The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Redux

13 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force in flight Darwin.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) played an important role in the Allied war effort. At the beginning of the conflict, the RAAF was a small, ill-equipped, but well-trained force of 3,489 personnel and 146 mostly obsolete aircraft. These included Anson bombers, flying boats, and the Australian Wirraway, essentially a training aircraft that proved totally inadequate as a fighter. When the war began in September 1939, one squadron was en route to Great Britain to secure new aircraft. The Australian government released this squadron to serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF), which it did for the remainder of the war under the auspices of RAF Coastal Command. In this role, the Australian squadron was responsible for sinking six submarines. Other squadrons served under the RAF in the Middle East and in the Italian Campaigns. Although there were 17 formal RAAF squadrons during the war, Australian pilots served in more than 200 individual Commonwealth squadrons.

To facilitate air training, representatives of the Commonwealth established the Empire Air Training Scheme. This brought potential pilots to Australia for initial training and then sent them to Canada for final flight school and dispatch to Great Britain to serve in the RAF. The RAAF established several flight schools in Australia for a program that eventually trained some 37,000 pilots.

The initial deployment of RAAF assets was to support the war in Europe. Thorough training took time, and it was not until the Battle of Britain was over that Australia’s first, and justifiably famous No. 452 (Spitfire) Squadron was formed in April 1941. The squadron soon produced a number of outstanding aces and was commanded by the famous Wg-Cdr “Paddy” Finucane, D. S. O., D. F. c. and two Bars, who welded the unit into a highly efficient fighting team. Such was their success that for the four months from August to November 1941, No. 452 became and remained the top scoring squadron of British Fighter Command.

Before this, however, members of No. 10 Squadron had gone to England to take delivery of their Sunderland aircraft, which were to be used for Australian coastal defence. But when war became a certainty, the aircraft and crews were at once placed at the disposal of the R. A. F. As such, No. 10 became the first Commonwealth squadron to go into action in World War II. In the extended see-saw battle against U-boats in the Atlantic, No. 10 scored many noteworthy successes and was later joined by No. 461, a second R. A. A. F. Sunderland squadron formed for similar duties. Perhaps the most startling event concerned a No. 461 Squadron Sunderland piloted by Flt-Lt C. B. Walker which encountered eight German Ju 88 fighters over the Bay of Biscay on 2nd June 1943. In a series of furious attacks lasting 45 minutes, the Ju 88s almost shot the lumbering Sunderland to pieces but they paid dearly for their determination to finish off the crippled machine – three were positively destroyed, a fourth probably destroyed and a fifth badly damaged. The Sunderland, too riddled with bullet holes to carry out a normal landing, crash landed and was destroyed on the beach at Marazion, Cornwall. Today pieces of this machine can be seen on display in the Australian War Memorial.

By far the greatest Australian contribution to the air war however, lay in the formation of bomber and attack squadrons consisting of Nos. 455, 458, 460, 462, 463, 464,·466 and 467 Squadrons, all of which took part in the strategic bombing offensive aimed at crippling the vital industries of Germany and the occupied countries under her control. The first Australian units experimented with the development of night bombing techniques later used so effectively by Bomber Command. With many of these units the mortality rate of crews was something horrifying, but nevertheless two machines recorded over 100 missions – Lancasters “G for George” and “S for Sugar”, both of which were preserved after the war, the former in Canberra, the latter in England.

Although such types as the Hampden, Ventura, Wellington and Halifax were widely used by R. A. A. F. squadrons, there can be little doubt that the famous Lancaster was the outstanding night bomber type of World War II. Lancasters had wings holed by falling bombs, lost elevators and tail assemblies through flak damage, suffered in-flight fires and loss of engines, and yet somehow still managed to limp back home. There is even one account of a No. 460 Squadron Lancaster flown by Flt-Sgt Christensen which was accidentally looped over the Ruhr Valley whilst carrying a full bomb load. It recovered a scant 1,500 feet from the ground, having plunged over 15,000 feet and bending its mainspar several feet in the process.

From 1942 onwards further R. A. A. F. fighter squadrons joined No. 452; No. 456 flying Defiant and Beaufighter night-fighters, and after the debacle at Singapore, No. 453 Squadron, now more happily equipped with Spitfires. Changes in equipment were made according to the availability of aircraft and two squadrons – Nos. 456 and 464 – were issued with the versatile all-wooden Mosquito in either fighter or fighter-bomber versions. It was in a Mosquito that the Australian daredevil Sqn-Ldr C. Scherf destroyed fifteen aircraft in the air and a further nine on the ground in the period of sixteen weeks; an eloquent testimony to the speed and striking power of this outstanding aircraft.

When the war drew to a close in Europe the R. A. A. F. had three fighter squadrons; Nos. 451, 453 and 456; five bomber squadrons, Nos. 460, 462, 464, 466 and 467 as well as three Coastal Command squadrons; Nos. 10,455 and 461. In varying degrees and according to their opportunities all these squadrons distinguished themselves with the sturdy British-built machines with which they were equipped.

The entry of Japan into World War II in December 1941 led to a redeployment of Australian squadrons to the Pacific. Japanese military advances and Japan’s air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942 increased pressure for better air defense over Australia. Beginning in 1942, U. S. air units were dispatched to Australia to bolster the RAAF. On 17 April 1942, all RAAF squadrons in the Pacific were placed under the auspices of Allied Air Forces Headquarters, part of U. S. General Douglas MacArthur’s Southwestern Pacific Theater command.

The RAAF participated in almost every major campaign of the Pacific Theater. Four RAAF squadrons, two with Hudson bombers and two flying obsolete Brewster Buffalo fighters, fought in the 1941-1942 Malaya Campaign. Later, elements of these squadrons were withdrawn to the Netherlands Indies and finally back to Australia. Two other RAAF squadrons fought in the Netherlands Indies before being relocated to Australia. RAAF units distinguished themselves in the defense of Milne Bay in September 1942. Early deficiencies in aircraft were overcome with the addition of P-40 Kittyhawk and Spitfire fighters. The RAAF played an important role in supporting ground operations and in attacking Japanese shipping, including during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. It also assisted in long-range minelaying operations throughout the war. The RAAF also provided wireless units to its troops who participated in the invasion of the Philippines. By the end of the war, the RAAF numbered 131,662 personnel and 3,187 aircraft.

References: Firkins, P. Strike and Return. Perth, Australia: Westward Publishing, 1985. Gillison, D. Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962.


Early Cold War Air Intelligence

For a decade after the end of World War II, the issue of Soviet strengths and intentions had been the top item on every Western political agenda, but the available information came almost exclusively from a combination of refugee interviews and oblique photography taken by aircraft flying along the Soviet periphery. While these flights eventually demonstrated that there had not been any threatening buildup of airstrips in locations that would bring the United States within range of a surprise first strike, there remained a significant problem that could only be overcome by flying directly over potential targets deep inside the Soviet Union. At the time, the nuclear deterrent consisted of free-fall atomic weapons that were to be dropped by U.S. Strategic Air Command and British Bomber Command aircraft. However, the effectiveness of the deterrent was entirely dependent on the weapons being delivered to their targets accurately, and the bombardiers’ aiming systems required radar ground-mapping of every site. This procedure demanded advance reconnaissance of each target, which in turn necessitated a vertical radar survey that could only be undertaken by long incursions into hostile air space. Thus, during the Cold War there were a variety of reasons for the many reconnaissance flights flown into Eastern Bloc airspace. There was the need to locate Warsaw Pact radar stations and air defense systems, then a requirement to map the Soviet Union and survey potential targets, and finally the long-term commitment to monitoring hostile communications channels as an early-warning precaution against a surprise first strike.

During the uneasy postwar period, American and British aircraft routinely penetrated the Soviet Bloc, and Red Air Force Tupolev-95 Bears constantly tested the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air defenses. These risky provocations continued throughout the Cold War and between 1950 and 1970, 252 American aircrew were shot down by Soviet fighters. But as reliance on technical intelligence sources grew, and on signals in particular, the use of airborne platforms to intercept telemetry and other communications increased, especially in those parts of the world where safe land sites were unavailable. Although the National Security Agency established eavesdropping facilities in friendly countries such as Turkey, Japan, and Germany and developed relationships with the British and Norwegians, the U.S. Air Force was often required to fill the gaps when, for instance, the sites at Kagnew, Eritrea, and the three in Iran had to be evacuated because of changes in the local regime. In the absence of convenient ground sites in strategic locations, aircraft were deployed to intercept the target traffic.

The issue of Soviet strategic bombers and missiles was equally crucial, and until the U-2 began regular overflights of Red Air Force bases, the science of judging the Kremlin’s military capability became almost as arcane as the art of predicting the Politburo’s decisions. Soviet secrecy and the repressive nature of the regime effectively prevented use of the “Mark I Eyeball” to study production figures, accumulate published statistics, monitor factory output, watch airbases, or photograph naval installations. Indeed, in the absence of even Soviet roadmaps, the postwar intelligence analysts were obliged to rely on ancient prerevolutionary maps of Russia and aerial photographs taken by the Luftwaffe. Yet the need to find the submarines, aircraft, nuclear facilities, railway lines, test sites and training areas became increasingly important, and it was not until the U-2 imagery became available that analysts could grasp the scale of Nikita Khrushchev’s breathtakingly ambitious bluff, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis. In November 1959, he had boasted that a single factory had produced 250 hydrogen warheads over the previous 12 months. It had seemed incredible that any responsible leader would blatantly lie about such an important issue yet the frequent claim that a “missile gap” had left the United States vulnerable to a more powerful potential enemy had a significant influence on American domestic politics, especially during the presidential campaign won by John F. Kennedy.

The mystery of the Kremlin’s true strength would eventually be solved by the U-2 and then by the deployment of satellites, but Khrushchev’s ingenious remedy to the relative weakness of his atomic arsenal was simply to move his short-range weapons closer to their target, and the result was the Cuban missile crisis, the catalyst for which was the discovery by U.S. air intelligence of his scheme. Although the resulting naval blockade of Cuba was enforced by warships, the whole confrontation was essentially about aircraft, with Soviet missiles detected by American aircraft. Indeed, the only fatality of the entire incident was a U.S. Air Force pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, whose U-2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet SA-2.

Many of the other conflicts fought during the Cold War, often proxy battles in which the adversaries were equipped by the superpowers, served to update intelligence analysts on the relative potency of air power. Following the invasion of South Korea, Soviet aircraft and pilots skillfully outmaneuvered and outgunned their U.S. counterparts until new equipment and tactics could be deployed in the skies over the peninsula. Initially, the MiG-15, powered with a reverse-engineered Rolls-Royce jet engine, proved invincible, at least until the F-86 Sabre evened the balance. This was to be the last time American fighter jocks would ever engage the Soviets in sustained aerial dogfights, leaving future confrontations to surrogates, apart from some suspected incidents over North Vietnam. In that war, overwhelming and permanent air superiority proved no substitute for political support at home and Vietnamese tactics in an environment that favored the insurgents and limited the effectiveness of comprehensive air cover.

