The Last Crusaders I

The crenellated towers and walls of the Castle of St Peter brood defiantly over the southern end of the Aegean Sea; the mighty fortress is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved crusading castles of the fifteenth century.

The Hospitallers started building it soon after 1406, and from its battlements the Knights kept watch on the sea approaches to their island of Rhodes, less than a day’s sail away to the east along the coast. St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum was part of a network of fortresses throughout the Hospitaller-controlled Dodecanese islands, but this was the Knights’ only foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor. The French Tower, at the highest point in the castle, was the first to be built; more towers were added and a system of walls and bastions gradually covered the promontory that forms one side of the picturesque fishing harbour at Bodrum. Other ‘tongues’, including the English, also had formidable towers and as cannon began to play a part in siege warfare, massive gun emplacements were added to the fortifications later in the fifteenth century.

The Knights acquired this mainland enclave as a result of the ferment of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when the Mongol ruler, Tamurlane, invaded Syria and Asia Minor. Smyrna (the modern Izmir), along with the other mainland cities, fell to the Mongols in 1402, but the Hospitallers having lost that important city quickly re-established themselves at Bodrum. Ottoman power had suddenly been eclipsed by the Tartar ruler, and Turkish expansion was halted momentarily. The sultan’s plan to take Constantinople had to be shelved, giving Byzantium a reprieve, but when Tamurlane died in 1405 his empire began to disintegrate and with it went any chance of constraining the resurgence of Ottoman power. As soon as the Knights had acquired the site at Bodrum for their new fortress, Master Philibert of Naillac went off on an extensive tour of Europe to raise funds for the building. He was well received by the Pope who issued an indulgence to anyone willing to put up money, and we know that in England indulgences could be obtained for the castle fund throughout the fifteenth century.

Money came in from all over Europe but there is a strong hint that the English nobility must have dug deeply into their pockets, because emblazoned on one wall of the English Tower that was built in about 1414 there is a line of fifteenth-century coats of arms. The centrepiece of this display is a great shield, four times the size of the others, with the carved arms of Henry IV – that enthusiastic crusader who had reysed at least twice with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. He had clearly made a substantial contribution to the building of St Peter’s Castle along with more than a score of lesser nobles and members of the Royal Family. The well-preserved interior of the English tower is today popular with visitors who are sometimes surprised by the appearance of a monkish-looking figure, his cloak emblazoned with the white starred cross of the Order, who takes charge of crumhorn and tabor recorded mood music. More authentic knights, who were not grand enough to have their arms carved into the battlements – about two hundred survive in various parts of the castle – just scratched their names in the stone while they were on duty. These medieval graffiti are clear evidence of the many different nations represented in the garrison.

Parts of the castle were constructed from the masonry that once adorned the ancient mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which the Knights found in a ruined state on the mainland overlooking Bodrum harbour. The ancient site was a convenient quarry and supplied about forty per cent of the stone they needed to build the great medieval fortress. That estimate has been made by archaeologists who, in recent years, have crawled all over the castle spotting and measuring the building material taken from the mausoleum, and, with the aid of a computer, have put together a plan of one of the world’s missing wonders.

During the short time that Tamurlane held sway in Asia Minor and Syria crusading activity was revived and, while plans for the castle of Bodrum were going ahead, the Hospitallers took part in raids along the Muslim-held coastline of Asia Minor. The fleet of galleys, commanded by Marshal Boucicault, attacked the Turkish port of Alanya, and would have sailed south to Alexandria if contrary winds had not changed the Marshal’s mind.

Instead, this Frenchman, who was Governor of Genoa, attacked Tripoli and Beirut. Boucicault may have been planning another attack in 1407, but as the Turks re-established their position in the East there were fewer opportunities for crusaders to overrun mainland strongholds. The end of the great schism in the West – the general recognition of one Pope instead of two or three – released much more papal energy into crusading. Pope Martin V tried to organize crusades to help the Latin settlements under pressure in the Aegean and, when the Turks laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, he worked for a naval league in which the Hospitallers, Venetians, Genoese and Milanese would take part.

But these efforts were to meet with little success because Christendom was preoccupied with a new heresy in Bohemia’s church. The new heretical threat came from the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites wanted both bread and wine at communion for the laity, clerical misdemeanours to be publicly condemned, the freedom to preach, and a review of the church’s material wealth. They were vocal about what they regarded as the iniquitous practice of giving indulgences to Christians to fight other Christians and in 1418 Pope Martin agreed that they would have to be suppressed by force.

King Sigismund of Hungary, who had featured in the crusading defeat at Nicopolis, and was now Western emperor-elect, organized a series of crusades between 1420 and 1431 against the Hussites, whose sense of Czech nationalism and disaffection with the established church resulted in a spirited defence of their lands in Bohemia. As in the Albigensian Crusade and the political wars in Italy, crusaders came from many parts of Europe, and Sigismund’s armies included English, Dutch, Swiss, French and Spanish knights. Much Christian blood was spilled in ten years of fighting and eventually the Hussites were overcome, not by the crusaders, but by the Bohemian nobility itself, although tension and outbreaks of trouble continued well into the second half of the fifteenth century. It was another example of how internal threats were always regarded more seriously than external ones. Sigismund, who had, after all, called for the Crusade of Nicopolis, must have been very conscious of the growing danger to both Eastern and Western Christianity posed by the Turkish sultan, Murad II.

In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV, having won the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome, preached a new crusade designed to defend the Christian East against the Turks. There was little response, except from the ‘front line’ countries along the Danube. John Hunyadi, the ruler of Transylvania, led an army that routed the Turks at Nish, and in the following year, 1444, he marched to the Black Sea port of Varna leading an army of 20,000 across the Balkans. Hunyadi and King Ladislas of Hungary planned to continue their advance down the coast towards Constantinople but the sultan moved up reinforcements – some say in chartered Genoese transports – and the crusading forces were almost wiped out. Ladislas was killed but Hunyadi survived and, as long as he lived, kept the Turks from crossing the Danube. He did not, however, put in an appearance during the next major crisis for the Christian world.

The arrival of about 1,000 stonemasons at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus in 1452 was a bad augury for the citizens of Constantinople. The sultan, Mehmet II, had brought them, and an equal number of labourers, to construct a castle on the Bosphorus, about 6 miles from Constantinople, that was part of a strategy to bring down the encircled centre of eastern Christendom. For their part the Byzantines had been under threat for a century. Under Mehmet’s father, Sultan Murad II, perhaps the status quo would have been maintained, but his nineteen-year-old son was driven by a desire to take Constantinople at all costs. The towers and walls of Mehmet’s siege castle on the Bosphorus – Boghaz-Kezen or ‘Cutter of the Throat’ – are still a spectacular sight on the hillside overlooking the busy waterway. The castle is now called Rumeli Hisar and from its ramparts cannon could control any traffic passing to or from the Black Sea; indeed, the castle’s efficacy was soon tested when a Venetian galley ignored signals to heave to and was rudely stopped by an iron ball crashing through her timbers. During the construction of the castle the Byzantine emperor, Constantine, sent an envoy to the sultan seeking an assurance that his new fortress was not for offensive purposes. The envoy’s decapitation was a clear answer to the query.

