At the same time as Strasbourg was being swallowed up in the north, the
French appeared to give a clue to their sinister intentions elsewhere in Europe
when they occupied Casale, a fortress in the Montferrat forty miles east of
Turin. The Duke of Mantua was one of those hard-up petty potentates who
abounded at the time, and after being sounded by the French he willingly parted
with his enclave at Casale in return for a bribe.
It was bad enough that Louis got Casale at all, for it supplemented
Pinerolo as a base for French operations on the Italian side of the Alps. The
way in which the enterprise was carried out was more significant still, because
the occupying force and the subsequent reliefs marched straight across
Piedmontese territory without the formality of gaining the Duke of Savoy’s
leave. In a similarly cavalier fashion the French made a naval bombardment of
Genoa in 1684, simply because the republic appeared to be too friendly with
Spain. This drastic measure confirmed the impression that Louis regarded north
Italy as part of his own domains.
Piedmont and neighbouring states in the War of the Austrian Succession.
War of Austrian
At the beginning of 1745, during the War of Austrian
Succession the situation was altogether, in favor of the tenacious Maria
Theresa. France, however, had in the meantime found a new ally in Genvoa,
irritated by Piedmont and Austria for the threat to their possession of the
Finale (Treaty of Aranjuez May 7, 1745). With the help of the Genoese, the two
armies of the French-Spanish under Maillebois and Gages, came into Piedmont
from the Riviera and defeated the Austro-Piedmontese at Bassignana (September
28), then occupied successively Tortona, Piacenza, Parma, Pavia, Alessandria,
Asti and Casale, while Philip of Bourbon finally took Milan in December 19,
1745. In the Netherlands, France were dominant. The valiant Marshal Maurice de
Saxe won the Anglo-Dutch at Fontenay (11 May 1745) and occupied Tournai (May 22),
Ghent (July 10), Bruges (July 18), Oudenarde (July 21) and finally Ostend (July
23). To threaten England the French organized, in the summer of 1745, the
landing of Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland (August 4).
In Germany, the French influence was almost nil, while
England, threatened by Stuart, tried to reconcile once again Maria Theresa and
Frederick II. The latter, however, due to the stagnation of diplomatic
negotiations sort a military solution: won against the Austrians in Bohemia,
invaded Saxony, won the battle of Kesselsdorf (December 15), occupied Leipzig
and Dresden. So achieved his goal: Maria Teresa gave up Silesia and made peace
(Treaty of Dresden, December 25, 1745).
France was supported by Spain, Naples, Genoa, and Austria,
had as ally the kingdom of Sardinia, England, the Netherlands. The landing of
the Stuart in Scotland caused, in the autumn of 1745, a general uprising of the
Scots and caused terrible panic in London. But this uprising was ended with the
battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746). The only consequence was the opportunity,
given to Maurice of Saxony, to extend the involvement of the Austrian
Netherlands, beating an Austrian army in Rocoux in September, and threatening
Netherlands. On the other hand, Carlo Emanuele III took up the arms in
agreement with Maria Theresa. So he reoccupied Asti on March 8, 1746, expelled
the Franco-Hispanic armies from Piedmont and Lombardy, won in battle of
Piacenza (June 16), that caused the enemy’s retreat into Genoa. At this time,
the King Philip V of Spain died (July 9) and his successor, Ferdinand VI, was
inclined towards peace and the withdrawal of his troops from Italy. The
Austro-Sardinian pressed the enemy down on the Riviera, and Marshal Botta
Adorno, occupied Genoa on September 7, while Carlo Emanuele III blockaded
Savona, took Finale and pursued the Franco-Hispanic Army to Varo. Genoa
underwent three months of harsh occupation by Austria, but due to a violent
popular uprising, adroitly directed by the Genoese government (5-10 December
1746) freed itself.
The Austrian alliance invaded Provence, with British naval
support, but they were pushed back in 1747, while the Austrians failed to
regain Genoa, which had rebelled against their control. The Genoese revolt of
December 1746, a successful popular rising, prefigured much that was to be
associated with the revolutionary warfare of the close of the century. The
swiftly changing course of the conflict in Italy indicated the volatile
character of war in this period.
Meanwhile, Carlo Emanuele III was able to occupy Savona (18
December). From Vienna, he asked for an expedition against Naples to chase away
the Bourbons. But England did not want an absolute Austrian domination in
Italy. So, Provence was invaded, the military port of Toulon was occupied and
France was forced to halt its operations in the Netherlands. The
Austro-Sardinian forces advanced to Antibes, but then retreated (February 1747).
In the last major conflict in Italy prior to the French
Revolutionary War, Franco-Spanish forces failed in 1743-4 to break through the
alpine defences of the kingdom of Sardinia, the most important possessions of
which were Piedmont and Savoy. Politics offered a new approach: by gaining the
alliance of Genoa in 1745, the Bourbons were able to circumvent the alpine
defences and invade Piedmont from the south. Initial successes, however, were
reversed in 1746 and the Austrians and Sardinians won a decisive victory at
Piacenza (16 June 1746), ending, for the remainder of the ancien regime a
quarter-millennium of French efforts to dominate northern Italy.
In the winter of 375/6, rumour reached Rome’s Danube
frontier that heavy fighting was under way in eastern Germania north of the
Black Sea. Ammianus Marcellinus reports: ‘In the beginning the news was viewed
with contempt by our people because wars in those districts were not ordinarily
heard of by those living at a distance until they were either over, or had at
least died down for a time.’ You could hardly blame the imperial authorities
for not taking the matter too seriously. The migration of the Goths and other
Germani in the mid-third century had prompted a political reconfiguration that
had led to a hundred years of relative stability in the region. Moreover, the
trouble then had come from the north-west (present-day Poland and Byelorussia),
not the north-east (modern Ukraine). The last time the north-east had posed a
problem was when the Sarmatians had swept all before them in the fifty years
either side of the birth of Christ, three centuries earlier. But the Romans
quickly learned the error of their ways.
In the summer of 376, a vast throng of people – men, women
and children – suddenly appeared on the north bank of the River Danube asking
for safe haven in Roman territory. One source, not our best, reports that
200,000 refugees appeared beside the river; Ammianus, that there were too many
to count. They came with innumerable wagons and the animals to pull them,
presumably their plough-oxen, in the kind of huge procession that warfare has
generated throughout history. There were certainly many individual refugees and
small family groups, but the vast majority were Goths organized in two compact
masses and with defined political leaderships. My own best guess is that each
was composed of about 10,000 warriors. One group, the Greuthungi, had already
moved a fair distance from lands east of the River Dniester, in the present-day
Ukraine, hundreds of kilometres from the Danube. The other comprised the
majority of Athanaric’s Tervingi, now led by Alavivus and Fritigern, who had
broken away from their former leader’s control to come here to the river.
If the size of the immediate problem for Roman frontier
security was bad enough, the refugees’ identity was even more ominous. Though
the first reports had concerned fighting a long way from the frontier zone, the
two large bodies of Gothic would-be immigrants camped beside the river were
from much closer to home. The Tervingi, in particular, had been occupying lands
immediately north of the Danube, in what is now Wallachia and Moldavia, since
the 310s at the latest. Whatever was going on in the far north-east was no
local skirmish; its effects were being felt throughout the region north of the
The Romans quickly learned what lay behind all the mayhem.
Again in Ammianus’ words: ‘The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and
of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged
everywhere with extraordinary fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.’
Ammianus was writing nearly twenty years later, by which
time the Romans had a better understanding of what had brought the Goths to the
Danube. Even in the 390s, though, the full effects of the arrival of the Huns
were far from apparent. The appearance of the Goths beside the river in the
summer of 376 was the first link in a chain of events that would lead directly
from the rise of Hunnic power on the fringes of Europe to the deposition of the
last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, almost exactly one hundred years
later. None of this was even remotely conceivable in 376, and there would be
many twists and turns on the way. The arrival of Goths on the Danube marked the
start of a reshuffling of Europe-wide balances of power, and it is to this
story that the rest of the book is devoted. We must begin, like Ammianus, with
From the ‘Ice-Bound
The origins of the Huns are mysterious and controversial.
The one thing we know for certain is that they were nomads from the Great
Eurasian Steppe. The Eurasian Steppe is a huge expanse, stretching about 5,500
kilometres from the fringes of Europe to western China, with another 3,000
kilometres to its north and east. The north–south depth of the steppe ranges
from only about 500 kilometres in the west to nearly 3,000 in the wide-open
plains of Mongolia. Geography and climate dictate the nomadic lifestyle.
Natural steppe grasslands are the product of poorish soils and limited
rainfall, which make it impossible, in general terms, for trees and more
luxurious vegetation to grow. The lack of rainfall also rules out arable
farming of any sustained kind, so that the nomad makes a substantial part of
his living from pastoral agriculture, herding a range of animals suited to the
available grazing. Cattle can survive on worse pasture than horses, sheep on
worse pasture than cattle, and goats on worse than sheep. Camels will eat
anything left over.
Nomadism is essentially a means of assembling distinct
blocks of pasture, which between them add up to a year-round grazing strategy.
Typically, modern nomads will move between upland summer pasture (where there
is no grass in the winter because of snow and cold) and lowland winter pasture
(where the lack of rain in summer means, again, no grass). In this world,
grazing rights are as important in terms of economic capital as the herds, and
as jealously guarded. The distance between summer and winter pasture needs to
be minimal, since all movement is hard both on the animals and on the weaker
members of the human population. Before Stalin sedentarized them, the nomads of
Kazakhstan tended to move about 75 kilometres each way between their pastures.
Nomadic societies also form close economic ties with settled arable farmers in
the region, from whom they obtain much of the grain they need, though some they
produce themselves. While part of the population cycles the herds around the
summer pastures, the rest engage in other types of food production. But all the
historically observed nomad populations have needed to supplement their grain
production by exchanging with arable populations the surplus generated from
their herds (hides, cheese and yoghurt, actual animals and so on). Often, this
exchange has been one-sided, with the arable population getting in return no
more than exemption from being raided, but sometimes the exchange has been
Nomadism, or part-nomadism, has never been the preserve of
any particular linguistic or cultural population group. Across the Great
Eurasian Steppe many peoples have, at different times, adopted nomadic
lifestyles. In the first three centuries AD the western end of the steppe –
from the Caspian Sea to the Danube – was dominated by Iranian-speaking
Sarmatian and Alan nomads. These had ousted Scythian nomads, also
Iranian-speaking, in the last two or three centuries BC. By the sixth century
AD at the latest, Turkic-speaking nomads were dominant from the Danube to
China, and a Mongol-speaking nomad horde would cause untold devastation in the
high Middle Ages. Other population groups, too, took to nomadism. The Magyars
who arrived in central Europe at the end of the ninth century spoke – as their
Hungarian descendants still do – a Finno-Ugrian language that suggests they may
have come from the forest zone of north-eastern Europe, the only other region
where such languages are spoken.