Most future tests of relative equipment, personnel, and avionics would occur in simulated environments over secret airbases in the western United States or in real conditions, with Israelis pitted against Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi aircrews. For decades, the Middle East provided a highly realistic scenario for American manufacturers to bench test new jets and electronic countermeasures against Eastern Bloc interceptors and ground defenses. Captured Warsaw Pact military equipment, ranging from an entire Egyptian radar station to a defecting Iraqi MiG Fishbed, ended up in American laboratories, so all their most secret components could be examined and the appropriate countermeasures devised. While politicians picked over the consequences of 1967’s Six Day War and the participants on both sides reexamined the strategic lessons, the air intelligence analysts were assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces, confident that the outcome of the next clash again would be decided in the air.


The Military Significance of the Turkish War

The Long Turkish War saw the largest mobilization of troops in the Empire and Habsburg lands since 1568 and was the opportunity for many soldiers to gain experience of major operations prior to 1618. The list of Rudolf’s officers reads like a roll-call of the senior generals of the first half of the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein began his career as an ensign in the imperial infantry in 1604 and was wounded in the left hand during the final stages of the conflict. Both Schlick and Rudolf von Tieffenbach made early reputations against the Turks, while Trauttmannsdorff, the monarchy’s greatest diplomat, performed his only military service in this war. Charles de Nevers, the man at the centre of the Mantuan War of 1628–31, reputedly saved Wallenstein’s life at the siege of Kassa where he was himself serving as one of the many French Catholic volunteers. A significant number of the Italians who later rose to prominence also participated, including Count Collalto who became president of the Imperial War Council, Rodolfo de Colloredo who became a field marshal, and Ernesto Montecuccoli who subsequently commanded in Alsace. Some Italians were drawn to the Austrian forces by established patterns of serving the emperor; others arrived with the men sent to reinforce the Imperialists by Spain and the papacy, including Marradas and Dampierre, as well as Tilly from the Netherlands. Franz von Mercy, the Bavarian commander in the later stages of the Thirty Years War, also began his career against the Turks. The same was true for many of those who were later to oppose the emperor, including all three principal commanders of the Bohemian rebels: counts Thurn, Hohenlohe and Mansfeld.

The presence of these figures has largely been overlooked by military historians who concentrate on warfare in western Europe and underestimate the impact of the Turkish campaigns on subsequent developments. The western focus is embedded in the concept of a ‘military revolution’ that has become the accepted way of viewing early modern warfare. The proponents of this approach variously stress Spain, the Dutch and Sweden as the progenitors of new ways of fighting during the sixteenth century that relied on gunpowder weaponry wielded by large, disciplined units. Innovations in tactics and strategy allegedly made warfare more decisive, as well as increasing its scale and impact on state and society. Developments are fitted into a sequence with one power replacing another as the most efficient war-maker. Initial Spanish predominance is shaken first by the Dutch who are regarded as developing a more flexible military system that Sweden later improved upon and finally France perfected during the later seventeenth century. Scant attention has been paid to the imperial forces during the Thirty Years War, because they are perceived to have clung to an increasingly obsolete Spanish system that is associated with the pedantic positional warfare of the Dutch Revolt. In fact, Spanish ways of fighting often proved successful and were in constant evolution. Methods that were developed from the 1570s to deal with the Dutch were also effective against the Turks who likewise frequently evaded battle and sheltered behind fortifications. However, the Hungarian theatre encouraged its own practices that influenced how armies fought later in Germany, so it is more appropriate to see imperial ways of war as an amalgam of different experiences and ideas.

Military Technology

The Spanish system developed following the ‘real’ military revolution, in the sense of the largely technologically driven changes in warfare between 1470 and 1520 that saw the widespread adoption of hand-held firearms by both horse and foot, and their combination with new shock tactics by large, disciplined bodies of troops. These developments in turn sprang from changes in metallurgy and gunpowder milling that made firearms truly effective for the first time in Europe. Relatively rapid improvements followed in both handguns and cannon that forced commanders to rethink their use of these weapons. Guns and artillery were deployed on a larger scale in battle and were combined with existing weapons in new offensive and defensive tactics. The pace of technological change slowed from the mid-sixteenth century, by which time all the basic weapons had appeared while further developments were restricted by manufacturing problems. For example, cannon production lagged considerably behind ballistic theory because gun founders were unable to deliver pieces that matched the potential that mathematicians had calculated. It proved difficult boring straight tubes in solid barrels before the mid-seventeenth century. Instead, cannon were cast using an iron rod coated with clay, horse hair and manure as the bore that was covered with a mixture of molten copper, tin, lead and brass in a mould to form the bronze barrel. The core was then removed and a drill used to finish the bore to the required calibre in a method that was both time-consuming and not entirely reliable.

The bewildering variety of heavy guns essentially fell into two types. Cannon proper (Kartaunen) were short-barrelled, thin-walled pieces firing solid round shot of between 24 and 75 pounds each and were used primarily to batter fortifications. Such guns were very heavy and required ten or more horses to shift them. Culverins (Schlangen) were longer-barrelled, thicker tubes that were safer to use, and had greater range and accuracy. Their stronger barrels required more metal, making them generally twice as heavy as cannons firing shots of equivalent weight. They tended to be used for six- or twelve-pound shot, and were often produced in smaller, two to four pounder versions called falconets (Falkone) that could be pulled in battle by two to eight horses. These guns were supplemented for siege work by mortars, short stubby guns that lobbed round shot or primitive shells over walls and obstacles.

The full range of equipment and projectiles already existed by the 1590s, including poison gas shells (used in the Netherlands and which contained various noxious substances intended to asphyxiate or blind their targets). Firebombs, or heated round shot, could be used to create firestorms in towns by igniting the tightly packed flammable buildings. There were also shells with flint and steel detonators, and those that exploded using a fuse ignited by the propellant charge in the barrel. Attacking troops could be mowed down with canister and other antipersonnel rounds that burst on exiting the barrel, turning it into a large shotgun. In short, there was little left to invent by the later sixteenth century, and future developments were largely refinements of what already existed by improving manufacture to make weapons more reliable and less hazardous to use.

The same applied to handguns that also existed in great variety but were increasingly called muskets for foot soldiers and pistols for horsemen. The former were between 125 and 144cm long, weighing 4–10kg and firing a lead ball of 40g around 300 metres, with an effective range of less than half that. The heavier versions required a rest to steady the barrel as the musketeer fired. The lighter version was still called an arquebus and was largely restricted to infantry trained to fight in looser formations, and by cavalry relying on firepower rather than cold steel. Improved manufacture enabled the lighter muskets to withstand a larger charge, and led to the disappearance of both the arquebus and the musket rest from around 1630. Most cavalry, including those trained to attack with lances and swords, carried long-barrelled pistols in holsters either side of their saddles. Pistols were rarely effective beyond 25 metres, but their metal-weighted handles could be used as a club in close combat. The technological advances associated with later centuries were already in existence, including rifled barrels, breach loading and a wide variety of mechanisms to ignite the propellant charge. There were mechanical wheel locks for pistols and the snaphance, or flintlock, for muskets, that used a flint to spark the powder. The flintlock became the principal infantry weapon between 1680 and 1840, because it was more reliable in wet weather and less susceptible to accidental discharge than the matchlock. This relied on pulling a lever to depress a metal claw holding a slow-burning match onto loose powder in a pan that sent flame through the vent to ignite the main charge in the barrel. There was a one in five chance that the flame failed to pass through the vent, providing the origins of the expression ‘flash in the pan’. This was double the chance of a misfire with a flintlock, but both these and wheel locks were still expensive, delicate weapons that often broke. Manufacturing problems restricted flintlocks’ use to hunting, while matchlocks remained cheap, sturdy and easy to use.


Contemporary drill books convey a false impression that an elaborate sequence of hand, arm and body movements was necessary to load and fire. In fact, the carefully itemized movements reflected the prevailing scientific concern to fix and understand human movement, rather than actual practice. The most complicated manoeuvre was the counter-march, intended to provide continuous fire during an advance or retreat. Each rank fired in turn; those who had just discharged their weapons remained stationary to reload while the next line stepped through the gaps between each man to take its turn. By the time the last line had fired, those who had shot first would have reloaded and could move forward. This was modified around 1595 so that men stood in blocks of five, peeling off as a group right or left once they had fired so as to reduce the number of gaps required in the line. Arquebuses and lighter muskets took around a minute to load, requiring fewer ranks to maintain continuous fire than heavier muskets that needed up to three minutes to reload. The Dutch practised the retiring counter-march, enabling them to fire while avoiding contact with an approaching foe. Well-trained, motivated troops could cover up to forty metres a minute with an advancing counter-march and about half that if retiring. The system could also be used while stationary, with each man peeling off to the rear once he had fired and the soldier behind stepping into his place to fire. The Dutch deployed in only ten ranks, accepting lighter firearms as a consequence, and so kept their evolutions relatively simple. The Spanish preferred deeper formations of 15 to 25 ranks, and appear to have let their men fire in their own time, simply grouping those with lighter, quicker-firing weapons nearer the front.

Musketeers carried short swords for personal protection, either a ‘tuck’ for stabbing, or a heavier ‘hanger’ for cutting. Most were of poor quality that bent or blunted, so mêlées were fought largely by inverting the muskets and using the heavy, angled stock as a club. Such weapons were of limited use against opposing cavalry who could close rapidly before musketeers could reload. Already in the late fifteenth century it had become customary to combine ‘shot’, or firearm troops, with pikemen, each armed with a long pole of around five metres tipped with a steel spike. Pikes could be used offensively by soldiers in a compact block advancing with levelled weapons towards the enemy in the manner of an ancient Greek phalanx. When acting defensively, each man in the front rank would stretch back his right leg, plant the pike butt against his foot and bend his left leg forward to hold his weapon at a low angle. The next few ranks held their pikes level at shoulder height so the formation presented a forest of points in the enemy’s face.

