Ivan the Terrible and the Origins of Russian State Security

Ivan the Terrible and Maliuta Skuratov

Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’, Grand Prince of Moscow in 1533 at the age of only three, who became first ‘Tsar of all the Russias’ in 1547, remains the most mysterious as well as the most terrifying of sixteenth-century European monarchs. Though most biographies and many histories of Russia contain portraits of him, all are imaginary. In striking contrast to the contemporary English Tudor dynasty, no authentic likeness of Ivan survives. The written sources are also more fragmentary and more frequently unreliable than in the case of any other major sixteenth-century ruler, though reports by English merchants and diplomats, which were kept secret at the time, fill some gaps in the Russian records.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible cast a long and brutal shadow over the later history of Russian intelligence and security. Stalin, his greatest twentieth-century admirer, called him a ‘great and wise ruler’ but blamed him for not being terrible enough. Had Ivan ‘knifed through’ five more noble families, Stalin claimed, the authority of the Tsar would have been maintained and Russia spared the ‘Time of Troubles’ which reduced it to chaos less than two decades after Ivan’s death in 1584. Stalin himself made no such mistake in the Great Terror of 1936–8 which killed and imprisoned millions of mostly imaginary traitors. In January 1941, Stalin sent instructions to the great film-maker Sergei Eisenstein to make a film about Ivan the Terrible. By commissioning a film showing that Ivan’s Terror was necessary, Stalin sought to justify his own.

Ivan IV lived in constant fear of conspiracies against him. In December 1564 he left the Kremlin for his fortified country estate at Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, about 100 kilometres north-east of Moscow, from which he accused boyars, other nobles and Moscow court officials of ‘treasonable deeds’; even clerics, he claimed, were ‘covering up’ for the traitors. In January 1565 he announced his intention to divide his realm into two: the oprichnina (a term derived from oprich, ‘separate’) under his personal control and the zemshchina (from zemlia, ‘land’) ruled by the boyars in Moscow. Though a complete separation between the two parts of Ivan’s realm was never established and he spent much of his time in the Moscow Kremlin rather than in the country, the royal decree establishing the oprichnina gave the Tsar unlimited power to ‘eradicate treason’ and execute ‘traitors’.

Oprichniks in Novgorod by Mikhail Avilov

Ivan gave responsibility for identifying and disposing of traitors to his newly established imperial guard, the oprichniki, who, bizarrely, he liked to think of as a monastic order with himself as ‘Father Superior’. The oprichniki, though their responsibilities went beyond intelligence collection and analysis, were Russia’s first organized security service. Swathed in black and mounted on black horses, they must have seemed like a vision from the Apocalypse as they rode though Russia. Each had a dog’s head symbolically attached to his saddle (to sniff out and attack treason) and carried a broom (to sweep away traitors). A seventeenth-century silver candlestick preserved in the museum at Alexandrovskaya Sloboda shows Ivan himself on horseback with dog’s head and broom.

The use of dogs’ heads by the oprichniki was entirely new as well as deeply macabre. Though Russians, like Western Europeans, had long been familiar with folk-tales of Hounds of Hell, dog-headed men and dog-headed monsters, no writer or artist had ever imagined dogs’ heads carried on horses. Though the Russians did not practise taxidermy and so had no mounted animals’ heads on the walls of their residences as in Western Europe, a dog’s head, drained of blood, froze in the Russian winter and could have been carried by oprichnik horses when Ivan created the oprichnina in January 1565. But in spring the dogs’ heads must have begun to decompose, thus limiting their use for six months of the year to those oprichniki able to obtain a regular supply.

The dog’s head remains the most gruesome symbol ever devised by a security or intelligence agency (far more so than the stylized skull and crossbones of the Nazi SS). It was also a fitting symbol for the chief oprichnik, Grigory Lukyanovich Skuratov-Belski, better known as Maliuta Skuratov – against strong competition, probably the most loathsome figure in the entire history of Russian intelligence. Skuratov, a nickname inherited by Maliuta from his father, meant ‘worn-out chamois’, a reference to his coarse complexion. ‘Maliuta’ referred to his short stature. Mikhail Bulgakov, the greatest writer of the Stalin era, wrote in his forbidden masterpiece The Master and Margarita:

Neither Gaius Caesar Caligula nor Messalina interested Margarita any longer, nor did any of the kings, dukes, cavaliers, suicides, poisoners, gallowsbirds, procuresses, prison guards and sharpers, executioners, informers, traitors, madmen, sleuths, seducers. All their names became jumbled in her head, the faces stuck together into one huge pancake, and only a single face lodged itself painfully in her memory – the face, framed in a truly fiery beard, of Maliuta Skuratov.

By a curious coincidence, the most homicidal of Stalin’s intelligence chiefs, Nikolai Yezhov, in whose honour the years of the Terror became known as the Yezhovshchina, was as diminutive and almost as unpleasant as Maliuta; he was given the nickname ‘Poison Dwarf’. Though Yezhov was responsible for far more deaths than Skuratov, neither he nor any other of Stalin’s intelligence chiefs rivalled Skuratov’s enthusiasm for the role of executioner-in-chief or showed such sadistic pleasure in mutilating and torturing victims. Stalin’s admiration for Skuratov exceeded that for any of his own intelligence chiefs. In 1940 Yezhov was secretly tried, found guilty of nonsensical charges of treason, and taken to execution, hysterically pleading for his life. He quickly became an unperson, airbrushed out of official photographs. By contrast, Stalin continued to praise Skuratov’s historical record. At a meeting with Eisenstein in 1941 to discuss the making of his film Ivan the Terrible, Stalin declared that ‘Maliuta Skuratov was a great army general and died a hero’s death in the war with Livonia.’ When asked by the actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who played the role of Ivan, whether a scene showing Skuratov in 1569 strangling the Metropolitan of Moscow, Filipp Kolychev (who had publicly condemned Ivan’s murders), could appear in the film, ‘Stalin said that it was necessary to retain this scene as it was historically correct.’ Filipp is now a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. Skuratov was probably the only one of Ivan’s closest associates whom he never suspected of plotting against him.

Ultimate responsibility for Skuratov’s barbarous purges lay with the Tsar himself. Ivan’s way of warfare (he was at war for all but three years of his reign as Tsar) was brutal even by the standards of the day. A German print made in 1561 during the Russian invasion of Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) shows naked women hanging from a tree above the disembowelled bodies of their children while Russian archers use them for target practice. By the heads of the women hang their children’s hearts. Though there is no corroboration for these atrocities in the sparse Russian sources, since we know that Ivan committed equally appalling acts of brutality against his Russian subjects it is unlikely that he spared the Livonians.

As during Stalin’s Terror four centuries later, none of Ivan’s closest associates (save, probably, for Skuratov) could be certain that they would not be suspected of plotting against him. Among the unlikely figures who figured in Ivan’s conspiracy theories was Prince Ivan Petrovich Cheliadnin-Fedorov, who had been Ivan’s childhood tutor and brought him up in his own household, where his wife had been Ivan’s nanny. For the first two years of the oprichnina he had been close to Ivan. In 1568, however, Ivan’s spies told him, probably wrongly, that Cheliadnin-Fedorov was leading a plot to remove him from power.

According to a probably first-hand account by Albert Schlichting, a German interpreter in the Tsar’s court, Ivan summoned Fedorov to the Kremlin, and ordered him to sit on his throne, dressed in royal attire, and hold the royal sceptre. Ivan bowed and knelt before him, saying: ‘Now you have what you sought and strove to obtain – to be Grand Prince of Muscovy and occupy my place.’ But he added: ‘Since I have the power to seat you upon this throne, so I also have power to remove you from it.’ He then stabbed Fedorov several times in the heart with a dagger. Oprichniki added other dagger blows, ‘so that’, according to Schlichting’s gruesome account, ‘his stomach and entrails poured out before the tyrant’s eyes’. With Ivan at their head, the oprichniki then terrorized Cheliadnin-Fedorov’s estates. According to Baron von Standen, a German who served in the oprichnina: ‘The villages were burned with their churches and everything that was in them, icons and church ornaments. Women and girls were stripped naked and forced in that state to catch chickens in the fields.’ In 1569, following rumours that Ivan’s cousin Vladimir of Staritsa was planning to seize the throne (probably as baseless as those about Cheliadnin-Federov), he was forced by Skuratov to drink poison while his children were murdered around him.

Ivan’s reign of terror was no more related to real Russian security needs than Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. It reached its peak in 1570 with the oprichniki massacre of the people of Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, suspected by Ivan of collective treason. Though the level of oprichnik violence may have run out of central control, it is clear that it was premeditated and that Ivan took a personal part in directing it. Before entering Novgorod with the oprichniki, he sent one of his commanders with retinue, probably in disguise, to ‘spy and reconnoitre’ the main targets for pillage and execution. Then, according to Standen, after plundering the bishop’s palace:

He took the largest bells and whatever he wanted from the churches . . . Every day he arose and moved to another monastery. He indulged his wantonness and had monks tortured and many of them were killed. There are 300 monasteries inside and outside the city and not one of these was spared. Then the pillage of the city began . . .

The distress and misery continued in the city for six weeks without interruption . . . Every day the Grand Prince [Ivan] could also be found in the torture chamber in person . . . Several thousand daughters of the inhabitants were carried off by the oprichniki.

According to a contemporary account in a German newsletter, on their triumphal return to Moscow after the victory over imaginary treason in Novgorod, the leading oprichnik had on his saddle the freshly amputated head of a huge English dog (probably a bull mastiff). Ivan’s horse carried a silver replica of a dog’s head whose jaws opened and closed in time with the movement of the horse’s hooves.

During the Stalin era no suggestion was allowed that any of the killings in Ivan’s reign of terror were influenced by the paranoid strain in his personality. Though the horrors of Ivan’s reign of terror have long since ceased to be a taboo subject for Russian historians, they are underplayed by the official history of today’s Russian foreign-intelligence service, the Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (SVR), which devotes its first volume to intelligence under the tsars. The history makes no mention of the role (or even the name) of the leading oprichnik, Maliuta Skuratov. It blames Ivan’s brutality in part on his disturbed upbringing in a court riven by intrigue and brutal rivalries. At the age of thirteen, according to the official chronicler of Ivan’s reign, he ordered the brutal murder of Prince Andrei Mikhailovich Shuisky, who he complained had treated him with disrespect, resting his dirty boots on the royal bed. Shuisky was torn to pieces by the Kremlin’s pack of hunting and guard dogs.

The SVR official history acknowledges the historic achievement of Ivan III ‘the Great’ (Ivan IV’s grandfather, who reigned from 1462 to 1505) in ending Russian subjection to the Mongol ‘Golden Horde’, but it gives the main credit for the origins of Russian diplomacy and foreign intelligence to Ivan IV and his counsellor, Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovaty, who in 1549 became the first head of Russian diplomacy, though Russia had as yet no permanent ambassadors stationed abroad. Since there was no clear dividing line between diplomacy and intelligence work, the SVR also reasonably regards Viskovaty as Russia’s first foreign-intelligence chief. His greatest achievement was probably to conclude the Treaty of Mozhaysk with King Frederick II Denmark in 1562, which gave mutual recognition to both countries’ territorial claims in Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia). The SVR official history concludes that Viskovaty overcame strong initial opposition from the Danish king by ‘what is now called in professional intelligence jargon the acquisition of “agents of influence”. It took money and remarkable strength of persuasion to secretly win over the Danish nobles who were then at the right moment able to influence the King . . .’

Ivan the Terrible’s childhood experience of internecine feuding in the Russian court gave him a natural interest in internal divisions in the foreign courts with which he dealt, such as that of Denmark, on which Viskovaty kept him informed. The SVR official history, however, exaggerates the extent to which Ivan ‘appreciated intelligence that helped to orient himself correctly in foreign policy’, allegedly rewarding even those who provided useless information to encourage them to remain involved in intelligence collection. As the horrors of Ivan’s reign of terror showed, his deeply suspicious nature made it unusually difficult for him to distinguish between real and illusory threats. His later admirer, Joseph Stalin, suffered from the same problem at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Though Viskovaty’s judgement was greatly superior to the Tsar’s, he suffered from two major handicaps in understanding the outside world by comparison with senior officials in major Western states. First, Russia, like Turkey, had no permanent embassies. Its ambassadors were sent abroad for specific assignments and returned after they were complete or were seen to have failed. The Kremlin was thus deprived of the constant flow of information provided by English and some other European ambassadors. Also like Turkey, though in lesser degree, Russia lacked the print culture which had generated an information revolution in the West. Moscow’s first printing house was not founded until 1553, a century later than in Western Europe. Established by Ivan IV and Metropolitan Makarii of Moscow and All Russia, its purpose was to print religious texts. It was deeply unpopular with traditional scribes and is believed to have been burnt down by a mob in 1568. The Kremlin deacon, Ivan Federov, who was chiefly responsible for running the printing house, was forced to flee to Lithuania, though printing resumed soon afterwards. The travel books which were immensely popular in Elizabethan England and help, for example, to account for Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge of Italy, in which he set thirteen of his plays, did not exist in Russia. Open-source knowledge of foreign countries and cultures was extremely limited.

Ivan’s and Viskovaty’s first and closest diplomatic ties in Western Europe were with England. They began not as the result of a Russian policy decision but, as the SVR official history acknowledges, as the unexpected outcome of a failed attempt by the young English merchant adventurer Richard Chancellor, then in his early twenties, to reach China through the Arctic North-East Passage. Chancellor arrived on 24 August 1553 at the mouth of the Northern Dvina river on the White Sea, at the site of the future port of Archangel, which at the time was only a small fishing village. The SVR account emphasizes how effectively Ivan’s ‘notification system’, designed to warn the authorities of the unexpected arrival of foreigners on Russian territory, operated even in this remote, sparsely populated area.

The local governor came aboard Chancellor’s ship, agreed to ‘afford him the benefit of victuals’, and sent a messenger to seek further instructions from the Tsar. When no instructions had been received after three months, Chancellor decided on 25 November to set off himself by horse-drawn sleigh on what he found a ‘very long and most troublesome’ journey to Moscow. Having covered the greater part of the 600-mile journey, he met coming in the opposite direction a messenger from the Kremlin, who had earlier lost his way, bearing an invitation to him from Ivan IV written ‘with all courtesy’. On arrival in Moscow, Chancellor and his men were kept under surveillance for twelve days before Viskovaty informed them that they were to be received by the Tsar. In the royal court, wrote Chancellor later, ‘there sat a very honourable company of courtiers to the number of one hundred, all apparelled in cloth of gold down to their ankles’. The throne room made Chancellor’s men ‘wonder at the Majesty of the Emperor [Tsar]’:

His seat was aloft, in a very royal throne, having on his head a diadem, or crown of gold, apparelled with a robe all of goldsmith’s work and in his hand he held a Sceptre garnished, and beset with precious stones, and besides all . . . there was a majesty in his countenance proportionable with the excellence of his estate . . .

Chancellor and his men were invited to an enormous dinner which gave an unexpected insight into the nature of Ivan’s personal autocracy. In the course of the meal Ivan addressed each of the many nobles and other diners by name: ‘The Russes told our men that the reason thereof . . . was to the end that the emperor might keep the knowledge of his own household, and withal, that such as are under his displeasure might by this means be known.’

Because of difficulty in transliterating his surname into Cyrillic, official Russian documents referred to Chancellor by his first name, ‘Richard’. Following his return to England in 1554, the Muscovy Company was founded in London to trade with Russia. At a time when Russia still had no outlet on the Baltic coast, the new company offered an important trading link with the West and a valuable source of arms and munitions for Ivan’s many wars, as well as of luxury goods. The Muscovy Company (later known as the Russia Company) also made a lucrative trade by importing furs and ship-building supplies. After Chancellor’s second voyage to Russia in 1555, Ivan ordered the construction of an embassy for English diplomats and merchants within the walls of the Kremlin, and gave the Muscovy Company exemption from Russian customs duties. According to the SVR official history, which largely agrees with Western accounts:

Flushed with success, Chancellor returned home [in 1556] with a rich cargo in his ship and the first Russian ambassador [to England] on board, Osip Nepeya. In a stormy night at the Scottish coast, the ship crashed against the rocks. Whilst trying to save the Moscow ambassador, Chancellor was killed along with his son and most of the crew. Nepeya escaped and was ceremoniously received in London, where local merchants arranged a celebration in his honour.

