Burma – War in The Shadows I


In parallel with the conventional war between the opposing armies, navies and air forces, there was another war, a war in the shadows. It was waged by diverse elements, covering a wide spectrum of participants, regular servicemen and women, civilians, intelligence agencies, other countries’ nationals, mercenaries etc. But like the conventional conflict, for the operations of this other war, air support was also indispensable.

In 1943, while the first ground offensive into Arakan ran its course, an incursion deep into Japanese territory was launched. Known by the soubriquet of Chindits, 77 Brigade, led by the charismatic Brigadier Orde Wingate, set out in seven columns over the Naga Hills and across the Chindwin river to infiltrate Japanese-held territory in northern Burma. The Chindits, trained in jungle fighting, aimed to sabotage the enemy’s rear bases and communications and generally cause chaos and confusion.

From February to June 1943 aircraft of Nos 31 and 194 Squadrons RAF flew 178 sorties night and day, dropping 303 tons of supplies to sustain the Chindit columns. Aircraft would take off from Comilla, often at midnight, when only moonlight made the outlines of hills visible. The Chindit troops lit fires in the shape of an ‘L’ as a marker. When this and another flashing light was seen, the supplies packages were pushed out, some to float down by parachute, and some in free drops. Around seven packages could be dropped on one approach run, so the plane would circle around perhaps eight or nine times taking about twenty minutes to drop all packages.

The strategy for the first Chindit foray behind Japanese lines in northern Burma was entirely premised upon the seven Chindit columns being resupplied by air transport. To undertake a special forces operation of such scale overland deep into enemy territory, and hope to support it with supplies transported through the Burmese jungle and fight off Japanese patrols, would be impossible. Wingate and the Allied commanders decided to fully supply the Chindits by air transport. It relied completely on exploiting air force capability. Allied air forces were now challenged to make this new concept work, to take the air war into a new dimension, to hit the Japanese in their rear areas, where they least expected it.

Accompanying all Chindit columns, also known as Long Range Penetration Groups (LRPGs), there were RAF officers, to help prepare drop zones or landing strips and provide liaison and communication with the transport aircraft. In the second Chindit operation of 1944 RAF liaison officers went in again. Reports from photographic aerial reconnaissance were a near indispensable intelligence source for the Chindits and other operations in enemyheld territory. During a four-month long operation the Chindits destroyed railway tracks in more than seventy locations, four river bridges and blew up rocks and landslides onto rail and road routes. Another significant achievement of the Chindits was the demonstration that the Japanese troops in Burma could be beaten.

As well as Wingate’s Chindits, although not comparable with them, there were other units and forces of various kinds, which conducted operations behind Japanese lines. These included the patrols of V and Z Forces, Force 136, the cover name for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Far East, the MI-6-controlled Inter Services Liaison Department (ISLD), the Lushai Brigade and the Burma Intelligence Corps. In addition, there was the Wireless Experimentation Centre (WEC) of Ultra code-breakers in Delhi, and other ad hoc temporary units under various commands.

There follow some first-hand accounts by participants in the war in the shadows, which provide some insight of how, in a multitude of ways, the Allies’ growing reach in air support was enabling a growing diversity in the ways of waging war.


In one of the ad hoc operations behind enemy lines, under the command of XXXIII Corps, Sergeant R.J. ‘Bob’ Macormac tells of being a sergeant in a troop of around seventy men. They were using Bangalore as their rear base and Dimapur in Nagaland, north-east India, had been allocated as their advance base. For their first operation in Burma this troop, or special demolition force (SDF) as they referred to themselves, travelled from Bangalore by train to Nagpur Park. There Macormac, and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Jan Compton, supervised the loading of their guns, stores and motor vehicles onto barges to cross the Brahmaputra river. On the Assam side of the river, at Gauhati, another train took them up to Dimapur. Once established at Dimapur, they commenced daily training exercises in the surrounding jungle, and were given aerial reconnaissance photographs by the RAF, sectionalized for the whole of northern Burma.

Bob Macormac was born on 12 October 1914 in Havant, Hampshire, in the UK. His first job was as a van driver for London Transport before doing a spell at sea, joining the Hudson Bay Company shipping line as a seaman, and circumnavigating the world twice. After enlisting in March 1939 in the Royal Engineers, in 1943 Macormac was posted to India with 118th Light-Anti-Aircraft Regiment, sometime after which he was transferred in 1944 to the SDF troop under XXXIII Corps command.

The first Burma operation for Macormac’s SDF troop was to seek and destroy a large Japanese munitions’ base near Maingkwan in the north-east of Kachin state. From Dimapur the SDF convoy took the road up to Kohima where they picked up two Kachin guides, then through the Naga Hills. The Kachin guides took the troop into Sumprabum, a town in their home country, Kachin State. News was gleaned there on the dumps to be hit and on the strength of the Japanese guards. Because the town of Sumprabum had suffered at the hands of Japanese forces, the Kachin guides said there were more local Kachin volunteers if needed. At an Orders Group, Lieutenant Compton set out a plan for a reconnaissance patrol of the supply dumps and by using the RAF photographs and local knowledge a route was mapped out.

At dusk, with one section of men and the Kachin guides, Macormac and Compton moved out on foot from Sumprabum. Macormac was in the lead plus another local Kachin guide, who had previously sighted the dumps.

The following is a summary extract from a transcript by Sergeant Macormac:

Moving south east but keeping to the north of the Jap area, our intention was to then move south on to them and make our assessments. Everyone was on edge, only to be expected I suppose, it was our first action against the Japs.

It was eerie in the valley, everything being completely strange to us. We had scouts out ahead and on our flanks, close in. The jungle was sparse, many clearings, and chaungs, I didn’t like it at all.

A little after midnight the local guide indicated to Macormac that they were nearing the dumps.

But we still did not know the extent of Jap defence and patrols of the area, and had not caught sight of any of them. Yes, you might say I was scared. We crept on until our guide stopped us. We were there. There were three dumps in a triangle with a 100 yards spacing, and in the centre of the dumps was the Jap camp.

We lay there watching and waiting, no noise, no talking, and no sudden movements. Then we heard voices. Walking as perimeter guards of the dumps, came two Japanese. The first Japs we had seen. It was obvious from their casual attitude that this was not a guard against hostile troops, just a guard against pilfering natives.

On our way back we decided the job had to be done the next night in case the news got to the Japs of our presence.

The troop’s plan was to reach the enemy dump area after midnight. A section would advance ahead, take out the perimeter guards, and return to the troop. Nine bombers and equipment carriers would then advance and seed the east and west dumps with explosives. On completion of these two dumps a chain of explosives would be run from east to south dump, continue to west dump, and wire up to a detonating point.

The mortar section was take up position in the unmined area between east and west dumps. Some 100 yards to the north of that line, Troop HQ section would support the mortars with Bren guns and small-arms fire. Sections 1 and 2 would position on the east/south flank, Sections 3 and 4 on the west/south flank, while Sections 5 and 6 would dig in fifty yards south of the south dump.

We reached the perimeter area, positions were taken, and everyone was standing by. We were in time for the three hourly appearance of the perimeter guard, who were taken out as planned.

The explosives were put in place at each dump, also anti-personnel mines, and wired back as planned. With a rank of detonators in front of us we were ready. At the first explosion everyone would open up with everything they had into the Jap camp. Down went the detonators and up went the three dumps.

All hell broke loose. Jonah’s mortars were causing havoc, so were the Brens of THQ, 5 and 6 Sections. When the Japanese made their break to the flanks, Jan and I blew the detonators for the chain of anti-personnel mines, and the chain reaction kept going. In the Japs initial response those who got past the mines were picked off by our flanking sections. Return fire by machine guns was now coming in from the triangle, and I flashed a signal to Jonah to pour it in on them.

We knew that it was impossible for a force of our strength to hold what we guessed might even be a Jap company. We still had to thin them down to stand any chance of getting out from under. I said to Jan, ‘How about a twenty-minute mortar concentration, and then see how the sections hold out.’ This we did and the sections, firing from foxholes, were picking them off and holding.

I asked Jonah how much he had left for his mortars. ‘Can’t remember,’ was his reply. I said to Jan that we don’t want to carry any home, so let’s blast them all off. When the mortars stopped firing, it was so quiet, then came the caterwauling of the Japanese as they started to move out, but not far. The sections’ Brens hammered at them, and even rained grenades at them.

The Japanese were being held, but it was time for us to move out. First I had to check all sections for their casualties. Our total casualties were ten wounded, which included one seriously, a stretcher case. We had to get them all back now. Sections 5 and 6 were to retire to the original start point, collecting the wounded on their way. As we assembled the remainder of the Troop, we waited for a counter-attack from the Japs. Not a movement from them. Were we going to get lucky?

The return to Sumprabum proved uneventful. With no enemy pursuit detected, Lieutenant Compton decided to radio XXXIII Corps to report results and task finished: ETA at advance base Dimapur ninety-six hours from time of transmission; three dumps completely destroyed (later confirmed by aircraft reconnaissance), casualties being returned were nine wounded and one dead. The stretcher case, Samson, died over the Naga Hills, where it was very cold after the Hukawng Valley heat.

