opportunity for large-scale Jewish rescue was forfeited. Until early that year Admiral Miklos Horthy, the regent of Hungary, had jealously guarded from Germany his nations right to handle its own “Jewish problem.” Then, on March 19, the Nazis occupied Hungary. The following month Joel Brand, a member of the Hungarian Jewish Rescue Committee, was summoned to a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, who had arrived in Budapest personally to supervise the “Final Solution” in Hungary. Eichmann presented Brand with an astonishing offer. He was willing, he declared, to allow Hungary’s 800,000 Jews exit on condition that the Allies supply Germany with 10,000 trucks, 1,000 tons of coffee, and 1,000 tons of soap. Although shaken and incredulous, Brand discussed the proposal with his colleagues in the Rescue Committee. They, too, were skeptical. Even if the offer were sincere, the Allies would surely refuse Germany war matériel. On the other hand, it was evident that conversations with Eichmann had to be prolonged, if only to stay the Nazi executioner’s hand. But Eichmann’s hand was not to be stayed. Early in May he began sending off 12,000 Hungarian Jews a day for liquidation. On the thirteenth of the month, he had Joel Brand flown to Turkey in a German courier plane, with orders to make known the offer of “blood for goods” to Jewish and British representatives.

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, German-occupied Poland, May/June 1944

On May 14, Brand met with Jewish Agency officials in Istanbul. Learning to his dismay that these men had no authority to negotiate for Jewish lives, he immediately entrained for Palestine. He got as far as Aleppo before British detectives hustled him off the train for interrogation. Finally he was transferred to Cairo, where he was kept under virtual house arrest. On one occasion, Ira Hirschmann, the American war refugee board representative, was allowed to interview Brand. Hirschmann then carried the information back to Washington. If war matériel could not be supplied, he pleaded, at least the formalities of negotiations should be initiated with the Nazis. But if the State Department gave even limited consideration to the proposal, it was soon stopped short by London. The British released word of Eichmann’s offer to the press and simultaneously repudiated the “brazen attempt to blackmail His Majesty’s Government.” On their own, then, two Jewish Agency emissaries, Ehud Avriel and Menachem Bader, prepared to fly to Portugal early in July to make contact with Nazi agents. The British denied permission for their trip. By this time, fully 434,000 Hungarian Jews had been shipped to Auschwitz and murdered. The remainder were saved—when the Red Army entered Hungary.

Whatever was accomplished in the way of rescue was less through British sufferance than by Jewish underground efforts. The Haganah managed to smuggle a few thousand Middle Eastern Jews into Palestine by organizing an “underground railroad” through Iraq and Transjordan. Rescue camps were established secretly along Bedouin caravan routes, with the Arabs bribed to transport their disguised Jewish passengers. In this way, some 4,000 Persian and Iraqi Jews eventually were infiltrated into Palestine during 1942 and 1943. Still another Jewish response to Axis terror was to participate in a series of clandestine rescue operations in northern Italy and the Balkans. The project had its origins in the unexpectedly heavy losses suffered by American bombers during the 1943 raids on Rumania’s Ploesti oil refineries. In light of these reverses, the British were convinced that additional intelligence information was needed on German defenses in the Balkans. Whereupon the Haganah leadership offered the British a proposal of its own. It was for Jews with connections in those lands to be parachuted into Europe, where they might serve a double function as intelligence agents and as organizers of resistance among the hostage Jewish communities. After some hesitation, the British approved the plan. Subsequently, thirty-two Palestine Jewish volunteers were accepted for the mission, three of them women. The British trained them in a special camp in Cairo.

Nine of the parachutists were dropped into Rumania, three into Hungary, two into Bulgaria, three into Italy, six into Slovakia, nine into Yugoslavia. All were natives of those countries; all spoke the languages fluently and had relatives there. Of the thirty-two, seven died with the Jews they attempted to rescue. Channa Szenes was the best-known of the agents, a Hungarian Jewish girl who had left her family to settle in Palestine as a chalutzah in 1934. Now, ten years later, she was seized by the Hungarian police within days of reaching Budapest, tortured by the Gestapo, then executed. Another woman, Chaviva Reik, helped form a Jewish underground unit in Slovakia and established a transit camp for escaping Russian war prisoners and Allied airmen. She also was caught and executed, together with two other parachutists. Enzo Sereni, the oldest member of the group, had been born and raised in Italy, where his father was personal physician to the king. An early immigrant to Palestine, Sereni was one of the first to volunteer for the parachute mission. He was dropped into Italy in May 1944, caught at once, imprisoned by the SS, and killed in Dachau. While several parachutists managed to transmit intelligence data to the British, and even arranged for the rescue of Allied fliers through Partisan territory in Yugoslavia, the mission had only limited practical success in organizing Jewish resistance in Hungary and the Balkans. But together with other Jewish wartime operations, at least, the rescue project was incorporated into Zionist folklore and nourished the longing for Jewish independence.


Even as the Zionists mobilized their limited resources to breach the immigration blockade, their representatives in London explored methods of solving the refugee question within the framework of a larger Palestine agreement. At the beginning of the war, the Jewish Agency leadership remained committed to the original 1937 partition plan. They may have been encouraged in their demand for sovereignty by a remarkable proposal first mooted in September 1939 by the British world traveler H. S. John Philby, a friend of Ibn Saud. Philby’s idea was for the whole of Palestine to be allocated to the Jews, who in turn would make £20 million available to the Saudi ruler for the purpose of resettling Palestine Arabs in his kingdom. It was expected that the hint of Ibn Saud’s primacy among other Arab leaders would be a major inducement to the desert monarch. Although skeptical, the Zionists were willing to have Philby explore the idea. In January 1940 the Englishman traveled to Arabia and discussed the plan with his royal friend. Ibn Saud was cautiously interested. So was Churchill, who first learned of the scheme from Weizmann in 1940 and discussed it briefly again with the Zionist leader in March 1942. Evidently the prime minister gave the suggestion tentative approval, for Lord Moyne, later to become minister-resident in Cairo, met with Ibn Saud in December 1942 to pursue the question further. Lacking a firm Allied endorsement, however, the Saudi ruler declined to commit himself. Nor did he react favorably when approached on the subject by an American representative, Colonel Halford Hoskins, late in 1943.

If the Philby proposal fell through, Weizmann and his colleagues nevertheless took heart from Churchill’s reaction. The prime minister clearly had lost none of his traditional sympathy for Zionism. On April 18, 1943, he vigorously endorsed Weizmann’s appeal to modify the White Paper. “I cannot agree that the White Paper of 1939 is ‘the firmly established policy of His Majesty’s present Government,’ ” he said. “I have always regarded it as a gross breach of faith.” Ten days later Churchill circulated a note to the cabinet challenging the right of the Arab majority to deny Jewish immigration into Palestine. At his orders, a special cabinet committee to reexamine the future of Palestine was organized on July 12, under the chairmanship of Herbert Morrison and including Oliver Stanley, Lord Cranbourne, and Leopold Amery. By October of that year the group had reached a consensus, although postponing its formal report until December 20. The Morrison Committee offered partition as the best solution to the Palestine imbroglio and suggested that the government promote an association of Levant nations, consisting of a Jewish state, a Jerusalem territory (under a British high commissioner), some three-fifths of Lebanon, and a “Greater Syria,” to include Syria itself, Transjordan, southern Lebanon, and the Arab-inhabited areas of Palestine.

The plan was generous to the Jews. Churchill liked it. Although a public announcement would have to be deferred until after the war, the prime minister revealed the scheme’s general outline to Weizmann at a luncheon in October 1943, at which Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor opposition, was present. “When we have crushed Hitler,” Churchill said emphatically, “we shall have to establish the Jews in the position where they belong. I have an inheritance left to me by Balfour and I am not going to change. But there are dark forces working against us. Dr. Weizmann, you have some very good friends. For instance, Mr. Attlee and the Labour Party are committed on this matter.” “I certainly am,” Attlee agreed. A year later, on November 4, 1944, the prime minister again received Weizmann and promised unreservedly to find an acceptable Palestine solution after the war. According to Churchill, the immigration of one and a half million refugees over ten years and the immigration of 100,000 to 150,000 orphans immediately were reasonable guidelines. So was the partition plan, which he hinted would be a “good” one from the Jewish viewpoint.

Despite their grief at the unfolding tragedy in Europe, none of the Zionist leaders could doubt by then that they had in Churchill a man whose friendship warranted the fullest loyalty. Even the militant Ben-Gurion shared that judgment. Evidence of the prime minister’s good intentions, moreover, was his determination to force through the issue of a Jewish brigade before the war ended. Upon the invasion of Italy in the autumn of 1943, the front line shifted north from the Arab countries. It was a much simpler matter by then to justify Zionist participation in the struggle for Europe, where millions of Jews were being exterminated by the enemy. On July 12, 1944, therefore, Churchill sent a memorandum to the war secretary, instructing him to begin organizing a Jewish army group forthwith. “I like the idea of the Jews trying to get at the murderers of their fellow countrymen in Central Europe, and I think it would give a great deal of satisfaction in the United States.…” In subsequent weeks, the plans were worked out in detail with the Jewish Agency, and on September 29 the prime minister himself made the announcement to the House of Commons:

I know there is a vast number of Jews serving with our forces and the American forces throughout all the armies, but it seems to me indeed appropriate that a special Jewish unit of that race which has suffered indescribable torment from the Nazis should be represented as a distinct formation among the forces gathered for their final overthrow. I have no doubt that they will not only take part in the struggle but also in the occupation which will follow.

In October, the War Office appointed Brigadier Ernest Benjamin as commanding officer of the brigade. A Zionist banner was approved, together with a blue-and-white shoulder flash inscribed with the Shield of David. A recruiting and training program was launched, and early in 1945 the 3,400 Palestinian members of the brigade were shipped off for combat duty in Italy, where they were attached to the British Eighth Army. As it turned out, this Jewish fighting force represented the one important political accomplishment of Zionist diplomacy during the war. Equipped with its own staff services and artillery support, it became the training ground where hundreds of Palestinian officers and NCOs first mastered logistics, organization, and tactics on a brigade scale. The experience added of course to the Haganah reservoir of trained fighting men in the event of a postwar struggle against the British or the Arabs. But in 1944, Weizmann and other moderates of Zionism preferred to regard the brigade as harbinger of a significant change in British policy toward the Yishuv.