Nepeya returned to Russia in 1557 on the ship of Chancellor’s successor, the experienced sea captain Anthony Jenkinson (‘Anton Iankin’ in Russian documents), who acted as both English ambassador and Moscow representative of the London Muscovy Company. With them, at Nepeya’s request, travelled English craftsmen, doctors, and gold and silver prospectors. Unsurprisingly, after his terrifying voyage to London, Nepeya expressed ‘great joy’ on his safe return to Russia.

The different roles of Nepeya and Jenkinson exemplify the gulf between English knowledge of Ivan IV’s Russia and Russian understanding of Tudor England. Nepeya had come to London on a temporary diplomatic mission to cement the trading relationship begun by Chancellor. He left no Russian embassy or representative behind him in London. Because of Russia’s lack of any direct sources of information in Tudor England, news of the death of Edward VI, the accession of Mary, her marriage to Philip II, Mary’s death and the accession of Elizabeth seem to have been brought to Moscow by Chancellor and Jenkinson. It is highly unlikely that the Tsar and his advisers understood the political and religious complexities of these regime changes. In addition to the problems of translating Tudor diplomatic communications written in Latin, they found them more generally confusing. Ivan later complained to Elizabeth: ‘How many letters we have received in all this time, and all with different seals! That is not the royal custom. And such documents are not trusted in any State. Rulers of States have only one seal.’ Ivan, however, claimed to have believed all these documents and to have done as Elizabeth had asked.

Unlike Nepeya in London, Jenkinson established a permanent English embassy and trade mission in Moscow. He quickly became the most influential foreigner at Ivan’s court. Jenkinson’s warm welcome in the Kremlin in December 1557, when he presented letters to Ivan from Queen Mary and her husband, Philip II, must have owed something to Nepeya’s account of how Chancellor had been drowned saving his life during the voyage to England. A gargantuan dinner followed on Christmas Day, 1557. Jenkinson already knew from Chancellor’s account of his first visit to the Kremlin that the dinner would enable him to judge the extent of the Tsar’s favour. Ivan made clear to the whole court that Jenkinson was an exceptionally honoured guest. Seated by himself at a table of his own next to the Tsar’s, ‘the emperor sent me divers bowls of wine and mead, and many dishes of meat from his own hand’. Ivan showed his favour once again at the Twelfth Night dinner in Ivan’s Kremlin palace, where, wrote Jenkinson, ‘I sat alone as I did before directly before the emperor, and had my meat, bread and drink sent me from the emperor.’ Despite the warmth of the royal welcome, Jenkinson had no illusions about Ivan’s tyrannical regime: ‘He keepeth his people in great subjection; all matters pass his judgment be they never so small.’

Though Chancellor’s and Jenkinson’s accounts of their pioneering missions to the court of Ivan the Terrible are nowadays recognized as important historical sources, at the time they were treated by both the Muscovy Company and the Tudor court as intelligence reports to be kept secret. None of Chancellor’s reflections on his time in Russia were published until 1589, five years after Ivan’s death. Ivan and Viskovaty, among others, would have been outraged by Chancellor’s frank comments on Ivan’s tyrannical rule, on the Tsar’s court (‘much surpassed and excelled by the beauty and elegancy of the houses of the kings of England’) and on some beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church (‘foolish and childish dotages of . . . ignorant barbarians’). Chancellor provided military as well as political intelligence, notably a report entitled ‘Of the discipline of war amongst the Russes’, which would also have caused offence in the Kremlin. He made, however, the wildly exaggerated claim, probably derived from boasting in the Kremlin, that, in time of war, the Tsar ‘never armeth a less number against the enemy than three hundred thousand soldiers’. The Muscovy Company regarded even Chancellor’s less controversial reports on the main Russian cities as commercial intelligence which was too valuable to potential rivals to be made public.

Ivan’s personal favour allowed Jenkinson unlimited freedom to travel through Russia and cross its borders. After a perilous expedition to Central Asia, he returned to the Kremlin in September 1559 to a hero’s welcome, bringing with him twenty-five Russians whom he had rescued from slavery, as well as six Tatar envoys. No British representative since has ever won such favour in the Kremlin. After spending a year back in London, Jenkinson returned to Russia for the third time in 1561 and, in the course of his own travels further east, became the first English envoy to be used as a secret emissary by a Russian Tsar. In 1562 Ivan personally entrusted him with a hazardous mission to Abdullah-Khan, ruler of Shirvan in the eastern Caucasus, whence he returned a year later with a large consignment of silk and jewels as well as what Ivan regarded as favourable letters from both Abdullah-Khan and the ruler of Georgia. Jenkinson was rewarded with further concessions for the Muscovy Company.

Ivan continued to take Jenkinson into his confidence to a remarkable degree, unaware that in 1566 he wrote to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, denouncing the oprichniki campaign of terror against nobles suspected of plotting against the Tsar. In the summer of 1567 Ivan began telling Jenkinson that, because of (probably largely imaginary) plots against him, he might have to seek asylum in England. Having taken leave of Ivan on 22 September 1567, Jenkinson returned to England by sea with an official letter and a secret message from the Tsar, both of which he delivered personally to Elizabeth in November. Remarkably, Ivan had thus selected for what he regarded as an important secret assignment a trusted English adventurer in preference to a Russian envoy. In the messages Ivan stressed his desire for a Russian–English alliance, to be negotiated via Jenkinson, and made the extraordinary proposal (unique in the history of English foreign relations) that each monarch should have the right to take refuge in the other’s country: ‘The Emperor [Tsar] earnestly requireth that there may be a perpetual friendship and kindred betwixt the Queen’s Majesty and him.’ Ivan may well have wished to conceal his request for political asylum from Viskovaty and other Kremlin officials.

Ivan had expected Jenkinson to return to Russia with Elizabeth’s reply. Jenkinson, however, was replaced by a new envoy: the diplomat Sir Thomas Randolph, former Master of Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford. Randolph was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth’s intelligence chief and Foreign Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, who probably had a hand in his appointment. Walsingham later used his influence on three occasions to help Randolph become MP for Maidstone. No record survives of what Randolph discovered after his arrival on the White Sea coast in July 1568 about the oprichniki reign of terror, but he clearly feared for his own personal safety, writing to William Cecil even before he reached Moscow that he was anxious to conclude his mission and return to England as quickly as possible. George Turberville, Randolph’s secretary and a former Fellow of New College, Oxford, privately denounced the Russians in poems sent to his friends as ‘a people passing rude, to vices vile inclin’d’. Randolph’s reception on arriving at Moscow late in September added to his anxieties. There was no one to welcome him; even members of the English embassy were not ‘suffered to meet us’. As he later acknowledged, the contrast between his own initial reception and that of Jenkinson ‘bred suspicion in me’. Though supplied with victuals, he was disturbed by the hostile manner of the Russian appointed to ensure that he did not leave the embassy and received no visitors: ‘We had no small cause to doubt that some evil had been intended unto us.’

After seventeen weeks under house arrest, Randolph was finally invited to an audience with the Tsar on 20 February 1569. Ivan failed to invite him to dinner, as he had done Chancellor and Jenkinson, but freed him from house arrest: ‘I dine not this day openly, for great affairs I have; but I will send thee my dinner, and give leave to thee and thine to go at liberty, and augment our allowance to thee in token of our love and favour to our sister the Queen of England.’ A few days later Ivan summoned Randolph for over three hours of secret talks in the early hours of the morning. The Tsar then left Moscow for Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, believed by Randolph to be ‘the house of his solace’. On his return to the Kremlin six weeks later, Ivan summoned Randolph for further talks, during which Randolph claimed to have secured all the ‘large privileges’ he had sought for the Muscovy Company.

Ivan, however, was seriously dissatisfied. He had hoped to secure an alliance with England, directed mainly against Poland. Randolph stuck to his instructions to ‘pass these matters with silence’, leading the Tsar to complain in a letter to Elizabeth that her envoy’s ‘talk was of boorishness and affairs of merchants’, and failed to address ‘our princely affairs’. To accompany Randolph on his return voyage to England in October 1569, Ivan sent his own ambassador, Alexander Grigoryevich Sovin, with a draft treaty of alliance to which he was instructed to obtain Elizabeth’s signature. Sovin was told that no changes could be accepted in the draft, predictably failed in his mission, and returned to Russia in the following year.

Ivan’s diplomacy and intelligence collection suffered a major self-inflicted blow on 25 July 1570 with the execution of Viskovaty, who fell victim to another of the Tsar’s conspiracy theories, bizarrely accused of plotting with Lithuania and urging the Ottoman Turks and the Khan of Crimea to invade Russia. In reality, as contemporary records show, so far from plotting with Viskovaty, Lithuanian envoys found him ‘not well disposed’ and ‘intractable’ in negotiations with them. Having refused to beg forgiveness for treason he had not committed, Viskovaty was strung up in a market square and sliced to death. Skuratov began the execution by cutting off his nose, another oprichnik removed his ears and a third hacked off his genitals. Ivan complained that Viskovaty died too quickly. Over a hundred other gruesome executions followed of probably innocent victims. Viskovaty’s fate prefigured that of Stalin’s three most powerful intelligence chiefs, all of whom were also executed for imaginary acts of treason, which, absurdly, included spying for Britain.

The bizarre nature of Ivan’s relations with England in the aftermath of Viskovaty’s execution reflected the Tsar’s loss of his diplomatic expertise. On 24 October 1570, outraged by Elizabeth I’s refusal to sign the draft alliance delivered by Sovin, Ivan personally penned a letter to the Queen which, so far as is known, was the rudest she ever received. According to the translation prepared for Elizabeth, he said that his previous willingness to correspond with her on ‘weighty affairs’ of state had been based on the mistaken belief that ‘you had been ruler over your land, and had sought honour to yourself and profit to your Country . . . But now we perceive that there be other men that do rule, and not men but boors and merchants, the which seek not the wealth and honour of our majesties, but they seek their own profit of merchandise . . . And you flourish in your maidenlike estate like a maid’, he added insultingly, before announcing the cancellation of the rights previously granted to the Muscovy Company: ‘The privilege that we gave to your Merchants be from this day of none effect.’

Despite the rudeness of the letter, Elizabeth and her advisers clearly believed that the trading privileges of the Muscovy Company were too important to abandon. It was therefore decided to ignore Ivan’s insults and send the Tsar’s favourite Englishman, Anthony Jenkinson, on a new mission to Moscow as English ambassador as well as Company representative to try to restore relations. His mission began badly. After landing on the Arctic coast in July 1571, he was stranded for over six months as the result of travel restrictions imposed after an outbreak of plague. His first report to William Cecil (newly ennobled as Baron Burghley) gave further details of atrocities committed during the oprichniki reign of terror. Jenkinson eventually had an audience with Ivan in the Kremlin on 23 March 1572. His instructions were to persuade Ivan to agree to reinstate the privileges of the Muscovy Company by hinting at the possibility of an Anglo-Russian political alliance but to make no binding commitments. Such was the Tsar’s confidence in Jenkinson that, at their next meeting on 13 May, Ivan agreed to restore all the Company’s privileges and complimented ‘Anthony’ on his role in restoring Russian–English relations. Jenkinson arrived back in England on 23 July after what the Dictionary of National Biography terms ‘a brilliant culmination to a career which won him a permanent place in the history of Anglo-Russian relations’.

By the time Ivan began negotiations with Jenkinson, his main anger was directed not against Elizabeth I but against his own oprichniki, whom he blamed for failing to defend Moscow against a devastating Tatar raid in 1571, which (as reported by Jenkinson to Cecil) laid waste much of the city outside the Kremlin. In 1572 Ivan formally abolished the oprichniki. Though Jenkinson did not return to Russia after 1572, Ivan continued to make occasional secret use of other English diplomats. In 1580 he entrusted an English diplomat in Moscow, Jerome Horsey (later knighted), with what he regarded as a secret mission to England to obtain supplies of ‘powder, saltpetre, lead and brimstone’.50 Horsey doubtless reported his secret mission to his patron, Sir Francis Walsingham, and later dedicated to him a book on his travels in Russia.† Horsey’s seventeen years in Moscow epitomize the frequent sixteenth-century overlap between diplomacy and espionage. What is remarkable in Horsey’s case is that, because of Russia’s lack of both diplomats and spies in England, his services (like those of Jenkinson before him) were used by the Tsar, as well as, more frequently, by Walsingham. Horsey was so trusted by Ivan that he was invited into his Treasury and, in 1581, given a secret letter, hidden in a flask, to take to Queen Elizabeth.

During the final years of his reign, Ivan continued to suffer from uncontrollable fits of rage. During one of them in 1581, he accidentally killed his son and heir. Ilya Repin’s famous painting, which shows the Tsar grieving over the bloodstained body of his son Ivan, which was completed in 1885, four years after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, so disturbed his son Alexander III that he had it temporarily removed from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

The SVR official history plausibly argues that, after the death of his son, in the final years before his own death, in 1584, Ivan began to ‘repent’ that he had ordered so many executions. From 1583 all monasteries started regular ‘Remembrances of the Disgraced’. The execution Ivan most regretted was almost certainly that of Viskovaty, whose expertise had never been replaced. Ivan personally sent to the Holy Trinity Monastery 223 rubles for the ‘remembrance of the soul of Viskovaty’ as well as another twenty-three rubles to pay for candles. No other intelligence chief has ever been remembered in this way by a ruler who ordered his execution.

Ivan IV was succeeded by his devout but simple-minded younger son, Tsar Fedor I (a ‘silly prince’, in the opinion of Sir Jerome Horsey). Real power, however, lay with a faction-ridden regency council in which Boris Godunov (best known nowadays as the anti-hero of Mussorgsky’s popular nineteenth-century opera) eventually won a prolonged power struggle. Horsey, who, as under Ivan IV, was occasionally used by Godunov for secret missions, reported that at one point during the power struggle, also like Ivan, Godunov told him he might seek refuge in England. He found Godunov ‘of comely person, well favoured, affable . . . not learned but of sudden apprehension, and a natural good orator’. But Godunov was also superstitious (‘affected much to necromancy’) and ‘revengeful’. He had a sinister past both as an oprichnik from the age of about twenty and as the son-in-law of the most bloodthirsty of all the oprichniki, Maliuta Skuratov. To rise in the court of Ivan the Terrible, he must have shown enthusiastic support for the brutal execution of imaginary traitors in Novgorod and Moscow. Probably largely at the expense of his victims, Godunov built up enormous wealth. The historian Catherine Merridale describes him as the nearest sixteenth-century ‘equivalent of a twenty-first-century oligarch’.

Unlike Ivan IV, however, Godunov tried – successfully – to avoid foreign wars. He deserves much of the credit for the twenty-year period of peace which followed Ivan’s death. During the regency Godunov also showed no liking for the public execution of traitors. Instead he proceeded behind the scenes, built up a large network of informers and disposed secretly of some of his main rivals. While ambassador in Moscow from 1588 to 1589 on a mission to settle disputes involving the Russia Company, the English writer and diplomat Giles Fletcher, a former Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, felt under almost continuous hostile surveillance. As he complained to Burghley, ‘My whole entertainment from my first arrival till towards the very end was such as if they had devised means of very purpose to show their utter disliking both of the trade of the Merchants, and of the whole English nation.’ Though he was eventually able to negotiate an agreement, according to the well-known writer Thomas Fuller when he returned home in the summer of 1589 ‘he heartily expressed his thankfulness to God for his safe return from so great a danger; for the Poets cannot fancy Ulysses more glad to be come out of the Den of Polyphemus, than he was to be rid out of the power of such a barbarious Prince’.

In 1591 Fletcher tried to publish a book based on his experiences, entitled Of the Russe Commonwealth, or, The manner of government by the Russe emperor . . . with the manners, and fashions of the people of that country. The best and most detailed account by any Elizabethan traveller to Russia, it made clear Fletcher’s loathing for the Russian political system: ‘The state and form of their government is plain tyrannical.’ The worst of the tyrants had been Ivan the Terrible:

To show his sovereignty over the lives of his subjects, the late emperor Ivan [IV] Vasilevich in his walks or progresses, if he had misliked the face or person of any man whom he met by the way, or that looked upon him, would command his head to be struck off, which was promptly done, and the head cast before him.