Given their defensive role, pikemen initially wore at least a steel helmet, vaguely resembling that of modern American firefighters, and a breastplate. Some wore a full corselet that also included a backplate and additional sheets protecting the thighs. Armour continued in use because the trend towards lighter-calibre muskets reduced their penetrative power and meant that the steel sheets retained their protective value. It was impossible to thicken them, since a man could not be expected to carry more than around eighteen kilos of equipment in battle without becoming prematurely exhausted. For this reason, as well as expense, no more than half of pikemen wore a full corselet around 1600, relying instead on a leather ‘buff’ coat, and increasingly many lacked even a helmet. Musketeers had a helmet at the most, because they needed greater freedom of movement, both to operate their weapons and to act in looser formations. They frequently wore a cloak to protect their powder horns from getting wet. They needed two horns, one for coarse-grain barrel powder for the main charge, the other for finer, priming powder. Both hung on cords over the right shoulder to be carried on the left hip where they were fastened with iron hooks to a waist belt to stop them swinging. Musketeers also carried single round charges in wooden containers hung on cords from a bandolier over their left shoulder, resting on their right hip where a leather bag for the shot was also attached, along with other items needed to clean and repair their matchlock. The bandolier arrangement was known as the ‘twelve apostles’ after the number of charges. It was gradually replaced around 1630 by prepared paper cartridges, each with a ball and powder that were carried in a hip satchel, or ‘cartouche’. Finally, a musketeer had to carry four to six metres of coiled match around his neck and shoulder, or attached to his bandolier while on the march. Since it burned relatively quickly at the rate of ten to fifteen centimetres an hour, only one in ten men would keep it lit on the march to light those of his comrades if the unit came into action. Musketry was a dangerous business, since the burning match could easily ignite the apostles or loose powder that spilled onto the men’s clothes. For this reason soldiers deployed two to four paces apart, only closing files when attacking.

The question of uniforms has attracted considerable attention from military historians, with many crediting the Swedes as being the first to introduce them. However, it is clear that many German units already wore uniform coloured coats prior to 1618, because they were territorial levies issued with clothing in bulk by their prince. Red and blue appear the preferred colours but needed expensive dyes, and white, or rather undyed cloth, was more common. Bodyguards frequently had more lavish costumes, sometimes with decorated armour. The widespread use of short, leather trousers fastened at the knee, as worn by peasants and artisans, would have also contributed to uniformity. The scale and duration of the conflict after 1618 and its associated cost interrupted this earlier trend towards purpose-made uniforms, and led to a more ragged, dull appearance with a mix of greys, browns, greens and other dark colours. However, the practice of paying troops partly in cloth ensured some continued uniformity, at least in the imperial army where most of the infantry wore light ‘pearl’ grey coats by the 1640s.

The optimum combination of pike and shot, both as a numerical ratio and as a form of deployment, remained hotly debated in military treatises. Setting aside the numerous theoretical models, essentially only two formations were used in the field. Those adopting the Dutch-style counter-march needed thinner lines and more shot than pike, deploying a ratio of two to one in a ten-rank line by the 1590s, with the pikemen in the centre, flanked by equal numbers of musketeers. The Spanish and imperial infantry favoured the larger, deeper formations that had been the norm earlier in the sixteenth century. Their pike were grouped as a central block with always twice the number of men in each line as there were ranks deep, because each man needed twice the amount of space in depth as in width to wield his weapon. The effect was to produce a square block that would be flanked by ‘sleeves’ of musketeers. An additional three to five ranks of light arquebusiers generally lined the entire front to maximize firepower. If caught by a cavalry attack, the musketeers could shelter under the pikes that would stretch over their heads. When attacking enemy foot, the arquebusiers would retire round the flanks once they had fired, leaving the pike free to charge. Spanish and imperial commanders sometimes grouped additional blocks of musketeers on the four corners, which can be seen in many battle engravings from the early seventeenth century. This was simply a formation for deploying and advancing, and the additional shot would fan out towards the enemy to fire, falling back to a less exposed side of the square if the formation came under attack.

The large square formation has become known as the tercio after the term used by the Spanish for their infantry regiments, while the thinner, longer Dutch formation is called a battalion. It has become a historical convention to see the latter as inherently superior to the former, not least because of its association with firearms that have appeared to later generations as obviously more advanced than pikes, weapons first used by the ancient Greeks. This distinction is not accurate, nor does it correspond to sixteenth-century military thinking that drew directly on the ancient world for its inspiration. The deeper block formations offered better all-round fighting ability than the thinner Dutch lines, where each unit relied on its neighbours standing firm or its vulnerable flanks would be exposed if the enemy broke through. Though only the first five ranks of the tercio could fire at any one time, the presence of another ten or more behind stiffened the resolve of those in front, or at least made it harder for them to run away. The unit assumed a more imposing presence on the battlefield; something that was a considerable advantage as it bore down on a wavering foe. In an age of black powder, the battlefield soon filled with smoke, making it extremely difficult for commanders to see what was happening. It was easier to lose control of long thin lines, composed of smaller, but more numerous battalions, than a deployment of fewer, larger tercios. These could be positioned en échelon, or diagonally staggered in chequerboard fashion about 200 metres apart. If one became detached or separated, it was generally large enough to fight on alone until rescued.

There was a trend towards increasing the ratio of shot to pike and to stretch formations into thinner lines that became pronounced in the 1630s, as we shall see later. It was partly related to minor technological advances producing the lighter muskets, and possibly also to pressure from soldiers themselves. Recruits generally preferred becoming musketeers rather than pikemen, who often had to stand under fire without personally being able to retaliate. Pikemen had originally received higher pay and were still seen by officers as more honourable than musketeers. Men who rose from the ranks did so ‘from the pike up’ (von der Pike auf), and not from the musket. Pikemen killed using cold steel, like the traditional knight’s lance, whereas musketeers relied on the devilish invention of gunpowder producing thick clouds of acrid smoke, striking their foes from a distance, rather than looking them in the eye. Pikemen also accused their more lightly equipped colleagues of being more prone to plunder, whereas they could not enter houses with their long weapons – something that clearly had a ring of jealousy to it. Certainly, pikemen were more likely to throw away their weapons if their formation broke, thus becoming defenceless, whereas musketeers could flee still fully armed.

The trend towards more shot around 1590 was also due to the deployment of musketeers in smaller, looser formations to open a battle or to delay an enemy while the rest of the army assembled. Parties of 50 or more musketeers would be pushed out in front of the main line, covered by groups of 250 pikemen as a reserve and rallying point. Such methods anticipated those of 200 years later, but generally disappeared around 1630 with the growing emphasis on massed, disciplined firing by ranks developed by the Dutch and copied by the Swedes. Given the inaccuracy of individual shots, commanders emphasized the volume of fire, and later also its rapidity, culminating in the disciplined firing by platoons adopted around 1700.



Cavalry had evolved into five distinct types by 1590 in an attempt to address the different tactical roles of shock, firepower and reconnaissance. Shock tactics exploited the physical and psychological impact of a charge by heavily armed and armoured horsemen riding large horses. Cavalry mounts were around 16 hands high, weighing 500kg and could gallop at over 40kmh, though the weight of the rider meant that most attacks were delivered at considerably less than this. Horses were conditioned by being exercised in fields full of blazing straw and heaps of carrion to get them used to the sights and smells of the battlefield. They were also trained to kick and to manoeuvre in formation at various gaits.

Two types of ‘heavy’ cavalry evolved to use these tactics. Lancers were favoured by the Spanish and French as ‘gensdarmes’ and wore a full helmet that closed with a visor, as well as armour covering the entire torso, upper arms and upper legs. High leather boots protected the lower legs and feet, while leather or steel gauntlets covered the hands and forearms. They carried steel-tipped wooden lances around three metres long, enabling them to strike crouching foot soldiers as well as unseat opposing horsemen. The spread of firearms reduced the number of lancers in western and Central European armies to a small proportion by 1610, but Hungarian and Polish nobles still fought in this manner as ‘hussars’, wearing mail coats or armour made from layered metal sheets. These eastern lancers fastened pennons to their weapons and often wore ‘wings’ of bird feathers fixed to a wooden frame on their backs that created a rushing sound as they charged, adding to their fearsome appearance. Elsewhere, lancers joined the second group of heavy cavalry called cuirassiers, who wore the same armour but relied on long, straight swords for thrusting. These were easier to use in close combat than lances that were largely useless if the initial shock failed to break the opponent.

Both types of cavalrymen also carried a brace of pistols that were used both to shoot at stationary targets and in close combat. Pistols were carried in the saddle holsters with the triggers facing outwards, because their long barrels meant they had to be drawn with the hand turned towards the back. They could be fired only one at a time, as the rider needed a hand free to hold the reins. Ideally, each rider turned his horse to the left and fired with his right arm outstretched at right angles to avoid startling his horse or burning its ears if he fired directly over its head. As most men were right-handed, they had to hold the reins in their left hand and reach over to draw their left-hand side pistol or their sword. The latter was also difficult to extract while mounted, since there was no hand free to hold the scabbard. Firing a carbine was harder still, because this required both hands. Such difficulties persisted till the end of cavalry in the early twentieth century. While later technological developments made firearms easier to use on horseback they did little to resolve the basic problems of fighting while mounted.

Shock tactics were of limited use against disciplined infantry. Experienced commanders became skilled in judging whether opposing foot were likely to run by seeing how steadily they held their pikes. However, a charge could still falter if the infantry remained together, since the horses would not throw themselves on the pikes. Even those horsemen who did break through often found that their mounts simply bolted through the gaps between the enemy ranks, carrying them right through the formation. Swords were often blunt and failed to do much damage, even against the woollen cloaks of the musketeers.

Such problems encouraged the use of firearms instead, based on the caracole, a tactic similar to the counter-march that had been developed earlier by German pistoleers in the 1530s. Successive ranks would trot within range, fire and ride back to reload, sacrificing the psychological impact of shock tactics to the accumulative effect of firepower. The caracole was less tiring on the horses and required less resolve from soldiers than a charge, since the men did not need to close with their opponents. Even men trained to charge home with cold steel would often panic and break off their attack around ten metres from their target, ‘bouncing’ back to their start positions. This explains why contemporary accounts speak of repeated ‘charges’ by the same unit in battle.

The desire to improve mounted firepower led to a third type of ‘medium’ cavalryman called the arquebusier or carabineer, equipped with a light arquebus or carbine with greater range and penetrating power than a pistol. They generally wore less armour, usually no more than a helmet, breastplate, buff coat, boots and gauntlets, and so rode smaller horses and were cheaper to raise. Since they carried two pistols and a sword as well, they could be used for shock tactics and consequently gradually replaced the more expensive cuirassiers and lancers around 1630. Many regiments were composed of a mix of cuirassiers and arquebusiers into the 1620s, with the former deployed in the front ranks if the unit made a charge.

