Fighting the Weather and the Enemy in the Arctic II

A Handley Page Hampden TB Mark I sweeps over an armed German supply ship off Egero, Norway (29 January 1943).

PQ18 – The First Air Support for the Convoys

PQ17’s fate could not be ignored. It was necessary to maintain the link between the Western Allies and the beleaguered Soviet Union. Four British destroyers were despatched to Archangel loaded with ammunition and replacement anti-aircraft gun barrels, as well as interpreters in an attempt to improve liaison with the Russians. The ships arrived on 24 July 1942. On 13 August the American cruiser USS Tuscaloosa sailed for Russia, escorted by a British destroyer and two American destroyers, carrying RAF ground crew and equipment as well as aircraft spares for two squadrons of Handley Page Hampden bombers destined to be based in northern Russia, as would be photo-reconnaissance Supermarine Spitfires and a squadron of RAF Coastal Command Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Also included in the cargo carried by these warships was a demountable medical centre with medical supplies, but while the Soviets took the medical supplies, they rejected the hospital that would have done so much to improve the lot of Allied seamen in need of medical attention on reaching a Russian port.

Survivors from PQ17 were brought home to the UK aboard the three American ships plus three British destroyers. Ultra intelligence led the three British destroyers to Bear Island where they discovered the German minelayer Ulm, and while two of the destroyers shelled the ship, the third, Onslaught, fired three torpedoes with the third penetrating the magazine, which exploded. Despite the massive explosion, the commanding officer and fifty-nine of the ship’s company survived to be taken prisoner.

Less successful were the Hampden bombers. Already obsolescent, several were shot down on their way to Russia by the Germans and, perhaps due to mistaken identity, by the Russians, who may have confused the aircraft with the Dornier Do 17. Unfortunately, one of those shot down by the Germans crashed in Norway and contained details of the defence of the next pair of convoys, PQ18 and the returning QP14. QP14 was to be the target for the Admiral Scheer, together with the cruisers Admiral Hipper and Köln and a supporting screen of destroyers. This surface force moved to the Altenfjord on 1 September.

PQ18 was the first Arctic convoy to have an escort carrier, the American-built Avenger. The ship had three radar-equipped Swordfish from No. 825 NAS for anti-submarine duties, as well as six Hawker Sea Hurricanes, with another six dismantled and stowed beneath the hangar deck in a hold, for fighter defence. These aircraft were drawn from 802 and 883 Squadrons. Another Sea Hurricane was aboard the CAM ship Empire Morn. Other ships in the convoy escort included the cruiser Scylla, 2 destroyers, 2 anti-aircraft ships converted from merchant vessels, 4 corvettes, 4 anti-submarine trawlers, 3 minesweepers and 2 submarines. There was a rescue ship so that the warships did not have to risk stopping to pick up survivors, and three minesweepers being delivered to the Soviet Union also took on this role.

The convoy had gained an escort carrier but the Home Fleet, which usually provided the distant escort – a much heavier force than that providing the close escort – had lost its fast armoured fleet carrier, Victorious , damaged while escorting the convoy Operation PEDESTAL to Malta and being refitted as a result. Also missing were the American ships, transferred to the Pacific. The C-in-C, Home Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, also made other changes. This time he would remain aboard his flagship, the battleship King George V , at Scapa Flow where he would have constant telephone communication with the Admiralty, while his deputy, Vice Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, went to sea in the battleship Anson . Both PQ18 and QP14 had a strong destroyer escort with the freedom of action to leave the close escort to the corvettes, armed trawlers, AA ships and minesweepers if the situation warranted it. To save fuel, the officer in command of the destroyers, Rear Admiral Robert Burnett aboard the light cruiser Scylla, ordered that no U-boat hunt was to exceed ninety minutes.

In addition, the convoy would have the support of Force Q and Force P, both comprising two fleet oilers, or tankers, and escorting destroyers, which were deployed ahead of the convoy to Spitzbergen, Norwegian territory not taken by the Germans but that had Russians ashore working on a mining concession dating from Tsarist times. A re-supply operation for the garrison in Spitzbergen was linked with Force P and Force Q.

Iceland was the main rendezvous, but getting there was difficult despite it being summer. Seas were so rough that a Sea Hurricane was swept off Avenger ’s deck, and the steel ropes securing aircraft in the hangars failed to stop them breaking loose and crashing into one another or the sides of the hangar. Fused 500lb bombs stored in the hangar lift-well broke loose and had to be captured by laying down duffel coats with rope ties, which were secured as soon as a bomb rolled onto one of the coats. Fuel contamination with sea water meant that the carrier suffered engine problems. It also seems that remote Iceland was not remote enough, or safe enough, for the carrier was discovered and bombed by a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range maritime-reconnaissance aircraft that dropped a stick of bombs close to Avenger but without causing any damage.

The engine problems meant that the convoy, already spotted by a U-boat while en passage to Iceland from Scotland, had to sail without the carrier and, on 8 September, the convoy was discovered by another Condor. Low cloud then protected the convoy from German aircraft until 12 September when a Blohm und Voss BV 138 flying boat dropped through the clouds. By this time, Avenger had caught up with the convoy and was able to launch a flight of four Sea Hurricanes, but not in time to catch the German aircraft before it disappeared.

Swordfish were extremely vulnerable on the Arctic convoys which, unlike those across the Atlantic, also had to face German fighters. As a result, the fighters from Avenger not only had to protect the ships in the convoy from aerial attack, they had to protect the Swordfish as well. At 0400 on 9 September, the Sea Hurricanes were scrambled after Swordfish on anti-submarine patrols were discovered by a BV 138 flying boat and a Junkers Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft, but both disappeared into the clouds before the Hurricanes could catch them. Another Swordfish patrol discovered that the BV 138s were laying mines ahead of the convoy.

PQ18 was repeatedly attacked from the air, which meant that the ships had to make mass turns and put up heavy anti-aircraft fire, all of which made life for the returning Swordfish crews very interesting as aircraft recognition was not as good as it could be and the single-engined biplane Swordfish were often mistaken for twin-engined monoplane Ju 88s. Ditching in the sea was never something to be considered lightly but in Arctic waters, even in summer, survival time could be very short indeed.

The Sea Hurricanes attempted to keep a constant air patrol over the convoy with each aircraft spending twenty-five minutes in the air before landing to refuel, but with just six operational aircraft, keeping a constant watch over the Swordfish as well as the convoy was impossible.

On 14 September, the first Swordfish of the day found U-589 on the surface, but she dived leaving the Swordfish to mark the spot with a smoke flare. Once the aircraft had gone, the submarine surfaced and continued charging her batteries, but alerted by the Swordfish the destroyer Onslow raced to the scene. Once again U-589 dived, but the destroyer attacked with depth-charges and destroyed her. As a result the Germans, so far not accustomed to a convoy having its own air cover and aerial reconnaissance, were forced to change their tactics. Reconnaissance BV 138s and Ju 88s were sent to intimidate the Swordfish, forcing them back over the convoy until the Germans were so close to the ships that they were driven off by AA fire. The Swordfish would then venture out, only to be driven back again.

Later that day, another attack by Ju 88s was detected by the duty Swordfish. This time, Avenger herself was the target. Her maximum speed was just 17 knots, much slower than an ordinary aircraft carrier, but fortunately the Sea Hurricanes broke up the attack and no ships from the convoy were lost, while most of the eleven Ju 88s shot down had succumbed to anti-aircraft fire. Further attacks followed that day, again without any losses to the convoy, although another German aircraft was shot down. In a final attack, three of the four patrolling Hurricanes were shot down by friendly fire from the convoy’s ships but all three pilots were saved. In this last attack of the day, Avenger ’s commanding officer Commander Colthurst successfully combed torpedoes dropped by the Germans. A bomb dropped by a Ju 88 pilot, who flew exceptionally low to make sure he did not miss the target, hit the ammunition ship Mary Luckenbach, which blew up, taking her attacker with her. The sole survivor from the ship was a steward who had been taking the master a cup of coffee, was blown off the upper deck by the explosion and found himself in the sea half a mile down the convoy.

Not all rescues were left to the rescue ships. At the height of the battle for PQ18, the destroyer Offa saw a cargo ship, the Macbeth, hit by two torpedoes and beginning to sink with her cargo of tanks and other war matériel. Offa ’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Alastair Ewing, took his ship alongside Macbeth and, at the cost of some guard rails and stanchions, took off all her ship’s company before she sank. One Sea Hurricane pilot had been very lucky to be snatched out of the sea within minutes of baling out by the destroyer Wheatland which was acting as close escort for Avenger , her role also being what became known as a ‘plane guard’, fishing unfortunate naval aviators out of the sea.

The next day, the remaining Sea Hurricanes and the Swordfish were again in the air, with the former breaking up further attacks. It was not until 16 September that the Swordfish were relieved of their patrolling by shore-based RAF Consolidated Catalina flying boats of No. 210 Squadron operating from Russia. However, the break was short-lived. Later that day the convoy passed the homeward convoy QP14 with the survivors of the ill-fated PQ17 and Avenger, with her aircraft and some of the other escorts transferred to this convoy. The interval had been used by the ship’s air engineering team to assemble five Sea Hurricanes, more than replacing the four lost on the outward voyage. In all, the Sea Hurricanes had accounted for a total of 5 enemy aircraft and damaged 17 others out of a total of 44 shot down. It was fortunate that the three Fairey Swordfish remained serviceable as no replacement aircraft were carried.

During the convoy, Avenger ’s commanding officer had changed the operational pattern for the Sea Hurricanes in order to get the maximum benefit from his small force, having a single aircraft in the air most of the time rather than having all of his aircraft, or none of them, airborne at once.

Once the Sea Hurricane flight had been so depleted, it fell to the CAM ship Empire Morn to launch her Hurricane, flown by Flying Officer Burr of the RAF. The launch was accompanied by friendly fire from other ships in the convoy until he was finally out of range. Despite problems with the barrage balloons flown by some of the merchantmen, he managed to break up a German attack, setting one aircraft on fire. Once out of ammunition, he saved his precious aircraft by flying it to Keg Ostrov airfield near Archangel. As previously mentioned, this ‘one-off’ use of aircraft from the CAM ships was a major drawback as convoy commanders were reluctant to use them in case a more desperate situation emerged later in the convoy’s passage. Cases of CAM ship fighters being saved were very rare.

Clearly, even an escort carrier with a mix of fighters and anti-submarine aircraft was hard-pressed to provide adequate air cover. It is hard to escape the conclusion that two escort carriers would have been needed, or a larger ship such as Nairana or Vindex with up to fourteen Swordfish and six Wildcat fighters, a much better aircraft than the Sea Hurricane. Again, even with these two ships one might suggest that the balance between fighters and anti-submarine aircraft was wrong for an Arctic convoy.

Inevitably, as the convoy approached its destination there was no sign of the promised Red Air Force air cover. This was typical of the experiences of those on the convoys to Russia, with neither Russia’s air forces nor her navy providing any support. Indeed, apart from some coastal bombardment as the Red armies swept westwards, the main achievement of the Russian navy was for its submarines to sink the merchantmen carrying German refugees away from the Russians and one of these attacks resulted in the greatest recorded loss of life at sea as the Germans struggled to evacuate more than 1.5 million civilians.

Unternehmen Wunderland 24 June 1942

Homeward Bound – QP14

With convoys, it was always important to ‘bring home the empties’: those ships that had delivered their cargoes safely and were needed for the next consignment of supplies. Little came out of the Soviet Union at this time but on some routes, such as that across the North Atlantic, there was some export traffic from the UK as goods that were not available on the home market were still produced to send abroad to earn some foreign currency and, above all, retain a traditional export market. Although it was available on the home market, Scotch whisky and similar products continued to be exported.

The main point was, of course, that ships and their crews were valuable and difficult to replace. For this reason, even ships sailing in ballast (important to ensure that an ‘empty’ ship retained her stability) were important targets for the enemy.

On 17 September 1942 the homeward convoy QP14 took over the destroyer escort and several other ships from PQ18, including Avenger. The convoy had left Archangel on 13 September escorted by 6 British minesweepers, 4 of which then detached leaving the convoy with the remaining minesweepers, 2 destroyers, 2 AA ships, 4 corvettes and 4 anti-submarine trawlers, as well as Avenger , the cruiser Scylla, AA ship Alynbank, 2 submarines and 17 destroyers from PQ18 under Burnett’s command.

Initially there was little trouble from the Germans as the Luftwaffe was concentrating on PQ18, but the convoy was shadowed by reconnaissance aircraft that edged to within AA range before moving away again. A number of destroyers were detached to lay a false trail, while the convoy was joined by Force Q. Despite U-boat sightings, the first sign of trouble came at 0520 on 20 September when U-435 put two torpedoes into the ocean minesweeper Leda, a veteran of the convoys. Commander A.H. Wynn-Edwards and eighty-six of his crew were rescued, along with two Merchant Navy officers who were survivors of PQ17. Those rescued from Leda were spread over three of the rescue ships, but six died from wounds or hypothermia afterwards. That same day a Swordfish depth-charged a U-boat, and the destroyer Ashanti went in pursuit of another U-boat which it also depth-charged, at the time believing it had destroyed it. An attempt by the submarine P614 to torpedo U-408, caught on the surface, failed when one of the torpedoes blew up prematurely, setting off the other one and allowing the U-boat to dive and escape.