The expectation was premature. Churchill’s wartime gestures of friendship were steadfastly resisted, and frequently undermined, by the traditionally pro-Arab element within the Foreign Office and the mandatory administration. On the one side, the prime minister continued to urge a reevaluation of attitude toward the Zionists, with a strong bias in favor of partition. On the other, Richard Casey, Britain’s minister-resident in Cairo, transmitted a memorandum to Whitehall on June 17, 1943, giving details of Jewish secret military organizations (this page) and warning that London hardly could repudiate its White Paper assurances to the Arabs without turning the whole of Arab opinion against Britain. In October of the same year, moreover, Eden urged a reconsideration of the Morrison Committee’s scheme of partition, and delay in resolving the Palestine issue until hostilities ended. There was no need to incur Arab wrath prematurely, he explained. The War Cabinet accepted this argument and agreed to hold off a final decision. In the meantime, Eden was reminded by his ambassadors in Cairo and Baghdad that Palestine served as an indispensable link in the British defense system, one that under no circumstances should be abandoned after the war.

At the beginning of June 1944, therefore, the Colonial Office suggested an alternative to partition. It was for the establishment of a Palestinian state under the aegis of the United Nations but “supervised” by a British high commissioner. Jewish immigration could be resumed, but fixed at a number small enough to ensure continuing Arab numerical preponderance. On September 26, 1944, unwilling yet to abandon its earlier proposals, the special cabinet committee on Palestine—the Morrison Committee—allowed minor revisions of its original report but continued to stand fast on partition. Eden and his Foreign Office colleagues, on the other hand, repeated their view that a division of Palestine would not alleviate Arab fears, particularly if the Jews encouraged large-scale immigration. And there the matter rested, frozen at dead center.

If the Zionists lacked detailed knowledge of this impasse within the British government, they were perfectly capable of judging its results. Churchill’s assurances of a favorable postwar solution were gratifying, and the eventual approval of a Jewish brigade hardly less so. But in the meanwhile the gates of Palestine remained tightly closed, and the arrival of survivors from Nazi Europe had trickled to a stop. It was at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942 that the Struma tragedy occurred. Then, a few weeks later, came authoritative information on the Nazi “Final Solution.” As has been seen, the response of the Allied nations to this unfolding horror was to close their doors more tightly. Visa regulations in the United States were tightened on the grounds that enemy agents might be traveling as disguised refugees. In April 1942 seven Latin American countries denied entrance altogether to fugitives from Axis-dominated Europe. Turkey, the most likely way station out of the neutral Balkans, denied all transit rights and even adopted a thinly disguised policy of internal racism. To Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the Jewish Agency, promises and expressions of goodwill from Western governments seemed increasingly meaningless.

It is of note that as late as May 1940, Ben-Gurion, like Weizmann, had not closed his mind to various compromise solutions of the Palestine question. As chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, he had been willing to consider a partition scheme as a framework for discussions, even a limited binational state allowing parity between Arabs and Jews. It was not the magnitude of the Jewish tragedy alone that transformed Ben-Gurion into an uncompromising advocate of Zionist sovereignty. In 1942 he visited the United States and there felt “the pulse of her great Jewry, with its five millions.” The visit, his first in many years, was an apocalyptic experience. Ben-Gurion experienced at last, in depth, what he felt to be his people’s latent strength. It was only after this first wartime visit to America that he began discussing with his colleagues the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine “as a means of moving millions of Jews [there] … after the war, at the fastest possible rate.” He was convinced, too, that with the immolation of European Jewry (the full extent of which was not yet revealed), any fundamental alteration of the official—and more moderate-Zionist program would have to receive American Jewish endorsement. At Ben-Gurion’s initiative, then, an emergency Zionist Conference to formulate postwar goals was convened at the Hotel Biltmore in New York from May 9 to May 11, 1942. It was attended by six hundred delegates, the majority Americans, but including also several European Zionist leaders and three members of the Agency Executive, among them Weizmann and Ben-Gurion himself. The accumulation of Jewish grievances against the British was ventilated, and a forthright resolution was passed insisting on nothing less than the establishment of Palestine “as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.…”

Privately, Ben-Gurion and his associates were committed to rather less than a demand for Palestine in its entirety. They were in fact quite willing to accept the territorial limitations of partition. What no longer was negotiable was Jewish self-rule, a position the Agency leadership had been unwilling to adopt earlier for fear of antagonizing the Arabs and the British. This time Ben-Gurion had achieved his purpose; he had won firm support for a maximalist program. He hinted, too, that violence would be used to achieve it if necessary. “To be ready, also, for another way, the way of armed struggle.… Our youth must be prepared to do everything possible when the right moment comes,” he declared on May 16, 1942, in a memorandum to the Jewish Agency. In fact, it is doubtful whether the Zionist militants achieved much by announcing this unequivocal program. They erred if they assumed that the Yishuv’s participation in the Allied war effort, even when contrasted with the Arab record of pro-Nazi activity, invested their movement with the extraordinary bargaining power it had briefly—and under unique circumstances—enjoyed in World War I. Regardless of the economic and political strength Ben-Gurion and others detected in American Jewry, the Zionists were considerably less than a powerful international force. The wounds of the unfolding holocaust in Europe were crippling. Friends and enemies alike regarded the Jews simply as a desperately beleaguered race. Far-ranging manifestoes appeared altogether ill-suited to their current plight.

Moreover, Ben-Gurion’s interpretation of statehood was sharply at odds with that of Weizmann. The difference was not immediately apparent. During the partition debate of 1937, after all, Weizmann had been the first to advocate a state, albeit one comprising less than the whole of Palestine. “We shall have on our hands [at the end of the war] a problem of at least three million people,” he wrote later, in 1941. “Even on purely financial grounds a Jewish state is essential in order to carry out a policy of such magnitude.” In an article published in Foreign Affairs in 1942, Weizmann added that a Jewish state was also a “moral need and postulate, a decisive step towards normality and true emancipation.” Repeatedly he predicted that an Arab federation and a Jewish commonwealth would emerge at the end of the war, and he anticipated intimate cooperation between them. The “Biltmore Program,” therefore, hardly signified a repudiation of Weizmann’s position. Indeed, the formula adopted at the emergency conference in New York actually had been devised by Meyer Weisgal, one of Weizmann’s closest political aides.

Yet Weizmann regarded the program essentially as a statement of intent, with the time of its implementation left open. Unshakably gradualist, the Zionist elder statesman continued to think in terms of an uninterrupted flow of Jewish immigrants who slowly might become a majority and establish an autonomous entity in Palestine. Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, discerned in the Biltmore Program an end at last to irresolution and equivocation on the Zionist purpose. The vote in New York for him was a mandate for statehood immediately, thereby opening the gates of Palestine to hundreds of thousands of immigrants within a very short time span. Afterward, upon returning from the United States, Ben-Gurion explained his views to the Yishuv, winning broad public support for his approach, emphasizing that a maximalist demand would project Jewish claims before the council of nations at just the moment that other peoples would also be submitting their desiderata. It would be better, he insisted, to ask for too much than for too little. At its meeting of November 19, 1942, the Zionist Actions Committee accepted the Biltmore Program overwhelmingly. Weizmann meanwhile remained in New York, and was unable as a result to ensure the Yishuv’s approval for his own gradualistic interpretation of the Biltmore formula. Exhausted, still crushed by the death in action of his younger son, an RAF pilot, the aging Zionist leader was becoming an increasingly remote figure to Palestine Jewry. In the developing collision of views between himself and Ben-Gurion, it was Weizmann who was losing out.

The British proved curiously sluggish in appraising this new Jewish mood. Nor did they detect the growth and strength that animated Palestine Jewry’s emerging militance. In the years between the two wars, however, the Yishuv had grown from 85,000, or 10 percent of the total population of the country, to 560,000 in 1946, or about 32 percent of the total. Jewish agriculture had been dramatically expanded. From 1939 to 1947, ninety-four new villages were founded, half of them during the war, raising the total of Jewish settlements to 348, with a population of 116,000. Between 1937 and 1943 alone the number of Jewish industrial workers more than doubled, from 22,000 to 46,000. The value of Jewish industrial production increased nearly fivefold, from P£7.9 million in 1937 to P£37.5 million in 1943.

This radical alteration of the Zionist economic structure in Palestine, and its implications for Jewish self-confidence, were virtually ignored by the mandatory administration. Thus, early in 1943, Sir Harold MacMichael, the high commissioner, broadcast a message to the country explaining the government’s postwar economic blueprint for Palestine. It stressed the nation’s essentially agricultural character and the importance of weeding out the mushroom industries that had sprung up on wartime prosperity. Emphasis henceforth would be placed on raising the living standards of the Arab community, MacMichael declared. Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the Agency were outraged by this broadcast. The Arabs had done virtually nothing for the war effort, after all; and if the economy of the Yishuv had developed, it had done so in support of the Allied cause. The Zionists also regarded the plan as a thinly disguised scheme for limiting the Yishuv’s absorptive capacity. The next day Ben-Gurion gave the Agency’s uncompromising response: “Our program is the maximum development of this country in agriculture, in industry, and on the sea, in order to prepare for a maximum immigration within the shortest possible period of time.” He warned that the Jewish emphasis under all circumstances would be on “development,” not “reconstruction.”

Shortly afterward, as if to give tangible expression to Ben-Gurion’s challenge, members of the Jewish underground infiltrated several British military bases and made off with quantities of light arms and ammunition. The reaction of the mandatory government was to launch police searches of increasing range and severity, bearing down on the contraband Jewish arms traffic in captured Axis weapons and sentencing Jewish smugglers to heavy prison terms. General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson recalled in his memoirs that by January 1944 the Jewish Agency

 … was in some respects arrogating to itself the powers and status of an independent Jewish government. It no longer attempted to deny the existence of arms caches, but claimed the right not only to hold arms for self-defense but to resist any attempt on the part of lawful authority to locate them. It was, in fact, defying the Government, and to that extent rebellion could be said to exist.

