Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War I

If Britain and France refrained from challenging Italy and Germany in Spain, this was not because they were blind to the threat to their strategic interests;  it was because they feared that a general war in Western Europe, whether they won or lost, could only redound to the benefit of Russia.

In a policy summary drafted by Gladwyn Jebb, private secretary to Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office since January 1938, and based partly on the papers of William Strang, head of the Central Departmentall three men supporters of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Jebb observed that the objection to collective security was that it would “provoke war in which defeat would be disastrous and victory hardly less so.”

At a session, on 15 March 1938, of the Comité Permanent de la Défense Nationale, Edouard Daladier, the French minister of defense, stated that “one would have to be blind not to see that intervention in Spain would start a general war.” As to what he envisioned by a general war was expressed by him apocalyptically three months later, when, as the reader will recall, he told Count von Welczech, the German ambassador: “[The] catastrophic frightfulness of a modern war would surpass all that humanity had ever seen, and would mean the utter destruction of European civilization. Into the battle zones, devastated and denuded of men, Cossack and Mongol hordes would then pour, bringing to Europe a new ‘Culture.’ ”          

Hence, the nonintervention policy of Britain and France during the Civil War was determined not only by their hostility to the social revolution and by later Communist domination, of which they were fully informed through their diplomatic and secret agents, but by the fear that a general war would bring in its wake the enthronement of Communism in the whole of Europe. Consequently, no effort at dissimulation or persuasion, no attempt by successive Spanish governments to curb or roll back the revolution could have affected Anglo-French policy.

We have seen that the policy of appeasement of Germany was pursued with greater vigor from the time Neville Chamberlain succeeded Stanley Baldwin in the premiership in May 1937 and that the new prime minister perceived the Soviet Union as the major long-term threat to British interests and the Western world. For this reason, a political settlement with Germany was the cornerstone of Chamberlain’s policy, and it was visionary to believe that Britain would come to the aid of Republican Spain at the risk of a war in Western Europe. 

That some members of the PCE in the spring of 1938 had begun to question the assumption that Britain and France would eventually be drawn into the conflict, but such doubts, inadmissible in Communist circles, had to be squelched if morale were to be sustained, particularly at the battlefronts. “I never for a moment believed that the Spanish government would get real help from Britain and France,” Ralph Bates, the British author and assistant commissar of the Fifteenth International Brigade, wrote in 1940 after he had severed his connections with the Communists. He was “tremendously censured,” he said, by the English representative of the Communist party in Madrid for dealing with the problem, even implicitly, in the brigade organ Volunteer for Liberty of which he was editor and was ”charged with exposing the boys to the possibility of this thought coming up in their minds.” “In so far as we damped down the revolution in Spain,” he added, “in the interests of collective security, then we miscalculated. I feel compelled to face that fact. Not all our soft-pedalling won [Britain and France] to our side. Might we have got more out of the CNT and FAI if we had not soft-pedalled so much?”          

The extent to which Chamberlain and his supporters were prepared to pursue the appeasement of Germany is evident from a conversation that Lord Halifax held with Adolf Hitler on 19 November 1937. At that time, Halifax was Lord Privy Seal and later, as foreign secretary, formed part of Chamberlain’s “Inner Cabinet” with Sir Samuel Hoare and Sir John Simon. According to a German foreign ministry memorandum, Halifax recognized that Hitler “had not only performed great services in Germany” but also had been able “by preventing the entry of Communism into his own country, to bar its passage further West.” Halifax stated that on the English side “it was not necessarily thought that the status quo must be maintained under all circumstances.” He then spoke of “possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time. Amongst these questions were Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. England was interested to see that any alterations should come through the course of peaceful evolution and that methods should be avoided which might cause far-reaching disturbances [i.e., war in Western Europe].” Since Austria was the gateway to Czechoslovakia, and Danzig the key to Poland, these remarks must have encouraged Hitler to believe that his territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe would encounter scant opposition.    

“Halifax’s remarks,” writes the British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “if they had any practical sense, were an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that this agitation would not be opposed from without.” 10 Hitler also received similar assurances from the French government. “[I] was amazed to note,” Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Austria, told Hitler on 10 November 1937 after a visit to Paris, “that, like [foreign minister] Bonnet, Premier [Camille Chautemps] considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion. . . .[He], too, had no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means.” And, on 4 December, in a letter to state secretary von Weizsäcker, the head of the political department in the German foreign ministry, von Papen stated: “I found it very interesting to note that neither Bonnet nor Chautemps raised any objections to an evolutionary extension of German influence . . . in Czechoslovakia, on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities.”        

In pursuit of his appeasement policy, Chamberlain removed Sir Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, the most forceful exponent of anti-German opinion in the Foreign Office, and assigned him to the newly created post of “Chief Diplomatic Adviser,” where, according to the earl of Birkenhead, “he found himself trapped in a gilded cage” and where he “ceased to exert any effective influence on foreign affairs.” Commenting in a letter to his sister on all the months Stanley Baldwin had “wasted in futile attempts” to push Vansittart out of the Foreign Office, Chamberlain remarked: “[It] is amusing to record that I have done it in three days. . . . I am afraid his instincts were all against my policy. . . . I suspect that in Rome and Berlin the rejoicings will be loud and deep.”            

The way was now open for a more vigorous pursuit of appeasement by circumventing the Foreign Office, which, according to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s intimate colleague and chief diplomatic adviser, represented an obstruction to the prime minister’s policy of coming to terms with the dictators. “The old-established machine of the Foreign Office,” wrote Lord Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), in his published memoir of the period, “did not seem to [Chamberlain] to move quickly enough for the crisis that threatened Europe.” More expressive of Hoare’s true attitude toward the Foreign Office was the candid letter he sent to Neville Chamberlain on 17 March 1937, shortly before Stanley Baldwin’s resignation from the premiership. After suggesting that Chamberlain should not copy “Baldwin’s slipshod, happy-go-lucky quietism” he continued: “Do not let anything irrevocable or badly compromising happen in foreign politics until you are in control. I say this because I am convinced that the FO [Foreign Office] is so much biased against Germany (and Italy and Japan) that unconsciously and almost continuously they are making impossible any sort of reconciliation. I believe myself that when once you are Prime Minister it will be possible greatly to change the European atmosphere.”         

On 3 March 1938, the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Nevile Henderson, who bypassed the regular Foreign Office channels and plied the prime minister directly with letters and visits, told Hitler that the aim of British policy was “to establish the basis for a genuine and cordial friendship with Germany.” Lord Halifax, Henderson added, had already admitted that changes in Europe could be considered “quite possible,” provided they were the product of “higher reason” rather than “the free play of forces.” This policy was certainly not one that Henderson “had worked out for himself,” as William N. Medlicott affirms in his preface to volume 18 of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, second series, in a “revisionist” interpretation of appeasement. As British historians Keith Middlemas and Ian Colvin have pointed out, Henderson was a disciple of Chamberlain’s and one of the principal exponents of his policy. Medlicott’s assertion is all the more remarkable in that he quotes Henderson’s own testimony from the latter’s memoir Failure of a Mission, in which the former ambassador states: “Both Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Baldwin, whom I had seen earlier, agreed that I should do my utmost to work with Hitler and the Nazi Party as the existing government of Germany. . . . Mr. Chamberlain outlined to me his views on general policy towards Germany, and I think I may honestly say that to the last and bitter end I followed the general line which he set me, all the more easily and faithfully since it corresponded so closely with my private conception of the service I could best render in Germany to my own country.”  

In this connection, it is worth quoting from a memorandum by Henderson to the Foreign Office, dated 10 May 1937, in which he stated: “[Eastern Europe] is neither definitely settled for all time nor is it a vital British interest, and the German is certainly more civilized than the Slav, and in the end, if properly handled, also less potentially dangerous to British interestsone might even go so far as to assert that it is not even just to endeavour to prevent Germany from completing her unity or from being prepared for war against the Slav, provided her preparations are such as to reassure the British Empire that they are not simultaneously designed against it.”    

On 10 March 1938, two days before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, German foreign minister von Ribbentrop reported to Hitler during a visit to London that Lord Halifax had told him that “Chamberlain and he, Lord Halifax, were determined to reach an understanding with Germany” and that in advocating this policy “Chamberlain had assumed a great responsibility in the eyes of the British people and a great risk as well.” Ribbentrop then stated: “Germany wished to be and had to be strong. . . .Germany must be armed for defense against Soviet Russian attacks. . . . The Führer did not wish to request aid at the outset from the great Western Powers, if some day the steamroller of world revolution should be set in motion against Germany.” At this point Lord Halifax interjected that “England was well aware of Germany’s strength and that she had no objection to it whatever.” Then Ribbentrop continued: “Germany wished to obtain the right of self-determination for the 10 million Germans living on her eastern border, i.e., in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . . In this connection . . . the Führer had been pleased when Lord Halifax had shown understanding for that, too, at Berchtesgaden and when he had declared that the status quo in Eastern Europe could not be maintained unconditionally forever.” The next day, Ribbentrop reported that Chamberlain had “very emphatically requested” that he inform the Führer of “his most sincere wish for an understanding with Germany.”

Hitler’s annexation of Austria had no effect in London it had, in fact, been regarded as inevitable and Chamberlain pursued his appeasement of Germany with unruffled self-assurance. Nevertheless, it was essential that Hitler achieve his next territorial objective by peaceful means lest Great Britain be drawn into a European conflict through France’s treaty obligations. On 22 May, during the mounting crisis over Czechoslovakia, Lord Halifax instructed Nevile Henderson to inform Ribbentrop of this dangerous contingency: “If a resort is had to forcible measures, it is quite impossible for me or for him to foretell the results that may follow, and I would beg him not to count on this country’s being able to stand aside if from any precipitate action there should start a European conflagration. Only those will benefit from such a catastrophe who wish to see the destruction of European civilization.” At the beginning of September, there was mutual understanding. Theodor Kordt, the German chargé d’affaires in London, reported to ambassador Dirksen on a conversation with Chamberlain and Sir Horace Wilson: “The conversation took place in an exceedingly friendly atmosphere. [Wilson] was visibly moved (as far as an Englishman can betray such feelings at all) when at the end he shook my hand and said: ‘If we two, Great Britain and Germany, come to agreement regarding the settlement of the Czech problem, we shall simply brush aside the resistance that France or Czechoslovakia herself may offer to the decision.” At the end of the month there followed the Munich settlement, the result of British pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory.

By now, it must have been obvious to Stalin that the policy of collective security that he had indefatigably pursued since the USSR joined the League of Nations in 1934 in the hope of warding off the German threat might fail and that the slender hope that Britain and France would risk a conflict over Spain was fading. He therefore renewed his interest in the possibility of negotiating a nonaggression pact with Hitler in order to divert German military might against the West. We have already seen that quite early in the Civil War, his trade representative David Kandelaki had initiated negotiations for an agreement with Germany but that these tentative efforts had been rebuffed by Hitler. In fact, it was not until after the overthrow of Juan Negrín on 6 March 1939, that Stalin finally gave up all hope of involving Britain and France in a war with Germany over the Spanish conflict and revived his plans for a compact with Hitler.   

At this stage it is important to anticipate the course of events in Spain and even to probe the diplomatic intrigues among the European powers beyond the close of the Spanish Civil War, in order fully to appreciate the perilous game being played and the real concerns of British policymakers during the war itself.            

In his report to the eighteenth congress of the Soviet Communist party on 10 March 1939, Stalin inveighed against Britain and France for encouraging Germany to embroil herself in a war with the Soviet Union, in which “they would appear on the scene with fresh strength . . . to dictate conditions to the enfeebled belligerents” precisely the role of arbiter that Stalin had reserved for the Soviet Union should the Spanish Civil War develop into a Western European conflict and for the first time he threw out the first open hint of his desire for a rapprochement with Germany. “Marshal Stalin in March 1939,” testified the former Reich foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, during his trial at Nuremberg, “delivered a speech in which he made certain hints of his desire to have better relations with Germany. I had submitted this speech to Adolf Hitler and asked him whether we should not try to find out whether this suggestion had something real behind it. Hitler was at first reluctant, but later on he became more receptive to this idea. Negotiations for a commercial treaty were under way, and during these negotiations, with the Führer’s permission, I took soundings in Moscow as to the possibility of a definite bridge between National Socialism and Bolshevism and whether the interests of the two countries could not at least be made to harmonize.”

The extremely cautious manner in which both sides broached the question of a political settlement from the time of Stalin’s speech, as revealed by documents found in the archives of the German foreign office, stemmed no doubt from the fact that each side feared that the other might use any concrete proposal for a political agreement to strengthen its own bargaining position vis-à-vis Britain and France. In fact, up to 30 May 1939, less than three months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact (in August) and the Secret Protocol that touched off the German attack on Poland and World War II, these documents indicate that matters had not gone beyond vague soundings. On that date state secretary Weizsäcker wired the German embassy in Moscow: “Contrary to the policy previously planned we have now decided to undertake definite negotiations with the Soviet Union.”