At 1745 U-255 torpedoed a PQ17 survivor, Silver Sword, and the ship burst into flames, with her ship’s company only managing to escape with difficulty. She was later sunk by gunfire from the destroyer Worcester.

As the U-boat threat intensified, Colthurst aboard Avenger had to signal Burnett, warning him that his Swordfish crews were at the limit of their physical endurance. Realizing the problem, and that both Avenger and the cruiser Scylla were fast becoming liabilities rather than assets, Burnett transferred his flag to the destroyer Milne. Three destroyers were detailed to provide an anti-submarine screen for the two ships, which were then sent home. Burnett’s decision was logical as the German aerial threat had diminished, leaving little for the Sea Hurricanes to do. In addition, if the Swordfish crews were beyond the limits of their physical and mental endurance, they were more likely to be a danger to themselves and the convoy than provide additional protection. A Swordfish crash-landing could have resulted in considerable damage to the carrier as at this time unused depth-charges were not dropped before landing.

Somali, one of the Tribal-class destroyers, was torpedoed by U-703 later that day. Her commanding officer had attempted to comb the torpedo, without success. While two destroyers attempted to hunt down the culprit, another destroyer and a trawler came alongside to take off survivors. Five men were killed and four wounded in the engine room. The stricken destroyer’s commanding officer signalled that he thought his ship could be towed with just a skeleton crew aboard, and her sister ship, Ashanti, was ordered to her assistance.

The following morning, 21 September, saw a Catalina flying boat from the RAF’s No. 330 Squadron, based in Shetland, over the convoy. The aircraft was just in time to spot U-378 on the surface, but was spotted and came under accurate anti-aircraft fire from the submarine that ripped into the fuel tanks. As it crash-dived, it dropped four depth-charges before making a forced landing. The crew were picked up by the destroyer Marne, which then destroyed the aircraft as it was still afloat.

Dropping depth-charges before an aircraft crashed was essential for the survival of the crew. The charges were pre-set to explode at a certain depth, and once the aircraft sank were almost certain to explode and anyone on the surface nearby would be killed.

Despite renewed air cover at 0630 on the morning of 22 September, U-435 managed to get within the screen. In one of the most successful actions by a U-boat during the Second World War, within minutes three ships were sunk, two merchantmen and the fleet oiler Grey Ranger, although without loss of life. One of the ships sunk was the Bellingham carrying the convoy commodore, Captain J.C.K. Dowding, RNR, who joined the other survivors aboard the minesweeper Seagull and handed over command to his vice commodore Captain Walker aboard Ocean Freedom, another survivor from PQ17.

On 23 September the rescue ships and some of the destroyers headed for Seidisfjord to refuel, while the rest of the convoy continued towards Cape Wrath on the north-western tip of Scotland as the weather deteriorated and a gale approached.

The remaining ships of the convoy were to make a safe landfall, but on 24 September the gales that had been a nuisance for the surviving ships were dashing all hopes of salvaging Somali. The destroyer had already slipped her tow once, and her condition was perilous. Most of her port side was holed, although most of the compartments apart from the boiler room and engine room were dry. As the rising sea tortured and stressed the stricken ship further, the inevitable happened and her back was broken, splitting the ship in two. Almost immediately the bow and stern sections went vertical and sank beneath the feet of her skeleton crew as they scrambled into life-rafts and Carley floats. Out of eighty-two men aboard, just thirty-five survived, with many of those lost being swept under the bows of Ashanti as she returned to their rescue with the trawler Lord Middleton. Some of those picked up from the water died from hypothermia.

The U-boat menace had not completely gone away, however, and a Catalina from No. 210 Squadron spotted U-253 less than a mile from the rear of the convoy. The U-boat crash-dived but the Catalina dropped six depth-charges as the submarine went down. As the depth-charges exploded, the U-boat was blasted back to the surface before submerging for a second time and then suddenly reappearing on her beam ends before her bows dived and her stern lifted to the vertical, hanging there for a moment and then disappearing for good.

The efforts of the destroyer escort seemed to be disappointing at the time, but unknown to their crews, they did inflict damage on five U-boats. The escort carrier had proved itself beyond doubt, but these did not become more widely available until 1943 so there were to be many more convoys without any air cover at all once beyond the range of shore-based aircraft.

There were many more convoys to Russia still to come at this stage, but PQ17 and PQ18 were two of the most famous. The convoys were a demanding operation for both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, one that Stalin never recognized and there was no Soviet contribution to the escorts. The convoys continued, despite German attacks and the weather, until the war’s end, with the exception of the period immediately before, during and after the Normandy landings when a massive effort was required that demanded the escorts and especially the larger ships. That finally gave Stalin the only battlefront that he would recognize as being a ‘second front’.

Hungarian-Turkish Wars (1437–1526)

The battle of Mohács in 1526. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest

Series of wars between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the Ottoman occupation of Serbia (1438–1439) and ending with the collapse of Hungary in the Hungarian Civil Wars (1526–1547). The failure of Hungarian king Albrecht’s crusade in 1437 introduced a new phase of the Ottoman wars of European expansion in the Balkans, which were now waged up to and across the borders of Hungary. To support deposed Serbian despot George Brankoviæ, Hungarian general János Hunyadi counterattacked into Wallachia in 1442. In the winter of 1443–1444 Hunyadi invaded Bulgaria, forcing Sultan Murad II to agree to the restoration of Serbia to Brankoviæ. Assured by the pope that promises made to infidels need not be honored, Hungarian King Ulászlo I broke the peace and launched another crusade in 1444. The crusading army was cut off and destroyed by Murad at Varna, where Ulászlo was killed. Hunyadi escaped but was defeated again at Kosovo Polje in 1448. A continuing succession crisis left Hungary too weak to intervene in the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1453). Hunyadi gathered sufficient forces to break the siege of Belgrade (1456), but the Hungarians were unable after his death to prevent the Ottoman conquest of Serbia (1457–1458).

Though Hunyadi’s campaigns against the Ottomans ultimately failed to recover any territory, they did revitalize and provide leadership for the resistance of the Balkan peoples fighting against the Turks, encouraging Skander Beg (George Kastriota) to renounce Ottoman suzerainty and launch the Albanian-Turkish wars for independence.

In 1463 Mehmed II invaded and occupied Bosnia, prompting a winter counterattack by Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, who recaptured the strategic fortress of Jajce. From 1464–1466 the Hungarians and Ottomans fought ineffectually in Bosnia, eventually dividing the kingdom between themselves.

Subsequently, Matthias focused on strengthening the line of fortresses established by King Sigismund along the southern borders of Transylvania and Slavonia through Bosnia to the Adriatic while the Ottomans consolidated their Balkan conquests. The following 50 years were marked by repeated border incursions and raids from both sides, over time weakening the fortress system. A large raid by Ali Beg of Smederevo in 1479 was followed by a campaign by Matthias into Wallachia, Serbia, and eastern Bosnia in 1480, capturing Srebrenica and briefly restoring the frontier defenses.

After Matthias’s death, the Hungarians successfully repulsed an attack on Belgrade in 1494,but by the first decades of the sixteenth century Ottoman raiders were penetrating deeper into the frontier zone and inflicting defeats on Hungarian counterattacks inside Croatia and Hungary, notably at Sinj (1508), Knin (1511), and Dubica (1520). The recurrent raids devastated the frontier regions, leaving the fortresses isolated and unsupported in the deserted land. Srebrenica was recaptured by the Ottomans in 1512, completing the Turkish conquest of Bosnia. The border defenses were fatally breached with the capture of Belgrade by Süleyman I in 1521 and the fall of Orsova and Knin the following year.

With the lower Danube firmly in his control, Süleyman invaded Hungary in force, defeating the Hungarian army in the Battle of Mohács (1526), at which King Louis II was killed. Louis’s death marked the end of the medieval Hungarian kingdom, which was subsequently divided among the Ottomans, Austrian Habsburgs, and the dependent principality of Transylvania.

References and further reading:Sugar, Peter. Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule: 1389–1814. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977. Szakály, Ferenc.“Phases of Turco-Hungarian Warfare before the Battle of Mohács.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 33 (1979): 65–111.

Towards the First Tanks II

Hornsby developed a caterpillar artillery tractor before the war based on agricultural machines. It meant heavier machinery could be carried than traditional horse-drawn artillery

Little Willie at the Tank Museum, Bovington

An early model British Mark I “male” tank, named C-15, near Thiepval, 25 September 1916. The tank is probably in reserve for the Battle of Thiepval Ridge which began on 26 September. The tank is fitted with the wire “grenade shield” and steering tail, both features discarded in the next models.

The Wolseley Car Company had shown a petrol-driven car with a 16 horse-power Daimler engine at the Crystal Palace show of 1902. It had been designed by Mr Frederick Sims, mounted a Maxim and was in some sort covered with armour plating. In fact it was ahead of its time. The engine was too feeble and the great weakness, as every pioneer motorist knew, lay in the wheels. Pneumatic tyres had been in use for a long time but were still not to be relied upon even on tarred roads. Heavy vehicles still, and for a long time to come, stuck to the solid variety and put up with the jolting and low speed. Nobody was much interested in Mr Sims’ car and it was quietly taken to pieces again. In 1908 the Liberal Government gave to the cavalry the only new weapon to be added before 1914. It was a sword; a very fine sword; a shovel would have been far better value.

The reign of Edward the Peacemaker saw much happening in new forms of military hardware. In 1904 a Danish officer, Major-General Madsen, invented a light automatic gun which weighed only five pounds more than a rifle, had a mechanism of the simplest kind and was better by far than anything of the kind for a long time to come. Years later, on 6 June, 1918, an official statement was made in the House of Lords that ‘the present Madsen gun is by many considered “the most wonderful machine-gun of its kind ever invented” and that it was admittedly superior in many respects to either the Lewis or the Hotchkiss guns’. The gun was taken into service by the Danish cavalry but the War Office in Pall Mall was not interested. Some years later, when the War Office had moved to its fine new home in Whitehall and handed over Pall Mall to the Royal Automobile Club, it brushed off Colonel Lewis in much the same way. The Madsen gun would have been cheap. By the time of First Ypres the Government would have paid any asking price for such a weapon. By then it was too late. Efforts were made to get hold of some but Germany prevented the sale and collared the guns herself. In a way this disinterest in automatics was a compliment to the soldier. With the SMLE a recruit before leaving his Depot could get off fifteen aimed rounds a minute; real experts could manage thirty. The long-service regular infantryman was the best marksman in any army, as the Germans readily admitted when the clash came. Nobody seemed to understand that hastily raised units could not be expected to come anywhere near this standard.

The attitude of civilian ministers in the new Liberal Government of 1906 was soon made plain to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien when he held the command at Alder-shot; ‘One day he (a Minister whose name had been struck out by Lady Smith-Dorrien) honoured me at lunch, and I used the occasion to impress on him, as a member of the Government, that it was most important that we should be armed with the new Vickers-Maxim machine-gun, which was half the weight of the gun we then had, and much more efficient, and I urged that £100,000 would re-equip the six divisions of the Expeditionary Force. Mr — jeered at me, saying I was afraid of the Germans, that he habitually attended the German Army at training and was quite certain that if they ever went to war “the most monumental examples of crass cowardice the world had ever heard of would be witnessed”.’ Such, apparently, was Cabinet thinking in 1909. It is hardly wonderful that any soldier of an innovative mind did not waste his time by pressing ideas.

During Smith-Dorrien’s tour at Aldershot, in 1910, there was a demonstration by the earliest of the British petrol-engined tractors, a Hornsby chain-track. This was a splendid vehicle that looked as if it owed something to Mr Heath Robinson or Mr Emmett. The exhaust led into an impressive smoke-stack; the chains that drove it were surmounted by wooden blocks about the size and shape of those commonly used for paving roads and the whole was mounted on powerful springs that bounced it about alarmingly. Among those watching was General ‘Wullie’ Robertson, later to be CIGS under Lord Kitchener. He held the machine ‘to have a great future as a tractor for dragging heavy guns and vehicles across broken ground. Universal sympathy was extended to the drivers, who, in consequence of the caterpillar’s violent up-and-down motions, experienced all the sensations of sea-sickness, and looked it’. In spite of that there was no denying that the thing worked.

The Committee of Imperial Defence, however, was occupied with more important matters. Between 1907 and 1914 the Channel Tunnel came up for discussion fourteen times. Lord Wolseley’s Memorandum of 1882 was resurrected and papers submitted by Field-Marshal Lord Nicholson, Mr Churchill, Colonel Seeley and Sir John French. There is no mention of caterpillar tractors anywhere in the Committee’s agenda over these years. As soon as the war started and the demand came for guns heavier than the usual field pieces the question of how they were to be moved along the roads of France demanded answer. Very quickly, for Kitchener was now in charge, the War Office placed orders in America for fifteen of the Holt machines. With 75 hp petrol engines, the best track then on the market, and a weight of 15 tons (the Hornsby weighed 8) they could manage a speed of 15 mph, though this fell to 2 with a gun hooked in. It was still better than a large team of Clydesdale horses and they were soon at work in France. Only a few people saw in them the beginnings of a war-winning fighting machine.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that indifference was limited to the allied camp. The German possessed one great advantage which they, too, neglected. When the Zeppelin first appeared it became plain that engines far more powerful than those used on roads were needful. After much experiment, the firm of Maybach produced one of 450 hp. No other country had anything like this. Fortunately no effort was made to apply the knowledge to land-bound vehicles. The Maybach was far too heavy and clumsy for such uses. Apart from the Rolls-Royce, which was in a class of its own, the best motor-cars were made in France with Germany a good second. England lagged badly behind; the United States produced excellent machines, the Hudson being perhaps the fastest, but these belonged to quite another world.