Where the Huns fit into this sea of cultural possibilities
is unclear. Ammianus Marcellinus knew more about them than did our other Roman
sources, but he didn’t know much. His best shot is that they came from beyond
the Black Sea ‘near the ice-bound ocean’. They were not literate, so leave us
no records of their own to go on, and even their language affiliation is
mysterious. Failing all else, linguists can usually decode basic linguistic
affiliations from personal names, but even this doesn’t work with the Huns.
They quickly got into the habit of using Germanic names (or perhaps our sources
preserve the Germanicized versions or Germanic nicknames given them by their
Germanic neighbours and subjects), so that the stock of properly Hunnic
personal names is much too small to draw any convincing conclusions. They were
probably not Iranian-speaking, but whether they were the first Turkic-speaking
nomads to explode on to the European scene, as some have argued, remains
unclear. With such pathetic sources of information, Hunnic origins can only
remain mysterious, but a little spice has been added by a famous controversy
over whether the Huns were in fact the nomadic Hsiung-Nu, well known from
imperial Chinese records.
In the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, the
Hsiung-Nu – under the leadership of their Shan-Yu5 – harassed the north-west
frontiers of Han China, extracting from it huge quantities of tribute in silks,
precious metals and grain. They also contested the control of some of its
important western territories, particularly the Tarim Basin where the Silk Road
(which started to operate in the last century BC) reaches China. Under pressure
from Han armies, they split in AD 48 into northern and southern branches. The
southern Hsiung-Nu were subsequently brought into the Chinese orbit, becoming
an important force within the imperial system. The northerners remained
external, independent and highly troublesome until AD 93, when the Chinese
government paid another nomadic group, the Hsien-Pi, to launch a devastating
attack upon their homelands. Many northern Hsiung-Nu (reportedly 100,000
households) were absorbed into the victorious Hsien-Pi confederation, but
others fled ‘to the west’. That’s the last we ever hear of the northern
Hsiung-Nu in the Chinese records.
The Huns we’re concerned with appear suddenly in Roman
records in the third quarter of the fourth century. The problem inherent in the
superficially attractive equation of these people with the Hsiung-Nu is this:
we have gaps between the Chinese and Roman records of nearly 300 years (AD 93
to about 370) and 3,500 kilometres to account for. Moreover, the Huns known to
the Romans had a completely different form of political organization from the
Hsiung-Nu’s. After AD 48, both branches of the latter had their own Shan-Yu,
but the Huns arrived in Europe with a multiplicity of ranked kings and no sign
of one dominant figure. The surviving ethnographic descriptions – such as they
are – also raise objections. The Hsiung-Nu customarily wore their hair in a
long pony-tail; the Huns did not. The two groups used similar weaponry, and
bronze kettles are customarily found among their archaeological remains. Given
this, there may be some connection, but it clearly won’t do just to say that
the Hsiung-Nu had started running west in AD 93 and kept going until they hit
Europe as the Huns. The Great Eurasian Steppe is a vast place, but it didn’t,
even then, take 300 years to cross. Equally, like most nomadic empires, that of
the Hsiung-Nu was a confederation, comprising a smallish Hsiung-Nu core and
many other subject groups. The ancestors of our Huns could even have been part
of the confederation, therefore, without being ‘real’ Hsiung-Nu. Even if we do
make some connection between fourth-century Huns and first-century Hsiung-Nu,
therefore, an awful lot of water had passed under an awful lot of bridges
during 300 years worth of lost history.
Roman sources also give us only a very general idea of what
brought the Huns to the fringes of Europe. For Ammianus, it was enough just to
point out that they exceeded ‘every measure of savagery’ and ‘were aflame with
an inhuman desire for plundering others’ property’. The most commonly repeated
story in the Roman sources claimed their landing up at Europe’s gates was
partly an accident. Some Hunnic hunters, out after game one day, trailed a hind
through a marsh into new lands of which they had previously been ignorant. This
kind of tale rubbed off on early twentieth-century commentators, who tended to
suppose that the Huns had for centuries been engaged in nomadic wanderings in
different parts of the Eurasian Steppe, and one year just happened to wander on
to the fringes of Europe. But this was before anthropologists understood quite
so clearly that nomads do not wander around at random, but move cyclically
between carefully designated pastures. Given that grazing rights are a key
element in nomad subsistence, and guarded so jealously, shifting from one set
of pastures to another could never be an accident.
Unfortunately, we can only guess at the motives behind the
Huns’ decision to shift their centre of operations westwards. The story of the
hind concludes with the hunters telling the rest of the Huns of the wonders of
the new land they’d found, and Ammianus, too, picked out the motive of economic
gain. The idea that it was the wealth of the northern shores of the Black Sea
that attracted Hunnic attentions is perfectly plausible. While less extensive,
the grazing lands of the western steppe are rich, and have attracted many a
nomad group over the years. The area north of the Black Sea was occupied by
client groups of the Roman Empire, who benefited economically from different
relationships with the Mediterranean world, and there is no reason to doubt
that Huns also felt its call. At the same time, in the case of some later nomad
groups for whom we have more information, a move on to the western edge of the
steppe was often associated with the desire to escape a more powerful nomad
confederation operating towards China. The Avars, who would have much the same
kind of impact on Europe as the Huns, but two centuries later, were looking for
a safe haven beyond the reach of the western Turks, when they appeared north of
the Black Sea. At the end of the ninth century, likewise, the nomadic Magyars
would move into Hungary because another nomad group, the Pechenegs, was making
life intolerable for them further east. In the case of the Huns, we have no
firm indication that a negative as well as a positive motivation was at work,
but we can’t rule it out. Further east, in the later fourth century, the Guptas
were pushing on to the Silk Road from northern India, and by the early to
mid-fifth century the Hephthalite Huns were ruling the roost somewhere between
the Caspian and Aral Seas. As early as the 350s, this reconfiguration of the
balance of power was reverberating further east on the steppe, causing the
Chionitae to move into the fringes of the Persian Empire, east of the Caspian
Sea.8 It may also have played a role in the Huns’ decision to shift their grazing
Mysterious as the Huns’ origins and animating forces may
remain, there is no doubt at all that they were behind the strategic revolution
that brought the Goths to the Danube in the summer of 376. It is normally
assumed that at that time they were fleeing from Huns who had suddenly exploded
en masse on to the northern Black Sea littoral. It is further assumed that
these Huns were virtually breathing down the Goths’ necks as they scrambled for
the Danube in the hope of securing asylum inside the Empire, and that, once the
Goths had reached Roman territory, the Huns immediately became the dominant
power in the lands adjacent to the river. This is what you will find stated
more or less explicitly in most modern accounts: Huns arrive suddenly (375/6);
Goths leave in panic for the Empire (376); Huns become dominant beside the
Danube (from 376).
This pattern is based on the account given by Ammianus, who
paints a highly convincing picture of Gothic panic: ‘The report spread widely
among the other Gothic peoples that a race of men hitherto unknown had now
arisen from a hidden nook of the earth, like a tempest of snows from the high
mountains, and was seizing or destroying everything in its way.’ We need to
look past the rhetoric, however, at what Ammianus is actually telling us. After
first subjugating the Alans, the Huns then started attacking the Gothic
Greuthungi. The resistance of the Greuthungi was led by Ermenaric, who
eventually gave up and seems to have allowed himself to be ritually sacrificed
for the safety of his people. Ammianus’ wording is a little vague, but the
reflex, documented among several ancient groups, to hold their political
leadership responsible for the fate of the group, is an interesting one. When
times got tough, it was seen as a sign from the gods that the old leader had
offended them and needed to be sacrificed in propitiation of the offence.
Ermenaric was succeeded by Vithimer, who carried on the fight but was
eventually killed in battle.
At this point, control of the Greuthungi passed to two
military leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, who ruled in the name of Vithimer’s son
Vitheric. Having decided to retreat to the banks of the River Dniester, they
were met there by a force of Tervingi under Athanaric. But Athanaric was now
attacked from the rear by some Huns, who had found an alternative ford over the
river, and retreated back to his heartlands closer to the Carpathian Mountains.
There he attempted to stem the Hunnic tide by constructing a fortified line
against them. In my view, this was probably the old Roman walls on the River
Olt, the Limes Transalutanus. But the plan came to naught. The Tervingi were
harassed by more Hunnic attacks as they worked on the defences, which damaged
their confidence in Athanaric’s leadership. Most of the Tervingi broke with him
at this point, and under new leaders, Alavivus and Fritigern, came to the
Danube to request asylum inside the Roman Empire. The Greuthungi of Alatheus
and Saphrax opted for a similar strategy, following the Tervingi to the river.
Some of these events unfolded very quickly. From the death
of Vithimer in battle, the action is pretty continuous down to the arrival of
both Tervingi and Greuthungi on the banks of the Danube. Even in its entirety,
this sequence needn’t have occupied any great length of time. If, as seems
likely, the Goths arrived sometime in late summer or early autumn 376, then
Vithimer’s death need be placed no more than a year before. In principle, even
a few months would have been sufficient for the intervening events, which would
place Vithimer’s death between mid-375 and early 376. Given that a good time
for agriculturalists to move on is after they’ve taken in the harvest, it was
perhaps most likely late summer or early autumn 375 that the Greuthungi took to
This somewhat breathless last act, however, followed a more
measured drama. It is impossible to date precisely, because Ammianus gives us
only vague indications of time; but what he does tell us is suggestive. He
states, first of all, that Ermenaric resisted the storm brewed up by the Huns
‘for a long time’ (diu). We also hear that Ermenaric’s successor Vithimer
fought ‘many engagements’ (multas . . . clades) against the Huns until he was
killed in battle. There is obviously no way to be sure how long all this took,
but the swift denouement which followed Vithimer’s death clearly ended a longer
struggle, and it was the Greuthungi’s decision to move that precipitated the
final crisis. How far back in time the preceding struggle might have gone on is
a matter of judgement, but the nature of Hunnic operations does have a bearing
on the argument.
To secure their entry to the Empire, first of all, Gothic
embassies left the banks of the Danube to seek out the emperor Valens and put
their case. Valens, however, was in Antioch – which meant a round trip of over
1,000 kilometres; even so the ambassadors were not deterred. Once they reached
Antioch, the two parties had to confer and decisions had to be made, then
communicated back to the Roman commanders on the Danube. All of this must have
taken well over a month, during which time the mass of Goths continued to sit
beside the river, more or less patiently, waiting for the green light to cross.
There is no record of any Hunnic attacks upon them during this period.
Furthermore, the Huns who attacked Athanaric came in small groups, sometimes
weighed down by booty: raiders, therefore, rather than conquerors. The Huns’
political organization at this date didn’t run to an overall leader but comprised
a series of ranked kings with plenty of capacity for independent action. When
he was trying to fend off the Greuthungi’s Hun-generated military problems, for
instance, Vithimer was able to recruit other Huns to fight on his side. In
375/6, there was no massive horde of Huns hotly pursuing the fleeing Goths:
rather, independent Hunnic warbands were pursuing a variety of strategies
against a variety of opponents.