In another operation close to the border with China, air support would prove crucial to their survival. From the start-point at Imphal the troop travelled overland to the Bhamo area and crossed over the border into China. From there they undertook reconnaissance and made an attack plan to approach another Japanese supply dump from the east. Macormac had early misgivings about the operation.

Our recce patrol showed that this was not going to be easy. It was just one dump surrounded by weapon pits and foxhole defences, with the Jap force camped between the perimeter defence and the dump. We spent over forty-eight hours observing the target area, then withdrew linking up with the rest of the Troop.

Since we needed extra demolition gear that we had not been able to carry with us, we were due for a supply drop by air. I suggested it have a couple of bombers with it to plaster the target, to give us extra cover. The strength of the Jap force in this area was so large it seemed that we were out of our depth.

The RAF duly bombed the area but the dump did not blow from the raid. Macormac and his troop were taking a beating, and after about half an hour, on receiving a radio signal from HQ, Lieutenant Compton ordered a withdrawal. He remained with a section, giving covering fire, and was wounded before being in the last group to withdraw. Macormac found himself counting the casualties.

Altogether we had fifteen dead, eighteen walking wounded, no stretcher cases. In the circumstances I think we got off light, but it was such a waste, a needless bloody waste of manpower. The looks on the chaps’ faces told a story. It was going to be hard to knock it out of them. They looked so disheartened, they had lost mates. The firepower from Jap lines had left the men in shock.

We got back to the area allocated to us by the Chinese, who took us in a motor convoy north to a point east of Launggyaun in hill country. Our withdrawal from there was rapid, excess weapons, ammo, medical, food and other supplies, we handed over to the Chinese.

The troop’s return route from there was through hill country following the Salween river, which made a fairly good passage for the convoy. Averaging about 50 miles a day it took them over three days to reach the contact point on the China/Burma border.

At the border crossing we were met by Kachin guides, and said goodbye to our Chinese escort. It was only then that it struck me how all nationalities, with whom we had come into contact, Kachin, Burmese and Chinese, had gone out of their way to assist us. We moved out, and struck out for Sumprabum, and then on to the Naga Hills and into Kohima.

We laid up overnight at Kohima, and picked up our transport next morning for our run down to Dimapur. We had been out over six weeks on this one, it would be good to get back to advance base. At Dimapur we found a relief section there already to take over as the new base guard, which meant we were being pulled back to Bangalore. We had mail from home, the first since leaving Bangalore about three months ago.

We were told that it had been a valiant attempt made by the troop against such odds. As soon as Corps got a radio message from the RAF bombers over the target near Bhamo, it was realised that an impossible task had been given to us, and the order to withdraw sent immediately to Lieutenant Compton.

The strength estimated by the RAF was far in excess of 1,000 enemy troops, and the perimeter defence was greater than expected. The bombardment by the RAF, and their assessment of Japanese force strength, leading to the withdrawal, had clearly saved Macormac and his troop from being wiped out.


Battle of Lodi, ( 10 May 1796 )


General Bonaparte gives his orders, in The Battle of Lodi, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune


A relatively minor engagement against the Austrian rear guard defending the bridge over the Adda River in the Italian village of Lodi, this battle was nevertheless instrumental in the development of Bonaparte’s self-perception and of his public image as a great commander.

After defeating the Piedmontese in his first Italian campaign, Bonaparte turned his attention to the pursuit of the Austrians under Feldzeugmeister Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu. It was necessary to cross the river Adda on a 170-yard-long wooden bridge at Lodi, in defense of which Beaulieu had left a rear guard of some 12,000 men and 14 cannon.

Bonaparte decided to storm the bridge, even though the Austrian guns completely dominated it. He sent a cavalry contingent up the river to cross and then sweep down on the Austrian right flank. He formed his grenadiers into columns in the shelter of the city walls and gave them an inspirational speech. Then, to the cries of “Vive la République,” they stormed the bridge. This attack faltered, but generals André Masséna and Louis- Alexandre Berthier soon led another attack across the bridge. In light of the heavy Austrian fusillade on the bridge, many French troops jumped off and opened fire from the shallow part of the river. A counterattack by the Austrians was foiled as French cavalry arrived just as more French infantry attacked the bridge. The cavalry sabered the enemy gun crews and routed the Austrian forces, which left behind their artillery, several hundred dead, and almost 2,000 prisoners.

Bonaparte was a whirlwind of action. Observing from close range and from a church tower, he took personal charge of every detail. He even positioned the can- non along the river, earning for himself the sobriquet “the little corporal” for doing work normally assigned to a soldier of that rank. Bonaparte’s strength lay not just in his military skills but in emotional leadership, something that had not been particularly necessary in his previous engagements. He had inspired his men to undertake the rather daunting task of running across a bridge into concentrated Austrian fire.

The Austrian retreat from Lodi opened the road to Milan and gave the French troops new confidence. Lodi was far more important than simply a battle that opened the way to Milan. Beyond its somewhat limited military significance, the battle created a change in Bonaparte’s attitude toward his future: He now knew he was a leader. In exile at St. Helena he wrote that it was at Lodi that he first saw himself as able to achieve great things.

Lodi also had an important effect on Bonaparte’s troops. It was there that they first observed him in action and finally gained complete confidence in him. It was the beginning of the special relationship between Bonaparte and his men; indeed, Lodi marked the beginning of their personal devotion to him that would last some twenty years.

References and further reading

Boycott-Brown, Martin. 2001. The Road to Rivoli: Napoleon’s First Campaign. London: Cassell. Chandler, David G. 1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Wilkinson, Spenser. 1930. The Rise of General Bonaparte. Oxford: Clarendon.

Burma – War in The Shadows II


Lysander Mk.IIIA(SD) Unit: 357 Sqn, RAF Serial: C (V9289)

Burma, 1945. Camouflage scheme: Dark Green/Ocean Grey, undersides – Night. Code letter – Medium Sea Grey.


B-24 Burma


At the time of the Japanese invasion of Burma, Leslie Thom was a platoon commander in the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion Burma Rifles which, in January 1942, was one of the first regiments to encounter Japanese troops in their attack on Moulmein. Lieutenant Thom then participated in the longest retreat in British military history, all the way north over 1,000 miles and mostly on foot, to Imphal in India. After a period of convalescence, recovering from malaria and dysentery, and promoted to captain, he was posted as an intelligence officer to HQ 23rd Indian Division with whom he served right through the siege of Imphal.

Not long after the Imphal battle was over, Thom was recruited into the Inter Services Liaison Department (ISLD) in Calcutta. ISLD was the cover name in the Far East for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. In reality, ISLD’s main activity was deep intelligence-gathering by means of agents dropped into enemy territory in Burma, Siam (Thailand), Malaya and Indo-China. They worked closely with No. 357 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, which was commanded by Wing Commander Bob Hodges. The RAF Liaison Officer with ISLD was Squadron Leader Charles O’Brien.

Thom’s wife, Maureen (neé Stevens), whom he met in India during the war, recorded his account of some of his ISLD operations which he first spoke of only in later years in the 1990s. The following is an edited summary taken from a transcript by Maureen of his description of some of those operations.

ISLD Operations carried out by Captain Leslie Thom, 1944–45

Captain Thom’s first operation was on an August night of the full moon during the monsoon of 1944. After taking off from Jessore in a Hudson bomber, he was to drop an agent by parachute into the Bassein area, which was a port on the Irrawaddy delta not far from Rangoon. In the first operation the agent could not be dropped because of ground mist, which was obscuring visibility over the dropping zone. In a second attempt during the full moon in September Thom dropped the agent successfully as planned.

In October 1944 Thom left Madras in southern India with five agents and their equipment aboard a Catalina flying boat, bound for Bentinck Island in the archipelago off Burma’s south-east, Tenasserim, coast. Soon after take-off the automatic pilot broke down so that the rest of the flight was flown manually, around 70 feet above the sea to avoid radar detection by the Japanese.

Maureen: They passed the Andaman Islands, and could see Japanese warships in the harbour. Landing at Bentinck Island in moonlight was tricky, as the pilot could not judge the state of the water surface. Actually there was a considerable swell, and they hit the water fairly hard. Leslie was thrown forward and his ‘Mae West’ inflated, and so he told the pilot that he couldn’t go ashore because he was pregnant!

After managing to deflate and dispense with his Mae West, Thom accompanied the five agents safely ashore in a rubber dinghy. Another Catalina, which had followed them with more stores for these and other agents already on the island, attempted to land, but it must have hit the water even harder, so revved up again and headed for home. The heavy landing had split the belly of the Catalina’s fuselage. Another Catalina had to be sent out later with the agents’ supplies. Thom’s Catalina made a successful take-off despite the swell, and after a round trip of twenty-four hours arrived back in Madras.

During the November full moon Thom took some Karen tribesmen, who had been trained as agents, in a flight in a Liberator bomber, from which they parachuted into an area south of Papun.

The next month it was Christmas Day when Thom dropped a Kachin agent, known as Zaw Rip, from a Dakota into the Kachin Hills. In February 1945 Thom dropped another agent into the Bassein area. However, the flight crew had little experience of enemy action and, after dropping the canister, changed direction to take a look at some lights and action on the Daga Bridge near Bassein. Despite Thom’s warning not do so, the pilot circled the bridge to satisfy his curiosity.