The governors of the Russia Company no doubt believed, as they had done after Richard Chancellor produced an account of his mission a generation earlier, that publication of Fletcher’s book would reveal valuable commercial intelligence to their competitors. But their main fear was that, if the Godunov regime discovered what Fletcher had written about their ‘tyrannical’ rule, ‘the revenge thereof will light on their people and goods remaining in Moscow, and utterly overthrow the trade forever’. Burghley clearly agreed and the book was suppressed. Its contents were still highly sensitive two and a half centuries later. In 1848 Tsar Nicholas I ordered the confiscation of the first Russian translation of Of the Russe Commonwealth and severe punishment of the officials of the Imperial Moscow Society of Russian History and Antiquities who had dared to publish it in their Proceedings. No other British intelligence report on Russia has remained so controversial for so long.

On the death of Fedor I in 1598, Boris Godunov became Tsar. Though most of the details of his surveillance system will probably never be known, his network of spies and informers increased. Servants were encouraged to inform on their masters. Even slaves were used as informants. Boris’s uncle, Semen Nikitich Godunov, his chief inquisitor and an enthusiastic torturer, reported to him regularly on the evidence of treason he claimed to have uncovered during his brutal interrogations. But Godunov’s surveillance system and secret intrigues failed to secure the succession. On his death in April 1605 he was succeeded by his son, the well-educated sixteen-year-old Fedor Borisovich Godunov, who was crowned Tsar Fedor II. In May the army mutinied and many of its commanders sided with a pretender to the throne, the so-called first ‘False Dmitrii’. In June Fedor II and his mother (Skuratov’s daughter) were strangled in the Kremlin by Dmitrii’s agents and their bodies put on public display. The hated Semen Godunov was thrown into a prison cell and left to starve to death. There followed years of chaotic civil war and Russia’s ‘Time of Troubles’.

 

Advertisements

BRITISH HEROIC FAILURE # 1 – Battle of New Orleans 1815

“Battle of New Orleans And Death of General Pakenham On the 8th January 1815”

The ability of death in warfare to create a hero from even the most unpromising circumstances was demonstrated by the examples of Major Generals Sir Edward Pakenham and Samuel Gibbs, who died in 1815 at New Orleans in the final battle of the War of 1812. A memorial statue in St Paul’s Cathedral by Richard Westmacott shows the two men standing side by side, with Gibbs leaning on Pakenham’s shoulder in a display of fraternity and calm resignation in the face of adversity. The inscription records that they `fell gloriously on the eve of January 1815 while leading the troops in an attack of the enemy’s works in front of New Orleans’.

In reality, there was little that was glorious about the deaths of Pakenham and Gibbs. Pakenham had previously fought brilliantly in the Peninsular War – Wellington credited his daring flanking manoeuvre as being responsible for his victory at Salamanca – but he had not wanted to go to America to fight in a conflict that few Britons understood or cared about, while Napoleon was still on the loose in Europe. His misgivings were not assuaged by his initial assessment of the situation at New Orleans, as the swampy landscape made the swift and unified movement of troops all but impossible. But knowing how difficult it would be to move the army to another position, Pakenham reluctantly agreed to go ahead with the plan of attack drawn up by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the commander of the British naval forces. On the morning of 8 January 1814, the British troops were forced to cross a mile of flat, open, marshy ground as the Americans fired at them from behind a mud-and-log rampart. Their discipline and courage might still have secured victory, but a misunderstood order meant that they had not brought the ladders required to scale the rampart. As the carnage mounted, some men refused to advance, and Pakenham galloped to the head of his lines to try and rally them. Lieutenant George Robert Gleig described what happened next:

Poor Pakenham saw how things were going, and did all that a General could do to rally his broken troops. Riding towards the 44th which had returned to the ground, but in great disorder, he called out for Colonel Mullens to advance; but that officer had disappeared, and was not to be found. He, therefore, prepared to lead them on himself, and had put himself at their head for that purpose, when he received a slight wound in the knee from a musket ball, which killed his horse. Mounting another, he again headed the 44th, when a second ball took effect more fatally, and he dropped lifeless into the arms of his aide-de-camp.

This was not quite accurate: Pakenham was carried from the field still alive, but barely. He died under a tree a few minutes later, only thirty-six years old.

Pakenham’s death left his second-in-command, Gibbs, in charge of the battle. He, too, made a desperate attempt to rally the troops, charging to within 20 yards (18 m) of the American front line. There, he too was shot, and he died the next day. The third-in-command, Lieutenant General John Keane, was severely wounded but survived. For the British, the Battle of New Orleans was a debacle: 291 men were killed, 484 taken prisoner and 1,262 wounded, adding up to 2,037 total casualties; three generals and eight colonels and lieutenant colonels died. A mere thirteen Americans were killed. 4 Gleig was stunned when he rode over the battlefield after a temporary truce had been declared a few days later:

Of all the sights that I ever witnessed, that which met me there was beyond comparison the most shocking, and the most humiliating. Within the small compass of a few hundred yards, were gathered together nearly a thousand bodies, all of them arrayed in British uniforms. Not a single American was among them; all were English; and they were thrown by dozens into shallow holes, scarcely deep enough to furnish them with a slight covering of earth. Nor was this all. An American officer stood by smoking a segar [sic], and apparently counting the slain with a look of savage exultation; and repeating over and over again to each individual that approached him, that their loss amounted only to eight men killed, and fourteen wounded. I confess, that when I beheld the scene, I hung down my head half in sorrow, and half in anger.

To make matters worse for the British, the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 had been signed on 24 December, two weeks before the battle.

New Orleans was a shocking defeat. A month before the battle, Colonel Frederick Stovin, assistant adjutant general to the British army, had been breezily confident. Writing to his mother from aboard HMS Tonnant, Admiral Cochrane’s flagship, he bragged: `I have no doubt of our success, for although the Americans are quite aware of our intentions I do not believe they can collect above 3 or 4000 men to oppose us and we have 6000 – theirs inexperienced and undisciplined; ours perfect soldiers and in the habits of victory.’ Afterwards, his attitude was very different. He had been wounded in the neck, but was most devastated by the loss of his `inestimable friend’ Edward Pakenham: `It has almost unhinged me and given me a distaste [for] the service on which we are employed.’ His disparagement of the Americans had vanished; he now found it to be `truly repugnant to fight against people who speak the same language, many of whom are really your countrymen and . . . claim their origins so immediately from your own soil’.

Why, then, instead of quickly burying their embarrassing defeat at New Orleans, did the British choose to grant Pakenham and Gibbs the very visible honour of a memorial statue in St Paul’s? To answer this question, we first need to take into account that military martyrdom held a powerful cultural appeal in the early nineteenth century. From a British perspective, martyrdom was particularly powerful when it involved men of elevated social status like Pakenham and Gibbs. This period saw the emergence of a new emphasis on duty as a social and cultural ideal among the British elite, as the upper classes responded to pressure for parliamentary reform and increased democracy by promoting a new image of themselves as a `service elite’ dedicated to supporting the national interest. This fresh dedication to duty often manifested itself in the form of military and naval contributions, thereby providing a justification for continued upper-class domination of wealth, status and power in Britain. In assessing the heroism of elite officers like Pakenham and Gibbs, it was of little significance that they had lost the Battle of New Orleans, especially since the defeat had occurred in a war that had minimal consequences for British power or prestige. What mattered was their willingness to serve and the fact that they had laid down their lives for their country. The fact that their deaths occurred as they tried to rally their troops from a catastrophic defeat only threw the heroism of their actions into higher relief.

To comprehend fully the heroism of Pakenham and Gibbs as it was culturally defined in the early nineteenth century, however, we need to take into account the broader context of the relationship between Britain’s military forces and civil society in the first half of the nineteenth century. In this era, though many Britons took pride in the army when it won important victories, they also feared it as a potential source of repression and tyranny and believed that, in peacetime, it should be kept as small as possible. They also had little regard for common soldiers; Wellington’s description of them as the `scum of the earth’ encapsulated the predominant popular perception. For much of the nineteenth century, the army was an object of both suspicion and contempt.

Both the elite who filled the officer ranks and the government who relied on the army to win the war against Napoleon had a strong interest in overcoming this distrust of a strong military. One strategy they used was to elevate martyrs who died in battle, who acted as reminders of the patriotic and benevolent nature of the armed forces.

Another example of a contemporary mode of representing military leaders who had fallen in the moment of victory. This mode had evolved from Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which depicted the death of General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. West’s painting was immensely popular: King George III commissioned a copy, and an engraved print was a tremendous popular success. The Death of General Wolfe influenced British martial art for decades afterwards: many subsequent depictions of death in battle featured a prostrate hero at the centre of the composition, with the action raging around him and with his most prominent officers looking on mournfully as he expired. These paintings were rarely historically accurate, but they were not supposed to be. Instead, they were intended to convey the sorrow occasioned by the death of a great hero, as well as to ensure that his demise was surrounded by appropriate ceremony and recognition of its significance.

The Death of General Wolfe

Robertson’s Brigade—At Gettysburg

Captain Smith’s Cannon

Devil’s Den, Slaughter Pen, Valley of Death and Little Round Top

5 o’clock July 2nd 1863

In the distance, right, Little Round Top seems to “erupt” as 3 union cannons fire away at attacking confederates moving up Houck’s ridge (left side of painting). Rebel infantry of the 4th and 5th Texas and 15th Alabama regiments attempt to reach the summit on the open south side of the rocky hill, while the 48th, 47th and 15th Alabama regiments attempt to take the wooded side (smoke rising through trees). None will succeed.

Commander: Brigadier General Jerome Robertson

Units: 3rd Arkansas, 1st Texas, 4th Texas, 5th Texas

Strength: 1734

Losses: 603 (152-313-138)—34.8%

The fabled Texas Brigade was reorganized after the Maryland campaign of 1862 with the removal of Georgia and South Carolina units and the addition of the 3rd Arkansas. The Texas nucleus remained and so did the brigade’s fighting abilities, which were the best in Lee’s army. The brigade, under General John Hood, crushed the Federal line at Eltham’s Landing on the Virginia peninsula and won further distinction at the battle of Gaines’s Mill, where it helped to finally breach the Federal line. The brigade helped spearhead the attack on General John Pope’s forces at Second Manassas. Although equally aggressive at the battle of Antietam, the brigade sustained heavy losses in the cornfield without anything to show for it. The brigade was not involved in the fight at Fredericksburg and was with Longstreet near Suffolk, so it missed the Chancellorsville campaign. The men were ready for a fight after so many months of inactivity.

Brigadier General Jerome Robertson had an unusual past. After losing his father at an early age, Robertson worked for a physician and ultimately went to medical school. His education was cut short by the War for Texas Independence. At the age of twenty, Robertson raised a company of Kentuckians and took them south to serve under Sam Houston. Robertson remained in Texas after the war, where he married and began a medical practice. An acclaimed Indian fighter, Robertson was elected to the Texas legislature and voted in favor of secession. He subsequently raised a company of volunteers and brought them to Richmond, where they became part of the 5th Texas. Elevated to colonel of the regiment in early June 1862, he fought in most of the regiment’s subsequent battles. Robertson finally assumed command of the brigade in the fall of 1862. Nicknamed “Aunt Polly,” because he cared so much about his men’s welfare, Robertson had proven himself to be a no-nonsense fighter who had won the respect of his Texans.

Many of the men grumbled when ordered to ford the armpit-deep Potomac River on June 26 while fully clothed and holding their guns and accoutrements over their heads. The grumbling stopped when the men were issued captured whiskey. The more temperate gave their share to their comrades, causing more than a few to become intoxicated. While most of the officers chose to look the other way, Colonel Van Manning of the 3rd Arkansas “ordered the sober ones to dunk the drunken ones in the creek to bring a reaction,” recalled Captain Miles Smith of the 4th Texas. Tongue in cheek, Smith wrote that the “Texas Brigade was in four states in one day. The State of Virginia, the State of Maryland, the State of Pennsylvania, and a state of drunkenness.” The sober soldiers enjoyed the beauty of the countryside. Private John West commented that the barns were “more substantially and carefully built and fitted out than any house I have ever seen in the country in Texas.”

The brigade reached Chambersburg on June 27. To Colonel Robert Powell of the 5th Texas, it was a “city of banners … a Union flag surrounded every house … every lady held a flag in her hand, varying in size from a postage stamp to a table cloth.” The women were less than congenial, as they “congregated on the sidewalks and did jeer and ridicule the Johnny Rebs, who received in return compliments equally gracious,” recalled Smith. Some of their scorn turned to horror when they realized who they were dealing with. At least one remarked, “They are the ones that have killed so many of our soldiers.” One woman smugly remarked, “Thank God, you will never come back alive.” This was answered by, “No, as we intend to go to Cincinnati byway of New York.”

Marching another mile north of the town, the men halted and went into bivouac with the rest of the division. The soldiers were most unhappy when they realized that their commissary wagons had not yet arrived. They finally arrived after dark, but the men were dismayed to find that they contained slender radons of rancid bacon and musty flour. This caused the men to reason that the “Federal soldiers that had marched through Virginia had taken, with the strong hand, whatever they wanted … not even offering to pay in greenbacks,” recalled Corporal Joseph Polley of the 4th Texas. Lee had issued strong orders against depredations on private property, but the men did not consider it a violation if they paid for the goods with Confederate script or if it was voluntarily offered. “No violence used, no threats of any kind made by any Confederate soldier, and none of the citizens complained of having been intimidated and robbed,” claimed Polley.

Polley awoke to a wondrous sight on June 28. “Every square foot of an acre of ground not occupied by a sleeping or standing soldier, was covered with choice food for the hungry. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese … scattered around in bewildering confusion and gratifying profusion … loaves of bread and chunks of corned beef, hams, and sides of bacon … bowls of yellow butter, demijohns of buttermilk, and other eatables too numerous to mention.”

The march resumed on June 30, and the brigade reached Fayetteville. It was to continue early the next day, but was delayed because Johnson’s Division and the Second Corps’s wagon train filled the road, so the men waited. The men were ordered to form into column when the last wagon passed. A frustrated Corporal Polley recalled that the men marched only about a hundred yards before being ordered to stop. No one wanted to sit down, because they expected the march to be resumed momentarily. “Nothing is so wearing on infantry as such halting process,” he wrote after the war. The subsequent march over the mountains in the dark was a tiring one. Colonel Powell of the 5th Texas noted that there was not nearly as much “hilarity” on this march, as the men understood that they would soon be in battle. The brigade was finally permitted to rest outside Cashtown at 2:00 A.M. on July 2. The men were awakened less than two hours later, as the officers conducted an inspection of every soldier’s arms and equipment. The final leg of the march to Gettysburg was exceedingly slow—only about six miles in four hours. The brigade finally reached the battlefield at about 9:00 A.M. During the last portion of its march, the brigade passed “the bloody shirts”—men who had been wounded the day before and were attempting to return to Virginia.

After completing a circuitous march to Warfield Ridge, General Robertson aligned his regiments, from left to right, as 3rd Arkansas–1st Texas–4th Texas–5th Texas. Many of the men were apprehensive when they looked across the wide swath of ground. “Hitherto, the Texans had fought on ground over which they could move rapidly in line, and where the enemy was accessible—where the terror caused by their dashing rush and swift oncoming counted large. Here at Gettysburg the foe lay concealed behind stone fences at the base of the ridge and mountains, or flat on the ground on a crest of ridge or mountain,” noted Corporal Polley.

Reilly’s battery opened fire from its position in the front of the brigade. The enemy guns replied, “knocking out a man here and there,” according to Private A. C. Sims of the 1st Texas. John Wilkerson of the 3rd Arkansas could look down the line “and see our men knocked out constantly … I don’t know how long we were held there under fire, but the time seemed endless,” he recalled. Private John West noted that the “infernal machines came tearing and whirring through the ranks with a most demoralizing tendency.” The losses were heaviest in the 4th Texas, which lost fifteen men to a single shell. Captain Decimus Barziza of that regiment found that these cannonades were exceedingly difficult for the men because “one has time to reflect upon the danger, and the utter helplessness of his present condition. The men are all flat on the ground, keeping their places in ranks, and as a shell is heard, generally try to sink themselves into the earth.” At the height of the shelling, a private stood up and, moving to the front of the 5th Texas, offered a prayer. Seeing the effect of this cannon fire, General Robertson moved the men to a safer location and ordered them to lie down. Colonel Manning (3rd Arkansas) calmed his men by walking among them, quietly saying, “Steady men, steady.”