What was happening, then, was not that a force of Huns
conquered the Goths in the sense we normally understand the word, but that some
Goths decided to evacuate a world that was becoming ever more insecure. As late
as 395, some twenty years later, the mass of Huns remained further east – much
closer, in fact, to the northern exit of the Caucasus than to the mouth of the
Danube. And it was other Gothic groups, in fact, not the Tervingi or
Greuthungi, who continued to provide Rome with its main opposition on the Lower
Danube frontier for a decade or more after 376. The Romans had to deal with a
heavy assault on the same front launched by a second force of Greuthungi under
one Odotheus in 386; and still more Goths – perhaps the leftover Tervingi who
hadn’t followed Alavivus and Fritigern to the Danube – were operating somewhere
in the Carpathian area at much the same time.
Avia B.534-I There exist only a few photos of B.534-I series. On one of
them we can see this B-534 with number 7 on the fuselage, but this marking is
Letov S-328 of rising air force during Slovak National Rising (against Germans in 1944). Czechoslovak national insignia, completed with silhouettes of three mountains with Slovak cross.
The 2.8 million Sudeten Germans freed by Czechoslovakia’s
disintegration, beginning in September 1938, triggered the liberation of other
minorities stranded for nearly 20 years behind the borders of that artificial
state. Teschen, with its predominantly Polish population, went back to Poland;
and Hungarians in Ruthenia, at Czechoslovakia’s extreme eastern section,
declared independence on March 14,1939. During the afternoon of that same day,
the Slovak people proclaimed their own state, which the Romanian government in
Budapest officially recognized 24 hours later.
The Hungarians were likewise determined to reclaim the rest of their fellow countrymen, who made up a majority population in northeastern Slovakia, where they had been stranded since passage of the Versailles Treaty following World War I. On March 23, Honvedseg troops stormed across a border as ill-defined as it was ill-defended. Unprepared troops of the Slovak Army were routed, then rallied, but were ultimately unable to contain the invaders. Hardly less auspicious was the fledgling Slovenske vzdušné zbrane, the Slovak Air Force, really nothing more than the former 3rd Czech Air Regiment. Although the Letecky pluk 3 still possessed 230 aircraft, there were only 80 pilots and observers to man them.
They nonetheless seized the initiative on the opening day of
hostilities, when their open-cockpit biplanes struck the Hungarian-occupied
cities of Mukacheve, Roznava, and Uzhorod. One of the Letov bombers was brought
down by flak, which additionally destroyed two fighters and inflicted damage on
four more, plus another bomber. Undaunted, the Slovaks returned 24 hours later
for their first aerial combat. They flew the Czech-designed and -manufactured
Avia B-534, among the last of the great biplane fighters, such as Britain’s
Gloster Gladiator, Italy’s Falco, and Russia’s Chaika.
Powered by an 850-hp Hispano-Suiza HS 12Y drs 112-cylinder,
Vee piston engine, the Avia could achieve a maximum speed of 245 mph at 12,435
feet, with a service ceiling of 34,775 feet, and a 360mile range. These
qualities won laurels for the rugged aircraft at 1937’s International Flying
Meet in Zurich, where it proved at least equal to all competition and
out-performed Germany’s own biplane fighter, the Heinkel-51. The B-534 was not
envisioned strictly as a fighter, however, and made to serve a ground-attack
role. As such, four Model 30, 7.92-mm machine-guns installed in the sides of
the fuselage were synchronized to fire through the propeller, or, alternately
(as the Bk 534), a single, 20-mm cannon firing from the nose was supplemented
by a pair of 7.92-mm machine-guns at the sides. Provision was also made for six
44-pound bombs. It was in this mode that three Avias tangled with an equal
number of Hungarian-flown Italian fighters in the early morning of March 23.
The Avia owned a 12-mph speed advantage over the Fiat CR.32, but better-trained Magyar Legier pilots prevailed. The 264-pound payload aboard CO podporučík (second lieutenant) Jan Prhacek’s aircraft was hit and exploded, atomizing his aircraft and killing him instantly, but desiatnik (corporal) Cyril Martis dropped his bombs before crash-landing upside down in a swamp. With the sudden loss of his commanding officer and comrade, and faced by three-to-one odds, slobodnik (lance corporal) Michal Karas out-maneuvered his opponents, escaping unscathed to the base at Spisska Nova Ves. Shortly after his escape, two of three Avias attempting to attack enemy tanks advancing on Tibava a Sobrance were brought down by ground-fire.
Three more B-534s returned to the same general area escorting a trio of Letovs, but were met this time by nine Fiats. Although the observer, podporučík Ferdinand Svento, parachuted from a bomber falling in flames, his body was riddled with 18 rounds of machine-gun fire, as he hung helpless in his harness. Another Letov was shot down outside the village of Strazske, but one survived the carnage to return to base. All three Avias were destroyed without cost to the Hungarians. Later that same day, 10 Junkers Ju. 86K-2 bombers purchased by the Hungarians from Germany before the advent of hostilities struck Spisska Nova Ves in the first raid of its kind on Slovakian soil. A dozen soldiers and civilians perished, with almost 100 injured, but the base did not suffer crippling damage.
A flight of seven Avias attempted retaliation by diving on advancing enemy troop concentrations in the vicinity of Paloc, but nine defending Fiat CR.32s claimed all the Slovak fighters at no loss to themselves. By then, the Hungarians had achieved limited objectives on the ground and sued for peace. In what the Slovaks referred to as Mali Vojn, “The Little War,” they lost 58 dead (22 soldiers and 36 civilians) against 23 Hungarian fatalities (8 soldiers and 15 civilians) during a week and a day of fighting. They were determined to learn from this premature baptism of fire, however, and initiated a serious reorganization of their armed forces, with special attention given to pilot training in the SVZ.
The Slovaks inherited a broad variety of aircraft from the
Czechs, but many were worn out or hopelessly obsolete. These were either
scrapped or consigned to student pilot squadrons, while frontline machines were
refurbished almost entirely by innovative mechanics, because Slovakia did not
possess a modern aviation industry. The already small SVZ was downsized still
further, but its organizational structure tightened up, and a parachute brigade
established. Just five months after the conclusion of the Little War, the
Slovakian Air Force was a noticeably improved, although far from perfected
service, when a much larger war broke out on September 1, 1939.
Joining Hitler’s Blitzkrieg against Poland were 35,000
Slovak troops set in motion by their Prime Minister, Jozef Tiso. Their limited
objectives were recovery of original Slovak territories in Javorina, Orava, and
Spis seized by the Poles during 1920, 1924, and 1938. Slovak participation in
the Campaign was not entirely self-serving, however, because Tiso was himself a
convinced Fascist and trusted friend of the Germans. They had informed him of
the up-coming invasion as early as August 28, when he arranged for part of the
their attack to be launched from Slovak areas bordering Poland. Beyond the
recapture of former regions, he put his air force at the disposal of the
To the SVZ warplanes’ national insignia (a red disc with blue twin-cross outlined in white) were added black-and-white Luftwaffe Balkenkreuzen (“Balkan Crosses;’ Iron Crosses) on either side of fuselages and wing surfaces. Tiso dispatched 20 Letov S.328s and as many Avias to scout for his advancing troops, but even after they took Javorina, Orava, and Spis, the fighters stayed on in Poland to escort German Stukas dive-bombing enemy railroad yards around Drogobytch and Lvov. During one of these attacks, on September 9, anti-aircraft fire brought down an Avia flown by čatár (sergeant) Viliam Grun. He was captured and became a prisoner of war, but shortly thereafter made good his escape to rejoin his unit, Number 12 Squadron.
Three days earlier, a lone, unidentified aircraft flew over military installations inside Slovakia. A trio of Avias scrambled to investigate and intercepted a Lublin R-XIII (not a RWD-XVII aerobatic trainer, as sometimes reported),’ the Polish Army’s standard liaison-spotter. Forty-nine of the Polish parasol observation and liaison planes had been organized into eskadra obserwacyjna, or special observation squadrons, for long-range photographic missions. The Lublin was a versatile workhorse. Its tough construction and remarkably short takeoff run of just 204 feet were likewise ideally suited to field operations of all kinds, including courier and ambulance duties.
One R-XIII had tried to attack an enemy vessel on when the
elderly Schleswig-Holstein-a pre-dreadnought battleship from 1908-was
mercilessly pounding Polish defenders at Danzig with an unremitting, hours-long
fusillade of 11-inch shells fired at virtually point-blank range. Unable to
find his target, the pilot dropped a stick of 55-pound bombs on a German
residential neighborhood instead. But a single 7.7.-mm Lewis machine-gun
operated by the observer was inadequate defense against the three Avias, which
handily shot down the reconnaissance plane in flames. Its destruction signified
the young SVZ’s only kill of the Campaign and its first-ever aerial victory.
These were not the only Slovakian warplanes operating over
Poland, however. When the brunt of Luftwaffe aircraft was thrown into the siege
of Warsaw, and Wehrmacht ground forces in the south suddenly lost their eyes in
the sky, the Slovaks volunteered their open cockpit, two-place biplanes. The
Czech-built Hispano-Suiza Vr-36 engine could only provide 740 hp for a maximum
speed of 170 mph, but when the Aero A.100 was not shooting photographs of enemy
troop movements, it fired four 7.92-mm wz.29 machine-guns or dropped 1,300
pounds of bombs, thereby offering German ground forces much-needed air cover
they would have otherwise missed.
The territories Tiso’s soldiers reclaimed during 1939s
conquest of Poland more than compensated for regional losses to the Hungarians
earlier that year and brought closer ties with the Third Reich. Yet, less than
two years later, Hitler did not include the Slovaks in his original plan to
invade the USSR, and even tried to dissuade them from participating, because he
believed too many of Tiso’s people would side with their fellow Slavs in
Russia. But the President argued persuasively on behalf of his fellow
countrymen’s loyalty, and Slovakia was eventually allowed to join Germany’s
other allies in their combined assault on the citadel of Communism.
However, he was disappointed to learn from the SVZ commander
in chief, General Anton Pulanich, that just 33 Avias and 30 Letovs were in
fully operable condition. Moreover, they could only be fueled with a unique
alcohol-benzene-gasoline mixture not employed by any other aircraft on the
Eastern Front. Supplies of this singular concoction needed to be constantly
brought up from Slovakia, a process made increasingly difficult, as operations
moved further away into the East. Despite these drawbacks, three fighter
squadrons (the 11th, 12th, and 13th Letky) joined as many bomber-reconnaissance
squadrons (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Letky) in western Ukraine by July 7, 1941.
Only then did General Pulanich realize that the homeland had
been left without enough interceptors to defend against attack and re-assigned
the 11th Letky to Piestany. His already small armada was now down to only 20
fighters. These were inadequately supplemented by 10 former Czech elementary
trainers pressed into service for reconnaissance duties, for which the Praga
E-39-with its 150-hp, nine-cylinder Walter Gemma, air-cooled, radial engine-had
never been designed.
