Mesoamerican Spanish Conquests

Globally, one of the most important patterns that scholars highlight in the early modern era is the gradual unfolding of the “Military Revolution” in Europe-a profound military, political and socioeconomic transformation between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Such an approach usually focuses on the European expansion around the world, in particular the Spanish conquests of the Aztec and Inca states and the arrival and establishment of European navies in the Indian Ocean, where local Islamic and Indian states proved to be unable to retain supremacy of the seas. Equally interesting, however, is the increasing ability of Europe to fight off the Ottoman attacks, clearly revealed when comparing the Christian failures of the early sixteenth century with successes of the seventeenth century.

The European conquests-of Cortes and Nuno de Guzman, in central Mexico, Pizzaro in Peru, Francisco and Pedro de Alvarado Orozco in Guatemala, or Francisco de Montejo in the Yucatan Peninsula to name just a few-consequently followed the pre-Columbian trade routes which greatly contributed to their success. From the earliest years of Spanish colonization of the western hemisphere, the Spaniards became aware of how quickly they could seize control over local population by capturing local leaders. This tactic may have had precedents in Spanish experiences with the Moors or in North Africa, but the surprise capture of the local ruler during a seemingly friendly negotiation became a standard. Thus, in 1519, Cortés, invited to an audience with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, captured the emperor in an attempt to seize control of the empire. His success inspired Francisco Pizzaro to capture the Inca leader Atahualpa in 1531.

Despite the popular perception of the Spanish conquistadors as invincible and gallant warriors, the real story of success lies in local elites’ early support for foreign invasions. Their motivation included both the desire to free themselves from existing military and tributary controls as well as the opportunity to aggrandize themselves with land and riches. Indeed, alliance-building was a fundamental practice in Mesoamerica, successfully used by the Aztecs in the form of the Triple Alliance (confederation of city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan) to incorporate much of the region into their empire prior to Europeans’ arrival. When Cortés arrived in Mesoamerica in 1519, the Fat Cacique of Cempoala followed a long-standing alliance-building tradition in offering the Spaniard an alliance with Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo, and other city-states against the powerful Aztecs; the presence of tens of thousands of native soldiers allowed the Spaniards to bring down the Aztec empire.

Mesoamerican War Strategy, Battle Tactics, and Armaments

The Indians of pre-Hispanic Mexico developed strategic war aims, battlefield tactics, and arms and armaments to suit the societies they created. Aztec warfare, as well as that of other neighboring polities and cultures, primarily aimed to capture but not kill opposing warriors, who would then be sacrificed to various deities. Whereas Eurasian armies developed well-organized and highly maneuverable infantry and cavalry formations, the Aztecs and their neighbors, as well as all of their predecessors, lacked close-ordered drill and instead stressed charges and individual combat designed to win prestige by acquiring sacrificial victims. They still, however, also fought for larger objectives, namely conquest and subjugation, as representations of stylized burning temples and tribute lists in the few extant Mexica codices (bound books) make abundantly clear.

The Aztec (or Triple Alliance) order of battle illustrates the height of pre-Hispanic arms and armaments in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs fielded armies as large as 100,000 to 200,000 fighting men, divided into 8,000-man units. Lightly armed scouts and skirmishers, carrying atlatl launchers and spears, preceded the more heavily armed main body of warriors. These warriors wore quilted cotton armor; carried painted, sometimes feathered, round shields; and employed razor-sharp obsidian-bladed clubs and knives as well as slings, darts, and other weapons to make war. The highest-ranked among them, including commanders and members of prestigious military orders, such as the Otomi who were named after an especially fierce tribe of neighboring Indians, and at times the emperor himself wore elaborate feathered costumes and sandals. The more elite the military order, the more elaborate the feathered costume. Reserve forces, including conscripted troops from conquered provinces, followed.

Such formations failed to survive Spanish battlefield tactics and arms and armaments during the conquest of Mexico. While the Aztecs obsidian-bladed club could and did decapitate horses, it proved too unwieldy and could not match the Spaniards’ steel swords, which could parry, slash, and thrust, not to mention the Spaniards’ determination to destroy and not merely capture their opponents in war.

Bibliography Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Padden, R. C. The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.



Middle East

The U.S. Role

The United States played a prominent role in the United Nations in separating the combatants and ending the hostilities in 1956. As we noted in the previous chapter, this was hardly because the American administration was sympathetic to Nasser’s plight or to Arab nationalism. The Americans felt deeply embarrassed and compromised by their allies, Britain and France, who had acted without consulting them—and right on the eve of a presidential election at that. The American public expressed concern about upholding the principles of the UN Charter, and President Eisenhower displayed a sense of moral outrage that they had been violated. Although this stand scored points in the short run, subsequent U.S. actions tended to erode Arab goodwill. American refusal to supply medical help for the victims of allied bombing at Port Said, and the cessation of the CARE program in Egypt, which had provided free lunches to Egyptian schoolchildren, spoke louder than pious platitudes. Indeed, the United States adhered initially to a Western economic boycott of Egypt, refusing to sell surplus wheat and oil. In this way, the United States exhibited its continued friendship for its European allies and its disdain for Nasser. At the same time, this attitude enabled and encouraged the Soviet Union and its satellites to extend their influence. Economic and technical assistance on an increasingly large scale were evident after 1957, capped in Egypt by the Soviet agreement in October 1958 to help build the Aswan High Dam. The worth of Soviet arms to Egypt would eventually total about $2 billion. This compared to American economic and technical aid to Israel of about $850 million between 1949 and 1965.

Because Britain and France had been so completely discredited in the region, however, the United States found itself in the position of defending Western interests and resisting the expansion of Soviet influence in those countries that had not followed Nasser’s lead. The new instrument of American policy became the Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by Congress in March 1957. By its terms, the president was authorized to extend economic and military assistance, including troops, to any Middle Eastern nation that requested it against the threat of international communism. No Arab country, with the exception of Libya and Lebanon, was eager to embrace the doctrine. Zionism, not communism, was considered the enemy. Moreover, the United States was seen as attempting to weaken Arab unity by insisting that the Arab countries line up on one side or the other in the Cold War. Although the United States continued to maintain an important airbase at Dhahran (until 1961), and the Saudis were considered to be “allies,” the Saudi king did not endorse the Eisenhower Doctrine. Nor did King Hussein, even though the United States extended $10 million in financial assistance to Jordan when the king quashed a Nasser-supported Communist plot against the monarchy in 1957.

The one Arab country enthusiastic about the Eisenhower Doctrine was Lebanon, especially under its Christian president, Camille Chamoun. Chamoun despised Nasser and was disturbed about growing Egyptian and Soviet influence, especially in neighboring Syria. Closer adherence to the West through formal adherence to the Eisenhower Doctrine, however, seemed to violate the spirit of Lebanon’s “national pact,” through which a balance of interests had been maintained among Lebanon’s many religious and family groups. Moreover, Chamoun’s overt identification with Western interests alienated other Lebanese political leaders and a large part of the Muslim population whose sympathies were with Nasser and Arab nationalism. Chamoun attempted to secure a second term as president in violation of the constitution. Anti-Chamoun and pro-Nasserist groups in Lebanon, supplied with funds, weapons, and propaganda from the newly formed United Arab Republic, saw this as an opportunity to gain power, and this set off a brief civil war in 1958.

At the same time, in July 1958, in Iraq the pro-Western monarchy was overthrown. Fearing that a Communist takeover in the region was imminent, and worried about his own safety, Chamoun asked for American help. Largely because of the situation in Iraq, Eisenhower responded promptly. American troops landed on the beaches of Lebanon, as British troops rushed to the aid of King Hussein to stabilize his regime. Chamoun, who had helped precipitate the crisis by hinting that he would not give up the presidency, wisely left office in September at the end of his term. A more neutral government was formed in Lebanon, and the U.S. Marines departed, indicating, among other things, that the United States would not directly interfere with the Lebanese political process. The new Lebanese government repudiated the Eisenhower Doctrine, which left the next American administration with the task of reevaluating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

In Washington, the Arab–Israeli conflict continued to be placed within the context of basic American interests in the area. These included uninterrupted communication facilities and access to oil, the maintenance of general stability, and the protection of strategic interests against the threat of Soviet expansionism. In the Kennedy administration, however, a new approach to the Arab–Israeli conflict evolved, which John Badeau, Kennedy’s ambassador to Egypt, later called the “icebox” device: deal with those issues on which Middle Easterners and Americans can agree, and put the others in cold storage for the time being. One such issue was the Palestinian refugee problem, which the United States unsuccessfully took a stab at in the fall of 1961. Kennedy sent Dr. Joseph Johnson, president of the Carnegie Foundation, to consult the Israelis and Arabs about ways to deal with the situation. Johnson’s own plan was to offer the refugees, under the active supervision of the United Nations, the choice of return or compensation for settlement outside Israel. Johnson had no luck on his first or on a subsequent trip the next spring in moving the different parties from their respective positions. The Arabs continued to insist on the right of return of all refugees, the Israelis on recognition and direct negotiation of all outstanding issues, including that of the refugees.

The United States assured Israel that it upheld the principle of the territorial integrity of all countries in the region and would defend the Jewish state against aggression. There seemed during the Kennedy years, however, a somewhat greater appreciation of the dynamics and complexities of the Arab world. American policymakers began to realize that the achievement of American objectives did not require a specific form of political or economic system. Indeed, many believed that America could aid constructive change in Middle Eastern countries through nonmilitary aid and cultural exchange, to the mutual benefit of the Arabs and the United States. Economic and technical aid was therefore offered to Egypt, especially through Public Law 480, which enabled recipient countries to purchase surplus wheat and other commodities with local currency that remained in the country to generate development projects. In the early 1960s, for example, the United States supplied about $150 million a year in wheat surpluses, which was more than half the grain consumed in Egypt.

Meanwhile, quantities of Soviet arms were pouring into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Israel used Nasser’s involvement in the Yemen civil war, as well as his hiring of German technicians to help develop surface-to-surface missiles and jet fighters, as arguments to persuade the United States to sell Israel weapons directly for the first time. The Kennedy administration agreed to sell Israel Hawk ground-to-air missiles and tanks at the end of September 1962, and shipments of American arms went to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In this way, the United States attempted to maintain a balance between Israel and the Arabs, and between the “radical” Arab countries supplied by the Soviet Union and those supplied by the United States.