General Hood ordered them to charge the enemy and take the heights at about 5:00 P.M. Colonel Phillip Work of the 1st Texas pointed to his regiment’s flag and yelled, “Follow the Lone Star Flag to the top of the mountain!” Almost immediately, commands to “Forward-Guide Right-March!” were heard, and off they went. The Federal artillery fire now increased, causing the line to move faster. As the brigade advanced, Robertson ordered it to throw down a rail fence in its front. Riding forward, he yelled, “We’re going in there, men. There’s a rail fence down there on the road. Grab it by the bottom rail and heave.” With this obstruction out of the way, the men swept across Emmitsburg Road. As the line rushed forward, it encountered a skirmish line composed of the tough 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters (Ward’s Brigade, Birney’s Division), who took their toll on the attackers. Private Mark Smither of the 5th Texas wrote home after the battle that “our men tumbl[ed] out of ranks at each step, knocked over by the Enemy’s sharpshooters who lined the side of the mountain.”

The brigade almost immediately ran into problems. After the war, Robertson complained that Law started his charge prematurely, “a full mile from the enemy’s line of battle.” Because Law’s Brigade had a head start and was moving so fast, Robertson’s men had to go from quickstep to a trot to keep up with the Alabamians. Another problem was Hood’s orders to Robertson, which were to “keep my right well closed on Brigadier-General Law’s left, and to let my left rest on the Emmitsburg Pike.” As his line of battle rushed forward, Robertson realized that Emmitsburg Road “[bore] sharply to the left … while Law on my right bore to the right.” Robertson knew that his brigade was too small to cover the desired space. Colonel Manning’s 3rd Arkansas stubbornly held his regiment’s left on Emmitsburg Road, while the 5th Texas linked up with Law’s Brigade on the right. The 4th Texas aligned with the latter regiment, but the next regiment in line, the 1st Texas, aligned with the right of the 3rd Arkansas. This caused a yawning gap to form in the middle of the brigade. Despite the fact that Robertson explained in his report that the “separation of my regiments … was remedied as promptly as the numerous stone and rail fences … would allow,” in reality, the two wings fought independently for the remainder of the day. Robertson admitted this later in his report, indicating that he tried to send the left wing to the assistance of the right, but when he realized that it was too heavily engaged, he tried to move the 4th and 5th Texas to the left. However, that too was impossible, as these two regiments had already encountered the enemy. He did not mention that the gap was partially filled by the arrival of the 44th and 48th Alabama (Law’s Brigade). Realizing that he could not supervise both diverging wings, Robertson sent a message to Law, asking him to look after the 4th and 5th Texas, while he stayed with the left wing. Equally concerning to Robertson was the fact that McLaws’s Division had not advanced on his left.

The left wing probably engaged the enemy first, just south of the Wheatfield. With the 3rd Arkansas on the left, in the Rose Woods, and the 1st Texas on the right, the two regiments swept forward. According to Colonel Phillip Work, Company I of the 4th Texas became separated from its regiment during the charge and joined the 1st Texas. The fact that both flanks hung in the air did not seem to bother either regimental commander at this time. Up ahead were regiments from Ward’s Brigade (Birney’s Division, III Corps). With a yell, the two regiments charged the Federal line, which opened fire. A volley suddenly tore into the 3rd Arkansas’s vulnerable left flank. The 17th Maine of de Trobriand’s Brigade (Birney’s Division) had just sprinted to a stone wall on the edge of the Wheatfield to cut down the 3rd Arkansas’s left flank. Colonel Manning ran to the left and ordered the three companies there to change position to face this new threat. But the din of battle was so great that none heard his command, so Manning had to physically push the men into position. Up against the 86th New York, 20th Indiana, and 99th Pennsylvania of Ward’s Brigade in his front, and the 17th Maine on its left flank, Manning wisely broke off the attack and pulled his men back to safety. He stretched out his regiment to about double its original length, hoping that he would find the vulnerable flank of the enemy, and charged again, but the results were the same. The 3rd Arkansas’s repulses are easy to understand, given that its 479 men were up against about 1300 of the enemy.

Coming up on the right of the 3rd Arkansas, the 1st Texas was exposed to a devastating artillery fire from Smith’s battery on Houck’s Ridge. According to Private A. C. Sims of the 1st Texas, “we loaded and fired, the front rank on their knees and the rear standing.” They found a measure of safety when they reached a stone wall at the base of the triangular field. Fortunately for the Texans, Smith’s cannon could not depress their barrels enough to fire into them as they crouched behind the wall. The Texans opened fire on Smith’s gunners and silenced the battery. The men now jumped over the wall and dashed toward the guns. All was confusion. First the men heard orders to retreat, which the regiment began to do. Then the order was quickly countermanded. “No one seemed to know whence it came, nor from whom,” recalled Private James Bradfield. “It cost us dearly, for as we lay in close range of their now double lines, the enemy poured a hail of bullets on us, and in a few minutes a number of our men were killed or wounded.” The 124th New York closely watched these events while stationed atop Houck’s Ridge. According to Captain Charles Weygant of the regiment, the Texans advanced to within fifty yards of the battery, when the Federal troops opened fire. The “crash of riflery [sic] perceptibly thinned their ranks and brought them to a stand … it seemed to paralyze their whole line.” The Texans soon recovered, and continued forward.

Upon the command of its officers, the 124th New York let out a cheer and charged into the 1st Texas, driving it back about two hundred yards to a rail fence. Here the Texans rallied and held their ground, inflicting terrible losses on the New Yorkers. Help was on the way, as Benning’s veteran brigade moved up behind the Texans and opened fire on the New Yorkers, forcing them back to their original position on Houck’s Ridge. Not knowing that the 1st Texas was in front of them, the 20th Georgia opened fire. The 1st Texas’s flag bearer quickly moved to an open area and waved his flag until the firing stopped.

Colonel Work (1st Texas) was initially relieved when the 15th Georgia arrived to support his regiment. This relief quickly changed to frustration, as the Georgians barreled forward and “commingled” with his troops. Despite the efforts of both commanding officers, the regiments could not be separated and fought most of the day together. With the threat from the 124th New York dissipated, both regiments stormed toward Smith’s battery on Houck’s Ridge. Private James Bradfield insisted that no orders to charge were given. “Without awaiting orders, every man became his own commander and sprang forward toward the top of the hill at full speed.” The charge was successful, and several of Smith’s guns were captured. During this melee, the two commingled regiments were joined by the 20th Georgia and the 44th Alabama (Law’s Brigade), who took on the 124th New York, 4th Maine, and 99th Pennsylvania, often in hand-to-hand combat.

Over to the left, Colonel Manning’s 3rd Arkansas was still not making any progress. General Robertson now ordered Colonel Work to leave two companies on Houck’s Ridge and move the rest of his regiment to the left to support the 3rd Arkansas. Manning was also relieved to see the 11th and 59th Georgia of Anderson’s Brigade form on his endangered left flank. Just at that moment, a shell exploded almost in Manning’s face, knocking him senseless. Despite these reinforcements, the Federal troops in this sector were just too strong to be displaced, and every attack failed. The persistence of these attacks caused the 3rd Arkansas to lose more men than any other regiment in the brigade, save one. Eventually, the growing pressure on the Federal line was so great that Ward’s Brigade and the 17th Maine were finally forced to fall back.

The first-person accounts of the 1st Texas survivors are confusing after this point. There is, however, ample evidence from the 15th Georgia that two regiments continued to advance to the Wheatfield, where they slugged it out with the newly arrived 5th New Hampshire of Cross’s Brigade (Caldwell’s Division, II Corps), but were forced back. The two regiments were later pushed farther back by the arrival of Brooke’s Brigade of the same division. Worried about his ability to withdraw his regiment, Colonel Work ordered the color bearer and several men to maintain their position, while the rest of the regiment was ordered to the rear. It did not work out like Work had intended, as the men refused to leave their beloved flag. These men continued to fire away at the newly arrived Federal reinforcements. Soon after, the 1st Texas and the 3rd Arkansas were ordered to Devil’s Den on the right, where they opened fire on the Federal troops on Little Round Top. One soldier from the 3rd Arkansas merrily sang, “Now let the wide world wag as it will, I’ll be gay and happy still!” as he methodically loaded his gun and fired it at the Federal troops on the hill. The men replenished their supplies of ammunition by rifling through the pouches of fallen soldiers.

While the left of the line was engaged with several regiments from Ward’s and de Trobriand’s Brigades, the right of the line, consisting of the 4th and 5th Texas, drove toward Little Round Top. To the right of the 5th Texas was the 4th Alabama of Law’s Brigade. About a quarter mile from Little Round Top they encountered skirmishers from the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, who occupied thick undergrowth. So tenacious were the skirmishers that the Texans had to stop and reform their ranks before charging. Although the skirmish line was finally pushed back, it bought valuable time for the Federals. All the while, artillery played upon the ranks of the Texans, causing many casualties. Advancing another two hundred yards, Major John Bane of the 4th Texas believed that he had finally encountered the Union line. These troops were probably from the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters making another stand, along with skirmishers from Vincent’s Brigade. The men leaped a low stone fence and rushed the sharpshooters, forcing them to retreat.

The three regiments were now alone at the base of Little Round Top. Near the summit, the men could see the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, and 83rd Pennsylvania (Vincent’s Brigade) taking cover behind rocks. The two Texas regiments were aligned directly in front of the first two regiments. Moving slowly up the hill, the officers found it increasingly difficult to keep anything that resembled an orderly line of battle. The hill was just too steep and studded with numerous large rocks and other obstructions. “The huge rocks form [ed] defiles through which not more than 3 or 4 men could pass abreast, thus breaking up our alignment and rendering its reformation impossible,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel K. Bryan of the 5th Texas in his official report. So steep were some areas that West (4th Texas) thought that “a mountain goat would have reveled” in them. Still, the men moved on. Halting his men, Bryan ordered them to open fire on the enemy. The Federal troops returned the fire, which Bryan likened to “being showered like hail upon us.”

Private J. Mark Smither of the 5th Texas wrote home after the battle that “nothing daunted … our boys … until they had arrived within 25 steps of the works on finding that the plan of scaling the heights was impossible, for we could hardly have gone over them if there had been no Yankees there.” Private William Fletcher noted that “we stopped advancing, without orders as far as I was concerned, as I had heard none.” Smither related how his comrades “immediately took shelter, Indian fashion, behind rocks and trees and commenced popping away at the Yankees whenever they showed their heads … the Yankees … pouring volley after volley down on us with frightful effect.” The men were in an impossible situation. They could not advance, and to raise their heads invited having them shot off by the Federal troops above them. Jonathan Stevens of the same regiment honestly recalled after the war that “for the first time in the history of the war, our men began to waver. We [were] suffering terribly.”

Realizing that they were not making progress, but taking additional casualties with each moment they remained on the side of the hill, the officers pulled their men back to the woods at its base. According to Major J. C. Rogers, who took command of the 5th Texas after its colonel and lieutenant colonel had been wounded, he pulled his men back only when the withdrawal of the other regiments left his flanks unguarded.

Another charge was ordered, but it too met with defeat. Three regiments charging a steep hill against a similar size force, protected by cover, is folly. Yet the Texans and Alabamians never gave up. The veterans of Robertson’s Brigade realized an impossible situation when they saw it, and began streaming back down the slope, despite their officers’ orders to “halt.” While resting in the woods, the 48th Alabama arrived and formed on the left of the 4th Texas. Another charge was ordered. This time, four Confederate regiments stormed Vincent’s three well-positioned ones. The 5th Texas stormed up the hill, getting farther than it had on its first two attempts. A courier for General Law scrambled up the hill and told Major Rogers, “General Law presents his compliments and says hold the place at all hazards.” Rogers roared back, “Compliments, hell! Wiho wants compliments in such a damned place as this? Go back and ask General Law if he expects me to hold the world in check with the Fifth Texas Regiment.” Rogers apparently obeyed the order, for Private Val Giles saw him mount a log and “begin a Fourth of July speech. He was a little ahead of time, for that was about six thirty on the evening of July 2nd.” All was chaos. “Every fellow was his own general. Private soldiers gave commands as loud as the officers. Nobody paid attention to either,” recalled Giles. Actually, the din of battle was so loud that few could hear beyond a few feet.

Polley explained the hellish conditions on the hill:

Their fire [Federal artillery] and that of our own batteries, and the constant roar and rattle of thousands of muskets, made the earth tremble beneath our feet, while the fierce, angry shriek, the strident swirl of grape and canister as they tore hurtling through the air and broke like a wave from the ocean of death upon that devoted spot, the hissing bullets, and their “spat” as they struck rock, tree or human flesh—all this, with the shouts and imprecations, the leaping to and fro and from boulder to boulder of powder-begrimed men, seemingly gone wild with rage and excitement, created a scene of such indescribable, awe-inspiring confusion.

This attack should have ended like the others, except for the fact that the 48th Alabama appeared to have flanked Vincent’s right-most regiment, the 16th Michigan, while the 4th Texas hit its front. Before long, the Michiganders were streaming to the rear. It looked like the Texans and Alabamians would finally take the hill. Colonel Strong Vincent rushed over to rally his men, but was mortally wounded as he shouted encouragement while standing on a large rock.

Help was on the way. Before the Confederates could exploit the breach in the Federal line, the 140th New York (Weed’s Brigade, Ayres’s Division, V Corps) arrived and smashed into the Texans and Alabamians. The fight was now at close quarters, but the Confederates were at a disadvantage and forced to fall back yet again. The officers could see that further attacks were futile, as their men were exhausted, their ranks were decimated, the Federal position was all but impregnable, and enemy reinforcements were now arriving.

A bitter Smither told his mother, “now it was to be expected that our men having tried it and seeing the impossibility of taking the place would have refused to have gone in again, but no they tried it a second and third time and formed to go in a 4th time when night came on forced us to abandon the fight.” Another private from the regiment, Rufus Felder, wrote home that “it seemed like madness in Lee to have attempted to storm such a position. He came very near loosing [sic] his whole army by it.” The 5th Texas had the dubious honor of having sustained the brigade’s greatest losses—52%.

Nightfall ended the bloodletting. Fletcher recalled orders to prepare to charge the hill once again. “The order shook me, and my feelings were indescribable; in fact, I had a bad case of cowardly horror.” Common sense prevailed and the attack was never launched. One of the casualties was General Robertson, who was wounded above his knee and unable to walk.

At about 2:00 A.M. on July 3, the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas moved to the right, where they rejoined the two Texas regiments. The exhausted men threw themselves down in front of Little Round Top and caught whatever sleep they could, given the continual moans and groans of the wounded. Fearing an attack by the enemy, the men were awakened to erect breastworks. By dawn, Major John Bane of the 4th Texas could report that they stood two feet high. The brigade remained in this position through July 3. The only event of any importance was the skirmishing in their front. Several men were killed or wounded during the sharp-shooting that occurred during the day. Several were also wounded during the grand cannonade that preceded Pickett’s charge, when, according to Fletcher, “the guns were not elevated enough and were doing fine work on our position. The bursting and flying pieces of shell and rock put us in a panic condition.”

At about 3:00 P.M., Colonel Work was ordered to move his 1st Texas south to help repel an anticipated cavalry charge. As the column approached the Bushman house, the men were ordered to tear down part of a fence that obstructed their passage. Proceeding another two hundred yards or so, the regiment took position behind a stone wall on the edge of the Bushman Woods. Here the men deployed in one line. Given the large area to cover and the losses the day before, Sims called it a “skirmish line.” Captain George Hillyer from the 9th Georgia (Anderson’s Brigade) noted that the 1st Texas did not have “men enough to have more than about one to every five or six steps.” Several units were thrown out to the left and right to protect the flanks. On the left, some of the men took down a “staked and ridered” fence and rebuilt it, attaching it to the stone wall. Reilly’s battery also joined the regiment, deploying about 250 yards in the Texans’s rear. Hardly had the men completed building the breastwork than the 1st West Virginia of Farnsworth’s cavalry brigade charged. One unknown Texan recorded in his diary that the charge began about 4:30 P.M.