With a top peed of just 106 mph, the rugged little biplanes were surprisingly effective, flying cover and observation for Slovakian ground forces in the conquest of Lvov, Kiev, and Rostov. Fortunately for the defenseless Pragas, skies above these cities had already been mostly swept clear of Soviet machines by the Luftwaffe, making aerial combat unlikely. But Red Army anti-aircraft fire remained dangerous, and čatár Frantisek Brezina’s Avia B-534 was the first Slovak to fall to Russian flak on July 25, while in the act of flying escort for a German Henschel Hs.126 observation plane.
Forced into an emergency landing far behind enemy lines, he came under fire from approaching troops. These were strafed by his squadron comrade, čatár Stefan Martis, who then landed as close as possible to Brezina, enabling him to jump aboard the lower, port wing. More Russian soldiers fired on the Avia, as it took off with the rescued pilot clinging to a strut for dear life. Although Martis was shot in the leg and his fuel tank holed by gunfire, he managed to safely reach the SVZ airfield at Tulczyn with a badly wind-blown, but otherwise sound Brezina.
The incident was important, because it for the first time
won the favorable attention of Luftwaffe brass, who awarded Martis the Iron
Cross Second Class, in addition to the Silver Medal for Heroism he received
from his own country. When, merely five days later, another downed flyer was
rescued in an identical fashion by a SVZ pilot, Slovak courage featured
prominently in the German press.
Still, more than a month was to pass before General
Pulanich’s airmen finally confronted the Red Army Air Force on July 29, with
inconclusive results, neither side claiming any “kills:” In August,
however, fighters of the 12th Letky destroyed three Polikarpov I-16s near Kiev
without loss to themselves. While these numbers are not high, the Slovak
achievement was nonetheless significant, because the Soviets’ low-wing
monoplane Rata was more than 80 mph faster than the Avia double-deckers.
The fighting around Kiev spilled into early September, when
10 B234s attacked 9 of the markedly superior Polikarpovs, shooting down two of
them without suffering casualties. A third Rata was destroyed 24 hours later,
during a patrol of three Avias above the Dniepr bridge. While no Slovaks had
been killed yet on the Eastern Front, their equipment was so badly worn out,
continued operations were no longer feasible, and all squadrons were reassigned
to the homeland before the close of 1941. Thus ended the purely Slovakian phase
of the SVZ’s involvement in World War II. But Hermann Goering had been
impressed by these doughty crews, winning victories with patently obsolete
aircraft, and offered to provide them pilot instruction for an all-Slovak
squadron. Designated 13 (slow)/JG 52, it would be attached to a Luftwaffe unit
(II. JG 52) with its own Messerschmitt-109s.
Accordingly, 19 Slovakian students arrived at Karup airfield
in occupied Denmark on February 25, 1942, to complete their conversion training
some four months later, when they were transferred on behalf of advanced combat
instruction in Piestany. They finally left during October for their new
operational base at Maikop, where they awaited the arrival of their fighters.
The aircraft were something of a disappointment: outdated Messerschmitt-109Es,
scarred veterans of the Battle of Britain. Some, in fact, were repaired crash
victims. Undeterred, the Slovaks were committed to proving themselves and
dressed their seasoned Emits in the new national insignia of a dark blue cross
outlined in white with a red disc at the center.
On November 29, just two 13 (slow)IJG 52 Messerschmitts took
on nine Polikarpov Chaikas, shooting down three of them, suffering no losses of
their own. During the weeks that followed, the Slovaks escorted Luftwaffe
Junkers-88 and Heinkel-111 bombers, and undertook ground attacks against enemy
transportation. They were rewarded by Goering in mid-December when he replaced
their used-up Emits with the much-improved Messerschmitt Me-109F-4. The Slovak
pilots immediately took to this more up-to-date model, as evidenced by their
escalating number of kills. The Friedrichs came just in time, because the
Soviets were replacing their out-moded Chaikas and Ratas with far better Yaks,
Migs, and Lavochkins. It was at the controls of 109Fs that the first Slovakian
aces began to make their impact on the Eastern Front during early 1943.
While flying Avia biplanes, they were fortunate to get a
crack at the enemy. Now, pilots such as Jan Reznak, Jan Gerthofer, and Jozef
Jancovic were competing among themselves for the position of Top Gun. As
testimony to the desperate measures undertaken by Red flyers to destroy their
Slovak opponents, Jancovic returned to base after a memorable encounter on
January 20, when a Polikarpov 1-16 left part of its wing embedded in his own
aircraft! The Rata pilot had attempted to ram Jancovic head on.
A rapidly growing tally of successful sorties collected by the Slovaks yet again caught Hermann Goering’s eye, and he re-equipped their squadron with the latest Messerschmitt Me-109G-4s. These state-of-the-art warplanes and their crews were soon put to the test when they were moved from Maikop to an airfield on the Taman Peninsula. According to CO stotnik (captain) Jozef Palenicek, “In the sector to which the squadron has been assigned, enemy air activity has increased to such an extent that pilots-mainly on escort flights-have to engage with forces up to nine times more numerous”‘
The Red Army Air Force mounted a maximum effort for undisputed ascendancy over the Kuban, a region of southern Russia surrounding the Kuban River on the Black Sea between the Don Steppe, Volga Delta, and Caucasus. It was here that Stavka, the Soviet high command, intended to break the Axis on the Eastern Front. Never before had the Slovak airmen been caught up in such ferocious and relentless engagements, which intensified throughout March, when one of their leading aces, čatár “Jozo” Jancovic, was killed. Reznak likened him to “a bird of prey, who never took any account of his own safety in air combat;’ a recklessness that prevented him from noticing a Lavochkin interceptor while attacking Shturmovik bombers.’ Although pulled from his crashed landing, Jancovic died of his injuries soon after at a Zaporoshskaya field hospital.
He had at least lived long enough to celebrate his squadron’s 50th confirmed victory on March 21, when podporučík Gerthofer splashed a Petlyakov Pe-2 into the Black Sea. This victory was also the first Peshka dive-bomber claimed by 13 a success that drew widespread congratulations, including a personal telegram from Reichsmarshal Goering. His chief of the air department at the Deutsche Luftwaffenmission in der Slowakei, Oberleutnant Ignacius Weh, reported after inspecting the Taman base, “the Slovak fighter squadron is delighted to fight:”
Messerschmitt Bf.109E-4 Unit: 13.Letka Eastern Front, December 1942.
Heinkel He.111H-10 Unit: 51.Dopravni letka Tri Duby, Slovakia, July
Praga E-39G The E-39G taking part in Training Courses of SVZ (Slovenske
Vzdusne Zbrane = Slovak Air Forces) based in Piestany in 1941. Note the yellow
painted fuselage bow and the yellow fuselage band in the same colour.
Messerschmitt Bf.109G-6/R3 Unit: 13 Letka Serial: 7 (W.Nr.161742) June
As some measure of the intense struggle for Kuban airspace,
13 (slow)IJG 52 doubled its total number of “kills” in little more
than a month. Aviation historian Rajlich writes that two pilots often managed
“to destroy as many as four aircraft each in a single day”6 They cite
the redoubtable Gerthofer, who shot down a pair of Lavochkins, one Shturmovik,
and a U.S. Boston medium-bomber, all on April 24. Five days later, four Yak-1
fighters fell one after the other under the guns of rotnik (staff sergeant) Izidor
Kovarik. These achievements were widely publicized back home, where the crews
were popularly revered as “the Tatra Eagles;’ after the high mountain
range bordering Poland.
Continuous Slovak and German air victories resulted in
unacceptable losses for the Soviets, who gradually relinquished their bid for
the Kuban, and the focal point of the Eastern Front gradually shifted away
toward a confluence of the Kur, Tuskar, and Seym Rivers around the city of
Kursk. As history’s greatest tank battle got under way there on July 4, a
Petlyakov bomber burst into flames under the accurate marksmanship of
nadporucik (first lieutenant) Vladimir Krisko. It was not only his ninth and
last success, but the final victory won by13 (slow)/ JG 52’s first team
members, who were sent home after a grueling eight months of combat. They were
relieved by crews whose average age was just 24 years old, although each pilot
benefited from more extensive training.
Their preparation was soon apparent in the 48 enemy aircraft
that fell under their guns during the first 12 weeks of engagement. Moreover,
the Soviets’ venerable Polikarpovs and Yaks were being replaced by American
Aircobras and British Spitfires, which could match the Messerschmitt-109 in
many particulars. It was especially to their credit then, that the airmen of 13
(slow)IJG 52 could celebrate their 2,000th combat mission on August 28. In
October, they moved to Bagerovo airfield, west of Kerch, where its strait
connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov, an area soon to be hotly contested
between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.
But the Slovaks were more concerned for the immediate
protection of their homeland, which had recently come within striking
capabilities of long-range U.S. heavy-bombers after Allied forces occupied
airfields along the eastern Italian peninsula. Goering gave the Tatra Eagles
leave to dissolve 13 (slow)IJG 52 and return home, but not before a Lavochkin
La-5 fighter fell into the Kerch Channel under the guns of rotnik Frantisek
Hanovec, as a parting shot at the Soviets, and the last Slovak aerial victory
on the Eastern Front.
Since August 1941, the Slovaks accounted for 221 confirmed,
plus 29 unconfirmed “kills;’ in more than 2,600 sorties. These numbers are
aside from very many ground attack, anti-partisan, reconnaissance, and escort
duties additionally undertaken during some 16 months of combat. Their
achievement seems particularly remarkable when we learn that it was
accomplished by less than 100 pilots, only 4 of whom were killed. Seventeen
became aces, shooting down at least five enemies each. Such statistics speak to
the high skill and determination of the Slovak airmen, who usually fought
against opponents that not only outnumbered them, but flew warplanes, which,
later in the war, technologically matched their own.
As the Slovak veterans returned to their country, however,
they found conditions changed, and not for the better. During the previous two
years, Soviet intelligence had waged a concerted campaign to infiltrate
Slovakia with numerous covert operatives, who prepared the ground for revolt.
They found the general population, and especially the peasantry, still
favorably disposed to the Tiso regime, but made important allies among urban
residents and the aristocracy, which in large measure controlled the nation’s
armed forces. Importantly assisting the agents was Germany’s deteriorating
military situation, which certain SVZ commanders hoped to use for disengaging
Slovakia from the war.
Meanwhile, the former 13 (slow)IJG 52 crews were formed into
a new unit, the “Readiness Squadron;’ for homeland defense on January 31,
1944. It began with shining hopes for the future, and among the brightest was
its outstanding pilot, zastavnik (master sergeant) Izidor Kovarik, the nation’s
second-highest-scoring ace with 28 confirmed kills. In April, he transferred as
an instructor at the Tri Duby flying school, where he and his student died the
following July 11 in the crash of his Gotha Go 145 biplane trainer after the
structural failure of its upper wing. His loss was a terrible blow to the
entire SVZ and particularly to his comrades in the Readiness Squadron.
Their 11, aging Emils and three Avias were almost hopelessly
inadequate as interceptors, so Goering rushed 15 new Messerschmitt Me109G-6s
straight from their Regensburg factory to Piestany, plus the first of some 25
Stukas. A trio of Junker Ju-87Ds arrived in time for the Soviet spring
offensive against the Carpathian Mountains at the country’s eastern border. The
SVZ-flown Doras operated with three more Letov bombers out of Spisska Nova Ves
in numerous ground-attacks on the advancing Red Army.