Although Stalin did not open formal negotiations with Hitler until the middle of 1939, he was not backward during the Spanish Civil Warapart from the overtures made by Kandelakiin letting Hitler know that it would be to Germany’s advantage to have him as a partner rather than an enemy. This is borne out by the testimony of Alexander Orlov: “The fourth line of Soviet intelligence,” he wrote, “is so-called Misinformation. . . . Misinformation is not just lying for the sake of lying; it is expected to serve as a subtle means of inducing another government to do what the Kremlin wants it to do. . . . During the Spanish Civil War . . . the Misinformation desk was ordered to introduce into the channels of the German military intelligence service information that the Soviet planes fighting in Spain were not of the latest design and that Russia had in her arsenal thousands of newer planes, of the second and third generation, possessing much greater speed and a higher ceiling. This was not true. Russia had given Spain the best and the newest she had (though in insufficient quantities). This misleading information greatly impressed the German High Command. . . . Evidently, Stalin wanted to impress on Hitler that the Soviet Union was much stronger and better armed than he thought and that it would be wiser for Germany to have Russia as a partner rather than an opponent.”

Four months before the signing of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in August, Walter Krivitsky claimed that Stalin’s foreign policy in the Western world was predicated upon a profound contempt for the “weakling” democratic nations and that his international policy had been a series of maneuvers whose sole purpose was to place him in a favorable position for a deal with Hitler. This is by no means certain, for Stalin could not rely entirely on a problematical agreement with Hitler on which to base his foreign policy. For this reason, he was careful to keep open his other option of collective security in the hope that the Western powers would eventually confront Hitler, whether in Spain or Czechoslovakia, and deflect German aggression away from Russia’s borders. It was because Stalin held open both these options that even after the loss of Catalonia in February 1939 he still hoped, as we shall see later, that Britain and France might reverse their policy of neutrality and instructed the Spanish politburo to continue the struggle in the fading expectation that the latent antagonisms in the West would finally burst into flame.

Anglo-French [non]-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War II

It would be false to convey the impression that only Stalin, Negrín, and the Spanish Communists placed their hopes of victory in the Civil War in the eventual outbreak of a European conflict, for these hopes were also entertained, as we have seen, by some leaders of the CNT. They were also entertained for some time by certain prominent Socialists. Referring to the occupation of the Basque provinces and Asturias by General Franco in the summer and autumn of 1937, Wenceslao Carrillo, a supporter of Largo Caballero and director general of security in his government, wrote: “Nevertheless, the hope of victory that the Communist party and the Negrín government held out to us, based on the possibility of world war, had not disappeared. Neither France nor England, they argued, can consent to an out-and-out triumph of fascism in Spain because that would put them in a critical position in the Mediterranean. As I am ready to tell the whole truth, I refuse to conceal the fact that, in the beginning, I too shared this belief. . . . But I did not think of profiting from war; nor was I in the service of interests other than those of my country.”

On the other hand, President Azaña, like Julián Besteiro, the right-wing Socialist, who hoped for a negotiated settlement, frowned on the prospect of a European conflict. In reply to Juan-Simeón Vidarte, a member of the Socialist executive and a Negrín supporter, Azaña once stated: “I already know that there is someone among you who believes that the just cause of the Republic would be saved by a world war. That war would be a catastrophe of inconceivable dimensions and it is not right for us to seek salvation in the martyrdom of millions of human beings. . . . I see that you are infected by the Negrín thesis. . . . Suppose that at the end of the war Communism were implanted in Western Europe just as it was implanted in Eastern Europe at the end of the last war. To the majority of Republicans and, I suppose, Socialists that solution would be repugnant.”       

If the hope that a general conflict would eventually erupt was disappointed, this was not because those who determined policy in Britain and France contemplated lightly the extension of Italo-German power in the Mediterranean; it was because the purview of their foreign policy went beyond the Spanish problem and embraced the whole of Europe. If Britain and France refused to challenge Germany in Spain; if, moreover, they sacrificed the independence of Austria and Czechoslovakia; if, finally, Neville Chamberlain, as will be seen shortly, secretly proposed before being outmaneuvered by the Hitler-Stalin pacta political settlement with Germany that would free Britain from her guarantee to Poland, it was because they knew that the frustration of German aims at this stage, even if it did not lead to war, would weaken the Nazi regime and enhance Russia’s influence on the continent. Above all, those who molded policy in Britain and France wished to avoid war in the West until Germany had weakened herself in the East. To have resisted Germany before she had blunted her teeth on Russian soil would have left the Soviet Union arbiter of the continent, infinitely more powerful than if she had to bear the main burden of the fighting.  

Of course, in the long run, Britain and France could no more have desired Germany to obtain a complete mastery over the greater part of Europe than they could Russia. They wished for the domination of neither. Of this, German leaders were supremely conscious. Hence, if, after the occupation of Poland, Germany invaded Belgium, France, and the Netherlands before attacking the Soviet Union, this was because the subjection of Western Europe and the control of its coastline were, in the German mind, indispensable prerequisites for war on the Soviet Union; for although Britain and France might encourage German ambitions in Eastern Europe, Germany could not feel certain that once she was involved in an exhausting struggle on Soviet soil, these powers would not attempt to restore the balance in their favor. Undoubtedly the conviction that Germany would attack the West before assailing Russia lay at the root of some of the opposition in Britain and France to the policy of giving Germany a free hand in Eastern Europe.

Although the direction of the German thrust seemed unmistakable, there is evidence that both the British and French leaders were not unmindful of the danger that appeasement might backfire and that Germany might march west instead of east. On 1 November 1938, one month after the Munich agreement, Lord Halifax, in a letter to Sir Eric Phipps, the British ambassador in Paris, outlined his thoughts: “Henceforward, we must count with German predominance in Central Europe. . . . In these conditions, it seems to me that Great Britain and France have to uphold their predominant position in Western Europe by the maintenance of such armed strength as would render any attack upon them hazardous. . . . It is one thing to allow German expansion in Central Europe, which to my mind is a normal and natural thing, but we must be able to resist German expansion in Western Europe or else our whole position is undermined.”              

The possibility that Germany might attack Western Europe before marching East was conveyed to Halifax by Sir G. Ogilvie-Forbes, the British chargé d’affaires in Berlin, in a dispatch dated 6 December 1938. There was a school of thought, he stated, that believed that “Herr Hitler will not risk a Russian adventure until he has made quite certain that his western flank will not be attacked while he is operating in the east, and that consequently his first task will be to liquidate France and England, before British rearmament is ready.” Equally disturbing was a report by William Strang, Halifax’s assistant undersecretary of state, dated 18 January 1939, in which he referred to “reports we have had of Hitler’s intention to attack in the West this Spring. . . . Germany cannot conduct a war on two fronts in present circumstances, and material conditions will make it easier for her to operate in the West than in the East.”

That French leaders were aware of the dangers is also evident. In a letter to French foreign minister Georges Bonnet on 19 March 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French ambassador in Moscow, Robert Coulondre, stated that the Nazi leaders saw two ways open to them: “Either to proceed without intermission in the subjugation of east and south-east Europe” or to “attack France and Britain before these two Powers have, with American help, caught up with German armaments. . . . This second possibility is not at present the more probable. But we must reckon with the risk of seeing Germany engaged in such an undertaking.”              

The general assumption, however, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 was that Hitler’s next move would be against Poland. But despite Chamberlain’s treaty guarantees to defend Polish independence guarantees hastily given under pressure from the parliamentary Opposition and the aroused state of British public opinion he did what he could to evade his commitments. This is clear from the meticulously documented study by the British historians Martín Gilbert and Richard Gott of British treaty obligations to Poland, of the subsequent efforts to wriggle out of them, and the eight-month “phoney” war, during which Chamberlain still hoped for an Anglo-German agreement that would avert war in Western Europe. It is also clear from the secret proposals that Sir Horace Wilson, his chief collaborator and adviser, made to Helmut Wohlthat, Hermann Goering’s emissary in London, in mid-July 1939, and the conversations a few days later between Wilson and Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to London.     

These “back-stair negotiations,” as the British historian Sir Lewis Namier called them, in which the prime minister “unwisely engaged” without the knowledge of the Foreign Office, were the zenith of the appeasement policy. Wilson’s proposals were recorded by von Dirksen in a long memorandum written after the outbreak of war, which was found on his estate at Gröditzberg by the Soviet army, and also in a shorter “strictly secret” report dated 21 July 1939 drawn up at the time of his ambassadorship. The authenticity of the proposals is beyond doubt, not only because Dirksen later confirmed them in every important detail in a work published in London in 1951, but because Wohlthat himself refers to them in his report to Goering. Moreover, Wilson’s proposals (which quite naturally he concealed from the Foreign Office) have never been challenged by a single British historian. Although conveniently ignored by many historians (for example, William N. Medlicott, Robert Skidelsky, and Simon Newman) in their revisionist assessments of Chamberlain’s foreign policy, they have been accepted without question by others, notably, Ian Colvin, Sir Lewis Namier, and A. J. P. Taylor. Nevertheless, they have not been accorded the significance they deserve.        

While not directly related to the Spanish Civil War, the Dirksen memoranda shed more light than any other documents on the mainspring of appeasement to divert German aggression eastward and illustrate how far Chamberlain was prepared to go in order to reach a political settlement with Germany in order to preserve peace in Western Europe. Therefore they are particularly relevant to the Civil War since they demonstrate the futility of Stalin’s efforts to provoke a conflagration in Western Europe by involving Britain and France in the Spanish conflict and are the clearest proof of the inevitable failure of his attempts to influence Western governments by distorting the true nature of the revolution.

In the longer of the two documents, Dirksen testifies:         

When Herr [Helmut] Wohlthat [emissary of Goering] was in London for the whaling negotiations in July [1939], Wilson [Sir Horace Wilson] invited him for a talk, and, consulting prepared notes, outlined a program for a comprehensive adjustment of Anglo-German relations. . . . 

In the political sphere, a non-aggression pact was contemplated, in which aggression would be renounced in principle. The underlying purpose of this treaty was to make it possible for the British gradually to disembarrass themselves of their commitments towards Poland, on the ground that they had by this treaty secured Germany’s renunciation of methods of aggression. . . .             

The importance of Wilson’s proposals was demonstrated by the fact that Wilson invited Wohlthat to have them confirmed by Chamberlain personally, whose room was not far from Wilson’s. Wohlthat, however, declined this in order not to prejudice the unofficial character of his mission. . . .           

In order to avoid all publicity, I visited Wilson at his home on August 3 [one month before Hitler’s invasion of Poland] and we had a conversation which lasted nearly two hours. . . . Again Wilson affirmed, and in a clearer form than he had done to Wohlthat, that the conclusion of an Anglo-German entente would practically render Britain’s guarantee policy nugatory. Agreement with Germany would enable Britain to extricate herself from her predicament in regard to Poland on the ground that the non-aggression pact protected Poland from German attack; England would thus be relieved of her commitments. Then Poland, so to speak, would be left to face Germany alone.   

Sir Horace Wilson, on my insistence, also touched on the question of how the negotiations were to be conducted in face of the inflamed state of British public opinion [resulting from Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939]. . . . He admitted quite frankly that by taking this step Chamberlain was incurring a great risk and laying himself open to the danger of a fall. But with skill and strict secrecy, the reefs could be avoided. . . .         

The tragic and paramount thing about the rise of the new Anglo-German war was that Germany demanded an equal place with Britain as a world power and that Britain was in principle prepared to concede. But whereas Germany demanded immediate, complete and unequivocal satisfaction of her demand, Britain although she was ready to renounce her eastern commitments, and there with her encirclement policy, as well as to allow Germany a predominant position in east and south-east Europe and to discuss genuine world political partnership with Germany wanted this to be done only by way of negotiation and a gradual revision of British policy. This change could be effected in a period of months, but not of days or weeks. 

A. J. P. Taylor, one of the few British historians who have ventured to mention Sir Horace Wilson’s proposals, writes: “Wilson produced a memorandum on 10 Downing Street notepaper, which, not surprisingly, has disappeared from the British records. This proposed an Anglo-German treaty of non-aggression and non-interference. . . . A pact of this kind ‘would enable Britain to rid herself of her commitments vis-à-vis Poland.’ . . . [It] is inconceivable that these proposals were made without Chamberlain’s knowledge or approval.”         

Although Wilson’s proposals met with no response in Berlin and were “simply thrown into the wastepaper basket,” as von Dirksen put it, undoubtedly because Hitler, impatient to dispose of the Polish problem before the onset of winter, favored a pact with Stalin that offered immediate territorial gains rather than a pact with Britain that would have required a long period of uncertain negotiations in view of the inflamed state of British opinion they were the culminating effort, the final desperate gamble of the British government to direct Germany’s course away from Western Europe.    

Oddly enough, A. J. P. Taylor questions whether the British and French governments intended that Nazi Germany should destroy the “Bolshevik menace.” “This was the Soviet suspicion, both at the time and later. There is little evidence of it in the official record, or even outside it. British and French statesmen were far too distracted by the German problem to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe. Of course they preferred that Germany should march east not west, if she marched at all. But their object was to prevent war, not to prepare one; and they sincerely believed at any rate Chamberlain believed that Hitler would be content and pacific if his claims were met.” If this be so, then the policy of the British government of encouraging German rearmament from the beginning of 1935, of conniving at the German reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, of forcing Czechoslovakia to submit to German demands in 1938, and of secretly attempting to negotiate a settlement with Germany at the expense of Poland in July 1939, makes positively no sense and becomes a succession of moronic moves in the perilous diplomatic game being played by Britain and Russia in the prewar years. It is impossible to believe that there was no strategic thinking behind Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and that he did not take into account what might happen once Germany became predominant in Eastern Europe and established a common border with Russia. 