Constantine’s capital in the mid-fifteenth century was a weak and tatty reflection of its splendid past. The population of 100,000 was not nearly enough to fill the vast area enclosed by 14 miles of walls. Much of the city, which may once have boasted a million inhabitants, had reverted to pasture and villages; and centres of population had developed their own identities behind stout walls and locked gates. During the first half of the fifteenth century, travellers reported that the city was full of ruins and that people were suffering from poverty. The great imperial palace had been left ruinous by the last Latin emperor after he had taken all the lead off the roofs and sold it; the once splendid Hippodrome was crumbling, but the University functioned and there was an active intellectual life in a city that still contained pockets of wealth and luxury. Predictably, the Venetian quarter was prosperous and the great Basilica of St Sophia was in good repair, still lavishly decorated with wonderful mosaics and frescoes. The Genoese had their own colony of Pera opposite the city across the Golden Horn, but the suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus had long been incorporated into the Muslim world. Mehmet’s castle on the Bosphorus was finished in August 1452, not long before Emperor Constantine sent out an urgent appeal to the major centres of Christian influence. In view of the recent union of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the Byzantines expected military support, but no significant help was forthcoming, only expressions of concern and vague promises. The Genoese and Venetians were loath to do anything that would disturb their profitable trade with the Muslims, and any sense of urgency was dispelled by a widely held view that Constantinople could withstand any siege indefinitely. The walls were in good condition all the way round and were still famous throughout the medieval world for their strength and sophistication. The triple defensive system of the 4-mile-long land walls comprised a 60ft moat, a low, crenellated retaining wall, a wide access space, a 25ft-high outer wall with towers, and finally the massive 40ft-high main wall with square and octagonal towers every 50 or 60 yards.

The emperor, however, decided that there were not enough troops to man the inner wall and the Turks would have to be stopped at the outer line of defence. Only about 5,000 Greeks and 2,000 foreigners were available to defend the city – a number that included 700 Genoese led by Giovanni Giustiniani Longo. With Emperor Constantine, this aristocratic warrior organized the defence of the city that would soon face a Muslim army of about 80,000. The Christian troops were well equipped with the best armour of the day and would defend the city with mangonels, culverines, javelins and arrows. The army the sultan was directing from his red and gold pavilion in front of the land walls had many regiments that were less well-equipped – especially the first-wave shock troops – but he had invested in some new and devastating artillery. The biggest piece had a bronze barrel nearly 27ft long which fired 12cwt balls at targets over a mile away. To move this monster of a gun from the foundry in Adrianople needed sixty oxen and 200 men, and the bridges all the way down the road had to be specially strengthened. The sultan had also assembled a huge fleet of about 150 ships to blockade the sea approaches to Constantinople, but before that became effective seven Venetian ships slipped quietly out of the harbour with hundreds of Italians on board whom the city could ill afford to lose at that time.

On 6 April 1453, the bombardment began. The sultan’s artillery pounded the land walls where the river Lycus ran under the defences and across the city to the Sea of Marmara. As masonry cracked and splintered it crashed down with a deafening roar, leaving rubble-strewn gaps which the defenders would try to patch with timber and earth stockades. Whenever there was a pause in the artillery fire, Muslim soldiers would move forward with materials to fill in the moat and, as the wall crumbled, the sultan moved his crack regiment, the Janissaries, into position. These troops were not unlike the Mamluks of Egypt in the way they were recruited – young Christian slaves who were schooled in Turkish and steeped in the Muslim faith. To a raucous accompaniment of oboes, cymbals and drums, the janissaries charged, but the earthen and timber stockade held and they were forced to withdraw.

In the meantime, ten Christian galleys protecting the iron boom across the Golden Horn had successfully beaten off attacks by Muslim ships and, in mid-April, three galleys sent by the Pope forced their way through the blockade and reached the Golden Horn with holds full of food and armaments. While the sultan’s artillery was slowly grinding down sections of the land wall, his navy made no progress at all in breaking through the great chain that closed off the Golden Horn, so an ingenious plan was conceived.

Huge wooden cradles with wheels were built and taken to the edge of the Bosphorus to rendezvous with a section of the Muslim blockading fleet. After the ships were floated into these cradles, teams of oxen hauled them along a newly constructed road up the hillside and then overland to the middle reaches of the Golden Horn. The chain had been bypassed by a procession of galleys with pennants flying and rowers in position beating the air with their oars in rhythm to the galley officer’s beat.

The fleet of seventy Muslim vessels now deployed behind the chain could not only harrass Christian shipping but also threaten the less well-defended harbour walls. The Genoese colony of Pera continued its policy of neutrality, but contact with the beleaguered city across the water was now more difficult. The Greeks anxiously watched the sea approaches for the Western rescue fleet, but the only sails on the Sea of Marmara were Muslim ones, and towards the end of May the Byzantines realized that they were on their own. The city had withstood seven weeks of almost continuous bombardment and had repulsed several full-scale attempts to storm the walls. Then suddenly, at midnight on 27 May, all Turkish military activity stopped. The sultan had ordered a day of rest and prayer before his next major offensive. Commanders on both sides inspected their troops and in the unaccustomed silence the bells of Constantinople’s churches rang out, and religious processions wound through the streets while prayers were said for the salvation of the city.

The assault came in a roar of gunfire soon after midnight on 29 May when, with trumpets blaring and drums beating, thousands of Turks hurled themselves against the walls; throughout the city church bells pealed again to call the people to the walls and, after several hours, the attackers fell back.

The sultan launched another wave of troops at the walls after the giant cannon had brought down a section of the stockade. Again the defenders pushed the Turks back with fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but by then, with attacks aimed at many different points around the city, the thinly spread defenders were wearying. The end came quickly after a party of Turkish troops at the northern end of the land walls noticed that a sally port had been left open and unguarded. The Turks poured in and made their way up on to the battlements. At about the same time the Genoese commander, Giustiniani, was wounded and pleaded to be taken away from the battle.

The emperor gave permission, and as the wounded soldier was conveyed through the streets a rumour spread that the city was already lost. Giustiniani’s Genoese troops abandoned the walls as the sultan led his Janissaries in another attack on the weakened defences. The Turks came over the wall and nothing could hold them back. Emperor Constantine, whose namesake centuries before had founded the city, was last seen in the thick of the battle, but his body was never positively identified.

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The Last Crusaders II

Extrait de l’article “le grand siège de Malte” (février 2011): Galère de l’Ordre de Malte (1560), typique des années contemporaines de Lépante. Le rostre ne servait guère que de “passerelle” en cas d’abordage… Elle possédait des avirons maniés par cinq hommes, “a scaloccio” les galères amirales jusqu’à huit. Les galères Maltaises avaient entre 26 à 30 bancs (donc jusqu’à 60 avirons), 260-300 rameurs et presque autant de troupes, servants de couleuvrines et balistes qui complétaient les 6 pièces lourdes (de 6 à 48 livres) de front. L’essentiel des arquebusiers prenaient d’ailleurs place sur le gaillard d’avant. (Source : Maquette du musée de la Valette)

Une galère amirale Ottomane ou “Bâtarde du Sultan” (1560) : Ce type de navire à deux voire à trois mâts pouvait atteindre 65 mètres de long pour dix de large avec près de 7 hommes par banc et 36 avirons, un espace vide servant de cuisine (le “fougon”) soit un total de 491 rameurs, 300 fantassins et un trentaine de matelots et d’officiers. La majorité des galères Ottomanes était plus raisonnables, typiquement 42-43 mètres pour 25 avirons par bord maniées par des vogues de 5 rameurs. (Source : Miniature de Kadirga). Il y avait également de légères galères de course, la Kalyata de 34 mètres, et la Firkate à faible tirant d’eau, (51 rameurs) capable de remonter les fleuves.