In June, a dozen more dive-bombers were received-mostly
older B and D models (some unarmed for use as trainers)-plus five,
factory-fresh D-5s. A final 11 Doras arrived from Germany the following August.
But as the U.S. bomber streams overflew Slovakia, they went unopposed by
Readiness Squadron fighter pilots, who stayed well beyond firing range. They
were under secret orders by the treasonous Minister of National Defense (!) and
Chief of Staff of Land Forces to save themselves for an anti-German
insurrection in the making. A few commanding officers were briefed of these
plans; most pilots were not, but nonetheless forced to obey orders. Their
passive resistance to the enemy came to a head on June 16, when Bratislava was attacked
by Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators for the first
time. The capital city suffered extensive damage, and 717 men, women, and
children were killed, with another 592 injured.
The Readiness Squadron pilots in their new Messerschmitts
had been eye-witnessed by too many civilians circling far out of harm’s way. A
pair of bombers destroyed by loyal anti-aircraft gunners were the only
intruders shot down. Popular reaction was outraged, with loud denunciations of
disloyalty hurled at the airmen. Luftwaffe observers condemned them as cowards.
Stung by these accusations, Deputy CO nadporucik Juraj Puskar ignored the
orders of his scheming superiors to lead a full-scale attack against the next
American bomber formation 10 days after the Bratislava raid. In what was to be
the greatest Axis aerial opposition over Slovakia, 203 Luftwaffe interceptors
were joined by 30 Hungarian fighters and 8 Tatra Eagles.
They arose to confront more than 500 Flying Fortresses and
Liberators protected by 290 P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs on their way to
strike oil refineries and depots in the vicinity of Vienna. Puskar and his
pilots dove into the air armada, but only rotnik Gustav Lang broke through its
ring of escorts to fire on a single B-24 that crashed at Most na Ostrove. His
Messerschmitt was immediately thereafter riddled with .50-caliber rounds fired
by USAAF fighters. Three of his remaining seven comrades were killed in short
order by overwhelming numbers of the enemy, another was gravely wounded, and
all their aircraft gunned down. The Readiness Squadron had been shattered.
In late August 1944, armed forces’ plotters made their move
to overturn the Tiso regime and expel German forces from Slovakia. Their
action, according to Milan S. Durica, Slovakia’s leading historian, was less
the “national uprising” portrayed by postwar Communist propaganda and
picked up by uncritical scholars in the West, than a collection of criminals
armed and organized by Soviet agents.’ In any case, after two months of chaos
during which Slovakian peasants were predominantly the defenseless victims of
murder and looting, it petered out, as much for lack of popular support, as for
the intervention of Wehrmacht troops, who were more often than not welcomed and
aided by the rural populace in hunting down the bandits. The revolt was chiefly
notable for one of the few combat successes achieved by the insurgents, when an
Avia flown by Frantisek Cyprich shot down a German Junkers Ju-52 transport
plane with Hungarian markings on September 2. The elderly trimotor was unarmed,
its crew unaware that any “national uprising” had taken place.
Earlier, on February 15, 1942, President Tiso’s Ministry of
Defense began organizing and recruiting for an airborne infantry aimed at striking
important targets not otherwise accessible deep behind enemy lines. These would
include Red Army headquarters, fuel and ammunition depots, and railway centers.
By October, the first volunteers had been selected for the Junior Air Cadets’
School at Trencianske Biskupice, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Juraj Mesko. His
men were trained as infantry sappers in close-quarter combat, sabotage,
demolitions, and field communications.
The pace of their instruction was slowed by lack of
sufficient aircraft and basic supplies, due to exigencies of the Eastern Front.
But June 12, 1943, Mesko and three top-scoring classmates-Jozef Lachky,
Ladislav Lenart, and Jozef Pisarcik-were provided officer training at the
Deutsche Fallshirmjagerschule II (German Paratrooper School-II), in
Wittstock-Dosse, 60 miles northwest of Berlin. There, they were familiarized
with equipment and tactics and learned the Fallschirmjager’s Ten Commandments:
1. You are the elite of the Wehrmacht. For you, combat shall
2. You shall seek it out and train yourself to stand any
3. Cultivate true comradeship, for together with your
comrades you will triumph or die.
4. Be shy of speech and incorruptible. Men act, women
chatter. Chatter will bring you to the grave. Calm and caution, vigor and
determination, valor and a fanatical offensive spirit will make you superior in
5. In facing the foe, ammunition is the most precious thing.
He who shoots uselessly, merely to reassure himself, is a man without guts. He
is a weakling and does not deserve the title of paratrooper.
6. Never surrender. Your honor lies in Victory or Death.
7. Only with good weapons can you have success. So look
after them on the principle: First my weapons, then myself.
8. You must grasp the full meaning of an operation, so that,
should your leader fall by the way, you can carry it out with coolness and
9. Fight chivalrously against an honest foe; armed
irregulars deserve no quarter.
10. Keep your eyes wide open. Tune yourself to the top-most
pitch. Be nimble as a greyhound, as tough as leather, as hard as Krupp steel,
and so you shall be the Aryan warrior incarnate.’
After two months at Wittstock-Dosse, the young Slovaks
returned to their homeland and a new school in Banska Bystrica, at the Tri Duby
airport. The 34 cadets underwent intensive instruction, making their public
debut on October 30, when they jumped for the first time en masse from a pair
of German aircraft before President Tiso near the town of Zilina. The right
side of their helmets were then hand-painted (not decaled) with Slovakia’s
airpower insignia: a white patriarchal cross standing above three, blue hills
with a red sun rising in the background, the same emblem applied to engine
cowlings of aircraft operated by Slovak crews. The sleeve of their dress
uniform featured the image of a deployed chute on a blue patch encircled by a
During January 1944, the paratroopers pursued advanced
training, including night-time jumps-the first exercises of their kind in
military history, not even attempted by the German Fallschirmjagern. In
February, winter instruction took place near the village of Lieskovec. Before spring,
the unit experienced an influx of new members, so much so, they passed abreast
in review during Bratislava’s annual Armed Forces’ Day parade on March 14.
However, development had been hindered since the group’s inception by a dearth
of supplies and aircraft, virtually all of it eventually provided by Germany.
Short on supplies themselves, the Fallschirmjagern spared
what chutes, jump smocks, and helmets they could, and Goering dispatched
several medium-bombers modified to accommodate 16, fully equipped airborne
soldiers each. These were examples of the Heinkel He.111K-20/ R1, among the
last production variants of this famous warplane, having entered service when
the Slovaks were in need of just such an aircraft. Its spacious, ventral hatch
facilitated rapid jumps, and FuBI 2H blindlanding equipment aided night
operations in which the paratroopers specialized.
When the “national uprising” erupted in August,
some 80 Slovak paratroopers located at Banska Bystrica warded off all attacks
on the Tri Duby airport. They and the rest of their comrades later participated
in fierce fighting along the Zvolen-Kremnica railway and around the villages of
Gajdel, Jasenovo, and Svaty Kriz. A few of Lieutenant Mesko’s men deserted;
one, captured by the Germans, was executed, while another, severely wounded,
was killed when the truck in which he was being driven to a prisoner-of-war
camp infirmary was strafed by USAAF fighters.
After the insurgency was put down, Slovak paratroopers
continued to engage the invading Soviets, but with the loss of every Heinkel
and no prospect for re-supply, plus the seizure of most airfields by the enemy,
their unit’s further existence as an airborne organization was no longer
justified, and they disbanded in mid-November.
Although some SVZ pilots, for various reasons, joined the
insurgency, Slovakia’s most successful airmen did not. Jan Reznak, his
country’s leading ace with 32 confirmed and 3 unconfirmed “kills;’ refused
to switch sides. His comrade and friend, Jan Gerthofer (26 “kills”),
even though imprisoned by the Germans at Austria’s Stalag XVIIA prisoner-of-war
camp, until his release in February 1945, likewise remained loyal to the Tiso
After the war, both men enlisted in the newly reconstituted
Czechoslovak Air Force as flight instructors. But their past eventually caught
up with them. In 1948, Reznak was discharged for his “negative attitude
toward the People’s Democracy”‘ Three years later, he was grounded
permanently, when his pilot’s license was confiscated by the State Security
Police. By 1951, Gerthofer had become a civil transport pilot, but in June he,
too, was forbidden to fly for political reasons, and the highscoring ace was
forced to work as a manual laborer.
Critics of Prime Minister Tiso fault him for bringing his
country into World War II against even Adolf Hitler’s early advice. Yet,
neutrality would not have spared Slovakia from the Red Army that overran all of
Eastern Europe in 1945. So too, the Slovakian Air Force could not, alone,
fundamentally influence the course of events, due to its numerical
disadvantage. Yet, the achievement of its crews was all out of proportion to
its relatively small size, and they did, after all, significantly contribute to
events on the Eastern Front. As such, they secured an especially high position
for gallantry in the history of military aviation.
The British invasion of Cuba was a failure for reasons that this map of
the well-defended position they established in Guantanamo Bay did not reveal.
An attack on the major port of Santiago was planned, but the British troops
were landed in the bay more than eighty miles away. This foolishly exposed them
to a long and dangerous advance through woody terrain ideal for Spanish
guerrilla action. The troops suffered heavily from disease, did not reach their
goal and were re-embarked. Santiago was to fall to American attack in 1898. An
earlier British attack on Cartagena (in modern Colombia) and a later one on
Panama, both in 1741, also failed.
The bay was called Guantánamo by its original inhabitants, the Taínos.
Christopher Columbus landed in 1494, naming it Puerto Grande. On landing,
Columbus’ crew found Taíno fishermen preparing a feast for the local chieftain.
When Spanish settlers took control of Cuba, the bay became a vital harbor on
the south side of the island.
The bay was briefly known as Cumberland Bay when the British seized it
in 1741, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. British Adm. Edward Vernon arrived
with a force of eight warships and 4,000 soldiers with plans to march on
Santiago de Cuba. However, he was defeated by local guerrilla forces of creole
and Spaniards and forced to withdraw or face becoming a prisoner. In late 1760,
boats from HMS Trent and HMS Boreas cut out the French privateers Vainquer and
Mackau, which were hiding in the bay. The French were also forced to burn the
Guespe, another privateer, to prevent her capture.
WAR OF JENKINS’ EAR (1739–1742)
The War of Jenkins’ Ear, an armed conflict between Britain
and Spain, arose from longstanding Anglo-Spanish antagonism fostered by illicit
British trading activities in the Spanish Caribbean and the determined, often brutal,
attempts by Spain’s colonial guarda costa (‘coast guard’) vessels to suppress
such ventures. Popular feeling, incited by opponents of the Walpole ministry in
London and a vigorous merchant lobby opposed to diplomatic efforts, further
intensified pressures conducive to war.