Wilson did not exaggerate. Beyond control of the Jewish Agency itself there emerged a number of activist splinter groups, limited in number but fanatical in purpose, that were unwilling any longer to accept Zionist discipline at a time when Jews were being exterminated in Europe and the British were barring the doors of Palestine to survivors. The technique adopted by these militants was violence, “the tragic, futile, un-Jewish resort to terrorism,” wrote Weizmann, who encountered this phenomenon upon returning to Palestine in 1944. The most ungovernable faction in the emergent underground movement was the “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel,” known simply as the Lech’i (for its Hebrew initials). Consisting of barely three hundred members, the Lech’i was one of a handful of Jewish paramilitary organizations that sprang up during or immediately following the Arab insurrection of 1936–39. Its founder, Avraham Stern, a blond, Polish-born Jew in his early thirties, a teacher and poetaster, had briefly studied classics at the University of Florence and had been decisively influenced there by what he saw of Fascist tactics and of Mussolini’s intense Anglophobia. He was soon convinced that Britain’s presence in the Middle East was inimical to the future development of the Jewish National Home and that henceforth all emphasis should be placed on an anti-British rebellion. No other Jewish underground group was willing yet to go that far, not even the Irgun Z’vai Le’umi.

After the outbreak of war, however, Stern moved even further to the Right. In 1941 he attempted to make contact with Otto von Hentig, the German emissary in Vichy Syria, in the hope of striking a deal against the British in Palestine. His overtures were contemptuously ignored. Desperate for funds, Stern and the Lech’i were soon reduced to occasional bank robberies. In January 1942 a Sternist bomb attempt meant for a British intelligence officer instead killed two Jewish police inspectors. A few weeks later, Stern was shot dead by the police. Far from ending the Lech’i’s militancy, these events seemed to impel its remaining members to acts of even greater desperation. Although a number of the Sternists were Oriental Jewish youngsters from the slums of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many were east Europeans whose families were being destroyed by the Nazis. Their hatred of the British transcended reason or control. One of the killers of Lord Moyne, for example (this page), Eliahu Chakim, watched the sinking of the Patria in Haifa harbor, and the memory of this tragedy never left him.

After 1942 the Lech’i, under its new leaders, Nathan Friedmann-Yellin and Dr. Israel Scheib, concluded that violence was the one method capable of driving the British from Palestine. Thus, extorting funds from Jewish shopkeepers, the Lech’i soon engaged in indiscriminate shootings of British police. Not infrequently, Lech’i members were themselves shot down in gun battles. The attacks mounted in intensity. So did British retaliation, with mass arrests, curfews, and the imposition of the death penalty on those carrying weapons. Still the underground campaign went on, and once included an unsuccessful murder attempt against the high commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, on August 8, 1944. Three months later, the Lech’i perpetrated its most audacious crime. It took place in Cairo and was directed against Lord Moyne, the British minister-resident. Walter Edward Guinness, first Baron Moyne, was a millionaire-owner of the Guinness beverage company, a gentle and widely respected man. He had briefly directed the Colonial Office after Lord Lloyd’s death in 1941, and in January 1944 became minister of state for the Middle East. The Zionists regarded him as an enemy from his days as colonial secretary; and perhaps, also, for his coldly negative reaction to Eichmann’s barter offer for Hungarian Jewry. On November 6, less than forty-eight hours after Weizmann’s friendly and reassuring luncheon with Churchill in London, two Sternists shot Moyne fatally as he was leaving the British residence. The youths were placed on trial in Cairo on January 10, 1945, and were swiftly convicted and hanged.

With few exceptions, the Zionist community was horror-stricken by Moyne’s assassination. A shaken Weizmann, in London at the time of the killing, promised Churchill that Palestine Jewry “will go to the utmost limit of its power to cut out this evil from its midst.” Ben-Gurion endorsed these words by issuing a passionate appeal to the Yishuv “to cast out all members of this underground gang and deny them shelter and assistance.…” Thereupon the Haganah launched a full-scale attack against Etzel (Irgun) and Lech’i members alike, denouncing them to the British police. But the damage to the Zionist cause was already far-reaching. In a statement before the House of Commons ten days after the assassination, Churchill uttered a sharp warning against terrorism in Palestine. “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of an assassin’s pistol,” he said, “and the labours for its future produce a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.” For England, the Moyne assassination was a revelation of the seething bitterness within Jewish Palestine. Although the episode was repudiated by the Jews no less than by the British, it terminated the collaborative period of government promises and Jewish credulity. Jewish goodwill had come to an end. British patience was now similarly to be exhausted.

A Modern Cromwell

Sir Gerald Templer and his assistant, Major Lord Wynford inspecting the members of Kinta Valley Home Guard (KVHG) in Perak, c. 1952.

A Plan and a Man

By October 1951, the Malayan Communist Party Central Executive Committee met to review the war to date. Over the past year guerrillas had staged some 6,100 incidents while inflicting the highest record of losses on civilians and security forces. The Central Executive Committee did not have precise figures. What they did know was that they had massed their fighters to the greatest possible extent in an effort to obtain important results. Company-sized units of 100 to 300 men had attacked remote police stations, European business offices, and mining installations. The goal was to overpower the regular and irregular police guards, capture weapons and ammunition, and demoralize the native constabulary. These assaults had been costly and seldom succeeded. The Central Executive Committee did not realize that its fighters had become demoralized, with many shying away from contact with the British.

The second major Communist objective was the New Villages. Communist agents had infiltrated squatter communities to persuade the people to resist relocation. Guerrillas ambushed truck convoys conveying the squatters to the New Villages. They fired into newly settled villages in hopes of stampeding the inhabitants. In spite of making the strongest possible effort, the Communists had failed to prevent the expansion of the New Villages.

During its October 1951 review, the leadership concluded that while it could foment terror, depredations against the people—slashing rubber trees, burning workers’ huts, sabotaging public utilities, ambushing Red Cross convoys, derailing trains, shooting up New Villages, killing for identity cards—merely increased the general population’s misery. The committee decided that these tactics had been a mistake since they alienated the very people they most needed to support the insurgency. The MCP leadership decreed that henceforth the masses were to be courted. The sole legitimate targets for terrorist operations were the British and their “running dogs.”

The Executive Committee resolved that in order to wage a protracted struggle, the formed guerrilla units had to break contact with the security forces and withdraw deeper into the jungle to rest and refit. Couriers set out on foot to disseminate this decision to all guerrilla units. The jungle was no longer a completely safe haven. Fear of ambush and the need to dodge British patrols caused the couriers to move cautiously from one jungle post office to the next. Consequently, months passed before many guerrilla leaders received the new orders.

At the time no one realized the enormous significance of the committee’s decision. The British had no knowledge of this strategic shift for almost a year. Only then were intelligence officers able to link prisoner interrogations with captured documents to discover that there had been a fundamental shift and that the insurgents had lost their revolutionary momentum. The shift most dramatically changed the status of the village police posts. For the previous three and a half years, policemen had confronted a mortal threat of massed attack by overwhelming numbers. Henceforth, attacks came from small bands of twenty to thirty and were typically only nuisance raids. Relieved of their fear of annihilation, the village police could focus on providing security and restoring law and order.

Yet it was the inherent nature of a counterinsurgency that the British were unable to assess accurately its progress until after the fact. The British did not perceive that the tide was turning. They did not know Communist strength had declined to perhaps 500 hard-core guerrillas supported by another 4,000 fighters of indifferent morale. They did not know that the year 1951 would prove the high-water mark of the insurgency.

The Return of Winston Churchill

Great Britain’s October election of 1951 brought a new Conservative government led by a revived Winston Churchill. Churchill returned to office to find his country still struggling from its exertions during World War II. Food stocks were as depleted as they had been at the height of the U-boat menace in 1941. Strict food rationing remained in place. Prosperity seemed a distant mirage. The Malayan Emergency was costing the nation’s pinched economy half a million dollars per day. In Asia, some 800,000 United Nations soldiers including a Commonwealth Division were challenging Communism in Korea. More than 100,000 French troops were fighting the Viet Minh in Indochina. Although Churchill supported both fights, he believed that the fate of the entire Far East truly depended on Malaya. The prime minister requested a complete report on Malaya, and its contents depressed him. Committees charged with winning the war were spending most of their time bickering. The police force was riven with factions. Worst of all, in Churchill’s view, no one seemed to sense the urgency of the problem. He issued orders to Secretary of State Oliver Lyttelton—“The rot has got to be stopped”—and sent him to Singapore.

Lyttelton arrived in Malaya before Christmas 1951. His initial survey convinced him that the British were on the verge of losing Malaya. On his last night at King’s House he found the regular staff absent, replaced by police officers. They sheepishly reported that the Chinese butler who heretofore had served the secretary his after-dinner coffee had been removed from his position because he was a Communist agent.

Lyttelton described the essential conundrum facing a counterinsurgency: “You cannot win the war without the help of the population, and you cannot get the support of the population without at least beginning to win the war.” The antagonism between the Malay majority and the Chinese minority seemed overwhelming. A Malay political delegation met with Lyttelton to propose a compromise solution: accept the existing situation and let Malaya be granted in dependence forthwith under British administration.

This proposal was immensely attractive. It addressed the prime Malay concern about power sharing with the Malayan Chinese by acknowledging that the Malays would remain politically dominant. If the British accepted it would motivate Malays to put forth far more effort in the war. It meant the war would come to an end soon and Commonwealth troops could escape what appeared to be a jungle quagmire. But in the minds of Lyttelton and Churchill the proposal violated basic British values, not the least of which was the preservation of a disintegrating empire, and smacked of declaring victory and going home. Consequently they rejected it.

Instead Lyttelton recommended a colossal Organizational change: the installation of a supreme warlord in charge of both military and civil affairs. As Lyttelton pondered candidates he briefly considered Britain’s most famous warrior, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He correctly suspected that the immensely proud Montgomery would not want to risk his reputation in Malaya’s jungles. However, Montgomery did send a Lyttelton a brief note of advice: “Dear Lyttelton, Malaya. We must have a plan. Secondly, we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed; not otherwise.” If the field marshal’s advice was rather obvious—Lyttelton later wrote with British understatement that “this had occurred to me”—it still made the solid point that heretofore British efforts had yet to marry leadership and strategic execution.3 That was about to change.