The Turks followed up their triumph on the Bosphorus by conquests in all directions: in 1456 the Latin rulers of Athens had to stand aside; most of the Morea and Serbia fell to the Turks in 1459-60; Trebizond, the Greek-ruled former fragment of the old Byzantine empire on the Black Sea, and the islands of Lesbos and Euboea, followed a year or so later. Almost immediately after Constantinople fell, Pope Nicholas V issued a crusade encyclical which was received with enthusiasm at the court of Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy. His contribution to the defence of the Christian East was to stage a great banquet for his Knights of the Golden Fleece at which a live pheasant bedecked in jewellery was brought to the table. Among the evening’s various chivalric side-shows, including the representation of an elephant carrying the Holy Church’s appeal for aid, the Knights took their crusading vows. On the whole, this period after 1453 has been portrayed by historians as one of despair at the frayed end of the crusading story. Pope Pius II’s crusade in 1464 is often quoted as the very last one but, far from presaging an era of despair and disillusionment, the fall of Constantinople had precisely the opposite effect. As in the case of other crusading disasters – Edessa, the Horns of Hattin and Acre – the final collapse of Byzantium put some steel back into crusading rhetoric, and a period of intense activity followed that lasted throughout the rest of the century.

This revised view of fifteenth-century crusading has come from a massive amount of previously unread documents stored among medieval documents in the Vatican and Venetian archives. Professor Kenneth Setton, of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, has been largely responsible for drawing attention to the documents, which show that the recovery of Constantinople became an ideal similar to the liberation of Jerusalem in the earlier crusading period.

There is still a great deal more to be culled from documents, but already many new crusades that were previously only hinted at, or totally unsuspected, have emerged to fill out a remarkable picture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century crusading. They highlight, for example, the activities of naval leagues, when several of the Christian maritime states, in conjunction with the papacy, pooled their naval resources. One, which the newly-elected Pope Sixtus IV put together in 1471, numbered eighty-seven galleys and fifteen transports drawn from Venice, Naples and the Holy See. The ships assembled off Rhodes in the summer of 1472 and set off to attack the Turkish towns of Smyrna and Antalya. Smyrna was burned to the ground and pieces of the chain that the papal fleet smashed through as it entered the harbour of Antalya were brought back in triumph to St Peter’s in Rome, where they still hang above one of the doors to the archives of the church. But Ottoman expansion continued. The papacy responded to every advance with a flurry of crusade propaganda, but most crusades failed to go into action due to the complex and violent nature of internal European politics.

In Spain, however, crusading enthusiasm had reached fever pitch. The Spaniards completed their reconquest in 1492 when Granada surrendered to King Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella, and, almost immediately, a new Spanish campaign was launched towards North Africa. Having established Christian beachheads all the way along the Mediterranean coast as far east as Tripoli, there was even talk about the reconquest of the Holy Land, via the North African overland route to Egypt. The new documentary evidence from Italian archives shows that the Spanish reconquest was not just an isolated burst of crusading activity, but only one theatre of holy war in the context of a much broader crusading movement that was still a potent force.

In 1500 the Pope issued another crusade encyclical; substantial amounts in tax were collected and, in 1502, thirteen galleys were sent by the Pope to strengthen the Venetian fleet. The archives reveal that subsequent Popes were just as enthusiastic, that King Henry VII of England, King Manuel of Portugal and King James of Scotland were equally keen to see new crusades launched against the Turks, and in 1514 the crusade they sought was being prepared. But each time the Pope was thwarted, as rivalry among the European powers erupted into war or, at the least, a period of non-cooperation. After Ottoman victories in Syria and Egypt the Pope declared a five-year truce for the whole of Europe, and in London a treaty was signed between England and France; indeed, the famous meeting near Calais between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in June 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, was a demonstration of a new alliance of European powers for the crusade to the East. However, the death of the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, reduced the level of anxiety, and preparations for the much-heralded crusade faded away.

Eventually, the West chose to go on the offensive in 1535 to deal with the famous pirate captain Khair ad-Din Barbarossa, who had established a damaging presence on the Rock of Algiers and, in alliance with the Turks, had also occupied Tunis. Emperor Charles V therefore decided to confront the growing Muslim maritime threat and a crusade was set in train. Pope Paul III offered the usual indulgences to crusaders and contributed a fleet of six galleys; the Hospitallers added four more and by the time the Portugese and others had joined the invasion fleet, a huge flotilla of seventy-four galleys and 330 transports of various kinds arrived off the North African coast not far from the landing place chosen by St Louis in 1270. What followed was a crusading victory the like of which had not been seen since the fall of Granada. Charles not only vanquished the Barbary fleet and captured the fortress of La Goulette, but claimed to have set free the astonishingly large number of 20,000 Christian captives. The crusaders then moved on to Tunis which they sacked on 21 July, and in a triumphant gesture sent the lock and bolts of the city’s gate back to St Peter’s in Rome.

Charles’s success in Tunis, having done much for Christian confidence, set off another bout of papal planning for more crusades centred on Constantinople. Pope Paul III wrote to King Sigismund I of Poland in that vein, and in 1537 a special commission of cardinals was charged with the responsibility to plan the campaign. Charles formed a new naval league with the Pope and Venice but, in an engagement with the Turks at the entrance to the Gulf of Arta, the Christian fleet was defeated. After the Venetians signed a peace treaty with the Turks in 1540 the naval league was disbanded, but Charles returned to the western Mediterranean the following year for an assault on Algiers. It failed, but one tantalizing strand of evidence to survive suggests that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, encouraged Charles to continue his efforts in North Africa. Perhaps the well-oiled machinery of crusading played a greater part than is generally realized in the Iberian conquests of the New World.

Emperor Charles was active again in 1550 when he sent a fleet to besiege the North African town of Mahdia, but the next big crusade on that coast was led by King Philip II of Spain. His target was Tripoli which the Hospitallers had held on the North African mainland from 1530 until 1551. Spain, Genoa, Florence, Naples, Sicily, the papacy and the Hospitallers contributed forty-seven galleys to the fleet. There were forty-three other ships, and in all 11,000-12,000 fighting men were waiting to storm ashore on the island of Jerba at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Gabes.

They took the island and began to strengthen its defences, but within a matter of weeks typhus spread through the army and the troops began to re-board the ship, leaving a garrison behind. In the middle of the operation a Turkish armada arrived and sank twenty-seven Christian galleys. The crusaders still ashore were then besieged by the Turks and, with the water in the castle cisterns virtually exhausted, were forced to distil sea water in an attempt to keep themselves alive in the hot North African summer; after two and a half months there was no more fuel for the stills and men were dying of thirst, and at the end of 1 July 1560 the siege ended in a massacre.

Such disasters, however, did not reign in the ambitions of Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Tuscany, to emulate the Hospitallers. In 1562 he declared himself Grand Master and formed his own military order dedicated to Santo Stefano (St Stephen). Its convent and church were set up in Pisa and so much enthusiasm was generated that between 1563 and 1737 the Order of St Stephen had founded almost 700 commanderies and attracted a large number of supporters. The Knights did not have to bother about celibacy and the blue blood entry requirements were less exacting than the Hospitallers. But the Order could put as many as ten galleys to sea with well-trained crews from the Order’s own naval academy. In the Order’s records Dr Anthony Luttrell found that its version of Christian piracy did well in the Levant in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: ‘In the eight years from 1610 Santo Stefano took twenty-four Babary vessels and 1,409 slaves in the West, and it pillaged several towns and took forty-nine Turkish and Greek vessels, and 1,114 slaves in the Levant. Like the Hospital, and very briefly the Teutonic Order, Santo Stefano fought with the Venetians during their Cretan war from 1645 to 1669, but thereafter it saw increasingly little action.’

The 1560s were no different from the previous decades of the sixteenth century. There were wars and truces between the Western powers and the Ottomans, until in 1570 the Turks demanded the surrender of Cyprus, which was held by the Venetians. A Christian fleet of Sicilian and papal vessels, together with galleys of the Italian city states, sailed in an attempt to pre-empt a Turkish invasion, but on reaching Rhodes the fleet heard that Nicosia had already been taken so the rescue mission was abandoned.