The administration of Lyndon Johnson continued the basic approach of an arms balance and upholding the territorial integrity of all Middle Eastern countries including Israel, but with a different style and far less consistency. The different style arose to some extent because of personal antipathy between Nasser and Johnson. Nasser took an almost instant dislike to the American president and mentioned in his letters how he was put off by photographs of Johnson showing reporters the scar from his recent gallbladder operation and with his feet up on his desk. Nasser also feared that the United States might move to oust him, as it had Mossadeq in Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. He suspected, too, that the United States had been involved in removing such leaders as Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Sukarno, and Kwame Nkrumah. Johnson himself was not attuned to the sensibilities of foreign leaders, and he had little patience with Nasser. The conduct of American foreign relations in the Middle East was further complicated after 1964 by difficulties on the domestic scene and by the escalating war in Vietnam.

When the United States expressed its displeasure over Nasser’s aid to rebels in the Belgian Congo, Nasser told the United States at the end of 1964 to forget its aid and go drink seawater. With less surplus wheat available to dispose of anyway, American economic aid to Egypt was discontinued shortly thereafter, causing severe repercussions in the Egyptian economy. This seemed to end any hope of a rapprochement between the two countries and to signal that Egypt would not break out of the Soviet orbit. The Soviet Union greatly enhanced its role in the Middle East in the 1960s. Still, the United States believed that, by maintaining Israel’s military strength and aiding friendly Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, its basic goals—maintaining stability in the region and thus diminishing the prospect of an Arab–Israeli war that could lead to superpower confrontation—had been preserved.

The Soviet Role

Like the United States, the Soviet Union had its successes and failures in the Middle East. While the Soviet leaders would like to have seen the victory of communism in the area and were constantly reminded by the Chinese not to forget ideological imperatives, Soviet policy was of necessity based on realpolitik. Soviet goals included outflanking NATO, neutralizing the United States in the Middle East, and working to achieve preeminence in an area the Russians considered as almost their own backyard. After loosening their ties with socialist Israel in the 1950s and unequivocally adopting the Arab and Palestinian causes, the Soviets imitated the West in extending economic and military aid to their allies in the region. Under Nikita Khrushchev, between 1955 and 1959, the Soviets established a diplomatic presence in the area, made extensive arms deals, trained local armies, offered economic and technical assistance, and energetically supported anti-Western regimes.

The Soviet leap over the so-called northern tier, however, had brought it right into the tangled web of inter-Arab affairs and created unavoidable dilemmas, similar to those experienced by the United States. As America had discovered, the Soviet Union found it difficult to have its cake and eat it too. The events surrounding the Iraqi coup in 1958, when Abdul Karim Qasim came to power supported by local Communists, illustrated the problem. Moscow was delighted by the revolution in Iraq but alienated Nasser by its support of Qasim, who had very different ideas about Arab unity and who in fact put down a pro-Nasser movement in Iraq. (This climate had, of course, made it easier for the United States to effect its own rapprochement with Nasser in the late 1950s and early 1960s.) Within two years, however, Qasim had also rejected local Communist support and refused recognition to the Iraq Communist party. This was a bitter disappointment to the Soviets.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued economic and especially military aid to regimes that were anti-West, at a high cost to its own economy. Thus, the Russians pledged support to Egypt to help build the second stage of the Aswan High Dam at the same time that the United States was providing Egypt with the bulk of its grain; and the arms flow to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq continued, albeit with a temporary halt in Iraq when Qasim was toppled by a Baath coup in 1963 that purged local Communists. In the meantime, the stakes had also been raised. It was one thing to embarrass the West, but another to challenge it. The Soviets began to realize the danger of local outbreaks that could eventually spark a wider conflagration. Moreover, the Russians found themselves in the position of sometimes seeing arms they had supplied being used in ways over which they had little control or which involved their own warring clients (Nasser versus competitive regimes in Baghdad or Damascus, Baghdad versus the Kurds, etc.).

In particular, the Soviet Union was ambivalent about Nasser, applauding and supporting his actions when they hurt the West but being less sanguine when they threatened other Soviet clients. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets themselves decided that their ultimate ideological objectives might be reached by a continuation of aid and a policy of encouraging local Communists to work with the various governments in return for being left alone. This approach may or may not have encouraged the radicalization of the regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. However, as it became more apparent that circumstances for the achievement of both ideological and Cold War objectives were increasingly favorable, particularly in Syria after 1966, the Russians found themselves in the position of wanting and needing to preserve and extend their gains. The closer involvement in Middle East affairs, however, brought them right into the arena of the Arab–Israeli conflict, a fact illustrated dramatically in the events that precipitated the Six-Day War.

The Road to War

In 1958, Gamal Abdul Nasser was the leading figure in the Arab world. By 1961, however, Syria had seceded from the UAR, and Qasim’s regime in Iraq was forging its own destiny, which would continue to diverge from that of Egypt with successive military coups. Internally, as noted above, Egypt’s economy was in poor shape. Moreover, Nasser’s friends from the Bandung conference and in the third world, leaders like Nehru, Sukarno, Ben Bella, and others, were no longer in power.

Nasser had determined after 1956 that he would not become involved in a major confrontation with Israel unless he could win; that is, unless he was fully prepared militarily and the international circumstances were right. He recognized Israel’s growing economic and military strength and the international support Israel enjoyed in the West and among many of the developing nations. Because of Arab unpreparedness and Israel’s policy of retaliation, Nasser did not lend support for Syrian efforts to halt Israel’s water-diversion scheme. Nor did he react, despite Jordanian taunts, to Israel’s attack against as-Samu, except to insist to King Hussein that responsibility for repulsing Israel reprisal raids rested with the individual countries. Nasser retreated to this position again in April 1967, when, after several months of violent incidents in the north, an air battle erupted between Israel and Syria in which Israel violated Syrian airspace, shot down six MiGs, and buzzed Damascus. Nasser remained aloof.

To the Russians, however, it seemed absolutely crucial to prod the Egyptians into living up to the commitment implied in the joint defense pact. The unstable Jadid regime in Syria had raised the stakes in the north without much apparent success and had embarked on a course that promised the counterproductive effect of massive Israeli retaliation. The achievement of Soviet objectives in Syria seemed to be in jeopardy. Only by the device of Nasser restraining Jadid and/or causing Israel to pause before retaliating for Syrian raids, because of the possibility of Egyptian action in the south, could some Soviet control be exerted over this situation. In early May 1967, therefore, the Russians passed on to the Egyptians information about heavy Israeli troop concentrations on the Syrian border and an Israeli contingency plan for an attack on Syria.

The Soviets, and probably Nasser himself, knew that information about massive Israeli troop concentrations was false. Indeed, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), U.S. intelligence, and Egyptian observers on the spot failed to detect any Israeli moves. Nasser, however, decided to become involved and to take some action for several reasons. He was convinced that the United States was trying to get at him indirectly by urging Israel to hit Syria, but he believed the Russians would now stand behind him whatever action he took. Nasser had a false estimation of Egyptian strength based on the great amount of military hardware he had amassed. His poor economic situation called for some outlet for the frustration that had been building among the Egyptian people. And he certainly hoped that assuming an active role against Israel would quiet his critics and restore his position of leadership in the Arab world.

Thus, on May 14, 1967, Cairo announced that Egyptian armed forces were in a state of maximum alert, and combat units crossed the Suez into Sinai. On May 16, Egypt requested the UNEF to be concentrated in the Gaza Strip; and on May 18, the Egyptian foreign minister demanded that UN Secretary General U Thant recall all troops of the UNEF stationed in the Gaza Strip and on UAR soil. This was a step Nasser had every legal right to take, but instead of procrastinating in order to defuse the growing crisis, U Thant complied almost immediately. Egyptian troops and tanks began to rumble across the Sinai and to take over UN positions. Syria also began to mobilize, as did Jordan and Iraq. On May 22, with Egyptian troops at Sharm al-Sheikh, Nasser announced the closing of the Strait of Tiran and thus the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli vessels or any vessels carrying goods to Israel. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol replied the next day that Israel would consider any interference with freedom of shipping as an act of aggression against Israel. Bellicose speeches continued to emanate from Cairo, however, and during the next week, Nasser on several occasions stated that Palestine must be liberated and Israel destroyed.

As the crisis escalated, the Security Council met in emergency session, but its discussions were fruitless and hampered by the Soviet veto. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Paris, London, and the United States, as the Western countries groped for some way to defuse the situation. Although President Johnson publicly denounced Nasser’s closing of the waterway and promised that the United States would try to get other maritime nations to join in testing the blockade, the American Aide Memoire of 1957 was obviously a worthless scrap of paper. Privately, Johnson warned Israel against a preemptive strike, and Israeli moderates hesitated to act unilaterally. Nasser appeared to have Israel in a bind; the prolonged general mobilization in Israel was beginning to have a dire psychological as well as economic effect. To the Arabs, what had perhaps started as some limited action began to take on the possibility of a potentially successful military operation, as Nasser, believing he had the support of the Russians, went to the brink. On May 30, 1967, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Egypt to sign a defense pact with Egypt. He agreed to allow Iraqi troops to enter Jordanian territory in the event of hostilities and to place his troops under Egyptian military authority. PLO leader Shuqayri, although no friend of Hussein, was present at the signing ceremony and flew back to Jordan with the king.

The situation was extremely difficult for Israel. There were Arab armies poised on all its borders; mobilization was taking a toll economically, as normal life came to a standstill, and politically, there was a crisis situation, as Eshkol’s government seemed incapable of making a decision about what course of action to take. All armies have contingency plans, and as early as 1964 Israel had worked out such a plan for an attack against Egypt if necessary. Israel had on several occasions threatened reprisals against Syria and undoubtedly had various alternatives on the drawing board. Given Israel’s borders, the idea of the preemptive strike (or what some Israeli military leaders like Yigal Allon called the “preemptive counterstrike”) had come to be accepted, since Israel within its present borders was not in a position to absorb a first blow and survive. Because of Israel’s policies of massive retaliation and offensive warfare as the best defense, some historians and writers see all the Arab–Israeli wars as the result of Israeli aggressiveness and expansionism, which they attribute to an inherent dynamic and master plan of Zionism. In their view, while Nasser may have shown antipathy to Israel, and with good reason, he was not a warmonger—in contrast to Ben-Gurion and a coterie of younger Israeli “hawks” who had been planning another strike against Nasser for a decade.