The Rise of Sir Gerald Templer

Lyttelton’s choice for warlord was General Sir Gerald Templer. Templer arrived in Malaya in February 1952 to assume an exceptional posting as both the high commissioner and operational commander of the military. Not since Oliver Cromwell had Britain invested a soldier with this combination of military and political power. But Templer was an exceptional man. He had served in the trenches of France during World War I, competed on the 1924 British Olympic hurdles team, won the army’s bayonet fighting championship, earned the prestigious Distinguished Service Order in Palestine, and risen to corps command during World War II’s Anzio campaign. During the Allied occupation of Germany he was director of military government and later became the director of intelligence at the War Office. His combination of combat and civil leadership coupled with an intelligence background well prepared Templer to meet a novel challenge.

Templer coined the phrase “winning hearts and minds” to describe the foundation of a counterinsurgency strategy.4 He tackled the difficult problem of constructing a political system that would unite Malaya’s many ethnic groups into a stable structure. He was very much a man of action, disdaining all theoretical constructs. He saw that the existing bureaucracy, with its numerous committees and duplication of authority on the state and district levels, was failing because the civilians, policemen, and soldiers could not agree. He told one such committee, “My advice is for you to thrash out your problems over a bottle of whiskey in the evenings. If you can’t agree I don’t want to know why. I’ll sack the lot of you and bring in three new chaps.”

Templer’s political goal was a united nation of Malaya with “a common form of citizenship for all who regard the Federation or any part of it as their real home and the object of their loyalty.” With Templer’s encouragement, in January 1952 the United Malay National Organization and the Malayan Chinese Association cooperated to form the Alliance Party. The Alliance Party contested the capital’s municipal elections and won nine of eleven seats, thereby vaulting itself into national prominence. Templer pledged that legislative elections would be the first step toward independence.

The issue of what would happen after in dependence haunted some Europeans and many Malayans. One experienced reporter warned, “Unless a united Malayan nation is achieved before the British government hands self-government to the country a much more terrible Emergency of racial strife may break out.” Templer addressed this problem head-on. In September 1952 all aliens born in Malaya, including most notably 1.2 million Chinese, received full citizenship. Later Templer signed a decree requiring every New Village to have a school where the language of instruction was Malayan. Newly constructed primary schools in other towns and villages had the same requirement. The ability to speak Malayan was intended to cement future generations to a united Malaya while reassuring the current majority Malay population. Templer also explicitly addressed the question of land tenure when he said that the inhabitants of the New Villages needed to own the land where they lived. By deft political manipulation, Templer cleverly changed the calculus of battle. By hitching the forces of nationalism to an emerging democratic Malay state, the British undercut an insurgency against colonial oppressors and replaced it with a competition for the future of an in dependent nation.

Encased in this velvet glove was an iron hand. Ten days after describing his vision for a united Malaya, a particularly bloody guerrilla ambush brought Templer to the town of Tanjong Malim, fifty-five miles north of Kuala Lumpur. The town had a bad reputation for violence, with almost forty incidents in the past three months. Recently seven Gordon Highlanders had died in an ambush and fifteen civilians and policemen had been murdered. Now for the sixth time guerrillas had cut a water pipeline outside of town. This time they remained on the scene to lure the repair crew and its police escort into a carefully prepared killing zone. Among the killed were a highly respected district administrator—the celebrated Michael Codner, who had earned a Military Cross for his role in the famous “Wooden Horse” escape from a German prison camp during World War II—the area executive engineer of public works, and seven policemen. Once again no townsperson admitted hearing, seeing, or knowing anything about the ambush.

Templer ordered community leaders to assemble and then during an hour-long rant charged them with “cowardly silence.” He said that he would install a new town administration backed with more troops. When some nearby listeners nodded approval, Templer lashed out: “Don’t nod your heads, I haven’t started yet.” He proceeded to impose a twenty-two-hour-a-day curfew, during which time no one was to leave their homes. No one was to leave town at any time. Templer closed the schools and bus service and reduced the rice ration by 40 percent.

How long these measures remained in place would depend upon the townspeople. Ten days later each household received a confidential questionnaire in which they were supposed to denounce any known Communists. With a fine sense of the theatrical, Templer had the completed questionnaires deposited in a sealed box, brought to the capital by selected community leaders, and then opened the letters himself. He read them, made notes, and then destroyed the originals to preserve confidentiality. He sent the village notables home with instructions to tell the people how the letters had been handled. After processing the questionnaires, authorities made some minor arrests and Templer gradually lifted the restrictions. From a tactical standpoint, Templer’s angry retaliation failed; the people arrested were Communist supporters or sympathizers, not members of the guerrilla band who actually had ambushed the repair crew. Moreover, given the limited extent of literacy in the town, the use of written questionnaires was not the best way to obtain responses. But strategically Templer had made his point: a new authority was on the scene and was prepared for stern action when called for.

Because of Codner’s hero status, the incident received widespread publicity. Templer’s notion of collective punishment produced a storm of protest from British and international media. Among many, the Manchester Guardian labeled his behavior “odious.” Templer cared not. His first months in Malaya had an electric political and morale-boosting impact: “he was not only there, but was most certainly seen to be there.”

A Winning Strategy

By British standards, Templer commanded a sizable force including half of the line regiments in the entire British army, all its Gurkha battalions, and a variety of regiments from the remnants of the far-flung empire, including the King’s African Rifles and the Fijian Regiment. He intended to wield them differently, moving away from large sweeps and instead concentrating on keeping units in one area long enough so they could learn the local terrain. Templer also thought that various British units had acquired valuable experience in jungle fighting and that this knowledge needed to be collected and disseminated in a systematic way. The result was a booklet entitled “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya.” Based on the syllabus of the Jungle Warfare Training Centre, it was written in just two weeks. It was a practical how-to compendium describing techniques for patrolling, conducting searches, setting ambushes, and acquiring intelligence. Printed in a size that fit into a jungle uniform pocket, “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya,” inevitably given the acronym ATOM, served as a soldier’s bible. Templer inscribed his own copy with this notation: “It is largely as a result of the publication of this handbook . . . that we got militant communism in Malaya by the throat.”

The improvement in jungle tactics coincided with the insight that the vast, apparently impenetrable jungle actually held a limited network of trails and that the enemy had no choice but to use them. Communist couriers, food requisition parties, and organized units carrying out operations had to traverse these trails some time or another. Rather than noisily bashing about the jungle on useless large-scale sweeps, the British tactic of choice became the setting of an ambush overlooking a trail, followed by a patient waiting period. Platoons operated along the jungle edge for ten to twenty days at a time. They spent most of their time watching and listening.

For a superior officer, the notion of passively waiting for the enemy to appear flew in the face of conventional training. For the soldiers waiting silently hour after hour trying to ignore the leeches, mosquitoes, sleep-inducing heat and humidity, and fatigue, it was not pleasant. A British officer wrote, “I had grown used to the jungle during the war in Burma, but there we were always in large parties and in touch either by sound or wireless with the units to our left and right. Also we always had some idea of where the enemy was. Here we were just a little party of ten men, completely isolated, and the enemy was God knows where. He might be behind the next bush, or the one beyond that, or he might be a hundred miles away. We never knew.”

Most of the time no one passed the ambush site. Yet statistics revealed that on average a soldier on patrol encountered an insurgent once every 1,000 hours. The same soldier waiting patiently in ambush saw an insurgent once every 300 hours. Typically, a contact did not occur until after the ambushers had been in position for more than twenty-four hours. An officer tabulated his accomplishments at the end of his tour. He had spent 115 days in the jungle: “I was with my company when we shot and killed a terrorist. I set an ambush with a section of my platoon which shot and killed a terrorist. My platoon shot and killed a terrorist in an ambush while I was on leave. A company operation in which I took part resulted in four terrorists surrendering. I fired at, but missed, a terrorist who was running away from a camp which we were attacking.” Based on conversations with fellow officers, he concluded that he had experienced a fairly active tour of duty.

Jungle ambush was not comfortable, it was not glorious, but in this war it was the most effective purely military tactic.

Food Denial

The Malayan jungle did not produce enough food to sustain the guerrillas. They needed to obtain sustenance from sympathizers living outside the jungle to survive. The British knew this and conceived a strict food denial program (what became known as Operation Starvation) to starve the guerrillas. Weakened by hunger, they would become vulnerable to military operations or surrender. The food denial strategy proved a devastating measure that eventually defeated the insurgents.

The British carefully followed a three-phase approach to implement the food denial strategy. A months-long intelligence-gathering operation inaugurated the program. Special Branch officers infiltrated the Min Yuen support organization inside a designated village. During this time, military patrols deliberately avoided this village. Instead, they operated in adjacent areas in the hope that their presence would push the terrorists toward the apparent sanctuary of the designated village.

The second phase began the day the strict food rationing began and lasted three to five months. It included house-to-house searches to seize food stores and the arrest of known Communist agents who had been identified by the Special Branch undercover agents. Thereafter, security forces tightly guarded the supply convoys that delivered rice to the village. The rice was cooked centrally by government cooks while armed guards looked on. Within the village, authorities controlled the sale and distribution of all other food. Meanwhile, the military patrolled the nearby jungle to provide security against insurgent attacks.

The people were told that the restrictions would end as soon as the terrorists had been killed or captured. If all proceeded as planned, the villagers would tire of this intrusive disruption and denounce the Communist infrastructure. Then, in the final phase, Communist turncoats would lead Special Branch operational teams, masquerading as Communist terrorists, against higher-level formations.

The food denial effort was not airtight. At first many of the village perimeters lacked illumination, making it easy for Communist sympathizers to throw food and medicine to the waiting guerrillas outside the wire. As perimeter security improved, the sympathizers turned to other tactics. Villagers smuggled rice by hiding it inside bicycle frames, cigarette tins, or false-bottomed buckets of pig swill on the supposition that a Malay policeman, because of his Muslim religion, would be unwilling to touch anything to do with swine. When security forces detected these dodges, the insurgents increasingly turned to using children to smuggle food.