The immediate events that precipitated open hostilities were the alleged
sinking of several British merchant ships by Spanish privateers, the suspension
of the asiento or slave supply contract, and the intensification of Spain’s search
and seizure claims against British smuggling vessels, and, marginally, the ill
usage suffered by one Capt. Robert Jenkins, Master of the brig Rebecca.
Legitimately bound for London from Jamaica with a cargo of sugar, Jenkins’s
ship was plundered and his ear severed by the commander of a Spanish coast
guard vessel near Havana on 9 April 1731.
The case received brief publicity, subsided, but then was
revived (together with other, similar incidents) during a stormy Commons debate
in March 1738. Although modern research has established that, contrary to
historical tradition, Jenkins never appeared personally to present the missing
ear; his plight was highly dramatized and contributed to the momentum of the
political opposition campaign urging an immediate offensive against Spain. This
appealed to national sentiment and commercial interests alike. Temporizing,
Walpole arranged the Convention of Pardo with Spain, which provided
compensation for vessels, lost but avoided the crucial issue: Spain’s continued
determination to suppress all smuggling attempts. Confronted with growing
public and parliamentary indignation, Walpole finally had to yield and war was
declared on 19 October 1739.
In the lacklustre naval operations that followed, Admiral
Vernon (1684–1757) sacked Porto Bello (in modern Panama) in November 1739, but
the attack on Cartagena (Colombia) in early March 1741 failed due to spirited
Spanish resistance, tropical disease, and dissension between British army and
navy commanders. Commodore George Anson, operating with a small squadron off
Chile, marauded coastal areas, and then circumnavigated the globe in the HMS
Centurion (1740–1744), capturing Spanish treasure along the way. Attempts to
seize Cuba in December 1741 and raids along the Florida coast were largely
fruitless, resulting in heavy British casualties. Gradually the war overseas
petered out into desultory forays against Spanish shipping and ineffectual
attempts to isolate Spain from her colonies before becoming enveloped and
overshadowed by hostilities in Europe (War of the Austrian Succession,
1740–1748) in which Britain, by means of mercenary forces, supported Austria
against France (who had joined Spain) and her German allies.
While in its altered, Continental dimension the war enabled
Britain to contain threatening Bourbon expansionism in key strategic areas
abroad during the period 1742–1748, overseas it failed to achieve the initially
anticipated sweeping victory over Spain.
Small-scale Anglo-Spanish clashes in Caribbean and Mediterranean waters
produced little monetary or strategic gain, clearly indicating that naval
action was not the solution to Britain’s commercial grievances at this time,
nor the key to much-needed political stability.
Santiago in Cuba
The failed British naval invasion of Cartagena, a Spanish
port city in modern-day Colombia, during March 22-May 9, 1741. During the
Anglo-Spanish War (1739-1744), Britain, with the assistance of thousands of
soldiers from its North American colonies, staged a disastrous amphibious
assault against Cartagena.
Attacks in the spring and summer of 1741 on Cartagena in
modern-day Colombia and Santiago in Cuba were humiliatingly repulsed. Disease
made terrible inroads into the army and navy, and arguments between the naval
and military commanders made effective cooperation impossible.
The British had completely abandoned Cartagena by May 9 and
returned to Jamaica. Disease continued to devastate Wentworth’s troops to the
point that he had only about 3,000 soldiers left. The expedition against the
Spanish in the West Indies continued to fizzle. After returning to Jamaica the
troops prepared for an assault on Santiago de Cuba but became bogged down near
Guantanamo Bay, where the force fought only disease. By the time the orders to
return home finally arrived, more than 10,000 men had perished, only 1,000 of
them in action. American colonists perceived the deaths as evidence of the
British Empire’s callousness, which helped fuel the development of a separate
An attack which took place on 28 July 1942 resulted in one of the most
extraordinary events of the Second World War. Nine Beauforts were racked up
with torpedoes and took off under the leadership of Gibbs to attack a merchant
ship escorted by two destroyers south-west of Greece. Two Beauforts of 217
Squadron were shot down. Three crew members of the aircraft flown by Pilot
Officer R.I.C. Head were picked up by one of the destroyers. The four men in
the other Beaufort, flown by Lieutenant Ted Strever of the SAAF were picked up
by an Italian Cant floatplane and taken north to the Greek port of Prevesa. On
the following day, they were taken in another Cant towards Taranto in Italy,
but managed to overpower the armed guard and the Italian crew. They flew the
Cant to Malta and landed in a bay, despite being attacked by Spitfires.
Ted Strever was a Royal Air force pilot and was based in
Malta with No. 217 Squadron during the spring of 1942. Ted took off in his
Bristol Beaufort bomber on one particular mission in late July to intercept an
Italian supply ship. He was shot down at sea after scoring a direct hit on the
supply ship, which managed to do enough damage to Ted’s plane before sinking.
Not long after scrambling into their dingy after the crash Ted and his crew
where picked up by an Italian sea plane and made prisoners of war.
It did not take them long to learn that they would be taken
to Taranto in Italy where they would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.
The thought of their approaching doom spurred them into
taking action against their captors. With the watchful eyes of the guard on
them and limited communication the world’s first skyjack swung into action.
They started straight for the radio operator, clearly to
make sure no contact was made to the base and successfully took him out. They
then overpowered an unexpected guard and managed to get his weapon off him. The
first part of their attack was successful, but the turning point came when the
co-pilot pulled a pistol on them. Luck was on their side however as it was one
the Italian’s own comrades that knocked the weapon from his hands in the
frantic struggle to regain control. It was after that bit of fortune in the
frenzied chaos that they knew the plane was theirs, and Ted wasted no time in taking
over the controls.
New problems now became apparent. The first and more
immediate issue was that they were fast running low on fuel. After asking the
Italian Engineer kindly (at gunpoint) to switch to reserves and by changing
their route, flying rather to their base at Malta instead of the African coast,
this first problem was quickly taken care of. Next was the problem of flying an
Italian plane. Ted’s experience was sufficient to fly an Italian plane but to
the allies this was an enemy aircraft fast approaching the Malta coast. Soon
there were spitfires gunning them down. Normally the sight of Spitfires off the
wing of his torpedo bomber would have been comforting, however this was clearly
not a Bristol Beaufort bomber and with holes being shot in his tail this was
definitely not comforting.
Ted hurled the first pilot back into his seat and ordered
him in hurried sign-language to land in the sea.
One of the men then whipped off his shirt and took his vest
– the only white article he had – and waved it out of the window making it
clear that they had come to surrender – albeit to their own side!
The first wave of Spitires managed to do fair damage to the
plane but they landed safely and the world’s first skyjack was over.
Astonished to see four RAF’s in the Italian plane a member
of the launch team towing them back to St Paul’s Bay said “We thought it
was old Mussolini coming to give himself up!”
Ted Strever received a DFC for his achievement in the war.
He died in Haenertsburg, South Africa in 1997 at the age of 77.
The Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the
“American War,” grew out of the Indochina War (1946-1954). The 1954
Geneva Conference, which ended the Indochina War between France and the
nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, provided for the independence of Cambodia,
Laos, and Vietnam. Agreements reached at Geneva temporarily divided Vietnam at
the 17th Parallel, pending national elections in 1956. In the meantime, Viet
Minh military forces were to withdraw north of that line and the French forces
south of it. The war left two competing entities, the northern Democratic
Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and the southern French-dominated
State of Vietnam (SV), each claiming to be the legitimate government of a
In June 1954 SV titular head Emperor Bao Dai appointed as
premier the Roman Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, whom Bao Dai believed had
Washington’s backing. Diem’s base of support was narrow but would soon be
strengthened by the addition of some 800,000 northern Catholics who would
relocate to southern Vietnam. In a subsequent power struggle between Bao Dai
and Diem, in October 1955 Diem established the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South
Vietnam), with himself as president. The United States then extended aid to
Diem, most of which went to the South Vietnamese military budget. Only minor
sums went to education and social welfare programs. Thus, the aid seldom
touched the lives of the preponderantly rural populace. As Diem consolidated
his power, U. S. military advisers also reorganized the South Vietnamese armed
forces. Known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese
Army) and equipped with American weaponry, it was designed to fight a
conventional invasion from North Vietnam rather than deal with countering the
growing insurgency in South Vietnam.
Fearing a loss, Diem refused to hold the scheduled 1956
elections. This jolted veteran Communist North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
Ho had not been displeased with Diem’s crushing of his internal opposition but
was now ready to reunite the country under his sway and believed that he would
win the elections. North Vietnam was more populous than South Vietnam, and the
Communists were well organized there. Fortified by the containment policy, the
domino theory, and the belief that the Communists, if they came to power, would
never permit a democratic regime, U. S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s
administration backed Diem’s defiance of the Geneva Accords.
Diem’s decision led to a renewal of fighting, which became
the Vietnam War. Fighting resumed in 1957 when Diem moved against the
6,000-7,000 Viet Minh political cadres who had been allowed to remain in South
Vietnam to prepare for the 1956 elections. The former Viet Minh (now called
Viet Cong [VC], for “Vietnamese Communists”) began the armed
insurgency on their own initiative but were subsequently supported by the North
Vietnamese government. In December 1960 the Viet Minh established the National
Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front [NLF]).
Supposedly independent, the NLF was controlled by Hanoi. The NLF program called
for the overthrow of the Saigon government, its replacement by a “broad
national democratic coalition,” and the “peaceful” reunification
In September 1959 North Vietnamese defense minister Vo
Nguyen Giap established Transportation Group 559 to send supplies and men south
along what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, much of which ran through
supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia. The first wave of infiltrators were
native southerners and Viet Minh who had relocated to North Vietnam in 1954. VC
sway expanded, spreading out from safe bases to one village after another. The
insurgency was fed by the weaknesses of the central government, by the use of
terror and assassination, and by Saigon’s appalling ignorance of the movement.
By the end of 1958 the insurgency had become a serious
threat in several provinces. In 1960 the Communists carried out even more
assassinations, and guerrilla units attacked ARVN regulars, overran district and
provincial capitals, and ambushed convoys and reaction forces. By mid-1961, the
Saigon government had lost control over much of rural South Vietnam.
Infiltration was as yet not significant, and most of the insurgents’ weapons
were either captured from ARVN forces or were left over from the war with
France. Diem rejected American calls for meaningful reform until the
establishment of full security. He did not understand that at that time the war
was still primarily a political problem and could be solved only through
Diem, who practiced the divide-and-rule concept of
leadership, increasingly delegated authority to his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and
his secret police. Isolated from his people and relying only on trusted family
members and a few other advisers, Diem resisted U. S. demands that he promote
his senior officials and officers on the basis of ability and pursue the war
By now, U. S. president John F. Kennedy’s administration was
forced to reevaluate its position toward the war, but increased U. S.
involvement was inevitable, given Washington’s commitment to resist Communist
expansion and the belief that all of Southeast Asia would become Communist if
South Vietnam fell. Domestic political considerations also influenced the
In May 1961 Kennedy sent several fact-finding missions to
Vietnam. These led to the creation of the Strategic Hamlet Program as part of a
general strategy emphasizing local militia defense and to the commitment of
additional U. S. manpower. By the end of 1961, U. S. strength in Vietnam had
grown to around 3,200 men, most in helicopter units or serving as advisers. In
February 1962 the United States also established a military headquarters in
Saigon, when the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) was replaced by
the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), to direct the enlarged
American commitment. The infusion of U. S. helicopters and additional support
for the ARVN probably prevented a VC military victory in 1962. The VC soon learned
to cope with the helicopters, however, and with the increased flow of
infiltrators and weapons from North Vietnam, the tide of battle turned again.