Maureen: The next thing they knew was the sound of something like hail hitting the fuselage. They were being shot at, fortunately at the tail end! Charles O’Brien, who always met the aircraft on their return, was absolutely furious with the pilot for his lack of responsibility.

ISLD was not the only clandestine group supported by No. 357 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, which operated B-24 Liberators and Dakota IVs. Some of the groups serviced by No. 357 Squadron included:

Group Main Support Service

ISLD Dropping and supplying agents into Japanese occupied territory.

Force 136 Dropping and supplying saboteurs into Japanese occupied territory.

Z Force Dropping and supplying patrols in front of Allied lines to assist the path of the main force.

D Division Faking parachute descents for deception operations.

E Group Support arrangements to assist the escape of PoWs from Japanese camps.

OSS Support for USA organization similar to Force 136.

In a typical month in 1944–45 No. 357 Squadron would fly more than a hundred sorties. Operations ranged across Burma, Siam (Thailand), China, Indo-China and Malaya.


In late 1944 from Cox’s Bazar Flight Lieutenant Gerry Smith was flying airto-ground operations in support of the army, bombing and strafing enemy positions. A typical sortie carrying one 500lb bomb could last up to one-and-a-half hours. Some operations, however, were supply drops to Long Range penetration Groups (LRPGs) in Japanese territory, such as Force 136.

In place of a bomb the Spitfire would carry a canister of supplies, similar in size to the bomb, which would automatically release a small parachute when it was dropped. To try and pinpoint the drop onto the ground, the approach and release of the canister would be similar to a bombing run. The navigation briefing would typically describe the target to be near a river and a particular bend as a marker, and usually the men on the ground would be near some kind of clearing in the jungle.

When Smith flew in an operation to drop such supplies to Force 136 he found his motivation to complete a precision targeting was heightened. The sister of his wife, Theone, was married to one of the men in Force 136.

I would make at least one approach flight to the target area for reconnaissance. Then I would circle around before making a run in from another direction, to hopefully deceive any enemy observers and antiaircraft fire. To make the final drop of the heavily packaged canister of supplies, I would take the Spitfire down to close to tree-top height, in effect in a similar approach as if I was dropping the 500lb bomb.

A critical and vital source of intelligence to support the war on land, at sea, in the air, and in the war in the shadows, was aerial reconnaissance. Perhaps the most important aerial reconnaissance squadron was No. 681 Squadron RAF, flying the Spitfire Mk XI. In 1944–45, as the culling of the Ki-46 111 Dinah intensified, and the fighters of the Allies’ EAC gained an increasing zone of air superiority, the scope and range of Allied aerial reconnaissance grew more and more extensive.

In July 1944 Flight Lieutenant Ron Gardner joined No. 681 Squadron at Calcutta. From there, and later from Imphal and Monya in Burma, Gardner completed fifty reconnaissance operations over Japanese-occupied territory, in the main on solo sorties flying the Spitfire XI.

Flying solo meant that navigation was very hard. There were few landmarks in north-east India and Burma, apart from rivers, and if you could see them rail lines and bridges. Very often some pilots lost direction, and on their return ran out of fuel and had to make a forced landing somewhere. During our flying training in Canada you were selected for specialised Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, on the basis of flying ability and temperament – the need for an unflappable character.

With the Spitfire Mk XI, its 1,600hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine [and a pressurized cockpit] allowed us to cruise up to 40,000 feet taking photographs. The aircraft had been modified to take the heavy camera equipment, which was installed behind the cockpit. Our training had given us guidance on what to look for, in areas where we were photographing. We usually took off at first light – and no food or drink before or during the flight.

Ronald Charlie ‘Ron’ Gardner was born on Christmas Day in Merewether, Newcastle, NSW, Australia. After first joining the Australian Army as rifleman in 1940, he enrolled in the RAAF on 7 November 1941 in Sydney. Following initial training on Tiger Moth aircraft in NSW, Gardner was posted in June 1942 to flying training school in Ontario, Canada. After specialized training at the No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit at Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, he was posted in May 1943 to Britain. A spell of six months in 1944 with No. 680 Squadron RAF based in Cairo followed, before Gardner was transferred in June 1944 to No. 681 Squadron RAF at Calcutta.

On one of my reconnaissance flights I found myself off course, so I began to follow a river, flying below tree-top height and below the top of the river banks, looking for a return direction. Suddenly I came to a clearing in the jungle. It was a Jap base, and I flew over it at about 50 feet. I am not sure who was more surprised, there were Japanese running everywhere. I stayed low flying below the range of any of their anti-aircraft guns, and got out of there in a hurry

Whilst operating from Monya in Burma, some of the local villagers collaborated with the Japanese by lighting campfires at night at each end of the airstrip, indicating markers to the Japanese bombers. A memorable event at Monya was when a gleaming silver DC-3 Dakota, escorted by two Spitfires, landed on the airstrip. It was a surprise visit by Lord Louis Mountbatten. He spoke to me personally, along with several other airmen, and his visit was a great boost to our morale.

Not only were reconnaissance pilots invariably on their own if intercepted by JAAF fighters, they also had to fly alone against the other enemy, the monsoon. One of the first Spitfires to be used in India and Burma became a victim of the atrocious monsoonal weather. On 8 June 1943 a pilot of a Spitfire IV of No. 681 Squadron was returning from a reconnaissance operation over Arakan. Near the Sunderban mountains between Chittagong and Calcutta he was confronted by a huge monsoon thunderstorm.

Unable to see any possibility of getting over or around the monstrous clouds, he descended to about 100 feet to see if there was a chance to get underneath. Flying under a line of squall clouds, a sudden downdraft dumped the aircraft onto the ground. The Spitfire hurtled along the ground, breaking up as it did so. The pilot eventually came to a stop hundreds of yards from the point of the forced landing, still pinned in his cockpit seat. There was little else of the aircraft remaining around him. Miraculously, he was unhurt and able to walk to the nearest village.

Air power had become crucial to undertaking so many operations in the war in the shadows, and in all its manifestations had become integral to the whole fightback in Burma. Now the Allies were taking air power to another level, and into new and innovative methods of air support to assist the army’s drive into Burma.

First EIC War in India


The East India Company’s strange tactics meant that Shaista Khan’s court was divided in its opinion as to how to treat the English emissaries. Hedges’ visit to Dhaka brought the debate to a head. Shaista Khan himself was all for being lenient towards this strange and argumentative organization. Global trade boomed during the 1670s, with a 30 per cent increase in ships returning from Asia to Europe compared to the previous decade. Shaista himself had benefited from European commerce, trading horses with western Asia in partnership with English merchants, for example. The governor felt there was room within the open structures of the Mughal polity to accommodate the Company’s demands, but officers on the tax-collecting side of the Bengal administration saw the Company as an organization of tax avoiders trying to flout Mughal power rather than a source of wealth. In the 1680s, money was required to pay for the Mughal wars in Bengal and in the south of India. The Mughal empire’s chief revenue officer in Bengal insisted the Company contribute by paying the fixed rate of 3 per cent customs duty. When Hedges suggested the Company would leave if the tax demand persisted, the Diwan answered simply that ‘they might go if they pleased’. As ever, Shaista Khan tried to broker a compromise, but all he could do was write to the Emperor Alamgir asking if he would grant the Company a firman (or order) giving it the permanent right to tax-free trade, and then giving the Company an eight-month period of remission while they waited for a response from Delhi. The firman never arrived.

It was their need to negotiate continually with Mughal officers at Hughli, not the 3 per cent tax rate, which caused the English so much anxiety. Hedges’ visit to Dhaka did not end the ‘harassment’. While the English chief was away his junior officers were arrested, and were in ‘so great fear the Ships would not go away this year’ that they paid 4000 rupees ‘to let our goods pass to and fro without molestation’. When he got back to Hughli, Hedges complained that Parameshwar, as he put it, ‘began to play his villainous tricks with us again’. With support from elements within the Mughal regime, Thomas Pitt managed to leave Bengal in the early autumn with ships stuffed with goods to sell in England. He reached England in February 1683 where the profits from his trade enabled him to buy a manor in Wiltshire, and then the parliamentary seat of Salisbury. By contrast, the Company’s ships had sailed late in January in 1680 and 1681, and without a full cargo in 1682. Hedges did not manage any better in 1683 but he harried and cajoled, coming down to Baleswar to try to speed the Defence (the same ship in which he had sailed to Bengal) and two other vessels on their way. They left at the beginning of February, too late to get the best prices in Europe for the load of silk, cotton and saltpetre they carried.