Thomas McCarthy vividly described the Federal cavalry charge:

We formed behind a Bunch of Timber in our front between it and us, being an open field for Two Hundred yards [.] The ground trembled as they came, they rode down our skirmishers & charged us, and in a few seconds were on us, our Boys arose and pitched in to them. They went through us cutting right & left [.] The Firing for a few minutes was front, rear & towards the flanks [.] In a few minutes, great numbers of riderless horses were galloping around & and others with riders on were trying to surrender, a fusilade of shot 7 shell from Rileys [sic] Battery passed a couple of feet above our heads.

Private W. T. White of the 1st Texas noted that “they formed line of battle in plain view of us and charged. We held our fire until they were within fifty or sixty yards of us, when, taking deliberate aim, we fired on them, bringing down many men and horses. Instead of continuing the assault, which probably would have resulted in our capture, they retreated to their original starting point, reformed, and recharged, with the same result as before.” Many of the cavalrymen continued their charge. “All of the boys had fired off their pieces, and Yankees would not give them time to load, so the boys were using the butts of their guns.” Private James Hendrick agreed, stating that some of the Federal cavalrymen came “up [with] in ten steps of the regiment. Some of the regiment knocked them off of their horses with rocks. We killed a great many of them and captured over one-hundred prisoners. They could not break our lines.”

The reprieve was short-lived, for within a few minutes, the 18th Pennsylvania galloped toward the Texans’s position. The result was the same, and many horses trotted away with empty saddles. Private White noted, “having repulsed the second charge, we felt that we could almost whip all the cavalry the enemy had, and from that time on, for about two hours, they continued making demonstrations against us.”

During the evening of July 3, the brigade was ordered to move by the right flank to its original jump off position on Warfield Ridge. Here the men remained through July 4, finally retreating from Gettysburg late that night.

One of the toughest brigades in either army, Robertson’s Brigade was not effectively utilized on July 2. The problems began almost immediately, when the brigade broke into two separate and independent wings, fighting separately throughout the remainder of the day. Although outnumbered, the left wing fought well and eventually captured three cannon from Smith’s battery. The right also did as well as could be expected, given that it was assigned the impossible task of storming Little Round Top. That the two Texas regiments almost captured the heights is a testament to their fighting abilities.

Swedes in other Militaries

Swedish instructors in white tropical helmets (at left and right) training artillerymen of the Persian Gendarmerie.

In Viking times there were Scandinavian warriors, Varangians, in the Byzantine lifeguard. Since that time Swedes have served in many other foreign armed forces. They have done so for economic gain as well as for the sake of military experience, to escape boredom, and even some through forced enrollment. With the coming of the 1800s political ideas became an important factor.

From the tenth century until the thirteenth century warriors from the Scandinavian lands traveled to Miklagård, the Viking name for the Byzantine city of Constantinople, today’s Turkish Istanbul. They wanted to be Varangians and be enrolled into the prestigious Väringjalid (the Varangian guard). Scandinavians, with their exotic weapons, were seen as the best guarantee for the security of the Byzantine leadership. In Persia (Iran) between 1910 and 1920 and in Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930s, Swedes came to be seen with the same great trust and confidence as the Varangians had been. Before we report on the twentieth century Varangians, however, we need to give an overview of their predecessors during the previous three centuries.

Up to 1814, the last time Sweden as a nation was at war, Swedes in the armed forces of foreign states were not an unknown phenomena, but because Sweden’s own military was more active in that period, there were fewer Swedes who joined the military of other states. In those days it was necessary to occasionally resort to the enrollment of thousands of German, Scottish, Irish, and Swiss mercenaries to reinforce the Swedish Army. Paradoxically enough, even at this time, Swedish units could be hired out by the Swedish Regent to foreign princes during a lull in the Swedish campaigns!

A rather exotic example of a Swede who himself chose to serve in foreign uniform during Sweden’s Great Power epoch is Nils Matsson Kiöping, who in 1650 went into the service of the Persian Shah and took part in his campaign against Afghanistan.

During the following century over 400 Swedish officers fought under the French flag. In the beginning they were mainly Swedish prisoners of war who in accordance with the custom of the time were offered to change prisoner status for war service. Later young Swedish officers came voluntarily to France to join a Swedish-led regiment there, that from 1742 was called “Royal Suédois” (Royal Swedish). At that time France led the world in military theory and the regiment also offered ample opportunities for practicing the art of war. Royal Suédois participated in the battle at Gibraltar in 1782, that strangely enough, was part of the American Revolutionary War.

Two Royal Suédois colonels were even more involved in the war that led to the foundation of the United States of America. Colonel Curt von Stedingk distinguished himself in close combat during the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1779. The Colonel and Count Axel von Fersen fought from 1780 to 1782 on the American side in the staff of French General de Rochambeau. The count then marched over 1,000 kilometers with the French forces in America. In October 1781 he took part in the capture of Yorktown. As General de Rochambeau’s personal interpreter he worked with General George Washington on three occasions. Today, however, he is more famous for his relationship with French Queen Marie Antoinette. Both von Fersen and von Stedingk were honored by General Washington himself with the hereditary Order of the Cincinnati.

Some 250 Swedish colleagues of the two colonels fought on the American side in French, Dutch, and local uniforms, to a great extent out of sympathy for the American rebels in their conflict with the British Empire.

Georg von Döbeln, future Swedish national hero, was also on his way to the American Revolutionary War, but the ship he sailed with changed its destination en route and sailed off to Asia. He thus had to content himself with fighting the British in India! During this same period at least 2,000 Swedes served as officers and crew within the Royal Navy of Britain and the British Merchant Fleet. It was not as a result of great sympathy for the politics of the British that led the Swedes to these ships, however, but rather the pay as well as professional interest.

The new category of Swedes in foreign war service—the ideologically motivated—appeared most clearly in the two Danish-German wars of 1848 to 1850 and 1864 when university students entered the battlefield under idealism’s banner. In the war fought from 1848 to 1850 some 260 Swedes fought on the side of Denmark. Barely half were career military. In the second phase of the clash, in 1864, almost twice as many Swedes served, and only one-fourth of them were military men. Not a single Swede is known to have fought on the German side in these wars.

During the Danish-German wars there was a craze for Scandinavia, called “Scandinavianism,” centered around Scandinavian history and unity. It was a deciding factor for many Swedes to sign up. This romantic idea of history is reflected very clearly in the medal that was struck in 1850 for former Swedish volunteers. It had a Viking motif on both the front and back side of the medal. In the second of the Danish-German wars the Swedish and Norwegian volunteers were assembled into a special unit called Strövkåren (Wandering corps). One of the Corps’ two companies was led by the future, very influential, Chief of the Swedish General Staff, Hugo Raab. A remnant of the strong Scandinavianist spirit of the mid-nineteenth century can be heard in the Swedish national Anthem words “I want to live, I want to die in Norden” (Norden being synonymous with the Nordic countries, that is, Scandinavia plus Finland and Iceland).

Even more Swedes participated in the Civil War in America. Over 3,500 served in the Union Army while several hundred were with the Confederates. These statistics, however, ought to be seen in the light of the fact that almost all were Swedish immigrants and many of them were offered rather impressive sums for enlistment. Forty Swedish officers, sergeants, and cadets did leave Sweden after the start of the war to join the military forces of the Northern States, though, among them a captain with the Dalarna Regiment, Ernst von Vegesack. He was much appreciated on the US side of the Atlantic and was made a brigadier general there (as was fellow Swede Charles Stohlbrand). After having become an American military hero at Antietam and Gettysburg, Ernst von Vegesack returned to Sweden and became chief of a military district.

The southern states also had two Swedish-American brigadier generals. Roger “Old Flintlock” Hanson was a Confederate brigadier of Swedish stock. Hanson commanded the 1st Kentucky Orphan Brigade and was mortally wounded on the last day of the battle of Stone’s River (Murfreesboro). Charles Dahlgren raised the 3d Brigade, Army of Mississippi, by his own means. When the war ended his slaves were taken from him and set free and he was not able to retain his plantation. Things went a lot better for his brother, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, who chose to fight for the opposite side!

The total number of Swedes killed in action during the American Civil War is not known. Three of them are forever honored in Sweden, however, at the Military Academy Chapel in the Karlberg Castle, because they had completed training at that institution.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 attracted a group of Swedes to sign up for France. Their total number has not been ascertained, but they were perhaps a dozen or two. What is known about them is that several of them were veterans of the Danish-German war of 1864 and at least three of them were career officers. Only a single Swedish volunteer on the German (Prussian) side has been identified.

In the next war with Swedish participation there were two new phenomena which we rather associate with the epoch of the World Wars: concentration camps and commando troops. Both of these innovations saw the light of day not in Europe during WWII, but four decades earlier in South Africa. In the beginning of October 1899, immediately after the start of the so-called Boer War in South Africa between Great Britain and the two Boer Republics, a group of Scandinavian guest workers, seamen, and immigrants in Pretoria decided to organize a common free corps against the British. This initiative was led by a Swedish railway engineer, Christer Uggla. A total of 113 men joined, of which forty-five were Swedes, twenty-four Danes, eighteen Finns, thirteen Norwegians, and thirteen “others.” Johannes Flygare, the son of a missionary, was appointed captain of the unit. Even though he was a civilian, he had some war experience from the Zulu War. His deputy was First Lieutenant Erik Stålberg from Sundsvall, the only Swede on the Boer side with proper military leadership training—he was a Swedish first sergeant.

The Corps was organized like most Boer units; as mounted infantry. The Transvaal Government supplied ox-drawn baggage trains, provisions, weapons, and ammunition. The participants were promised citizenship and some form of payment in the event of victory. Lieutenant Stålberg got a week to teach the men the essentials of military life. The majority of the Scandinavians had no experience with weapons or even in horsemanship.

The Scandinavian Corps carried out sabotage against the railroad lines and on 24 October hastily moved to storm the fortified city of Mafeking, where the defense was led by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, later the founder of the scout movement. The attack failed because of the lack of combat experience, and because of the machine guns of the British. Shortly thereafter, however, the Scandinavian volunteers were able to seize a British forward position outside the city, but they were unable to exploit this success.

At the end of November 1899 the Corps was sent to the south together with other Boer troops to stop a brigade of British elite troops—Scottish Regiments—on the way to relieve the besieged city of Kimberley. The Boers positioned themselves along the high ground called Magersfontein, to block the British advance. In the evening of 10 December most of the Scandinavians were placed a kilometer from the high ground in order to guard the main defensive force from a surprise attack. When the Boer General Piet Cronjé got information at three o’clock in the morning that the British were on the march directly towards his position, he ordered all his forward guard posts to be drawn back. The word did not reach the Scandinavians, however, and the result was a minor modern Thermopylae.

Despite an overwhelming superiority of forces and a monopoly on the machine guns it took the British several hours to take the Scandinavian position. There they found two who were not wounded, nineteen dead, and twenty-two wounded of whom a third were dying. In front of the Scandinavian position lay 279 dead and wounded British, mainly Scots. The British found it very hard to believe that the Scandinavians had so few men. In fact, they had had only seven more, who had succeeded in fighting through to the main position.

The remarkable stand of the Scandinavians was the result of an error. Had the order to retreat reached them they would presumably not have stood their ground, but this small battle contributed to stopping the British advance. That this did not change the outcome of the war was considered wholly unimportant, at least in Sweden. A hero cult arose around the Corps. The Swedish newspaper, Social-Demokraten, commented on the official Boer report about the Magersfontein front, “War is a calamity, wicked, but it would be foolish hypocrisy to not confess that we read with joy the lines…that deal with our Nordic countrymen.” Even The Times of London respectfully described the enemy Scandinavian Corps.

One of about ten Swedes on the other, that is, British, side during the Boer War was career officer Erland Mossberg. Completely in the spirit of the times it was Mossberg who took the initiative to erect a monument for the Scandinavian Corps—his former enemies—at the place where their greatest action took place.20 The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet supported the project. A seven-meter-high granite Old Norse Memorial Stone (Menhir) was presented by a Finnish company and decorated with a runiform ornament, an engraved valkyrie. Four smaller stones were placed around the pillar. The names of the fallen are listed on the warrior shields. The stone stands there to this day, on the hill called Magersfontein.

The Boer War, with the Scandinavian Thermopylae as a climax, captivated the Swedes and the action blended an admiration for “Swedish war bravado” with a broad European enthusiasm for the Boers, an anti-British sentiment, and a sense of Nordic unity. But the most significant aspect of the Scandinavian Corps is that not a single Swedish professional officer (not even a former one) joined the Boers. The Corps was made up of Swedish civilians (albeit one a reserve officer) who were sympathetic towards Boer Nationalism. Moreover, Swedish women, for the first time, appeared in foreign war service. Three South African War Participant medals were given to Swedish nurses who belonged to the Scandinavian Ambulance. The ambulance followed the Scandinavian Corps and was virtually part of it. The ambulance personnel were not only fired upon, but also taken prisoner by the British.

The contrast between the Swedish officers in the Royal Suédois and the amateurs of the Scandinavian Corps is great, but both came to have successors during World War I and II.

Polish Air Personnel in RAF Service

Whatever negative feelings Medhurst, Boyle, Sholto Douglas and the others may have harboured towards the Polish Air Force in the desperate summer of 1940 were substantially mollified by events come the winter. All of the Polish crews proved themselves worthy of allied status ten times over during the Battle of Britain, and though little criticisms remained – such as their tendency to monopolise the radios during combat flying – by 1941 all of the serious doubts had been swept away. Indeed, even in the summer, attitudes had been changing noticeably. At first Medhurst had insisted that the ‘French’ and ‘British’ Poles were not to be mixed in squadrons if at all possible, mainly to protect the latter from defeatist influences, but Gp Capt Leslie Hollinghurst, the Deputy Director of Organisation, recorded that: ‘as a result of closer acquaintance with the “new” Poles, they [Air Intelligence] have decided that they are not such bad fellows after all and have withdrawn their objection’. This view was reinforced during the autumn of 1940 when most of the senior RAF commanders and politicians from both countries conducted high-profile visits to the Polish stations, presenting medals, giving speeches, and generally talking up a relationship which was settling into a satisfactory condition.

Although the alliance was stabilising in military terms, the Poles still had two political issues which were not fully resolved from their point of view. The first was British assistance in establishing recruitment schemes abroad so that their very healthy core stock of air personnel would not be diminished by combat losses and unavoidable demobilisation due to age or disability. The second was the perpetual quest for independent status. The question of recruitment will be dealt with in Chapter Three, primarily because the Polish experience was broadly in line with that of the Czechoslovaks in that both groups suffered when they tried to export their enthusiasm to a largely disinterested North America. But, disappointing though these efforts ultimately were, the all-important need for prestige drove both of them into head-on confrontations with the British over the question of independence. It was a battle which the Poles eventually won, and one which the Czechs lost with great indignity.

Even by late 1940, the British were still reluctant to discontinue the practice of duplicating middle- and high-ranking posts within all the allied air forces (a not unreasonable decision considering the language difficulties and lack of a thorough knowledge of RAF practice on behalf of the allies), but this did not slow the political momentum behind Polish desires to achieve fully independent status. Success in this quest would be measured in various ways: (1) an agreement between the two nations that would formally enshrine the bilateral aspects of the alliance; (2) the creation of a separate Polish Air Force Inspectorate that would have full powers in the field of promotion, selection, training and administration; (3) equal, or at least substantial, representation at strategic level. This last point should not be confused with the creation of an independent stratum of command regarding missions and routine flying, for the Poles, as junior allies, were always prepared to follow the British lead when it came to active operations. Rather, as with their earlier requests for a seat on the Supreme War Council, the Poles felt entitled to a say in what course the war took, especially regarding operations or plans which affected the home territory. It was to be an unfulfilled objective, partly for political reasons on behalf of the British, many of which surfaced in the last years of the conflict, and partly because with the entry of the USA into the war after Pearl Harbor, that power automatically put many of the lesser groups into the shade, assuming an ever-greater dominance in strategic affairs which even Churchill had difficulty in resisting at times.