The soldiers and the police usually harnessed their efforts in tandem. An infantry officer wrote, “The police could not take on the fighting against the bandits in the jungle, whereas we could not undertake the normal process of maintaining law and order in the villages and towns and protected areas.” Another infantry officer inspected his men while they were on gate duty at a New Village. Long lines of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles impatiently waited to leave the village while hour after hour the men of the South Wales Borderers performed meticulous vehicle and body searches. He wrote, “It is not easy to turn one’s battalion into a cross between a body of high-class customs officials and police detectives, but what I saw that morning confirmed everything that has been said about the adaptability of the British soldiers.”

As the security forces became ever more serious about enforcing food regulations, which meant time-consuming personal body searches each morning, villagers became understandably more angry about the long lines as they went outside the wire to work in the fields and jungle. Communist propagandists tried to magnify village grievances, claiming security forces were taking indecent advantage of females during searches. Although the international press published some of this propaganda, it failed to deter the British from intensifying their food denial efforts.

The mere possession of food outside the wire risked a penalty of up to five years in prison. The government reduced the number of stores authorized to sell food, banned tinned Quaker Oats because it was an insurgent emergency ration, restricted the sale of high-energy foods and medicines, and ordered shop keepers to puncture tins of food in the presence of the buyer so tropical heat could begin its spoiling process and prevent the food from being stockpiled for the insurgents. Other draconian measures severely restricted the quantities of tinned meat, fish, and cooking oil permitted in individual households.

While the New Villages were subjected to the methodical imposition of food denial measures, military search-and-destroy operations in adjacent areas proceeded. Often during these operations the security forces imposed a severe rice ration on the local inhabitants. Government spokesmen claimed that this ration was “just enough to keep a person in good health.” According to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce this was not true. The rice ration created “fifty thousand half-starved people, many of whom were too ill or to weak to work.”

Templer and his subordinates were not blind to the human suffering caused by the food denial program. They also considered other adverse consequences such as the real risk of spawning a repressive governmental bureaucracy and the impact of international opprobrium. They weighed the operational effect of the food denial policies versus the impact on civilian morale and pressed ahead. At the same time, the British offered the people an enormous incentive to cooperate. The British called this inducement the “White Area,” a symbolic cleansing of the red taint of Communism.

White Areas were almost literally the carrot to the stick of Emergency regulations. When a region demonstrated loyalty to the government and a corresponding dramatic reduction in Communist activity, authorities suspended Emergency regulations including most especially food restrictions, curfews, limited business hours, and controls over the movement of people and goods. The inhabitants of the New Villages still had to live within their assigned villages and maintain their defenses. But compared to their onerous life under Emergency regulations, this was freedom. The government declared the first White Area in September 1953 and during the next two and a half years extended this designation to include almost half the country’s population.

As time passed, the operational effects of the food denial program were dramatic. The guerrillas literally began to starve. They could hardly lean on sympathizers to provide for them since those sympathizers could honestly say that strict rationing, central cooking, thorough gate searches, and swarming security patrols prevented them from smuggling food to the guerrillas.

When British intelligence pinpointed a guerrilla band on the verge of starvation, security forces flooded the area and food denial operations intensified. At such times civil life came to a standstill as the security forces imposed curfews of up to thirty-six hours along with very strict rice rationing. Knowing that the guerrillas would have to move or die, military forces flooded the area to set ambushes along every possible trail. One such operation in Johore featured three infantry battalions, five Area Security Units, two Police Special service Groups, and a “volunteer” force of ex-guerrillas. For five weeks these forces operated in conjunction with strict local food denial and pervasive psychological warfare efforts. They never killed a single guerrilla, yet their presence led to the collapse of guerrilla morale. Hobbled by hunger, compelled to keep on the move while dodging patrols and ambushes, the guerrillas initially survived only by operating in ever-smaller groups. This dispersal led to the breakdown of command authority. In the absence of officers, individuals found it easier to surrender. As unit disintegration continued, the leaders concluded that further resistance was futile and they too surrendered.

This type of operation could only work in compact, carefully targeted areas where the security forces could completely dominate the terrain. The Johore operation required an enormous expenditure of effort to capture one guerrilla and receive the surrender of eleven more. However, it was an operational approach to which the guerrillas had no answer.



For 150 years, with the rare exception of Saladin’s reign, the Islamic Middle East had been too divided to unite in common cause in the face of the inexplicable irruption of the Franks onto the shores of Palestine. The Ayyubids may have talked of jihad, but it was theoretical rather than practical, and the material benefits of long-distance trade with Europe had overridden any unified call to holy war. Rather, the crusader kingdoms had been largely absorbed into the pattern of alliances and conciliations that operated throughout Palestine and Syria. With Baybars and the ascendancy of Turkish peoples from the Asian steppes, everything changed.

Baybars was a first-generation convert to Islam. He had fought at Mansurah to protect Egypt from catastrophe, and on his return in October 1260 he brought back a harder ideology: a commitment to an orthodox Sunni caliphate and the unification of Egypt and Syria under the banner of war. With the threat of the Mongols, the Islamic world had been on the edge of collapse. He now set about unifying the people against their enemies east and west: the Mongols and the Franks. He was single-minded, tyrannical, and puritanical in forging a new Islamic empire.

His arrival in Cairo was met with consternation. The city’s people were expecting to see Qutuz enter in triumphant procession. Instead, they were confronted with yet another cycle of bloody turmoil, a further quick change of sultan within the space of a year. The Turks were outsiders to the orthodox world—potentially usurpers—and Baybars had come to power through murder and a fixed election. The people were horrified and frightened by the prospect of a return to the 1250s, when the Mamluks had brought disorder, violence, and fear to Cairo’s streets. Baybars worked swiftly to alleviate their apprehension. He lowered taxes and set about creating for himself the image of a legitimate Sunni ruler, heir to Saladin and the Ayyubids. Pious works were undertaken—the construction of mosques, the provision of work, and charitable food supplies in time of famine. He repaired the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, as well as Cairo’s dilapidated great al-Azhar mosque, and assiduously cultivated the religious class. He was both farsighted and ruthless. He sidelined his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Qutuz and demolished the grave to prevent it becoming a pilgrimage site. The cult of his personality was projected through both word and image. His heraldic symbol, that of a lion, appeared on coins and the facades of public buildings—gates, fortresses, and bridges. The lion held its right paw raised mid-pounce and ready to strike or in the act of crushing in its claws a trapped rat: the enemies of Islam.

Baybars, in the role of a pious Muslim, revived the office of the Sunni caliphate; a descendant of the last caliph murdered at Baghdad was conveniently discovered, to whom Baybars swore allegiance. The caliph, in turn, invested Baybars as universal sultan in a solemn ceremony. Wearing the black turban of the Abbasid caliphate and a violet robe, and presented with banners, swords, and a shield, he pledged to levy just taxes, restore the caliphate to its ancient glory, and wage holy war. Legitimacy was conferred on what Arab historians of the time called the State of the Turks. Shortly after, the caliph was encouraged to embark on a suicide mission to retake Baghdad with a small force, which was swiftly and conveniently annihilated by the Mongols. A second caliph was effectively a puppet, and the office of caliphate would gradually become merged with that of the Mamluk sultans.

Building a military state was Baybars’s first priority, which he undertook with rigor and efficiency. First, the defense of Egypt. Remembering Louis’s crusade, coastal fortifications, watch towers, and dredging schemes were undertaken to ensure adequate defense of the Nile; then, the rebuilding of the walls of Damascus and other cities that had been razed by the Mongols. The supply of military slaves to bolster the Mamluk regiments required regular shipments from the Black Sea; from the 1260s, it would be the Christian Genoese who would provide the manpower that was destined to confront their co-religionists in the years ahead.

At the same time, Baybars made structural reforms to the army. The enslaved Mamluks were native Turkish speakers and mainly operated under their officers in their own language. Baybars built a core group of about 4,000 Mamluks. Some were his own elite troops, others were owned by his emirs. There was also a corps of freeborn cavalry. Alongside these were infantry, mainly from Syria, and less-trained volunteers. Although his enemies routinely overestimated the total size of Mamluk armies, Baybars could muster perhaps as many as 40,000 men for particular campaigns.

In addition, he fostered military training regimes. He built two new maydans, hippodrome training grounds for the practice and development of military skills and physical fitness. Here the Mamluks would practice the disciplines of archery and fencing, and the use of the mace and the cavalry spear. There would be wrestling and mock combat—particularly the use of the short, whippy composite bow—on foot and on horseback. A skilled archer should be able to loose three arrows in one and a half seconds, and hit a target one yard wide at eighty yards. The Mamluks also employed a wide variety of incendiary weapons and trained their cavalry in fire games. Horseback maneuvers involving these weapons were performed to develop the skill of their riders and the temperament of their mounts against startling at the noise and flames.

To unify Egypt and Syria, Baybars set about systematically undermining or destroying autonomous Ayyubid princelings and linked the furthest reaches with a remarkable communications network. He established an efficient postal system of swift riders, relay stations, pigeon messenger services, and fire signal towers, and built bridges to speed troop movements and couriers. Intelligence gathering lay at the heart of his state building; he consistently surprised opponents with his ability to respond rapidly. His postal riders, who reported directly to him, were well rewarded. They could bring a message the six hundred miles from Damascus to Cairo in four days. He alone could open and read the correspondence, which he responded to immediately by day and night. On one occasion it was observed that “while he was taking a bath in his tent, the post arrived from Damascus. Without waiting an instant, without giving himself time to cover his nakedness, the prince had the letter read.” The reply was back in Damascus four days later.

Baybars was the sultan commander who slept little and never relaxed. Over the seventeen years of his reign, he ruled from the saddle, rode 70,000 miles, and fought thirty-eight campaigns, twenty-one of these against the Franks. He waged war even in harsh winter weather. He acted secretly, unnerved even his most loyal emirs by his unpredictable appearances, walked the streets of his city incognito, never divulged in advance the objective of a military expedition. Surprise and deception were weapons of war. If, as usurper of Turkish origin, he kept himself aloof from the indigenous population, his emirs also felt themselves continuously watched, and his enemies were kept guessing. A truce was only ever provisional, to be abrogated as the situation demanded. This restlessly energetic, controlling figure both rewarded the loyal, the brave, and the pious and carried out exemplary acts of cruelty—blindings, crucifixions, and bisections—to terrify and command obedience.