The British military expert Liddell Hart acknowledges in his History of the Second World War with reference to the strategic situation after the German invasion of Poland that “the best hope [of Britain and France] now that Germany and Russia faced each other on a common border, was that friction would develop between these two mutually distrustful confederates and draw Hitler’s explosive force eastward, instead of westward.” Although Liddell Hart does not relate this hope to any prewar strategy, it is unimaginable, given the massive evidence presented, that British and French leaders long before the outbreak of World War II “were far too distracted by the German problem [as A. J. P. Taylor puts it] to consider what would happen when Germany had become the dominant Power in Eastern Europe” and a common border between Germany and the Soviet Union had been established.           

Of course it would be idle to suggest that in the prewar years British leaders in pursuit of their policy of appeasement were not influenced to some degree by other considerations than the fear that a Western European conflagration would redound to Russia’s benefit. Among these considerations, according to the earl of Birkenhead, were the conclusions of the chiefs of staff in their report to the Committee of Imperial Defense in the late summer of 1938 that Great Britain was not ready for war and that she could not fight a war on three fronts German, Italian, and Japanese without powerful allies. “[Chamberlain and Halifax],” Lord Birkenhead affirms, “were apprehensive of the situation in the Far East, of what action Japan might take there if Great Britain became involved in a war with Germany in the West; and they were at all times uneasily conscious of America’s neutrality and of the unpalatable fact that no help could be looked for from that quarter in case of trouble. The British Government was also alarmed about the attitude of the Dominions to involvement in war. South Africa had decided to remain neutral, should it come; the Australian Labour Party were against intervention and there was grave doubt whether [Prime Minister] Mackenzie King could bring the Canadian people into war.” Furthermore, the British historian Charles L. Mowat states that since World War I the policy of the dominions had been one of no commitments “and certainly they were not going to be bound by Britain’s commitments. . . . [They] naturally opposed involvement in war and rejoiced that appeasement was keeping the threat of war at a distance.” But all these considerations, although used by various historians to explain the policy of appeasement, pale before the single most important consideration: the deep-rooted fear of Russia.      

That the wells of appeasement lay in this fear of Russia, in the conviction that Nazi Germany was a barrier against the spread of Communism, and that a war in Western Europe could only benefit the Soviet Union by extending her power and influence has been amply demonstrated in this and other chapters. But these cardinal elements in the policy of appeasement have been underrated or almost totally ignored by the British historical establishment.     

There are two reasons for this failure by British historians to come to terms with their country’s diplomatic past. Firstly, there is the accepted tradition not to attribute to their government Machiavellian designs against a foreign power. Hence, no matter how patriotic or realistic Chamberlain and his supporters may have felt themselves to be in attempting to spare Western Europe the ravages of war and revolution, they should not be accused of conspiring to pit one totalitarian power against the other. “Of course,” writes Robert Skidelsky, the British neorevisionist historian, “there were a number of groups in Britain who . . . advocated the bargain that Hitler must always have hoped for ‘a German deal with the British Empire at the expense of the Soviet Union.’ But such cynicism (or realism) was foreign to the British Establishment.” Secondly, because of the ideological divide between East and West, no establishment historian (despite Stalin’s own Machiavellian aims) wishes to play into the hands of the Soviet Union by acknowledging Britain’s share of responsibility for the rebirth of German militarism and the calamity of the Second World War.        

This failure to expose the main roots of appeasement is unfortunate not only for the historiography of this crucial period in world history, but for those seeking a true understanding of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and of the reason why Stalin’s democratic camouflage in Spain was doomed to failure.

The Abyssinian Air War

Ca.133 Unit: 14 Squadrilla, 4 Gruppo, 14 Stormo Serial: 1-14 Asmara, Ethiopia, 1936.

Caproni Ca.101D-2 Unit: 14 Squadriglia ‘Testa di Leone’, 4 Gruppo Serial: 14-6 (MM60517)

At the very end of the thirties this three-engined multipurpose transport and bombing ‘colonial’ Caproni Ca.101D-2 served with No. 14 Squadriglia ‘Testa di Leone’ of No.4 Gruppo in colored finish of the past time of peace. Wearing military Number MM60517 it was finished in light cream (Cachi Avorio Chiaro) with reddish-brown (Bruno Mimetico Marrone 2) applied to the nose, fuselage upper and lower surfaces and tail. A substantial part of wing upper surface was painted white with oblique red stripes intended to make the aeroplane recognition easier. There was a slogan saying ‘CREDERE IBBEDIRE CONBATTERE’ painted in front of the fuselage door, i.e. ‘To believe, to fulfill orders, to fight’

Background to War

In 1896, while trying to reassert its control over Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Italy suffered a disastrous defeat at Adowa, in which (in the words of Brigadiers Peter Young and Michael Calvert) “the dead were more fortunate than the prisoners.” For nearly four decades, memory of that humiliating and savage defeat lingered in Rome, and finally, for that and other more geopolitical reasons, Benito Mussolini, the Fascist II Duce of Italy, determined to reestablish the Italian protectorate over Ethiopia by a two-pronged assault from Eritrea (on the shore of the Red Sea) southward, and from Italian Somaliland (on Africa’s Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden coastlines) northwest into Ethiopian territory Mussolini reached his decision in the autumn of 1933, and communicated his wishes to Marshal Emilio De Bono, a vigorous near-septuagenarian with extensive colonial experience. From that moment on, the Abyssinian invasion plan nearly occupied De Bono’s full time and attention, particularly since Mussolini had directed that Ethiopia be subdued by the end of 1936. Despite his years, De Bono was no Hans Kundt, and he paid particular attention to the needs of the Italian air service, the Regia Aeronautica.

Italy had been one of the pioneering nations in military aviation, and was, of course, the nation of Douhet. Italian aviators had established a distinguished combat record in the First World War and in the years following the war. During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian aircraft technology generally kept pace with that of other leading nations. Italian air racing designs showed a profound appreciation for high-speed flight, and Italian long-range flying boats made pioneering flights across the Atlantic. Italian military aircraft technology equalled that of other nations, and the country established a reputation for quality high-performance and highly efficient military machines. In part, this was due to Mussolini himself who, like Josef Stalin, appreciated the public and psychological impact of advanced aeronautical technology in conveying the alleged progressivism of a totalitarian state,- both men, in fact, had sons who became military aviators.

Despite the more exaggerated pronouncements of Douhet, Italy’s military aviators showed a pragmatic appreciation of coupling air and land action. In 1931, Italy established its first attack aviation elements (as distinct from bomber and fighter aviation), the so-called gruppi d’assalto. In the mid- 1930s, influenced by the notions of General Amedeo Meccozzi, the Regia Aeronautica embarked on a development program to produce specialized multipurpose military aircraft suitable for combined fighter, light bomber, and assault missions. Unfortunately, Italy emphasized the bomber side of the equation, generating aircraft such as the Breda 64 and 65 family that tended to be slow and relatively unmaneuverable, and thus disappointments when general war broke out between Italy and the Allies in 1940. During the Spanish Civil War these aircraft served reasonably well; they were not available for service during Italy’s Abyssinian war in 1935^36. Instead, Italy made use of large numbers of older aircraft such as the Caproni Ca 101 trimotor bomber and its derivatives, the single-engine (and hence underpowered) Ca 111, and the trimotor Ca 133; the trimotor SavoiaMarchetti S. M. 8 1 Pipistrello ( “Bat”) bomber; a few Fiat C. R. 20 fighters,- and larger quantities of the Meridionali Ro 1 observation plane (a license-built version of the Fokker C V) and the Ro 37 two-seat reconnaissance biplane (which was extensively used for ground-attack duties both in Ethiopia and subsequently in Spain).

In contrast to Italy, which approached the Abyssinian war as a European power already committed to waging a mechanized war integrating the combat effort of air and land forces, Ethiopia was backward. The Ethiopians could count on only thirteen airplanes, none of Which was up to the latest standard in aircraft design, and its air force consisted of mercenary pilots dismissed by De Bono as “amateurs.” It is difficult to ascertain whether there was a brief “air superiority” war,- Italian memoirs by De Bono and Marshal Pietro Badoglio make no mention of such combat, and neither do the accumulated attaché reports of American observers; indeed, De Bono emphatically states that at no time did he even see an Ethiopian airplane. One popular (but suspect) account states that “one after another the [Ethiopian] aircraft were shot down by Italian pursuit planes/’ In any case, Italy clearly never had to worry about interference as its air force went about its business. The individual Ethiopian soldier was personally courageous, shrewd, and ferocious; often ineptly led and thrown away in foolishly planned attacks, he proved nevertheless to be a dangerous opponent and capable of operating modern infantry weapons with skill. The popular image of a modern European power rapaciously devastating submissive and ignorant tribesmen is thus not merely inaccurate,- it is likewise an insult to both the Ethiopians who furnished an intense level of defense and the Italians who coped surprisingly well with the strenuous demands placed upon their armed forces by this distant and complex campaign.

In his planning for war, De Bono recognized that the immense distances involved in the Ethiopian campaign made it highly desirable to use aircraft (because of their great mobility) as much as possible for reconnaissance and liaison tasks. At the same time he realized that the distances and the primitive nature of support facilities would tax air operations to their maximum. Thus he emphasized airfield construction and arranging for logistical support of the aircraft in place or soon to arrive. For the most part, aircraft arrived by ship via the Suez Canal; after being unloaded, six could be assembled by technicians every forty-eight hours. Above all, De Bono wished it to be clearly understood that the air elements would not operate independently, and he successfully lobbied to have the air commander placed under his overall command, reflecting testily in his memoirs that “Unity of command is indispensible. One man only must exercise command.”

The Air Campaign

On October 3, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, triggering a bitter seven-month campaign culminating in the capture of Addis Ababa and the annexation of Ethiopia within the Mussolini empire. During the war, Italian air power was used extensively during attack and pursuit operations, and proved (in the words of American intelligence officers) “tremendously effective,” particularly when the Ethiopians employed mass attack tactics. In contrast to the general success of aircraft, tanks proved a serious disappointment in the intensely fluid conditions of Abyssinian warfare; they could not maneuver rapidly enough, were hampered by the rugged terrain, and were frequently overwhelmed by infantrymen (who, in one notable case, used heavy rocks to bend the tanks machine guns, and then killed the crews as they evacuated their damaged vehicles). But the air operations were not without some problems. Commanders quickly learned that the crevice- and cave-strewn terrain of Ethiopia meant that air strikes often failed to dislodge or kill defenders, and that difficult ground-clearing operations by infantry were still a necessity. Italy turned to chemical warfare-namely dropping mustard gas bombs and using flamethrowers-to compensate for this problem. Officially Italy denied gas bombings, aside from a few special cases. An American intelligence officer accompanying Ethiopian forces stated, however, that Italian use of mustard gas was “the most effective’ of all Italian weapons used in the campaign because it so thoroughly broke Ethiopian resistance. It is uncertain how widespread its use was ; Italian commanders denied virtually all use, though Ethiopians claimed it was quite common. The truth is likely in the middle. An American intelligence officer serving with the Italian forces stated that gas bomb use had not been widespread, and that its overall effectiveness was “very slight.” Perhaps his statement reflects unrealistic expectations on the part of the Italians who utilized it; certainly the Ethiopians themselves-and foreigners attached to Ethiopian units, including one of his fellow intelligence officers-felt differently. As in any air campaign, command and control problems appeared that had to be worked out.

Perhaps the most notable of these occurred in November 1935, when Italian forces under the command of General Luigi Frusci advanced on the town of Gorrahei. Though De Bono was pleased with the degree of control that he exercised over the air arm, subordinate commanders found that they could not adequately coordinate their needs with the air command when they asked for air support. Frusci had planned a combined infantry-air assault on Gorrahei with a view to utterly destroying the Ethiopian forces there. Instead, as a postwar American intelligence summary stated,

the air force carried out its bombing operations prematurely and prior to the arrival of the ground columns within striking distance. The severe air bombardment killed a dozen or so Ethiopians, wounded the commander, and caused an evacuation of the town and withdrawal, before the Italian ground forces could make their presence felt. This was hailed in some quarters as a decisive triumph for the air-the first battle won by an air force alone. Actually it destroyed the opportunity for a decisive victory and probable elimination of the Ethiopian forces involved. The Italian ground commander charged with the operation had no control over the air attack. It was to have been coordinated by G. H. Q. and is a rather outstanding instance of failure in cooperation.

As Slessor found out in Waziristan, and as the Marines had learned in Nicaragua, dispersed bodies of troops were not easily located even by aerial reconnaissance when they practiced camouflage and deception techniques and took advantage of available ground coverage. Repeatedly during the Ethiopian war, Italian ground commanders found that they could not always draw upon aerial reconnaissance information for precise intelligence on enemy locations and strengths. Additionally, the rapid pace of the Italian advance taxed the ability of the airmen to maintain support operations; they quickly found that they were operating at maximum range from the few available airfields, and had to rapidly arrange for appropriate logistical support to continue furnishing services to the ground forces. This situation would have been very serious had it not been for the steps that De Bono had taken in the months prior to the invasion to arrange for expansion and improvement of the airfields available to the Italians in East Africa. While airborne control and observation of artillery firing was helpful, the lack of detailed maps hampered precise targeting of enemy positions and batteries for artillery fire.