Famagusta was taken by the Turks in early August and the Cypriot capital fell on 9 September 1570. In the same year, the papacy, Venice and Spain announced that they had formed a permanent alliance to fight the infidel, and in August 1571 the largest Christian fleet to come together in the sixteenth century assembled in the bay of Naples. Don John of Austria, Charles V’s bastard son, was commander-in-chief of an armada that was made up of 242 vessels drawn from the navies of the Hospitallers, Savoy, Genoa, Venice, the papacy and Spain. There were 30,000 men on board when they sailed to engage a Turkish armada of about the same size in the Gulf of Lepanto off western Greece. Don John of Austria’s heavy cannon gave the Christians their famous victory in which the Turks are said to have lost 30,000 men dead or captured, with 117 galleys taken as prizes of war, and eighty vessels completely destroyed. Such a resounding victory might have presaged a Christian advance towards the East! In March 1572, Pope Pius V circulated the faithful with words straight out of the anthology of crusading rhetoric: ‘We admonish, require and exhort every individual to decide to aid this most holy war either in person or with material support… We grant most full and complete pardon, remission and absolution of all their sins of which they have made oral confessions with contrite hearts, the same indulgence which the Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, were accustomed to concede to crusaders going to the Holy Land.’ Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, in assessing the new material to come out of the Italian archives, believes that the Reformation – the religious revolution inspired by Martin Luther in the early years of the sixteenth century – only slowed down the pace of crusading activity: ‘It is clear that the crusading ideal was alive in the sixteenth century. It is easy to find examples of the traditional language of holy war and grants of indulgences and crusade tenths which, for instance, were regularly given to Venice, although some elements were now solidifying into forms in which their original functions were obscured. Parts of the Spanish cruzada – privileges in return for a tax which originated in the sale of crusade indulgences – were diverted in the sixteenth century to defray the costs of the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome; the cruzada became so divorced from its original purpose that it was issued regularly until this century and its privileges were only abrogated in the diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, in 1945.’ In the late sixteenth century, however, the evidence currently available thins out and a clear picture of crusading adventures is difficult to assemble; we know that from 1645 the Turks were fighting to wrest Crete from Venetian control, and that they finally took the island in 1669. There were Christian armies on the banks of the Danube defending Vienna, and there was a resurgence of Venetian power in the Aegean, but almost nothing can be said about the crusading element in the campaigns, if indeed any crusaders took part at all. But there was one surviving centre of crusading spirit – the island state of the Order of the Knights of Malta, the Hospitallers: ‘It saddens me to be compelled to cast this brave old man out of his home’, are the words attributed to Sultan Suleiman ‘the Law Giver’ or ‘the Magnificent’, after he accepted the surrender of Rhodes from the Order’s Grand Master, Philip Villiers of L’Isle Adam. The date was December 1522; a mournful time for the Knights of the Hospital who had heroically withstood a siege that had lasted almost five months. The Knights had been luckier in 1480 during the first siege of Rhodes staged by the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II. That Turkish invasion force had become exhausted and, having failed repeatedly to storm the walls, packed up and left the island in ruined peace. Forty-two years later, in 1522, Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’ had no intention of letting the Knights stay on Rhodes.

With an enormous fleet of 400 ships and a large army, it was just a matter of time before such a degree of ‘overkill’ produced its inevitable result. Suleiman was, however, munificent and, in spite of months of spirited resistance from the defenders, and great losses on the Turkish side, agreed to let the survivors leave Rhodes with dignity and with their possessions.

There were not only cartloads of documents dating back to the Hospitallers’ days in Palestine, but also the Orders’ precious relics, including the jewel-encrusted, mummified hand of John the Baptist which the Hospitallers had obtained during their time on Rhodes. The Knights’ possessions trundled down to the port in a convoy of wagons and were loaded aboard the Order’s carrack and galleys. The great castle of St Peter on the mainland and the Hospitaller territories in the archipelago were forfeit under the surrender terms which left the Order, after two centuries on Rhodes, without a headquarters or even a raison d’être. Among the survivors of the siege in the small flotilla heading west through the sleet of a dark January night was a young knight from Provence called Jean Parisot de la Valette.

Cut adrift from their long association with the East, the Knights, led by their Grand Master, found temporary havens around the Mediterranean; they hankered after Rhodes and toyed with plans to reconquer their island state, but after eight years, in 1530, they accepted an offer of a new island home on Malta and Gozo from Emperor Charles V. The Grand Master and his men, however, were less than enthusiastic. Malta itself was a barren rock-strewn island 10 miles long and 9 miles wide; its only attractions were the two superb harbours on the north coast, Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour. There was the ancient walled capital of Mdina astride the only high ground at the centre of the island, and about 12,000 inhabitants scratched a living from the sparse top soil. Gozo, the other main island in the tiny group, was greener but had no harbour at all. A greater contrast with the peaks and verdant valleys of Rhodes would have been hard to find, although the beleaguered outpost of Tripoli on the North African coast, part of the emperor’s territorial package on offer, was perhaps an even more dubious proposition. But with an annual tribute of a falcon to the emperor’s Viceroy in Messina, and a promise not to use Malta as an offensive base against Sicily, the Hospitallers set out for their new home in autumn of 1530.

Australians in Bomber Command

The Bomber Command operating fields were divided into Groups. By March 1943 the groups from the north were: 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Group in the Tyne valley and north Yorkshire, 4 Group in north and east Yorkshire, 1 Group south of the Humber in north Lincolnshire, 5 Group from Scampton in central Lincolnshire to Woodall Spa in the south, 2 (later 100) Group in north Norfolk, 3 Group in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and 8 (Path Finder Force) Group further west in Cambridgeshire centred on its headquarters in Huntingdon. Of the main Australian squadrons, 460 was in 1 Group (Lancasters), 462 was in 4 Group and then 100 Group (Halifaxes), and 466 was in 4 Group (Halifaxes), 463 and 467 in 5 Group (Lancasters). Other Australian squadrons that operated in Bomber Command were 455 (1941-42 then transferred to Coastal Command), 458 (1941 then transferred to the Middle East) and 464 (1942-43 then transferred to Second Tactical Air Force).

Airmen feared being a squadron spare, the bomb-aimer called up to fly with the crew whose bomb-aimer was injured, sick or for other reasons relieved of flying duties. That meant flying with strangers, no reassuring voices in the earphones, no confidence in mutual competence, a high chance of filling-in again and again with inexperienced crews, and no friends to share the easing of postflight tension and the generous breakfast prepared for returning crews. R. J. Cantillon, a wireless operator, was told at the last moment to replace a sick crewman in a Halifax. He found himself flying as mid-upper gunner with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman, a Canadian and an American on their first operation deep into Germany. They were without teamwork and they survived long enough to bale out over Holland on the return flight.

Men who came as a replacement to an experienced crew could not hope to complete a tour in one crew. When the original crew finished its 30 operations the replacement had to shift to another crew and that might mean joining a sprog crew and again going through the hazards of those first four or five raids. Even where a crew began operations together, and all demonstrated the capacity to do their job when reality replaced practice, they were unlikely to do all their flying together. Men became ill, were wounded or involved in minor accidents. Cliff O’Riordan went to `Quite a bright party’ that started in the mess, tapered off in the early hours of the morning, then resumed at ten the next morning. It was some time later that O’Riordan tried to ride a horse, fell off and broke a bone in his arm. He missed operations.