To blame the Army for living happily in the past would be entirely unfair. Soldiers, like everybody else, could hardly fail to see how swiftly the country was becoming mechanized. As early as 1906 the land speed record had risen to more than 125 miles per hour. At the end of the following year London contained 723 motor taxi-cabs, a figure that had risen within two years to just under 4,000. It was also noticeable that by far the greater number of these were of French manufacture, Unic, Darracq and, above all, the two-cylinder Renault that clung on for a very long time. The year, 1909, saw the first movement of a formed body of troops by road. It was, admittedly, a publicity stunt by the Automobile Association but the fact remained that a composite battalion of the Guards, complete with all impedimenta, was carried from London to Brighton and back in several hundred private cars at a good round speed and without a hitch. The only military lesson learned was that the service cap universally called a Brodrick, though St John Brodrick, Earl of Midleton, denied all responsibility for it, blew off for want of a chin-strap. This omission was made good. It was the AA, months before Lord Kitchener’s call, that coined the phrase ‘The First Hundred Thousand’. In July, 1914, its membership had reached 89,198 of whom 3,279 had been elected during the previous month or so. It was confidently expected that the magic figure would be reached by the time of the Olympia motor show and a great celebration dinner was planned. Fate, however, got in first. There was no motor show in August, 1914.

It was not the General Staff, however, but the Home Secretary who first realized that the motor car might have an unexpected military use. On a day in the wonderful summer of 1911 Mr Churchill attended a party at No 10 Downing Street where he fell into conversation with Sir Edward Henry, Chief Commissioner of Police. As they talked about the European situation and its gravity, Sir Edward casually remarked that by an odd arrangement the Home Office was responsible, through the Metropolitan Police, for guarding the whole of the Navy’s cordite reserves in the magazines at Chattenden and Lodge Hill. This being the first the Home Secretary had heard of it he pressed Sir Edward hard. The guard, it seemed, had for years consisted of a few London bobbies armed with truncheons. To the question of what would happen if a score of armed Germans turned up in motor-cars Mr Churchill received the interesting answer that they would be able to do as they liked. He left the garden party and telephoned the Admiralty. As both First Lord and First Sea Lord were absent he spoke to an Admiral ‘who shall be nameless’. He made it quite plain that he was not taking orders from any panicky civilian Minister and flatly refused to send Marines. A second call to Mr Haldane at the War Office had two companies of infantry installed within a few hours. The motor car had introduced something new into military matters.

It was left to that erratic genius Mr H. G. Wells to move things on a little further. Though the son of a professional cricketer, he had some ideas that were certainly not cricket. In 1903, being well into what is now called ‘science fiction’, a market that he had almost to himself, he sent to the Strand Magazine a story of some future war in which armed and armoured machines crawled over the countryside on their tracks and fought battles with each other. It was called The Land Ironclads. Later he warmed to his work and told not merely of wars in the air between various branches of the human race but also of battles with invaders from outer space. All were regarded with equal seriousness. The Holt tractor from America, an efficient petrol-driven machine running on tracks, was given a demonstration at Aldershot. Its faults, which were many, were pointed out; its virtues and potential were ignored. The military mind, mercifully, knew no national boundaries. Not only did no other War Office want Mr Holt’s tractor; none even wanted buses or lorries.

The scientific Germans, however, did not entirely abandon the idea. In 1913 a Herr Goebel produced a machine of his own design. It was, according to German custom, huge and ponderous; no picture seems to have survived but it was described as resembling what we know as a tank, to have been covered in thick armour and to have bristled with guns. In 1913 he drove it over a high obstacle at Pinne, in Posen; the following year he produced it before a huge crowd at the Berlin stadium. It broke down half way up the first bank and refused to be started again. The crowd became truculent and demanded its money back. Herr Goebel and his machine disappeared from history.

The Belgians took a few of their excellent Minerva cars to the Cockerill works in Antwerp and had them fitted with a mild steel armour. That apart, the armies of the great industrial powers of Europe walked slowly towards each other in the summer of 1914 with masses of man-power and animal-power as great armies had done since man discovered war. A reincarnated Wellington could have taken command of any of them after only the shortest refresher course.

In the rear areas of the BEF some concession was made towards modernity. The War Office as long ago as 1900 had set up a Mechanical Transport Committee, a brave gesture towards the coming century. It found little occupation in Pall Mall but survived the translation to Whitehall in 1907. In 1911, Coronation year, new life was breathed into it with the introduction of two subsidy schemes; these provided a means of mechanizing some parts of the Army on the cheap. Civilian companies were given money on the understanding that they would build vehicles more or less to a specification and would on mobilization hand them over. The scheme did not work out too badly. Each Division had a supply column of motor-lorries, working, theoretically, between railhead and the Divisional Train. Homely names on their sides like Waring & Gillow or J. Lyons rather spoilt the picture of a twentieth-century army but the Army Service Corps drivers plied their new trade well enough. All army ambulances remained horse-drawn; the best of the motor-driven ones were furnished, along with their crews, by those old reliables the British Red Cross Society and the Salvation Army.

On 31 May, 1915, Lord Kitchener submitted a secret report to the Cabinet which set out the entire state of affairs very clearly. On mobilization the Army had owned exactly 80 motor-lorries, 20 cars, 15 motor-cycles and 36 traction-engines. The subsidy scheme brought the lorry total to 807; another 334 had been instantly commandeered. The 20 cars simultaneously jumped by 193 and the motor-cycles by 116. On the day Kitchener signed the report there were on the strength a further 7,037 lorries, 1,694 cars, 2,745 motor-cycles and 1,151 motor-ambulances. The Army Service Corps had grown from 450 officers and 6,300 other ranks to ‘a strength today of 4,500 officers and 125,000 other ranks, i.e. 5,000 more than the whole of the Regular Forces in the United Kingdom previous to the outbreak of war’. Petrol, including that for the Royal Flying Corps, was being consumed at the rate of 35,000 gallons a day.

The war was still very young. On Armistice Day 1918 the Army had on charge in all theatres 121,692 motor vehicles along with 735,000 horses and mules.

Japanese Warrior Women

Indomitable: Hangaku Gozen rides into battle swinging her bloodstained naginata and wearing yoroi armor symbolic of leadership during the siege of Torisaka Castle (in present-day Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku) in 1201, after her clan rose up against the powerful Minamoto Shogunate in a (losing) medieval power struggle.

The study of Japanese history raises the often asked question of whether there were female warriors. There were indeed a number of them, right through until the late 1860s, though in some cases it is difficult to separate legend from fact. They were certainly not as numerous as, for example, Celtic female warriors. Among the better-known female warriors, one of Yoritomo’s relatives, his cousin Yoshinaka (1154–84, whom Yoritomo had killed), had a concubine Hangaku Gozen (ca.1160–1247) who is credited with taking a number of heads during the Genpei War, and in modern history Nakano Takako (1847–68) was killed fighting in the Boshin War of 1868–69. However, female warriors were not formally recognised as samurai. The term applied to them was onna bugeisha, meaning literally ‘women skilled in martial arts’.

A salient and thought-provoking characteristic of most ancient cultures is the predominant role played by women in the history and management of clan affairs. Historiography often seems to minimize the early, strongly matriarchal aspects of man’s social units; the frequently myopic views of chroniclers of later ages and periods, bent upon reinforcing the preconceived notions of their patrons, tend largely to either denigrate woman’s role in the military history of early civilizations or ignore it entirely. Ancient sagas, archaeological discoveries, and the painstaking work of anthropologists, however, indicate widespread participation by women in clan or tribal life in pre- and proto-historical times, from the icy lands of Northern Europe to the tropical cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in both ancient Sparta and the Celtic clans of Western Europe, as well as in nomad tribes roaming the steppes of Mongolia and, of course, in the many clan cultures of Southeast Asia and China.

In Japan, woman’s originally predominant role finds its first expression in the mythological records of that land, which traditionally emphasize the supremacy of Amaterasu, the solar goddess, among all the deities in the Japanese pantheon, as well as equating the position of Izanagi, the female, with that of Izanami, the male, on the fighting level. The long shadow cast by ancient matriarchal influence is also apparent in the predominance of the solar cult, which was female in its original Japanese conception.

Even the first chronicles of Japanese history are filled with the exploits of warrior queens leading their troops against enemy strongholds in the land of Yamato or across the straits to Korea. In time, the growing influence of Confucian doctrine began to reduce her position of preeminence, hedging her about with restrictions of every sort, which, however, were not always accepted as meekly as later historians would have us believe. In the Heian period we find her not on the battlefield perhaps, but occupying a position of prominence in the cultural hierarchy of the age. Certain aristocratic ladies of kuge status emerged as literary figures of astounding insight and sophistication. Their literary production, although not expressed in the rigid and pedantic forms of classical Chinese writing generally preferred by the scholars of the time, provides one of the first manifestations of a truly indigenous form of expression, whose depth of perception, as well as complex content, help to explain why the various empresses and aristocratic dames of Nara and Kyoto wielded such power, whether governing directly or guiding more subtly (if just as effectively) the affairs of state from places of retirement or seclusion.

From the provinces, a new breed of women, the female members of the buke, joined their menfolk in the struggle for political and military predominance. These women did not lead troops as in archaic times, but, steeped in the same martial tradition and clinging to those warlike customs which characterized their men as a class, they were a stern reflection of their male counterparts. As such, they acted to consolidate and reinforce those qualities considered of fundamental importance to the emerging class of the buke. The product of a particular system, the samurai woman became its soundest basis and transmitter.

One such woman was Lady Masa (Masako), wife of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo. Mere quoted Brinkley in describing her as “astute, crafty, resourceful and heroic,” adding:

During her husband’s lifetime she wielded immense influence and after his death she virtually ruled the empire. This seems to be the only recorded instance in the history of Japan when the supreme power was wielded by a woman who was neither Empress nor Empress-dowager. Nominally, of course, Lady Masa did not rule, but her power and influence were very real. (Mere, 16)

The samurai woman was trained to be as loyal and totally committed as her father, brothers, and husband to their immediate superior in the clan hierarchy and, like her male relatives, was expected to carry out every authorized assignment, including those which might involve force of arms. Thus it is not surprising to find in the literature of bujutsu the annotation that women of the buke were trained in the use of traditional weapons, which they were expected to use against a foe or, if necessary, to end their own lives. Moreover, many episodes concerning the rise of the warrior class mention women who played militarily determinant roles—even joining their menfolk on the battlefield upon occasion. Certain chronicles, for example, mention Tomoe, the wife of one of Yoshitomo’s nephews, Yoshinaka. Authors who have discussed her exploits are almost unanimous “in praising her great strength and skill with weapons, her superb horsemanship and her fearless courage” (Mere, 15). She used to ride into battle with her husband, leading and encouraging his troops with her initiative and bearing. She even displayed that peculiar anger typical of the professional fighter when an opponent handles him cavalierly. It is related, in fact, that she killed several enemy retainers in single combat at the battle of Azazu-no-Hara: “when their leader, Uchida Iyeyoshi, attempted to capture her, she struck her horse and her sleeve, which he had seized, was rent and a part of it was left in his hand. Angered at this, she wheeled her charger and attacking him in her turn, cut off his head, which she forthwith presented to her husband” (Mere, 14-15).

Among the weapons the samurai woman handled with skill was the spear, both the straight (yari) and the curved (naginata), which customarily hung over the doors of every military household and which she could use against charging foes or any unauthorized intruder found within the precincts of the clan’s establishment. She was also equally well versed in handling the short dagger (kaiken), which, like the male warrior’s wakizashi, was always carried on her person (usually in her sleeve or sash) and which she could deftly employ against armed foes in close combat or throw with deadly accuracy. This same dagger was the one a samurai woman would use if she undertook to commit ceremonial suicide, not by piercing her lower abdomen as would her male counterpart, but rather by cutting her throat in accordance with the exact rules of ritual suicide, which also instructed her in the correct manner of tying her ankles together, in order to insure that her body would be found properly composed, whatever her death agonies. Under the name jigai, in fact, suicide was as familiar to her as it was to her menfolk.