Other historians argue that despite the existence of military contingency plans, there is no evidence that Israel would have launched a full-scale war against Egypt had Nasser not taken the provocative actions he did. They contend, on the contrary, that the failure of Israel to retaliate for the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba—a retaliation that was expected among both the Arabs and the superpowers—and the hesitation and indecisiveness evident in Israel as diplomatic solutions were floated fed Nasser’s megalomania and encouraged King Hussein of Jordan to put aside past differences and climb on the bandwagon. They maintain that no matter how pragmatic Nasser could be, the defeat of 1948 and the drubbing of 1956 had only nourished Arab hatred of Israel and the desire for revenge. In any event, the Egyptian–Jordanian defense pact seems to have galvanized the Israelis, who put together a government of national unity (which included Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition for all the years since statehood), in which Moshe Dayan was named minister of defense.

With Dayan in the cabinet, and with the Israeli belief that the existence of the entire nation was indeed in jeopardy, it was almost a certainty that Israel would strike the first blow. According to apologists for Israel, this is precisely what Nasser wanted. Were he to initiate hostilities, the issue would not be about shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba but about the continued existence of the Jewish state, which the United States was pledged to uphold. In this view, Nasser believed that Israel, in striking a first blow, would be diplomatically isolated, especially from the United States, and that the Americans would hesitate to intervene on Israel’s side. Wiser leaders than Eshkol and Nasser, however, might have averted conflict.

The Six-Day War broke out on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Israeli planes destroyed most of Egypt’s air force on the ground. Details of the war itself have been told in countless books and will not be repeated here, but the importance of air power and the cohesiveness of Israel’s citizen army should be mentioned as significant factors in Israel’s success. The outcome was even more dramatic, since the Arabs seemed to be superior in almost every weapons category. After the initial Israeli air strike, Israeli ground troops defeated the Egyptian army, seizing the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula. In a still-disputed incident on June 8, the Israelis attacked an American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty, sailing off the Egyptian coast. Thirty-four sailors were killed and 164 wounded. Some writers insist that this was a deliberate and premeditated attack; Israel continues to maintain that the attack on the Liberty was a case of mistaken identity and an accident. Israel apologized and later paid $3 million in reparations for the families of the victims to the U.S. government, which accepted Israel’s explanation and apology.

Israel asked King Hussein to stay out of the war and assured him it would not attack him first. Hussein, however, was badly misled by the Egyptians, who intimated that they were being successful against Israel on the southern front. Jordanian guns began to fire from across the borders in Jerusalem while Jordanian troops seized the UN headquarters in no-man’s land. This was indeed the excuse the Israelis needed to take the Old City of Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. Israel then turned toward Syria, which had been attacking Israel’s northern settlements by air and with artillery. Although the United Nations called for a cease-fire, the Israelis did not stop until they had captured the Golan Heights in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. By June 10, 1967, six days later, the war was over.


In 1401 the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) was in the city of Damascus, then under siege by the mighty Tamerlane. Eager to meet the famous conqueror of the day, he was lowered from the walls in a basket and received in Tamerlane’s camp. There he had a series of conversations with a ruler he described (in his autobiography) as ‘one of the greatest and mightiest of kings . . . addicted to debate and argument about what he knows and does not know’. Ibn Khaldun may have seen in Tamerlane the saviour of the Arab–Muslim civilization for whose survival he feared. But four years later Tamerlane died on the road to China, whose conquest he had planned.

Tamerlane (sometimes Timur, or Timurlenk, ‘Timur the Lame’ – hence his European name) was a phenomenon who became a legend. He was born, probably in the 1330s, into a lesser clan of the Turkic-Mongol tribal confederation the Chagatai, one of the four great divisions into which the Mongol empire of Genghis (Chinggis) Khan had been split up at his death, in 1227. By 1370 he had made himself master of the Chagatai. Between 1380 and 1390 he embarked upon the conquest of Iran, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Armenia and Georgia. In 1390 he invaded the Russian lands, returning a few years later to wreck the capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol regime in modern South Russia. In 1398 he led a vast plundering raid into North India, crushing its Muslim rulers and demolishing Delhi. Then in 1400 he returned to the Middle East to capture Aleppo and Damascus (Ibn Khaldun escaped its massacre), before defeating and capturing the Ottoman sultan Bayazet at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. It was only after that that he turned east on his final and abortive campaign.

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and the undoubted savagery of his predatory conquests, Tamerlane was a transitional figure in Eurasian history. His conquests were an echo of the great Mongol empire forged by Genghis Khan and his sons. That empire had extended from modern Iran to China, and as far north as Moscow. It had encouraged a remarkable movement of people, trade and ideas around the waist of Eurasia, along the great grassy corridor of steppe, and Mongol rule may have served as the catalyst for commercial and intellectual change in an age of general economic expansion. The Mongols even permitted the visits of West European emissaries hoping to build an anti-Muslim alliance and win Christian converts. But by the early fourteenth century the effort to preserve a grand imperial confederation had all but collapsed. The internecine wars between the ‘Ilkhanate’ rulers in Iran, the Golden Horde and the Chagatai, and the fall of the Yuan in China (by 1368), marked the end of the Mongol experiment in Eurasian empire.

Tamerlane’s conquests were partly an effort to retrieve this lost empire. But his methods were different. Much of his warfare seemed mainly designed to wreck any rivals for control of the great trunk road of Eurasian commerce, on whose profits his empire was built. Also, his power was pivoted more on command of the ‘sown’ than on mastery of the steppe: his armies were made up not just of mounted bowmen (the classic Mongol formula), but of infantry, artillery, heavy cavalry and even an elephant corps. His system of rule was a form of absolutism, in which the loyalty of his tribal followers was balanced against the devotion of his urban and agrarian subjects. Tamerlane claimed also to be the ‘Shadow of God’ (among his many titles), wreaking vengeance upon the betrayers and backsliders of the Islamic faith. Into his chosen imperial capital at Samarkand, close to his birthplace, he poured the booty of his conquests, and there he fashioned the architectural monuments that proclaimed the splendour of his reign. The ‘Timurid’ model was to have a lasting influence upon the idea of empire across the whole breadth of Middle Eurasia.

But, despite his ferocity, his military genius and his shrewd adaptation of tribal politics to his imperial purpose, Tamerlane’s system fell apart at his death. As he himself may have grasped intuitively, it was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe and build a Eurasian empire on the old foundations of Mongol military power. The Ottomans, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in northern India, and above all China were too resilient to be swept away by his lightning campaigns. Indeed Tamerlane’s death marked in several ways the end of a long phase in global history. His empire was the last real attempt to challenge the partition of Eurasia between the states of the Far West, Islamic Middle Eurasia and Confucian East Asia. Secondly, his political experiments and ultimate failure revealed that power had begun to shift back decisively from the nomad empires to the settled states. Thirdly, the collateral damage that Tamerlane inflicted on Middle Eurasia, and the disproportionate influence that tribal societies continued to wield there, helped (if only gradually) to tilt the Old World’s balance in favour of the Far East and Far West, at the expense of the centre. Lastly, his passing coincided with the first signs of a change in the existing pattern of long-distance trade, the East–West route that he had fought to control. Within a few decades of his death, the idea of a world empire ruled from Samarkand had become fantastic. The discovery of the sea as a global commons offering maritime access to every part of the world transformed the economics and geopolitics of empire. It was to take three centuries before that new world order became plainly visible. But after Tamerlane no world-conqueror arose to dominate Eurasia, and Tamerlane’s Eurasia no longer encompassed almost all the known world.

Working War Plan Orange


Reappraisals of War Plan Orange in the second half of 1933 brought to a head the destiny of the flying boat. Rear Admiral Joseph “Bull” Reeves, a faithful believer in the type, insisted that the fleet could not enter Philippine waters nor even loiter in the Marshalls without a security umbrella of five to seven VProns. Op-12 dutifully incorporated them in the first attack wave. They could fly to the Marshalls via Johnston Island but would have to travel onward to Mindanao as deck cargo. Mobilization tables reserved space aboard all ship classes, yet many of the big planes were to be lashed precariously on minesweepers under tow. The absurdity of the “eyes of the Fleet” wallowing blindly along the dangerous passage helped discredit the “Through Ticket” once and for all.

In October 1933 the credibility of a mid-ocean campaign suddenly brightened. An excellent VP prototype had emerged from successful commercial types “flying down to Rio.” The Navy placed orders for the plane that evolved into the most-produced flying boat of all time, the Consolidated PBY, later dubbed Catalina for an island near the factory in California—a British practice of naming planes. The aerodynamically clean, high-winged monoplane soon achieved the long-sought 1,000-mile range—1,500 in some wartime models. War planners could look forward to delivery within three years of flocks of far-winging scouts for an ocean offensive.

Rebirth of the cautionary campaign plan after 1933 owed much to enchantment with the graceful Catalinas. Yet their arrival touched off four disputes among the war planners, operating commanders, and the naval bureaus as to their roles. Three of the disputes were decisively settled before war in the Pacific erupted. Confusion over the fourth had much to do with the tragedy of 7 December 1941.

The first dispute concerned whether the Navy should acquire as many Catalinas as possible as the workhorses of the fleet, or strive for even larger, more proficient aircraft. Projected numbers of flying boats for a Treaty Navy were modest: 184 operating with the fleet in 1935, with 30 added per year to reach a peak of 330 in 1941. But aeronautical science was advancing rapidly. The Navy funded design studies of what became the two-engine Martin Mariner, which surpassed the Catalinas in speed and altitude and usurped the key scouting role midway through the war. Giant Sikorsky and Martin civilian flying boats operated by Pan Air, and German and British models inspired the four-engine PB2Y Coronado, ultimately built in smaller numbers. In the extreme, the monstrous Martin Mars, an eight-thousand-mile range “flying dreadnought” was supposedly capable of a Hawaii-Tokyo round-trip. Only a handful were built late in the war.

In 1935 the CNO skeptically inquired whether planes of, say, five- to six-thousand-mile ranges were needed. They required long, smooth waters for takeoffs. They consumed much more fuel. They could not be carried aboard ship and cost was a major consideration. He preferred “mid-sized” Catalinas capable of haul-out on primitive shores on their own beaching gear, for service by small tenders, or carried as deck cargo or disassembled to Mandate’s lagoons beyond their range. The Commander of Aircraft Base Force thought the ideal to be a two-engine craft of 3,000 nautical miles range at 175 knots, 20,000-foot ceiling, takeoff in less than 2.5 miles of taxi lane. CinCUS Reeves and Chief war planner, Rear Adm. William S. Pye, hoped for 3,500-mile range and thirty-hour endurance. Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of BuAer, who usually championed the most excellent aircraft, agreed quantity over “utmost” quality in this case. Why was extra range needed when no naval battle had ever been fought more than a thousand miles from land? Besides, bigger planes would not be available in masses for three or four years.