Experienced men could be asked to fly with new crews, and some volunteered. Bob Murphy went with several crews on their first trip over enemy territory `to point out the difference between light flak and heavy flak and what the different searchlights were and so on’. And to boost their confidence. After his first tour Arthur Doubleday sometimes flew with a scratch crew. Given that it was both his duty and his inclination to ensure that the bombs fell in the right place, this would have been both exhilarating and terrifying. Doubleday also learnt the danger of flying with unknown men. Over the target he heard the unfamiliar voice of the bomb-aimer say in a matter-of-fact voice, `Flak on the port, skipper’. Normally, says Doubleday, a flat statement like that implied the flak was some distance away. But he had no idea that his scratch crew bomb-aimer was not given to excitement or exaggeration. This bomb-aimer meant exactly what he said. The flak was in fact on the port wing, and within a few feet of the bomb-aimer’s nose.

Bob Kellow, who flew as wireless operator in Les Knight’s dambuster crew, said that their crew was together through 27 successful raids: `We had the utmost confidence in each other and were like a little band of brothers’. That crew of two Australians (Knight and Kellow), three Englishmen and two Canadians was unusually stable. But even in that group which was bound together by extraordinary training, operations and publicity, the flight engineer Ray Grayson, an Englishman, had joined late and was going to have to complete his tour with another crew, having done seven less operations than the rest of the crew. In fact they did not return from their 28th operation. Knight was killed, Kellow evaded capture and Grayson was one of those taken prisoner. Most crews, having selected themselves, were welded together by experience and tried to stay together. Often four or five stuck together, but very few crews flew a tour unchanged.

By the time most dominion men were being fed into Bomber Command, the slow, low-flying, under-powered and under-armed early bombers were being replaced by Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Stirlings and Wellingtons were then phased out of major operations in October and November 1943, and from 1944 the superior Mark III Halifax replaced less efficient models. From early 1942 the two most efficient and admired aircraft in Bomber Command, the Mosquito and Lancaster, were being delivered to operating squadrons. The sleek two-engine Mosquitoes, relying on their superior speed to keep out of trouble, marauded widely. Carrying a light bomb load, the Mosquitoes guided the main bomber stream by dropping marker flares at turning points and over the target; flew independent raids (sometimes on distant and specific targets); confused German defences about the direction of the main force raid; gathered weather information; checked the damage done to targets; and fought the German night fighters. The Mosquito was much less likely than any of the main aircraft in Bomber Command to be destroyed by the enemy, and equalled the Lancaster in its low accident rate. But the Lancaster transformed the destructive capacity of the bomber.

In some of the major final raids of the war, there might be about 500 Lancasters, 250 Halifaxes and six Mosquitoes, and sometimes the Lancaster was the only heavy bomber. But the Halifax had its supporters. David Leicester, who flew 30 missions in a Halifax and more in a Lancaster, thought the later Halifaxes were easy to fly and could be manoeuvred quickly at height and when fully loaded, and that was essential to keep out of trouble. Ivan Pellas said `We loved our Halibags’. The Halifax Mark III was, he claims, mild in manner, stable in flight, and while they could be flown with one finger, they could also be thrown around the sky. One Halifax of 158 Squadron, known as Friday the 13th, flew 128 missions. Grateful and astonished crews gave it an unofficial VC. It was also more difficult to bale out of a Lancaster. Aircrew in terminally damaged bombers had more chance of getting to and through the escape hatches on a Halifax than they did on a Lancaster. By the end of the war, however, the Lancaster was dominant. Although not used on a raid until 3 March 1942, Lancasters went to war nearly twice as often as any other heavy bomber: 156,192 times compared with the Halifaxes’ 82,773.

When the crews of 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds heard late in 1942 that they were changing from Halifaxes to Lancasters `Pandemonium broke out … The dark days were over’. In September 1942, 460 Squadron was running out of operational aircraft; its Wellingtons were not being replaced because the squadron was about to convert to Halifaxes. When it had just five aircraft left, the squadron was taken off operations to learn to fly the four-engine Halifaxes, but on 20 October the squadron was suddenly switched to Lancasters, a `very popular’ decision. Lancaster crews cheered when they learnt that other bombers, such as Stirlings, were on the same raid. The Stirlings, lower and slower, were likely to draw the German night fighters.

Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Harris had no doubt that the Lancaster was the `finest bomber of the war’:

Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents with this than with other types; throughout the war the casualty rate of Lancasters was also consistently below that of other types. It is true that in 1944 the wastage of Lancasters from casualties became equal to, and at times even greater than, the wastage of Halifaxes, but this was the exception that proved the rule; at that time I invariably used Lancasters alone for those attacks which involved the deepest penetration into Germany and were consequently the most dangerous.

Harris so admired the Lancaster that he wanted to lose a year’s production of Halifaxes while the factories were converted to Lancaster production. His superiors thought the cost too high and did not agree. Because Harris pressed as many Lancasters as possible into front-line service, few were available for training, and the crews began their heavy bomber flying on Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Often these aircraft were worn, battered, early models, and some of the enthusiasm for crews for the Lancaster was simply a result of encountering for the first time an aircraft that was new, the most advanced available, and carefully maintained.

Harris was right in his claim about the performance and reliability of the Lancaster. The number of Lancasters on operations that crashed in England was significantly less than that of Halifaxes, half that of Stirlings and one-quarter that of Wellingtons. In its capacity to avoid flak and fighters, the Lancaster’s superiority was not so marked, but the Lancaster’s loss rate was still marginally less than that of the Halifax, clearly less than that of the Wellington and markedly better than that of the Stirling. The enthusiasm of squadrons when they learnt they were converting to Lancasters might have been tempered had they known that their commander was now going to ask more of them and their machines, but on the figures – then yet to be recorded – their celebration was justified.

The Lancaster gave pilots hope, and they returned admiration, even affection. George Hawes encountered the Lancaster soon after it was used in operations. He told his family in April 1942, `They certainly are wizard kites’. After his first solo flight in a Lancaster Geoff Maddern wrote in his diary: `They are the most beautiful kites imaginable to fly – they climb like a bat out of hell, very light and responsive to the controls. The main trouble is trying to keep the speed down … Quite easy to land – you feel them down like a Tiger Moth’. A few days later he tested it further by `shooting up’ Scunthorpe and then: `Coming back feathered an engine and flew hands and feet off on three. Cut another engine and flew on two. It maintains height easily … They’re wizard’. At the other end of the aircraft Tom Simpson, a rear gunner, liked the stability of the Lancaster: `To me every time that you climbed into the Lanc it seemed to say “Pleased to have you aboard. I’ll try to make the flight comfortable” ‘. The Lancaster could climb on three engines; bent and battered it would get the crew home. Fifty years after he flew K for Kitty, Dan Conway wrote: `Just to sit in the cockpit and admire its layout was a great pleasure’.

 

Bishop Peter des Roches of Winchester – Warrior Bishop

King John of England in battle with the Francs (left), Prince Louis VIII of France on the march (right).

Peter des Roches, parlayed his military activities into reaching the height of political and ecclesiastical power, serving both as a bishop and as regent for the young Henry III. He achieved these powers, and the respect of contemporaries, despite (or because of) his embrace of active fighting in battle. These men were comfortable in warfare, wore armor, bore weapons, and used them personally in battle, and yet they rose to great heights of power in the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies, and were often praised for their devotion to God and king.

He played active roles in the campaigns against the French army of Prince Louis that invaded England in 1217, on crusade with Frederick II, and in command of a papal army towards the end of his life. Roger of Wendover wrote of Peter’s elevation in 1205 that he was `a man of the knightly order and skilled in the ways of war.’ He was chosen specifically for his knightly qualities and because of his loyalty to King John and his willingness to advance the king’s interests. His election was eventually confirmed by Innocent III, with the pope consecrating him in person, and he was soon given legatine authority in England.