She not only accepted death resignedly at the hands of her male relatives or superiors if capture by enemy forces was imminent, but even dispatched the men herself if, for any reason, they were unable or unwilling to perform the ritual act, sparing neither herself nor her children in such a situation. One of the most ancient episodes concerning the making and executing of this decision in accordance with martial tradition is to be found in the ancient sagas which describe the destruction of the Taira clan during the great sea battle at Dan-no-Ura, in the straits of Shimonoseki. Nii-no-Ama, grandmother of the infant Emperor Antoku (son of Kiyomori’s daughter Tokuko or Kenrei-mon-in), when confronted with the alternative of surrendering to the warriors of the Minamoto clans, clasped the child tightly in her arms and plunged with him into the waves of the straits, followed by other court ladies and Tokuko as well. The emperor’s mother was rescued by force, but the others succeeded in drowning themselves and the infant heir.

The samurai woman also used suicide as a form of protest against an injustice she felt had been perpetrated against her by a superior. One of the most striking examples of this is related by François Caron (1600-73). The powerful lord of Higo had engineered the murder of one of his most loyal vassals so that he might include the beautiful wife of the deceased among his concubines. The woman requested a certain period of time within which to mourn and bury her husband and then asked the lord to assemble the highest dignitaries of the clan and her husband’s friends on the tower of his castle, ostensibly to celebrate the end of her mourning period. Since she might very well have stabbed herself with her kaiken if anyone had tried to force her to violate her mourning period, her requests were granted. On the appointed day, as the ceremony in honor of her slain husband drew to a close, she suddenly threw herself from the tower “and broke her neck” (Cooper, 83) before the very eyes of the lord of Higo, his vassals, and the dignitaries of the clan. This type of suicide, although not performed strictly in accordance with the rules of ritual suicide, was recognized as one of valid protest (kan-shi) against a master’s injustice. It created a dilemma in military minds, however, since it was also a breach of the code of absolute loyalty which dictated that the lady’s life was not hers to dispose of, especially not in such an independent manner.

Equally famous in Japanese literature and theater is the story of Kesa-gozen, the wife of an imperial guard in Kyoto during the twelfth century, when the buke was being drawn toward the imploding and collapsing center of the empire. This lady was the object of another warrior’s passion and he was determined to have her. When her pursuer planned to murder her husband in his sleep, she substituted herself in her husband’s bed and allowed herself to be decapitated in his stead, thus saving her honor and her husband’s life at one and the same time.

As ferocious and determined as male members of the buke, the samurai woman also took upon herself, when necessary, the duty of revenge which the particularly Japanese interpretation of Confucian doctrine had rendered both an absolute and virtually automatic response to the death or dishonor of one’s lord. “Not only did man consider it his duty to avenge his family or lord,” wrote Dautremer, “but woman herself did not fail before the task. Of this, Japanese history gives us many instances” (Dautremer, 83). Even throughout the long and debilitating Tokugawa period, she remained generally attached (often even more strongly than her male counterpart) to the clan’s rule of loyalty, that is, to the uji-no-osa and, by delegation, to her husband. In an era characterized by the degeneration of martial virtues, by effeminate behavior, profligacy, and dissipation within the “floating world” (ukiyo) of a new culture, she was noted for her chastity, fidelity, and self-control. For centuries, she remained a forbidding figure, clearly traditionalist and conservative in outlook and action, who clung tenaciously to the martial ethos of her clan not only in essence (which the Tokugawa period was diluting substantially), but also in form and paraphernalia.

As the nucleus of those households which even today maintain the ties linking them to the feudal past, many of these women continue to resist change and bring up their children beneath the aristocratic shadow of the family’s kami—an ancient suit of armor before which sticks of incense burn night and day. Many of their sons enter the military academies of Japan, while their daughters face one another across the spacious dojo where the ancient art of naginatajutsu is taught to them, as well as to other girls of lesser military lineage but of equally intense attachment to the tradition which produced the samurai woman.

The Role of the Arms-Bearing Women in Japanese History

Anglo-Saxon Military Organisation Part I

Recruitment and Obligation

The words used by Anglo-Saxons themselves for ‘army’ vary between the word ‘fyrd’ and the word ‘here’. Historically the word fyrd (from ‘faran’–to travel) has been taken to mean ‘an expeditionary force’, which may not in essence be correct. The contexts in which the words here and fyrd are used in the contemporary texts tend to point to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd being a defensive type of army and the here being an offensive kind. Both Danish and English armies could be described as a here provided they were somehow on the offensive. Few subjects, however, are more obscure and controversial in the world of Anglo-Saxon military studies as that of how the fyrd of the Later Anglo-Saxon era was supplied with its men.

It was the right of an Anglo-Saxon freeman to bear arms. Central to the historic arguments over how Anglo-Saxon armies were formed was the role of the ‘ceorl’, the free peasant warrior. Ideas varied for centuries as to whether an Anglo-Saxon army was essentially one of noble warriors who were summoned by the king in return for land and privileges, or whether it was a general levy of able-bodied freemen, or even a mixture of both. These arguments had their basis in political perceptions of the origins of Englishness and the contemporary spin that people put on it. Was the Anglo-Saxon army some sort of socialist utopia or a system more closely linked to post-Conquest feudalism and aristocratic bonds? The view often held by Victorian historians that the Anglo-Saxon army was somehow a ‘nation at arms’ is not generally accepted today but remnants of the idea of it still can be found in the modern literature.

Historians have tried to address exactly how the mechanics of military obligation worked. How would anyone be made to come to battle and what would they do if they could not? It is now generally accepted that the key to understanding how this worked is in acknowledging the mechanic that drove the whole thing–the personal lordship bond. It has been argued, with growing success, that the lordship ties that held society together were central to the military process throughout the whole period.

In the early 1960s, Warren Hollister provided a seductive solution to the whole problem, acknowledging the diversity of opinion on the matter. The fyrd was not in fact one, but two things. There was a Great Fyrd which consisted of a kind of poorly armed peasant ‘nation at arms’, and there was a Select Fyrd consisting of semi-professional, well-equipped, land-owning warriors whose obligations were based on the 5-hide land-holding unit. The linchpin around which Hollister constructed his theory was a now widely quoted passage in the Domesday Book for Berkshire: ‘If the king sent an army anywhere, only one soldier went from five hides, and four shillings were given him from each hide as subsistence and wages for two months. This money, indeed, was not sent to the king but was given to the soldiers.’ Here, then, was the Select Fyrdsman, a warrior supported by funding, whose duty was to attend the royal host. The fact that he brought money with him hints at the likelihood that there was somewhere arranged for him to spend it. But to find out why the Berkshire thegn bothers at all to turn up for the king, we need to dig deeper into history.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period, when a king summoned his fyrd, he would expect his personal retainers (‘gesiðas’, or companions) to arm themselves and would expect the duties of his ‘duguð’ (senior landed retainers with a proven military track record) to be fulfilled. The duguð were men who had served with their lord’s household throughout their youth and had been rewarded with a little land themselves upon which to found their own group of dependent men. Given the right circumstances, such a man could rise to become as powerful as the lord he served. They would turn up for campaign with their own retinues consisting of people who had received from them various gifts such as rings, treasures and war gear. Above the duguð was a senior warlord for whom all this was being done. Ultimately, the head of the kin group was the man whose influence, wealth and gift-giving capabilities were the greatest. He was the king. The very word ‘king’ comes from the Old English ‘cyning’, which means ‘chief of kinsmen’. Understandably, in a system such as this his power was immense.

Law code 51 of King Ine of Wessex (688–726) spells out the consequences of neglecting fyrd service: ‘If a gesiðcund man who holds land neglects military service, he shall pay 120 shillings and forfeit his land; [a nobleman] who holds no land shall pay 60 shillings; a cierlisc [free peasant] shall pay 30 shillings as penalty for neglecting the fyrd.’ This law is thought to reflect the structure of the earlier Anglo-Saxon armies in that when a king called out his fyrd it would consist of his own landed companions, those who owed service to these men through some other gift exchange, and the free peasants who served them.

However, by the eighth century the rise in the power and wealth of the Church had begun to throw a spanner in the works. The Church required its land in perpetuity and not just for the lifetime of the king who gave it. A system came into being called Bookland. This grant of land to the Church came with no obligations from the Church to the king except, it seems, for the securing of his soul in heaven. But for the king, it meant that the land was permanently removed from his financial and administrative system and given to his ultimate lord, God himself.

Bookland was a problem that took time to materialise but which had inevitable consequences for the kings of middle Saxon England. The more land you gave away free from military service dues, the smaller your warrior base became and potentially your kingdom would become vulnerable to other kings or raiders. The answer to the problem was found in the kingdom of Mercia. King Æthelbald (716–57) decreed that churches and monasteries could hold their land free from all dues except bridge building and the defence of fortifications. The mighty King Offa (757–96) extended this to the all-important fyrd duty. Thus, the three necessities, or ‘common burdens’, were founded. These burdens became the bedrock of military recruitment across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England until they were modified by Alfred the Great (871–900) in his grand reforms of the ninth century.

At around the same time as the Bookland issue was being resolved there was a change in terminology being employed. The duguð was a term in decline and seems to have been replaced by the word ‘thegn’, which soon came to be a widely used term across the country. The thegn held the Bookland from the king in return for military service. The nobleman who held the large estate known as the ‘scir’, or ‘shire’, would be the ealdorman.

So, the nature of recruitment on the eve of the Viking invasions at the end of the eighth century was fairly straightforward. The armies of Anglo-Saxon England ranged from small warbands of local thegns to larger more territorial units commanded by ealdorman who were protecting their shires. Above this was the royal host called out by the king himself which in effect was made up of numerous groups of thegns, ealdormen and their retinues. All of the constituent parts of these forces came to the battlefield through the duties imposed upon them by lordship ties bound by a mixture of gift giving and land tenure.

The activities of the larger hosts throughout this period are well documented since they are the instruments of the king. Wars between Saxon kingdoms such as Wessex and Mercia, or between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms, feature in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But when Alfred the Great first fought the Great Heathen Army alongside his brother King Æthelred I, the chroniclers make a revealing statement about how armies were then organised. The entry for 871 says that during that year there were nine ‘general’ engagements between the West Saxons and the Danes. This figure did not count the expeditions that the king’s brother (Alfred), ealdormen and king’s thegns often rode on. The message here is clear: senior noblemen, ealdormen and king’s thegns were each capable of mounting their own military expeditions outside of the activities of the royal host. The king’s host would of course take weeks to gather together. Importantly, the chronicler mentions that these smaller forces ‘rode’ on their campaigns.

So, how did military provision change during Alfred’s reign? The answer lies in the years after the watershed Battle of Edington (878) when Alfred finally rid himself of Guthrum the Dane in a famous encounter. After Edington, over the next two decades, Alfred instigated a series of fortified places throughout his kingdom resulting in an entirely new type of defence: a defence-in-depth system in which no two forts were more than around 20 miles apart. The impact of these forts and how they were manned is examined below, but the most important point of the reforms was that the fyrd was organised into a three-part system.

We are told by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the entry for 894 in a passage that describes the strategic manoeuvring against the renewed Viking threat in south-east England, that ‘The king had separated his army into two so that there was always half at home and half out, except for those men who had to hold the fortresses. The raiding army did not come out in full from those positions more than twice.’ Ample evidence, then, for a system that had its obvious benefits. With a strategically gifted commander such as Alfred, and with numerous manpower resources spread deliberately over the landscape, the new kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was to be a well-defended place indeed. This kingdom was born out of the combination of Wessex and the English parts of Mercia. Eventually, it would expand under King Athelstan (924–39) to become the Kingdom of the English. The new mechanism meant that there was always one part of the force at home on their estates, another in the field at a state of readiness and a third part on fortress duty. They could act in coordination with one another or mount their own expeditions. It was a plan based on Alfred’s own observations of the Carolingian model, which in itself probably borrowed from a papal Italian arrangement for the defence of Rome. The point is that it worked. Despite some notable problems when one Anglo-Saxon force’s tour of duty had expired before its replacements could take over from it–as happened in 893 at Thorney Island –it remains the case that the Anglo-Saxon armies of southern England were vastly better organised than they had been when the Vikings first descended upon Wessex.

Alfred’s reorganisation still required strong leadership to put into action. Moreover, one fundamental thing remained unchanged and that was the basic make-up of the fyrd. It still comprised the same people. The cost of all this, however, was immense. Inevitably, the system was doomed to be a hostage to neglect. After the reign of King Edgar (959–75) during which the Anglo-Saxons had achieved an unprecedented level of power in the British Isles, the recruitment system in part fell back upon makeshift levies based on land tenures measured in hidage. The grand fortification schemes employed by Alfred, his son Edward the Elder (900–24) and his grandson Athelstan (924–39) had in places fallen into disrepair, leaving England vulnerable once again to Viking attack. This is not to say that King Æthelred (979–1016) did not attempt to rectify the situation–in fact, far from it. Æthelred’s attempted reforms, particularly in respect of naval provision, were ambitious to say the least. Between 1008 and 1013 the king instigated reforms which included the construction across the country of a navy of around 200 ships and the provision of mailcoats for thousands of warriors. However, all the time the king had to pay increasingly burdensome sums of money to pay off the Danes and soon he even took on a Danish contingent of his own which required feeding and provisioning.