William Hedges’ mission in Bengal had been a failure. He had not successfully established a monopoly for the East India Company over England’s trade with Asia; the interlopers were still trading; he had gained no lasting concessions from the Mughal empire. Soon enough, orders came from London for him to be sacked, to be replaced by William Gyfford, a senior official based at Madras. Hedges became a renegade. Going into hiding in the Dutch East India Company’s factory at Hughli, he then escaped back to England via a long overland route through Persia, Syria and the Mediterranean in order to avoid the Company’s ships. He landed at Dover early in the morning of 4 April 1687, four years after the return of his nemesis Thomas Pitt, with no job or family but considerably more wealth than he started with. Hedges’ wife and children had died during his travels (there is no reference as to when or how in his writings), but he returned with bales of cotton and silk to sell in London and the last pages of the diary he had maintained in order to justify his actions to his peers in London. That diary would play a part in turning the mood in London towards war.

The idea that the East India Company should conquer land in India did not begin in England. It started among officers in Bengal itself, frustrated about their fractious relationship with Mughal authorities. Hedges thought that the oscillation between ‘friendship’ and ‘insult’, the toing and froing between officials like Parameshwar Das and Shaista Khan, could not be sustained. The first half of Hedges’ diary had been sent to London in January 1784, and contained a firm message that the Company needed a strong, defensible fort if it was to trade in Bengal. The Company needed to ‘resolve to quarrel with these people’, Hedges wrote. Despite squabbling among themselves, this was becoming the consensual view. William Gyfford, Hedges’ replacement in Bengal, argued that ‘the trade of this place could never be carried on, and managed to the Company’s advantage, till [the Company] fell out with the Government, and could oblige them to grant better terms: which he thought very feasible’. The Company needed to achieve some kind of permanent, tax-free security. ‘No good was to be done with these people without compulsion.’

The notion of war was the response of merchants in Asia to pressures imposed from London. Initially, the Court of Directors was unwilling to follow through the implications of its rigid demands. Josiah Child and his colleagues in London were doubtful to begin with about the conquest plan, worrying that war would cost too much, and that it would antagonize their Dutch rivals. Some thought a strong base at the newly acquired port at Bombay would be a far better ‘check’ on the Mughals. No one doubted the Company needed to stand up to what they saw as humiliation by the Mughals. ‘We are positively resolved’, the Court said, ‘to assert our right due to us. . . . We shall never submit peaceably to the Custom demanded of us.’ But instead of an invasion, London initially suggested that the Company make a scene, landing a band of foot soldiers ‘with officers, drums, and colours’ before marching to Dhaka to demand redress.

The anxious flow of messages between India and London in the second half of 1684 and 1685 changed the minds of the Company’s London governors. Men debating in the Company’s courts and councils started to panic, thinking the Dutch and interlopers were annihilating the East India Company’s share of India’s trade. They imagined that Shaista Khan ‘took advantage of the unnaturall division betwixt the English themselves to oppress us all’. Talk was of frustration, dishonour and the increasing need to act quickly before things suddenly got worse. Increasingly war was proposed as a way to overcome the ‘misery and thralldom’ in which the English in Bengal were imagined to live. The Company asked its captains and officers what they thought and found that they:

all do Concur in this Opinion (and to us seeming impregnant truth) viz/t that since this Gov[ernmen]t have by that unfortunate accident, and audacity of the Interlopers, got the knack of trampling upon us, and extorting what they please of our estates from us by the besieging of our factories, and stopped our Boates upon the Ganges, they will never forbear doing so, till we have made them as sensible of our Power ‘[T]here must’, the Court of Directors wrote, ‘be some hostility used to set our privileges right again.’ The target was the city of Chittagong, a place where there had long been a big Portuguese presence, and the only port the English believed could be defended from Mughal attack. The trouble was the Company in London had not the faintest idea where Chittagong was. The port directly opens onto the Bay of Bengal, but the Court of Directors worried whether a conquest fleet could ‘get up the great Ganges as high as [Chittagong] without the aid of our pilots’.


Job Charnock

The ‘quarrel’ started in earnest when nineteen warships were hired in London in January 1686 and sent with six companies of soldiers. The first soldiers sent from England landed at Hughli, not Chittagong. Mughal troops were sent to the city in response. By then Job Charnock had taken over as chief of the Company’s operations in Bengal, and complained that the Nawab ‘ordered downe for the guard of this towne two or three hundred horses and three or four thousand Foot’. With Mughal troops flooding into Hughli tensions rose. War began in the middle of October as the result of an ‘unhappy accident’, when a fight broke out between three English soldiers and a larger group of Mughal sepoys in the bazaar and sparked a conflict between already edgy troops. Mughal forces burnt the East India Company’s factory. The English tried to attack Hughli from the river. Their ships captured ‘a Greate Mogull’s ship, and kept firing and battering for most of the night and the next day’. Charnock described these acts of ‘conquest’ as a ‘great victory’, but the English had left 14,000 bags of saltpetre onshore. Commodities mattered more than revenge against the Mughals, so the Nawab’s offer of peace was accepted. Writing home, Charnock’s greatest concern was that the Dutch had managed to use the disturbance ‘to make their markets’ in time.

Charnock then ordered English forces to Sutanati, a village forty-nine miles downriver from Hughli on the spot where the city of Kolkata now lies. He wanted to retreat to an isolated base distant from the Mughal army to load the ships and negotiate a treaty, while the Company had force at their disposal. The Company in London was not happy with this kind of ‘timid’ conduct. The Court of Directors wanted to stick to its guns, and ‘undauntedly pursue the war against the Mogull until they’d conquered a fortified settlement’. Charnock was criticized for putting the Company’s financial interests before the honour of its institutions and the country: the Company was very clear that honour came before profit. ‘We know’, they wrote to Charnock,

your interest leads you to returne as soon as you can to your Trades and getting of Money, and so, it may, our interest prompts us; but when the honour of our King and Country is at Stake we scorn more petty considerations and so should you.

Wishing Charnock ‘were as good as soldier as he is . . . a very honest merchant’, the English King and Company sent a new force of fifteen ships.

Captain Heath, the commander who had first brought William Hedges to Bengal, was sent back to lead the fight against the Mughals from his ship the Defence. But Heath fared no better than Charnock. He sent Shaista Khan a series of threatening letters, to which Shaista responded by arresting the small English contingent in Dhaka and keeping them in chains in the city’s red fort from March 1688. There they complained about being kept in ‘insufferable and tattered conditions’, imprisoned ‘like thiefs and murders’ until the end of June. Heath then bombarded the city of Baleswar, ‘committing various outrages against friends as well as enemies’ as Job Charnock put it. He then sailed to Chittagong, but found the city too heavily defended for his force to capture. The port’s Mughal governor sent a message asking the Company to stay and talk, believing that the Company’s ships might be useful for ferrying their own soldiers to fight the neighbouring state of Arakan, if terms with the English could be agreed. As usual, Indians wanted to prolong negotiation, but the English were impatient, concerned as ever about their markets. Heath fled back to Madras, arriving on 4 March 1689. With his retreat, England’s first war with a state in India came to an end.

Pearl Harbor—American’s React


Five of the U. S. Army pilots who got into the air and engaged the Japanese aircraft are pictured in front of a P-36A Hawk fighter shortly after the attack. From left to right are 2nd Lieutenant Harry W. Brown, 2nd Lieutenant Philip M. Rasmussen, 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth M. Taylor, 2nd Lieutenant George S. Welch, and 1st Lieutenant Lewis M. Sanders. (National Archives)


Once the shock of seeing Japanese planes over the harbor wore off, sailors, Marines, and airmen began fighting back. Through the bomb and torpedo explosions ready ammunition lockers were open, sometimes forcefully, and gunners began to fire back at the attackers. At first it was small arms: 45-caliber pistols and various rifles. Then crews began firing back with 50-caliber heavy machine guns, then larger-caliber anti-aircraft cannon. Minesweeper Avocet (AVP-4) was one of the first to open fire. She was moored at the Naval Air Station dock, Berth F-1A, and her 3-inch gun crew shot down a Kate that had just put a torpedo into the side of the battleship California. This airplane crashed near the base hospital, one of its wings coming to rest near a building. Avocet’s gunners accounted for a couple of additional aircraft shot down during the attack.

Crews on board destroyer Bagley (DD-386) immediately went into action, breaking open the ready ammunition locker for 50-caliber machine gun belts. The gunners were able to fire on the first three Japanese torpedo bombers during the first wave, and took aim at the attacking Vals in the second. Bagley was one of the first American ships to sortie from the harbor in pursuit of the enemy.

Cruisers Honolulu (CL-48) and St. Louis (CL-49) began opening up with 30-caliber and 50-caliber machine guns and 5-inch/25-caliber guns. Soon nearly every ship in the harbor was taking aim at the Japanese. Typical of the ammunition expended were the numbers from Honolulu: 2,800 rounds of 30-caliber, 4,500 rounds of 50-caliber, and 250 rounds of 5-inch/25-caliber were fired during the attack.

Shortly after the second attack wave arrived over the harbor, seaplane tender Curtiss (AV-4) took a bomb hit from a Val that exploded on the main deck, killing twenty-one sailors and wounding fifty-eight men. Curtiss’s gunners opened fire on the dive-bombing Vals and scored a direct hit as it pulled up from an attack. The Val’s pilot was killed and his plane careened into Curtiss, hitting the forward, starboard-side crane. The plane’s fuel tank exploded and its wreckage dropped to the boat deck where it burned causing severe damage to the ship’s pipes, steam lines, and wiring.