There the matter rested until 1940. In February 1941 PBYs were in service (all earlier types having been retired) with 200 PBY-5s on order for rapid delivery. Only 21 PBM Mariners were on order. The General Board declared for only a few giant boats for a few extraordinary missions. Rear Admiral John Towers felt that a dozen four-engine giants would suffice; at a cost of $926,000 the Navy could procure 9 Catalinas or 4 Mariners (albeit the newer planes had not achieved cost benefits of volume production). The final prewar word was pronounced by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Chief of the WPD, in November 1941. The war in Europe showed that seaplanes could not match landplanes in range, ceiling, maneuverability, speed, or self-defense. For long-range patrolling the Navy needed big landplane bombers, 25 percent immediately and 50 percent ultimately.

In a second debate, enthusiasts of the wondrous Catalinas envisioned them as a striking force hurling bombs and torpedoes at Japanese fleets and bases. The planes were performing splendidly in exercises out to U.S. atolls. Navy leaders’ enthusiasm may seem odd but in the mid- to late 1930s nobody knew how a future air war would unfold. Leading the battle cry was Ernest J. King, an air power devotee who attended flight school in middle age and then commanded the carrier Lexington. Moffett’s death brought King to the top of the Bureau of Aeronautics. In 1935 King warned against discounting the attack role. A modern VPron could drop twenty-four tons of bombs, almost as much as the thirty tons of all planes on the two largest carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga. Such planes were “distinctly a naval weapon for use over the sea against a naval objective.” Here was an opportunity “just as positive and clear” as Army bombers over land. Like cruisers that also scouted, flying boats could also fight. Any Commander in Chief would welcome them, any enemy would fear them. To ignore such a mission would cede to the Army the most promising development in aviation.

A chorus of skeptics greeted King. The CinCUS considered combat a distinctly secondary role. WPD Director Captain G. J. Meyers noted that VP scouting released carrier planes for combat. The commander of the fleet squadrons imagined Catalinas carrying four 500-pound bombs as a secondary role, but Rear Admiral Frederick J. Horne, commander of the VP squadrons, retorted that loading bombs from rafts onto wing racks was so time-consuming as to render the force impotent for attack. Pye, the next Director of the WPD, said that aerial torpedoes were too big, costly, and delicate. The naysayers conceded only peripheral missions such as attacking submarines while on patrol, mining, or night attacks on poorly defended islands, albeit sacrificing range for ordnance. Nevertheless, when King returned to the fleet to command the VProns he soon was exercising them as bombers and asking for torpedoes. Claude Bloch, the next CinCUS, continued attack training. King was apparently vindicated when the Navy redesignated the Catalina “PBY,” the first seaplane to sport a “B” for bomber along with “P” for patrol. Commander in Chief Arthur Hepburn transferred them in 1937 from the defensive Base Force to a new offensive command, Aircraft, Scouting Force.

By early 1940, however, opinion turned negative and soon jelled into hostility. Flying boats were inherently vulnerable. Orange Plan studies had assumed attrition of 10 percent per month, even in the scouting role. Combat raids were not worth the additional sacrifice of essential scouts. Commander of the VProns, A. B. Cook, after exercises, declared that “use as an attack forces is questionable except as a last resort,” while torpedo attacks on defended ships “should not be attempted except under desperate circumstances.” Captain Russell Crenshaw, Chief of the WPD, concurred. Richmond Kelly Turner delivered the death knell in November 1941 with his plea for long-range landplanes for the attack role as well as for scouting.

A third quandary of operating VP aircraft in a Blue-Orange war involved how and where to base them far beyond the harbors of California, Panama, and Oahu. In the early stages of flying boat development some Navy officers believed they could operate effectively under the most extraordinary conditions. A few thought they might operate en masse from the open ocean, or at least in the lee of islands, if only in circumstances of utmost urgency. Experiments of refueling at sea from the specially configured tanker submarine Nautilus proved barely practicable for one or two planes at a time. An ill-advised notion to lift a VP airplane for servicing onto a cradle on the deck of a submarine that would rise to the surface beneath it was wisely squelched by acting CNO Richardson. Further experiments proved open-sea operations dangerous and impracticable (although “Dumbo” VP aircraft rescued many a downed aviator at sea during World War II). Other ideas met similar dead ends. Designs for a ship with stern gates and a ramp for hauling aboard planes with folding wings were shelved. Takeoffs were conducted using catapults mounted on towed barges that could feather into the wind, with some success in calm waters, although this left open the question of where to land on return. One outlandish scheme envisioned VP aircraft packed with Marines landing in lightly defended enemy lagoons, to defend the toehold with hand weapons until reinforcements arrived by ship.

The most successful basing idea in the late 1920s and 1930s was the seaplane tender. The VProns needed sheltered harbors for flights and for ministrations by mother ships that were hybrids of fuel, repair, and barracks vessels. The Navy considered adapting merchantmen and even yachts, but settled on converting several small, slow minesweepers with lyrical names like Swan, Thrush, and Pelican. The shallow twelve-foot draft “Bird”-class tenders were well suited for uncharted lagoons. Crews could assist in hauling out VP aircraft on beaching wheels for light repairs. However, tenders were so defenseless that they might have to be evacuated during daylight hours and return after dark. Furthermore, their sluggish speed retarded fleet mobility. Working in pairs, one tender would sail off to lay moorings at an advance base while the other stood by until takeoff, then chugged gamely after. The net rate of advance was one-third that of the surface fleet.

During the Depression so many tenders were laid up that movement with a war expedition was virtually precluded. By 1935, however, one large and five small tenders were serving the squadrons, with gasoline enough for thirty hours of flying. Throughout the 1930s CinCUS and General Board reports urged the development of large tenders as semipermanent homes for three squadrons, with far more fuel and berthing capacity and with cranes to lift a VP plane aboard for major repairs by its well-equipped machine shops. After every “fleet problem,” that is, massed annual maneuvers, the Commander in Chief and his aviation subordinate identified the “urgent necessity” of more and better tenders as their most important deficiency. CinCUS Reeves demanded that tenders receive highest priority. The Ship Movements Division called for four large and seven small tenders for the squadrons already in service. In 1939 the Greenslade Board’s “Are We Ready” studies again listed tenders as the fleet’s number one deficiency. The minesweeper types were slow, lacked stowage, and could handle only a half squadron. The converted destroyers cured only the speed problem. The larger types took three years to build.

A new solution for both defensive and offensive VP basing early in a war appeared shortly before the actual war. For mid-Pacific operations the United States possessed a few scattered atolls west of Hawaii. Beginning in 1935 some were developed, with naval encouragement, by Pan Air for its “Flying Clipper” service to the Orient. Three atolls—Midway 1,000 nautical miles northwest of Oahu, Johnston 720 miles southwest, and Palmyra 960 miles south—were envisioned as defensive bases for Pearl Harbor. Squadrons and tenders exercised at Johnston and at French Frigate Shoals halfway to Midway. VProns made record-breaking massed flights to Midway during 1935 maneuvers. In 1938, with world tensions mounting, Congress approved a huge appropriation to develop the defensive atolls as seaplane bases—and at Midway a submarine base as well—by dredging channels through rock-hard reefs and erecting shore facilities, contracted to civilian firms that had built Hoover Dam. In 1941 ground and air defense units were emplaced on the islands. With advanced island bases in the offing the Navy ordered the PBY-5A, an amphibious version of the Catalina, to fly from airstrips as well as lagoons. By 7 December 1941 Midway housed a squadron periodically rotated, and Johnston a half squadron (six planes) from time to time.

Wake Island was a different story. Situated two thousand nautical miles west of Oahu and only a few hundred miles north of the Japanese Marshalls, it was hardly a defensive outpost. In fact, the evolving Orange Plans noted Wake’s unique value for the Blue descent on Eniwetok in the northwest Marshalls, the first objective of the offensive, to be occupied six months after the start of the war. VP aircraft could cover the fleet operating nearly a thousand miles beyond Wake. They could scout and might even bomb the Mandate Islands. B-17 bombers, staging through Midway and Wake, could certainly bomb the enemy islands. In 1940 Congress belatedly approved the funding of Wake. Meanwhile VP planes visited Wake on a few training missions by using the Pan Air channel facilities. A permanent deployment was expected in 1942. The fleet now had an advanced base from which VP aircraft could cover it as it moved into the Mandate.

The hurried construction at Wake brought to a head the final, and perhaps most important, debate about the flying boats. Was their primary function defensive scouting, that is, patrolling naval bases against surprise attack? Or was it supporting the offensive as scouts fanning out ahead of the fleet’s advance across the Pacific? In the Orange Plans of the 1920s and early 1930s the defensive mission was deemed paramount because Japanese Micronesia lay undefended. U.S. forces could occupy the Marshalls and probably Truk before Japan could fortify them. The VProns’ job was to warn of a surprise Japanese counterattack on Blue ships anchored there. Security demanded continuous long-range patrols, round the clock, covering 360 degrees. The war planners expressed confidence in the protective surveillance umbrella.

Offensive scouting, serving as the eyes of the fleet as it advanced, was more problematic. Carrier planes could scout ahead two hundred miles or so, and not at night. Floatplanes of battleships and cruisers could reach somewhat farther. But fleets could close on each other by five hundred miles overnight. Only flying boats could provide information of the enemy’s whereabouts a thousand miles out to sea.

Unlike the clear solutions of the other quandaries before the war, planners deemed both defensive and offensive scouting vital. But in 1941 the number of VProns available to the Pacific Fleet was still small, and dwindled as some were sent to neutrality patrol in the Philippines and the Atlantic. Nearly 1,000 more aircraft were on order but were not expected in service until 1943 at the earliest. In an emergency, a Commander in Chief might have to decide which of his scouting functions, offensive or defensive, was most critical. As war loomed, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, chose the wrong option.