The 5-hide unit is usually associated with a thegnly rank, this being an amount of land that qualifies its holder in that rank. However, it is clear from Domesday Book that there was great variety in the land-based obligation, varying wildly from region to region. A nobleman holding just a few hides might be required to provide a warrior, while an estate of well over 5 hides might only be obliged to provide just a single warrior. It depended on the nature of the arrangement between the landholder and the king. If an estate had to provide more than one warrior, the head of the estate would need to recruit from his tenants or find a way of replacing what he could not provide with a money payment so the king could hire a mercenary.

What seems not to have changed was the bond through lordship that drove the obligation. As if to reinforce this notion at a time when service seems to have been widely based on land-holding arrangements, the Danish king of England Cnut (1016–36) came up with a stringent law for deserting one’s lord:

Concerning the man who deserts his lord. And the man who, through cowardice, deserts his lord or his comrades on a military expedition, either by sea or by land, shall lose all that he possesses and his own life, and the lord shall take back the property and the land which he had given him. And if he has book-land it shall pass into the king’s hand.

By the time of the Battle of Hastings, it is still the case that King Harold’s army would have been recruited largely through the bond of personal lordship ties. Land tenure based on the 5-hide unit certainly came into it, but so too did the royal purse and the provision therein for mercenary hire. While not as rigidly organised as the armies of the later Alfredian period, those of 1066 were just as capable of providing results in the field.

What do we know, however, of how long it took any of these armies to gather a force into the field? We have precious little evidence to answer this question, but what little we do have points to the reasons why it was so easy for Scandinavian coastal predators to achieve so much in a short space of time. We know from the 871 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry that units of mounted men under the command of local nobles were able to put into the field almost immediately, but were small in number. Larger hosts, however, took longer to gather. Alfred’s famous call to arms of 878 issued from Athelney to the remainder of his core supporters in surrounding shires bore fruition in the seventh week after Easter, but it is not certain when the call went out. It was a nervous wait for Alfred, but when the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and parts of Hampshire answered his call, they joined him at his camp at Egbert’s Stone and were ready to march with him the next day to Illey Oak and thence to Edington.

The Danish assault on Norwich in 1004 gives a clearer idea. The Danish force seems not to have been of a size that any mounted rapid-reaction-style force could deal with. Instead, Ulfcytel Snilling, the local East Anglian leader, was obliged to play for time by buying peace from the army while he raised his force. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is specific that Ulfcytel had not had time enough to gather his own army at this point. The Danes stole away to Thetford and Ulfcytel’s order for their ships to be broken up fell on deaf ears. It was three weeks since their first assault on Norwich when the Danes torched and sacked Thetford. The following morning they prepared to return to their ships when Ulfcytel’s East Anglians fell upon them, forcing a battle. It was a hard-fought battle which Ulfcytel ultimately lost. However, it is explicitly stated that had Ulfcytel’s numbers been up to full strength the Danes would never have made it back to their ships. So it would seem then that three weeks is barely enough time to raise a sizable force to match that of the invader. This gives an idea as to the desperation of the year 1016–a year of endemic warfare in England–when King Edmund Ironside was compelled to call out the ‘national’ host at least five times for extensive campaigning.

The year of 1066 provides its own clues, although we have to be mindful of the possibilities that Harold had with him at all times a household force of a size enough to deal with all manner of problems, probably in the form of his own and his brothers’ retinues and his Danish mercenaries. Nevertheless, he decided to disband his army in the south of England on 8 September 1066, but then heard of the Norwegian invasion in the north and arrived at Tadcaster on 24 September 1066. Similarly, on his dash to London–a journey of some 190 miles–the passage of time is around two weeks, but it is clear from the sources that this was not enough time for a full host to be properly gathered. Harold’s reasons for his actions and his failure to wait at London for reinforcements may be perfectly justified based on what his strategic thinking was at the time, but once again the lesson is that two or three weeks is barely enough for a full host to form.

Quite how the fyrd was mustered is another question that puzzles historians. Messengers will certainly have been used, but did they use any devices to show the king’s will? It has been suggested from very little evidence that token wooden swords may have been used to symbolise a summons to the host. This has been based on finds of such items, sometimes with runic inscriptions from Frisia, Denmark and the Low Countries. The era is not the same (these being late Roman Iron Age or Dark Age discoveries), nor is it directly the same culture, but the intriguing possibility remains that the Anglo-Saxon messenger, when arriving at the residence of our thegn who was to prepare for war, may well have left a physical token of his visit.

The Size and Structure of Armies

The size of the armies of Anglo-Saxon England has been a subject of controversy for many years. It is generally thought that during the Migration period of the fifth and sixth centuries the average size of a warband could scarcely have numbered more than a few hundred. This much is gleaned from the historic and archaeological evidence from what is known of the Danish late Roman Iron Age Continental bog finds of warrior weaponry and what is drawn from the words of renowned ancient Roman authorities such as Tacitus. As early as the late seventh century King Ine of Wessex (688–726) was moved to categorise numbers of armed men: ‘We call up to seven men thieves; from seven to thirty-five a band; above that is an army.’ There is not a great deal that can be deduced from this code, however. Ine’s army was in fact a here. It is probably the case that fyrds and heres of the eighth century were no larger than an extended warband, perhaps numbering just a few hundred. Not until the later Anglo-Saxon period do things take on a quantifiable dimension, if only to confound us with the probability that we are only ever looking at an inherent manpower capability of a kingdom that probably never put all its available men in the field at any one time. Except, that is, for the post-reform period of Alfred’s reign.

A good example is the document known as the Burghal Hidage. Datable probably to the tenth century, it gives specific garrison strengths for thirty-three strongholds built across Alfred’s Wessex and parts of Mercia. It even gives a formula for calculating the garrisons in term of the length of fort’s walls and the numbers of hides providing men to garrison them. The upshot of all this is that across his kingdom Alfred had a burghal garrison strength of around 27,000 men. The figure for all the land south of the Thames was probably larger in reality because the Burghal Hidage does not list the obviously cooperative Kentish strongholds such as Canterbury and Rochester, nor does it cover Cornwall. Moreover, Alfred’s kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons expanded into Danish Mercia during the tenth century to become the Kingdom of the English under Edward the Elder (900–24) and Athelstan (924–39). By the time of King Edgar (959–75), whose kingdom stretched from the south coast to the borders of Scotland, it must surely be the case that the king and his regional ealdormen were capable of raising forces in the field whose numbers were at the very lowest in their thousands.

Writing about the famous events in London in 1016, the German Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg claims he heard there were 24,000 ‘byrnies’ (mailcoats) in London. Even he thought this was incredible, so it is unlikely to be a casual exaggeration. Quite what has happened to all these mailcoats is a matter only for speculation. But the most obvious place to go if we want to make a guess at the near un-guessable, is to look at the Domesday Book and throw around a few figures. Judging from what we have shown so far about the apportionment of land and its division into hides, we might note that the Domesday Book records a total of 80,000 plough teams in the kingdom of England. The duty imposed by Æthelred II (979–1016) in 1008 requiring a ship from every 300 hides and a helmet and byrnie from every 8 hides would indicate on the face of it a ‘royal’ navy of 267 ships and an army comprising around 10,000 mail-clad warriors. Add to these armoured men their lesser armoured retainers at a ratio of say 2:1 and you have an army of 30,000 men. But even this figure is conservative given our knowledge of the Alfredian garrison strength of Wessex alone. Quite how many of these men took to the field at any one time when required is another matter. The actual numbers in any one army of the period must therefore have varied wildly.

One last observation on numbers goes to the Battle of Hastings. Here, the English army is harder to quantify than that of the Normans. The Norman army is well recorded and much research has been carried out as to the likely numbers who came to England in September of 1066. These figures, which are based on calculations relating to the number of recorded ships, the actual available men in Normandy and William’s mercenary contingents, in most people’s estimations amount to a force of between about 5,000 and 7,000 men. Although it is the result of educated guesswork, the consensus has been that the division of Norman forces was probably along lines of around 2,000 cavalry, 800 archers, 3,000 infantry, 1,000 sailors and logistical support men.

But what of the Anglo-Saxon army at Hastings? William apparently was told that he was likely to be swamped by English numbers when Harold’s army arrived. The English army was led by Harold and his brothers Leofwin and Gyrth, each with personal retinues numbering probably in their hundreds. We cannot be sure how many Danes were in the army, although it is suggested by William of Poitiers that these were ‘considerable’ and had been sent by the king of Denmark to help the English. To the Danes we must add the numbers of men gathered (or at least warned to attend the host) along the way. While these may have taken time to join Harold’s force and get to London, there is mention in the twelfth-century Robert Wace’s account of the regions from which the king recruited his force. These comprised the men of London itself, Kent, Hertford, Essex, Surrey, St Edmunds, Suffolk, Norwich, Norfolk, Canterbury, Stamford, Bedford, Huntingdon, Northampton, York, Buckingham, Nottingham, Lindsey, Lincoln, Salisbury, Dorset, Bath, Somerset, Gloucester, Worcester, Hampshire and Berkshire. We cannot be sure how authentic this evidence is, or whether each of the regions answered their call. It does not represent the entire ‘national’ host, either, which may be why William of Malmesbury suggested Harold’s numbers were not as high as they might have been. However, if we assign an unlikely low figure of 200 men per place mentioned, we come up with a force of 5,400 men before we have even added our Danes and earl’s retinues. It is small wonder then that when William of Poitiers (borrowing his style from the ancients) described the English army emerging from the Wealden forest to the north of Senlac Ridge he said, ‘If an author from antiquity had described Harold’s army, he would have said that as it passed rivers dried up, the forests became open country. For from every part of the country large numbers of English had gathered.’ If the numbers themselves are difficult to pinpoint, the evidence outlined above must surely suggest that the Anglo-Saxon military system, however allegedly archaic and obsolete by 1066, was capable of sending a force of up to 10,000 or more men to Senlac Ridge that October morning. We should not underestimate this capability.

But what form did these armies take in the field? How were they structured? At the top, of course, was the chief kinsman, the king. Around him in the later period were the men who constituted his household retinue, heavily armoured infantrymen. Also at the king’s disposal from the time of Æthelred were the Danish mercenaries available as a separate subordinate command, probably protected with mail armour and equipped with Dane-Axes. Further still, according to Wace in his Roman de Rou, the men of London fought around the king, presumably as heavy infantry spearmen. Wace also tells us that it was protocol for the Kent fyrd to be the first into battle. John of Salisbury also recalls this right of the Kent fyrd, a very prestigious right, but he adds that after Kent, the next in order to fight would have been the men of Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall. The king’s close kinsmen, such as brothers and sons (æthelings), would have their own entourages around them with the exception of the mercenaries and Londoners. If they were all travelling together, the size of this force alone would have been considerable. Next, the regional ealdormen, or earls, who took their place would also form separate command units and they would bring along with them the thegns and their men, the ceorls, or free peasants from their estates, armed and equipped variously. These forces were organised by shire, hundred and ‘soke’ (private holdings). It is very clear that the armies of the later Anglo-Saxon period were both numerous and structured.

Film: STALINGRAD (1993)


Stalingrad is a German war film directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Starring Thomas Kretschmann as Lt. Hans von Witzland, the movie follows a platoon of World War II Wehrmacht soldiers from Italy in the summer of 1942 as they are transferred to the German Sixth Army, which finds itself surrounded and besieged by the Red Army during the fateful Battle of Stalingrad during the winter of 1942–1943.


The Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942–2 February 1943) was one of the largest (nearly 2.2 million personnel involved) and bloodiest battles ever fought. After 13 weeks of street-to-street combat in the fall of 1942, the Germans had taken most of the city—reduced to rubble from aerial bombardment and shelling—but they had neglected to shore up their weak flanks to the north and south. On 19 November 1942 the Russians launched Operation Uranus, a surprise massive counterattack on those flanks that quickly surrounded and ultimately destroyed the German Sixth Army in a giant pincer movement. Total Axis casualties (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) are believed to have been more than 250,000 dead, 450,000 wounded, and 91,000 captured—a devastating defeat that essentially sealed the doom of Hitler’s Third Reich. Over the ensuing decades a number of documentary and fiction films, German and Russian, have been made about this decisive WWII battle, but the best of them remains Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad. The film originates with Christoph Fromm, a young German screenwriter who wrote a screenplay (c.1990) based on extensive research, including numerous interviews, that places fictive characters in the 336th Pioneer Battalion, 336th Infantry Division, a real unit that fought at Stalingrad. Producers Günter Rohrbach and Hanno Huth acquired Fromm’s script and hired director Joseph Vilsmaier to turn it into a movie for Bavaria Film. Vilsmaier and co-writers Jürgen Büscher and Johannes Heide retained Fromm’s characters and basic narrative structure, but extensively reworked the material, making it less a documentary and more of “a movie with feelings,” as Vilsmaier later put it—so much so that Fromm took his name off the project and later published his version as a novel (Stalingrad—Die Einsamkeit vor dem Sterben [Stalingrad—The Loneliness Before Dying]).