Peter served John in a variety of roles, including as justiciar when the king was out of the country. One such event in 1214 has elicited the pejorative comment from W. L. Warren that John left the country `and its government to the strong, if not too clean, hands of his ablest henchmen. Peter des Roches, foreign adventurer and bishop of Winchester.’ In addition to showing Bishop Peter’s importance, Warren’s comment also demonstrates the normative bias inherent in most treatments of warrior-clerics. This attitude is also in keeping with the broader approach to Peter des Roches by modern historians. They have often seen him as `a warrior and financier first and foremost, a bishop in little more than name.’ Contemporaries, however, were much more pragmatic about the value of Peter’s actions, and the licit nature of his military activities. Peter was a trusted advisor and military commander during Richard and John’s reigns. He spent a large amount of time in the royal chamber, and was intimately involved in Richard’s wars in France, paying ransoms, overseeing the payment of crossbowmen, and in negotiations over truces, among other duties. In 1205 he was elected to the bishopric of Winchester with the support of King John, and with letters of support from Barthelemey de Vendome, archbishop of Tours. Whereas Nicholas Vincent uses this fact to reinforce his contention (probably accurate) that des Roches was not, in fact, a `Poitevin’, as his English detractors claimed, but, rather, from Touraine, it is also important in that the archbishop was willing to support his election, despite (or perhaps because of) Peter’s previous military actions. Peter had served as both the treasurer and archdeacon of Poitiers during Barthelemey’s episcopate, and the archbishop’s decision to support and endorse his candidacy speaks to the multiplicity of perceptions regarding warrior-clerics. Peter’s election was met with some scorn from observers, however, who derided him as a courtier-bishop and someone more concerned with secular, rather than spiritual affairs. Vincent argues that while `commentators have regarded him as a churchman in little more than name. the pope clearly believed that he possessed some redeeming features. Perhaps above all, Innocent [III] hoped that would serve as a channel of communication with King John.’ Such an interpretation is supported by other examples of Innocent’s political outlook, including his intercession for Philip of Dreux. It is also possible, of course, that Innocent saw in Peter the sort of prelate who could be useful leading papal armies, or functioning effectively on crusade, two things that des Roches did successfully later in his career.

Upon becoming bishop, Peter continued his active military role. He served as a commander both in a continental campaign and on a royal expedition into Wales. On the Welsh campaign he was one of the three named commanders of the army, and the annalist recorded that they established three castles against the Welsh. During his episcopate, his household earned the reputation, no doubt spurred on by his successes in war, for being more notable in its martial exploits rather than in its piety. He was the chief English prelate to stand by the king during the Interdict imposed by Innocent III over the king’s refusal to allow Stephen Langton, the pope’s choice for archbishop of Canterbury, into the country, and Peter’s decision to stay and serve the king probably did not endear him to contemporary authors (or modern historians). Tis loyalty to John earned him the ire of his episcopal colleagues. Vincent reckons, with some amusement, that `While exiled churchmen bewailed the liberties of the church, the bishop of Winchester was busy at the Exchequer or in leading a royal army into Wales.’ Peter’s loyalty to John also probably galled Innocent III, who had supported his elevation. However, with the ending of the Interdict in 1213, and John’s surrendering England to papal protection, des Roches was once again on the winning side of the political argument. He was not forced to do penance for his decision to stay at court, nor had he been suspended from office during the five-year Interdict. In fact, he enjoyed papal support in his election in 1214 to the archbishopric of York, over the strenuous objections of Langton. Langton, however, successfully organized opposition to des Roches, and managed to delay confirmation until support for his elevation collapsed.

Despite his failure to become an archbishop, Peter continued to faithfully serve John for the remainder of his reign. During the period of mounting baronial opposition to the king, Innocent III instructed Peter des Roches and his royal colleagues to support King John against the rebels, whom he termed `”worse than Saracens, for they are trying to depose a king who, would succour the Holy Land.”‘ Upon John’s death Peter oversaw the accession of Henry III in 1216 at the age of nine, and he personally crowned the young king. In fact, his most famous military achievements came on behalf of Henry III during the French invasion led by Prince Louis. The History of William Marshal provides some of the best evidence for Peter des Roches’s military actions on behalf of John and Henry III. At the siege of Torksey Peter led the fourth division of the royal army, earning praise from the author and earning the sobriquet `worthy’ (buens) from the poet. William Marshal then gave a rousing address, and in his wisdom he `entrusted his crossbowmen to Peter, the worthy bishop of Winchester, who was in charge of leading them, who had sound knowledge in that sphere, and who strove hard to perform well.’ There was no indication in the text of anything untoward about Peter’s role as a military leader, nor the fact that he was especially adept at commanding crossbowmen. This last aspect is especially interesting, since crossbowmen had been condemned by the Second Lateran Council in 1139 and clerics were specifically prohibited from commanding them, according to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. This was a prohibition that des Roches ignored without consequence or criticism. Peter’s role was presented only as laudable by the author of the Histoire. During the battle, Peter followed William Marshal `shouting loudly and many times, in all directions: “This way! God is with the Marshal!”‘ He actively led the royal troops in battle, and the author consciously linked him with the royalist hero William Marshal.

In a later battle, probably the great royalist victory at Lincoln, Peter was described as playing an even greater and more personal role. The author praised his knightly feats, writing,

The worthy bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, who was in charge that day of advising our side, was not slow or slothful, and he knew how to make use of his arms. In the company of his fine troop of men he gave chase, and in the course of that pursuit he did very well indeed, capturing knights as he went.

Far from being condemned, Peter’s active embrace of violence and his essentially chivalric feats of arms were cause for praise and fame. The Histoire had a highly royalist perspective, and it assessed Peter’s actions on that basis. His support of the royal cause (the same cause as that of the hero, William Marshal) was what mattered for his reputation. His support of William Marshal and the cause of Henry III made his behavior laudable. For the author of the Histoire, his clerical status played little or no role in assessing the acceptability of his military actions. Nicholas Vincent argues that his training in Richard I’s army probably gave him good strategic insights, and `It was largely to the credit of des Roches that the combat developed along far different, far more advantageous lines than those envisaged by the army’s veteran commander [William Marshal].’86 Furthermore, he `was very much the hero of the day’ and even the chroniclers who were `generally most hostile to des Roches, Wendover and the author of the Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal, bury their enmity to marvel at his martial prowess.’ The battle was described by some chroniclers in explicitly crusader terms, with John’s forces taking on the role of the holy defenders. Peter absolved the Angevin army before the battle, and his soldiers donned white crosses to signify their favor in God’s eyes. Their victory went a long way towards proving that claim.

Other sources were a little more circumspect about Peter’s enthusiasm for military combat. The bishop came in for criticism in contemporary chronicles and songs for being worldly, but it was often for his devotion to the king’s finances and his role at the Exchequer. That being said, one source did call him `the arms bearer of Winchester’ (Wintoniensis armiger), but went on to criticize his monetary policy, rather than his embrace of military action. Vincent argues that Peter was a conundrum for contemporaries, `Even at the height of his triumph, at the battle of Lincoln in 1217, the chroniclers mingle respect for his military prowess with a suggestion that he was involved in the seamier professional side of army life: the command of the king’s highly unrespectable crossbowmen.’ This example represents a crucial distinction in the treatment of warrior-clerics. His actual fighting on behalf of the king was not as much of a problem as his embrace of, as Vincent puts it, `the seamier professional side of army life’. Fighting in a licit cause was often seen as permissible, but transgressing normative boundaries between clerics and knights was cause for greater concern.