In 1940, however, no such obstacles existed, and it fell to the Polish High Command and political representatives to make the best possible case for the creation of independent armed forces. Indeed, all of the European allied powers felt entitled to independence in one form or another, and more often than not the air contingents were the focal point of their efforts. For its part, the War Office had no great objections to forming Army units which reflected the national character of each ally, but we should bear in mind that in 1940 there was no land war and it was relatively easy to create free-standing organisations which could, if need be, be smoothly integrated with the home Army. That was not the case in the air. Given the crises of that summer, and the obvious implications that air power would henceforth be a major strategic tool, the RAF felt wholly justified in its insistence that it retained as much control as possible over the allied groups. Equally, each allied government felt to a greater or lesser degree that the air units stood as elite representatives of their own national freedom and their determination to resist the invader, therefore the potential for conflict was vast.

As we have seen, the agreement to split the Polish air personnel between Britain and France was a separate issue dealt with in October 1939. However, the Polish terms of service were another matter, and the British side-stepped any unnecessary complications by simply rewording the Anglo-Polish naval agreement which legally formalised the collaboration at sea. This was not enough for the Poles, for in essence it meant that they were seen and described as an associated power simply assisting the British government with its war against Germany, when what they wanted, quite reasonably, was a level of international standing much higher than that. Even before the attack on France, Sikorski had been campaigning for greater recognition for the Polish presence to be embodied in the military agreements. He tried first with Chamberlain – meeting with little success – and then Churchill, who demonstrated that although the spirit was willing, the influence was weak. As far as Sikorski was concerned, Polish sovereignty rested largely upon the process of officer promotion and selection – a power which the British intended to reserve for themselves. As things stood in May 1940, the RAF had first and last say over who would receive commissions in the Polish section of the RAFVR – something which Sikorski strongly rejected. The British argument rested upon the constitutional point that only the King, ‘as advised by the Air Council, can promote officers belonging to that force’. Furious with this ill-judged and almost feudal declaration, Sikorski complained directly to Churchill, who put pressure on the Foreign Office to intervene. Within days the Air Ministry had relented, but not entirely, for the subsequent re-draft of the agreement merely permitted promotion to be considered by a joint board of Polish and British representatives, with the Poles having the final approval.

The air war over Britain that summer slightly delayed the negotiations leading towards the finished document, but by August all the outstanding issues had been resolved, or at least were in a state of compromise. The Poles had initially pushed for Polish military law to be applied in all cases, but this was refused by the Air Ministry with the not unsound argument that it would be unworkable where both nationalities were serving in the same squadron or on the same station. The compromise here was to insist that RAF law would apply at all times when a Polish individual was serving with the RAF in any capacity, and although in theory he would be subject to Polish military law, when the terms of Polish military law and Royal Air Force law differed, the latter would prevail. Furthermore, all disciplinary courts would consist of an equal number of British and Polish officers as judges, but with a British officer serving as president of the court and holding the casting vote. On the question of promotion, it was decided that all recommendations were to be generated by unit commanders then forwarded to the Polish High Command by the RAF for the former’s approval, but only if the RAF agreed with the recommendation in the first place. As a nod to Polish sovereignty, however, all men were permitted to take an oath of allegiance to the Polish Republic, and the agreement provided for the creation of an independent Polish Inspectorate theoretically responsible for all matters relating to the force, though in practice it represented the interface between the two air ministries, the primary channel of communication through which the RAF could monitor the condition of the Polish Air Force and, perhaps more importantly, the means by which the RAF could make its wishes known. But the Poles, and to some extent the British too, had taken for granted the creation of a formal Inspectorate as early as March 1940. In any case, it served both parties to have such a body in place: from the Polish side, it enabled them to monitor and maintain the development of the air force in exile, and from the British viewpoint, it relieved them of the burdensome task of day-to-day administration, allowing them to concentrate on the major issues of policy and deployment.

The first incumbent was Gen W.J. Kalkus, the existing head of the Inspectorate since September 1939, but when the transfers to Eastchurch were well under way, Polish requests to have him sent to Britain were at first rebuffed. The Directorate of Organisation was clearly displeased with the prospect of a senior commander viewing the shambles at Eastchurch, minuting Porri in March 1940, ‘[His visit] would not serve any useful purpose because any shortcomings that he might discover would certainly be well known to us’ – the implication being that the RAF could not stand before him covered in shame when as far as they were concerned they were only doing what was expected of them.

The attitudes changed when Davidson, the station commander at Eastchurch, supported the proposal and enlisted the help of the British Attaché in Paris. The latter described Kalkus as a man ‘with very pleasant manners’, the only serious drawback being that he spoke no English or French. Davidson concurred with this view, though he warned that the proposed Inspectorate might prove to be larger than imagined because the Poles had a few surplus officers which they wished to employ. However, the argument was clinched when the attaché added: ‘I should say that he is not a very strong man, and this impression is borne out by his nickname among his own people which is “the sheep in lion’s clothing”.’

This was more than enough to sway even the devout sceptics like Boyle who minuted all departments that Kalkus was clearly the man for the job, and that the creation of an Inspectorate within the RAFVR would ‘enhance the levels of control’ over the units in Britain. At a meeting in May, it was decided that Kalkus would be given the immediate rank of Air Commodore and have a staff of twelve, though there was still some foot-dragging over the powers he would be endowed with, and whether this would lead to a form of de facto independence by the back door. Davidson argued that the Inspectorate must be formed with all possible speed because the workload placed upon him was at times intolerable, and that the senior Polish officer, Capt Stachon, was forced to refer to his superiors in Paris before even the smallest decision could be taken. Then, in late May, AVM Paul Maltby, the AOC No. 24 (Training) Group, which shouldered most of the responsibility for the training programme at Eastchurch, wrote directly to the Air Council and complained about the expectations placed upon Davidson at Eastchurch:

[He] is becoming far too involved with all matters concerning the various Polish contingents in this country, no matter where they are stationed [and] he is being consulted not only by various branches of the Air Ministry and the Polish authorities, but even by politicians. I submit that it is quite beyond his capacity to command his station . . . if he is expected to act as an advisor on widespread policy matters at the same time.’

He closed by urging the creation of ‘some central authority’ at once, and henceforth all doubts were cast aside and Kalkus was formally installed at the beginning of June. If anything, this little episode demonstrates yet again that the British were totally unprepared for dealing with the Poles in any capacity, but also that any proposals for improving the situation had first to run the gauntlet of suspicion that by passing greater autonomy to the Polish High Command, the British would lose more of what little control they had to begin with.

The first Anglo-Polish Military Agreement was signed on 5 August 1940, with appropriate appendices covering the respective air, sea and land forces. Apart from defining the powers of the Polish Inspectorate, it also officially removed the entire contingent from the RAFVR and placed them under their own national banner. It went some way towards fulfilling Polish aspirations, but it had one crucial omission: it did not include any promise by the British to restore the territory of Poland once victory had been assured – something which did not pass unnoticed by the Poles. The preamble only committed the two governments ‘to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion’, a vague and slippery objective which meant that the British could avoid indelicate matters of territory and frontiers at the war’s end.

Furthermore, the Poles were not the only group whose postwar ambitions were kept at a distance by the British: the Czechoslovaks too were to discover that their new friends were inclined to shuffle and mumble when the question of ‘afterwards’ was raised, and it was even more galling to both these nations when the agreements with the other allied countries of Western Europe proudly proclaimed restoration and deliverance. This is one reason why the British preferred all of the national agreements to be kept secret between the contracting parties, and why they were never elevated to state treaties, for this would have meant parliamentary ratification, and therefore publicity. In short, although the various allied military agreements were, in the main, little more than carbon copies of each other, the essential differences lay in the amount of power each group had over its own forces, and what policies the British government intended to follow once the war had been won. Nevertheless, and perhaps wisely, the Poles did not seek further conflict over this matter, for had they done so they would have faced a wall of opposition from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. But in 1940, looking around at the grim state of the war, this was a minor point of contention compared to the very real business of getting on with the fighting.

In the years that followed, the Polish Air Force superbly demonstrated that getting on with the fighting was something it could do without prompting from the French, the British, or anyone else. By mid-1941, most of the doubts and suspicions of darker days had been dispelled by the sheer tenacity and determination of these men in exile, to the point where the RAF started to throw open hitherto shuttered doors to selected members of the Polish High Command. This still did not extend to what might be termed ‘secret information’ or strategic briefings, but when Sikorski requested that certain of his officers might serve for a time in Command or Group Headquarters so they might learn more about the central organisation of the RAF, both the DAFL and Portal (then the CAS) signalled their wholehearted concurrence. Polish officers were gradually seconded to British squadrons, and like senior officers in other allied forces, eventually placed in command of some of them.

The social dimension was also a positive one for the Poles. Zamoyski spends considerable time describing how attractive the Poles were to British women in the first half of the war, and there can be little doubt that the Polish airman or officer was very much an exotic creature until the arrival of the Americans in large numbers. But what he lacked in spending power, the Pole amply made up for in charm, ‘traditional’ values and sheer symbolism, for he represented merely by his existence in British uniform all that was mythically wonderful about Britain’s crusade against tyranny. The Czechoslovaks also enjoyed this backwash of sympathy, though perhaps their social acceptance was promoted by a pinch of guilt over the Munich affair. Men from both groups made friends easily in Britain; several hundred married British women. For a while, too, the Pole was a social accessory in the upper reaches of the British class system. The huge amount of radio and newspaper publicity generated by their successes in the air made a token Polish officer de rigueur at any cocktail party worth the name, and although things were to turn very sour indeed for the Poles by the war’s end, the eighteen months between the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor proved to be a happy hunting season for all the Slavs.

If the medals, the public acclaim and the sexual conquests were indicative of the bright side of the Polish exile, there were darker aspects which exercised the diplomatic skills of the politicians. The application of Polish military discipline raised some eyebrows in the service departments and Whitehall, for although the British were the final arbiters in matters of gross infringement, minor issues were dealt with at a local level and occasionally drew unfavourable comments regarding harsh treatment meted out to men who had for whatever reason managed to transgress the Polish codes of honour and service.

Part of the cause was the defeat of Poland itself, which led to an urgent need to rebuild and restore national pride through the service arms in exile. This led some Polish officers to interpret indolence, dissent or simply fatigue as evidence of cowardice or disloyalty, and there were examples of men being humiliated or punished for offences which would have attracted lesser reprimands in the British forces. The Air Ministry decided that this was a hangover from the pre-war days, declaring some of the older Polish officers to be ‘too rigid and inflexible in outlook’. In the early part of the war, the RAF applied pressure to the Polish High Command to transfer or reassign officers whose very presence gave rise to disciplinary problems in Polish squadrons, and they also adduced this conflict between ideals and codes of practice to explain much of the tension which had plagued the exiles in the Eastchurch era. Even as late as Christmas 1940, the British were still having difficulties integrating RAF officers into some Polish squadrons within the system of dual command, and it was not until the summer of 1941 that most of the problems had been resolved. By that time, the RAF had successfully collaborated with the Polish High Command to reduce or remove the small cohort of career officers whose enthusiasm for order had threatened the stability of some Polish squadrons.

The Polish air crews were unique among the European allies in exile because they alone were denied a triumphant return home at the end of the war. After nearly six years of bitter and intense fighting, their reward was to fall into the political abyss created by the sudden upsurge in tension between East and West, and as the major powers positioned themselves ready for a new confrontation, so the Poles were swept along virtually powerless to direct events.

They themselves were aware of what was happening – or likely to happen – as the war in Europe ended. A Polish forces magazine, Robotnik, published several letters from men who complained of anti-repatriation propaganda being spread by some officers. These scare tactics, generally consisting of blood-curdling warnings of deportation or internment by the communists, were interpreted by the Foreign Office as useful indications of the growing political divisions within the Polish forces, attitudes which had been slowly developing since January 1944, when in a meeting of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, at which a Polish representative was present, it became apparent that Poland would inevitably be occupied by Soviet forces after the defeat of Germany. ‘This had, not unnaturally, created a considerable commotion in Polish circles,’ ran a Foreign Office minute. ‘We had better deal with this dangerous rumour immediately. Our explanation would be that the Moscow Conference had a document before them – not subsequently agreed to – concerning the general administration of the liberated territories.’

The conference to which this rather unsettled note referred was the meeting of foreign ministers in the Soviet capital between 18 October and 30 October 1943. Their brief was to set the agenda for the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran at the end of November, and again the Polish government-in-exile tried in vain to have a voice. Polish–Soviet relations at this time were sour indeed. Stalin had used Polish outrage at the discovery of the massacre at Katyn to break off all diplomatic relations with the London group in April 1943, and by the end of that year the arrival of the Red Army in Polish territory was imminent. The Poles attempted to persuade Churchill to take up their case with Stalin, but the former was outflanked and isolated at Tehran by the other two leaders, and the latter had nothing to lose by ignoring the desires of the Polish government in London. In the event, the Tehran Conference decided that Poland would be shifted westwards on the map, with Stalin gaining enormous territories in the east, and the Poles being compensated by German land in the west. At Tehran, the carve-up of Poland had begun in earnest; in fact, the eventual dismemberment of all of Eastern Europe was set in motion there. When the news reached London, the Polish government redoubled its efforts to have the Western allies stand firm, but it was always going to be a fruitless exercise. The overwhelming need to have Stalin continue the war in the east and not make a separate peace with Hitler was enough incentive for Britain and America to petition him with little more than vague hopes for a sunny Polish future; anything concrete would have been waved aside. Furthermore, Churchill’s scheme for a second front rooted in a Balkan invasion was also scuppered at Tehran. Such an expedition might have brought some relief to Poland, or at least the troops of Western allies on her soil, but it was never to be. On the night of 3 January 1944, Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier, and there they were to remain for a long time.

Rumours of the talks in Moscow and Tehran gradually filtered down to the Polish forces in exile, and the de facto occupation of Poland by the Red Army made the rumours metamorphose into grim expectancy. However, this did not lead – as one might have expected – to a sudden downturn in morale. On the contrary, the commitment to the defeat of Germany and an honourable peace remained as high as ever in the Polish forces. But, like the Czechoslovaks, the pervasive effect of the Soviet advance made itself felt in political terms. The Polish government’s efforts to play down the dark reality of events at home by continually pointing to the fact that nothing had been firmly settled and that a satisfactory deal with Stalin was still possible led men to believe that victory might still mean freedom. That attitude was not to last long, however, because the true horror for the Polish people erupted on 1 August with the Warsaw uprising. Throughout the two months of struggle, the powerlessness of the Western allies to be of any assistance was forlornly monitored by the Polish forces in Britain and Europe, and although it is doubtful that the West could have provided any substantial military aid, Stalin’s refusal to allow Western planes to use Soviet airfields for supply drops merely confirmed in the minds of many thousands of Poles that they had been sold out in the West, leaving their beleaguered homeland to be inexorably drawn into the Soviet orbit.

The Warsaw uprising and its subsequent failure dealt a shattering blow to Polish morale. Worse still, other exiles alongside whom they had fought for five years were gleefully anticipating their own return home. August 1944 had seen Gen de Gaulle, dodging Vichy snipers, marching in triumph through Paris; the battle for Belgium, though still with all too much life left in it, was going to be won sooner or later; and also in August, the Free Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade began the liberation of the Netherlands, and it was only the allied failure at Arnhem which greatly stifled the process. Nevertheless, the war was clearly being won; Germans were on the run all over Europe, and yet, as one Polish pilot said: ‘As we sat around the radio, we died a little during each of those 63 days of the rising.’ The slaughter and hideous reprisals meted out by the Germans left Warsaw as little more than an open wound, and it was all the more unbearable with so much joy all around.