In order to show the declining health and weight loss of its main protagonists, Stalingrad was shot in sequence between October 1991 and April 1992. The opening moments were filmed on location in Cervo, Liguria, Italy, while the Stalingrad scenes were shot in Prague and in Kurivody, Ceská Lípa District of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), and in Kajaani and Kemijärvi, Finland. Additional interiors were shot on sets at Bavaria Studios, Geiselgasteig, Germany. There was no filming at Stalingrad itself (now Volgograd); destroyed during the Nazi siege, the city was completely rebuilt after the war so there were no period buildings. Vilsmaier’s production team made every effort to ensure authenticity; they found 9,000 original World War II uniforms, period weapons, and a number of World War II–era Soviet tanks that were still operational. In addition to the 40 actors with speaking roles, the movie employed a production team of 180 technicians, 12,000 extras (mostly Czechs and Germans), and 100 stunt persons. Vilsmaier also combed a veterans’ hospital near Prague for extras missing arms and legs. The world’s largest snowmaking machine was used during the filming of the winter scenes, some of which were shot in the dead of winter with temperatures as low as −22° F (−30° C). The production budget was an estimated 20 million Deutschemarks ($13.2 million).

Plot Summary

In August 1942, after the First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942) ends in a stalemate, German soldiers who fought with Rommel’s Afrika Korps enjoy leave in Cervo, Liguria, Italy. At an assembly of the battalion, some of the men are awarded the Allgemeines Sturmabzeichen [General Assault Badge], including Unteroffizier [Sgt.] Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder (Jochen Nickel) and Obergefreiter [Senior Lance-corporal] Fritz Reiser (Dominique Horwitz). Both men meet Lieutenant Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann), a platoon commander on his first leadership posting, and the squadron travels by train to participate in the Battle of Stalingrad. Witzland’s unit links up with a group led by Hauptmann [Captain] Hermann Musk (Karel Heřmánek), who takes them on an attack of a factory building, resulting in a large number of deaths and injuries. During a ceasefire, the unit retrieves their injured soldiers and manages to take a prisoner: Kolya (Pavel Mang), a young Russian boy. However, Russian forces swarm the next day, and the boy escapes. Without a working radio, von Witzland, Reiser, Rollo, Emigholtz (Heinz Emigholz), “GeGe” Müller (Sebastian Rudolph), and Wölk (Zdenek Vencl) take to the sewers to find their way back to the German front. Witzland is soon on his own, having lost his unit underground, but is able to capture a Russian soldier named Irina (Dana Vávrová), who lures him into a sense of safety by offering to help him, but betrays him by pushing him into the water before running off. Witzland is saved by his men, but Emigholtz is severely wounded when he unwittingly detonates a booby trap. His comrades take him to a crowded aid station full of severely wounded soldiers screaming in agony, and Reiser orders an aid worker to help his friend, pointing a gun at the orderly. Emigholtz dies, despite their efforts. Hauptmann Haller (Dieter Okras) captures the men and sets them up in a penal unit forced to disarm landmines. By late November 1942, a brutally cold winter season has arrived, and the Soviet forces have outflanked the Germans. Hauptmann Musk sends the penal unit to the frontline, and Witzland’s squadron has some initial success defending their position, but Wölk dies in the process. Witzland, GeGe, and Reiser then decide to desert. They steal medical tags from corpses to feign being wounded and head towards Pitomnik Airfield, in the center of the “cauldron” (pocket), in hopes of catching a medical evacuation plane out of Stalingrad. However, they arrive too late and watch as the final transport heads out without them and the airfield is riddled with bullets from the Russian forces. They return to their unit in a shelter and see that Musk is afflicted by a bad case of trench foot. When a German plane arrives with supplies, the unit hurries out to secure provisions. Haller accosts them at gunpoint and is taken down, but he kills GeGe as he hits the ground. Making a desperate play for his life, Haller tells the men that he has a stash of supplies hidden at a local house, but Otto executes him. The men find the house in question full of provisions, but they also find Irina bound to Haller’s bed as his sex slave. Von Witzland frees Irina, and she tells the men that she collaborated with the Germans. The squad help themselves to food and drink, while a feverish and dying Musk tries to convince them to fight on. Otto commits suicide instead. Once Musk dies, Rollo brings his body outside and sees the remaining members of the German Sixth Army conceding to the Russian forces. Irina, Witzland, and Reiser make their way through the snow to escape, but shots from the Soviets kill Irina and mortally wound Witzland. The Germans manage to get away. Witzland eventually succumbs to his wounds and perishes in Reiser’s arms. Reiser holds his dead commander, thinking about North Africa as he eventually freezes to death.


Stalingrad premiered in Munich, Germany on 21 January 1993 but was not released in the United States until 24 May 1995, after it had already gone to video. Box office numbers are unknown, but anecdotal information suggests that the movie was not profitable—perhaps not surprising, insofar as Stalingrad is one of the bleakest movies ever made. It did, however, receive mostly positive reviews. Stephen Holden notes that Stalingrad “has some of the most virtuosic battle scenes to be found in a modern war film” but also observes that the movie “is so determined to show the horrors of war that [it] doesn’t devote quite enough time to its major characters” (Holden, 1995, p. C19). Peter Stack called the film “grimly beautiful” and found the soldiers depicted as “anything but reverent toward their leaders … Stalingrad is rough yet fascinating viewing. Delving into the brutal realities of war with an almost docudrama style, it renders a bitter, almost choking sense of the futility of war through the destruction not only of bodies, but of the human spirit” (Stack, 1995).

Reel History Versus Real History

In its display of uniforms, weapons, and tanks and its visceral rendering of combat in urban and open settings, including severe casualties, atrocities, and the abysmal conditions faced by the trapped remnants of the Sixth Army, Stalingrad achieves a high degree of historical accuracy. Focused at the squad level, the film is not able to convey or even suggest the enormous scope and complexity of the Battle of Stalingrad (a task better left to documentaries).

PATTON (1970)


Patton is an American biopic/war epic directed by Franklin J. Schaffner from a script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. The film focuses on General George S. Patton (played by George C. Scott) during his World War II service as commander of the U.S. Seventh and Third armies.


General George Smith Patton Jr. (1885–1945), commander of the U.S. Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany during World War II, was one of the most colorful and controversial figures in modern American military history. Known as “Old Blood and Guts,” Patton was a strutting, profanity-spouting, war-loving egomaniac, but also an effective military leader much feared by America’s enemies—and sometimes feared and reviled by his own men. Frank McCarthy (1912–1986), a staff officer with Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II and a Hollywood producer after the war, knew Patton and regarded his story as eminently screen-worthy. When he proposed a Patton film to his boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox in October 1951, Zanuck gave the go-ahead, but it would be another 19 years before the project came to fruition. Patton’s widow and other members of the Patton family obstructed McCarthy, fearing that a Hollywood biopic would caricature Patton and sully his memory (Toplin, 1996, pp. 158–159). McCarthy was only able to move forward after Ladislas Farago’s biography, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph provided a source copious enough upon which to base a biopic without recourse to family sources. 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to Farago’s book and to Gen. Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story. In 1965, after rejecting several script drafts by other writers, Frank McCarthy hired an up-and-coming 26-year-old screenwriter named Francis Ford Coppola, paid him $50,000, and gave him six months to carve a coherent narrative out of Patton’s complex life and military career. Coppola wisely made two tactical decisions early on that allowed him to create a fine script. After doing his research, Coppola concluded that “Patton was obviously out of his mind” (Phillips, 2004, pp. 31–32). A script that celebrated George Patton’s bizarre war-mongering would be ridiculous but one that merely vilified him would be rejected out of hand, so Coppola split the difference by writing an ambiguous script that emphasized Patton’s dual nature—part lunatic, part super-warrior—and depicted him as an anachronistic, Quixotic figure who really belonged to a bygone era. Coppola’s other choice was an easy one: to focus exclusively on Patton’s life during the Second World War, a span of only two years and ten months (ten months of which he was sidelined), that kept the narrative tightly focused and action packed. McCarthy engaged William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) to direct the picture but Wyler didn’t like Coppola’s unconventional script, so James Webb (Cheyenne Autumn) was brought in to write a new version. To play Patton, McCarthy and the studio wanted George C. Scott, a superb actor and ironically an avowed pacifist, but Scott found Webb’s script too reductive so he bowed out. Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, and Lee Marvin all turned down the role. John Wayne badly wanted to play Patton but his utterly dissimilar appearance, laconic manner, and narrow range as an actor made him a poor choice to play the shorter, more volatile, and markedly more educated and intelligent Patton. Fortunately, George C. Scott consented to do the film when McCarthy agreed to revert back to Coppola’s script, though veteran screenwriter Edmund H. North (Twelve O’Clock High) made further revisions. Scott then proceeded to do exhaustive research on Patton, watching newsreels and reading and re-reading every Patton biography in order to master his character. In the meantime Wyler dropped out as director and was replaced by Frank Schaffner (Planet of the Apes). By early 1969, after five years of shuffling and reshuffling, Frank McCarthy finally had a script, a star, and a director.


Principal photography began outside of Segovia, Spain, on 1 February 1969. Patton was filmed at 71 locations in six countries, but most of it was shot in Spain because Francisco Franco’s Spanish Army could provide the needed WWII equipment—though the rental of troops and equipment consumed half the film’s $12 million production budget. The film’s opening, showing the aftermath of the American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, was shot at the ruins of Tabernas Castle in Almeria Province on the coast of southern Spain. The place where Patton halts Rommel’s advance towards Messina is located just below the village of Turillas, 12 miles east of Tabernas. Some 600 Almeria residents worked as extras for the scene depicting Patton’s arrival in Palermo, Sicily, which was actually filmed in Nicolás Salmerón Park in the City of Almeria. After the Battle of El Guettar, Patton meets his new aide de camp at his headquarters, which was in reality the Governor’s Palace of Almeria, and when Patton marches down a long corridor after the slapping incident, he is actually in La Granja Palace near Madrid. The winter scenes in Belgium were actually shot near Segovia. The scene depicting Patton driving up to an ancient city that is implied to be Carthage was actually shot in the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis in northwest Morocco. Patton’s speech to the troops that opens the movie was shot at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Plot Summary

Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott), in full military regalia, strides on to a stage at some undisclosed location in Europe during World War II. With a giant American flag behind him, he addresses an unseen group of American troops to rally them in support of the war, zeroing in on the importance of “winning” American style. The film proper begins with the humiliating American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass (19 February 1943–25 February 1943). Replacing Major General Lloyd Fredendall, Patton is put in charge of the U.S. Army’s II Corps in North Africa. Upon his arrival, he cracks down on the soldiers and enforces rules, for example, demanding that soldiers wear ties and fining a cook for not wearing his Army-issue uniform. At a meeting with RAF Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (John Barrie), Patton takes issue with Coningham for having discredited the notion that lack of air cover contributed to the American defeat. Coningham apologizes and promises Patton that he will see no more German planes. Seconds later Luftwaffe planes bomb and strafe the area, and Patton emerges from cover to fire his .45 at them. In the next scene, Patton defeats a German attack at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia (23 March–3 April 1943), but his aide-de-camp, Major Richard N. Jenson (Morgan Paull), is killed in the battle. Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman (Paul Stevens) replaces him. Patton is disappointed to learn that Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of the Afrika Korps, was on medical leave with diphtheria. Codman reassures him that “If you’ve defeated Rommel’s plan, you’ve defeated Rommel.” After victory in the North Africa campaign, Patton and Sir Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) formulate competing plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Patton’s plan is to lead his Seventh Army to the northwest sending Montgomery to the southeast area of the island in an attempt to trap German and Italian units. Their superior officer, Gen. Alexander (Jack Gwillim), likes Patton’s plan, but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (not portrayed on screen) opts for Montgomery’s conservative approach. As a result, Patton’s army heads southeast to cover Montgomery’s troops. All land without a hitch, but the Allied advance is sluggish, and Patton takes matters into his own hands. Going against his superiors, Patton leads his men to Palermo in the northwest, then continues on to Messina, outpacing Montgomery to their objective (17 August 1943). Patton states that his contention with Montgomery stems from Montgomery’s inability to admit his own vanity and glory-seeking ambitions. However, Patton’s methods do not go over well with the men he commands, Major Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) and Major Gen. Lucian Truscott (John Doucette). While on a visit to a field hospital (early August 1943) crowded with battle casualties, Patton sees a shaken soldier weeping (Tim Considine). Angrily labeling the soldier a coward, Patton assaults him and threatens to kill him, then concludes the interaction by insisting that the soldier return to the frontline. When Eisenhower learns of the incident, he relieves Patton of his command and orders him to offer apologies to the wronged soldier, to all occupants of the field hospital, and to his command, one unit at a time. Eisenhower also sidelines Patton during the D-Day landings (6 June 1944), placing him in command of the phantom First U.S. Army Group in southeast England as a decoy, which works; German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl (Richard Münch) posits that Patton will lead the charge through Europe. Afraid he will miss out on the rest of the war, Patton pleads with his former subordinate, Omar Bradley, for a leadership role, and he is put in charge of the Third Army. Patton excels at his post and rapidly advances through France, but his tanks are halted when they run out of fuel, which is mostly consigned to Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden (17–25 September 1944), much to Patton’s disgust. Later, during the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944–25 January 1945), Patton’s forces relieve the besieged town of Bastogne and then punch through the Siegfried Line and into Germany. In an off-the-record short speech at a war-drive event in Knutsford, England (25 April 1944), Patton said “it is the evident destiny of the British and Americans (and, of course, the Russians) to rule the world.” Media coverage omits the reference to Russia, so Patton’s remarks are viewed as an insult to the Soviet Union. After Germany capitulates (5 May 1945), Patton, through an interpreter, insults a Russian general to his face at a postwar dinner. The Russian amuses Patton by insulting him in kind, and the two officers proceed to have a drink together. Later, Patton makes the mistake of comparing the Nazi Party to American political parties. Patton’s comments lead to his second loss of command. Patton is then seen away from the war, talking his dog, Willie. In voice-over, Patton describes how a returning hero of ancient Rome was honored with a “triumph,” a victory parade in which “a slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”


Patton had an East Coast premiere in New York City on 4 February 1970 and a West Coast premiere two weeks later. During its domestic theatrical run the movie made $61.75 million ($389 million in 2017 dollars). Patton earned an additional $28.1 million in video rentals later on—a grand total of almost $90 million against an estimated production cost of $12 million (i.e., a $78 million profit, minus promotion and advertising expenses). Patton received 10 Oscar nominations and won 7 Oscars at the 43rd Academy Awards (April 1971), including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. George C. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of General Patton, but declined to accept the award on the grounds that acting should not be treated as a competitive enterprise. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with many critics citing George C. Scott’s performance as one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid.