In May 1941 War Plan Orange morphed into the Pacific half of Rainbow Five, a plan for a two-ocean war against Germany and Japan adopted jointly by the U.S. and British governments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred most of the U.S. Fleet to Hawaii in May 1940 as a deterrent to Japan grabbing U.S. and Allied colonies in the Far East. In February 1941 he promoted Kimmel to command the newly named Pacific Fleet. Kimmel’s primary mission under Rainbow Five was to divert the Imperial Japanese Navy for seventy days from attacking the great British naval base at Singapore, long enough for King’s Atlantic Fleet to relieve portions of the Royal Navy so they could steam to the rescue of Singapore. However, to ensure that the offensive-minded Kimmel did not thrust too far out into the Pacific during an emergency, say, the collapse of Great Britain, thus requiring a recall to the Atlantic, CNO Harold Stark directed Richmond Kelly Turner’s War Plans Division to tether Kimmel’s range of action. His ships must not operate west of 166° 39’ E, the longitude of the Marshall Islands and Wake (although some units could cruise in the South Pacific as far as Australia). Kimmel’s planning dilemma was how to support Singapore without cruising within 4,500 miles of it! In July 1941 his brilliant war planner, Captain Charles H. “Soc” (for Socrates, his nickname because he was considered an extremely wise man) McMorris, provided the answer in Fleet Plan WPPac-46. When Japan attacked the Far East the fleet would sortie from Pearl Harbor immediately. Several flying boat squadrons would wing ahead to Midway, Johnston, and Wake to cover it. Vice Admiral William F. Halsey’s three fast aircraft carriers would steam through the Marshalls twice, first to reconnoiter and then to bomb. Meanwhile Kimmel’s eight powerful battleships would rendezvous at Point Tare, the point of maximum cover equidistant between the three atoll VP bases, then take up position between Wake and Midway. In analysis of Kimmel’s strategy the naval ballet made sense only as an elaborate ambush of Admiral Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet, presumably enticed by Halsey’s gambits to a fight in the Central Pacific. Kimmel, who “wanted to be the American Nelson,” almost certainly hoped for a gunnery slugfest about the third week of war, in waters densely patrolled by flying boats from Wake and Midway but far beyond reach of Yamamoto’s long-range scouting planes. VProns were the key to Kimmel’s grandiose plan. Plan WPPac-46 was no mere school exercise; CNO and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox approved it in September 1941 and it was not materially amended before 7 December.

Aware that the Catalinas could operate at still-primitive advanced bases for only a few weeks before engine overhauls, Kimmel opted to horde most of them on Oahu in tip-top shape for the surge forward rather than wear them out patrolling in defense of Oahu, knowing the Army Air Corps lacked long-range planes for the job. He had received a war warning. At dusk on 6 December Commander Nagumo’s carriers were about 275 miles to the north-northeast, well within the normal radius of flying boats. Kimmel had sixty-eight Catalinas in six VP Squadrons afloat and ashore at Oahu that morning, but only one was airborne guarding the harbor mouth against submarines. The Japanese attack destroyed all but one of the Catalinas. None got airborne. Assigned a nearly impossible mission, Kimmel chose to ignore base defense, the original mission for which the great planes were designed, for the more glamorous role of “eyes of the Fleet” as it steamed to the attack. He made the worst choice.

Jutland’s Significance



Jutland had been no Trafalgar, but then it never could have been. The “wooden walls” of Nelson’s three-deckers were nearly indestructible: the Royal Navy won its victories in the “Age of Fighting Sail” by slaughtering enemy crews and then capturing their ships, not demolishing them. In the Age of Fighting Steel, that was no longer true: the ships themselves were now far more vulnerable than their crews, and were almost irreplaceable. The fate of the three British battlecruisers at Jutland proved only too well the validity of Churchill’s analogy of dreadnoughts being “eggshells armed with hammers.”

Nor could Jellicoe place his faith in the measure of his crews’ competence over their adversaries: time and again in the course of the Great War the officers and ratings of the German Navy proved themselves every bit as proficient and courageous as their Royal Navy counterparts. The yawning chasm that separated the fighting skills of the British seamen of 1805 from their French and Spanish opponents did not exist in 1914.

And so Jellicoe fought a very different battle, one meant to maintain the Grand Fleet’s quantitative supremacy over the High Seas Fleet and ensure that the German warships remained locked in the North Sea, utterly impotent, far from the Atlantic shipping lanes that were Great Britain’s lifelines. As Churchill so correctly observed, Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Thus to Jellicoe nothing but the preservation of the battle fleet mattered: all of his strategies, all of his tactics, were drawn up with this overarching requisite in mind.

Like Trafalgar, Jutland’s consequences were not immediately felt, but they possessed a long reach and proved decisive. The myth that Jutland was somehow a German victory, or even just a draw, is simply that—a myth. For all of the bluster and posturing in his official report, Reinhard Scheer could not alter the fundamental fact that when dawn broke on June 1, 1916 the High Seas Fleet was limping back into its home port, while the Grand Fleet was cruising the open waters of the North Sea, ready to renew the battle. No amount of rhetoric or circumlocution could disguise the fact that the High Seas Fleet turned away from the enemy not once but twice within the span of an hour. If any more convincing demonstration of the Grand Fleet’s ascendency was needed, it can be found in the signals each commander sent to his admiralty upon arriving in port: Scheer told Berlin that the High Seas Fleet would require at least two months to repair and refit before it would be able to put to sea; the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe informed London, needed only to refuel before it would be ready to sail again.

In the end, though, when taken in the longest view, Jutland can finally be seen for what it was—one of the decisive battles of the First World War. There is more to winning and losing a battle than simply numbers: victory or defeat cannot be determined by simply counting the killed, wounded, and missing —or in the case of a naval battle, by the number of ships sunk; it would be an exercise in superfluity to recount the major, decisive battles where the victors’ losses exceeded those of the defeated forces. Jutland was decisive not because one fleet failed to destroy the other, but because something else was destroyed: Reinhard Scheer’s faith in the High Seas Fleet’s ability to defeat the Royal Navy. After Jutland, Scheer never again advocated a major fleet action as a strategic option for the Imperial Navy. Having seen first-hand the power of the Grand Fleet, he instinctively understood that the High Seas Fleet simply lacked the strength to cripple the Grand Fleet, and that nothing less would be required if German warships were to ever reach the North Atlantic. Instead, he threw his wholehearted support behind what became the panacea of German naval strategy: unrestricted submarine warfare; so great was his newfound enthusiasm that it carried his commanding officer, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, with it.

Scheer never fully articulated how his change of heart came about, yet the inescapable conclusion is that it was produced by his experience at Jutland. Certainly Scheer was no coward, but something broke within him that May afternoon, for he was never again the fiercely aggressive sailor he had been before the battle. Jutland disabused Scheer and his fellow admirals of any illusions they may have held about a triumphant High Seas Fleet. The decisive effect of the Battle of Jutland was that it drove them to choose the path of risk; in the end by accepting, even embracing, that risk, Germany paid the price in defeat.

After the Battle of Jutland, almost a year passed before the United States joined the Allies in making war on Germany, nearly two and one-half years went by before that cool, brisk November morning when the warships of the High Seas Fleet steamed into internment off the Firth of Forth. And yet, when they did, they were silently confirming that for the Royal Navy, for Great Britain, and for the Allies, the Battle of Jutland had, indeed, been a victory. It had just been a distant victory.


T-34/85 Model 1943, early production vehicle from a Red Guards battalion, Leningrad sector, February 1944.

Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg trenchantly describes the twelve months from the end of Kursk to the Red Army’ s summer offensive of 1944 as “the forgotten year.” That period featured continuous fighting from Leningrad to the Black Sea, on scales surpassing those of 1941-42 and with losses far larger, especially on the Soviet side. The story of the panzers becomes correspondingly difficult to reconstruct as the divisions bloodied at Kursk were scattered to bolster resistance in a dozen sectors.

The German retreat from Leningrad and the successful, albeit temporary, stabilization of the northern front in the Baltic states owed little yet much to the army’s panzers. They were stretched too thin elsewhere to provide major assistance to the hard-pressed Landser. But the Red Army in the north was still learning its craft. Three Tigers by themselves played a vital role in holding a reestablished defense line around Narva, Estonia. A panzer division that arrived with only three dozen tanks was the spearhead of a counterattack that plugged a critical gap between two German armies. And the buccaneering assault gunners kept appearing where they were most needed, shifting from sector to sector and division to division to shore up infantrymen as outgunned as they were outnumbered. By October one battalion recorded a thousand official kills.

Part of the panzer gap was filled by the Waffen SS. By the end of 1942 the army had essentially decided the small units of foreigners it had managed to raise were more trouble than they were worth. Heinrich Himmler, always on the lookout to enhance the scope of his ramshackle empire within an empire, took them in. In early 1943 he activated III (Germanic) Panzer Corps, to include the Vikings and a new division eventually designated the 11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division (Northland).

Had Hitler not intervened its honorific might have been “Varan gian,” a reference to the Scandinavian guard troops of the medieval Byzantine empire and a reflection of Himmler’s desire to base the division on Aryan volunteers. In fact Northland absorbed most of the remaining foreign legions—including, for a while, a 50-man British detachment—and made up its strength with “ethnic Germans” from outside the expanded state and “Reich Germans” from territories annexed during the war. Northland saw its first action and made its first bones in the no-quarter partisan fighting in Yugoslavia. In November the division and III SS Panzer Corps were sent to the Leningrad sector. When it proved impossible to withdraw Viking from the fighting in the south, the corps was fleshed out by the ostensibly Dutch SS Volunteer PanzerGrenadier Brigade Nederland. Despite having only a single tank battalion plus some assault guns, it played an important role in the successful defense of Narva over the winter of 1943-44.

The III SS Panzer Corps is best understood in the context of the far more numerous unmechanized Waffen SS formations also thrown into what Reich propagandists described as “the battle of the European SS.” Some were Belgian, with Flemings and Walloons carefully separated. Others were local: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Interpreted by postwar apologists as participants in a crusade against Bolshevism, they wore SS runes but saw themselves fighting against Russia and for their homelands.

In the war’s final months the Waffen SS would incorporate Bos nian Muslims, Croats, Italians, Frenchmen, and plain criminals into grandiosely styled “brigades” and “divisions” whose only German elements, in the words of one contemptuous Landser, were a few German shepherd watchdogs. Another thing these ragtag formations had in common was that they only saw German tanks by accident. The Waffen SS, in short, was subdividing into an elite fighting core, according to many accounts disproportionately favored in personnel and equipment; and a fringe of increasingly desperate men who, as they felt the ropes tighten around their necks, took little account of their behavior to prisoners and civilians.

Army Group Center’s post-Kursk circumstances were arguably even more perilous than those of Army Group North. When the general Russian offensives began in that sector, 3rd Panzer Army on the far left had not a single armored vehicle under command. Its neighbor, 4th Army, began the battle with 66 assault guns against almost 1,500 Soviet AFVs. The Germans nevertheless executed a fighting retreat into White Russia despite the Red Army’s desperate efforts. Companies were commanded by sergeants; local reserves were nonexistent, and replacements were a forlorn hope. As early as September 8, one army commander reported the total combat strength of his infantry was fewer than 7,000 men. A month later Kluge contacted Hitler directly and pulled no punches informing him that no general could command without men, weapons, and reserves. The Russians had all three.