External threats were the justification for tyranny; Baybars’s policies were all framed with the eventuality of warfare with the Mongols and the Franks. The help given to the Mongols by Antioch and Armenia led him to consider the activities of the two as linked. Both were enemies and he was wary of the possibility of fresh crusades from the West. The threat of Mongol incursions loomed large after 1260, but a major invasion by Hülegü never happened. The Mongol Empire, stretched to its geographical limits, was starting to fragment. Hülegü, as khan of Mesopotamia, was at loggerheads with Berke, ruler of the neighboring Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde. Berke, a convert to Islam, was outraged by the Mongol destruction of Baghdad. By 1263, the two were at open war. Baybars was able to establish cordial diplomatic relations with Berke, thus neutralizing a larger threat to the Islamic Middle East. Looking west and aware that the papacy was making diplomatic overtures to the Mongols, Baybars also established cordial relations with its rivals, the Hohenstaufens, rulers of Sicily, and then with the Hohenstaufens’ own enemies, the Byzantine emperors, through whose waters the cargoes of military slaves from the Black Sea had to pass.

By 1263, Baybars had stabilized his position as the sultan of Egypt and Syria and was readying his army to move against the Franks. Training, morale, and discipline were critical. He commanded the men to ensure that they were properly equipped: each was personally responsible for providing his own armor. The arms market in Damascus boomed. To ensure compliance, Baybars staged reviews in which the sections of his army filed past one at a time to prevent the men from exchanging equipment. The spirit of jihad was prominent in these mobilizations and the language uncompromising: the troops were enjoined “to remove all excuse for abstaining from the Holy War.” He forbade the brewing and drinking of beer and threatened to hang miscreants for drinking wine.

Baybars then embarked on a series of stop-start campaigns to intimidate and undermine the crusaders’ fragmentary possessions that had survived Saladin’s reign—Jaffa, Caesarea, Acre, and Tripoli—but his particular anger was directed against Bohemond VI, ruler of Antioch and Tripoli, and the Armenian king Hethoum I for their support of the Mongols. Baybars waged asymmetrical warfare—a bewildering combination of sieges and raids. His armies would appear quite suddenly, ravage the countryside, show their flags outside the walls of castles, and vanish again. These tactics were used to apply political pressure, to intimidate into favorable treaties and concessions, and to inflict economic damage. Objectives were always hidden, motives undeclared. The Mongols provided a convenient justification. Almost every year there would be scares of their incursions from across the Euphrates; few materialized, but for additional security the pastureland of northern Syria was routinely burned to deny grazing to Mongol horsemen. The Mongols were to be given nothing. Their threat both justified and required attacks on the crusader states.

Baybars had little regard for the advantages of Levantine trade that had seduced the Ayyubids to cooperate with the Franks. He worked to encourage the rerouting of commerce to Egypt. In the interim, though the Muslims held no harbors on the coast north of Gaza, he found ways to turn some of the Frankish ports to his advantage. When Jaffa, the most southern of the Frankish coastal cities, submitted, he used it to import grain for famine relief. When it was no longer useful, Jaffa was destroyed. Where the Ayyubids had recognized local Christians as a clearly protected minority, a greater intolerance now prevailed. Baybars had not forgotten their celebrations at the fall of Damascus to the Mongols. His actions were punitive, barring pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ordering his troops to raze to the ground the hugely significant church of St. Mary in Nazareth, the supposed site of the Annunciation.

The pressure he brought to bear on the crusader states became increasingly alarming. Acre, which he had secretly reconnoitered on his way to Ayn Jalut, was subjected to continuous visitations. In April 1263, his army suddenly appeared outside the city and attacked some of its outer defenses. There was fierce fighting that forced the defenders back. An Arabic chronicler left a vivid, if partisan, account:

The Franks retired, routed, to Acre, while the Muslims burned the surrounding towers and walls, cut down trees and burned the fruits. There was nothing to be seen but smoke, clouds of dust, flashing swords and cutting, gleaming spear points. The Muslim army rode up to the gates of Acre, killing and taking prisoners… the remaining Franks then rushed to the gates of the city walls and came down to defend them. They were all shouting together: “The Gate! The Gate!,” in fear that an attack was going to be made on them. Meanwhile the sultan was standing on the Acre side of the summit of the Tell [a nearby hill], making gifts and promises.

Then, just as suddenly, Baybars withdrew. It was not a concerted attempt to take the city, rather a policy of softening up, disrupting agriculture, keeping opponents on edge. Every time his army moved, anxiety rippled throughout Outremer. Acre was raided in this way on an almost annual basis, its orchards uprooted and its crops burned. Baybars was back in 1265, again in the vicinity in 1266. In May 1267, he got up to the city gates by deception, flying the banners of the Templars and Hospitallers. He surprised the peasants working in the fields and captured and killed five hundred of them. He came again in 1269.

Often these attacks were diversionary episodes designed to distract from more major operations against crusader castles. The 1266 raid on Acre was only one of a number that year. Baybars had the military resources to send simultaneous raiding parties against Tyre, Sidon, and the Teutonic Knights’ castle at Montfort, throwing dust in the eyes of Christian defenders, while his main army besieged the Templar castle at Safad. Tripoli and Antioch each experienced three such assaults during the 1260s. In 1270, the Hospitallers’ stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers, the most formidable fortress ever constructed in the crusader era, was softened up with a devastation of its hinterland. He was scorching away the economic foundations of the last crusader states. The damage to Acre’s agricultural lands was so severe that Muslim writers felt compelled to find religious justifications for malicious destruction. In the area around Tripoli, he destroyed irrigation channels and aqueducts dating back to the Roman Empire. This devastation of fertile land to inhibit, demoralize, and economically weaken was to scar the coastal strip of Palestine and Lebanon for hundreds of years.

The Franks did not help themselves. Unable to put out enough men to risk open battle, they resorted to tit-for-tat counterattacks that lacked strategic forethought or coherent effort. After the raids of 1263, the two sides patched up a truce. This did not prevent the Templars and Hospitallers, acting as autonomous bodies, from mounting further sorties two months later. This was followed shortly after by the arrival in Acre of a small contingent of French troops, eager for action. They promptly attacked nearby Muslim villages, snatched people and animals, and set fire to houses. Whereas Baybars engaged in such tactics with strategic intent, these uncoordinated Christian initiatives, with no clear purpose beyond releasing pent-up frustration, served only to alienate local Muslim people and to infuriate Baybars.

At no point were the crusader states capable of combined action. Each made its own piecemeal truces with the Mamluks in the hope of temporary respite and usually on disadvantageous terms. When Acre tried to arrange a prisoner exchange with Baybars, both the Hospitallers and the Templars refused to participate because the Muslims they were holding were skilled craftsmen and too expensive to replace. Such actions earned them growing criticism from fellow Christians for selfishness and self-interest: “They ought to have made the exchange, for the sake of God and the deliverance of the poor Christian slaves,” was one critical verdict.4 They not infrequently made their own agreements with Baybars regarding territory they controlled around their inland castles, while the Frankish barons were capable of reckless bouts of destruction. All this served to broaden support for the State of the Turks, and further legitimize Baybars’s claim as Sunni sultan and liberator.

But the language of power spoke louder than the language of diplomacy. Baybars could pick and choose his terms. In 1267, he refused a truce with Acre while the grand master of the Hospitallers signed a humiliating ten-year agreement in return for nonaggression against their castles in Lebanon, with the sultan’s right to abrogate it whenever he wished. Truces with the Frankish states were frequently canceled by Baybars on grounds of minor technical infringements or simply uncorroborated assertions.

Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands I

‘Every king on earth’, Cyrus had once boasted, ‘brought me heavy tribute, and kissed my feet where I sat in Babylon.'” Darius’ own sojourn in the city, which brought him only tidings of rebellion, was marked by none of the ostentatious gestures of clemency so beloved of his predecessor. Rather, beleaguered as he was, his preference was for carefully targeted acts of savagery and retribution. So it was that the hapless Nebuchadnezzar, captured on the downfall of his capital, was denied even the right to his celebrated name. Darius, pulling a favourite trick, accused him of being an impostor, and had him arraigned as ‘Nidintu-Bel’*. Just as the corpse of ‘Gaumata’ had been disposed of with suspicious haste, now Nidintu-Bel, rather than being paraded down the Processional Way, was hurriedly and discreetly impaled. Forty-nine of the supposed impostor’s lieutenants perished alongside him — his closest intimates, no doubt. Dead men, after all, could tell no tales.

Yet the suspicions of those who lurked beyond Darius’ reach, and their continued defiance, were not so easily allayed. That winter, the capture of Babylon notwithstanding, it appeared as though the new king’s scattered and outnumbered forces might be overwhelmed. Even Persia itself had risen in revolt. Fatal though Bardiya’s division of the aristocracy into rival factions had proved to be, it had at least ensured that the cause associated with his name would survive his murder — for those noblemen who had profited from the dead king’s policies could hardly bank on the favour of his assassin. Urgently, they had banded together in opposition to the coup. Promoting one of their own, Vahyazdata, as king, they took a leaf out of Darius’ book and announced that their man was in fact Bardiya himself. To add to the superfluity of pretenders, rebels throughout Asia were similarly emerging from the shadows, laying claim to the bloodlines of long-toppled monarchs, and to the glories of vanished empires. Ancient ambitions, briefly stifled by Persian rule, began to blaze back into life. Most threateningly of all, a nobleman by the name of Phraortes seized control of Ecbatana. Making common cause with rebels in the eastern half of the empire, many of whom hurried to acknowledge him as their overlord, he proclaimed the golden days of Media reborn.

There was more to this defiance of Darius than mere nostalgia for a vanished dynasty. Phraortes was quick to boast of his descent from Astyages, but he was also heir to the same resentments that had helped destroy the Medes’ last king. The Median nobility — and the Persian too, if they wished to preserve any independence — had no choice but to oust the usurper; for Darius, decisive, brutal and charismatic, was patently not a man to indulge the pretensions of anyone save himself. Here, for the clan chiefs, was a truly agonising choice: either forgo the opportunities of global empire, but enjoy once again the smaller-scale pleasures of factionalism, or remain masters of the world, but as vassals of a universal king. This, even amid what might have seemed its death agony, was the measure of Persian greatness: that all ‘the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land’ could be shaken, and yet the great convulsion, at its heart, be a civil war.