It was this pain and uncertainty about what the future held which triggered the factious elements within the Polish forces. As the last full year of the war came to a close, the Chiefs of Staff report for the final quarter of 1944 merely recorded the continuation of ‘restlessness’ in the Polish Air Force, but added: ‘It has not weakened either spirit or discipline in the squadrons.’ This was true enough, but there were deeper elements at work in the minds of men who had given so much for what appeared to be so little. For it seemed to many that the cause had been lost, and that their allies had given their consent to Poland being swallowed by a hostile power. Then the final blow to Polish hearts was cruelly delivered – not by Britain, America or even Stalin – but by those very ordinary people who had once been their unreserved champions: the British public.

Soldier and Warrior

Soldiers are warriors who fight for pay and, as such, are comparative latecomers to the field of human conflict. The warrior may be as old as human society itself, born of its need to protect family, territory and possessions against the greed and envy of neighbours.

When it was that men first learnt to turn their tools and weapons of the chase against each other we cannot now guess. Warfare of an endemic sort is a feature of tribal relations among the most primitive peoples surviving into our own age. But the purpose of such warfare is obscure and its conduct marked by little loss of life. About five thousand years ago, however, in those fertile areas of the world where men were simultaneously learning to fashion their implements from metal, to communicate in written symbols and to farm their land by co-operative effort, the nature of warfare underwent a functional change. Uniformly armed bodies of men obeying a common leadership came into being and began to fight in an organized and purposive manner.

These earliest warrior types were foot soldiers – infantrymen, as we would call them today – armed with clubs, spears and daggers, but also with close -range missile weapons, javelins, slings and the short bow. It was with such weapons that the peasant and city militias of early Egypt, Sumeria and Assyria protected and extended their irrigated lands. Such armies were temporary, however, called together only when need arose, and narrow in their campaigning range, since means neither of transport nor supply were well enough developed to permit extensive expeditions of conquest.

About 2000 B. C., however, warfare underwent a second revolution, as important as and more dramatic than the metallurgical revolution which had given man effective weapons. Somewhere on the southern fringes of the great steppe of Central Asia the horse was tamed for domestic use. Initially the driven horse – it was not yet robust enough to be ridden – fulfilled a merely auxiliary military role. But intense technological experimentation provided its masters, at some time around 1700 B. C., with the chariot. Light enough to be drawn across country, strong enough to withstand the stress and strain of a charge over rough ground, and stable enough to allow its passenger to handle missile weapons from its platform, it empowered its owner with almost irresistible force against pedestrian opponents. Charioteers literally carried all before them, so that soon after 1700 B. C. they had established ‘chariot empires’ around the whole temperate periphery of the steppe heartland – in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Persia, northern India, northern China and Western Europe.

But the chariot empires were to prove short-lived. The technology on which they were based consumed too large a proportion of the rare metals and skills available for their warrior classes to be anything but an aristocratic minority imposed on the subordinate populations they ruled. The dissemination of iron tools and weapons, which became available in abundance about 1000 B. C., returned military power to the peasantry and townspeople of the world’s fertile regions. Out of the warrior masses that this iron revolution brought into being the traditional agricultural empires – in Egypt, Assyria and China – were restored. At first their military- strength rested on the armies of foot soldiers that they deployed. But about 900 B. C. a new sort of warrior made his appearance. He was a man who derived his power from a fourth military revolution, that of the adaptation of the horse to riding.

Selective breeding from chosen stallions out of prized mares probably underlay this ‘cavalry revolution’. But the first ridden horses, bred by the nomad peoples of the steppe, were still not strong enough in the back to endow their rider with the capacity for shock action that would make them masters of the battlefield. The steppe pony, though it would carry its master on a thousand raiding expeditions into the civilized world from 600 B. C. to 1500 A. D., was essentially no more than a mobile platform for the archery at which the nomad peoples became so adept. Of far wider military significance was the appearance of the ‘great horse’ which the warriors of the Persian empire developed from 600 B. C. onwards. Large and strong enough to bear an armoured man in the line of battle, its strength underpinned the power of the Persian empire throughout its heyday, endowed Alexander the Great and his Companions with the means by which they conquered the Persian emperor’s dominions, and assured the empire’s survival in its long years of struggle against Rome.

The great horse and his armoured rider would dominate wide sectors of the civilized world until the application of effective firearms to warfare in the sixteenth century A. D. Between them they helped to preserve the Byzantine half of the Roman empire into the fifteenth century and to found the Christian successor states of its western regions on a secure basis. The Teutonic warriors who overran the West in the fifth century A. D. were foot soldiers in the old tradition. By the eighth century they had acquired the stirrup – instrument of a minor technical revolution in its own right – from the steppe nomads and were commonly riding to battle, armoured, on great horses. Out of that military development a whole social order was born in Western Europe, an order based on the social dominance of the peasantry by the armoured warriors who protected them. ‘Feudalism’ is the word historians have adopted to describe it, a word derived from the dual relation- ship sustained by the mounted warrior with those above and below him. From his overlord he held his land in ‘feu’, a contract which obliged him to come armed and mounted for war when called upon to do so. To his underlings he offered security against the depredations of other feudal warriors and defence from the attack of hostile outsiders – Vikings, Muslim invaders, steppe raiders – who sought to penetrate the boundaries of Christendom.

As Christendom waxed in strength and self-confidence, its warriors heeded the call to carry their military prowess beyond its frontiers and against the enemies whom hitherto they had always met on the defensive. In the crusading era, from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, Christian knights rode against the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land and the pagan Slavs of Europe’s eastern boundary. During the thirteenth century the easternmost defenders of Christendom had a close call with the most formidable of the steppe nomad armies ever to threaten Europe, when Genghis Khan’s horde approached its southern gateway in Hungary. Already the rulers of the largest empire the world had yet known, the Mongols might have succeeded in extending its frontiers into the lands dominated by the riders of the great horse, had it not been for the death in 1241 of their king, Ogotai, at the critical moment.

Armoured horsemen and steppe nomads alike were, however, approaching the term of their power precisely at the moment when it seemed at its most extensive. Within three hundred years of the fall of the Crusader Kingdoms in Palestine and the withdrawal of the Mongols from Central Europe, a fifth military revolution brought the long dominance of the horseman in warfare to an end. Gunpowder, which allowed the warrior to substitute chemical for muscular energy in the management of his weapons, had been discovered in China in the twelfth century and, independently, in Europe in the fourteenth. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the development of both handguns and artillery had reached a stage which robbed horse and rider of their freedom to move unchallenged about the battlefield, and returned military dominance to the infantryman.

Not only to the infantryman; it had long been a major element in the armoured horseman’s control of his fellow men that his tactical prowess allowed him to build and occupy fortified strong places. Artillery brought such knights’ castles crashing down by the hundred in the sixteenth century, subordinating their occupants to the will of the few dynastic rulers rich enough to own guns in quantity. In the place of these ruins, which now dotted the landscape of feudal Europe, the new rulers built frontier and civic fortresses which protected their domains against invasion and their richest urban centres against domestic rebellion.

These fortifications were the handiwork of a new breed of military engineers, who built not by rule of thumb but on mathematical principles. Geometrical calculation made their ‘bastion forts’ death traps for infantry to attack unsupported; when artillery joined the assault, the strength of the defences and the scientific siting of their gun positions ensured that sieges, even if successfully concluded, were long and costly. The development of a step-by-step technique of offensive siege engineering gradually empowered assaulting armies with means to overcome such fortification systems. But, extended as that development was over nearly two centuries, the overall effect of scientific fortification engineering was to consolidate the territories of the successful dynastic states and entrench the power of the monarchies that ruled them.

The spread of such fortification systems did not, however, prevent those monarchies from waging war. On the contrary; though fortifications reduced the room for manoeuvre in the border regions, their indirect enhancement of state power, particularly for the raising of revenue, allowed kings to finance armies which were bigger and better equipped than any seen in the West since the collapse of the Roman empire. Campaigns, in consequence, actually increased in duration and reach, and battles in scale and intensity, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The principal medium of such military effort, outside the fortified zones, was supplied, as we have seen, by infantry. Gunpowder had made the infantryman sovereign in warfare, so that infantry now became, in a commonly used chess analog- ‘the Queen of the battlefield’. In the early half of the gunpowder period, pikemen continued to complement the handgunner’s function. By the late seventeenth century, when the musketeer had acquired the bayonet, which made his firearm also an effective edged weapon, he took the field unsupported. Artillery was not yet mobile enough to keep pace on the field with the infantry’s movements; cavalry, though effective when opposing infantry already broken by fire, and indispensable in the pursuit, was too fragile an arm to risk against massed musketry.

From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, therefore, European campaigning was dominated by the foot soldier. And, increasingly, he was the permanently employed servant of one royal master – a ‘regular’ soldier, armed and clothed in a uniform manner. The first such soldiers had appeared in numbers in the employ of the Spanish kings at the end of the fifteenth century. France and the Habsburg lands had been the next monarchies to establish large regular armies. By the end of the seventeenth century they were the distinctive mark of all kingdoms which aspired to great power status. The populations of regions too small, remote or poor to maintain armies of their own – Switzerland, Scotland, the Balkan borderlands – contributed to the new military labour market by furnishing mercenary regiments which were hired and maintained by the rich states on a regular basis.

The model on which the bodies of regular infantry were based was still that of the old mercenary companies of the late Middle Ages, in that the tactical unit remained the company, commanded by a Captain, with a lieutenant and sergeant- major as his principal assistants. Under the new dispensation, however, the rule or ‘regiment’ of a Colonel, appointed by the King, was imposed on groups of companies for administrative purposes. These regiments, about a thousand men strong, became the principal instrument through which the European states settled their religious, dynastic and political differences from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Clad in white by the French and Habsburg Kings, red by the English, blue by the Prussian – an important newcomer to the European military scene – their long columns, swinging forward ten or fifteen miles a day in cadenced step to the rhythm of their regimental drums and fifes, emerged each campaigning season from winter quarters to manoeuvre against each other around Europe’s campaigning grounds and, when advantage promised or escape was denied, to form against each other in serried ranks and put the issue to the test of volley and bayonet charge.

The primacy of the regular infantryman was somewhat diminished by the appearance of mobile battlefield artillery at the end of the eighteenth century. In the battles of the French Revolution and Empire, such artillery was frequently pushed forward to ranges at which massed infantry suffered grievously from its fire, allowing cavalry to exploit the damage done. Resolute infantry which kept its ranks closed nevertheless remained impervious to successful attack by any save its own kind. And when drilled infantry, transported by seapower to the world beyond Europe, met armies not yet schooled to its standards of discipline, the outcome of such exchanges was even more arresting. Quite tiny armies of Europeans proved able to devastate, for example, vast hosts of soldiers deployed by the Mogul emperors of India, with results that would transform the world balance of power.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the technological equilibrium which had endowed the European infantryman with his battle -winning capacity was suddenly upset. New firearms, rifled to enhance accuracy at unprecedented ranges and then furnished with a magazine to decuple firepower, rendered close- order infantry tactics not merely ineffective but dangerous and self-defeating. The character of the battles of the American Civil War, 1861-65, had issued that warning in stark terms. Those fought in Europe and in its dependencies during 1866-1913 repeated it in even more threatening form. By the end of the first decade ot the twentieth century it was clear to any dispassionate observer that the era of the primacy of man in warfare was drawing to a close and that the era of the primacy of the machine was at hand.

Most professional observers were, however, not dispassionate. Despite the appearance of the machine-gun, which multiplied the firepower of an infantry regiment tenfold, of quick-firing artillery, which made mass tactics suicidal, and of the aeroplane, which immediately extended an army’s daily scouting range beyond that which cavalry could reach in a week, and promised an offensive effect of which only visionaries had hitherto dreamt, the traditional military mind clung to traditional military methods. Cavalrymen, recruited from descendants of or aspirants to the old feudal class, continued to insist that the mounted warrior was ultimately the deciding instrument of battle. Infantrymen argued that mass tactics provided the most rapid, and therefore the best, means of bringing issues in combat to a conclusion. Even gunners, whom their new weapons, if employed from a distance, endowed with battle -winning power, sought opportunities to engage the enemy at point-blank range, where their gun crews and teams were exposed to disabling counter-fire. In the teeth of a technological revolution, as it were, Europe’s professional soldiers sought to wage future war by the methods of the past rather than of the age to come.

They, and those who obeyed their orders, were to pay a terrible price for this obscurantism. When war enfolded Europe in its grasp in August 1914, the huge regular armies of the combatant states – France, Germany, Russia and Austria each fielded armies several million strong and Britain promised to do so – beat each other into bloody immobility within three months of the outbreak. Overnight the military engineer, expert in the design and construction of fortified positions, resumed the place of importance he had held in his heyday; traditional fortresses had been overwhelmed in the opening moves of the war, but field entrenchments on a scale never before seen had appeared on all fronts and were to determine the nature of the fighting across them. The gunner, too, found his role enormously enhanced. The artilleries of all the armies began a vast expansion, particularly with howitzers of heavy calibres. Within two years of the war’s outbreak, it would be common practice to prepare infantry attacks with bombardments that consumed a million shells in a few days of fighting.

Yet neither field engineering nor large-scale gunnery sufficed to solve the problem of the First World War; the former could not fully protect defending infantry from the latter, which in turn generally failed to break a way through for the attacker. Two years of heartbreaking trench fighting established those facts beyond doubt. New means and methods were needed to open the front. In the third year of the war they appeared, when the British army unveiled the tank and committed it to action with infantry trained to exploit the effect it created.

From the outset, the tank aroused the strongest loyalties among tank men and excited revolutionary ideas about how it should be employed. Twice during the First World War, at Cambrai in 1917 and Amiens in 1918, sufficient numbers of tanks were made available for a mass armoured breakthrough to be essayed. In neither case was it wholly successful. The machine itself had not yet reached the stage of development at which it could achieve what was hoped for it. By 1939, however, its technical imperfections had been overcome and the German army in particular had reorganized its order of battle and rewritten its fighting doctrine to profit fully from the tank’s potentiality. The resulting strategy, to be hailed as ‘Blitzkrieg’ – lightning war – brought the Germans a whirlwind triumph in the West in 1940 and the Russian army to its knees in 1941. The machine age in warfare did indeed seem to promise victory almost without cost to the attacker who made the right technical choice and backed his judgement with deeds.

The Germans reinforced their success on land with a brilliant and convergent effort from the air. The aeroplane had played a minor role in the First World War as an observation platform, protected by specialized fighting machines which occasionally flew ground attack missions in the later trench offensives. By 1939 the German air force was equipped with three thousand fighters and bombers of advanced performance, all designed to support the army’s tank units in offensive operations. Additionally, it deployed a large force of tactical transport aircraft, some dedicated to fly and drop its newly raised units of parachute assault infantry behind enemy lines. These parachutists, supplemented by glider-borne infantry, were to intervene in the 1940 campaign with spectacular effect against strongpoints in Belgium and Holland.

Tanks, tactical aircraft, self-propelled artillery, motorized infantry; these elements of machine-age warfare were to invest its operations with the rapidity and reach not seen since the irruptions of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. And while the steppe horsemen merely slew and plundered, the behemoth armies of Blitzkrieg crushed all opposition they encountered, devastating the countryside over which they passed and laying waste the towns and cities that stood in their path. For the opening years of the Second World War, it seemed that armies organized on the Blitzkrieg principle were unstoppable and invincible, and that a total German victory was inevitable.

But the pendulum swing of technical riposte then came into play. During the two years in which Germany’s tank and air forces had rampaged across the battlefields, the governments and industries of its surviving opponents had bent all efforts to replicating the armouries and organizations deployed against them. By 1942 Russia and Britain had raised large armoured and tactical air forces of their own, to which were then joined those furnished by the mighty and swelling industrial power of the United States. By 1943, the military balance of force in the world stood in equilibrium. Rapidly thereafter it swung the way of Germany’s enemies, whose output exceeded hers some six times. By 1945 British, American and Russian tank armies had broached her frontiers and stood on her soil, while her cities and industry crumbled under the weight of their strategic air attack. Germany, the inventor of Blitzkrieg, had in her turn been blitzkrieged, and, through the iron laws of attrition that the technique had been supposed to evade, reduced to humiliating and agonized defeat.