Still, over time, operations became smoother and working relationships solidified, and the quality of Italian air support to ground forces constantly improved. In one important area, troop resupply, air played a prominent role. During the Tembien offensive in February 1936, the Italian HI Corps received five tons of food, water, and munitions as it moved across the Asta Plain, an arid area devoid of roads and wells. Toward the end of the Abyssinian campaign, Italian airmen had perfected resupply methods, delivering 385 tons in one twenty-one-day period. Air-ground liaison generally functioned well, and Italian commanders relied heavily on radio communications, sometimes so much so that they saturated their network; insofar as reconnaissance and observation could assist the ground forces, ground columns were constantly kept aware of the latest tactical situation as observed from above. It was in aerial attack, of course, that Italian air power made its presence most forcefully felt.

Italian attacks against Ethiopian forces consisted of two basic missions: level bombing sorties from an altitude of 1000 to 3000 feet using the various trimotor bombers available, and low-level attack missions using other machines. While the former were conducted on a pre-briefed basis and generally along Douhet-like lines, the latter were usually much more tactically oriented, consisting of pre-briefed strikes in support of assaults, and then what might be considered “armed reconnaissance/’ target of opportunity, and emergency response actions. Italy carefully avoided bombing operations against targets of major cultural and political significance (such as Addis Ababa) that might have attracted even more unfavorable publicity than the invasion effort had already received. Nevertheless, between October 1935 and the end of the war in May 1936, Italian airmen flew 872 bombardment missions against towns, fortifications, caravans, and troop assembly points. When Mussolini relieved De Bono for disagreeing with certain policy actions (though the two men remained close, and II Duce even wrote the introduction to De Bono’s subsequent memoirs), it triggered a period of inactivity until De Bono’s replacement, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, could launch his own offensive that would finish the war. During this lull, bombing substituted for land warfare in keeping pressure on Ethiopian forces.

Very quickly, the Italians learned first-hand that Douhet’s notion of bombing a populace into submission did not work; though Ethiopians undoubtedly feared bombing, it did not materially break their will to resist. Bombing of troops, however, was a very different matter, and intelligence reports repeatedly emphasized its effectiveness, one such document stating that

the long-range bombardment of troops was very effective, and Italian aviation was invaluable to the ground forces in this respect. A very strong Ethiopian column of several thousand men was discovered by the air en route from Gondar north toward Dabat on December 4, 1935. It was repeatedly attacked on December 5 and 6 by the 4th and 27th Bombardment Groups with 30 planes. In spite of violent Ethiopian reaction during which all planes were hit by rifle or machine gun fire, the column was completely disorganized, men and animals killed and supplies destroyed. Many similar attacks took place in the rear areas with valuable results in furthering the Italian plan of operations.

Air strikes proved particularly significant when they preceded or accompanied ground assault. In these missions, Italian airmen employed larger aircraft (such as the Ca 101 or the S.M. 81) against fortifications, but generally made use of smaller single-and two-seaters, carrying light bombs and relying on strafing attacks. Air supplemented, but did not supplant, artillery in supporting infantry assault, not surprising given the small bomb tonnage dropped. For example, though Italian aviators dropped a total of 25,700 bombs in one six-day period during the battle of Enderta in February 1936, this only represented 192 total tons of bombs, as the majority were small 10- to 15-lb antipersonnel weapons preferred for attack-type missions. On a daily basis, it was roughly equivalent to the weight of fire from a single battery of 155mm howitzers. Repeatedly, however, air strikes added a vital impetus to attack, and they proved mercilessly effective in pursuit of shattered Ethiopian forces. During the initial assault into Ethiopia, close support aircraft attacked Ethiopian forces ahead of advancing Italian columns, notably at the Mareb River on October 3, 1935. Marshal Badoglio’s memoirs repeatedly refer to the devastating effect of air attack on fleeing Ethiopian troops, and copies of his operational orders included as appendices to this work reveal that he depended on air support extensively. The battle of Enderta seemed to him a particularly good example of the cooperation of air and land forces during an attack. He relied on attack aircraft to bomb and strafe ahead of advancing troops, and once the battle had been decided in Italy’s favor, he released the aircraft to attack the retreating Ethiopian forces; in one of these missions, a plane strafed the column of the Ethiopian commander, Ras Mulugeta, killing him. In all, Ethiopia lost approximately 6000 troops-and twice that number wounded-in the Enderta battle, against total Italian casualties of just over 800 Italian and native troops. Enderta was by no means an isolated example; during the climactic battle of Lake Ascianghi, attack aircraft struck from altitudes as low as thirty feet, inflicting thousands of casualties with high-explosive and gas bombs, and machine-gun fire. Reflecting on the Abyssinian experience, Badoglio wrote subsequently that

l’aviazione was present in all the phases of the war and functioned throughout each battle. In the absence of enemy aviation, it dominated the sky. It is the combat arm of the future and will be increasingly important in many [combat] areas. However great its role, it must act in coordination with the army. Neither can ever act again on its own to make war.

Despite this generally impressive performance, there were some significant indications of the growing vulnerability of aircraft to ground defenses. Again in contrast to their popular image as spear-carriers, the Ethiopian forces were equipped with rifles and automatic weapons (including Oerlikon cannon), though not in great quantity. A postwar American intelligence analysis estimated that Italy lost a total of fifty airplanes due to all causes during the war, many from the demanding environmental conditions (such as terrain, high-altitude operations, and weather), but sixteen from ground fire. These sixteen consisted of three Ca 101, two Ca 1 1 1, two Ca 133, and two S. M. 81 bombers; one C. R. 20 fighter,- five Ro 1 observation aircraft; and one Ro 37 recce/strike aircraft. Personnel losses amounted to 78 crewmen killed in action, and 148 wounded. The study concluded that

on certain missions of ground strafing all planes participating were reported struck by fire from the ground. 259 planes were reported hit by antiaircraft fire, which means small arms fire or the fire of the Oerlikon 20mm gun.

. . . During the ground strafing in the Mai Mescic valley following the battle of Amba Aradam [Enderta], all planes (S-81’s and Ca-101’s) participating were hit by fire from the ground, one of them 19 times. One plane was lost. During the battle of Lake Ascianghi 25 planes were hit and one plane brought down. During the battle of Birgot, 7 planes were struck, 2 pilots wounded and 2 Ro-37’s were forced down behind their own lines.

The Italian pilots operated with great daring at low altitudes, which they probably could not afford to do against a well-armed and well-trained opponent, and it seems that, almost invariably, the majority of the planes so operating were struck by small arms fire from the ground. This is particularly significant in view of the class of opposition: insufficiently equipped with effective types of weapons and untrained in proper methods of defense.

Overall, the Abyssinian war offered an indication of how modern military forces could work together on the battlefield in joint operations involving coordinated air and land action. Beyond this, it did give yet another example of the vulnerability of ground forces that could not call upon their own air elements to prevent an opponent from undertaking unrestricted air attacks against them. It also showed that even a relatively unsophisticated opponent could be expected to inflict casualties on low-flying attack aircraft, particularly if those aircraft were relatively large, unmaneuverable, and slow (less than 200 mph). From the perspective of 1940, an Army Air Corps officer tasked by the Army War College with evaluating the effectiveness of new weapons enthusiastically concluded that in the Abyssinian war, “the influence of air power could be classed as decisive.” In fact, even before the war began, the outcome pending no foreign intervention-was never in doubt. In reality, as was recognized by intelligence officers at the time, the Regia Aeronautical activities were not in and of themselves decisive,- as an element of combined air-land warfare, however, the Italian air force’s “aid was invaluable to an early and successful conclusion of the campaign [emphasis in original].”

Battle of the Mincio River, (8 February 1814)

Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde and his staff at the battle of the Mincio River, by Albrecht Adam.

The Battle of the Mincio River (or Roverbella, a village some miles north of Mantua) was fought between the Armée d’Italie under Eugene de Beauharnais, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy, and an Austrian army under Feldmarschall Heinrich Graf Bellegarde. Though tactically a draw (neither party claimed victory in official reports), it was a French victory at the strategic level, as the Austrians failed to force the line of the Mincio.

The 1813-1814 Italian campaigns had begun in September 1813 with the Armée d’Italie defending the Illyrian Provinces (parts of present-day Slovenia and Croatia) and the Drava Valley in Styria (now southern Austria and northern Slovenia). A slow and relatively uncontested re- treat followed in the autumn, with bad weather and the lethargic Austrians allowing Eugene to successfully defend the line behind the river Adige for three months. On 4 February 1814, being aware that the King of Naples, Joachim Murat, had recently passed over to the Allied coalition and that his Austro-Neapolitan army threatened the French line of communication on the southern bank of the Po, Eugene ordered a retreat behind the Mincio. The new defensive line, supported on both flanks by the fortresses of Peschiera (to the north) and Mantua (to the south), al- lowed the Armée d’Italie to shorten its front considerably and maintain a central position between Bellegarde and Murat. Eugene’s plan was to move quickly most of his army south of the Po and fall on the Neapolitans. To achieve this goal, he had first to paralyze Bellegarde’s army, positioned at Villafranca, by delivering an unexpected blow across the Mincio on 8 February. For his part, Bellegarde erroneously believed that Eugene was fleeing to Cremona and decided to set off in pursuit. The Austrian army was to cross the Mincio at Valeggio early in the morning of the same day.

Bellegarde had under his command 35,000 generally well-seasoned troops, with 130 guns. Eugene’s was essentially a conscript army of 30,000 men, excluding the troops left in garrison at Mantua and Peschiera, with 90 guns. With morning mist preventing the opposing commanders from detecting each other’s positions, the battle developed symmetrically over two distinct areas 5-6 miles apart and separated by the Mincio. While most of Eugene’s army (19,000 men) pushed northeast from Goito toward Villafranca, clashing with Bellagarde’s reserve, the bulk of the Austrian army crossed to the right bank and ran into a single French division positioned on the hills of Monzambano.

By midmorning, an amazed Eugene realized Austrian intentions and reacted to the unusual situation facing him. Hoping to catch the Austrians off balance and fall on their left flank, he redirected at about 10:00 A. M. three French infantry divisions, with one light cavalry brigade and the cavalry of the Italian Royal Guard, toward Valeggio. His advance, however, was checked by Generalmajor Joseph Freiherr von Stutterheim’s grenadier brigade (with two dragoon regiments), which stubbornly resisted against greater odds until late afternoon on the heights of the village of Pozzolo, midway between Goito and Valeggio.

On the far bank, General Philibert Fressinet’s small French division (5,000) was deployed on higher ground along the Olfino stream and successfully repulsed every enemy effort. Fearing for his rear, Bellagarde eventually ordered a general retreat eastward across the Mincio. Eugene’s army encamped for the night somewhere between Pozzolo and Roverbella, and on the following morning withdrew to its original position behind the river. During the battle, two small Italian divisions launched minor and indecisive sorties from Peschiera and Mantua. The Austrians had some 4,000 men killed and wounded, and 2,500 taken prisoner. French losses lay somewhere between the Austrian claim of 6,000 and Eugene’s figure of 2,500.

References and further reading Nafziger, George F., and Marco Gioannini. 2002. The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy, 1813-1814. Westport, CT: Praeger. Schneid, Frederick C. 2002. Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns, 1805-1815. Westport, CT: Greenwood. Weil, Maurice. 1902. Le prince Eugene et Murat, 1813-1814: Opérations militaires, négociations diplomatiques. Paris: Fontemoing.

Conrad II (ca. 990-June 4,1039)

Conrad II, 12th-century stained glass depiction, Strasbourg Cathedral

The first monarch of the new royal dynasty of the Salians, Conrad (Konrad) II was born circa 990 to Heinrich, son of Duke Otto of Carinthia and grandson of Duke Conrad of Lotharingia (d. 955). After his fathers death, he was raised by his grandfather and uncle Conrad until he was taken into the episcopal household of Bishop Burchard of Worms (1000—d. 1025), supposedly because of ill-treatment at the hands of his relatives. In 1016, he married Gisela (d. 1043), daughter of Hermann II of Bavaria, thereby allying himself with one of the noblest families in the Reich (empire). The future king Henry III was born to the couple one year later in 1017.

When King Henry II died childless early in 1024, the nobility of the Reich was presented with the opportunity to elect a new monarch and ruling house. The royal election, recounted in unusual detail by the royal biographer and chaplain Wipo, was held at Kamba on the Rhine on September 4, 1024. Chosen over his rival and cousin Conrad the Younger (d. 1039), Conrad II was consecrated and crowned king by Archbishop Aribo of Mainz on September 8.

Once crowned king, Conrad had to make his kingship, his royal presentia, felt throughout his realm by establishing the personal bonds with local ecclesiastics, monasteries, and nobles that were the true guarantees of his kingship’s power and stability. Furthermore, he had to gain the support of the Saxons and the members of the Lotharingian nobility who had not consented to his election. Therefore, following the tradition of his Ottonian predecessors, he devoted the next fifteen months to a royal iter (journey) that enabled him to meet and negotiate with nobles from Lotharingia to Saxony as well as those in Alemannia, Bavaria, Franconia, and Swabia.

In February 1026, Conrad assembled an army of thousands of armored knights for an expedition into Italy, including troops commanded by both Archbishop Aribo of Mainz and Archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne. Conrad’s army marched south, besieging Pavia, but the city walls blocked the attackers.