Prior to the December 7 attack, a number of planes and pilots from Wheeler Field were flying gunnery practice missions from Haleiwa Field, twenty miles away on Oahu’s north shore. The planes and ground crews remained at the field while the pilots had gone back to Wheeler Field for the weekend. On Saturday night, many of the flyers had made the rounds of the Officers’ Clubs at Hickam and Wheeler and had enjoyed themselves late into the morning.

To protect against sabotage, the majority of the aircraft at Wheeler Field were parked on the ramp, wingtip to wingtip, each row only twenty feet from the next. This enabled a small number of armed guards to patrol the perimeter of the parked aircraft to prevent sabotage. On the morning of December 7, almost eighty Curtiss P-36s and P-40s were on the ramp, vulnerable to attack from the air.

At 8:02 a.m., Wheeler Field and the adjacent Schofield Barracks were attacked by twenty-five Val dive-bombers. The Vals dropped bombs on the hangars and returned to strafe aircraft on the ramp as well as the Schofield Barracks area. As the Japanese dive-bombers were working over the airfield, 2nd Lt. George S. Welch and 2nd Lt. Kenneth M. Taylor phoned Haleiwa Field and had their planes armed and engines warmed-up, ready for take off. The two hopped into a car and raced north to Haleiwa Field. Taking off around 8:30 a.m., the pair were instructed to head south toward Ewa Field and the Pearl Harbor area, where they spotted the enemy. Both fliers engaged about a dozen Japanese planes in the skies over Barbers Point with Welch downing two confirmed and one probable and Taylor two.

Out of fuel and ammunition, the pair returned to Wheeler during a lull in the fighting to rearm. Welch was the first back into the air, and as Taylor lifted off, he immediately pursued a Japanese plane passing directly in front of him. While Taylor was firing on the plane ahead of him, a Japanese Zero latched onto his tail and Welch joined the fray, firing at Taylor’s pursuer. By the end of the morning, Taylor was credited with two confirmed aerial victories and Welch with four. Taylor and Welch were recognized with the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that morning.

Between attack waves, two Curtiss P-36s from the 47th Pursuit Squadron and one each from the 45th and 46th Pursuit Squadrons launched from Wheeler Field. Led by 1st Lt. Lewis M. Sanders, the other pilots were 2nd Lt. Othneil Norris, 2nd Lt. John M. Thacker, and 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen. When Norris got out of his plane and went into the hangar to swap parachutes, 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr. jumped into Norris’s P-36. Sterling taxied out and joined the other three P-36s in the flight and joined up on Thacker. Because of Sterling’s lack of combat procedures and gunnery training, Sterling was instructed to fly as Sanders’s wingman and Thacker and Rasmussen formed the second element. The four P-36s were airborne by 8:50 a.m.

Climbing for altitude, the four P-36s broke out of the clouds near NAS Kaneohe Bay. They immediately spotted six Zeros and dove to attack. Sanders scored the first kill, then saw Sterling pursuing a Zero with another Japanese fighter on his tail. Joining the trio, Sanders started firing at the trailing Zero and this melee was being observed by Rasmussen who reported seeing Sterling’s Zero crash into the bay, followed by Sterling. The Zero under fire from Sanders escaped, and it later turned out that the fighter that Sterling was shooting at escaped as well. During this tail chase, Rasmussen had charged his guns, which began to fire uncontrollably. As he was attempting to stop the guns from running away, a Zero flew into the path of his bullets and exploded, earning him an aerial victory credit. Rasmussen then had a pair of Zeros on his tail and he dove for cover in some clouds below him, losing the Japanese fighters in the process.

At Bellows Field, three pilots from the 44th Pursuit Squadron tried to take off during the attack, two of whom lost their lives attempting to repel the attackers. Second Lt. Hans C. Christensen was hit by strafing Japanese planes as he was boarding his P-40 and 2nd Lt. George A. Whiteman took off in a P-40B and was shot down as his plane lifted off the runway. First, Lt. Samuel W. Bishop followed Whiteman into the air, but while climbing for altitude he was hit by machine-gun and 20mm cannon fire from a Zero. Wounded and barely able to control his aircraft, Bishop crashed into the sea off Bellows Field. He was able to swim to shore and eventually returned to duty. All three men received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

Crossing over the harbor entrance channel en route to strafe Hickam Field, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter flown by Naval Air Pilot first class Takeshi Hirano was heavily damaged by a combination of ground fire and anti-aircraft fire from the destroyer Helm and the minesweeper Bobolink. To those on the ground, it appeared that Hirano intended on belly landing his Zero on a street inside Fort Kamehameha, which borders the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor. As his crippled fighter sputtered its way over the fort, Hirano’s left wing clipped a palm tree, spinning it down to the ground.

The Zero struck at the base of the Ordnance Machine Shop, Building 52, where soldiers had taken cover. The impact of the Japanese fighter killed Hirano instantly. Four soldiers were killed, and five wounded as a result of flying debris from the plane.

As the attack raged overhead, the army and its men bent on souvenir hunting scoured the aircraft for anything valuable. Inside Hirano’s pocket was a small map showing the rendezvous point where the retiring attackers would meet as they headed back to the carriers. This gave American search planes a general direction of where the carriers were, but not a precise location of where to expect the Japanese fleet. B-17s went in search of the Japanese, but were unable to locate them.

After the battle, the wreckage was taken to a Hickam Field hangar and studied for its intelligence value. And although nothing new was discovered as far as aerodynamics or weaponry was concerned, investigators deemed that most of it looked like copies of U.S.–made components, giving rise to the belief that the Zero was a copy of an American aircraft.

On the eastern side of Oahu, the morning air over Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay was pierced by the rumble of low-flying aircraft around 7:50 a.m. Soon thereafter the attackers were strafing aircraft moored in the bay and those on the seaplane ramp. Sailors and Marines began to fire back with rifles and machine guns. The attack lasted between ten and fifteen minutes before the aircraft retired to the north.

The second attack wave did more damage to the base, this time dropping small bombs in addition to strafing the navy Catalinas. A direct hit on Hangar No. 1 did tremendous damage to the building and completely destroyed four PBYs inside. The majority of Kaneohe Bay’s casualties occurred in the moored aircraft or as crews were trying to launch or move the big flying boats.

Anti-aircraft gunners at Kaneohe Bay were able to score a number of hits as three or four aircraft were seen leaving the area streaming fuel. They were able to confirm one Japanese aircraft as shot down, that belonging to Lt. Fusata Iida, leader of Soryu fighter unit’s attack on the naval air station. Iida, realizing he would not be able to make it back to the carrier had committed himself to crashing his aircraft into a high-value target should something go wrong. Having rejoined his flight, he signaled his intentions, then rolled his aircraft and dove toward the air station firing his guns on the way down. Iida crashed into a hill one mile north of the hangar line. He was buried the next day with full military honors in the same plot as the fifteen men from the air station who perished in the attack.

Another Zero pilot unable to make the return trip to his carrier was Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi from Hiryu. Having been struck by anti-aircraft fire during the raid, Nishikaichi headed for the rendezvous with the Japanese aircraft carriers. He was accompanied by another Hiryu fighter, but ran out of fuel over Niihau and crash-landed. The second aircraft continued to the west and was never seen by the islanders again.

Six days after the Pearl Harbor attack, on Saturday, December 13, six men rowed from Niihau to Waimea, Kauai, to report the crash landing and subsequent capture of Airman Shigenori Nishikaichi. At the time, there was no communication with Niihau and no radio to inform the islanders that America was now at war with Japan. On Kauai, the authorities were notified and twelve soldiers from Company M, 299th Infantry, were sent back to Niihau on board the lighthouse tender Kukui. In addition to the men from Company M, the Kukui carried an additional dozen armed men and two heavy machine guns. The Kukui departed Waimea at 6 p.m. local time and arrived at the southern tip of Niihau at 7:30 a.m. The men dis-embarked, had breakfast, then began the ten-mile march to the Nonopapa village where the Japanese pilot was being held.

The troops arrived at 1:50 p.m. to learn that the Zero fighter had been burned by its pilot, who was dead, and to hear a bizarre story about the past six days since the Japanese fighter crashed on the island, which resulted in the pilot attempting to send a radio message from the Zero’s cockpit, him burning the plane, a native Hawaiian being shot, the pilot being picked up and being bodily thrown into a stone wall resulting in a crushed skull, and a native Japanese worker who had aided the pilot committing suicide. The week’s events became known as “The Niihau Incident.”

In all, twenty-nine Japanese planes and their crews did not return to the carriers. Nine of the aircraft were Zeros, fifteen Val dive-bombers, and five were Kate torpedo-bombers.

Dolphin and the Barbary Pirates


Just after dawn on January 12, 1617, the morning watch aboard the Dolphin caught sight of a sail making toward them from the Sardinian shore. She was still a mile or so away, but as she came closer the sailor could see that she was a two-masted settee, the kind of ship which was often used by the Turks to transport men and supplies. That meant there were likely to be other Turks in the area.