During des Roches’ years in power after John’s death, he worked closely with the papal legates to bring the English church into line with several of the reforms adopted at the Lateran Council of 1215. He promulgated moral reforms, including laws against clerical drunkenness, and was zealous in carrying them out on his own estates, though less so at the Exchequer. Politically, des Roches was an important member of the regency government for young Henry III, in which he oversaw royal affairs alongside his rival Hubert de Burgh and William Marshal (until his death in 1219), and subsequently Pandulf de Masca, bishop of Norwich (and papal legate). His political machinations made him many enemies, and he was alternately in and out of favor over the next several years. He took the cross in 1221 after being accused of treason, but returned in 1223 and joined the anti-de Burgh faction. He continued his military activities, including the leading of a `significant contingent of the army’ against the Welsh that year. His return was reasonably short lived, as he was forced from power by his political opponents, and so he took up a military command and joined the crusade of Frederick II in 1227. He led, along with Bishop William Brewer of Exeter, the English contingent in Frederick’s army, despite Frederick’s being excommunicated. Peter placed the success of the crusade over the `political designs of the papacy’ and refused to shun contact with Frederick. Frederick succeeded in reoccupying Jerusalem, by treaty rather than combat, and in March of 1229 des Roches accompanied him into the city, where the emperor was crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the nature of the retaking of Jerusalem caused some controversy, it largely enhanced des Roches’ reputation back in England. As Vincent notes, des Roches `returned to England feted as warrior and statesman’ and as a hero, though it also served to reinforce his image as an outsider and cosmopolitan in an England rapidly becoming more xenophobic. Des Roches became embroiled in a number of political squabbles upon his return, and by 1234 he was driven again from high political office. He was rescued from obscurity by his overseas interests, and he `accepted an invitation from the papacy to assist in Gregory IX’s campaign against the rebellious citizens of Rome.’ He was a confidant of the pope, who was a celebrated canonist. While the pope did not give des Roches unqualified support, his endorsement, especially of des Roches’s military abilities, demonstrates the importance and relative acceptability of warrior-clerics. The noted chronicler Matthew Paris makes explicit that the pope summoned him because of his great wealth, and his noted military reputation. Peter ended his career as he had begun it, serving two lords on the battlefield.

The regency government of Peter des Roches

25th July-Operation SPRING

Infantrymen of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles advancing through fields during Operation SPRING near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944.

Operation SPRING was launched by the II Canadian Corps at 0330 hours on 25th July to coincide with a major US First Army offensive on the western flank codenamed COBRA. At this time Dietrich still had the 272nd Infantry Division, supported by elements of 2nd Panzer and 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, defending the left-hand section of his Corps area to the east of the Orne, the 12th SS Panzer Division HJ in defence in the Vimont sector and 1st SS Panzer astride the Route Nationale 158, the main Caen to Falaise highway. As an important reserve he had the balance of 9th SS in position to the north-west of Bretteville-sur-Laize. Dietrich had been told by von Kluge on 23rd July that both the LAH and HJ would shortly be relieved by infantry divisions; but before this was to happen the LAH, and indeed the 272nd Infantry Divisional Group, would have to withstand the onslaught of operation SPRING.

The aim of the operation, as defined by Montgomery, was to capture the area Fontenay-le-Marmion, Point 122 (also known as Cramesnil spur) and Garcelles-the exact area held by the Leibstandarte. To help in this task II Canadian Corps had been allocated the British Guards and 7th Armoured Divisions, giving it a total of four divisions, two of them armoured, and an additional armoured brigade. The successful conclusion of this operation was to be followed by a XII Corps attack west of the Orne on the 28th to capture Evrecy and Amayé, and finally VIII Corps was to attack through II Canadian Corps, down the Falaise road, to cover the capture by the British Guards of the large wooded area to the east of Garcelles. When all this had been achieved, Monty intended to launch several armoured divisions towards Falaise in a re-run of GOODWOOD. The role of the LAH in frustrating Montgomery’s plans would therefore be crucial.

How was 1st SS deployed to meet Operation SPRING? Starting on the east side of the Caen-Falaise highway, the area from inclusive Ia Hogue to just north-east of Tilly-la-Campagne (Tilly) was defended by Max Junge’s 2nd SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s 2nd Regiment, together with the 3rd SS (88mm) Flak Company. Tilly itself had been made into a strongpoint, with Dinse’s 3rd SS (SPW) Panzer-Grenadier Battalion, Wolff’s 7th SS Panzer (Mk lV) Company and a company of Scheler’s 1st SS Pioneer Battalion. To the west of Tilly, near the Caen-Falaise highway, Herford’s 2nd SS Grenadiers of the 1st Regiment were in position with the revamped 2nd SS StuG Company.

There were strong forces in depth-the 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s Regiment was to the north of Secqueville, the 2nd SS Werfer Company just south of Tilly, the rest of Scheler’s SS Pioneers in Garcelles and, most importantly, Kling’s 2nd SS Panzer Battalion, less the 5th and 7th Companies, was in reserve just to the east of Garcelles.

The vital area from the Caen-Falaise road to and inclusive of Verrieres, was held by Fritz Lotter’s 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion less its 3rd Company, the 12th SS Heavy PanzerGrenadier Company of Graetz’s Battalion and the 15th SS (Pioneer) Company, all from Schiller’s 1st Regiment, together with SS Lieutenant Werner Sternebeck’s 5th SS Panzer Company and the reorganised 1st SS StuG Company. Forward of these main positions in Torteval there was a screen force provided by the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion and, in depth behind them at Rocquancourt, there was a strong reserve comprising four SS Grenadier Companies from the 1st Regiment and the 3rd SS Sturmgeschütz Company. The other two SS 88mm Flak companies were at Caillouet and St Aignan where the rest of Knittel’s 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion provided yet another reserve.

On 25th July the 2nd SS Panzer Battalion had forty-one operational Mk IVs and the 1st SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion had been re-equipped with thirty-two StuGs. It is unclear whether Kuhlmann’s 1st SS Panzer (Panther) Battalion was still with the LAH at this time or had been pulled out to reinforce the Hitlerjugend. Hubert Meyer says that by 31st July it was part of a reinforced KG Wünsche reserve force but he does not say when it moved across. The Leibstandarte TV/I by Lehmann and Tiemann records it as part of the LAH armoured reserve to the east of Garcelles on 24th July and goes on to mention it taking part in a counter-attack on the evening of the 25th. However, this must be questioned since it says the Battalion had only ‘about ten Panzers’ when we know that in reality it had thirty-one operational Panthers on that day. Certainly Jochen Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Regimental Head- quarters was located in the Chateau at Garcelles-Secqueville at this time.

With or without the 1st SS Panzer Battalion LAH, the whole defensive layout facing II Canadian Corps was typical of German military thinking and destined to cause major problems for the attacker. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds’s plan called for Major General Foulkes’s 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to take May-sur-Orne and Verrieres, and Keller’s 3rd Division to capture Tilly. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division was due to advance down the centre-line to seize the Cramesnil spur, whilst the 2nd Division pressed on to Fontenay-ie-Marmion and Rocquancourt and the 3rd Division to Garcelles. The British Guards Armoured Division was to clear the woods to the east of Garcelles once the 3rd Infantry had secured the village. It was an ambitious plan involving an advance of over 10km.