Conrad II, circa 990 – 4.6.1039, Holy Roman Emperor 26.3.1027 – 4.6.1039, full length, crowned by archbishop Aribo of Mainz and archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne, miniature, 1st half 11th century,

With his rule thus consolidated by late 1025, Conrad embarked upon an expedition to Italy that lasted from the spring of 1026 until early summer of 1027. There he reestablished his authority over such rebellious cities of northern Italy as Pavia and Ravenna and broke down the opposition to royal rule within the Italian nobility through a combination of diplomacy and military might. Crowned Roman emperor by Pope John XIX (1024—1032) on Easter (March 26) of 1027 with King Cnut of England and Denmark and King Rudolf III of Burgundy in attendance, Conrad then headed south into Apulia, where he reestablished nominal German sovereignty over the Lombard princes and attempted to secure the frontier with Byzantine southern Italy.

Back in Germany, Conrad pondered the future of the dynasty, At Regensburg in June of 1027, he elevated his son Henry as duke of Bavaria and, on Easter of 1028, had him crowned king at Aachen with the consent of the princes of the Reich. The death in 1033 of King Rudolf III enabled the Salian monarch to expand his hegemony by incorporating the kingdom of Burgundy into the Reich. Around 1034, after his earlier bid for a marriage alliance with Byzantium had failed, Conrad turned to Denmark for a bride for his son; Henry III married King Cnut’s (1017–1035) daughter Kunigunde in 1036. With the deaths of the reigning dukes of Swabia and Carinthia in 1038 and 1039 respectively, Conrad invested Henry III with those duchies, thereby giving him a unique position of power in the three southernmost duchies of the German Reich.

Despite the extent of his power, Conrad II faced several internal rebellions and significant foreign challenges during his reign. Just two years after Conrad’s election, a group of conspirators led by his rival Conrad the Younger rebelled during the king ‘s first expedition to Italy. After an initial show of loyalty, the king’s stepson Duke Ernst II of Swabia later joined this rebellion; he persisted in his opposition to Conrad, despite brief returns to grace and appointments to office, until he was killed in August of 1030.

In 1036 Conrad journeyed again to Lombardy to settle widespread disputes between subvassals and their lay and ecclesiastical overlords over the security of the subvassals’ legal status and rights. After overcoming the resistance of the Italian episcopate and their attempt to introduce Count Odo of Champagne (995–1037) as king, Conrad finally settled the dispute in favor of the subvassals with his decree Constitutio de feudis of 1037, which represented a major departure from the earlier, proepiscopal policies of his Ottonian predecessors.

On his eastern frontiers, Conrad responded to the repeated political challenges posed by Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary through a combination of military might, alliances with neighboring princes, territorial exchanges, and diplomacy, designed essentially to maintain the status quo rather than expand German hegemony.

Perhaps the most debated aspect today of Conrad’s kingship is his ecclesiastical policy. Earlier scholarship stressed the secularity of Conrad II’s reign and the king’s calculated development and exploitation of the Reichskirche (imperial church) to achieve secular political aims. More recent studies, however, while not ignoring Conrad’s political and economic reliance on ecclesiastical and monastic structures, have offered a more balanced assessment that highlights Conrad’s personal association with leading monastic reformers of his time, including Odilo of Cluny, William of Dijon, and Poppo of Stablo; his efforts to further their reforms; his swift change in policy after a unique case of simony reported by Wipo; and his support of reformers such as Bruno of Egisheim, the future Pope Leo IX. Finally, they argue that, although Conrad undoubtedly saw himself as the head of the imperial Church, this position of leadership remained, in his mind, a religious as well as a secular office, an attitude certainly manifested by his son Henry III.

Dying on June 4, 1039, Conrad II was laid to rest by Empress Gisela and King Henry III in the cathedral of Speyer.


Boshof, Egon. Die Salier, 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin: Kohlhammer, 1995, pp. 33–91.

Die Urkunden Conrads II., ed. Harry Bresslau and P. Kehr. Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1909; rpt. 1980.

Hoffmann, Hartmut. Monchskönig und “rex idiota”. Studien zur Kirchenpolitik Heinrichs II. und Conrads II. Hannover: Hahn, 1995.

Morrison, K.F. “The Deeds of Conrad II.” In Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century, ed. Theodor E.Mommsen and Karl F.Morrison. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Trillmich, Werner. Kaiser Conrad II. und seine Zeit, ed. Otto Bardong. Bonn: Europa Union Verlag, 1991.

Wipo. Gesta Chuonradi, ed. Harry Bresslau. Hannover: Hahn, 1878; rpt. 1993.


“Empire” (Reich) is a term used throughout the German Middle Ages to refer to various political constellations. To the inner circle at Charlemagne’s court in 800, his adoption of the title “emperor” gave expression to the fact that he was more than just the king of the Franks, or king of the Lombards; with the exception of Anglo-Saxon England and Christian Spain, every Christian area of the Latin West was subject to him, and many non-Christian areas to the east recognized his suzerainty. There was to some large degree a correspondence between his realm and Latin Christendom.

Very quickly, however, the relationship between theory and practice changed. With the Treaty of Verdun (843), the idea of an ecumenical empire gave way to a more limited one. Lothar I received the title of emperor along with the Middle Kingdom, but when his lands were subdivided in 855, the imperial title went to his son Louis II as ruler of Italy. In short, the significance of the imperial title contracted almost to the point of meaninglessness.

In theory, however, the imperial title implied a claim to the disputed lands of the Middle Kingdom, and by the early tenth century it was a hotly contested prize. The winner in this go-around was the German king Otto I, who, in 962, assumed the imperial title, signifying the union of Germany, Italy, and Lorraine. His concept of empire, and the realities as well, looked back to Lothar I far more than to Charlemagne for its model. For the next three centuries, the term Reich had reference to this area, in which Germany exercised hegemony over the other two regions. Maintaining some substance for the theory required considerable effort, however, and from time to time German rulers ignored the imperial dimensions of their office, focusing on matters north of the Alps.

Otto I and Otto II both appeared as plain imperator augustus (noble emperor), but Otto III’s chancery used the more pretentious imperator Romanorum (emperor of the Roman Empire). Though the Capetian kings of France were anxious to live on good terms with the empire, they were never prepared to admit to being imperial vassals. When Emperor Henry II and King Robert the Pious met on the banks of the Meuse in August 1023, they did so as equals; similarly, when Henry III and the French King Henry I met at Ivois in 1056, they did so on terms of equality. Henry III saw his imperial role not so much in territorial terms as in his obligation to purify and reinvigorate the papacy, the other universal head of the respublica Christiana (Christian republic). He did, however, object to the use of the title Hispaniae imperator (Hispanic emperor), which the Spanish king, Ferdinand the Great of Castile, had adopted after a great victory over the Moors.

German emperors often sought legitimization of their title and claims by marrying into the Byzantine imperial family. Otto II was the only one to do so, though appropriate spouses had been sought for both Otto III and Henry III. The securing of the hand of Isabella/Yolande of Brienne, heiress to the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, by Frederick II of Staufen in 1223, gave a similar boost to the pretentions of the leader of the Christian world.

The accession of Frederick Barbarossa in 1152 brought a change in his attitude toward Italy, over what had prevailed for some time. In correspondence with the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, he declared that the kings of Europe were constantly sending ambassadors to his court, to show their respect and obedience, and to offer oaths of loyalty and hostages. His chancery spoke disdainfully of the kinglets, or reguli (little kings), in at least one instance meaning thereby the kings of France, England, and Denmark who were reges provinciales (provincial kings). John of Salisbury waxed indignant over the implications of such claims for the king of France, but in the historian Rahewin’s continuation of the Gesta Friderici (The Deeds of Frederick), we find a letter of Henry II of England that (although disputed) is made to say to Barbarossa: “We offer you our kingdom and all the lands under our dominion, we hand them over to your power, so that you may dispose of them as seems good to you, and so that your imperial will may be accomplished in all things.” According to the English chronicler Hovedon, England’s independence was compromised beyond that expressed in Henry’s letter when Richard I, “by the advice of his mother Eleanor stripped himself of the kingdom of England and delivered it over to the emperor as lord of the world,” a reference to the enforced homage of Richard to Barbarossa’s son Henry VI in 1193.

Frederick Barbarossa found his plans for a reinvigorated empire challenged not only by the rising power of the Italian cities but by the theocratic pretensions of Pope Hadrian IV. To counter papal claims that the emperor held the empire as a “benefice conferred by the pope,” Frederick declared that he held his kingdom and his empire from God alone. To buttress this argument, his chancery began to use the adjective sacrum (holy) or sanctissimum (most holy) in connection with the empire in 1157, contrasting it with sacra ecclesia (Holy Church). Several years later, Frederick secured the canonization of Charlemagne, who, in effect, became the patron saint of the empire; the beatification of Charles the Great symbolized the rebirth of the empire yet again under Frederick’s rule.

Henry VI of Hohenstaufen’s accession in 1190, and his abortive attempt to effect a union of the kingdom of Sicily with the empire, marked a decided departure from earlier imperial policy. Henry’s son, Frederick II, in turn abandoned Germany in large measure, though there were still those who promoted the twelfth-century Staufen notion of the universal empire. At the Fourth Lateran (Papal) Council in 1215, Archbishop Siegfried II of Mainz, as arch-chancellor of the empire, objected to the announcement by Pope Innocent III that King John of England had surrendered his realm to the papacy and received it back as a fief during his efforts at reconciliation with Rome; the archbishop’s protest that the empire exercised suzerainty over the regnum Angliae (rule of Anglia) was rejected.

Meanwhile, in 1202 Innocent III in the decretal Per Venerabilem had declared that the king of France was emperor within his own realm, “cum rex superiorem in temporalibus minime recognoscat”—he recognized no temporal superior. The epithet Augustus given to Philip II by his biographer and retained by history is a sharp reflection of his attitude to the imperial daydreams, and the collapse of the Hohenstaufen after 1250 placed the question of empire in the forefront of European politics. Pierre Dubois and John of Jandun maintained that the French king was the natural successor to the imperial dignity of the Hohenstaufen, and in fact the integrity of the western boundary of the empire began to erode toward the end of the century. Rudolf of Hapsburg was less interested in perpetuating the imperial ideas than in establishing an hereditary monarchy. It was during his reign that the lands of the bishopric of Toul west of the Meuse fell into French hands (1291), while in 1297 the French established control over the entire bishopric of Metz. But even in the fourteenth century there were still political theorists in France who recognized a certain validity to the emperor’s claims of universal overlordship.

From 962 onward the rulers of Germany were, either actually or potentially, emperors. Only Otto II was consecrated emperor in his father’s lifetime, and even then he had been king for some years before his imperial coronation. Otto III and Henry II did not become emperor until 996 and 1014, respectively, in each case more than a decade after they had succeeded to the throne. Conrad II was crowned in Rome in 1027 after a gap of only three years; his son Henry III waited seven years before crossing the Alps and receiving imperial coronation in 1046. Elected in 1212 and crowned at Aachen in 1215, Frederick II did not receive imperial consecration until November 1220. In short, the imperial crown could not simply be assumed; it had to be received from the pope at Rome.

This factor helps explain the frequent bitter struggles that went on between certain German monarchs and the papacy. Many German rulers made do with the title rex Romanorum, indicating that although they had been duly elected king, they had not yet received imperial coronation. Only in the fourteenth century did the German electors challenge this practice, and by then the imperial dignity was much less preoccupied with Italy than with Central Europe. Meeting at Rhens on the Rhine in July 1338, the German estates declared that the imperial dignity was held directly of God, and that a king elected by the majority was the legitimate ruler, entitled from the day of his election to exercise his functions without papal consent or confirmation. This was reaffirmed in the Golden Bull that Charles IV published in 1356.

The concept of the Holy Roman Empire—the full term appears first in 1254—lasted in one form or another until 1806, but a second empire was created in 1870–1871, to be followed by a third Reich in the early twentieth century. As a symbol of overlordship, the term emperor was also taken over by Napoléon in 1804, whose imperial coronation at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was clearly influenced by that of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, at Rome.


Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Medieval Empire: Idea and Reality. London: G.Phillip, 1950, rpt. 1964.

Bryce, James. The Holy Roman Empire. New York: Macmillan, 1903, rpt. 1961.

Ficker, Julius. Deutsches Königthum und Kaiserthum. Innsbruck: Wagner, 1862.

Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire, trans. Peter Munz. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Koch, Walter. Die Reichskanzlei in den Jahren 1167 bis 1174. Publicationen der historischen Kommission der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaft, Phil.hist. Klasse, Denkschriften, 115. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademien der Wissenschaften, 1973.

Leyser, Karl. Medieval Germany and Its Neighbors, 900–1250. London: Hambledon, 1982.

Michael, Wolfgang. Die Formen des unmittelbaren Verkehrs zwischen den deutschen Kaisern und souveränen Fürsten vornehmlich in X., XI. und XII. Jahrhundert. Hamburg: Voß, 1888.

Schramm, Percy Ernst. Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio. 2 vols.; rpt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962.

Struve, Tilman. “Kaisertum und Romgedanke in salischer Zeit.” Deutsches Archiv 44 (1988): 424–454.