The fourth type of cavalry was a form of mounted infantry, called dragoons, who rode lighter horses or ponies and generally lacked any armour, including the high boots that were difficult to walk in. Dragoons were a mix of pike and shot, using their mounts for rapid movement to stiffen scouting parties, support infantry skirmishers sent forward to secure key positions, or turn an enemy flank. The last type was often employed on similar tasks, but remained mounted to fight. These ‘light’ cavalry were most numerous in Hungarian, Polish and Transylvanian armies and were a major feature of ‘eastern’ warfare that was integrated into the imperial forces. Around a fifth to a quarter of the imperial light cavalry carried lances and were generally called Cossacks or Poles, regardless of their actual origins, while the rest were Croats, distinctive in their red cloaks and fur hats, each armed with a carbine and a pair of pistols. They were grouped in regiments of generally less than five hundred men and attacked rapidly in a zigzag, first firing their right-hand pistol, then their left and finally their carbine again on their right, before racing away to reload.


The regiment was the primary administrative unit for both horse and foot, subdivided into companies, still called ‘banners’ (Fähnlein) in the Empire. This organization derived from the way soldiers were recruited, whereby a prince contracted a colonel to raise a regiment who then subcontracted the task of recruiting individual companies to captains. Influenced by the classical model of the Roman legion, most colonels strove to have regiments of ten companies, but actual numbers varied from four or five up to twenty companies in some foot units. Captains who received commissions direct from their paymaster raised ‘free companies’ unattached to any larger unit. Such companies were recruited to garrison fortresses or were raised by ambitious individuals hoping to rise through the ranks by proving their value as recruiting officers.

The military hierarchy of ranks still used in the twenty-first century was already in place by 1600.13 A colonel was assisted by a lieutenant-colonel who commanded in his absence. A major supervised training and administration and could command part of the regiment if it became detached from the rest of it. These three ‘staff’ officers were supplemented by secretaries, chaplains, doctors and a provost in charge of punishment. The same pattern was repeated in each company, with the captain assisted by one or two lieutenants, together with an ensign (called a cornet in the cavalry) responsible for the flag. There was generally also a company scribe, a barber surgeon and a number of non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Together, these senior ranks were known as the prima plana, or ‘first page’, on account of their names being listed before all the others in the muster register. The overall size of foot companies fell from three to four hundred, to two to three hundred over the sixteenth century, with cavalry companies averaging around half these sizes. The number of officers remained the same throughout, reflecting the growing emphasis on hierarchical order and enabling more complicated manoeuvres to be carried out. Officers and NCOs had ‘staff’ weapons in addition to swords, with the former carrying a partisan, or half-pike, that resembled a broad-bladed spear, while the latter held a halberd, or spear with an axe-head attached. Both these weapons symbolized rank, and had a practical purpose since they could be used for dressing the ranks by grasping the shaft in both hands and pushing it against several men simultaneously. They could also be used to push pikes or muskets up or down, especially to stop overexcited musketeers from firing prematurely.

The officer-to-men ratio remained relatively static after 1590, because of the technical limitations of the available weapons that required them to be used en masse. Around one officer or NCO could supervise about fifteen soldiers, but captains found it hard to command more than three hundred, as the smoke and noise of battle limited their ability to see what was happening and to shout instructions. This was another reason why infantrymen were packed close together in large formations, since it kept them within the sight of their mounted colonel. The flags and drums would be grouped in the centre and used to signal commands to the rest of the unit. Command problems also placed a premium on experienced men and it was reckoned at least a third of the strength had to be veterans to provide cohesion and sufficient old soldiers to teach new recruits the rudiments of drill and how to survive the rigours of campaign. However, personnel policy remained decentralized and in the hands of individual colonels who were reluctant to part with experienced men to assist the formation of new regiments. Regiment size also dictated prestige, as large formations commanded greater respect and resources than smaller ones that were more likely to be disbanded or amalgamated.

These factors encouraged Spanish and imperial colonels to recruit foot regiments of two to three thousand men, and mounted ones of around a thousand. The latter would be split into two to five squadrons, each of two companies, as tactical units formed into six to ten ranks. These squadrons were interspersed between the battalions in Dutch deployment, or massed on the flanks of the tercios in the Spanish system. Cavalry formed between a fifth and a third of western and Central European field armies, though the total proportion of infantry was higher since additional foot soldiers would garrison fortresses. Large infantry regiments could deploy as a single tercio, but weak ones had to be brigaded together to achieve the right numbers. Dutch-style battalions numbered between four and seven hundred men, so a large regiment might form two.

Artillery lacked formal organization as gunners still regarded themselves a separate guild under St Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Serving the guns was considered a special art with its own tradition and rituals. Catholic gun crew made the sign of the cross before firing and all faiths gave their pieces individual names. German theorists reckoned two to four pieces were required for every thousand soldiers, but usually only the lighter culverins and falconets accompanied the infantry and cavalry in battle. Large guns were expensive to produce and difficult to move, making them both valuable and vulnerable prizes for a victorious enemy.

Battle Tactics

Battle tactics sought the optimum combination of the three main military arms. Battles generally opened with a cannonade at under a thousand paces, while skirmishers went forward to probe and reconnoitre the enemy position. These moves bought time for the rest of the troops to assemble, and could be used simply to delay an enemy while the army made good its escape. The preference for large infantry formations kept deployment relatively varied, since these could be interspersed with artillery and cavalry in different patterns according to the terrain and the commander’s intentions. As Dutch-style firing tactics became more influential, the infantry tended to be massed in the centre in one or more continuous lines with only narrow gaps between each battalion to prevent enemy cavalry striking their vulnerable flanks. Second and subsequent lines were kept between a hundred and three hundred metres behind the first: any closer and they risked shooting their comrades in the back; any further and they would be too far away to assist in a crisis. This linear tactic encouraged commanders to place their cavalry on either side of the infantry lines in the manner that became standard in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Full adoption of linear tactics was inhibited by doubts about the relative merits of firepower over shock, and by the conditions in eastern Europe where the Turks and others employed more flexible enveloping tactics using larger numbers of light troops. Imperial generals operating in Hungary relied on earthworks or wagons and other movable defences to protect their foot.

Generally, each of the three arms fought it out with their counterparts. The artillery sought to silence the enemy guns before its own troops moved forward and obscured the field of fire. The cavalry engaged the opposing horse, trying to drive them from the field and expose the flanks of the enemy foot. Each side hoped it would have sufficient artillery and cavalry left to tip the balance by the time the slower-moving foot soldiers had closed to within musket range, since the combination of two or more arms was generally superior to only one. Infantry could be pinned down by the threat of a cavalry attack, forcing them to remain in defensive formation while the enemy pounded them with artillery and musketry. Firepower could also be used to crack opposing formations, encouraging them to make a premature attack, or lose cohesion and so open them to a charge. Generalship and tactical innovation relied on variations in this standard pattern to achieve the effective combination of the three arms at an earlier stage in the engagement, thereby securing an easier and less costly victory.


James Longstreet and Ambrose Burnside, principal commanders of the Knoxville Campaign.

Knoxville was the major city of eastern Tennessee, the mountainous region for which Lincoln felt such concern as it was the centre of Union sentiment inside the Confederacy. From the beginning of the war, he was anxious to bring it under Federal control, and throughout 1862-63 he urged a succession of Union commanders to move against it. In March 1863 General Ambrose Burnside, who had been so heavily defeated at Fredericksburg the previous December, was transferred to the West. He was ordered to move against Knoxville as quickly as possible, while General William Rosecrans was ordered to operate against Braxton Bragg in what became the Tullahoma campaign. Burnside commanded the Army of the Ohio, Rosecrans the Army of the Cumberland.

Burnside intended to advance from Cincinnati with two corps, the Ninth and the Twenty-third, but lost the Ninth when it was given to Grant for the campaign against Vicksburg. While awaiting the return of the Ninth Corps, Burnside sent a brigade and some cavalry to advance on Knoxville. During June, this force, led by General William Sanders, destroyed railroads around the city, where General Simon Buckner was in command.

In August Burnside began his advance on Knoxville. His direct route ran through the Cumberland Gap, heavily defended by the Confederates. To avoid them Burnside made a flank movement to the south, by forced marches through the broken country. As the Chickamauga campaign began, Buckner was ordered to take most of his troops to join Bragg at Chattanooga and was left with only two brigades, one in the Cumberland Gap, on the northeastern border of the state, and another east of Knoxville. In these circumstances Burnside pressed forward and was able to send a cavalry brigade into Knoxville on September 2. It was unopposed and found the city empty of rebel troops. He was enthusiastically welcomed by the loyal population. Burnside arrived with his army the next day.

He then set about dealing with the Confederates at the Cumberland Gap in order to open up a more direct route to Kentucky. He had two forces in position to confront the new Confederate commander, General John Frazer; though outnumbered, Frazer refused to surrender. Burnside then led a brigade from Knoxville to the gap, making a march of sixty miles in fifty-two hours. On his arrival, Frazer, accepting that he was hopelessly outnumbered, surrendered on September 9. Burnside recruited new units of Tennessee volunteers and set about clearing the roads and gaps leading northward towards Virginia. Meanwhile, Grant, who had now captured Chattanooga, was preparing to fight at Chickamauga, to which Lincoln and Halleck ordered Burnside to detach troops in order to support Rosecrans, who was in difficulty. But, unwilling to surrender Knoxville, Burnside procrastinated; he was having difficulty supplying his troops in the desolate country to the east of Knoxville. During September and early October he was forced to fight two small battles, at Blountsville and Blue Springs, both minor victories, which led to the reestablishment of Union authority in eastern Tennessee.

Braxton Bragg, fearing that Burnside might reinforce the Union troops at Chattanooga, asked Jefferson Davis to order Longstreet to concentrate against him. Longstreet objected, knowing he would be severely outnumbered, since large Union reinforcements were approaching Chattanooga to add to the imbalance. He also objected to the division of force involved, which, he said, would expose both Confederate commanders to defeat. He therefore resumed his preparations to move against Knoxville. The move was to be made by rail, but the journey proved difficult. The trains did not arrive on time, so that the advance had to begin on foot. When the trains did arrive, the locomotives proved underpowered, forcing the troops to dismount on the steeper gradients. They also had to collect wood for the engines. Food ran short. Longstreet’s advance nevertheless cheered Lincoln, who, having previously told Burnside to leave Knoxville, now ordered him to stay and defend the city. Grant prepared to send reinforcements from Chattanooga, but Burnside now convinced him that he could detach sufficient troops to hold Longstreet at a distance. Grant willingly concurred. Next the Confederates attempted to encircle Knoxville with cavalry, but Union resistance thwarted their plan and the cavalry joined Longstreet in the north. Burnside manoeuvred outside the city and successfully reached a vital crossroads. Burnside won a brisk minor victory at this point, Campbell’s Station, which allowed him to withdraw his strength inside Knoxville. On November 17 Longstreet laid siege. His assault on the defences was delayed, and Longstreet took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen his earthworks. Longstreet eventually attacked a week after the siege had begun, at a point he judged weak, Fort Sanders, but which was deceptively strong. The Union had surrounded the earthworks with a network of telegraph wire strung between trees. The Confederate attack launched on November 29, 1863, was effectively checked by the defences and Union covering fire. There were 813 Confederate losses, only 13 Union.