Meanwhile, Nhu’s crackdown on the Buddhists in the spring
and summer of 1963 led to increased opposition to Diem’s rule. South Vietnamese
generals now planned a coup, and after Diem rejected reforms, the United States
gave the plotters tacit support. On November 1, 1963, the generals overthrew
Diem, murdering both him and Nhu. Three weeks later Kennedy was also dead,
succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson.
The United States seemed unable to win the war either with
or without Diem. A military junta now took power, but none of the South
Vietnamese leaders who followed Diem had his prestige. Coups and countercoups
occurred, and much of South Vietnam remained in turmoil. Not until General
Nguyen Van Thieu became president in 1967 was there a degree of political
Both sides steadily increased the stakes, apparently without
foreseeing that the other might do the same. In 1964 Hanoi made two important
decisions. The first was to send to South Vietnam units of its regular army,
the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army). The second was to
rearm its forces in South Vietnam with modern Communist-bloc weapons, giving
them a firepower advantage over the ARVN, which was still equipped largely with
World War II-era U. S. infantry weapons (up until this time, because the Hanoi
leadership was trying to conceal its involvement in the insurgency in South
Vietnam, most of the weapons being sent down from North Vietnam had been older
weapons of Western manufacture).
On August 2, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred when
North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U. S. destroyer Maddox in
international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack on the Maddox and
another U. S. destroyer, the Turner Joy, that was reported two days later
probably never occurred, but Washington believed that it had, and this led the
Johnson administration to order retaliatory air strikes against North
Vietnamese naval bases and fuel depots. It also led to a near-unanimous vote in
Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the president to use
whatever force he deemed necessary to protect U. S. interests in Southeast Asia.
Johnson would not break off U. S. involvement in Vietnam,
evidently fearing possible impeachment if he did so. At the same time, he
refused to make the tough decision of fully mobilizing the country and
committing the resources necessary to win, concerned that this would destroy
his cherished Great Society social programs. He also feared a widened war,
possibly involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
By 1965 Ho and his generals expected to win the war. Taking
their cue from Johnson’s own pronouncements to the American people, they
mistakenly believed that Washington would not commit ground troops to the
fight. Yet Johnson did just that. Faced with Hanoi’s escalation, in March 1965
U. S. marines arrived to protect the large American air base at Da Nang. A
direct attack on U. S. advisers at Pleiku in February 1965 also led to a U. S.
air campaign against North Vietnam.
Ultimately more than 2.5 million Americans served in
Vietnam, and nearly 58,000 of them died there. At the height of the Vietnam
War, Washington was spending $30 billion per year on the war. Although the
conflict was the best-covered war in American history (it became known as the
first television war), it was conversely the least understood by the American
Johnson hoped to win the war on the cheap, relying heavily
on airpower to inflict pain on North Vietnam and frighten the Communist leaders
in Hanoi into halting their support for the war in South Vietnam. Johnson’s
goal was to hold down American casualties but also to secure the support of the
Republican Party for his domestic Great Society program. Under the code name
Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the bombing of North Vietnam, which was paralleled
by Operation BARREL ROLL, the secret bombing of Laos (which became the most
heavily bombed country in the history of warfare), the air campaign would be
pursued in varying degrees of intensity over the next three and a half years.
Its goals were to force Hanoi to negotiate peace and to halt infiltration into
South Vietnam. During the war, the United States dropped more bombs on
Indochina than it had on the Axis powers in all of World War II, but the
campaign failed in both its objectives.
In the air war, Johnson decided on graduated response rather
than the massive strikes advocated by the military. Gradualism became the grand
strategy employed by the United States in Vietnam. Haunted by the Chinese
intervention in the Korean War, at no time would Johnson consider an invasion
of North Vietnam, fearful of provoking a Chinese reaction.
By May and June 1965, with PAVN forces regularly destroying
ARVN units, MACV commander General William Westmoreland appealed for U. S.
ground units, which Johnson committed. PAVN regiments appeared ready to launch
an offensive in the rugged Central Highlands and then drive to the sea,
splitting South Vietnam in two. Westmoreland mounted a spoiling attack, with
the recently arrived 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) formed around some 450
During October-November 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division won
one of the war’s rare clear-cut victories in the Battle of Ia Drang and may
have derailed Hanoi’s plan of winning a decisive victory before full American
might could be deployed. Hanoi, however, took encouragement from the heavy
casualties that the 1st Cavalry Division had suffered during this battle (230
U. S. troops were killed during the four-day battle, with 155 Americans killed
during a single afternoon). To Hanoi, these casualty figures meant that in
spite of tremendous U. S. superiority in firepower and mobility, Communist
troops were capable of inflicting sufficient casualties on U. S. forces to
weaken America’s resolve and ultimately force the United States to give up the
effort in South Vietnam. Heavy personnel losses on the battlefield, while
regrettable, were entirely acceptable to the North Vietnamese leadership. Ho
remarked at one point that North Vietnam could absorb an unfavorable loss ratio
of 10 to 1 and still win the war. Washington never understood this and
continued to view the war through its own lens of what would be unacceptable in
terms of casualties.
From 1966 on the Vietnam War was an escalating strategic
stalemate, as Westmoreland requested increasing numbers of men from Washington.
By the end of 1966 U. S. troop strength in Vietnam had reached 385,000. In 1968
U. S. strength was more than 500,000 men. Johnson also secured some 60,000
troops from other nations-most of them from the Republic of Korea (ROK, South
Korea) and Thailand-surpassing the 39,000-man international coalition of the Korean
Terrain was not judged important. The goals were to protect
the population and kill the enemy, with success measured in terms of body
counts that, in turn, led to abuses. During 1966 MACV mounted 18 major
operations, each resulting in more than 500 PAVN or VC troops supposedly
verified dead. Fifty thousand enemy combatants were supposedly killed in 1966.
By the beginning of 1967, the PAVN and VC had 300,000 men versus 625,000 ARVN
and 400,000 Americans.
Hanoi, meanwhile, had reached a point of decision, with
casualties exceeding available replacements. Instead of scaling back, North
Vietnam prepared a major offensive that would employ all available troops to
secure a quick victory. Hanoi believed that a major military defeat for the
United States would end its political will to continue.
Hanoi now prepared a series of peripheral attacks at Con
Thien, Song Be, Dak To, and Loc Ninh, followed in January 1968 by the start of
a modified siege of some 6,000 U. S. marines at Khe Sanh near the demilitarized
zone (DMZ). With U. S. attention riveted on Khe Sanh, Hanoi planned a massive
offensive to occur during Tet, the lunar new year holiday, called the General
Offensive-General Uprising. The North Vietnamese government believed that this
massive offensive would lead people in South Vietnam to rise up and overthrow
the South Vietnamese government, bringing an American withdrawal. The attacks
were mounted against the cities and key military installations. In a major
intelligence failure, U. S. and South Vietnamese officials misread both the
timing and the strength of the attack, finding it inconceivable that the attack
would come during the sacred Tet holiday because this would mean that the
Communists were sacrificing the goodwill of the South Vietnamese public. Both
the Americans and the South Vietnamese had forgotten that there was a precedent
in Vietnamese history for such an attack; one of Vietnam’s most renowned
emperors had won a decisive victory over an invading Chinese army with a
surprise attack during the Tet holiday in 1798.
The Tet Offensive began in full force on January 31 and
ended on February 24, 1968. Poor communication and coordination plagued Hanoi’s
plans. Attacks against several provinces and cities in the northern part of
South Vietnam occurred a day early, alerting the U. S. command. The following
night, Communist forces mounted simultaneous attacks against 40 cities and
province capitals throughout South Vietnam, including the South Vietnamese
capital city of Saigon. Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital, was especially
hard hit. Fighting there lasted for three weeks and destroyed half the city.
Hanoi’s plan failed. ARVN forces generally fought well, and
the people of South Vietnam did not support the attackers. In Hue the
Communists executed 3,000 people, and news of this caused many South Vietnamese
to rally to the South Vietnamese government. Half of the 85,000 VC and PAVN
soldiers who took part in the offensive were killed or captured. It was the
worst military setback for North Vietnam in the war.
Paradoxically, the Tet Offensive was also North Vietnam’s
most resounding victory, in part because the Johnson administration and
Westmoreland had trumpeted prior allied successes. The intensity of the
fighting came as a profound shock to the American people. Disillusioned and
despite the victory, they turned against the war. At the end of March, Johnson
announced a partial cessation of bombing and withdrew from the November
Hanoi persisted, however. In the first six months of 1968,
Communist forces sustained more than 100,000 casualties, and the VC was
virtually wiped out. In the same period, 20,000 allied troops died. All sides
now opted for talks in Paris in an effort to negotiate an end to the war.
American disillusionment with the war was a key factor in
Republican Richard Nixon’s razor-thin victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey in
the November 1968 presidential election. With no plan of his own, Nixon
embraced Vietnamization, actually begun under Johnson. This turned over more of
the war to the ARVN, and U. S. troop withdrawals began. Peak U. S. strength of
543,400 men occurred in April 1969. There were 475,000 men by the end of the
year, 335,000 by the end of 1970, and 157,000 at the end of 1971. Massive
amounts of equipment were turned over to the ARVN, including 1 million M-16
rifles and sufficient aircraft to make the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF,
South Vietnamese Air Force) the world’s fourth largest. Extensive retraining of
the ARVN was begun, and training schools were established. The controversial
counterinsurgency Phoenix Program also operated against the VC infrastructure,
reducing the insurgency by 67,000 people between 1968 and 1971, but PAVN forces
remained secure in sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.
Nixon’s policy was to limit outside assistance to Hanoi and
pressure the North Vietnamese government to end the war. For years, American
and South Vietnamese military leaders had sought approval to attack the
sanctuaries. In March 1970 a coup in Cambodia ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
General Lon Nol replaced him, and President Nixon ordered U. S.-ARVN combined
operations against the PAVN Cambodian sanctuaries. Over a two-month span there
were 12 cross-border operations, collectively known as the Cambodian Incursion.
Despite widespread opposition in the United States to the widened war, the
incursions raised the allies’ morale, allowed U. S. withdrawals to continue on
schedule, and purchased additional time for Vietnamization. PAVN forces now
concentrated on bases in southern Laos and on enlarging the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In the spring of 1971 ARVN forces mounted a major invasion
into southern Laos, known as Operation LAM SON 719. There were no U. S.
advisers, and ARVN units took heavy casualties. The operation may have set back
Hanoi’s plans to invade South Vietnam but took a great toll on the ARVN’s
younger officers and pointed out serious command weaknesses. Shrugging off its
own losses, the PAVN was encouraged by the performance of its main-force troops
against some of ARVN’s finest fighting units and massive U. S. air support, and
this helped to solidify PAVN plans for an all-out offensive the following year.