The watch woke the master, a Mr. Nichols, who sent a man up into the maintop with a prospect glass, a new and useful device for seeing faraway things as if they were nearby. Sure enough, a line of five men-of-war in full sail was coming up on them before the wind. And they were pirates.

We know this because an unnamed member of the Dolphin’s crew wrote a narrative of the day’s events—one of a handful of extraordinary eyewitness accounts of encounters with pirates that appeared in the late 1610s and early 1620s, describing in vivid detail what it felt like to be attacked on the high seas.

The 280-ton Dolphin was on her way home to London and eleven days out from her last port of call, the Ionian island of Zante, an important center of trade in honey, oil, wine, and currants. She had left Zante on January 1, 1617, and in a little over a week “a prosperous gale” had carried her westward past Sicily, until she was within sight of the watchtowers which lined the coast of Spanish-held Sardinia. But contrary winds had held her there, south of Cagliari and three leagues to the east of Cape Pula on Sardinia’s southern tip. These were dangerous waters, where corsairs from Tunis and Algiers cruised with impunity.

The five pirates were “all well prepared for any desperate assault,” wrote the anonymous author of A Fight at Sea, Famously Fought by the Dolphin of London. The leading ship was carrying thirty-five guns. The other four had between twenty-two and twenty-five apiece. All five had crews which were 200 to 250 strong. The Dolphin was outgunned and outnumbered.

But she was not defenseless. She was armed with nineteen heavy guns, nine antipersonnel “murderers,” and an assortment of muskets, pikes, and swords; and her crew of thirty-six men and two boys included at least one master gunner, whose job it was in situations like this to turn ordinary seamen into soldiers. Since there was no chance of outrunning the pirates, and since they lay between the Dolphin and the safety of the shore, Mr. Nichols immediately decided to fight. Small arms and swords were handed out, and all the paraphernalia of violence was checked and distributed—the round-shot and hail-shot and chain-shot, the powder measures and ladles and rammers and sponges, the baskets to carry the shot to each piece, the barrels to carry the powder, the wedge-shaped quoins used to adjust the elevation of each gun barrel, and the fuses used to fire the cannon.

Then the crew assembled on deck and prayed together, before sitting down with remarkable sangfroid to an early dinner, which was followed by a rousing speech from Mr. Nichols.

A sea battle was a slow, complicated, and chaotic business, especially for merchantmen who weren’t used to fighting. In his 1626 manual on seafaring, An Accidence, or The Path-way to Experience Necessary for All Young Sea-men, Captain John Smith offered a dramatic description of an encounter with an enemy ship:

A broadside, and run ahead. Make ready to tack about. Give him your stern pieces, be yare [ready] at helm, hail him with a noise of trumpets.

We are shot through and through, and between wind and water [on that part of the ship’s side exposed by the rolling of the vessel]. Try the pump. Master, let us breath and refresh a little; sling a man overboard to stop the leak.

Done, done, is all ready again? Yea, yea: bear up close with him, with all your great and small shot charge him. Board him on his weather quarter [the stern quarter on which the wind blows]; lash fast your graplins [grappling irons] and shear off, then run stemlings [ram her] the midships. Board and board, or thwart the hawse [pull alongside, or cross her bow]. We are foul [tangled] on each other.

The ship’s on fire! Cut anything to get clear, and smother the fire with wet clothes.

We are clear, and the fire is out, God be thanked. The day is spent; let us consult. Surgeon, look to the wounded. Wind up the slain, with each a weight or bullet at his head and feet; give three pieces [fire a three-gun salute] for their funerals.

Swabber, make clean the ship. Purser, record their names. Watch, be vigilant to keep your berth [position] to windward, and that we lose him not in the night. Gunners, sponge your ordnances; soldiers, scour your pieces. Carpenters, about your leaks. Boatswain and the rest, repair the sails and shrouds. Cook, see you observe your directions against the morning watch.

There can’t have been a man aboard the Dolphin who didn’t play out a scene like this in his head as he waited for the action to begin. By the time the meal was over it was nearly eleven a.m., and the leading pirate ships were closing. In a show of defiance, Mr. Nichols stood on the poop deck in plain view of his pursuers and waved his sword at them three times, “shaking it with such dauntless courage as if he had already won the victory.” His men followed suit; the ship’s trumpeters blew their trumpets; and as the first of the pirates came within range, Nichols gave the order for his gunner to take aim and fire.

It was very hard to hit another ship. William Bourne, whose 1587 manual on The Arte of Shooting in Great Ordnaunce was a standard text for gunners, devoted an entire chapter to the problem. In a pitching sea, when your ship was rocking from bow to stern, it was best to place your gun on the lowest deck and as near as possible to the mainmast, the point at which she “doth hang as though she were upon an axiltree.” Similiarly, if the vessel was rolling, then “the best place of the ship for to make a shot is out of the head or stern.” In either case, reckoned Bourne, “the principallest thing is that he that is at the helm must be sure to steer steady, and be ruled by him that giveth the level [i.e., adjusts the elevation of the gun], and he that giveth fire, must be nimble, and ready at a sudden.”

In practice, it was usual to fire point-blank—that is, when you were so close to your adversary that your shot would travel in a virtually straight line and you didn’t have to worry about the arc of trajectory. That meant closing to within a hundred yards or so of the target, and since that involved your target’s guns coming within point-blank range of you, it required an iron nerve, especially if you weren’t particularly experienced in combat.

All of which is by way of excusing the fact that the Dolphin’s gunner missed.

The man in charge of the pirate fleet was a one-armed Londoner named Robert Walsingham, whose addiction to piracy had led to his being forced out of Ireland and then Morocco before settling on Algiers as his base of operations. He usually hunted with two other British pirates, Captains Kelly and Sampson, both of whom were with him now. Walsingham immediately returned fire, aiming to disable the Dolphin and demoralize her crew. At noon he drew alongside and his men clambered aboard, yelling and waving scimitars, hatchets, and pikes. They hacked at the planking on the raised poop deck and tried to prize open the main hatch to get at the cargo below.

Fear and intimidation were the pirates’ most potent weapons. But the Dolphin’s crewmen held their nerve and bided their time. When they were sure of their targets they opened fire with one of the antipersonnel “murderers,” which their gunner had mounted in a cabin under the poop so as to be able to rake anyone who came into view on the open deck. In a hail of dice-shot the boarders were forced back onto their own vessel, only to come under musket fire from more of the defenders, who shot from the cover of the closed-in gallery which ran round the Dolphin’s stern below the poop deck. At the same time, the Dolphin’s gunner directed his heavy ordnance at Walsingham’s ship, now so close that it was hard to miss. The pirates returned fire; but whereas the Dolphin was intent on causing them major structural damage, the pirates had no wish to sink the ship and confined themselves to aiming rounds of chain-shot at their adversary’s masts and rigging. After several hours the pirate ship had sustained enough damage for Walsingham to break off the engagement, and as he pulled ahead of the Dolphin, she gave his vessel such a broadside that it played no further part in the battle.

The Dolphin’s troubles weren’t over yet. Captain Kelly moved up on one side, and another unnamed pirate commander came up on the other, and so they sandwiched the merchantman between them. Parties from both vessels boarded the Dolphin, “entering our ship thick and threefold, with their scimitars, hatchets, half pikes and other weapons.” One of the Turks climbed into the rigging and up the mainmast, determined to bring down the flag, “which being spied by the steward of our ship, presently shot him with his musket that he fell headlong into the sea, leaving the flag behind him.” Again the pirates were forced back to their own vessels; and again they drew off to mend their leaks, “for we had grievously torn and battered them with our great ordnance.”

The final assault came late in the afternoon. By now the Dolphin was badly damaged herself, shot through and through and leaking. Several of the crew were dead; others were hurt, including Mr. Nichols, who had been shot twice in the groin while he stood at the helm, trying to hold the ship steady for the guns. But there was still powder and shot, and the knowledge that by resisting they had forfeited any hope of mercy gave the survivors a desperate courage. They had no choice now but to fight.

As the last two pirate ships closed in, shot from the Dolphin’s guns went straight through the hull of one of them, and its pirate commander aborted the attack. The other vessel came up on the starboard quarter, and yet again Janissaries stormed aboard. They were blowing trumpets, running to and fro on the deck and “crying still in the Turkish tongue, yield your selves, yield your selves,” and throwing grenades filled with wildfire, an incendiary mixture of gunpowder, brimstone, and oil of petrol, which, “being once set on fire can hardly be quenched.” It must have been terrifying.

One ball of wildfire landed in the basin which the ship’s surgeon was using to tend a wounded man, and with commendable presence of mind he hurled the basin into the sea; but others landed on the deck in the midst of some bloody hand-to-hand fighting, and almost before anyone realized what was happening the Dolphin was burning.

Ironically, this potentially catastrophic fire saved both the ship and the lives of its surviving crew. As the flames took hold, the pirate captain called his men back. “Thinking that our ship would have therewith been suddenly burned to the water, they left us to our fortunes.” The corsair fleet fell astern, and as night came on and the crew managed to bring the fire under control, the battered Dolphin limped toward the Sardinian coast and safety. She was badly damaged in four places: between decks, in the gunroom, in Mr. Nichols’s cabin, and in the helmsman’s cabin, where the master had been standing when he was shot. Of the ship’s complement of thirty-eight, seven were killed in the battle and nine more injured. Four of these had died of their wounds by the time the ship put in at Cagliari for repairs. Mr. Nichols was one of the survivors.