The defeated Longstreet considered his options. He had been ordered to join Bragg, who had just been defeated at Missionary Ridge on November 25. He felt that move impracticable and told Bragg that he would withdraw with the Army of Tennessee to Virginia, but would keep up the siege of Knoxville as long as possible, to prevent Grant and Burnside concentrating against him. Longstreet’s stubbornness had the effect of causing Grant to send Sherman with 25,000 men to raise the siege of Knoxville. Longstreet accordingly abandoned the siege on December 4 and retired northwards to Rogersville, Tennessee, where he prepared to go into winter quarters. Sherman left part of his force at Knoxville and took the rest back to Chattanooga. General John Parke, Burnside’s chief of staff, pursued the retreating Confederates with 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, though he did not press the pace. Longstreet’s route took him through Rutledge and Rogersville, followed by General John Shackelford with 4,000 cavalry and infantry. On December 9, he was near Bean’s Station when Longstreet decided to turn and attack. The Confederates got Shackelford in a pincer movement but the Union troops defended so stoutly that they repelled all Confederate attacks until reinforcements joined in. Shackelford was then forced to withdraw to Blain’s Crossroads. Longstreet followed but declined to attack their entrenchments. Both sides withdrew and left the area to go into winter quarters. Longstreet, who blamed subordinates for his failures in the campaign, asked to be relieved of command but was refused. His troops suffered in a severe winter, and he was unable to return to Virginia until the spring. His reputation and self-confidence were damaged by the campaign, while Burnside’s reputation was restored. The campaign of Knoxville, together with Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, returned eastern Tennessee to Union control for the rest of the war.

The battles of Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge had now altered the balance of advantage in Tennessee very much in the Union’s favour. With Rosecrans in strength at Chattanooga, Burnside operating in upper eastern Tennessee, and Grant free to strike in several directions from Tennessee eastward or southward, Lincoln’s long-cherished ambition, to liberate Unionist Tennessee from the Confederacy, could be safely regarded as achieved. Grant, as overall commander in the western theatre, was now at liberty to propose, if he so chose, a broad strategy for the Union’s conduct of the war in the western theatre. In the spring of 1864 he did so choose. Grant did not affect to be a high-level strategic thinker. Nothing in his manner or appearance suggested that he was anything but a commonsense, down-to-earth fighting soldier. Common sense and down-to-earthness are among the most valuable qualities, however, that a strategist can possess and he possessed them in abundance. What is valuable to those who interest themselves in his career is that in his Personal Memoirs he describes with engaging frankness how he formed his way of thinking. Grant also preferred to attack, if possible. He was not a “wait and see,” but a “go and see” general, as his conduct after Chattanooga showed. He then decided to lay plans before Lincoln for the next stage of the campaign in the West. He may have done so because he had at his headquarters a “special commissioner” from Washington, Charles Dana, formerly of the New York Tribune. Dana had been sent partly because a trickle of unflattering reports about Grant continued to reach Washington about his bad habits and Lincoln, who already wanted to promote Grant, sought his own source of information. Grant used Dana as a messenger to take his ideas for the West to Washington. He proposed leaving a reduced Army of the Tennessee to watch Bragg and to take the largest part down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then via the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Alabama, whence he would strike at important points in Alabama and Georgia. He had proposed such a scheme before and continued to believe in it. Those in power in Washington, however, did not. Lincoln, Halleck, and Stanton feared that if Grant’s force was moved so far away, the rebels would reawaken the war in eastern Tennessee. Communication with Washington had the result, however, of involving Grant in highlevel strategic discussion. Halleck explained to Grant that the president’s anxieties in the West remained fixed on Tennessee and its Unionists, and that before any move was made elsewhere he wanted the surviving Confederate forces in Tennessee chased down and defeated; he also wanted the Confederate army in southern Georgia pushed far enough away from the Tennessee border to ensure that it could not intervene in the state; only when those things had been achieved would he consider approving wider operations in the West.

Grant’s plan for an operation against Mobile was—surprisingly, given how clearly Grant thought—not a sound one. The Union lacked the troops in the West to mount two large operations at the same time. It could not move on Mobile and yet continue to menace the Confederates in Georgia. To attempt to find the necessary troops would inevitably result in weakening the position around Chattanooga and so encourage Johnston to strike into Tennessee. Chattanooga was that rare thing in strategy, a genuinely critical point. Held by the Union, it allowed the retention of Tennessee and the menacing of Georgia. Should it pass back into Confederate possession, Tennessee would be lost and so would the future dominance of Georgia. Halleck wrote to Grant vetoing the plan, on the grounds that the president would not approve it, a perfectly legitimate thing for Halleck to say, so perfectly did he understand Lincoln’s mind.

Later in January 1864, Grant wrote again to Halleck outlining a plan for the next stage of operations in the East. He proposed abandoning the direct advance upon Richmond for an indirect approach. The navy should embark 60,000 troops of the Army of the Potomac and land them on the coast of North Carolina, whence they could march to sever the Confederate capital’s rail connection with the Lower South and so force Lee to abandon Richmond. Halleck answered Grant as he had done earlier in January: Lincoln would not approve, since the scheme would encourage Lee to move in force against any Union army in the Carolinas; moreover, it would weaken the defences of Washington. He pointed out to Grant that his scheme contained no plan to fight Lee’s army, which should be the proper object of an eastern strategy, and was the president’s favoured aim. The best way to defeat Lee, he insisted, was to fight him in the open field near Washington. He concluded his second letter to Grant, however, by hinting that he would soon have a hand in drafting strategy for the eastern theatre, a closer hint that Grant was about to be appointed to the supreme command.

There had been strong rumours circulating to that effect, of which Grant cannot have been unaware. In February Congress passed an act reviving the rank of lieutenant general. The Confederacy appointed generals in the rank of brigadier, major general, lieutenant general, and by 1864 (full) general. In the Union army, however, major general was the highest rank granted and most Union generals held the rank in the United States volunteers, as Grant had done until his victory at Vicksburg. Then he was made a major general in the regular army. The new rank of lieutenant general was open to regular major generals, so Grant qualified for the promotion. The law allowed the lieutenant general to be appointed general in chief. In early March, Grant, still in Tennessee, received orders to go to Washington, where he arrived on March 8. He stayed first at Willard’s Hotel, where he received an invitation to attend a reception at the White House that evening. On his arrival there was a rise in the noise level. Grant knew almost no one in the capital, but since Vicksburg he was widely known there. The president recognised the signal and approached Grant with the words, “This is General Grant, is it?” After a few words, Grant was drawn away by the crowd, but later that evening Lincoln and Stanton took him into the Blue Room, where he was told that Lincoln would present him with his commission in the morning. The president also said that he would show him beforehand the draft of the short speech he would make. Lincoln may also have already known that Grant was tongue-tied and a hopelessly inept public speaker. He did, however, suggest that Grant should say something to forestall jealousy among other commanders and something to please the Army of the Potomac. It was entirely characteristic of Grant that when the time came he did neither. When nominated for the presidency, in 1868, his speech of acceptance ran to five words. On this occasion, when appointed by Lincoln in the White House room where the cabinet met, the president made a short but elaborate speech. “With this high honour devolves upon you also a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need add that with what I here speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”2 Grant had an answer written on a half sheet of paper but read it so haltingly that his words were not recorded.

The day after his appointment the U.S. War Department announced the termination of Halleck’s position as general in chief but his reappointment in the new office of chief of staff. Thus was inaugurated in the United States what would become the normal arrangement of a modern command system, with Lincoln as supreme commander, Grant as operational commander, and Halleck as principal military administrator. Over the course of the next century the high command structure of all large armies would be adjusted to conform, beginning with the Prussian, where, in 1870-71, Bismarck acted as supreme commander and Moltke the elder as chief of operations. The rationalisation of the Federal or, as Grant called them, the national armed forces was essential, for under him, on his assumption of the generalship in chief, there were seventeen different Union commanders overseeing 533,000 men. The most important was the Army of the Potomac, which still lingered in northern Virginia opposite Lee’s army but was not at that time undertaking active operations. Elsewhere the military situation was determined by the Confederate deployments, which principally included that of Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia, on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which ran from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The other large Confederate force in the West was the cavalry corps under Nathan Bedford Forrest, located in eastern Tennessee. Forrest was a potential threat since he might raid as far as Cincinnati but as long as he was detached from either of the big Confederate armies, Lee’s and Johnston’s, he did not really multiply Confederate power.

Grant, as general in chief, could now consider what large operations he might launch. His first act in high command was to return to the West, to confer with Sherman, who, at his behest, had been appointed to succeed him. Grant had already identified Sherman as the most competent of his subordinates, a true battle-winning soldier of indefatigable temperament. He had also secured the advancement of Sheridan, another western general who had won his good opinion, to come east as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, replacing Pleasanton, who was competent but lacked the aggressiveness by which Grant set such store.

On his visit to Sherman, Grant outlined his general philosophy for what he intended to be the closing stages of the war. It coincided with and may have been inspired by what was now Lincoln’s fixed conception of strategy, formed by trial and error in three years of frustration. Lincoln in 1861 had known nothing of war, but harsh experience had now taught him some essentials which he held with the force of unshakable conviction. He had abandoned altogether the conventional thought that the capture of the enemy’s capital would bring victory. Instead he now correctly perceived that it was only the destruction of the South’s main army that would defeat the Confederacy and he had enlarged that perception to believe that it would be achieved by attacking the enemy at several points simultaneously.