Early Italian Tanks

Pavesi Autocarro Tagliafili (The Pavesi Wire Cutting Machine)

The Italians had, incidentally, shown a very early interest in armored warfare. Just as an Italian plane had, in Libya during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-12, flown history’s first combat mission by a powered aircraft, the Italians had also been among the first to use armored vehicles, sending a few four-wheeled Bianchi armored cars (armed with a single machinegun) to both the North African theatre and the Balkans during the same conflict. An Italian observer on the western front had seen French tanks in one of their first actions in the fall of 1916, and in 1917 a single French Schneider model donated by their allies had been tried in combat on the Carso front. Enthusiastic plans to build or purchase tanks in large quantities were sidetracked by the Caporetto disaster in October of that year. In the summer of 1918 the first Italian tank unit was formed with four vehicles turned over by the French (one Schneider and three FTs). The Italian interest in armored cars had also continued, the Fiat factories turning out more than a hundred, some of which saw action supporting the infantry during the pursuit of the Austrians after the Italian Piave offensive and the victory of Vittorio Veneto. Italian tank designers were actually on the cutting edge, technically speaking, in the period 1918-21. The forty-ton Fiat 2000, of which two examples were made, was the heaviest operational tank in the world when the first one was completed in 1918, and its rotating turret carried a 65-mm gun (converted from an old mountain howitzer which in its original version still proved effective as an antitank weapon in Spain in 1937). Both Fiat 2000s being sent to Libya for desert testing.

After the war the FIAT 2000 was displayed as one of the weapons used ‘to defeat the enemy’ and the two prototypes completed were sent to Libya to fight guerrilla forces, together with other tanks bought from France, in a special unit, the Tank battery (1° Batteria autonoma carri d’assalto).

In Libya, the FIAT tank proved capable of an average speed of 4 km/h, and so, after two months its career ended, being unable to keep up with rapid movement of the enemy. One remained in Tripoli and the other was sent to Italy in the spring of 1919, where it performed before the King at Rome Stadium. The tank put on a convincing display: it climbed a 1.1 m wall, then faced another 3.5 m wall, which it knocked down with its weight. Then a trench of 3 m width was successfully crossed and several trees were knocked down. This impressive performance failed to revive interest in the heavy tank and so it was abandoned.

The surviving FIAT 2000 at Rome was left in a depot for several years, until it was sent on the orders of Colonel Maltese to Forte Tiburtino, risking to catch fire during the travel. In 1934 it was seen again in a Campo Dux parade, having been repainted and even rearmed, with two 37/40 mm guns instead of the forward machine guns. It was later reportedly transformed into a monument at Bologna, after that its fate is unknown, like the other tank.

The heavy Fiat 2000, with its bulky dimensions, narrow tracks and excessive weight, was in fact criticized for its lack of mobility and was therefore judged unsuitable for use in the north-eastern border area, where the war against Austria-Hungary and Germany was fought. On the other hand, the French FT tank was considered fully suitable, being lightweight, highly mobile and manoeuvrable. However, repeated requests to France from the Italian General Staff for the supply of an appropriate number of the FT tanks (along with the request addressed to Britain to deploy on the Italian front a 40-tank-strong unit) were eventually rejected, with the consequence that armour were not employed at all on the Italian front and, in the meantime, Italy would start its own tank production. In the summer of 1918 production under licence of the FT was obtained, and Fiat started to develop its own version of the tank, now equipped with a more powerful engine and armed with two machine guns. Delivery was to start from May 1919, but the end of the war in November 1918 came earlier. At this time the Italian tank inventory included one Schneider, two Fiat 2000 and seven FT tanks.

The end of World War I did not stop the production of the licence-built version of the FT, even though the crisis of 1919-22 (that saw the rise of Fascism to power) greatly limited it. First built in 1921 and entering service the following year, the Carro d’assalto Fiat 3000 modello 1921 (Fiat 3000 assault tank model 1921) was the first Italian tank to enter mass production, although in a relative way.

The Fiat 3000 (Model 21) was first used in action in February 1926 in Libya, and subsequently also saw action against the Ethiopians in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935. It was not one of the tanks used by the Italians in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, however. With Italy’s entry into World War II in June 1940, a limited number of Fiat 3000s still in service with the Italian Army were employed operationally on the Greek-Albanian front. They were also among the last Italian tanks to oppose the Allies, as in July 1943, when the Allies landed in Sicily, two Italian tank companies on the island were still equipped with the 3000. One company was dug in and their vehicles were used as fixed fortifications, while the other company was used in a mobile role to respond to the amphibious landing during the Battle of Gela, with few of the tanks surviving the Allied drive.

Far from being the ideal solution, it was nevertheless the only armour available to the Italian army until 1933-35 (apart from some Fiat-Lancia armoured cars), and its assignment to infantry is revealing of the Italian attitude towards armoured warfare during the inter-war years. Although debated, thanks also to a widespread diffusion of Fuller’s and Liddell Hart’s scripts (partly published in the Rivista Militare, the army’s official journal), armoured and mechanized warfare were not seriously taken into account by the army staff, inclined only to consider a partial motorization of the army mainly focused on infantry and artillery, and in particular on mountain warfare. Since the Western Desert was not considered suitable either for large-scale offensive operations or for mechanized warfare, mostly because of logistical reasons, the Italian military focused on Italy’s northern borders, which, dominated by the Alps, were only suitable for light tanks.

The Fiat 3000, an Italian improvement of the two-man French Renault FT light tank, was significantly faster than either the original French model or the contemporary American copy, and featured a better transmission. However, the stringent financial atmosphere of the immediate post-war period killed this promising beginning in tank design, as war-time orders were cancelled. For instance, of 1,400 Fiat 3000’s ordered on the original contract only 100 were completed, and these 100 vehicles were the only tanks produced for the Italian Army in the entire decade beginning 1920.

Armoured Vehicle: Produced

Fiat 2000: 2

Fiat 3000 A (modello 21): 100

Fiat 3000 B (modello 30): 51


The Loss of Cyprus [1564–1570] I

Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem, to the Signory of Venice:

We demand of you Cyprus, which you shall give us willingly or perforce; and do not awake our horrible sword, for we shall wage most cruel war against you everywhere; neither put your trust in your treasure, for we shall cause it suddenly to run from you like a torrent.

Beware, therefore, lest you arouse our wrath…

Venice had now been at peace with the Turks for almost a quarter of a century: twenty-five years in which she had had a chance to restore her finances, build up her fleet, and erect ever more sumptuous monuments with which to dazzle friend and foe alike. She well knew, however, that that peace could not last indefinitely. Suleiman the Magnificent was not yet satisfied with his conquests. Recently, it was true, domestic affairs had claimed much of his attention; but since 1559 Turkish naval activity in the Mediterranean had been noticeably – and ominously – on the increase, and though much of it was centred on the North African coast and so somewhat outside Venice’s direct sphere of interest, it was nevertheless near enough to cause her misgivings. The great Khaireddin Barbarossa, at whose name all the maritime states of Europe had once trembled, was dead – though not before he had sacked and briefly occupied Nice and actually had the audacity to winter his fleet in Toulon; but his mantle had fallen on another freebooting captain, Torghud Ra’is, known to most Christians as Dragut, who had already proved himself more than worthy of it – capturing Tripoli from the Knights of St John in 1551 and utterly routing, nine years later, a Spanish fleet sent by Philip II to dislodge him.

It was, as likely as not, these two successes that now decided Suleiman to launch a major attack against Malta, with the object of expelling the Knights from the island just as he had expelled them from their earlier base at Rhodes some forty years before. He had no reason to think that the operation would prove any harder than its predecessor. Malta might possess one of the finest natural harbours in the world, but it was not a natural stronghold, and the Knights had only their own man-made defences in which to put their trust. Moreover their resources were quite unusually poor. Compared with the greenness and fertility of Rhodes, Malta was almost a desert island, rocky and treeless, possessed of no lakes or rivers and manifestly incapable of withstanding a prolonged siege through one of its long, rainless summers.

If, however, the Knights could expect little sustenance from their scanty, stony soil, that soil would show itself still more inhospitable to a besieging army. It followed that the force which the Sultan was to hurl against them in May 1565 had from the first to be largely self-supporting. And whereas Rhodes was only ten miles from the Turkish coast, Malta was nearly a thousand. Small wonder that Suleiman’s invasion fleet, carrying as it did not only the entire army with its horses, cannon and ammunition but all its food and water too, was said to be one of the largest ever seen on the high seas.

The story of the siege, with the heroic and ultimately successful resistance of some 600 knights – many of them, like the Grand Master Jean de la Valette, already old men – and rather fewer than 7,000 soldiers, including mercenaries and local militia, is one of the great epics of history: but it has no place in this book. Since their settlement in Malta in 1530 – the island having been leased to them by Charles V at the nominal rental of a single falcon, payable annually on All Souls’ Day – the Knights of St John had lost what little strategic importance they had once possessed. As hospitallers they still had a useful duty to perform; their Great Hospital, open to all, was famous throughout Christendom. As an aggressive fighting force against the Turk, they were negligible.

Malta itself, on the other hand, occupied a key position in the central Mediterranean, being a natural stepping-stone between Turkish-held Tripoli and Sicily – which latter formed part of the dominions of Philip of Spain. Had it fallen, with its superb harbour, into the hands of Suleiman, the consequent danger to Sicily would have been real and immediate, and that to South Italy scarcely less so. In the circumstances it was only surprising that the Gran Soccorso – the 9,000-strong Spanish force which ultimately came to the relief of the by now desperate Knights in September – was not more numerous, and that it had delayed so long. None the less, its appearance was decisive. The Sultan’s army, well over half of it incapacitated by dysentery and fever, raised the siege and re-embarked; and Christendom rejoiced. After five centuries of almost unbroken advance, the Turks had been halted at last. And a year later, almost to the day, came more, equally welcome news: Suleiman the Magnificent was dead.

The Turks had been halted; but there was no indication that they had been finally stopped. Indeed, by the time the eighty-five-year-old Pietro Loredan succeeded Girolamo Priuli as Doge in November 1567, there was already reason to suspect that the new Sultan, Selim II, was contemplating a major expedition of conquest. This time, however, he had his eye not on Malta but on Cyprus.

It was always said of Selim – nicknamed ‘the Sot’ – that his much-publicized determination to seize the island was due to an equally well-known penchant for its unusually potent wines. In fact its strategic value was as obvious as the wealth and fertility of its soil; the wonder is that his father Suleiman had not acted years before to rid himself of an unwanted Christian presence less than fifty miles from his own southern shores. In February 1568 reports reached the Rialto of various Turkish-inspired intrigues among the local inhabitants, many of whom were known to have no love for their Venetian overlords: there were ominous tales of Turkish ships taking clandestine soundings in Cypriot harbours, even of a huge mine being secretly prepared at Famagusta, ready to be detonated at the approach of the Turkish fleet. At the same time there arrived the more reliable but equally unwelcome intelligence that Selim, who had hitherto been continuing his father’s campaigns in Hungary, had concluded an eight-year truce with the new Emperor Maximilian II and was consequently free to devote all his resources to his new enterprise.

In the face of these reports, the Venetian Senate remained indecisive. Clearly some preparations must be made to meet the expected onslaught; on the other hand, Selim had willingly signed a peace treaty with the Republic on his accession. Besides, there had been similar alarms before, and quiet diplomacy – helped, on occasion, by a discreet and well-placed bribe – had usually done the trick. In any case nothing must be done that risked annoying the Sultan, who was as yet unused to power and whose character was known to be somewhat unstable. All through 1569 the argument went on, firm decisions being made even harder to reach by the disastrous harvest of that year, which caused a famine all through Italy, and – at midnight on 13 September – by a mysterious explosion at the Arsenal, which burnt out much of the area between it and the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, destroying the convent of the Celestia and three other churches besides. Inevitably, foul play was suspected, but was never proved.

Towards the end of January 1570, however, news reached Venice which impelled the Senate to action. The Venetian bailo in Constantinople had been sent for by the Grand Vizir, Sokollu Mehmet, who informed him in so many words that the Sultan considered Cyprus to be historically part of the Ottoman Empire and was determined that it should be his. A day or two later there followed mass arrests of Venetian merchants and seizures of Venetian ships in harbour. Immediate orders were given to take similar steps against all subjects of the Sultan and Turkish vessels in Venice. Appeals for help were dispatched to the Pope, Philip of Spain and various other Princes of Europe. The Captain of the Gulf, Marco Querini, hastened to Crete with twenty-five galleys and orders to fit out twenty more which were lying, unmanned and unvictualled, at Candia.

Although there was a party in the Senate that was reluctant to see the end of the long peace and that still believed that some accommodation with the Sultan might be possible, the chances of avoiding open war seemed to be diminishing fast. Then, in mid-March, came further, still more ominous reports from Constantinople. An ambassador from Selim was actually on his way with an ultimatum: either Venice must surrender Cyprus of her own free will or it would be taken from her by force. No longer could the Venetians doubt where they stood. According to a centuries-old custom, when the Doge and Signoria marched in formal procession to the various churches in the city, six banners would be carried – two white, two blue and two red. In time of peace, the white went first; during periods of truce, the blue; in war, the red. That Easter – which fell on 26 March, still two days before the arrival of the Sultan’s envoy – in the annual progress to the church of S. Zaccaria for vespers, it was the red banners that led the way; and on Easter Monday a certain Girolamo Zane was appointed Captain-General of the Venetian fleet, receiving his baton and standard from Doge Loredan at a special mass in the Basilica. Zane was seventy-nine years old, the Doge by now eighty-eight; already more than one observer of the ceremony must have asked himself whether, at this crucial moment in its history, the fate of the Republic was in entirely the right hands.