There were plenty of occasions when merchant ships outran pirates, but victory in pitched battle, especially against such overwhelming odds, was a rare event. One of the survivors “that was then present and an eye witness to all the proceedings” published his narrative of the Dolphin’s encounter soon after he reached London in February 1617. He gave due thanks to God and praised “the magnanimity and worthy resolution of this our English nation.” He might also have pointed out the advantages of providing merchant ships with heavy ordnance, a decisive factor in the Dolphin’s deliverance. But his real purpose was to celebrate the courage of ordinary seamen, who were often criticized at home—particularly by the merchants and shipowners who had to bear the loss—for yielding too quickly and giving up their cargo to save their own skins. The anonymous author of A Fight at Sea was at pains to emphasize that the Dolphin’s crew chose “rather to die, than to yield, as it is still the nature and condition of all Englishmen.”



With favourable winds, William crossed the Channel without difficulty and rode straight for the West Country. According to the History, he returned to England ‘because that was the country of his birth and because he wished to see his worthy kin’. But there is no evidence that William made any effort to visit the surviving members of his immediate family at this point, nor does he seem to have paid his respects to his late father, now interred at Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire.* Marshal had a different kind of family encounter in mind; one that had little to do with sentimentality or emotion, but was driven by the far more pragmatic pursuit of patronage. He made straight for Salisbury, seat of his powerful uncle, Earl Patrick – a man who had thrived in the aftermath of the civil war, enjoying advancement under the new king, and one who now retained the services of fifty to sixty knights.

William’s brief, bitter taste of life as an impoverished, lord-less warrior in 1166 had left its mark. He had no intention of risking such a fate again. His burgeoning martial reputation might have earned him a position in any number of military households across Normandy and England, but a more permanent post could only be cemented through a close family bond. Earl Patrick was no sibling and potential rival, like Marshal’s brother John. He was an established noble; a man of prospects, capable of acting as William’s mentor, of shaping and advancing his career. When Patrick duly offered him a position in the Salisbury mesnie, a flourishing future looked certain. Shortly thereafter, the wisdom of William’s decision to seek service with his uncle was amply borne out. In early 1168 Earl Patrick was called to campaign in south-western France, at the side of King Henry II himself. Marshal had already met one monarch, King Stephen, as a child hostage. Now he was to be drawn to the centre of the new Angevin dynasty.


In the first decade following his coronation in 1154, Henry II proved himself to be an astute, dynamic and unfailingly ambitious ruler. Royal authority in England was quickly re-established, as Henry and his diligent officials reconstructed systems of law, justice and governance. Control over the minting of coinage was reasserted, while the determined enforcement of crown rights and strict imposition of taxation soon restocked the royal treasury. Impressively, all of this was achieved while holding on to Normandy and Anjou, and expanding Angevin influence into Brittany, in the far north-western corner of France. Throughout this period, Henry was able to rely on the steadying hand of his mother, Empress Matilda, who lived in semi-retirement near Rouen until her death in September 1167. But Henry II’s power, the extent of his realm and the course of his reign were also defined by his marriage to another remarkable woman: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In the words of one contemporary, Eleanor was ‘a woman without compare’ – strong-willed, sharp-minded and driven by a lust for life. Frustratingly, no chronicler gave any hint of her physical appearance, even though many described her husband Henry in detail. By birth she was heiress to the great duchy of Aquitaine, with lands stretching across western and south-western France, and dominion over the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. Eleanor’s colourful career began long before she met Henry. In 1137, at around the age of fifteen, she was wed to King Louis VII of France, head of the royal Capetian dynasty. This seemed an advantageous union, promising as it did to unite the small French kingdom centred around Paris with the lands of Aquitaine, but Eleanor appears to have felt little warmth for her rather unprepossessing husband – a man whom she later likened to a monk because of his desultory sexual appetite.

In the late 1140s, Eleanor and Louis travelled to the Holy Land during the disastrous Second Crusade, but in Syria the queen was accused of having an incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, ruler of the principality of Antioch. Eleanor brazened it out, refusing to be cowed, but the scandalous story spread across Europe. The gravest problem, however, was that the royal marriage failed to secure the Capetian line; two healthy daughters were born to the couple, but no male heir. Eventually, in 1152, the union was annulled on grounds of consanguinity, seemingly by mutual consent. Just eight weeks later – and much to Louis VII’s horror – Eleanor married the more vigorous Henry of Anjou and Normandy, a man twelve years her junior, and an arch-rival of the Capetians. When Henry became king of England two years later, a vast new Angevin realm was created, with lands stretching from the borders of Scotland in the north to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the south.

For the first fifteen years, Henry and Eleanor’s marriage flourished, as a veritable bumper crop of heirs was born. The couple’s first child, William, died at the age of just three, but seven more children followed, all of whom survived to adulthood. The boy who became the Angevins’ primary male heir was born on 28 February 1155 and christened Henry; three further sons – Richard, Geoffrey and John – and three daughters – Matilda, Eleanor and Joanne – came after. King Henry II was delighted. With this brood he could found an enduring dynasty and forge a web of diplomatic alliances through marriage, safeguarding Angevin interests.

Ruling such a huge and diverse empire presented formidable challenges. Chief among these was the enduring and embittered enmity of the Capetians, so recently inflamed by Henry’s marriage to Eleanor. King Louis VII was born of a long-established royal line, but in terms of territory, wealth and military might, he inherited a relatively feeble kingdom. Centuries earlier, under the Carolingians, Francia or France had been a unified realm, but it had long ago fractured into numerous dukedoms and counties. The French monarchy retained only a small territory known as the Ile-de-France, with the city of Paris at its heart, and though the king was the nominal overlord of all the surrounding provinces, in practice his power was eclipsed by many of his supposed vassals.

The most irritating of all of these, as far as the Capetians were concerned, were the upstart dukes of Normandy, whose territory bordered the Ile-de-France to the west. These belligerent Normans posed a constant threat, not least because they claimed rights to a series of strategically significant frontier fortresses, barely forty miles from Paris, in an area known as the Vexin. Over the preceding century the abiding sense of hostility between the two sides had only deepened as the Norman dukes added the kingdom of England to their lands, and then, under the Angevins, the regions of Anjou, Maine, and most recently, Aquitaine. By the 1160s, the Angevins were unquestionably the dominant power in France. But King Louis had ambitions to restore the glory of the French monarchy, and Henry II knew only too well that his rival would seek to challenge, diffuse and deflect the might of the Angevins at every turn. The festering animosity between these two dynasties would simmer over the decades to come. As this contest intensified, it would come to shape the histories of England and France, and William Marshal would one day find himself fighting in the frontline of this titanic conflict.

As overlord of the grand Angevin realm, Henry II had also to overcome the massive hurdle of scale. He sought to govern an expansive ‘empire’ that stretched almost 1,000 miles from end to end without recourse to the complex infrastructure that we now take for granted in the modern world – the systems that allow expeditious transport and immediate communication. Henry’s solution was to remain almost constantly on the move, travelling incessantly from one province to the next, and he quickly became renowned for his restless, and seemingly inexhaustible, energy. To contemporaries, Henry was a man who never sat ‘except to eat or ride a horse’, the equivalent of a ‘human chariot dragging all after him’. He set a relentless pace for his itinerant court, covering in one day what it took others four to travel, and leaving one chronicler to conclude that ‘he must fly rather than journey by horse or ship’.

The first phase of Henry II’s reign was extraordinarily successful. Only two lingering problems threatened in the late 1160s. The king had become estranged from his former confidant and chancellor, Thomas Becket, after the latter’s appointment in 1162 as archbishop of Canterbury, England’s supreme prelate. Henry had expected his old friend Thomas to be a loyal and malleable ally, but Becket became a staunch defender of the Church against the predatory crown, seemingly inspired by his elevation. After a venomous quarrel, Thomas Becket went into exile in France in 1164, gaining the support of King Louis VII. Despite the papacy’s attempts to effect a reconciliation, the dispute remained unresolved.

The other pressing issue demanding Henry II’s attention was the unruly duchy of Aquitaine. The king spent part of 1167 reaffirming Angevin rule in the region, but in early 1168 news of a fresh uprising reached his ears. Determined to tame this valuable corner of France, the king laid plans for a new campaign to the south. Queen Eleanor would join the expedition, while Patrick of Salisbury was to be Henry’s leading lieutenant. The earl duly crossed the Channel at the head of his military retinue with his newly appointed household knight and nephew, William Marshal, at his side.


The Aquitanian expedition took William Marshal far from home. Up to this point his life had been lived in southern England and Normandy, regions that, in the twelfth century, shared a strong affinity in terms of language, culture and landscape. Aquitaine was a different world. In its southern reaches they even spoke another tongue – not the French (or Langue d’Œuil) that William had grown up with, but Occitan (or Langue d’Oc). This huge province – the size of Normandy and Anjou combined – was one of the wealthiest areas of France: a land of rich soils, golden crops and fine wines.