This is what the French have called a “rich solution” to the problem of the Civil War, open only to the side with greater numbers and several armies, as opposed to the South’s strategy of a “poor power” with weaker numbers and effectively only one or at most one and a half armies. Halleck, an extremely orthodox military thinker, had replied that the proper response to the rebellion was to concentrate the North’s force at decisive points: “To operate on exterior lines against an enemy occupying a central position will fail, as it has always failed, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. It is undermined by every military authority I have ever read.” Lincoln had read almost no military textbooks while Grant had profited from the notoriously patchy West Point syllabus by avoiding most of them also. It was a merit of West Point that its teaching, though dusty to a degree, was practical—mathematics and engineering—which were actually useful, particularly during his efforts to alter the geography of the Mississippi Valley in 1863. A doctrine that Grant might have imbibed but did not was that of the climactic battle, which at a single strike resolved a conflict and ended it. The doctrine has been called Napoleonic, and with reason. Napoleon was the master of the great battle and his name was associated with several which had ended conflicts and altered history. Lee aspired to fight such battles and to end the war with the Union by a single overpowering act, as Napoleon had ended the conflict with Prussia in 1806 by winning the battles of Jena-Auerstedt and had almost ended the war with Russia by fighting at Borodino in 1812. Ultimately Napoleon, however, had been the victim of his own method, Waterloo having been the outstandingly decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Since 1815, moreover, there had been few, if any, decisive battles. Indeed the era of decisive battles was drawing to a close. There would be several during Prussia’s wars of unification in 1866-71, notably the victory of Königgrätz-Sadowa against Austria, and Sedan against France in 1870. At the end of the era, states were learning to deny an enemy the chance of decisive battle by enlarging the size of their armies to a point at which it became difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of them in a single passage of fighting, while at the same time resorting to unorthodox tactics which would involve an opponent in guerrilla warfare or the tactics of protracted warfare should the main field army suffer defeat. France would cheat Prussia of a clear-cut decision in 1870-71 by resorting to a war in the provinces with irregular forces after the defeat of Sedan.

In mid-1863, the Union was approaching the point where it would have to decide by what military means the war was to be concluded: by pursuing the object of the final decisive battle or by some less direct method. Likewise, the Confederacy, which was rapidly losing the power to fight and win large-scale battles, would have to consider whether it should turn to protracted guerrilla tactics if it was to stave off defeat. The instructions Grant gave to Sherman on his visit to the western armies following his appointment as general in chief would soon confront the Confederacy with the necessity of fighting a small-scale, low-level war within its own territory, as opposed to a conventional army-to-army war on its frontier. Grant’s written instructions to Sherman were “to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” Sherman was perfectly willing to carry out such instructions since he had already formed the conclusion that the quickest way to break the Confederacy was to make its ordinary people suffer.

To Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, Grant sent the order, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant had already decided, with Lincoln’s approval, to make his headquarters with Meade, while leaving him as much freedom of action as possible. That would require nice judgement, not always achieved. Meade would complain frequently in his letters to his wife that any achievement of the Army of the Potomac was credited by the press to Grant, any failure to himself. Still, Grant’s intentions were fair and honest, and the two men would sustain an equable working relationship throughout the rest of the campaign in the East.

Meanwhile, in the West, Sherman was beginning what would become the culminating campaign of the war.

MacArthur and the Battle of the Coral Sea 1942

Senior Allied commanders in New Guinea in October 1942. Left to right: Mr Frank Forde (Australian Minister for the Army); MacArthur; General Sir Thomas Blamey, Allied Land Forces; Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, Allied Air Forces; Lieutenant General Edmund Herring, New Guinea Force; Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, V Bomber Command.

MacArthur’s PR machine needed no cover: it was already on the offensive. In fact, under the auspices of Pick Diller, with heavy contributions from MacArthur himself, it had continued its Manila and Corregidor practice of cranking out ubiquitous press releases from the moment the Bataan Gang landed at Batchelor Field. On the one hand, Japanese propaganda boasted verbosely about the triumphs—real and imagined—of the Japanese army and navy, and MacArthur appears to have felt that part of his charge was to counter this stream with propaganda of his own. But on the other hand, his communications were released so quickly that they frequently did not have all the facts straight. In addition, they sometimes reported results for operations over which MacArthur had no direct command, and their revelations threatened to undercut the top-secret code-breaking operations being performed not only by the US Navy but also by his own intelligence unit.

Marshall called MacArthur to task for just those reasons after a press release datelined “Allied Headquarters, Australia, April 27,” reported in great detail on the buildup of Japanese forces at Rabaul. The Japanese had to suspect, Marshall told MacArthur, that reconnaissance alone could not have gathered such information and that their codes were compromised, if not broken. “This together with previous incidents,” Marshall admonished, “indicates that censorship of news emanating from Australia including your headquarters is in need of complete revision.”

MacArthur replied that after what he termed had been “a careful check,” the material in question had not been announced “by direct communiqué” from his headquarters. He professed to have Marshall believe that the term “Allied Headquarters, Australia,” had been loosely appropriated by reporters—despite MacArthur being so particular about such things—and that its use did not imply his control or approval. MacArthur blamed an Australian censor for the release, then pointedly noted, “As I have explained previously, it is utterly impossible for me under the authority I possess to impose total censorship in this foreign country.” But then the stakes got higher.

The US Navy’s code-breaking unit in the Philippines, code-named Cast, had been a high-priority evacuation from Corregidor early in February. A similar army unit, Station 6, delayed leaving until after MacArthur’s departure but was partially evacuated late in March. Both units reassembled in Melbourne and continued deciphering signal intelligence. The center of Pacific intelligence against the Japanese, however, was Station Hypo, located at Pearl Harbor under the leadership of Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort.

Based on Rochefort’s intercepts, Commander Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer, sent a message through channels that advised Sutherland that the Japanese appeared to be preparing to extend their reach from Rabaul and that Port Moresby might be attacked by sea as early as April 21. MacArthur ordered an aerial reconnaissance of Simpson Harbor at Rabaul, but General Brett’s pilots found no concentration of ships that would suggest a major amphibious operation.

On April 22 in Hawaii, Layton reaffirmed his suspicions to Nimitz: despite the reconnaissance results, he still anticipated an imminent Japanese offensive from Rabaul, either against southern New Guinea or eastward into the Solomons. Given the predilection of the Japanese navy to advance under the protection of land-based air—the Battle of Midway was soon to be a major exception—Layton suggested that the target was Port Moresby.

Willoughby read the same decoded message and came to a different conclusion. Noting the reported presence of four Japanese carriers, Willoughby predicted an attack beyond the cover of land-based air, either against the northeastern coast of Australia or on New Caledonia, the critical link in the West-Coast-to-Australia lifeline. When Port Moresby remained quiet, additional naval intelligence convinced Sutherland that the attack had only been delayed a week or two. Willoughby backed off his appraisal and revised it: thereafter he expected a landing in division strength at Port Moresby between May 5 and May 10.

In response to Layton’s intelligence, Nimitz ordered the carriers Lexington and Yorktown, under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, to rendezvous and venture into the Coral Sea. Convinced by Layton that the Japanese were making a major offensive thrust, Nimitz also ordered the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, which were returning from the Doolittle Raid under Bill Halsey’s command, to join Fletcher. Bunching the only four American carriers in the Pacific into one force marked a major shift in the way the US Navy deployed its carriers—even though Enterprise and Hornet would arrive too late to engage—and, to Nimitz’s credit, it signaled his emergence as an aggressive theater commander. Nonetheless, it took Nimitz’s muscular lobbying with King to persuade him to do the bundling—and to do it without the millstone of lumbering battleships slowing him down.

The Japanese sortied three main groups: a battle, or “striking,” force from Truk under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi, including the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku; an invasion force from Rabaul bound for Port Moresby containing seven destroyers, five transports, and several seaplane tenders; and an escort, or “covering,” force that shadowed the invasion force and included the light carrier Shoho along with four heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a squadron of submarines.

The architect of the Japanese attack was Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet, based at Truk. In addition to Port Moresby, Inoue had his eye on a seaplane facility at tiny Gavutu, near the island of Tulagi, at the far eastern end of the Solomons. Capturing Gavutu and Tulagi would allow Japanese seaplanes to patrol the eastern reaches of the Coral Sea while an airfield for land-based air was constructed nearby on the larger island of Guadalcanal.

As a small force wove its way through the Solomons from Rabaul and made the Tulagi landings, Takagi’s striking force would sweep around the eastern end of the islands, sprint westward across the Coral Sea, and launch a surprise attack against the Allied airfields at Townsville, on the Australian mainland, crippling a chunk of MacArthur’s air force prior to the Port Moresby landing. Inoue did not expect that Takagi would encounter American carriers until Takagi moved northward after the Townsville raid to cover the Port Moresby landings. At least that was the plan.

On May 2, the small Royal Australian Air Force detachment at Tulagi learned of the advance of the Japanese landing force and escaped to the New Hebrides after demolishing some facilities. The following day, the Japanese force, landing unopposed, was observed by SWPA reconnaissance planes. MacArthur passed the report to Admiral Fletcher, who, unbeknownst to Inoue, was cruising on the Yorktown in the Coral Sea south of the Solomons. Fletcher ordered Yorktown north and launched a raid against Tulagi that returned with high boasts but did little actual damage to the invasion force. The result, however, was to warn Takagi of the presence of an American carrier and expedite his approach with the Shokaku and Zuikaku around the eastern end of the Solomons and into the Coral Sea by midday on May 5.

General Brett’s bombers, flying out of Townsville and Port Moresby, caught glimpses of the Port Moresby invasion force slowly making for Jomard Passage, between the New Guinea mainland and the Louisiade Archipelago. Repeated air attacks over the course of three days ended with little damage to the Japanese ships, but inexplicably, Brett, or perhaps it was MacArthur, did not relay any of these sightings or actions to Fletcher—just one consequence of a less-than-unified command.

Carrier USS Lexington under Japanese Attack.

MacArthur’s Navy

Elements of what would come to be called MacArthur’s Navy were, however, on the scene. Admiral Leary had sent the bulk of his SWPA naval forces—two Australian and one American cruiser and three destroyers—to assist Fletcher, but on the morning of May 7, Fletcher detached them westward to protect Port Moresby from any force steaming out of Jomard Passage. Successive waves of Japanese medium and heavy bombers found the ships and pressed attacks dangerously close, at one point straddling Rear Admiral John G. Crace’s Australian flagship with a spread of bombs. Barely had these planes departed when three more medium bombers dropped bombs from twenty-five thousand feet on one of the destroyers.

“It was subsequently discovered,” Crace later reported, “that these aircraft were U.S. Army B-26 from Townsville.” Photographs taken as the bombs were released left little doubt that they had attacked their own ships. “Fortunately,” Crace concluded, “their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful.”

Records showed only eight Allied B-17s then engaged anywhere in the vicinity. General Brett flatly denied that his planes—B-26s, B-25s, or otherwise—had attacked Crace’s command and rejected an offer from Leary to work on improving the air forces’ recognition of naval vessels. MacArthur seems to have stayed above this fray, but he held conferences with both Brett and Leary the next day, and the affair likely did not improve his regard for either man.

Meanwhile, both Fletcher and Takagi launched search planes to find each other’s carriers. They found targets, but not the ones they were looking for. The first strike from the Japanese carriers mistook the destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho, idling by themselves waiting for a refueling rendezvous, for a carrier and cruiser and sank them after a furious onslaught. The Americans fell victim to a similar problem of misidentification and launched full complements of aircraft from Yorktown and Lexington against reports of “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” 175 miles to the northwest. The nervous pilot had meant to encode “two heavy cruisers and two destroyers,” but dive-bombers from the Lexington stumbled upon the light carrier Shoho in the covering force, sinking it to one pilot’s cry of “Scratch one flattop.”