Reel History Versus Real History

In his book, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, Robert Brent Toplin includes a chapter on Patton entitled “Patton: Deliberately Planned as a Rorschach Test” (1996, pp. 155–175). Evidently unaware of Francis Ford Coppola’s pragmatic reasons for writing an ambiguous script, Toplin argues that, given its time of release—at the height of the Vietnam War in 1970—Patton had to be carefully calibrated so as to present a balanced depiction of George S. Patton; at a time when anti-war sentiment was raging in the United States, an epic biopic about a gung-ho WWII general had to be constructed in ambiguous terms in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Hence, Patton is portrayed as a very capable military commander, pleasing Vietnam-era hawks, but also as an egomaniacal crackpot, confirming the biases of doves who abhorred war-mongering. In the end Toplin judges Patton as historically quite accurate and a “balanced” portrait. Patton is not, however, the “balanced” cinematic portrait that Toplin contends that it is. It contains contrived events and false characterizations designed to skew viewer identification toward George Patton. For example, George C. Scott’s Patton speaks in a raspy growl whereas the real Patton had a high-pitched, squeaky voice that did not exude Scott’s machismo. The movie also misrepresents the relationship between Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. Depicted as close friends in the film they were, in reality, distant; Bradley found Patton’s personality grating and offensive. The movie also suggests that Patton and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower were distant, whereas they had been close friends for decades. Oddly, Eisenhower is barely represented in the movie. The film depicts a sustained a rivalry between Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery. In reality, the rivalry was one-sided; Montgomery was less concerned about his reputation relative to Patton than Patton was to his. All of these touches tend to humanize Patton and make him more sympathetic. Patton was an avowed anti-Semite—an unsavory aspect of his character that the movie chooses to overlook. The film portrays George Patton as a largely solitary figure, barely mentioning his wife and family and completely omitting the fact that Patton had a long-term extramarital affair with his niece, Jean Gordon. The film also omits the fact that Patton set up a disastrous secret raid on a Nazi prison camp in Hammelburg, Germany, in a failed attempt to liberate his son-in-law, John K. Waters. The film excludes this incident to protect the myth of Patton as a military genius. Another key omission concerns the infamous slapping incident. The movie depicts just one slapping incident, but in point of fact, there were two separate incidents, and Patton bragged about them to Bradley, showing a pattern of disrespect for subordinates. In his book, American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions, film historian Peter Lev notes that Patton consistently enlists viewer identification with the film’s protagonist: “General Patton is the focus of identification because he is the only character available for audience sympathy. We experience what he experiences; we share his hopes and dreams [because] we really have no alternatives for emotional investment” (Lev, 2000, p. 115). For corroboration, Lev reports the reaction of WWII veteran and war scholar Paul Fussell, who also noted the film’s tendency to manipulate viewer identification. Fussell says that he would have preferred “a more complex” view of Patton “as a dangerously out-of-control individual, instead of the eccentric but brilliant leader of myth.” Fussell adds that “there are other real moments that the film wouldn’t think of including, such as the sotto voce remark of one disgruntled junior officer to another after being forced to listen to a vainglorious Patton harangue: ‘What an a—hole!’ That would be an interesting historic moment. I know it took place,” says Fussell, “because I was the one who said it” (quoted by Lev, 2000, p. 115).

Vietnam – The Air War

The conflicting views of the nature of the war have contributed to disagreements about the way the United States used air power. But a much older argument has also played a role: that between the advocates of strategic and tactical bombing. Tactical bombing is directed against the enemy armed forces on the battlefield, or against forces and facilities close enough to the battlefield to provide direct and immediate support for the enemy forces on the battlefield. Strategic bombing attacks targets relevant to the overall power of the enemy nation, such as oil refineries, weapons factories, or the homes of the workers who make the weapons, rather than attacking individual military units or the facilities that support individual units. The U.S. Air Force was dominated by men who believed that strategic bombing was the best use of air power.

Those who believed in strategic bombing, and those who believed that the real enemy the United States was fighting in Vietnam was the government of North Vietnam, tended to believe that the most significant use of U.S. air power would be attacks on the heart of North Vietnam. They were sorely disappointed. President Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) was concerned that bombing in the northern half of North Vietnam, especially in the areas of Hanoi and Haiphong, and in the immediate vicinity of the Chinese border, could trigger direct intervention in Vietnam by the Soviet Union or the PRC. He was very reluctant to approve any bombing in these areas, and to the extent he approved it, he kept the tightest personal control of it. His often-quoted statement “They can’t bomb an outhouse without my permission” describes his attitude toward the use of air power in the northern half of North Vietnam. In April 1968, Johnson halted all bombing of the northern part of North Vietnam. It did not resume on any significant scale until 1972, and even if one includes the bombing of 1972, Hanoi was never subjected to anything like the pounding that had been applied to every North Korean city during the Korean War, and to almost every German and Japanese city during World War II. Looking at the northern part of North Vietnam, one sees a restricted use of air power.

Those who believed in tactical bombing, and those who thought that the war was essentially a struggle against the guerrillas in South Vietnam, looked at areas closer to the battlefields in the South, and saw a very different picture. An enormous weight of U.S. bombing was applied in South Vietnam, and in the areas of Laos through which the Ho Chi Minh Trail carried supplies and reinforcements from North Vietnam to Communist forces in the South. South Vietnam became by a wide margin the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world, and Laos became the second most heavily bombed. The White House, furthermore, left the details—the choices of which targets were to be hit in South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when—pretty much to the military.

The southern part of North Vietnam, especially the area within about 200 kilometers of the DMZ, was intermediate in terms of U.S. policy. Lyndon Johnson approved missions in this area much more readily than he did in the areas further north, and he did not control the missions in such detail. He often approved missions of “armed reconnaissance” in which pilots were authorized to search an area, often quite a large area, and bomb whatever targets of opportunity they found there. The towns of this area were devastated in a fashion that never happened to Hanoi. Bombing was not halted there until October 1968, and the halt was not as absolute as in the area farther north; a significant number of strikes were flown between 1969 and 1971.

Air power was used in the Second Indochina War on a far larger scale than in any other war in history, and it shaped the conduct of ground operations to a far greater extent than in any previous war. By 1968, the three busiest airports in the world were all in Vietnam: Bien Hoa, Danang, and Tan Son Nhut in that order.

United States bombers and fighter-bombers expended more than 6,715,500 tons of air munitions in Indochina during this war. More than 3,203,000 tons of this were expended in South Vietnam from 1962 to 1973, and 2,093,300 tons in Laos from 1964 to 1973, making these the two most heavily bombed countries in the history of the world. Some 880,108 tons were expended in North Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, and 539,129 tons in Cambodia from 1969 to 1973. A majority of the munitions tonnage fell on South Vietnam in each year from 1962 to 1969, and in 1972; on Laos in 1970 and 1971; and on Cambodia in 1973. There was no year when a majority fell on North Vietnam. Aside from bombers and fighter-bombers, there were also helicopters, fixed-wing gunships, the C-130 transport planes that dropped more than 3,700 tons of the huge M-121 and BLU-82 bombs, and other aircraft. U.S. and allied aircraft of all types expended a total of about 8,000,000 tons of air munitions of all types, with about half falling on South Vietnam.

This enormous application of aerial firepower not only inflicted heavy casualties on Communist forces, but allowed relatively small U.S. and allied ground units to operate in areas where they could not otherwise have been sent. If they were attacked by forces far too strong for their own weapons to have given them any chance of survival, they could often (not always, but often) be saved by air support.

The United States modified the physical environment of the war by spraying herbicides from aircraft to kill trees and brush. Efforts to modify the weather and the structure of the soil were less successful.

U.S. Air Force (USAF) fixed-wing transport planes were carrying 2,732 tons of cargo per day in Vietnam during the peak year, 1968. The peak year for cargo transport by helicopters, which could reach smaller units in the field, was 1969, with an average of 3,533 tons per day. Many positions in isolated locations could not have survived without air supply.

Airmobility—helicopter transport of troops—radically altered the nature of warfare. An airmobile unit could be landed in the middle of enemy territory in an organized fashion, not scattered by having the men come down individually by parachute. When men were wounded, medical evacuation helicopters carried them to hospitals. Thousands of men suffered wounds that in any previous war would have been fatal, but survived because of the speed with which helicopters brought them to hospitals. Medical evacuation by helicopter also allowed units that had suffered casualties to retain their mobility; they did not need to carry their wounded because the wounded had been sent off into the sky. If enemy forces in an area were too strong, a whole unit could sometimes be picked up and carried to safety.

The American air war in South Vietnam began late in 1961 when USAF pilots were sent to Vietnam under Project Farm Gate. Army helicopter pilots joined them at the end of the year, and a Marine Corps helicopter unit early in 1962. Their operations were at first kept quiet; the United States maintained a pretense that U.S. military personnel were in Vietnam only as advisers, not to conduct combat operations themselves. The first overt USAF combat missions in South Vietnam were flown on February 19, 1965, by B-57 Canberra bombers based at Bien Hoa.

The U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam started with sporadic air strikes—the U.S. retaliation for the Tonkin Gulf incidents in August 1964, and Operation Flaming Dart in February 1965. These were followed by a systematic bombing campaign, Rolling Thunder, from March 1965 to October 1968. There were only occasional strikes from then until 1972. Systematic bombing resumed in Operations Freedom Train in April 1972, and Linebacker beginning in May. Linebacker II, the famous “Christmas Bombing,” came in the second half of December. All U.S. bombing of North Vietnam was halted in January 1973.

Characterizations of the U.S. air war as limited, and complaints about presidential interference in the choice of targets, refer primarily to North Vietnam, especially the northern half of North Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson was very worried about possible reactions by China or the Soviet Union to U.S. bombing of the northern half of North Vietnam, and he exercised tight personal control over bombing missions there. He allowed the military considerably more freedom in the bombing of the southern panhandle of North Vietnam, where all the major towns suffered devastation of a sort never inflicted on Hanoi. He allowed great freedom in the bombing of South Vietnam and Laos.

Air-to-air combat occurred mainly over North Vietnam, though there were a few incidents over Laos. The American planes tended to be larger and heavier, with more sophisticated equipment, but with a relatively low ratio of wing area to weight, which limited their maneuverability. The North Vietnamese MiGs were smaller, lighter, and more maneuverable. The Americans enjoyed a favorable kill ratio. The airfields from which the MiGs flew were off limits to U.S. bombing until April 1967. Two airfields were bombed on April 24, 1967; raids were authorized against the others gradually over the coming months, and the last, Phuc Yen, was finally bombed on October 25. By late fall of 1967, most of the MiGs had shifted to bases in China.

U.S. aircraft also faced strong ground-based air defenses in North Vietnam.

There were a few U.S. air strikes on Laos in 1964; bombing became systematic and massive in 1965, and remained so until February 22, 1973. The last isolated air strikes were in April 1973. Bombing in Laos fell mainly on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the South, but there was also bombing in northern Laos, supporting the Royal Laotian Army and the Central Intelligence Agency’s “Secret Army” of Hmong tribesmen in their war against PAVN and Pathet Lao forces. The CIA’s proprietary airline Air America provided vital support for the Secret Army. Respecting the fiction of Laotian neutrality, the United States for years avoided openly acknowledging its air war in Laos, but the bombing was not in any genuine sense secret.

When significant U.S. bombing of Cambodia began in March 1969 under Operation Menu, it was truly secret. The administration of Richard Nixon was determined to prevent the press, the Congress, or even most U.S. military officers from learning that it was occurring. Overt bombing of Cambodia did not begin until April 1970. It remained on a limited scale until U.S. bombing of South Vietnam and North Vietnam was halted completely, and bombing of Laos halted almost completely, in January and February 1973. With only Cambodia left to bomb, the United States intensified the bombing there to far higher levels than had ever been attained before. The U.S. Congress finally forced a halt to the bombing on August 15, 1973.