Less than six weeks later Pietro Loredan was dead, his place being taken by a former ambassador to both Charles V – who had loaded him with imperial honours – and to Pius IV, by name Alvise Mocenigo.1 Girolamo Zane, meanwhile, had sailed with seventy galleys as far as Zara, on the first stage of an expedition which was to end in fiasco and bring upon him humiliation and disgrace.

The original letter which the Sultan’s envoy delivered to the Collegio on 28 March has not come down to us. If, however – as seems likely – the version given at the head of this article is a reasonably accurate rendering, Selim’s ultimatum could hardly have been more clearly, or more offensively, presented. The Venetian reply was equally to the point: Venice was astonished that the Sultan should already wish to break the treaty he had so recently concluded; she was, however, the mistress of Cyprus and would, by the grace of Jesus Christ, have the courage to defend it. The envoy was then let out by a side door to escape the attentions of the furious crowd which had gathered outside the Doges’ Palace, and escorted back to his waiting ship.

As if in an attempt to make up for so much lost time, war preparations in Venice now proceeded apace. The Arsenal, its fire damage hastily repaired, was once again working flat out; to raise funds, meanwhile, the government was adopting ever rmore desperate measures, even going so far as to increase the number of Procurators of St Mark – the highest dignitaries in the state apart from the Doge himself – by eight, disposing of the new titles in return for loans of 20,000 ducats. Neighbouring towns and cities contributed according to their means, and, just as in the old days, rich citizens undertook to build or equip ships, or enlist private militias – sometimes of several thousand men – at their own expense. From the other Christian states to which appeals had been sent, the response was less enthusiastic. The Emperor Maximilian pointed out that his formal truce with the Turk still had five more years to run. The King of Poland was equally reluctant in view of his own exposed position. From France Catherine de’ Medici, now effectively the Regent, was quarrelling with Spain over Flanders and pleaded her nation’s old alliance with the Sultan, though she offered the services of her son, Charles IX, as mediator – an offer which was politely declined. The King of Portugal pointed out that he was fully engaged in the Orient, and that anyway his country was being ravaged by plague. The Knights of St John – who were, incidentally, the biggest landowners in Cyprus – offered five ships, but four of them were to be captured by the Turks soon after they left Malta. A letter had even gone off to the Tsar of Muscovy, but it seems unlikely that it ever reached him; in any event Ivan the Terrible was at war with Poland and it is hard to see what assistance he could have given. No appeal was addressed to Queen Elizabeth of England, who had been under sentence of excommunication since February.

That left Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain. The Pope had agreed to equip a dozen vessels if Venice would provide the hulls. Philip, for his part, had offered a fleet of fifty ships, under the command of Gian Andrea Doria, great-nephew and heir of that Andrea whose hatred of Venice had twice led him to betray the Republic’s trust, at Corfu and Preveza, some thirty years before. Even this was a niggardly enough contribution; Venice had produced a fleet of 144 ships, including 126 war galleys. But Philip had always mistrusted the Venetians, whom he suspected (not without some cause) of holding themselves ready to make terms with the Sultan if the opportunity offered; and, as events were to show, he had given Doria – whose feelings against the Republic were no whit less hostile than those of his great-uncle – secret instructions to keep out of trouble, to let the Venetians do the fighting, and to bring the Spanish fleet safely home again as soon as possible.

From the start, the expedition seemed to be ill-fated. The Captain-General, who had understood that the Spanish and papal squadrons were to join him at Zara, waited there in vain for two months during which time his fleet was ravaged by some unidentified epidemic, causing not only many deaths but a general demoralization which in turn led to scores of desertions. On 12 June he sailed to Corfu, where he picked up Sebastiano Venier, the erstwhile Proveditor-General of the island who had recently been appointed to the same position in Cyprus. Here he heard that the papal squadron under Marcantonio Colonna was awaiting the Spaniards at Otranto – but of Philip’s promised fleet there was still no sign. Not till July was it learnt that Gian Andrea Doria had simply remained in Sicily, on the pretext that he had received no instructions to go further. After urgent protestations from the Pope, Philip finally sent his admiral sailing orders, which arrived on 8 August; even then, it was another four days before the fleet set forth from Messina and a further eight before it reached Otranto – a journey which, in the perfect weather conditions prevailing, should have taken no more than two.

Having at last joined his papal allies, Doria made no effort to call on Colonna or even to communicate with him; and, when Colonna decided to ignore this studied piece of discourtesy and take the initiative himself, he was answered with a long speech implicitly recommending that the whole expedition should be called off. The season was late; the Spanish ships were not in fighting condition; and, as Doria was at pains to point out, though his instructions were to sail under the papal flag, he was also under the orders of his sovereign to keep his fleet intact. Colonna somehow forbore to remind him who was to blame for the first two misfortunes, merely pointing out that both King and Pope expected their fleets to sail with the Venetians to Cyprus; accordingly, sail they must. Finally, and with ill grace, Doria agreed.

Girolamo Zane had by now moved on to Crete, where the papal and Spanish fleets joined him on 1 September – almost exactly five months since his departure from Venice. A council was called, at which Doria at once began raising new difficulties. This time it was the Venetian galleys that were unfit for war: if the allied fleet were to come to grips with the enemy, it would be either destroyed or ignominiously put to flight. Moreover, once they had left Crete there were no harbours in which to take refuge. Now, too, he revealed a fact that he had not, apparently, thought necessary to mention before: he must return to the West by the end of the month at the latest.

Colonna remained firm. The season, though advanced, was not yet prohibitively so; there were still two clear months before the onset of winter. Cyprus was rich in admirable harbours. The Venetian ships had admittedly been undermanned, but their long wait had given them plenty of time to find replacements and their crews were all once again up to strength. Altogether the combined fleets now comprised 205 sail; the Turks wer£ thought to number 150 at the most. Why, therefore, should they fear an armed encounter? Flight would indeed be ignominious, but to retire now, before even sighting the enemy, would be more dishonourable still.

At this point Zane – who at Colonna’s discreet suggestion had remained absent from the opening discussion – joined his colleagues and immediately tabled a written request that the expedition should be allowed to proceed. Doria still prevaricated, finally agreeing only on condition that the Spanish ships should be given preferential treatment: that they should be exempt from rearguard duty and that they should sail in a group apart, in such a way as to be able to disengage completely if they felt so inclined. It was no wonder that, by 7 September, while discussions were still dragging on, Zane addressed an almost desperate letter to the Council of Ten, complaining that Doria was obviously determined not to fight, that he was continually raising new objections and resuscitating old ones, and that although with patience and tact it had so far been possible to overcome these objections, he was throwing all their plans into confusion and disrupting the whole enterprise.

On the 13th, the fleet moved on to Sitia, at the eastern end of the island; and there, at Doria’s insistence, there was a general review at which it was revealed, to his ill-concealed satisfaction, that the Venetian galleys were indeed below strength, with only some eighty righting men per vessel as compared with the hundred-odd in the papal and Spanish squadrons. Once again he advised withdrawal, and although once again ultimately overruled he managed to delay departure three full days, long enough for Zane to sustain another severe blow: a report that the Turks had landed in Cyprus. It was now or never. On the night of 17 September the fleet sailed for the beleaguered island.

But off Castellorizo there came worse news still. Nicosia had fallen. Another council was called, at which Doria predictably redoubled his protestations. And now, for the first time, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, who as commander of the Neapolitan contingent was technically a subordinate of Doria’s but who had hitherto taken a considerably more robust line than his chief, also advised turning back. The capture of Nicosia, he pointed out, would mean a vast increase in the number of fighting men available for the Turkish fleet, and a corresponding upsurge in enemy morale – at the worst possible time, when the allied crews were becoming more and more dispirited. Colonna agreed with him; so, sadly and reluctantly, did old Girolamo Zane. One voice only was raised in favour of a continued advance: that of Sebastiano Venier, who argued that, however strong the Turks might be, they would almost certainly be a good deal stronger next year – when, incidentally, the allies were most unlikely to have a fleet of over 200 sail to throw against them.

They were brave words, but they failed to convince; and the mighty fleet, flying the banners of Christendom, turned about and sailed for home without having once sighted the enemy. In an almost pathetic attempt to salvage the last shreds of his reputation, poor Zane proposed that the allies should at least try to inflict some damage on enemy territory during their return journey; but once again his hopes were sabotaged by Doria’s impatience to get home. By the time he reached Corfu on 17 November – having stopped in Crete on the way – a new epidemic had broken out in his ships and he himself was, mentally and physically, a broken man. Lacking even the heart to return home, he wrote to the Senate asking to be relieved of his post. His request was granted, and on 13 December Sebastiano Venier was appointed Captain-General in his stead.

So ended one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of Venice. Unless it were argued that, having provided some three quarters of the combined fleet, she should not have lost time waiting for her allies but should have pressed on alone in June, she could not in fairness be held responsible; but neither could she escape her share of the disgrace, much of which fell on the undeserving head of old Girolamo Zane himself. Ordered back to Venice early in 1571, in the following year – the cause of the delay is unknown – he was summoned by the Council of Ten to answer several grave charges relating to his conduct during the expedition. After a long inquiry he was acquitted – but too late. In September 1572 he had died in prison.

The fate of Gian Andrea Doria was somewhat different. Philip II had been left in no doubt of the bitter feelings his admiral had aroused; Pope Pius, indeed, on receiving Colonna’s report, had sent the King a formal letter of complaint. But Philip chose to ignore it. Doria had obeyed his instructions to the letter, and was rewarded by immediate promotion to the rank of General, with seniority over all the commanders of the fleets of Spain, Naples and Sicily – in which capacity he was to do still further damage to the Christian cause before his unedifying career was over.

The Loss of Cyprus [1564–1570] II

Map of the Siege of Nicosia, by Giovanni Camoccio, 1574

In 1570 Venice had held Cyprus for eighty-one years. Queen Caterina had been replaced by a Venetian governor, with the title of Lieutenant: in him and his two Counsellors – the three together, known as the Rectors, were the Cypriot equivalent of the Signoria – rested in effect virtually all the civil power. There was in addition a Great Council, comprising all the nobility of the island over the age of twenty-five, plus certain of those resident Venetians who had settled there; of these latter, the nobles were immediately eligible, the rest – provided they were not members of the ‘mechanical’ trades-could purchase their seats after a five-year residence. But its functions were largely electoral, and even then its decisions were subject to the Rectors’ confirmation.

While the civil government was established at Nicosia, the military headquarters were at Famagusta. There the standing garrison of cavalry and infantry, and the Cyprus-based fleet, were under the command of a Venetian Captain – though in time of war he might expect a Proveditor-General to be sent specially out from Venice to assume supreme authority. Famagusta, unlike Nicosia, was superbly fortified: omnium urbium fortissima, as an astonished traveller described it. Historically, too, it was the island’s principal harbour, although by 1570 Salines (the modern Larnaca) had overtaken it in terms of commercial traffic.

The total population was about 160,000, still living under an anachronistically feudal system which the Republic had made little or no effort to change. At the top were the nobility, partly Venetian but for the most part still of old French Crusader stock like the former royal house of Lusignan. Much of the land was in their hands, but under the prevailing law of primogeniture there was an ever-increasing number of unpropertied younger sons who frequently constituted a problem to the government. At the bottom was the peasantry, many of whom were still effectively serfs, owing their masters two days’ service a week. For them, despite the extreme fertility of the island, life was a struggle and oppression an integral part of it. Between the two was the merchant class and the urban bourgeoisie – a Levantine melting pot of Greeks, Venetians, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Jews.

Cyprus, in short, cannot have been an easy place to govern; it must be admitted, however, that the Venetians – whose own domestic administration was the wonder and envy of the civilized world – should have governed it a great deal better than they did. Perhaps the very strictness of the standards demanded of them at home increased the temptation to feather their nests once they were a safe distance away; probably, too, they were infected by the general atmosphere of venality which, we are told, prevailed in the island long before they took power. What is certain is that by the time the Turks landed in the summer of 1570 Venice had acquired a grim record of maladministration and corruption, and had made herself thoroughly unpopular with her Cypriot subjects. Even the rich nobility, however much they might oppress their own peasantry, objected to the way in which, as they saw it, the Republic was enriching itself at the island’s expense, and its official representatives, by less overt methods, following suit. They resented, too, their lack of any real power. The other, humbler, sections of the population felt much the same. Many indeed believed that any change of government could only be for the better – a sentiment which was not without significance when the moment of crisis came.

The joint expedition for the relief of Cyprus had been an unmitigated disaster; and yet, even if it had safely arrived at its destination, disembarked its fighting men and obeyed all its instructions to the letter, it could scarcely have saved the island. A major victory at sea might perhaps have proved temporarily effective, delaying the inevitable for a year or two; but since the Turkish invasion fleet that dropped anchor on 3 July at Larnaca numbered not less than 350 sail – more than double Colonna’s estimate – such a victory would have been, to say the least, unlikely. The truth is that, from the moment that Selim II decided to incorporate the island in his Empire, Cyprus was doomed.