Things might have become far worse had the Red Army in this sector not regressed to tactics making the Somme and Passchendaele appear sophisticated by comparison. Massed infantry, massed armor, and massed artillery hammered at the same points time after time, until nothing and no one remained to send forward or the Germans gave way.

The German plight was compounded by a well- coordinated partisan uprising in their rear. The army group had been preoccupied with holding its front since 1942. Now it faced an exponentially increasing number of strikes against communications systems and railroads. Security forces responded with large-scale, near-random executions and, as the front receded, scorched earth—when anything remained to scorch. This was no mere torching of villages and looting of houses. It involved the systematic destruction of militarily useful installations. In total war that meant anything. What was not burned was blown up. Thousands of civilians were “evacuated,” a euphemism for being driven west with what they could carry, with the alternative of risking execution as partisans or being shot at random. Files named “Protests” and “Refusals” are conspicuously absent from otherwise well- kept German records. What was important to senior officers was that the devastation be carried out in order and under command. German soldiers were not mere brigands.

The fight of Army Group Center was largely a foot soldier’s affair—with the by-now usual and welcome support of the near-ubiquitous assault guns. At the beginning of October the army group’s order of battle included a single panzer division itself reduced to battle group strength, and two panzer grenadier divisions in no better shape. Those figures remained typical. Yet ironically the panzers’ major contribution to the retreat played a large role in setting the scene for future debacle in the sector.

It began in March 1944 when the Red Army enveloped the city of Gomel and its patchwork garrison of 4,000 men. Gomel was a regional road and rail hub, as much as such existed in White Russia. Hitler declared it a fortress; the High Command supplied it from the air and ordered its immediate relief.

Initial efforts were thwarted by soft ground and the spring thaw. But after 10 days a battle group of SS Viking fought its way into the city. It required 18 hours and cost over 50 percent casualties. The lieutenant commanding received the Knight’s Cross. The hundred-odd surviving panzer grenadiers were welcome. The half-dozen Panthers were vital in holding off Soviet armor while LXVI Panzer Corps put together a relief force from an already worn-down 4th Panzer Division and a battle group built around what remained of Viking’s Panthers. The combination broke the siege on April 5, though it was two weeks before the link to the main front was fully reestablished.

The defense of Gomel solidified Hitler’s conviction that he had found a force multiplier. Gomel was on a small scale. But if larger “fortresses” could be established and garrisoned, under orders to hold to the last, the Soviets would be drawn into siege operations that would dissipate their offensive strength while the panzers and the Luftwaffe assembled enough strength to relieve the position. Army Group Center considered the idea good enough to be the best available alternative. The operational consequences of shifting to this fixed-defense approach would be demonstrated within months.





T-34/85 Model 1943, late production, fresh from the Red Sormovo Works at Gorki, March 1944.

The southern sector of the eastern front saw far more armored action than the other two in the months following Kursk. The Red Army’s performance was also exponentially better. Most of the best Soviet tank generals had been sent to that theater to see off the Kursk offensive and to prepare for the series of strikes expected to—finally—destroy German fighting power in south Russia.

It began on July 17. First Panzer Army and the re-created 6th Army initially held positions along the Mius River. Manstein planned a coun terstrike, using Das Reich and Leibstandarte to stun the Soviets on 1st Panzer Army’s front, then shifting them to 6th Army’s sector to join Totenkopf and 3rd Panzer in a larger concentric attack. When Hitler forbade it, Manstein borrowed the words of General von Seydlitz from two centuries earlier: His head was at the Führer’s disposal, but while he held command he must be allowed to use it.

Eventually, reinforced by a total of five panzer and panzer grenadier divisions, 1st Panzer Army did mount a tactically successful counterattack. But Manstein still faced over two and a half million men, 50,000 guns, 2,400 tanks, almost 3,000 aircraft. Purists sometimes suggest that Stavka should have used this overwhelming superiority to generate battles of encirclement, panzer style. But Stalin remembered all too clearly how Manstein had thwarted a similar approach after Stalingrad. At front and army command levels there also seems to have been a near-visceral desire to smash an enemy that had so often embarrassed them, and to do it with strength the Germans could not hope to match. Even airborne forces were thrown into the operation.

Ninth Army, 4th Panzer Army, and Detachment Kempf, rechristened 8th Army but with the same resources, paid the bill. Model secured Hitler’s permission for a fighting retreat from the Orel salient as part of the general withdrawal of Army Group Center. Fourth Panzer Army was split into three parts by the Soviet onslaught, each fighting its own desperate battle. Useful reinforcements were few—the 8th Panzer Division arrived with no tanks. A staff officer at Army High Command confided—but only to his diary—that the end might come before the new year. Manstein had to fight Hitler almost as fiercely as the Russians to secure permission to do anything but “hold, hold, hold!” Guderian cattily observed that Manstein was inappropriately tentative in the Führer’s presence. In fact Army Group South’s commander not only insisted that disaster awaited were he not allowed to fall back to the line of the Dnieper River, but on September 14 he declared that he would issue the orders the next day on his own responsibility. Hitler conceded defeat.

The success of the retreat depended on the panzers. Materially Manstein was playing a handful of threes. In contrast to Kursk, there were few chances to recover and repair damaged tanks. Casualty evacuation was random. Units constantly on the move meant stragglers were usually lost for good. It took two weeks to reach the Dnieper. By that time Army Group South counted fewer than 300 serviceable tanks and assault guns. The average infantry division’s frontline strength was around a thousand men. Its average front was twelve to thirteen miles.

Even Tigers felt the strain. In the course of the campaign, Army Group South’s single battalion of Panzer VIs was increased to four. But their commanders complained the Tigers were victimized by their reputation: thrown in piecemeal, shuttled from sector to sector, denied time to maintain the complex and sensitive vehicle. Too often they were used as mobile pillboxes. Too often their infantry support was nonexistent or ineffective.

The tankers ascribed that last to poor training and low morale. From the infantry’s perspective, it was often common sense. The Tiger was essentially different from the familiar assault guns, whose low silhouettes and maneuverability enabled them to seek ambush positions and use cover—almost like a Landser on treads. The Tigers were big. They drew fire like magnets and attracted Soviet tanks like flies to manure. Any smart rifleman—and slow thinkers had short life spans in the autumn of 1943—was likely to avoid them rather than take the risk of providing close-in protection.

As they fell back, the Germans scorched the earth. That is a polite military euphemism for a swath of devastation covering hundreds of square miles, sparing nothing and no one except by accident. “They are burning the bread,” Vatutin admonished his men. Few Soviet soldiers did not know what hunger felt like. Small wonder the Russians succeeded in throwing bridgeheads across the river. Small wonder that the Germans’ best chance of holding was to destroy them before they could metastasize. And small wonder that they failed.

On November 3 the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Dnieper in force around Kiev, on Manstein’s northern flank. Fourth Panzer Army’s few remaining AFVs foundered in the Soviet tide. The 25th Panzer Division, sent to restore the situation, had spent most of its existence in the peaceful surroundings of Norway. Botched transportation schedules temporarily made it a panzer division with no tracked vehicles at all. Yet the division managed, somehow, to halt an entire tank army and set the stage for another of Manstein’s signature counterattacks.

This one would be made without Hoth, summarily dismissed by Hitler for his failure to hold the river line. His replacement represented no loss in ability. Erhard Raus had been tempered in the front lines from Leningrad to Kursk. Tactical command of the counterattack was in the arguably even more capable hands of Hermann Balck, now commanding XLVIII Panzer Corps. Even the weather obliged, freezing the mud to stability by the time Balck went in.

Hitler had rejected Manstein and Guderian’s proposals to concentrate every tank in the southern sector for a short, massive blow. Forty-Eighth Panzer Corps counted only 200 tanks and assault guns, but they were manned by some of the Wehrmacht’s best, divisions like 1st Panzer, 7th Panzer, and Leibstandarte. For three weeks they ran rings around the baffled Rotarmisten. Balck’s corps was on the point of executing a 1941-style encirclement when a captured map showed the intended pocket contained no fewer than seven Soviet corps. Even for the intrepid Balck, that was a bit much. And despite virtuoso German performances from corps headquarters to tank crews, the Soviet bridgehead was still intact.

Further south, 1st Panzer Army and Army Group A, whose sector had been relatively quiet since the withdrawal from the Caucasus, came under increasing pressure in mid-August. Initially it was possible to plug gaps and secure flanks by using available AFVs as emergency relief. But when an eagerly awaited panzer division turned out to consist of seven tanks and an under strength panzer grenadier regiment, operational reality had an unpleasant way of unmistakably asserting itself. The situation was worsened in 1st Panzer Army’s sector, where Hitler had ordered an already dangerously deep salient where the Dnieper bent west at Zaporozhye to be expanded to a bridgehead—not for military reasons but to protect a dam producing electricity described as vital for the industry of occupied Ukraine, a dam that was also widely understood to symbolize Soviet achievement.

The extended deployment required to sustain this propaganda illusion drove Manstein to near-wordless fury. It took only four days for the Red Army to overrun the bridgehead in mid-October. The resources it had absorbed were unavailable to resist a far larger attack against 6th Army on 1st Panzer’s right: over a half-million men and 800 tanks against a fifth of the number of armored vehicles, in wide-open country. By the beginning of November the Crimea was isolated and Army Group A cut in half.

The Russians were learning how to keep moving tactically and operationally, and figuring out how to coordinate their movements on a theater level. On October 15 another sledgehammer shattered 1st Panzer Army’s left wing, and in 10 days covered the 100 miles to Krivoi Rog. On October 24 a second front-level offensive broke out of another Dnieper bridgehead a few miles south of the first. Mackensen, anything but an alarmist, reported the gap could not be closed, that his exhausted men had no more left in them. Hitler responded by giving Manstein control of 1st Panzer Army and a temporary free hand.

This time Manstein planned a movement. A panzer corps headquarters rotated from his army group through 1st Panzer Army’s rear zone into position on its left flank. It took command of Totenkopf, of 24th Panzer Division, in Italy since its reformation after Stalingrad, and of 14th Panzer Division, another Stalingrad revival currently shaking down in France. On August 28 this hastily assembled force drove southeast, into the Soviet rear toward Krivoi Rog. Mackensen’s LVII Panzer Corps attacked in the opposite direction two days later. Both operations took the Russians by surprise and succeeded in linking up to cut off the Soviet spearheads and restabilize the sector.