Finally, on the morning of May 8, planes from the two principal carriers on each side found their targets, leaving the Lexington and the Shokaku the most heavily damaged of the four and proving that carrier aircraft could fight major encounters without surface ships ever coming into direct contact with each other. The Americans made headway to save the Lexington, but gasoline vapors from ruptured fuel lines ignited and started a series of chain explosions. Sailors lined the flight deck in a calm evacuation, and Fletcher had the grim duty of ordering a destroyer to sink the flaming wreck to avoid any chance of its salvage by the Japanese.

Having already been instructed by Admiral Inoue to abandon the raid against Townsville, Takagi turned northward with the Zuikaku to follow the wounded Shokaku. The loss of the Shoho prompted a similar recall as both the Port Moresby invasion fleet and the remnants of its covering force turned around and sailed back to Rabaul. Tactically, the Americans had sustained heavier losses, but strategically, they had dealt the first major setback to Japan’s unchecked post–Pearl Harbor romp and managed to blunt the Japanese drive to cut Australia’s lifeline. King would never forgive Fletcher for the loss of the Lexington, but five months after Pearl Harbor, Fletcher had taken on a slightly superior force and, at worst, emerged with a draw. At best, he had saved Australia.

But the Battle of the Coral Sea was not quite over. There was to be a secondary fight of press releases between MacArthur and the American navy. During the course of the running naval battle, the Australian Advisory War Council had taken the unprecedented step of granting MacArthur just the sort of supreme censorship over SWPA operations that MacArthur had just told Marshall was “utterly impossible” to enforce. News was to come only from Diller’s SWPA communiqués. The first two dispatches of May 8 reported ten enemy ships sunk and five badly damaged in the Coral Sea action, with MacArthur’s bombers playing a leading role and without any mention of specific American losses, including the Lexington. It was an egocentric way for MacArthur to show he was “in the know,” but it had just the opposite effect. Such shabby reporting sparked criticism from the Australians and outrage from the American navy.

The Lexington had barely settled beneath the warm waters of the Coral Sea when Marshall told MacArthur that King and Nimitz were quite disturbed by his “premature release of information” concerning forces under Nimitz’s command because it imposed “definite risks upon participating forces and jeopardize[d] the successful continuation of fleet task force operations.” King decreed that thenceforth, news of Nimitz’s forces would be “released through the Navy Department only.”

Predictably, MacArthur took affront and immediately dispatched a characteristically lengthy reply: “Absolutely no information has been released from my headquarters with reference to action taking place in the northeastern sector of this area except the official communiqués. By no stretch of possible imagination do they contain anything of value to the enemy nor anything not fully known to him.” The forces so engaged, MacArthur noted, included a large part of his air force, a major portion of the Australian navy, and his heavily Australian ground forces at Port Moresby and elsewhere. The battle involved “the very fate of the Australian people and continent,” MacArthur maintained, “and it is manifestly absurd that some technicality of administrative process should attempt to force them to await the pleasure of the United States Navy Department for news of action.”

In response to this tirade, Marshall took his usual calm approach—he did not reply. It is difficult to imagine that Marshall would have brooked such insolence from another subordinate. Far from being cowed by MacArthur, Marshall was simply following the party line. The president had decided that MacArthur’s worth as an asset outweighed his liabilities, and Marshall would do his best to follow suit. That did not mean, of course, that Roosevelt did not share Marshall’s frequent exasperation.

“As you have seen by the press,” Roosevelt wrote Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King on May 18, “Curtin and MacArthur are obtaining most of the publicity. The fact remains, however, that the naval operations were conducted solely through the Hawaii command!”

Far from shying away from Nimitz, MacArthur complimented the admiral on the manner in which his forces were handled and announced he was eager to cooperate. “Call upon me freely,” MacArthur wrote. “You can count upon my most complete and active cooperation.” Meanwhile, MacArthur regaled his staff with stories of how his planes had discovered the Japanese invasion fleet. “He told it all in the most wonderfully theatrical fashion,” Brigadier General Robert H. Van Volkenburgh, his antiaircraft chief, remembered years later. “I enjoyed every second of it.

Mercia-Anglo-Saxon Kingdom



Since Bede observed in about 731 that the provinces of England’s bishops `south of the river Humber and their kings, are subject to Æthelbald, king of the Mercians’, historians have generally looked upon the eighth century as the great period of Mercian domination in Anglo-Saxon England, at least south of the Humber. That Æthelbald was duly followed by the greatest of the Mercian kings, Offa, and that between them their reigns spanned eighty years of the century, merely reaffirms the point.

Over the course of the century the confederation of peoples that Penda and his heirs had forged under their overlordship was to be converted into an enlarged and consolidated kingdom with a strong and increasingly centralised kingship. But how was this achieved, against a backdrop of emerging dynastic rivalries and the scrutiny of churchmen, and what did Mercian supremacy look like?

Mercian Exiles

When Æthelred abdicated his throne in 704 he appointed his nephew Coenred in his place. His reign was short but well-regarded. Mercian authority was maintained in the satellite provinces, Coenred confirming or making grants of land in Middlesex, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire, and contending with attacks by the Welsh; even the demons that Saint Guthlac confronted in the Fens were British-speaking. Coenred’s reputation for piety and `ruling nobly’ would seem to be consistent with his decision after five years to abdicate, and with Offa of the East Saxons, to depart for Rome where he took the tonsure and died not long afterwards. No fewer than six Anglo-Saxon kings, two of them Mercian, decided to abdicate their thrones for the religious life between 685 and 710.

Coenred’s abdication brought his cousin, Ceolred, to the throne, remembered rather less favourably by posterity. His authority and lordship seem to have echoed that of his predecessor although he also campaigned into Wessex in 716, fighting in Wiltshire. However, his reign marked two developments that pointed to the future. Firstly, as the direct line of Penda weakened and became more `distant’ there are indications of growing discontent among other branches of the royal kin, with their own claims on power and subsequent dynastic rivalries. One of these rivals was Æthelbald, forced into exile and `driven hither and thither by King Ceolred and tossed about among divers peoples’ (Felix). He went into the Fens and sought out the `holy man Guthlac’ from whom he took comfort and the prophecy that with God’s help, he would overcome his enemies and gain the Mercian throne. Guthlac had himself been an exile during the reign of Ceolred’s father and may have had little love for Penda’s descendants.

The second pointer to the future is revealed in Ceolred’s reputation. Although not universally adopted, there was a tradition that regarded him as profligate, a visionary at Much Wenlock during the king’s lifetime proclaiming that the angels surrounding him had removed their protective shield and abandoned him to demons because of the many crimes that he had committed; the story prompts a suspicion of dynastic interests at play. At the heart of this uncomplimentary tradition lay the testimony of Saint Boniface, set out thirty years after Ceolred’s death in a letter to King Æthelbald. The theme of the letter was a call for reform, in the course of which the example was raised of Ceolred, who, prompted by the devil, set a wicked example with `an open display of [the] two greatest sins in the provinces of the English’. These sins were described as `debauchery and adultery with nuns and violation of monasteries’. Personal immorality aside, Boniface was concerned with what he saw as the violation of church privileges, and although there is no further explanation as to what these violations were, it seems probable that the secular `abuse’ of minsters and their lands was among these, a recurrent theme later in the eighth century. As a consequence of his sins, while feasting in splendour with his companions, Ceolred was seized by madness and without repentance or confession he died `conversing with devils and cursing the priests of God’, to be buried, according to William of Malmesbury, at Lichfield.

The last of Penda’s direct descendants passed with Ceolred’s death in 716. The suggestion in a Worcester regnal list that he was succeeded by a man named Ceolwald cannot be otherwise verified, and if it was the case it can have been only fleetingly as in 716 Saint Guthlac’s prophecy, given to Æthelbald while in exile, was fulfilled.

A New Dynasty

Æthelbald’s accession marked the triumph of the Mercian royal lineage that traced itself back to Eowa, a brother of Penda, as did his successor, Offa. The two kings were first cousins, twice removed, and so the eighth century saw the replacement of one lineage with another. Barbara Yorke has suggested that there may have been mutual co-operation between these two branches of the family, and certainly signs of rivalry are lacking. Æthelbald, for instance, made a grant to Offa’s grandfather, Eanulf, whom he described as his kinsman and companion.

Æthelbald secured his position by favouring and promoting his kinsmen and friends to positions of power and influence in his service. A `gesith’ or retainer of Æthelbald during his years of exile was a man named Oba (Ofa) who at one point was healed by the touch of the sheepskin rug in which Saint Guthlac was accustomed to pray. Ofa regularly appeared as a witness to Æthelbald’s charters, on one occasion in 742 being described as `Ofa, patricius’, a title of distinction that probably signified his charge of the royal household. Another regular witness was the king’s brother, Heardberht, often described as `dux’ but more prestigiously in 749 as `primatum’, of pre-eminent rank.

In the early years of his reign it is probable that Æthelbald could do little more than ensure his position within Mercia until wider opportunities presented themselves with the death of Wihtred of Kent in 725 and the subsequent partition of his kingdom between three sons; and the abdication of King Ine of Wessex, whose probable ambitions on London and Essex were dissipated by a disputed succession. Even so, historians have recently urged a more considered and `defined’ view of Æthelbald’s overlordship around 731.

Securing the Mercian Heartland

Fundamental was the absorption of Mercia’s former satellite provinces into an enlarged and integrated kingdom, a phenomenon of Æthelbald’s reign that was continued under Offa, in both cases reflected by the way in which previously independent rulers became increasingly subordinated in their status, and their titles, descending from `king’, to `under king’ and then `ealdorman’. This latter vernacular title was used of royal kin, formerly autonomous rulers, and distinguished nobles to denote the king’s most important and prestigious officers. They had delegated powers of governance, military command and administration in the Mercian provinces, the precursors of the later shires.

The last independent ruler of the Magonsæte was a son of Merewalh, Mildfrith, regulus (sub king) but after about 740 this former province was integrated into the Mercian kingdom under a subordinate ruler, by Offa’s time, an ealdorman. Similarly, the Hwiccian royal family was gradually subordinated and their province integrated, reflected by Æthelbald and Offa regularly granting land within their province; indeed one of the earliest of the charters to survive from Æthelbald’s reign concerned an exchange of salthouses and furnaces near Droitwich with the church of Worcester. Among the witnesses when Æthelbald granted land at Stour in Ismere to his companion Cyneberht in 736 was Æthelric, `sub-king and companion of the most glorious prince Æthelbald’.