Everywhere the deadliest fighting was between men who only months previously had been comrades in arms. Vahyazdata’s forces, striking eastwards from Persia to seize the adjacent province, found themselves blocked by its governor, who had chosen to throw in his lot with Darius; in the north, where rebels had risen in support of Phraortes, Darius’ loyalists were led not by a Persian but by. one of Phraortes’ own countrymen, a Mede; meanwhile, in Media itself, amid sub-zero temperatures and snowdrifts, clan chief fought with clan chief for control of the Khorasan Highway. By January, Phraortes’ forces were pushing hard: advancing almost to the Nisaean plain, they threatened to break through into Mesopotamia, just as Darius himself had done barely two months before. Here loomed the great fulcrum of the crisis: Darius, knowing that he could not afford to lose Babylon, yet also frantically orchestrating a war on numerous fronts, dispatched a small army under Hydarnes, one of the seven original conspirators, to hold the highway at all costs. Hydarnes, his future by now irrevocably hitched to Darius’ star, obediently retraced his steps into the frozen Zagros, and there, with grim resolution, positioned his troops to block the descent of the rebellious Medes. Although battle was duly joined, the result was a stand-off: no significant damage was inflicted on Phraortes’ army, but neither was it able to continue its advance. Hydarnes, entrenching himself before the sacred cliff-face of Bisitun, stood garrison and waited for his master.

Finally, by April, with a great victory reported against Vahyazdata, and the crushing of the rebellion in the north, Darius was ready to commit himself to the Median campaign. Leading his reserves up from Babylon, he joined with Hydarnes, and then, in a bloody and decisive battle, routed Phraortes, captured him, and loaded him with chains. Darius, having neglected to expose either Gaumata or Nidintu-Bel to public obloquy, now more than made amends. Indeed, the fate of Phraortes could not have been more gruesomely exemplary. His nose, tongue and ears were cut off; then for good measure, he was blinded in one eye. While other prominent rebels were flayed and their skins then stuffed with straw, their master was chained before the gates of the royal palace in Ecbatana, ‘where everyone could see him’, Only once his countrymen had been given sufficient opportunity to gawp at his humiliation was Phraortes, the would-be King of Media, impaled.

All done for the particular edification of the clan chiefs, of course. Certainly, the twisted corpse rotting on the spike above Ecbatana would have weighed as heavily on the nobility’s minds as its stench would have hung in the summer air. Two months later, and the Persian aristocracy were graced with the same lesson. Vahyazdata, brought to battle and defeated a second time, was duly impaled; his closest lieutenants, sentenced to the same excruciating fate, writhed upon an immense forest of stakes. Darius, stern-faced and implacable, surveyed the scene. No more pretenders would come forward now claiming to be Bardiya. The murdered king, at last, lay in his grave. Smoothly, Darius moved to annex his dependants to himself. The various female offshoots of the royal family — the sisters, wives and daughters of the man he had displaced — were swept into the marital bed. Among these was the already twice-widowed Atossa, who now, for the first time, became the queen of a man who was not her brother. What her emotions must have been as she slept with Bardiya’s murderer one can only imagine. Certainly, she is reported not to have been Darius’ favourite wife. That title went to her younger sister, Artystone — the second of Cyrus’ daughters to have given the new king a marriage-link to the past.

Not that Darius, having waded through blood to seize the kidaris, was the man to rely merely on a harem to cement his claim. Even as he staked his exclusive rights to the bloodline of Cyrus, he was loudly broadcasting the primacy of his own: ‘I am Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands, the son of Hystaspes, grandson of Arsames, an Achaemenid.’ So, with a sonorous roll, it was splendidly proclaimed. ‘There were eight of my family who were kings before me. I am the ninth. Nine times in succession have we been kings.’ Which was stretching the truth to breaking point, of course. What of Cambyses, what of Cyrus, what of the legitimate royal line? What, indeed, of Darius’ father, Hystaspes, who was still very much, albeit somewhat embarrassingly, alive? Darius, now that he had the world in his hands, could afford to sweep aside such minor inconveniences. What mattered, after all, was not what an inner circle of courtiers and clan chiefs might know, but what the empire – and posterity — might be made to understand.

Besides, the fabrications only veiled a deeper truth. By the summer of 521 bc, although there were still smouldering bushfires in Elam and Mesopotamia, Darius’ triumph was not in dispute: he had secured the throne for himself and saved the world for the Persian people. Who but a man strong in the favour of Ahura Mazda, just as Darius had always proclaimed himself to be, could have achieved such startling things? A notable symmetry had framed the arc of his exertions — certain evidence of a guidance more than mortal. It was surely no coincidence, for instance, that Bisitun, holiest of mountains, had witnessed both the execution of Gaumata and the defeat of Phraortes — the two decisive turning-points in Darius’ progress to the throne. The new king, looking to immortalise his campaign against the Lie, duly chose to do so at the scene of these stirring events. Already, even before his victory in Persia, masons had been set to work at Bisitun. For the first time ever, ‘cut like the pages of a book on the blood-coloured rock’, the Persian language was to be transcribed into written form. The story of how Darius had rescued the world from evil was far too important to be trusted to the recitations of the Magi alone. Only solid stone could serve such an epic as its shrine. ‘So it was chiselled, and read out in my presence. And then the inscription was copied and dispatched to every province.’ No one in the empire was to be ignorant of Darius’ deeds.

And yet the king, even as he proclaimed his achievements to the far ends of the earth, was already seeking to distance himself from the swirl of revolt and war. His intentions could be seen illustrated on the cliff-face of Bisitun itself, carved in immense relief next to the blocks of cuneiform. There loomed a giant Darius, crushing a prostrate Gaumata beneath his foot, while in front of him, dwarfish and tethered, stretched a line of liar-kings. On the face of the conqueror, however, there was no wrinkled lip, no sneer of cold command, only serenity, dignity, majesty and calm; as though the triumphs celebrated in the relief were, to their hero, simply ripples upon an order outside time. Here was a radical departure from the norms of royal self-promotion. When the Assyrian kings had portrayed themselves trampling their foes, they had done so in the most extravagant and blood-spattered detail, amid the advance of siege engines, the flight of the defeated, piles of loot and severed heads. There were no such specifics at Bisitun. What mattered to Darius was not the battle, but that the battle had been won; not the bloodshed but that the blood had dried, and an age of peace had dawned. Yes, the victory over the liar-kings had been a great and terrible one, and because it had proved the truth of what he had always insisted, that he was indeed the champion of Ahura Mazda, the new king had ordered its details to be recorded and proclaimed. Never again, however, would he permit himself to be shown enclosed within mere events. As universal monarch, he was now above such things. Just as Lord Mazda dwelt beyond the rhythms of the world, so had his proxy, the King of Persia, transcended space and time. History, in effect, had been brought to a glorious close. The Persians’ empire was both its end and its summation — for what could a dominion be that contained within it all the limits of the horizon, if not the bulwark of a truly cosmic order? Such a monarchy, now that Darius had redeemed it from the Lie, might be expected to endure for all eternity: infinite, unshakeable, the watch-tower of the Truth.

Except, of course, that history still persisted in its flow. In 520 bc, even as Darius’ masons were hard at work at Bisitun, the ever-fractious Elamites rose again in revolt. Darius, infuriated, promptly anathematised them in new and startling terms. ‘Those Elamites were faithless,’ he thundered. ‘They failed to worship Ahura Mazda.’ This, the condemnation of a people for their neglect of a religion not their own, was something wholly remarkable. Until that moment, Darius, following the subtle policy of Cyrus, had always been assiduous in his attention to foreign gods. Now he was delivering to the subject nations of the world a stern and novel warning. Should a people persist in rebellion against the order of Ahura Mazda, they might expect to be regarded not merely as adherents of the Lie but as the worshippers of ‘daivas — false gods and demons. Conversely, those sent to war against them might expect ‘divine blessings — both in their lives, and after death’. Glory on earth and an eternity in heaven: these were the assurances given by Darius to his men. The manifesto proved an inspiring one. When Gobryas, Darius’ father-in-law, led an army into Elam, he was able to crush the revolt there with a peremptory, almost dismissive, speed. Never again would the Elamites dare to challenge the awful might of the Persian king. Such was the effect of the world’s first holy war.

For there had been, in this otherwise obscure and unmemorable campaign, the hint of something fateful. Darius, testing the potential of his religion to its limits, had promoted a dramatic innovation. Contained within it were the seeds of some radical notions: that foreign foes might be crushed as infidels; that warriors might be promised paradise; that conquest in the name of a god might become a moral duty. Not that Darius, even as he ordered the invasion of Elam, had ever aimed to impose his religion at the point of a sword; such an idea was wholly alien to the spirit of the times. Nevertheless, a new age was dawning — and Darius was its midwife. His vision of empire as a fusion of cosmic, moral and political order was to prove stunningly fruitful: the foundation-stone not only of his own rule but of the very concept of a universal order. The dominion raised by Cyrus, having been preserved from dissolution, was now, in effect, to be founded a second time — and a global monarchy, secured anew, was to spell a global peace.

Darius, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of Lands II

For, earth-shaking though Darius’ usurpation had proved to be, it had never been his intention to turn the whole world upside-down. Just the opposite. The ancient kingdoms of the Near East, having had their last hour of rebellion, were now finished as international players; yet Darius, the man responsible for their quietus, still indulged their spectres. Brutal though the Persians could be when required, violent revolution was hardly their ideal. The new king, even as he set about constructing his new order, fitted and adorned it with the cladding of the past. A pharaoh still reigned in Egypt; a king of Babylon in Mesopotamia; a self-proclaimed heir of the house of Astyages in Media. Darius was all these things, and more. ‘King of Kings’: such was the title he most gloried in, less because he viewed foreign kingdoms as his fiefdoms — although he did — but rather because it gratified him to pose as the quintessence of royalty. All the monarchies there had ever been were to be regarded as enshrined within his person. He was the Great King.