It was another neat local victory, and Mackensen’s last fight in Russia. On November 4 he was transferred to Italy, replaced by a no less capable man. Hans Hube had lost an arm in World War I, led a panzer corps with sufficient distinction to be flown out of Stalingrad, and done well against the British and Americans in Sicily. He had a reputation for willpower and energy. He would need both in the face of still another coordinated Soviet offensive in what again seemed overwhelming force.

The Soviet Union had paid for its successes against Army Group South with over 1.5 million casualties, a quarter of them dead or missing. The German front still held—barely—but its defenders were so tired and apathetic that in the words of one report, they no longer cared whether they were shot by the Russians or their own officers. And this was the elite Grossdeutschland Division, which enjoyed its own personal battalion of Tigers.

On December 24 the Red Army struck again: four fronts, 2.25 million men, 2,600 tanks. Fourth Panzer Army was again hammered into fragments, each making its own way west as best it could. Manstein almost by reflex saw the best response as shortening the front and concentrating his armor for a counterattack, as he had done after Stalingrad. When Hitler refused, Manstein, on his own responsibility, pulled 1st Panzer Army out of the line and redeployed it on 4th Panzer’s right. Hube had his own III Panzer Corps, XLVI Panzer Corps transferred in haste from France, and a provisional heavy tank regiment with a battalion each of Tigers and Panthers, plus some attached infantry and armored artillery. His counterattack cost the Russians a few tens of thousands of men and around 700 tanks. It was a victory—but only in the most limited tactical sense.

The experiences of Mackensen and Hube showed clearly that even in reasonable strength the panzers could do no more than restore local situations. Both counterattacks, moreover, had depended for half their striking power on divisions transferred from the west. How long would it be before Allied initiatives made that impossible?

Any doubts that the balance in armored war had definitively shifted should have been dispelled by the Battle of the Cherkassy Pocket. The Germans still held a 100-mile stretch of the Dnieper north of that city. Hitler projected its use as a springboard for a proposed spring offensive and forbade withdrawal. On January 24, two Soviet fronts hit the sector with a third of a million men, artillery, tanks, and aircraft in proportion. Inside of a week a half dozen divisions, including what was left of Viking, were cut off in the city of Korsun: around 60,000 men. Their armor support totaled two dozen tanks and half as many assault guns.

Hitler, remembering Demyansk, ordered the pocket to hold and promised supply from the air. Those melodies were too familiar. Manstein, well aware of the morale-sapping fear throughout his army group that the pocket would become another Stalingrad, planned a major relief operation using no fewer than nine panzer divisions. Initially every one of the divisions he proposed to use was already engaged elsewhere in Russia, and one was literally stuck fast trying to move through early spring mud. The four divisions finally assembled under 8th Army’s XLVII Panzer Corps had a combined total of 3,800 men in their eight panzer grenadier regiments. Their progress was predictably limited.

That left it up to Hube. His strike force for the unusually domesti cally named Operation Wanda—III Panzer Corps—included 1st, 16th, and 17th Panzer Divisions, Leibstandarte, and the heavy regiment. But the Panzer IV’s Tigers and Panthers bogged tread-deep in mud the wide-tracked T-34s traversed with relative ease. Fuel consumption spiraled; breakdowns multiplied; supply vehicles were immobilized. By February 15 it was clear that the pocket could not be relieved. Instead Manstein ordered a breakout in the direction of the mired III Panzer Corps, code word “Freedom.”

Orders were to leave anyone unable to march. For one of the few times in Wehrmacht history, something like a mutiny took place. Wounded who could be moved were loaded onto every available vehicle. With its seven tanks and three assault guns, Viking took the point and carried the retreat through the first Russian defenses. But III Panzer Corps was unable to fight its way to the designated meeting point and unable to contact the pocket by radio. Command and control were eroding even before the Germans entered a Russian combined-arms killing zone around dawn on February 16. For over four hours Russian tanks and cavalrymen chased fugitives through the ravines and across open ground. This was one of the few verifiable occasions where T-34s systematically ran over fleeing men. And the killing was likely both payback and pleasure.

Around 36,000 men, including 7,500 wounded, eventually reached III Panzer Corps’s lines. Eighty-three hundred of them belonged to Viking and the Walloon SS brigade attached to it. Total casualties in the pocket amounted to around 20,000: no bagatelle, but a long way from Stalingrad. First Panzer Army’s loss of over 150 AFVs reflected its inability to move immobilized tanks and repair breakdowns, rather than any sudden forward leap in the effectiveness of Soviet armor. Nevertheless, though Goebbels’s propaganda machine described a great victory, the battle for the Cherkassy Pocket highlighted the continuing decline of Hitler’s panzers from a strategic and operational force to a tactical instrument.

To maintain and restore even temporarily Army Group South’s sector of the Eastern Front in the months after Kursk had required the commitment of most of the army’s combat-ready armor. That commitment, moreover, was increasingly ad hoc. A “panzer division” in the German order of battle was increasingly likely to be on the ground with as many tanks as could be made operational combined in a single battalion; the mechanized panzer grenadier battalion and the reconnaissance battalion, both brought to something like table of organization strength by transfers from the remaining panzer grenadiers; the half-tracked pioneer company; and a few self-propelled guns. These remnants were repeatedly thrown in against odds of ten to one or higher without time to absorb replacements and work in new officers. They might bear famous names and numbers. They were not what they once were. But then the same could be said about an entire Reich approaching the point of unraveling.

The tipping point on the Eastern Front was even more clearly indicated in March 1944. The Korsun-Cherkassy breakout enraged Stalin, but was not even a speed bump to the continuing Russian offensive. Zukhov had taken over, and his hands drove the spearheads that tore 50-mile gaps in the front, left 1st Panzer Army facing in the wrong direction, and created within days a pocket containing over 200,000 men, fighting soldiers, their rear echelons, and the detritus of an occupation. Twenty-two divisions were represented. One had only 600 men and not a single antitank gun, and that was all too typical. The isolated Germans counted 50 assault guns and 43 tanks, some of them unable to move for lack of fuel.

One veteran spoke of “clean undershirt time,” when one looked for anything white enough to make a surrender flag. Hitler insisted on “holding what there is to hold.” Manstein informed Hitler that he intended to order a breakout on his own responsibility. Hitler temporized to show who was in charge, then agreed.

Manstein’s plan was by now almost conventional: reinforcements from France, this time the refreshed II SS Panzer Corps, to attack from the outside; 1st Panzer Army to drive west toward the SS spearheads. Radio interceptions—midlevel Red Army communications security had not progressed too far since 1914—helped Manstein time the breakout. Hube brought another idea to the table. His experience at Stalingrad and Cherkassy had convinced him of the risks involved in depending on a relief force. If one appeared and made contact, all was well and good. If necessary, however, Hube was prepared to fight his own way through in a “traveling pocket.”

Hube’s plan and its execution are still studied in war colleges. He had four corps headquarters, three of them panzer. He had elements of 10 panzer divisions—all the command elements he needed. The problem was how best to organize the operation. Given overall Russian superiority in the sector, conventional wisdom suggested a strong armored spearhead. The problem was that the tankers might move ahead too fast and too far, leaving the rest of the army to fend for itself—a polite euphemism for being overrun and destroyed. Instead Hube did the opposite. He organized the breakout in two parallel columns. Each had a vanguard of infantry supported by assault guns. The panzers formed the rear guard, in a position to move forward and support the advance forces when necessary.

Hube commanded the breakout in person. He had kept his men active in the days of preparation, sublimating feelings of despair and panic. Straggling and desertion were minimal. Zukhov’s threat to shoot every third prisoner if the pocket did not capitulate by April 2 was not generally known, but would have surprised few. That the Soviet marshal later restricted proposed victims to senior officers was limited comfort to anyone aware of the concession.

Hube originally wanted to break out to the south and head for Romania. Manstein insisted on a western direction despite the longer distance and the numerous river crossings it entailed. He had the senior rank and the final word. On March 27, 1st Panzer Army started west. It had the advantages of surprise; sluggish enemy reaction enabled the rear guard to close up to the main columns relatively unmolested. Hube kept his men closed up and moving. Improvised airstrips enabled the Luftwaffe to bring in fuel and ammunition and evacuate wounded—a major continuing boost to morale and a tribute to “Aunt Ju,” the Ju-52 transports that could land and take off from ground that was unusable by even the American Dakotas. On April 6, 1st Panzer’s spearheads made contact with elements of II SS Panzer Corps. A few days later its divisions were in action on a new defense line that held this time. Hube, awarded the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds, was killed in an air crash on his way to receive it.

His death was at once irony and paradigm. Hans Hube had conducted an epic, indeed heroic operation—but in the wrong direction. First Panzer Army brought out its tanks and its wounded at a cost of 6,000 dead and missing. Its anabasis bought time, but to what purpose? “For slow exhaustion and grim retreat/For a wasted hope and a sure defeat.” The words of an American captured on Bataan in 1942 might well serve as an epigram—or an epitaph—for the saga of Army Group South in the endgame months of the Russo-German War.

Prussian Fortunes 1760 Liegnitz and Torgau

After four campaigns of ceaseless activity and intense stress, during which he had had to witness tens of thousands of dead and dying, all victims of his ambition, Frederick was beginning to feel the strain. Rarely healthy at the best of times, he was now increasingly prone to disabling bouts of illness, with gout and hemorrhoids to the fore. So fierce had been the attack of gout and attendant fever the previous autumn that his journey to Silesia at a crucial time had to be delayed. He had told Prince Henry: “I shall fly to you on the wings of patriotism and duty, but when I arrive you will find only a skeleton,” although he added that his feeble body would still be activated by his indomitable spirit. By January 1760 the spirit had wilted too. He wrote to d’Argens to thank him for the trouble he was taking to publish his “twaddle,” but asked how he could be expected to write good verse when his mind was “too disturbed, too agitated, too depressed.” There was no prospect of securing peace, he cried, and one more defeat would deliver the coup de grâce. Weighed down by care, surrounded by implacable enemies, life had become an insupportable burden…and so he went on in the same vein lamenting his fate.

It was not quite yet a case of “darkest before dawn,” because Frederick had one even more tenebrous moment to survive. His overall strategy remained the same—to keep control of Saxony and Silesia—and so did his prime objective—the recapture of Dresden. How many troops he had at his disposal is a matter of dispute. The best guess is that he never had more than 110,000 on active duty, so his numerical inferiority was of the order of at least two to one. That disparity increased on 23 June when General de la Motte-Fouqué was overwhelmed at Landeshut by a greatly superior Austrian force under Laudon, losing 2,000 on the field of battle and another 8,000 in prisoners of war. Fewer than 1,500 managed to escape. Once again, a Prussian general had obeyed his royal master well but not wisely. Frederick had had second thoughts about his original order to hold Landeshut come what may, but his change of heart came too late to save Fouqué’s corps.