It was doomed for the same fundamental reason that Malta, five years before, had been saved: the inescapable fact that the strength of any army in the field varies inversely with the length of its lines of communication and supply. Since Cyprus had neither the means, the ability, nor – probably – the will to defend itself, it could only be defended by Venice, from which all military supplies, arms and ammunition, and the bulk of the fighting men and horses would have to come. But Venice lay over 1,500 miles away across the Mediterranean, much of which was now dominated by the Turks. They, on the other hand, had only fifty miles to sail from ports on the southern Anatolian coast, where they could count on an almost limitless supply of manpower and materials.

Their success seemed the more assured in that the Cypriot defences, apart from those of Famagusta, were hopelessly inadequate. Nicosia, it is true, boasted a nine-mile circuit of medieval walls; but they enclosed an area considerably larger than the town and needed a huge force to defend them. They were moreover far too thin – the siege techniques of the sixteenth century were vastly different from those of the fourteenth – and despite the feverish last-minute efforts of Venetian engineers to strengthen them they stood a poor chance of survival against the massive artillery which had long been a speciality of the Turks. Kyrenia had once been a splendid fortress, but it had fallen long since into ruin; and though there too some work had recently been done to repair and strengthen the existing walls, it was unlikely to hold out for long. The fortifications of all other Cypriot towns were either negligible or non-existent; from the first it was understood that only in Nicosia and Famagusta was there any hope of prolonged resistance. Manpower too was in short supply. Accurate estimates of numbers are never easy, but it is unlikely that there were more than 20,000 fighting men including some 500 cavalry – in Nicosia when the siege began, and of these little more than half were fully effective. Fra Angelo Calepio, who was present throughout, tells us that there were 1,040 arquebuses in the magazines, but that they were not properly distributed nor were any instructions given as to their use, with the result that many soldiers found it impossible to fire them without setting light to their beards

For this and many other shortcomings in the defences of the capital, the principal blame must fall on the Lieutenant, Nicolo Dandolo. Uncertain, timid, forever vacillating between bouts of almost hysterical activity and periods of apathetic inertia, he was obviously unsuited to the supreme command – which would not have been his if Sebastiano Venier, the Proveditor-General designate who had sailed with Girolamo Zane’s expedition, had managed to reach the island. Through the agonizing months which were to follow, Dandolo was to prove a constant liability, his lack of judgement and immoderate caution occasionally giving rise to suspicions – as it happened, unfounded – that he was in enemy pay. Fortunately there were better men at Famagusta: the Perugian general Astorre Baglioni, who had been sent out from Venice in April as Commander-in-Chief, and the Captain, Marcantonio Bragadin, whose appalling fate when the siege was over was to earn him a permanent niche in the Venetian Hall of Fame – and his conqueror lasting infamy.

The Turkish invasion force had appeared off the coast of Cyprus on 1 July. Sultan Selim – the memory of his father’s humiliation in Malta still fresh in his mind – had spared no pains in its preparation, and had entrusted it to two of his ablest and most experienced commanders: Lala Mustafa Pasha for the land forces and Piale Pasha – a Croat who, with Dragut, had trounced a Spanish fleet under Gian Andrea Doria ten years before – for the fleet. After a lightning raid on Limassol, where it did considerable damage, sacking the town and a neighbouring monastery before being repulsed, it continued along the south coast to Larnaca. Here, owing to Dandolo’s timidity, Mustafa was able to land his entire force without opposition, settling in his men while he awaited further troops from the mainland. From Larnaca he then dispatched a blind Greek monk to Nicosia with the usual ultimatum: since Venice had no chance of successfully resisting his superbly equipped force of 200,000 men, let her now cede the island peaceably, thus retaining the friendship and favour of the Sultan. If she did not, it would be the worse for her. To this missive the Rectors in Nicosia sent no reply; they did, however, send an urgent appeal to Famagusta, asking for the return of Baglioni with reinforcements. The request was refused, on the grounds that the threat to Nicosia might well be a feint: the weight of the Turkish attack was still expected at Famagusta.

But Mustafa was not dissembling. When his reinforcements arrived on 22 July he set off that same evening for Nicosia; and two days later his immense army was encamped outside the walls of the city. Now once again a chance was lost: the Italian commander of infantry begged for permission to mount an immediate attack, while the enemy were still tired by their march of thirty miles through the heat of a Cyprus summer, and their artillery and heavy cavalry were still unprepared. Once again Dandolo and his fellow-Rectors declined to take the risk, and the Turks were allowed to dig themselves in undisturbed.

And so the siege began. The Turkish army, though not perhaps quite as numerous as its commander had claimed, must have been a good 100,000 strong; its cannon and light artillery were formidable and, in contrast to the pathetic firing-pieces of the defenders along the walls, were employed with deadly accuracy and expertise. Meanwhile Dandolo, fearing a shortage of gunpowder, had rationed its use to the point where even those of his soldiers who had fire-arms and knew how to use them were forbidden to shoot at any group of Turks numbering fewer than ten. Yet, however weak-spirited the Lieutenant, there were others around him who did not lack courage. Somehow the city held out, all through a sweltering August; and it was only on 9 September, after Mustafa’s men had given the noisiest and most jubilant welcome of which they were capable to a further 20,000 troops freshly arrived from the mainland, that the defenders finally yielded to the fifteenth major assault. Thus, after forty-five days, Nicosia fell. Even as the triumphant Turks swarmed through the city, the resistance continued, a final stand being made in the main square, in front of the Lieutenant’s Palace. Dandolo, who had taken refuge inside it some hours before while his men were still fighting on the ramparts, now appeared in his crimson velvet robes, hoping to receive the favoured treatment due to his rank. Scarcely had he reached the foot of the steps when a Turkish officer struck his head from his shoulders.

It was customary, when a besieged town had defended itself to the last, for the victorious commander to allow his men a three-day period of rapine and plunder. The usual atrocities followed, the usual massacres, quarterings and impalements, the usual desecration of churches and violation of the youth of both sexes; what was unusual was the sheer extent of the looting. Nicosia was a rich city, generously endowed with treasures ecclesiastical and secular, western and Byzantine. It was a full week before all the gold and silver, the precious stones and enamelled reliquaries, the jewelled vestments, the velvets and brocades had been loaded on to the carts and trundled away – the richest spoils to fall into Turkish hands since the capture of Constantinople itself, well over a century before.

As he and his army returned to the coast, Mustafa left a garrison of 4,000 janissaries to refortify the city. He still expected a Venetian relief expedition; if it came, an attempt to recapture Nicosia could not be discounted. Meanwhile, however, he had no intention of abandoning the offensive himself. Already on 11 September, two days after the fall of Nicosia, he had sent a messenger to the commanders at Famagusta, calling upon them to surrender and bearing, as an additional inducement, the head of Nicolò Dandolo in a basin. It would be their turn next.

Although Mustafa Pasha can hardly have expected that his ultimatum would have the desired effect and that Famagusta would capitulate without a fight, he must nevertheless have cursed its commanders for their stubbornness. Even Nicosia had given him more trouble than he had expected; but Famagusta promised to be a really formidable challenge. The old fortifications had been torn down at the end of the previous century and replaced with a completely new enceinte, incorporating all the latest advances in military architecture; and the town was now, to all appearances, as near impregnable as any town could be. Behind those tremendous walls the defenders were admittedly few: some 8,000 as compared with a Turkish force which, with new contingents arriving every few weeks from the mainland, probably by now fell not far short of the 200,000 of which Mustafa had boasted to Dandolo. On the other hand they had in Bragadin and Baglioni two first-rate leaders whom they already respected and for whom their love and admiration were to grow during the trials that lay ahead.

The army and the fleet, loaded to the gunwales with Nicosia loot, arrived at Famagusta on the same day, 17 September; and the siege began at once. Thanks to the courage and enterprise of the two commanders, it was from the first a far more dynamic affair than that of Nicosia, with the defenders making frequent sorties outside the walls and sometimes even carrying the battle right into the Turkish camp. All through the winter it continued, the Venetians showing no signs of weakening; in January, indeed, they were considerably strengthened, both materially and morally, by the arrival of a fifteen-hundred-man relief force, with arms and munitions, under the command of Marco and Marcantonio Querini, who had managed to break through the depleted Turkish blockade. In April the level of food supplies began to give some cause for concern; but Bragadin dealt with the problem efficiently enough by evicting over 5,000 ‘useless mouths’ from among the civil population and sending them out to seek shelter in the neighbouring villages. Towards the end of that same month Mustafa changed his tactics, ordering his corps of Armenian sappers to dig a huge network of trenches to the south. As the corps numbered some 40,000 and was further supplemented by forced labour from the local peasantry, work progressed rapidly: by the middle of May the whole region was honeycombed for a distance of three miles from the walls, the trenches numerous enough to accommodate the whole besieging army and so deep that mounted cavalry could ride along them with only the tips of their lances visible to the watchers on the ramparts. The Turks also constructed a total of ten siege towers, progressively closer to the town, from which they could fire downwards on to the defenders. From there, on 15 May, the final bombardment began.

The Venetians fought back with courage and determination. Again and again their own artillery would destroy whole sections of the Turkish siege towers, but to no avail; a few hundred sappers would get to work, and the towers would be as good as new by morning. Slowly, as the weeks dragged by, they began to lose heart. Hopes of the great Venetian-Spanish relief expedition, which had kept their spirits up through the winter and spring, had faded; powder was running short; food was even shorter. By July all the horses, donkeys and cats in the town had been eaten; nothing was left but bread and beans. Of the defenders, only 500 were still capable of bearing arms, and they were dropping through lack of sleep. On the 29th the Turks unleashed a new general assault, their fifth. The Christians held them back, but at the cost of two thirds of their number killed or wounded. On the 30th came another, on the 31st another still. Even then, Mustafa failed to break in; but that night the Venetian generals inspected their defences and their remaining stocks of food and ammunition and realized that they could hold out no longer. By a voluntary surrender they might still, according to the accepted rules of warfare, avoid the massacres and the looting that were otherwise inevitable. Dawn broke on 1 August to reveal a white flag fluttering on the ramparts of Famagusta.

The peace terms were surprisingly generous. All Italians were to be allowed to embark, with colours flying, for Crete, together with any Greeks, Albanians or Turks who wished to accompany them. On their journey they would not be molested by Turkish shipping, which would on the contrary furnish them with all the assistance they required. Greeks who elected to stay behind would be guaranteed their personal liberty and property, and would be given two years in which to decide whether they would remain permanently or not; those who then elected to leave would be given safe conduct to the country of their choice. The document setting out these terms was signed personally by Mustafa and sealed with the Sultan’s seal; it was then returned to Baglioni and Bragadin with a covering letter complimenting them on their courage and their magnificent defence of the city.

For the next four days arrangements for the departure went smoothly enough. Food supplies were sent in and, apart from a few minor incidents, relations between the Europeans and the Turks were friendly. On 5 August Bragadin sent word to Mustafa proposing to call and formally to present him with the keys of Famagusta; back came the reply that the general would be delighted to receive him. Donning his purple robe of office, he set off that evening accompanied by Baglioni and a number of his senior officers, escorted by a mixed company of Italian, Greek and Albanian soldiers. Mustafa received them with every courtesy; then, without warning, his face clouded and his manner changed. In a mounting fury, he began hurling baseless accusations at the Christians standing before him. They had murdered Turkish prisoners; they had concealed munitions instead of handing them over according to the terms of surrender. Suddenly, he whipped out a knife and cut off Bragadin’s right ear, ordering an attendant to cut off the other and his nose. Then, turning to his guards, he ordered them to execute the whole party. Astorre Baglioni was beheaded; so too was the commander of artillery, Luigi Martinengo. One or two managed to escape; but most were massacred, together with a number of other Christians who chanced to be within reach. Finally the heads of all those that had been murdered were piled in front of Mustafa’s pavilion. They are said to have numbered 350.

Now that the killing had begun it was very hard to stop. Mustafa himself, who seemed at last to have regained his composure, forbade his howling soldiery to enter Famagusta on pain of death; many, however, disobeyed his orders and ran amok through the city, killing any citizen they chanced to meet, burning and pillaging in a frenzy of blood-lust. Others headed for the port, where they found victims in plenty among the Christians preparing to embark for the West.

But the worst fate had been reserved for Marcantonio Bragadin. He was held in prison for nearly a fortnight, by which time his untreated wounds were festering and he was already seriously ill. First he was dragged round the walls, with sacks of earth and stones on his back; next, tied into a chair, he was hoisted to the yardarm of the Turkish flagship and exposed to the taunts of the sailors. Finally he was taken to the place of execution in the main square, tied naked to a column and, literally, flayed alive. Even this torture he is said to have borne in silence for half an hour until, as the executioner reached his waist, he finally expired. After the grim task was completed, his head was cut off, his body quartered, and his skin, stuffed with straw and cotton and mounted on a cow, was paraded through the streets.

When, on 22 September, Mustafa sailed for home, he took with him as trophies the heads of his principal victims and the skin of Marcantonio Bragadin, which he proudly presented to the Sultan. The fate of the heads is unknown; but nine years later a certain Girolamo Polidoro, one of the few survivors of the siege, managed to steal the skin from the Arsenal of Constantinople and to return it to Bragadin’s sons, who deposited it in the church of S. Gregorio. From here, on 18 May 1596, it was transferred to SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and placed in a niche behind the urn which forms part of the hero’s memorial. Here it still remains today.