Wartare had proved too crude and brutal a medium of human relationship to be revolutionized by mere technical ingenuity. Yet that did not mean that, in the post-war world, the search would not continue for military success without proportionate military outlay. The renaissance of irregular forces had been a noted feature of the Second World War – commandos, parachutists, long-range penetration units, subversive teams, guerrilla liaison units. The Western allies had suffused German-occupied Europe with irregulars of all sorts, while the Soviet Union had maintained large partisan units in the German rear in Russia. Both had encouraged and sustained guerrilla forces inside areas they could not immediately reach with their own regular units, as the British and Americans had also done in Japanese-occupied Asia. The rise of nationalist guerrilla movements in the remnants of the European colonial empires after 1945 – in Palestine, Indo-China, Malaysia, Algeria, Arabia, Southern Africa – prompted the states which had, as they believed, acquired expertise in irregular warfare against the Germans to mobilize the same technique against these revolutionary nationalists.

The impulse to fight fire with fire was almost uniformly unsuccessful. The British Special Air Service achieved limited dominance over the weak Malayan guerrillas in remote areas, later to be repeated against Indonesian infiltrators in Borneo. The French founded and ran anti-nationalist guerrilla groups in Algeria and Indo- China, in the latter territory later to be reformed by the Americans. The Rhodesian army conducted deep penetration operations against African guerrilla bases lying beyond the country’s borders. But all. with allowance for some British success, eventually failed in staving off the inevitable. Elite forces, however dedicated and well-trained, lack the capacity to defeat guerrillas fighting on their own ground with the support, however obtained and sustained, of the local population.

That is not to say that guerrilla warfare is what Clausewitz would have called ‘a stronger form’ than conventional war. On the contrary; despite much political propaganda and ill-informed journalism lauding the cunning and skill of guerrilla fighters in the ‘wars of national liberation’ which have been so widely fought since 1945, they have had success only when heavily supported by conventional forces, or when established authority was ripe for defeat, and then always through methods that inflicted appalling hardship and suffering on the civilian population caught between the millstones of rebellion and repression.

Hardship and suffering are inseparable from the human experience of war; it is, indeed, war’s purpose that humanity should suffer, to the point when one side is unwilling or unable to sustain the strain. That strain is frequently offset by material and spiritual alleviations. War generates a sense of unity, of pride, of identity, of excitement. Its material demands often generate prosperity, at least in the short term, by mobilizing the resources of the combatants to the full, by stimulating state expenditure and by absorbing labour previously unemployed. But, in wars fought to a decisive conclusion, costs almost always outweigh benefits, and such costs are measured in death, wounds and profound personal suffering.

Families and localities experience such suffering through the loss of those who do not return from the fighting. Soldiers experience that suffering directly. The fear of death is the soldier’s universal lot. So, too, is the fear of wounding, which, for soldiers of the ‘teeth arms’, is all too often realized; in the British infantry of the First World War, four out of every nine soldiers who reached the front became casualties. How he may be wounded and how he will be treated have, therefore, always preoccupied the soldier, for whom the quality of his army’s medical service has consequently been as important as that of his weapons or of his leadership. In some of the earliest military contracts that have come down to us, sworn between Greek mercenaries of the third century B. C. and their employers, the provision of adequate medical care ranked among the principal terms.

Yet medical care, almost until our own century, could not be adequate. Surgery, advances in which were always stimulated by warfare, could repair simple, clean wounds. But battle wounds are frequently deep and complex and easily infected by contact with clothing and the soil; gangrene, for example, a common outcome of wounds suffered in the First World War, is the consequence of falling with an open wound on to tilled ground that has been fertilized with animal manure. Fatalities in a unit that had been in action were therefore often higher on the days following a battle than on the day of fighting itself, as those who had suffered wounds not immediately fatal succumbed to their after-effects. Not until disinfectants came into common use after 1850 did this pattern begin to reverse itself; while the real improvement in the prognosis of wound treatment had to await the introduction of antibiotics, blood transfusion and intensive resuscitation during the Second World War. And by then refinements in the nature of wounding agents, particularly those producing intense blast, burn and high fragmentation effect, were causing wounds graver than any with which military medical services had yet had to deal. ‘A Blighty One’ – the sort of simple, disabling wound which soldiers of the First World War had welcomed as an honourable passport off the battlefield – was becoming ever more elusive.

How does the soldier, beset by the danger of death, fear of wounds and the greatly increased risk of succumbing to disease which membership of an army has entailed for most of military history, sustain his will to combat? Fighting spirit is the mood a commander strives most earnestly to generate and sustain in his army. Proper concern for his troops’ welfare, by provision of good and regular food, pay and comforts – what are called the ‘sinews of war’ – is one means to it. Exhortation is another; many great commanders have been noted orators, skilled in appealing to the pride, patriotism and loyalty of their men and calculating, too, in their promises of fame and material reward. Punishment, of course, always threatens the soldier who will not yield to such appeals; ‘pay well, command well, hang well’ was Sir Ralph Hopton’s summary of the seventeenth-century general’s art and hangmen or their equivalents have found their place in all the armies of history.

But no general can afford to hang too extravagantly in the face of disobedience or cowardice; that will transform a bad army into a mutinous one. The wise general seeks, on the contrary, to make his men obey not because he makes them but because they so wish. And the most effective means of attaining that state of consent is by fostering among them bonds of loyalty and regard for each other too strong for the strains of battle to break. ‘Small group cohesion’ is what modern armies call this relationship. Whatever it is called, it has existed in good armies since the beginning of time. The hoplites of the Greek city-state militias took their place in the phalanx at the side of neighbours whose good opinion counted more strongly with them than fear of the enemy. The Roman legions made their smallest tactical unit the tentful of men who messed together throughout their service. In the mediaeval ‘lance’, neither knight, squire nor servant could flinch before the enemy without being damned for good in the eyes of the others. Regular armies made the platoon or company the unit of both of comradeship and firepower. And in the great conscript armies of our century, drafts of reservists have been trained together from the start of their service to foster that comradeship between them they will need to see them through the fires of combat.

This ‘buddy system’, based, in the words of the American military theorist S. L. A. Marshall, on a man’s fear of losing ‘what he holds more dear than life itself, his reputation as a man among other men’, seems ultimately to be what armours the individual against the terrible experience of war. It is felt most strongly by those soldiers whose duty brings them closest to the point of danger – the infantryman, the cavalryman, in our own age the tank man. It sustains the gunner, the engineer, the airman when their missions bring them within the orbit of the enemy’s firepower. It motivates the humbler servants of the fighting soldier, who work the sinews of war, and are often as much in danger as those at the front. It is life blood to the irregular, whose isolation and exposure put him more permanently at risk than any other sort of soldier.

Perhaps only the commander stands outside its influence, since for him there can be no comradeship, no shared danger, no dependence upon others when risk threatens and disaster must be braved out and stared down. His is sometimes the most extreme because the loneliest of all predicaments that a soldier undergoes and his the most total obloquy should he be proved unequal to bearing it. But he is one, nevertheless, with his soldiers in undergoing a predicament. The exact nature of that experience, and of its many variants – as known by infantryman, cavalryman, tank man, gunner, sapper, aircrew, irregular…

Flakartillerie

Although initially hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany rapidly developed a system of highly effective antiaircraft weapons. An early attempt, adopted in 1928, the 75mm FlaK38 fired a 14-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. In the decade following World War I, Krupp arranged with the Swedish arms giant Bofors to allow its engineers to work secretly on new designs in Sweden. One of the most successful artillery pieces of all time came about as a result of that arrangement-the famous German Eighty-Eight. Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, combat experiences in the Spanish Civil War and early World War II proved the Eighty-Eight’s versatility in other applications. By war’s end, German designers had also adapted it to antitank, tank, and conventional field applications. The first test model was assembled in 1931, and after trials the new gun went into ser- vice in 1933 as the caliber 88mm FlaK18. With a veteran crew it achieved a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The FlaK18 fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 26,247 feet, and in a ground role it achieved a range of 9.2 miles.

Krupp engineers continued to improve the FlaK18 and also redesigned it to ease its manufacture. The redesigned Eighty-Eight entered service in 1937 as the Flak36 and saw considerable service with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Having proved the gun’s effectiveness as a ground weapon in Spain, Krupp again improved the Eighty-Eight, by adding ground sights and pro- viding high-explosive shells for field use. Firing high-explosive and armor-piercing ammunition, the Eighty-Eight further proved itself against British armor in North Africa in 1941-1942. As the war progressed, it became increasingly necessary to increase German tank armament to match the heavy guns and armor of the new Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front. That necessity resulted in slight modifications to the basic Eighty-Eight design, which resulted in the Kwk36 (Kampfwagen Kanone) and the Kwk43, for use in Tiger tanks and self-propelled guns.

Other German antiaircraft guns included the 37mm Flak18 and 36/37 series, which entered service in 1935 and, at 160 rpm, fired a 1.5-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 15,750 feet. First introduced in 1938 as the Flak38 and improved in 1939 as the Flak39, the semiautomatic 105mm antiaircraft gun fired a 33-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,400 feet. More than 2,000 Flak39s were manufactured during World War II. Adopted in 1941, the automatic 50mm FlaK41 was an intermediate antiaircraft gun effective at 18,000 feet and reaching a maximum ceiling of 59,528 feet firing a 4.8-pound shell. Despite a relatively unstable carriage, the FlaK41 was a good weapon and was popular with its crews. It later became the starting point for a more advanced 55mm gun that incorporated a comprehensive fire control system yet did not reach production by the war’s end. Heavy German antiaircraft weapons also included the semiautomatic 88mm FlaK41, a Rheinmetall-Borsig variation of Krupp’s famous Eighty-Eight designed primarily for antiaircraft use. It entered service in 1943 and, mounted on a revolving base, traversed 360 degrees and fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 36,213 feet. In a ground role it achieved a range of 21,544 yards. Adopted in 1942, the FlaK40 had a 128mm barrel with a semiautomatic horizontal sliding block. The Flak40 fired a 57-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 48,556 feet.

 

The appearance of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units on the battlefields of Europe and Africa in a conventional artillery role was not due to any personal ambition of the Reichsmarschall, but rather to a sound and admirable flexibility of thought on the part of the German staff. So often ignorantly criticized for rigidness, the Germans, in their willingness to experiment with combat techniques, compare very favourably with certain episodes in the record of the Allied command.

The superb 8·8 cm anti-aircraft gun developed by Krupps in the early 1930s first appeared at the front line in Spain during 1936, equipping Flak batteries of the German expeditionary force. (It was entirely logical that anti-aircraft artillery should fall under Luftwaffe control, not least because of the importance of close technical liaison.) ‘Flak’ has come into common English usage, and will be used throughout this text; it is a contraction of Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone, ‘anti-aircraft cannon’. The version used in Spain, properly termed the 8·8 cm Flak 18, was followed in 1937 by the improved Flak 36 model, which had provision for the speedy changing of barrels, and a new and significant wheeled carriage designated Sonderanhänger 201. The normal ground mounting was of cruciform design; for travelling the side arms were folded upwards and wheeled bogies fitted to the long arms. The 201 mounting allowed the gun to fire on ground targets without being freed from the bogies and winched down to ground level; the brakes were applied, the wheels chocked, the side arms of the cruciform mounting folded down and the ‘feet’ at their extremities winched down to brace against the ground – and the gun was ready for action. It is not known who first suggested that the gun was too versatile to be confined to flying targets, but he was certainly a soldier of some vision; that battlefield use of the gun played a part in staff thinking from an early stage is confirmed by the fact that from 1940 onwards armoured shields to protect the crew during ground combat were fitted to new guns, and fitted retrospectively to many Flak 18s.

The Luftwaffe Flak regiments and batteries operated in great numbers throughout the war, and with enormous success. To detail all these units is frankly beyond the author’s competence and would serve little purpose; but perhaps it is valid to consider one isolated campaign – that in North Africa.

In the mobile desert warfare of which the Germans of Rommel’s Panzerarmee soon showed themselves to be masters, the Flak played a vital part. Supply and replacement problems haunted Rommel almost from the first – his uniquely vulnerable lines of communication lay across a Mediterranean ranged by Allied aircraft from Malta and submarines from Malta and Gibraltar – and although his precious tanks were superior in quality to all Allied equipment until the very end of the campaign, their numbers were never as high as he could have wished. To conserve the PzKpfw IIIs and IVs of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, he evolved a deadly technique.

It has been said that despite the glamorous image of the tank columns which churned across the Western Desert, the real kings of the African battlefields were the landmine and the anti-tank gun. The greatest of these was the ‘eighty-eight’; it was extremely mobile and could operate well forward with the advanced armoured squadrons. It was normally towed by the heavy SdKfz 7 half- track; this powerful vehicle could accommodate the entire crew of eleven (layer, trainer, breech-worker, fuse-setter, five ammunition numbers, commander and driver) and their personal equipment, a good supply of ammunition for immediate use, and reserves of fuel. Thus, once a target was sighted, the gun could be got into action very quickly. Its impressive rate of fire – between fifteen and twenty rounds a minute – was combined with great range and accuracy. Maximum low-trajectory range was 16,500 yards, and the 21-lb armour-piercing round could kill a tank at up to 3,000 yards – three times the range of the best Allied equipment. Its air-burst high-explosive round was notably effective against infantry. In the ‘eighty-eight’, Rommel had a deadly anti- tank weapon, a fine anti-aircraft gun, and a field-piece capable of augmenting conventional barrages with great speed and accuracy, all rolled into one supremely functional piece of metal.

The most frightening and effective use of the gun was in Rommel’s famous ‘Flak front’. In the face of advancing enemy armour the Luftwaffe regiments would be sent right forward and dug in to ground level; the gun was easy to conceal, as is any relatively small piece of equipment at ground level under the peculiar light conditions of the desert, and its rounds used a flashless propellant. A few troops of tanks would probe forward, making contact with the British armour and then withdrawing, luring the Grants and Crusaders within range of the trap. Once they were comfortably lined up the Flak would methodically decimate them; their own short-range guns were useless, their attackers were virtually invisible, and their casualties were frequently appalling. At its anti-tank debut in the Battle of Sollum in June 1941 the ‘eighty-eight’ is claimed to have destroyed 123 out of 238 British tanks attacking the Afrika Korps position in Halfaya (‘Hellfire’) Pass); according to German sources this represented one ‘brewed’ tank for every twenty rounds fired by the Flak batteries.

Another battle in which the ‘eighty-eights’ distinguished themselves and their Luftwaffe crews was the series of actions near Agedabia in January 1942. Prominent was a crack Air Force unit, Major Hecht’s Flak Regiment 135; the 18th, 33rd and 35th Regiments also did well, as did Major Hartmann’s Reserve Flak Abteilung 114. The 135th, now led by Oberst Wolz, also figures honourably in the records of Bir Hakeim in June 1942; in this hard-fought action he also had under command various detached battalions, notably II./Flak 25, I./Flak 18, I. /Flak 6 and I./Flak 43· The last-named unit won no fewer than three awards of the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) during the desert fighting; they were awarded to Oberleutnant Gellert, Major Gürcke (the commanding officer) and Oberfeldwebel BöseL. At El Alamein the 102nd and 135th Regiments were organized as the main fighting units of the ‘9th Flak Division, under direct army command and led by Generalleutnant Burckhardt; these units, together with the 109th Flak Battalion attached to Graf von Sponeck’s famous 90th Light Division, and various army Flak battalions, had a total strength of eighty-six 8·8 cm guns at the opening of the battle. So seriously did the British take these weapons that Montgomery issued explicit instructions to his armoured brigade commanders concerning the absolute necessity of avoiding the ‘Flak front’ and saving their strength for the final battle with the panzers. Even so, it is said that the ‘eighty-eights’ were largely responsible for the massacre of the first wave of British armour at Alamein.

The Flak fought their way back along the coast with the other survivors of the Panzerarmee, and were still scourging Allied armour as the last stores were burned in Tunis in May ‘943. The remains of the ‘9th Flak Division took up their last firing positions along the Miliane line, in company with the survivors of the’ Hermann Goring’ Division and Koch’s and Ramcke’s paratroopers. The 20th Flak Division, or what was left of it, was at Tebourba; the 3/52 Battery distinguished itself in the last few days of the fighting when Leutnant Happach and Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Voight turned their ‘eighty-eights’ on the American 2nd Armoured Battalion, and killed twenty tanks in as many minutes.