Back in Saxony, Frederick had been very active but without achieving anything. All his attempts to bring either Lacy or Daun to battle failed. So did his siege of Dresden, which began on 19 July only to be abandoned four days later. Three days after that, the Austrians showed him how a siege should be conducted when Laudon’s army took the great Silesian fortress of Glatz by storm. Admittedly, Dresden had been garrisoned by 14,000 veterans commanded by the determined Major General Macguire (sic), whereas the luckless Glatz commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Bartolomei d’O (also sic), had only 3,000 ill-motivated Saxons and Austrian deserters at his disposal. That did not save him from court-martial and execution when he eventually returned from Austrian captivity. The difference between the two defenses showed that the greater demographic resources of the Austrians were beginning to make themselves felt.

Frederick’s situation was now perilous in the extreme. He was losing control of both Saxony and Silesia and was running out of men, thanks to his own numerous mistakes. To make matters worse, a Russian corps under General Chernyshev had crossed the Oder and was advancing through Silesia to join up with Daun. Nothing, it seemed, lay between the allies and total victory but a few weakly defended Silesian fortresses. As soon as he had taken Glatz, Laudon moved off to Breslau, the greatest prize of all, confident that he could repeat his triumph. Now at last chinks of light began to shine through the gloom for Frederick: his commander at Breslau, General Bogislav Friedrich von Tauentzien, proved to be made of sterner stuff than his colleague d’O at Glatz; in a lightning march which took his army corps of around 35,000 over a hundred kilometers in three days, Prince Henry marched to Breslau’s relief; and the Russians failed to link up with Laudon. Meanwhile, Frederick had embarked on an epic march from Saxony to Silesia, which took up the first week of August, not so much pursued as accompanied by the main Austrian army commanded by Daun and a subsidiary corps under Lacy. So close were the three armies that they appeared to be one force. Urged on by Maria Theresa and Kaunitz, who demanded a battle to finish Frederick off, it was Daun’s intention to force an engagement on the Katzbach, a tributary of the Oder, north of Breslau.

That was what Daun got, on 15 August, but not in the manner he had expected. As his combined forces of 90,000 enjoyed a three-to-one superiority, he was confident he could encircle and eliminate Frederick’s army, which was camped a couple of kilometers northeast of Liegnitz. On this occasion, Frederick was not caught napping. On the contrary, during the night of 14–15 August he moved his army to the north, leaving his campfires burning to confuse the enemy. So when it began to get light shortly after 3 A.M., it was General Laudon who was taken by surprise. Expecting to be supported by Lacy and Daun, who were supposed to be advancing from the west and south, respectively, and unaware that he was facing the main Prussian army, Laudon attacked. Decimated by artillery, then taken in the flank, the Austrians were forced back to the Katzbach. By 6 A.M. the battle was all over. It had been short but sharp. It cost Laudon around 10,000, including 4,000 prisoners of war, among them two generals and eighty officers, and eighty-three pieces of artillery. The Prussians lost 775 dead and 2,500 wounded, most of them to two late cavalry charges which covered the Austrian withdrawal.

As the battles of the Seven Years’ War went, Liegnitz was not a particularly grand affair. Most of the Austrians never fired a shot in anger. Yet its importance was colossal. This was a battle Frederick had to win, or rather it was a battle he could not afford to lose. If Daun and Lacy’s hammer had smashed down on Laudon’s anvil, as had been intended, the Prussians in between would have been pulverized, to an even greater extent than at Kunersdorf. Any remnants would have been mopped up by a Russian force under Chernyshev which Saltykov had promised to send across the Oder on the 15th. In the event, the Russians now prudently went east rather than west, while Daun and the Austrians moved off to besiege the fortress of Schweidnitz to the west of Breslau. With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that Liegnitz was a pivotal moment in the Seven Years’ War. It brought to an end a sequence of military defeats stretching back to Hochkirch nearly two years previously (although some of Frederick’s subordinate generals, notably Prince Henry, had won minor engagements in the interim). Napoleon was not the first to realize the importance for an army’s morale of the belief that luck (also known variously as Providence, Fortune and God) was on its commander’s side. As Jomini observed, Liegnitz restored “toute sa force morale.” It also restored his reputation among the powers. The British secretary of state, Lord Holderness, wrote: “The superior genius of that great prince never appeared in a higher light than during this last expedition into Silesia. The whole maneuver is looked upon here as the masterpiece of military skill.” This was the best chance the Austro-Russians had had since Kunersdorf of bringing the war to an abrupt end and they knew it. Thereafter their offensive never regained momentum.

In the short term, this brief but violent flurry of activity was followed by several weeks of stalemate, as Daun and Frederick maneuverd around each other in the hills of western Silesia. At the end of September, Frederick complained to Prince Henry that he was getting nowhere. Daun was in one camp, Frederick in another, and both were invulnerable. The impasse was broken further north by an unusually vigorous if brief initiative on the part of the Russians, spurred on by the French military attaché in their camp. In the first week of October, a force led by Chernyshev occupied Berlin, where they were joined by 18,000 Austrians and Saxons detached from Daun’s army. Although this was an expensive and disagreeable experience for the inhabitants, and a good deal of vandalism was perpetrated at the palaces of Charlottenburg and Schönhausen, the three-day occupation had no military consequences. The main casualties were the fifteen Russian soldiers killed during an incompetent attempt to blow up the powder mill. As Showalter has commented, “It was a raid as opposed to an operational maneuver.”

Liegnitz did nothing to repair Frederick’s personal morale. He lamented to Prince Henry that his resources were too narrow and shallow to resist the overwhelming numerical superiority of his various enemies, adding, “And if we perish, you can date our eclipse to that pernicious affair at Maxen.” He now had to realize that the ever-cautious Daun had got the better of him in Silesia and that he must march back to Saxony if the campaign was not to end in total failure. It was in a grim mood that he set out, telling Prince Henry on 7 October that “given my present situation, my only motto can be: conquer or die.” Daun was also under pressure from Vienna, from which an increasingly impatient Maria Theresa sent an express order to maintain control of Saxony against Frederick and to seek the necessary battle no matter what the circumstances. In the event, Frederick took the battle to him, on 3 November at Torgau to the northeast of Leipzig, where the Austrians had taken up a strong defensive position. If they could not be dislodged, Saxony and its resources would be lost. To attack head-on invited a disaster along the lines of Kunersdorf, so Frederick embarked on an imaginative outflanking movement designed to take the bulk of his army—24,000 infantry, 6,500 cavalry and fifty twelve-pound guns—to attack the Austrians in the rear. Their attention would be diverted to their front by a smaller force of 11,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry commanded by General von Zieten. The drawback turned out to be the long march needed to get the main army into position. Too much could and did go wrong, so that it all took too long and allowed Daun to take effective counteraction.

The battle that ensued was even more ferocious than previous encounters between the two sides. Frederick himself was stunned when hit by a spent bullet and had to be carried from the field for a time. What turned out to be the bloodiest victory of his career was won by a combination of individual initiatives by junior officers at crucial moments and the timely advance of Zieten’s corps. Until almost literally one minute to midnight, the result was in the balance. Indeed, Daun had already sent off a courier announcing a victory when the tide turned, a mistake which caused intense despondency in Vienna when the initial rejoicing turned to ashes. The losses on both sides were horrific. In a letter to Prince Henry written the following day, Frederick claimed that in this “rough and stubborn” battle he had inflicted 20,000 to 25,000 casualties. He did not even mention his own. When his adjutant, Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst, produced the final score some days after the battle, Frederick told him: “It will cost you your head, if this figure ever gets out!” It cannot be known just how high it really was, the estimates ranging from 16,670 to 24,700, but even the lowest exceeded the Austrian total (which Frederick greatly exaggerated).

Although he talked up his victory, Frederick was not in a victorious mood. The losses had been so heavy that in the future such offensive tactics simply could not be afforded. As he wrote to d’Argens on 5 November, he had secured a period of peace for the winter but that was all. Five days later he added that the Austrians had been sent back to Dresden but from there they could not be dislodged for the time being. He went on:

In truth, this is a wretched prospect and a poor reward for all the exhaustion and colossal effort which this campaign has cost us. My only support in the midst of all these aggravations is my philosophy; this is the staff on which I lean and my only source of consolation at this time of trouble when everything is falling apart. As you will see, my dear marquis, I am not inflating my success. I am just telling it like it is; perhaps the rest of the world will be dazzled by the glamour a victory bestows, but “From afar we are envied, on the spot we tremble.”

This was just the sort of gloomy mood in which he had begun the year. He was perhaps being too hard on himself; 1760 had been a decidedly better year than 1759. The Austrians and Russians had failed to combine effectively, he had won two major engagements and the only net loss was the fortress of Glatz. A more judicious assessment would be given by Clausewitz. While disagreeing with those who saw the campaign as a work of art and a masterpiece, he did find admirable

the King’s wisdom: pursuing a major objective with limited resources, he did not try to undertake anything beyond his strength, but always just enough to get him what he wanted…His whole conduct…shows an element of restrained strength, which was always in balance, never lacking in vigor, rising to remarkable heights in moments of crisis, but immediately afterwards reverting to a state of calm oscillation, always ready to adjust to the smallest shift in the political situation. Neither vanity, nor ambition, nor vindictiveness could move him from this course, and it was this course alone that brought him success.

Much less satisfactory was the situation on the western front. French losses overseas in 1759 forced them to seek victory in Germany as a bargaining counter for the eventual peace negotiations. A large army of around 150,000 was unleashed in June 1760. Prince Ferdinand was forced back from Hessen and much of Westphalia, despite winning a number of engagements. Victory at Warburg on 31 July could not stop the French taking Göttingen a week later, although that proved to be the limit of their advance into Hanoverian territory. More ominous in the long term for Frederick was the diminishing enthusiasm on the part of his British allies for the continental war. They had achieved virtually all their war aims in North America, the Caribbean and India and were now looking for an early end to what had become a ruinously expensive war. Moreover, the death of George II on 25 October brought to the throne a king who the previous year had referred to Hanover as “that horrid Electorate which has always liv’d upon the very vitals of this poor Country.” It could be only a matter of time before the invaluable British subsidies to Frederick were halted. In December the Prussian representative in London, Knyphausen, warned Frederick of the growing opposition in Parliament to the continental war and corresponding enthusiasm for a separate peace with France.