By 1972 PAVN forces had recovered and had been substantially
strengthened with new weapons, including heavy artillery and tanks, from the
Soviet Union. The PAVN now mounted a major conventional invasion of South
Vietnam. Hanoi believed that the United States would not be able to reintervene
with ground troops and that PAVN forces were capable of destroying ARVN in a
headto-head battle. PAVN general Vo Nguyen Giap had 15 divisions. He left only
1 in North Vietnam and 2 in Laos and committed the remaining 12 to the
The attack began on Good Friday, March 30, 1972. Known as
the Spring Offensive or the Easter Offensive, it began with a direct armor
strike southward across the DMZ at the 17th Parallel, surprising the South
Vietnamese, whose defenses were oriented against an attack from the west, out
of Laos, and who had assigned a newly formed and inexperienced division to man
their critical northern defense line. Allied intelligence misread the
invasion’s scale and its precise timing. Giap risked catastrophic losses but
hoped for a quick victory before ARVN forces could recover. At first it
appeared that the PAVN would be successful. Quang Tri fell after a month of
fighting, and bad weather initially limited the effectiveness of airpower.
However, at Kontum and An Loc, the South Vietnamese forces held out against
repeated PAVN attacks.
In April, President Nixon authorized B-52 bomber strikes on
Hanoi and North Vietnam’s principal port of Haiphong, and in early May he
approved the mining of Haiphong’s harbor. This new air campaign was dubbed
LINEBACKER I and involved the use of new precision-guided munitions (so-called
smart bombs). The bombing cut off much of the supplies for the invading PAVN
forces. Allied aircraft also destroyed 400-500 PAVN tanks. In June and July the
ARVN counterattacked. The invasion cost Hanoi half its force-some 100,000 men
reportedly died-while ARVN losses were only 25,000.
With both Soviet and Chinese leaders anxious for better
relations with the United States in order to obtain Western technology and with
their forces on the front lines beginning to lose the territory that they had taken
during the early days of the invasion, Hanoi gave way and switched to
negotiations. Finally in October an agreement was hammered out in Paris, but
South Vietnamese president Thieu balked and refused to sign, whereupon Hanoi
made the agreements public. A furious Nixon blamed both Hanoi and Saigon for
the impasse. In December he ordered a resumption of the bombing of North
Vietnam and at the same time issued a stern warning to Thieu to drop his
opposition to the peace agreement. The bombing of North Vietnam, the principal
element of which was the use of concentrated B-52 strikes against Hanoi,
Haiphong, and other key targets in the Red River Delta, was dubbed LINEBACKER
II but was also known as the December Bombings and the Christmas Bombings.
Although 15 B-52s were lost during the two-week campaign, by the end Hanoi had
fired away virtually its entire stock of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and now
agreed to resume talks.
After a few cosmetic changes, an agreement was signed on
January 23, 1973, with Nixon forcing Thieu to agree or risk the end of all U.
S. aid. The United States recovered its prisoners of war and departed Vietnam,
leaving the South Vietnamese alone to face the PAVN. Following the signing of
the peace agreement and especially as the growing Watergate crisis weakened
President Nixon’s hand, the U. S. Congress steadily reduced the budget for aid
to South Vietnam. Tanks and planes were not replaced on the promised onefor-one
basis as they were lost, and ammunition, spare parts, and fuel were all in
short supply. All of this had a devastating effect on ARVN morale.
In South Vietnam both sides violated the cease-fire and
fighting steadily increased in intensity. In January 1975 Communist forces
attacked and quickly seized Phuoc Long Province on the Cambodian border north
of Saigon. Washington took no action. In March the Communists took Ban Me Thuot
in the Central Highlands, and in mid-March President Thieu decided to try to
preserve his forces by abandoning much of the northern half of South Vietnam.
Thieu issued his order to his top generals in total secrecy without informing
the United States and with no prior planning or preparation. Confusion led to
disorder and then disaster; six weeks later PAVN forces controlled all of South
Vietnam. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam
was now reunited but under a Communist government. An estimated 3 million
Vietnamese-soldiers and civilians-had died in the struggle. Much of the country
was devastated by the fighting, the economies of both North Vietnam and South
Vietnam were in shambles, and Vietnam suffered from the effects of the
widespread use of chemical defoliants.
The effects were also profound in the United States. The
American military was shattered by the war and had to be rebuilt. Inflation was
rampant from the failure to face up to the true costs of the war. Many
questioned U. S. willingness to embark on such a crusade again, at least to go
it alone. In this sense, the war forced Washington into a more realistic
appraisal of U. S. power.
Aftermath – Third Indochina
Saigon’s effort to regain lost territory and the passage of
the Case-Church Amendment that ended funding for U. S. forces in Southeast Asia
prompted the Twenty-First Plenum of the Central Committee in October 1973 to
approve “strategic raids” on isolated ARVN bases in order to clear
their “logistics corridor,” cut key communication with Saigon, regain
lost territory, and begin preparation for a culminating offensive to win the
war. Critical to PAVN’s success was the movement of troops and matériel down
the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the construction of an oil pipeline, and a paved highway
from Quang Tri in the north through the Central Highlands to Loc Ninh in the
south. Also important was the aggressive initiative of theater commander
General Tran Van Tra, who persuaded Le Duan to back his plan for attacking
Phuoc Long Province despite concerns over the level of war matériels and the U.
When the United States did not react to the seizing of Phuoc
Long Province in December 1974, the North Vietnamese government, confident that
the Gerald Ford administration would not send in airpower, pushed ahead with an
all-out invasion of South Vietnam (the Ho Chi Minh Campaign), which they
anticipated would take two years to complete. But South Vietnamese president
Nguyen Van Thieu’s precipitous abandonment of the Central Highlands was the
beginning of a rout as PAVN forces, led by General Van Tien Dung and reequipped
with modern Soviet tanks and weapons, completed the conquest of South Vietnam
ahead of schedule. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The North Vietnamese
government also celebrated the victories of its allies in Cambodia and in Laos,
where PAVN divisions were instrumental in the Pathet Lao victory.
Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces General Viktor Kulikov had
hurried to Hanoi after the capture of Phuoc Long Province to offer an estimated
400 percent increase in military aid to complete the destruction of South
Vietnam. Communist Chinese, who had assumed the aid burden for the Khmer Rouge
in Cambodia, also provided critical military aid. During the war years they
provided about 500,000 tons of grain per year to help feed the urban population
of North Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh Campaign
Event Date: April 1975
The Ho Chi Minh Campaign culminated in the April 1975 attack
on Saigon, which gave the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam)
the decisive victory over the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) that
North Vietnam had fought so long to achieve. Encouraged by the collapse of the
Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) in early 1975 in
Military Regions I and II, the Hanoi Politburo revised its timetable, deciding
late in March that Saigon should be taken before the beginning of the 1975
rainy season rather than the following year. The plan was to achieve victory in
what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Campaign before their dead leader’s
birthday (May 19).
In early April, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North
Vietnamese Army) units engaged ARVN forces around Saigon, blocking roads and
shelling Bien Hoa Air Base. While cadres moved into the city to augment their
already significant organization there, sappers positioned themselves to
interrupt river transportation and attack Bien Hoa. At Xuan Loc, some 35 miles
northeast of Saigon, a hard-fought battle began on April 8, the same day that a
Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF, South Vietnamese Air Force) pilot attacked
the presidential palace and then defected.
The U. S. evacuation of Cambodia on April 12 further
reinforced the North Vietnamese assessment that Washington would do nothing to
prevent the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, although some members
of the Saigon government could not bring themselves to believe that they would
be abandoned. Even after the fall of Military Regions I and II, U. S. officials
in Vietnam and visitors from Washington continued to act as if the Saigon
government could successfully defend itself or, at worst, achieve some kind of
negotiated settlement. Among South Vietnamese, however, opposition to President
Nguyen Van Thieu was growing, and talk of a coup was widespread.
As PAVN forces cut Route 1 to the east and prepared to
prevent reinforcement from the Mekong Delta by blocking Route 4 and from Vung
Tau by interdicting Route 15 and the Long Tau River, the ARVN engaged in some
maneuvering of its own. On April 21 President Thieu resigned in favor of Vice
President Tran Van Huong, but all attempts by Washington to support the Saigon
regime with increased aid failed in Congress.
Thieu’s resignation did nothing to stall the PAVN offensive
or buoy South Vietnamese morale. While some ARVN units fought on, leaders such
as Thieu began sending personal goods and money out of the country. Banks and
foreign embassies began closing, and a steady stream of foreign nationals,
including many Americans, left the country, often with their Vietnamese
Xuan Loc fell on April 21, and by April 25 ARVN forces
around Saigon were under pressure from all sides. The PAVN attack on Saigon
proper began on April 26 with artillery bombardments and a ground assault in
the east, where troops had to move early to be in position to coordinate their
final assault with units attacking from other directions. PAVN forces also
occupied Nhon Trach, southeast of Saigon, enabling them to bring 130-millimeter
artillery to bear on the Tan Son Nhut airport. On April 27 they cut Route 4,
but ARVN forces fought back, counterattacking sappers who had seized bridges
and putting up stiff resistance, particularly against PAVN units attacking from
As an increasing number of ARVN military and civilian
officials abandoned their posts, on April 28 President Huong resigned in favor
of Duong Van Minh. That same day a flight of captured Cessna A-37 Dragonfly
aircraft struck the Tan Son Nhut airfield, and the Communists pushed forward
their attack, positioning units for the final assault and successfully
attacking ARVN units in bases surrounding the city. U. S. ambassador Graham
Martin delayed beginning a full evacuation, fearing its negative impact on
morale. When the evacuation did begin on April 29, the final U. S. pullout was
chaotic, a poorly organized swirl of vehicles and crowds trying to connect with
helicopters, ships, and planes. In the confusion the Americans left many
Vietnamese employees behind, and as few as a third of the individuals and
families deemed to be at risk were evacuated or managed to escape.
Units around the Saigon perimeter came under heavy attack on
April 29. While some PAVN units held outlying ARVN garrisons in check, other
elements of General Van Tien Dung’s large force moved toward the center of the
city and key targets, including the presidential palace. Although some ARVN
units continued to resist, they could not slow the PAVN advance. On April 30
President Minh ordered ARVN forces to cease fighting. The Ho Chi Minh Campaign
had achieved its goal.
The Vietnam War ended just as students of revolutionary
warfare theory had expected. Drawing upon the power developed in their North
Vietnamese base area, the Communists combined five corps-sized regular army
units with southern guerrillas and cadres in a final offensive that grew in
strength as it piled victory upon victory against a demoralized opposition.
PAVN forces could sustain their momentum in part because they did not have to
detach a significant portion of their strength to administer conquered areas.
That task could be left to local forces and the political infrastructure
already in place before the final offensive began. Against such a strong
opponent, the Saigon government proved incapable of continued resistance without
active U. S. support.
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