And there was no one left undiminished. Even his former peers, even those possessed of the most famous and honoured names in Persia, even the six other conspirators, all were ranked merely as ‘ban-day — as servitors of the king. The nobility, decimated by civil war, and intimidated by Darius’ battle-hardened armies, no longer dared dispute the pretensions of royal power. Darius himself, who had not passed the first months of his reign in Babylon for nothing, moved swiftly to drive this home. At Susa, capital of the defeated Elamites, orders were given to flatten much of the old town and construct an immense new royal city, one raised in contempt of the site itself; for it was built not upon natural contours but on an artificially levelled surface, an immense foundation-block of gravel and baked brick. Darius, not content with building one new capital from scratch, then began scouting round virgin sites in Persia itself, looking to found a second and even greater one. He settled upon a location some twenty miles south of Pasargadae, a city which, although Darius continued to honour it, was too associated with Cyrus ever to serve him as his own. Darius wanted a stage that was his and his alone; and he had fixed upon a site already lit up by his glory. This was the Mount of Mercy, a name not without irony, for it was at its foot that Vahyzdata and the rebel nobles had been impaled. Now, abutting the slope of the mountain, Darius ordered the construction of a gigantic terrace, a platform with perfect views on to the killing field below, ‘beautiful and impervious’ — a fitting base for the capital of the world.

Darius named it Taarsa’, as though all the expanse of Persia were to be shrunk and maintained within its walls. And so, in a sense, it was. The king’s appetite for centralisation was insatiable. The city which the Greeks would much later call Persepolis was built as nerve-centre, power-house and showcase. Not only Persia but the realms of the vast dominion beyond it were to be unified into one immense administrative unit, focused, as was only natural, upon the figure of the king himself. Darius had not spent the first years of his reign shoring up the empire for nothing; and he was resolved never again to see it threatened by collapse. With his habitual energy, he threw himself into the most overwhelming task of administration that any monarch had ever faced: nothing less than to set the world upon a sound financial footing. This was the same challenge that had destroyed both Cambyses and Bardiya; but Darius’ talents, once again, were to prove the equal of his ambition. The financial crisis that had racked the empire in the last year of Cambyses’ reign was briskly resolved: the ramshackle system of tribute that had prevailed under Cyrus and his sons was streamlined and reformed; levies in every province, to the far ends of the known world, were carefully fixed. It was an unprecedented achievement, and one destined to endure for almost two centuries as the bedrock of Persian power. Even more than his generalship or his genius for propaganda, it was Darius’ punctilious mastery of fiscal policy that pulled the empire back from the brink. If the rising splendours of Persepolis and Susa spoke loudly of his dominance, then so too, as they glided among the building works, loaded down with parchments, tablets and tables of figures, did the bureaucrats who staffed the royal palaces. The Persian nobles, sneering behind Darius’ back, may have mocked their king as a ‘shopkeeper,’ — but the empire, and Persia’s greatness, would have been nothing without accounts.

A truth illustrated by the very fabric of the palaces themselves — for tribute receipts to the Great King were not merely the stuff of dusty archives, but of splendid and sacred drama. During his months in Babylon, Darius would have seen how much of that city’s greatness, from the fittings of its palaces to the many languages on its streets, bore witness to the scale of its vanished empire. It was only proper, then, that Susa and Persepolis, as the capitals of a dominion incalculably more extensive than that of Babylon, should have lavished on them ‘materials brought from afar’. Here, as it was designed to be, glimmered a comprehensive trumping of the magnificence of every king who had gone before. If furnishings could be reckoned the measure of greatness, then Darius, with his grands projets, had hit unprecedented heights. ‘The gold was brought from Sardis, and from Bactria, and fashioned by craftsmen here, and the precious stones that were used here, lapis lazuli and carnelian, these were brought from Sogdiana.’ So visitors to Susa were grandly informed. ‘The silver and ebony was brought from India, and the friezes on the walls, they were brought from Ionia, and the ivory that was carved here, that came from Ethiopia, and India, and Arachosia.’ And so on and on, in rolling tones of house-pride, the record of tribute or labour drawn from twenty-three territories of the empire. Never before had the details of tax returns made for quite such a dazzling show.

And what of the Babylonians, whose city had previously been the capital of the world? Their allotted task was to dig foundations and bake mud bricks. Not the most glamorous responsibilities, it might be thought; but Darius, when he came to enumerate the various subject peoples who had contributed to Susa, put the men of Babylon at the head of the list. ‘That the earth was dug out, and the rubble packed down, and the sun-dried bricks were moulded, this was due to the Babylonians — they performed these tasks.’ The symbolism was profound, and — Darius being Darius — no doubt deliberate. As he would well have known, it was the practice in Mesopotamia never to clear away the rubble of toppled monuments, but always to seal it before raising new structures on top of the ruins. A temple, for instance, even though it might tower into the heavens, would be founded on the detritus of the past. And so it was with the palaces of the Great King.

Resting on massive terraces of Babylonian brickwork, and adorned with the luxuries and treasures of the world, Susa and Persepolis might not have been the dwelling-homes of gods, but they still enshrined an imperiously spiritual vision. Where Babylon seethed with an energy that derived from its own awesome size, the capitals of the Persian monarch, modelled according to their founder’s every whim, held up splendid mirrors to the harmonies of order. This is not to say that they were wholly lacking in metropolitan character: already, even before the foundation of Persepolis, that ubiquitous banking family, the Egibis, had opened an office in the area, soon to be followed by other merchants and financiers; bureaucrats swarmed everywhere; craftsmen and labourers, transported from all corners of the world, brought their own hint of babel to the streets. But Persepolis and Susa were not, in the febrile sense that Babylon was, cosmopolitan; nor had it ever been part of Darius’ ambitions that they should be so. It did not require the Great King to emerge from his palace into a stinking mass of humanity for him to flaunt and represent his sway. The detail of a tax payment, safely logged inside an archive; the glinting on a palace door of rare and precious metals, quarried from an incalculably distant mountain range; the portrayal on a frieze of some humble tributary — an Arab, or an Ethiopian, or a Gandharan — his submission forever frozen by the pattern of the design; all these spoke with perfect clarity of the timeless nature of Persian power. Significant as the bloody practicalities of imperial rule were to Darius, so also was their shadow, his sacral vision of a universal state, one in which all his vast dominion had been imposed for the conquered’s good. The covenant embodied by Persian rule could not have been made any clearer: harmony in exchange for humility; protection for abasement; the blessings of a world order for obedience and submission. This was, of course, in comparison to the propaganda of the great empires of Mesopotamia, notably lacking in a relish for slaughter — but it did serve very effectively to justify global conquest without limit.

For the logic was glaring. If it was the destiny of the Persian people to bring peace to a bleeding world, then those who defied them were clearly the agents of anarchy and darkness. Tools of the Lie as they were, they menaced not merely Darius’ empire but the cosmos that it mirrored. Even the earth and sky, on occasions, might manifest their revulsion for the foes of the Great King. In 519 bc, one year after the suppression of the Elamites’ revolt, a fresh uprising broke out on the empire’s northern frontier, among those inveterate rebels, the Saka. Darius, leading an army against them, was betrayed by his guide, andfound himself lost and parched amid the bleak steppes. With no water for miles, nor any hint of rain, the king had little choice but to take desperate measures: climbing to the summit of a hill, he duly divested himself of his robes and kidaris, and thrust his sceptre in the ground. As dawn broke, purging the shadows of darkness from the earth, the King of Kings raised his voice in his prayer. His appeals were answered: rain began to fall from the sky; the earth was refreshed by water. Darius, gathering the accoutrements of royalty, then led his army to victory over the rebels. For the Persians, the adventure could hardly have had a more inspiring theme: it taught that there was nowhere so remote that it could not be ordered and tamed. ‘From this side of the ocean to the far side of the ocean, and from this side of the parched land to the far side of the parched land,’ Darius ruled it all.

Admittedly, unprecedented though the Great King’s reach was, it did not yet quite embrace every limit of the world. Beyond the Jaxartes, the steppelands of Asia still stretched unconquered to the remote, encircling River Rangha; in Africa, a Persian army, dispatched westwards by Cambyses, had been swallowed whole by a desert storm;[1] in Europe, across the sea from the cities of Ionia, an entire strange continent, as yet barely even explored, was waiting to be penetrated and subdued. But the time of these remote and savage lands would surely come. There could be no holding back the armies of the Great King. Order would be brought to the final strongholds of the Lie. No sooner had Darius returned from defeating the Saka than he was looking to make fresh conquests. In 518 bc, gazing eastwards, he dispatched a naval squadron to reconnoitre the mysterious lands along the Indus. Invasion swiftly followed; the Punjab was subdued; a tribute of gold dust, elephants and similar wonders was imposed. Even the great river itself was placed symbolically under the yoke: its waters were brought to Darius in an immense jar, and placed in his treasury, there to join the waters of other rivers, likewise held captive to the greater glory of the King.

It was true that there lay still further lands beyond the Indus, as yet independent of Persian rule; but even these, though not formally constituted into a province, might still be blessed by the favour of the king. All that petitioners had to do was to deliver to him a tribute of earth and water, and then, in return, they might be warmed by the light of his attention. Solemn and awe-inspiring ritual accompanied the presentation of these gifts. Supplicants, swearing their oath of loyalty to Persia, would have to do so prostrate on the scattered soil of their own land. In this way the Great King symbolised that the works of nature, as well as man, had been absorbed into his order — the better for everyone. The supplicants themselves, withdrawing from the dreadful presence of the king, could have no possible doubts as to the significance of the gesture they had performed. They had taken a step from which there could be no retreat. They had become a part, however humble, of the empire of the world.

It did not take the armies of the Great King, then, to expand the limits of Persian power. Westwards as well as eastwards they continued their advance; over sea as well as land. Around the time of the conquest of the Punjab, Otanes, Darius’ one-time rival for the throne, had been cruising the eastern waters of the Aegean. The island of Samos had been formally absorbed into the empire; neighbouring islands, as they looked to forestall the Persian fleet, began to contemplate making gifts of earth and water to the ambassadors of the King. Here, for Darius, was a development of much promise. With the rich plains of the Indus pacified, his attentions could now be turned to the opposite end of his dominion. Two continents had already submitted to his supremacy — why should not a third?

The gaze of the Great King, inexorably, began to fix itself on the West.