Its people cherished culture and the arts, fostering new forms of music, poetry and song. Queen Eleanor’s own grandfather, Duke William IX, had been one of the first troubadours, or courtly singers, and it was not uncommon for local lords to be acclaimed both as warriors and composers. This was the world of mythic chivalry, from which the Carolingian heroes of old had supposedly marched to holy war against the Muslims of Spain. Local churches claimed to house the body of Roland himself and the very horn with which he had sought to summon aid against the Moors, while one of King Henry’s own favoured shrines – the cliff-top church of Rocamadour – displayed Roland’s legendary sword, Durendal.

Aquitaine’s ducal capital, Poitiers, was the most astounding city that William Marshal had ever seen. Perched upon a plateau, dominating the surrounding landscape, it was home to a formidable stone walled palace built on the orders of Queen Eleanor’s grandfather, and boasted two famous churches. One, dedicated to Poitiers’ fourth-century bishop St Hilary, was closely linked with the dukes of Aquitaine. The other, Notre-Dame la Grande, was a late eleventh-century masterpiece, decorated with some of the finest Romanesque sculpture in France. Not content with these architectural riches, Henry and Eleanor had decided to leave their own mark, commissioning a massive new cathedral dedicated to St Peter in 1162. The construction of this edifice had begun, so the city’s lower slopes were a building site, and the work would continue for decades to come.

Angevin authority held strong in this well-defended metropolis, but William was to discover that the Aquitanians were a proud, fiercely independent and quarrelsome people; little used to bending the knee to anyone, and certainly not happy to bow down before an outsider from the north like Henry II. Beyond Poitiers, in the neighbouring regions of Poitou, Angoulême and the Limousin, lawlessness was endemic. Here recalcitrant warlords expected to assert their own will and many had built small castles to dominate the untamed landscape. The Lusignans of Poitou were a case in point – a minor noble family with a small parcel of ancestral lands, centred on a stout fortress just fifteen miles south-west of Poitiers. They were hardly one of the great aristocratic houses of the south, but the new head of the dynasty, Geoffrey, was hungry for advancement. He was a fearsome warrior and had an equally ambitious and acquisitive brother, Guy, by his side. In early 1168 they began raiding the region around Poitiers, riding through the royal domains in a ‘violent manner’, pillaging as they went.

This was precisely the kind of disorder that Henry II was unwilling to tolerate. When he arrived, with Earl Patrick’s military household in tow, the king fell on the Lusignans like a hammer. William Marshal now received an object lesson in the gritty realities of medieval warfare. This would be no chivalric contest fought on an open battlefield. Instead, Henry’s aim was to inflict maximum damage on the Poitevin rebels, using overwhelming force and brutal tactics to devastate their resources, thus crippling their military capabilities.

A mainstay of this type of campaigning was the chevauchée or destructive horse raid, in which packs of mounted knights conducted vicious sorties into enemy territory, ravaging the landscape by torching crops and razing settlements. The primary victims of these ‘scorched-earth’ attacks were local peasants, farmers and townspeople, and it was they who suffered now as William and his fellow knights ranged across Poitou ‘destroying [the Lusignans’] towns and villages’. This was sadistic and remorseless work, but at times of war most twelfth-century nobles seem to have paid scant regard to the suffering endured by the ‘lower orders’ of society. No evidence survives to indicate how Marshal reacted to this first taste of open raiding – the History passed over this phase of the Aquitanian conflict in silence, and its details have only survived through a brief notice in a contemporary Norman account.

Savage as this type of warfare may seem to modern sensibilities, chevauchées were employed in the vast majority of military campaigns conducted in twelfth-century Europe. Veteran commanders like Henry II and Earl Patrick knew that they were the fastest and safest way to bring any enemy to his knees. As the History later observed, ‘when the poor can no longer reap the harvest from their fields, then they can no longer pay their rent and this in turn impoverishes their lord’. The technique certainly worked for them in 1168. The Lusignans’ ‘rebellion’ was crushed in less than a month, Geoffrey and Guy submitted, their castle was surrendered and Poitou returned to a semblance of order. But Henry also recognised that this type of sharp punitive enforcement could not provide a lasting solution, so he turned to his wife. She had given birth to their eighth child, the boy John, in 1167 and was ready to play a more active role in the governance of the realm. The hope was that, as a native of Aquitaine, Eleanor might be able to inspire a greater measure of loyalty and compliance within the province. She was installed in Poitiers, with Earl Patrick as her lieutenant, while the king left for the north to hold a peace conference with Louis of France.


In early April 1168, William Marshal was guarding Eleanor of Aquitaine’s royal cortège alongside the rest of Patrick of Salisbury’s retinue, as the queen travelled through the forest-cloaked hills of Poitou. The purpose of her journey is unclear, but there seems to have been little sense of apprehension within the party on that spring day. Patrick and his men were not dressed in armour and only a small number of knights were present. In all probability, Eleanor had been touring the recently subdued Lusignan lands and was now returning to Poitiers.

Without any warning the small column was attacked, seemingly from the rear, by a large party of heavily armed Lusignan warriors led by the brothers Geoffrey and Guy. The History of William Marshal described this as a calculated ‘ambush’, and although some aspects of its account can be verified in other contemporary chronicles, the exact causes of the sudden confrontation remain unclear and would later be hotly contested. Perhaps enraged by Henry’s recent campaign, the Lusignans were probably hoping to capture some valuable hostages, thereby securing ransoms and gaining leverage in future negotiations. They may well have imagined that Queen Eleanor herself could be taken prisoner.

Earl Patrick recognised at once that his forces were heavily outnumbered and immediately ‘sent the Queen on to the castle’ – probably in Poitiers itself. Patrick, William Marshal and the remaining members of the Salisbury mesnie now had to hold the road so that Eleanor could reach safety. Within moments a vicious skirmish began as Patrick, still un-armoured and riding only his palfrey, cried out for his warhorse to be brought forward and ‘launched himself furiously into [the] midst’ of the Lusignan troops. In the heated confusion of this first contact, the earl seems to have been isolated from the majority of his knights, as many of the Salisbury warriors, William included, were holding back, trying to hurriedly don armour. Nonetheless, Patrick seems to have survived the first burst of fighting unscathed and, as his destrier arrived, he leapt down and prepared to mount his warhorse and re-enter the fray. He was halfway into the saddle, his back turned to the enemy, when disaster struck. A Lusignan knight drove forward and skewered the earl with a piercing lance strike; un-armoured, as he was, the point of the weapon drove straight through his body. The History described, in horrified tones, how as a result of this terrible blow from a ‘treacherous assassin’ Patrick ‘died on the spot’.

The world must have stopped for a fraction of a second, as the enormity of what had just happened dawned on both sides. It is exceptionally unlikely that the earl of Salisbury’s death was ever part of the Lusignans’ plans. Men of Patrick’s standing were simply too valuable to kill in such an offhand manner and, in any case, everyone knew that properly armoured knights were virtually immune to severe injury. In those first moments, Geoffrey and Guy may already have understood that this dark deed would have grave consequences – certainly they would later argue that the incident had been a terrible accident, not deliberate murder.

But for the remaining Salisbury knights – William Marshal in their midst – that was exactly what it looked like. A wave of shock and blinding rage washed over them. According to the History, William ‘almost went out of his mind with grief’, despairing that ‘he had not been able to reach the man who killed [Patrick] in time’ to halt his attack. By now Marshal was wearing a mail hauberk, but he ‘did not wait until he was fully armed’; instead, possessed by an almost berserk fury, he charged into the frantic mêlée, ‘bent on exacting violent revenge’. William fought first with his lance and then, after his horse was killed under him, with his sword, scything down enemies and their mounts. His biographer likened him to a ‘starving lion’ ripping into its prey. But the number of opponents ranged against him eventually proved overwhelming. With the other Salisbury troops either beaten into retreat or battered into submission, Marshal took his last stand, backed up against a hedge, like ‘a boar before a pack of wolves’, desperately trying to hold back a ring of foes at sword-point. It was only when a Lusignan knight circled round to attack from behind – shoving a lance through the hedgerow that ‘went clean through [William’s] thigh and out the other side’ – that he was felled.

When Marshal finally collapsed, the Lusignans warily closed in to take him prisoner. The lance was pulled from his thigh, and ‘once it was out, blood ran from his wounds down his leggings and breeches’, leaving ‘the whole ground beneath him . . . covered in blood’. As the physical pain of his injury hit home, a dreadful realisation must have settled over William. In this far-flung, unfamiliar corner of the Angevin realm he had lost everything; the lifeless body of his lord and uncle lay just yards away. The raw anguish of that loss can only have been deepened by the certain knowledge that, with his patron’s demise, his own future lay in ruins. All his hopes of security and success had come to nothing. Marshal was a largely unknown and severely wounded knight, and the prisoner of a desperate band of rogue Poitevins – men who could surely guess that they would now be labelled outlaws. As the Lusignans prepared to take flight they made no move to tend to William’s injury. Instead, his blood-soaked body was unceremoniously strapped to an ass and led off into the wilds of Aquitaine.