By Offa’s time there was a further but significant shift in how the Hwiccian rulers were described. For instance, there were several charters where Ealdred (fl. 757-790) was described as an under-king of the Hwicce, but in 778, in a charter of Offa granting land in Sedgeberrow (Worcestershire), he was described more precisely as `subregulus’ and `dux’ of the Hwicce, that is, under-king and ealdorman. The transformation of this province into a Mercian scir or shire was effectively marked by the synod of Brentford in 781 settling a dispute between Offa and the church of Worcester, but after which there were no further Hwiccian charters. The Mercian kings first made the authority of Hwiccian rulers dependent upon their support and confirmation, which Æthelbald and more particularly Offa took further by completely transforming the basis of their subordinate authority, now entirely derived from the Mercian king until they effectively became his officers. Something similar is thought to have occurred among the Middle Angles and in Lindsey.

Mercia’s Neighbours

As in the seventh century Mercian interests were greatly affected by relations with their neighbours, among them the East Anglian and East Saxon kingdoms where international trading networks were focused on the major entrepots of Ipswich and London. Similarly important was the kingdom of Kent, with links to Francia and the seat of the southern archdiocese at Canterbury.

The fact that Saint Guthlac’s Vita was dedicated to King Ælfwald of the East Angles, and the popularity of his cult in East Anglia, suggests crucially important cordial relations between the East Angles and the Mercians. Beyond the supposed implications of Bede’s statement, there is little to suggest direct East Anglian subordination to Æthelbald, other than perhaps his seniority within the community of kings. We might here envisage influence rather than direct control and it was Æthelbald’s good fortune that Ælfwald did not die until 749, after a reign of thirty-six years.

Among the East Saxons Æthelbald’s authority was more tangible. Mercian control of London was reasserted and Middlesex was effectively annexed into the Mercian kingdom, all at the expense of the East Saxon kings. Æthelbald may be found remitting tolls at London for the benefit of the churches of Rochester and Minster-in-Thanet (Kent) without any need to associate an East Saxon king, at least not in the surviving versions of the grant, although a clause admonishing any future attempts by kings or their deputies to invalidate the gift might prompt speculation. Of course, with London came the particular demands of a major trading centre, among these the need for large quantities of coin. From as early as around 720 Æthelbald was striking a silver Mercian coinage with his most important mint in London, but there is nothing to suggest that he sought to enforce or control the minting of coin by other kings.

Mercian control of London and interest in cross Channel trade must have affected the kingdom of Kent and influenced relations, but the evidence is equivocal and it is difficult to demonstrate that the Kentish kings were subordinate. Mercian influence, however, might be reasonably supposed, as when in 731 the priest Tatwine, from the monastery of Breedon-on-the-Hill (Leicestershire), was elected archbishop of Canterbury. This was not an isolated instance; in 734-5 Nothelm, a priest of London, and again in 740, Cuthbert, a probable former bishop of Hereford, were elected to Canterbury.

Relations with Wessex seem to have been largely framed by border disputes in which Æthelbald was successful in gaining territory, perhaps previously contested land. He appears disposing of lands in West Saxon areas and this, alongside the fact that Æthelbald and the West Saxon king Cuthred fought together in 743 against the Britons, leads some to suggest a Mercian overlordship of Wessex at this point; but that need not be so, and in any case, by 752, Cuthred put the Mercians to flight at Beorhford. However, Æthelbald still appears witnessing land granted in Wiltshire as `king not only of the Mercians but also of the surrounding peoples’.

Perceptions of Æthelbald’s Kingship

There can be no doubt that royal authority in Mercia itself was strengthened and the kingdom enlarged as former satellite provinces were incorporated with the Mercian heartlands, but what of the rest of southern England?

It has recently been suggested that Æthelbald’s ambitions were relatively limited, represented essentially by a `corridor’ of territory that ran south eastwards along the line of Watling Street towards London. Beyond this, there is little to suggest direct control in Kent, among the South and East Saxons, or in the East Anglian kingdom. Still more limited were Mercian ambitions north of the Humber, with only two raids into Northumbria, in 737 and 740; nor is there much evidence regarding Wales, although the border areas had become more volatile by the early eighth century.

Can we reconcile this more circumspect evaluation with the testimony of Bede, as a direct and well-connected witness, well able to appreciate the contemporary scene; and one subsequently borne out by such as Æthelbald’s confirmation of privileges to the churches of Kent in 742, the kind of act that we might associate with a king thought to wield real authority? Direct authority over the lands between the Mercian heartlands and London was essential, but elsewhere negotiation and fluctuation were possible based on influence, friendship and strength. Æthelbald pursued kingdom building in central England and secured its frontiers while elsewhere, to borrow a nineteenth-century phrase, he maintained `spheres of interest’.

Æthelbald’s aspirations and `profile’ may, to some extent, be reflected in the titles that he adopted, but such material must be treated with caution. The practices of individual scriptoria, particularly Worcester, played a part here and the styles they used need not have always represented the reality. The title of `rex Britanniae’, king of Britain, used in 736 is hardly credible, whereas in the text of the charter is found, `king not only of the Mercians but also of all the provinces which are called by the general name south English’, a description that comes closer to what Bede described a few years earlier. More commonly, as for Offa later, he was styled `rex Merciorum’, `king of the Mercians’, a more accurate reflection of Æthelbald’s authority, status and ambition.

The Unbelievable True Story of a Lone Soviet Tank’s Raid on Nazi-Occupied Minsk

Military journalist Alexander Khrolenko looks back on the incredible story of how a lone Soviet T-28 medium tank conducted a daring raid on Nazi-occupied Minsk in the early weeks of the Great Patriotic War.

On Sunday, Russia celebrates Tankers Day, the official holiday for tank crew established in 1946 in honor of the achievements of armored and mechanized forces in the Great Patriotic War. In light of the celebration, RIA Novosti contributor Alexander Khrolenko penned a piece about one of the most striking episodes of the tank crew heroics during the war: an incredible raid by a single Soviet T-28 crew on German-occupied Minsk in July 1941.

It Was the 12th Day of the War

In early July 1941, a T-28 medium tank commanded by Sargent Major Dmitri Malko was struck by a Luftwaffe raid as it made its retreat along with a column of other Soviet mechanized units near Berezino, about 90 km east of Minsk, which had been occupied by the Nazis soon after the start of the war. The tank’s engine was damaged. Malko, an experienced mechanic, managed to repair it, but ended up hopelessly behind the rest of the column. Rather than try to catch up, the officer and his crew decided to head west and pay a visit to the Germans in Minsk. Stocking up on ammunition at an abandoned military warehouse, the T-28 headed west to the Belarusian capital.

Field Marshal Hans Guderian’s tank forces had already advanced east, and the lone Soviet T-28 driving along the roads did not attract much attention from the Germans, who were used to seeing trophy enemy armored vehicles.


A Soviet Т-28, one of the world’s first medium tanks, created in 1932

Fiery Breakthrough

Making their way west, Malko’s tankmen hit upon a column of German motorcyclists about 40 km outside Minsk at a bridge over the River Svislach.

Khrolenko wrote: “The T-28 crashed into the column, shooting up enemy forces with its cannon and four machine guns. After that, the crew destroyed two German trucks, a Hanomag armored personnel carrier and dozens of troops in front of a distillery. Moving further into the city, the T-28 ran over and shot Nazi troops in the streets and in Gorky Park (which contained a military encampment).”

‘Even the Stones Burned’: 75 Years On From Worst Bombing of Great Patriotic War

“In the course of their raid on Minsk, the six Soviet tankmen destroyed or disabled about 10 enemy tanks and armored vehicles, 14 trucks, and three artillery batteries. German troops suffered heavy losses totaling about 360 soldiers and officers.”

The brave crew of the T-28 drove through central Minsk, firing until it ran out of ammo, before German command finally realized what was going on. A lone Wehrmacht anti-tank gun fired on the Soviet tank, but its frontal armor absorbed the blow, after which Major Vasechkin returned fire, destroying the gun.

Khrolenko wrote that after their mission was complete, “the T-28 nearly managed to break out of the city, but on its outskirts, in the area of the Kalvariyskoe Cemetery, it got hit by flanking fire by enemy artillery and caught fire. The Red Army troops managed to escape the burning tank.”

Fate of the Crew

The tank’s crew would face differing fates. Tank driver Major Vasechkin left the tank through the commander’s hatch, firing from his TT handgun before being shot down by the Nazis. Cadets Alexander Rachitsky and Sergei (surname unknown) were also killed in the battle. Cadet Nikolai Pedan was taken prisoner and held for four years in a Nazi concentration camp. He was eventually freed, reinstated in the army, and demobilized in 1946. Cadet Fyodor Naumov went into hiding, joining Belarus’s powerful partisan movement. He was heavily wounded in 1943, and evacuated east.


Sergeant Major Malko managed to escape Minsk and headed east, meeting up with Soviet troops. Khrolenko writes: “He fought in the tank troops for the rest of the war, his tank catching fire sixteen times…He met Victory Day in East Prussia, promoted by that time to deputy commander of a tank company. Exactly three years after the 1941 raid, on July 1944, Senior Lieutenant Malko found himself in liberated Minsk, and saw the burnt out husk of his T-28.”

“Later, in the spring of 1945, US counterintelligence interrogated German Major Rudolf Hale, who had been taken prisoner in the Ruhr area. During his interrogation, the major told the Americans that in the summer of 1941, his company and its equipment were almost completely destroyed after the unexpected appearance of a Soviet T-28 in Minsk. US command handed this testimony to the appropriate organs their Soviet counterparts. However, no one believed the stories of Tankman Dmitri Malko or German Major Rudolf Hale. Only in 1966, when Nikolai Pedan confirmed the story, would Malko be awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class.”


Dmitry Ivanovich Malko, T-28 tank driver who destroyed over 300 enemy troops and 10 armored vehicles in occupied Minsk.

Overshadowed by its younger cousin, the legendary T-34, the T-28 was one of the most formidable medium tanks in the world during the early war period. The steel monster had 80mm thick frontal armor, and 40mm side and rear armor. The tank’s unusual multi-turret configuration included a 76mm cannon and four 7.62mm machine guns. The tank’s cannon could penetrate armor up to 50 mm at distances up to 1,000 meters. Its 500hp engine allowed it to move at speeds of over 40 km/h, and successfully cross ditches, escarpments and other obstacles. The onboard radio station allowed for communications at a range of up to 60 km. The tank had a standard crew of six. In June 1941, the Red Army fielded about 250 serviceable T-28s. The last combat use of the T-28 would be reported in 1944.


T-28s parading along Red Square, November 7, 1939