The most common type of bomb used in Vietnam was the general purpose (GP) high-explosive bomb. About half the weight of such a bomb was actual explosive, and half the weight was the steel case. The 500-pound MK-82 bomb (see photograph 15), for example, contained 192 pounds of explosive; the 750-pound M-117 contained 386 pounds of explosive; the 2,000-pound MK-84 contained 946 pounds of explosive. The most common bomb size in the Vietnam War was 750 pounds, and the 500-pound bomb was the second most common, but 125-pound, 250-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and 3000-pound bombs were also used in significant numbers.

“Snake-eye” bombs had large tail flaps that unfolded after the aircraft released them, to slow their fall. These could be dropped from low altitude; slowing the fall of the bomb gave the plane that dropped it time to get far enough away not to be damaged by the explosion.

“Daisy cutter” bombs used a fuze extender, a long rod attached to the nose of a bomb. When the tip of the fuze extender struck the ground, the bomb would detonate. Detonation while the body of the bomb was still above ground level produced less of a crater, but made the bomb very effective for knocking down trees. Small “daisy cutter” bombs, 500 pounds, were sometimes dropped near roads that the Communist forces were using, to cause trees to fall across the roads and block them. Very large ones, dropped under the code name Commando Vault from C-130 transport aircraft, were used either for the destruction of military targets or for the creation of instant helicopter landing zones in the jungle. The first test drops, using five-ton M-121 bombs, were performed in South Vietnam in October 1968. Each M-121 cleared an area about 200 feet in diameter. More than 200 were eventually dropped. Commando Vault began using an even larger bomb, the 15,000-pound BLU-82, which could create a clearing about 260 feet in diameter, in March 1970. More than 360 BLU-82 bombs had been dropped, in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, by the time U.S. bombing was ended in 1973. The Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) dropped an additional 15 of them during the last weeks of the war, in April 1975.

Fuel-air explosive bombs were also used occasionally in Vietnam. These were designed to release a cloud of flammable gas, which was detonated only after it had had time to mix with the air.

A smart bomb is one that is actively guided to its target after leaving the aircraft, rather than simply falling under the influence of gravity. The concept had been tested occasionally in combat beginning late in World War II, but the technology matured to the point of making this a truly effective weapon during the Vietnam War. The AGM-62 Walleye had a television camera in its nose; once it had locked onto the target, it steered itself. It was a glide bomb with a slant range of up to 40,000 feet. Its main disadvantage was that its camera needed daylight, good visibility, and a high-contrast target. Its shaped-charge warhead was effective against pinpoint targets, but was not very large; American pilots were frustrated when direct hits by Walleyes failed to knock down the very strongly built Ham Rong Bridge, in Thanh Hoa province. It began combat tests in March 1967, and came into full operational use early in 1968.

Laser guidance proved a more versatile means of steering smart bombs to their targets. Usually, one aircraft would shine a laser on the target, while another dropped the bomb, usually an MK-84 2,000-pound bomb with a seeker head and steering fins added to allow it to guide itself to the bright spot. The bomb had far more explosive power than the Walleye, and could be used at night and against targets that were not visually conspicuous enough for the television camera in the Walleye to lock onto them. Combat tests began in 1968, but little is known about the early tests and they may not have been very successful. The first combat test of a very successful design was on February 3, 1971, when an F-4 Phantom destroyed a 37-mm anti-aircraft gun in Laos, using a bomb equipped with a Pave Sword laser-seeker pod. A laser target designator aboard an AC-130 gunship provided the bright spot on the target. Smaller OV-10 aircraft were soon also being equipped with laser target designators. The bomb proved itself during the following months in Laos; in 1972 it was used with spectacular success against considerably more important targets in North Vietnam, during Operation Linebacker.


Capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), located in the Red River Delta, about 95 kilometers from the sea. Under the name Thang Long, the city had been the traditional capital of Vietnam up to the late 18th century. Hanoi was not a major industrial center; its importance during the Second Indochina War was as a transportation nexus (both road and rail traffic crossed the Red River by the Doumer Bridge in Hanoi), an administrative center, and a symbol.

The question of bombing Hanoi was a contentious one through much of the war. The U.S. Air Force, dominated by doctrines of strategic bombing, urged attacks on targets in Hanoi. President Lyndon Johnson was very reluctant; he feared the possible reactions of China, the Soviet Union, and public opinion in the West, and he may have felt (some of his advisers are known to have felt) that once targets were destroyed, the United States would no longer be able to threaten to destroy them. President Johnson initially defined a restricted zone, a circular area with a radius of 30 nautical miles (55.56 kilometers) measured from the center of the city, in which air strikes could be flown only with his specific permission. The degree of his willingness to grant such permission fluctuated. Sometimes there was a smaller circle within the large one, inside which air strikes were completely prohibited.

The first air strikes within five nautical miles of the city center were in June and August 1966. The next strikes in this area, in the first half of December, were considerably heavier. The DRV, wishing to publicize this intensification of the bombing, invited Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times to come to Vietnam late in December. Salisbury’s reports from Hanoi caused considerable controversy. The restrictions on bombing were further loosened in 1967. In May and June there were numerous raids on the edges of Hanoi, and a few against targets such as the electric power plant and the waterworks, well inside the city. Beginning in August there were occasional attacks on the Doumer Bridge, very close to the city center.

U.S. bombing of the Hanoi area was terminated in April 1968, and did not resume until April 1972. Even then it was on a much more limited scale than most people realize. Operation Linebacker II, the so-called “Christmas bombing” of December 1972, hit many targets on the edges of Hanoi but did little damage to the city center.


By the middle and late stages of the Vietnam War, North Vietnam had what is often described as the strongest air defense system in history, though it is important to remember that this is true only in an absolute and not in a relative sense. North Vietnam’s air defenses were stronger in 1967 than Germany’s had been in 1943, but the attacking aircraft had improved during the intervening years by an even greater margin; North Vietnamese defenses posed less danger to the jet aircraft that were attacking North Vietnam in 1967 than Germany’s had to the much slower aircraft attacking Germany in 1943.

The most important component of the North Vietnamese air defenses was anti-aircraft artillery. The 100-mm radar-aimed guns, from the Soviet Union, could reach altitudes of 30,000 feet and could pose serious dangers to aircraft at altitudes as high as 20,000 or 25,000 feet. The 57-mm guns might be either radar-guided or visually aimed. Smaller visually aimed cannon, 23-mm and 37-mm, could be very dangerous to planes at lower altitudes. The 12.7-mm and 14.5-mm machine guns and the rifles of peasant militiamen knocked down few U.S. planes, but were nonetheless significant in deterring U.S. planes from using very low altitudes to dodge the fire of the larger guns.


A rocket designed to be fired from the ground against aircraft.

Early in 1965, the Soviet Union began to supply the Dvina missile to the DRV. This was a relatively large two-stage rocket, with a solid-fuel booster and a liquid-fuel final stage. Approximate specifications (subject to some variation between models): length 10.7 meters, warhead 130 kilograms, range 40 to 50 kilometers, ceiling 18,000 meters. It was referred to in American sources usually as the SA-2 or SAM-2, sometimes as the Guideline.

The Dvina did not itself track its target; instead a radar on the ground, of the type the United States called Fan Song, tracked both the rocket and the target aircraft, and furnished data to a control unit also on the ground, which steered the rocket by radio. The percentage of hits achieved by Dvina rockets was relatively low; a pilot who saw the rocket coming could usually dodge it successfully, and pilots usually had some warning that missiles were in the air—they saw the conspicuous takeoff of the missile, they got warning from detection devices in their aircraft that the Fan Song was tracking them, or they got warnings by radio from other pilots. The Americans also sometimes could jam either the Fan Song radar or the radio signals that steered the missile to the target.

The first success by a Dvina over North Vietnam was the downing of an F-4C Phantom on July 24, 1965. The U.S. military, which had been asking President Lyndon Johnson for permission to bomb the SAM launching sites, construction of which had been observed by U.S. reconnaissance, got that permission after this incident. The first air strikes against SAM launch sites were flown on July 27. American aircraft assigned to attack the launch sites and guidance radars later came to be called Iron Hand and Wild Weasel.

The Dvina was designed to hit aircraft at relatively high altitudes. American aircraft in areas where there were SAMs usually stayed at lower altitudes, to be less vulnerable to the missiles, but this made them more vulnerable to fire from anti-aircraft artillery. When SAMs were fired, dodging them involved diving still lower. B-52 high-altitude bombers usually stayed away from the sections of North Vietnam defended by missiles; not until November 1972 was a B-52 shot down by a SAM.

In 1967, some Dvinas began to be guided optically, rather than by the Fan Song radar, depriving the American pilots of the warning they had been getting when a Fan Song locked onto a plane.

The fact that the Dvina was the only important SAM threat to aircraft over North Vietnam allowed American pilots to use standardized procedures for avoiding SAMs. The Soviet Union could have made the air defenses of the DRV more effective by providing a greater variety of SAMs, such that a single avoidance technique would not be appropriate for all, but this did not happen for a long time if at all. According to some sources, the S-125 Neva, also called the SA-3 or Goa, effective at lower altitudes than the Dvina, finally entered service in North Vietnam in late 1972.

A few Dvinas began to be used in Laos, to defend the Ho Chi Minh Trail against air attack, in March 1971. They became a serious threat, forcing the United States to restrict the operations of fixed-wing gunships in crucial areas of Laos, in 1972. Dvinas were first fired at aircraft over the northernmost portion of South Vietnam, some from launch sites in North Vietnam or in the Demilitarized Zone, some apparently from sites inside South Vietnam, during the Easter Offensive in 1972.

The Strela, which the U.S. called the SA-7 or Grail, was a shoulder-launched missile that steered itself to the target, using an infrared sensor to home in on the engine heat of an aircraft. Its very short range—3,500 meters—did not allow much effectiveness against jet aircraft, since the missile would normally have to overtake the target from the rear, and it could not often overtake a jet before running out of fuel. The Strela was much more effective against helicopters. Its greatest effect on fixed-wing air operations was that it forced the relatively slow aircraft used by most Forward Air Controllers (FACs) to shift to higher altitudes for safety, which greatly reduced the FACs’ ability to spot targets on the ground. Its first impact on the war was in Laos during Lam Son 719, the ARVN effort to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1971. The Strela did not appear in South Vietnam until the Easter Offensive of 1972; the first downing of a helicopter by a Strela in South Vietnam occurred on May 2, 1972, and the first downing of a jet occurred on May 26. A modified version with a somewhat greater range was introduced toward the end of the war.

The United States deployed a few Hawk surface-to-air missiles to South Vietnam beginning in late 1964, in case the North Vietnamese attempted air attacks against U.S. bases in South Vietnam. Two Hawk missile battalions were sent in September 1965. The missiles were never used; they were withdrawn in 1968 and 1969.


LINEBACKER II, Operation, 1972

The Paris negotiations seemed close to success in October 1972, and U.S. bombing of the northern part of North Vietnam was halted. But the negotiations stalled amid mutual recriminations in December; there is a widespread though false story that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) had even walked out of the peace talks. The DRV began evacuating the civilian population of Hanoi in anticipation of possible heavy bombing. President Richard Nixon indeed ordered a major bombing campaign, Linebacker II, which ran from December 18 to 24, stopped for one day on Christmas, and then resumed from December 26 to 29. During the 11 days of bombing, B-52s dropped 15,237 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, almost all north of the 20th parallel and mostly in the area of Hanoi. Fighter-bombers dropped about 5,000 tons. These tonnages exceeded the usual levels of U.S. bombing, but not by a huge margin. The reason the damage done was far greater than usual was that Linebacker II went for much more important targets than U.S. bombing of North Vietnam usually had done. The fear of aircraft losses that had previously kept B-52s out of the areas of heaviest air defenses was completely discarded, and the fears of international repercussions that had inhibited bombing in the Hanoi and Haiphong areas were largely discarded.

The U.S. military said 15 B-52s had been lost and nine damaged, and denied rumors that some of the damaged ones were beyond repair. The number of smaller airplanes lost was variously given as 11 or 13.

Linebacker II inspired a worldwide storm of outrage, based on a serious misunderstanding of its nature. Most people got the impression that it was an extraordinarily ruthless campaign, pounding cities in the style of World War II. All of America’s major allies were bitterly critical. The U.S. government made little effort to explain that while the Hanoi area was being heavily bombed, almost all the bombs were directed at military targets on the outskirts; the city center was little damaged.

The Vietnamese have released a variety of figures on the casualties. Preliminary data released immediately after the bombing, before there had been time to do a thorough search for bodies under the rubble, indicated that 1,318 civilians had been killed in Hanoi and 305 in Haiphong. Later figures, indicating that either 2,027 or 2,196 people had been killed in Hanoi, included civilian bodies discovered after the preliminary figures were released, but they may also have included military casualties. A figure of 2,368 dead for North Vietnam as a whole was probably a final total for civilian dead only.

Linebacker II left both sides eager for a settlement. Nixon needed peace to counter the widespread belief that he had engaged in a mass slaughter of civilians, and the DRV needed an opportunity to rebuild transport systems, power plants, and many military facilities. The Paris Peace Agreement was signed on January 27, 1973; it was similar in most ways to the agreement that had almost been signed in October 1972.