Although the Canadian plan for SPRING looked on the face of it reasonably simple and logical, in reality it left a lot to be desired. For example, it sounds perfectly reasonable for an Infantry Division to be given the task of capturing Tilly; the attack was however to be carried out, not by the Division, not even by one of its Brigades, but by just one Battalion-the poor North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Only after Tilly had fallen and the ‘Desert Rats’ had secured Point 122, was the Highland Light Infantry of Canada due to advance on Garcelles. The rest of Brigadier Cunningham’s 9th Infantry Brigade and the whole of Foster’s 7th were being held for the exploitation phase and the entire 8th Brigade of Brigadier Blackader was, inexplicably, to be in reserve. The only thing which can be said for this plan is that it was simple.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s plan was quite the opposite, over complicated and seriously flawed. In the first place the selected Start-Line for the attack, the St Andre to Hubert-Folie road, was not even in Canadian hands; and then, almost as if to ensure that there would be chaos, the three Brigades of the Division were muddled up. The 6th Brigade lost two of its battalions to the other Brigades so that they could secure the Start-Line, but then each of those two Brigades lost one battalion to Brigadier Young’s 6th Brigade in order to provide a reserve. The main attack was to be delivered against Verrieres by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) and against May-sur-Orne by the Calgary Highlanders. A second phase, due to begin at 0530 hours, was to involve Lieutenant Colonel Cantlie’s Black Watch of Canada and a tank squadron of the 1st Hussars taking Fontenay-le-Marmion, with the Royal Regiment of Canada (Royals) and another Hussar squadron passing through Verrieres to capture Rocquancourt.

Perhaps to add even more flavour to this ‘cocktail’, ‘Looney’ Hinde’s 22nd British Armoured Brigade was to move forward from Ifs in a counter counter-attack role and to be ready to exploit to Point 122 and, just for good measure, the British 27th Armoured Brigade, from a different Corps, was to secure the left flank. If the reader is now thoroughly confused, he will know what it was like for those who attended General Simonds’s ‘O’ Group on 23rd July.

Although the Allied heavy bomber force was now required to support the American breakout attempt in the west, medium bombers were available to help the Canadians in SPRING, as was a powerful force of Canadian and British artillery.

On the evening of 24th July sixty medium bombers took part in a preliminary air attack on the German positions, but due to very effective German Flak only fifteen aircraft succeeded in attacking their targets.

The main night attack by the Canadians which began at 0330 hours was meant to be helped by what was termed ‘artificial moonlight’-light created by reflecting searchlight beams off clouds. According to the commanding officer of the North Nova Scotias, all it achieved when it did come on, was to silhouette his men as they advanced from Bourguebus towards Tilly. Despite heavy artillery support, his three attacking companies had little hope anyway against Dinse’s Battalion of SS Panzer-Grenadiers, supported by Pioneers and Wolff’s Mk IV Panzer Company. During the attack seventy-four medium bombers bombed the woods to the east of Tilly, around la Hogue, for two hours beginning just after 0600 hours, but it did nothing to help the Canadian attack, and even when the rest of the Nova Scotias were thrown in, together with their carriers and SP anti-tank guns, they could not prevail. The unit War Diary noted that A and C companies were pinned down when ‘the enemy opened the door, let them in and trapped them’ and the 9th Infantry Brigade Diary described the Battalion as being ‘decimated’. The squadron of Fort Garry Shermans allocated to support the attack complained that it was unable to help effectively ‘as Panther tanks remained between our tanks and the advancing infantry’. It withdrew at 1715 hours having lost eleven of its sixteen tanks. Eventually permission was given for the surviving Canadians to withdraw back to Bourguebus. About 100 made it under cover of darkness. The Battalion had suffered 139 casualties, including sixty-one killed. According to the Official Canadian History the LAH, ‘had fought with genuinely fanatical determination and skill.’ Considering many of its soldiers were much younger than their Canadian counterparts and had received less than three months training, this was praise indeed.

Manfred Thorn, the nineteen-year-old driver of one of Wolff’s Mk IVs in the 7th SS Panzer Company, described his part in the day’s events:

Our Panzer was well camouflaged, huddled up against the wall of a house. . . . the three [Canadian] tanks had not seen us yet. One shot from our gun would have brought us certain death. . . . I turned the motor on and put it in reverse . . . We wanted to fire at the three tanks, which were still standing in the same spot, from behind. . . . We moved along the road to the east, out of Tilly. . . . turned south again, back toward Tilly. . . . When we were about 20m from the tanks we opened fire. The first one burst into flames and the other two took some hits. The crews bailed out.  

A platoon commander in Wolff’s Panzer Company, SS Second Lieutenant Stiller, gave a wider picture.

The [SS] infantry crouched in their foxholes. The Panzer crews lay under their Panzers. Mortar and artillery shells rained down on us. . . . The sun was still low when Tommys’ tanks approached from the north-west. That was good for us; they had to aim right into the sun. Our orders were, ‘Let them get closer!’. . . . Finally the white flare went up! Fire at will! The tracer trajectories shot out of our ambush positions. Shell after shell flew out of the barrels, and more Panzers raced up to join our line. Five minutes of that and the Tommys [sic] stopped in their tracks. . . . Behind us, however, there was a thundering sound. Heavy Nebelwerfers pulled up, and for 500m in front of us the terrain turned into a hell. The Tommys fled from the field like rabbits. One of the tanks must have taken a direct hit, for it simply disappeared. Others stopped where they were and became smoking witnesses to the destruction. . . . We hunted down some more Canadians who had left their vehicles and hidden in the houses.  

The attack by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was over. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade and two of his commanding officers were sacked.

 

 

The Sarmatians

The steppe lands north of the Black Sea were inhabited by a powerful nation of mounted nomad warriors known as the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were the cultural group that included the Alani and Aorsi population who occupied the northern Caspian region. Ancient Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians were divided into at least five large sub-nations that shared common ethnic and cultural features, but each had their own rulers, territories and political interests. During the first centuries AD, the Sarmatians began to expand their range and power westwards across the steppe lands that led from the Ural Mountains in southern Russia into Central Europe. They conquered many steppe-dwelling Scythian populations and absorbed them into their wider culture.

By the end of the first century AD, the Alani and Siraces occupied lands stretching west from the Caspian Sea to the River Don. On the north coast of the Black Sea the plain between the Don and the Dniester was claimed by a Sarmatian people called the Roxolani. Beyond the Dniester was the territory of the Iazyges who moved west to the plains of Hungary and the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. The Sarmatians were therefore in a position to control crucial population movements across the northern steppe and threaten Roman interests in Europe.

Greek and Roman sources suggest that the Sarmatians had a similar lifestyle to traditional Scythians (mounted steppe nomads). Herodotus describes the Scythians as having `no established cities or fortresses, just house-bearers and mounted archers who live, not by tilling the soil, but by cattle-rearing and carrying their dwellings on wagons’. These customs made the steppe nations `invincible and unapproachable’. Writing in the Augustan era, Strabo describes how the Sarmatians `spend their lives in felt tents fitted to wagons, while around them are the herds that provide the milk, cheese, and meat that provide them with sustenance’. They did not store liquids in metal or fragile pottery vessels, as even bronze water jars would burst and fracture when their contents froze in the harsh steppe winters.

The Sarmatians could establish fortified compounds, but most of their population had no fixed habitations and no sacred temples.  When Ammianus describes the Alani, he reports `An unsheathed sword is fixed downward in the ground and they reverently worship it as their God of War and the presiding deity of the lands that they range across.’ Pliny suggests that the early Sarmatians considered decorative tattoos to be a symbol of honour and reports that even their infants were marked with tattoos. During the winter months the Sarmatians led their ox-driven wagons down to meadowlands near shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. In summer they moved north again to graze their horses, cattle and sheep on the vast open steppe. Strabo explains, `They follow the grazing herds. In time they move to other places that have grass, living in the marsh-meadows about Lake Maeotis (Sea of Azov) in the winter and the plains in the summer.’ Their wagons followed the course of rivers on seasonal journeys across the Eurasian steppe which meant that their routes were mainly along a north-south range. The old, infirm and the women remained with the wagons, while mounted bands of male warriors gathered for hunting, raiding or war. Writing in the fourth century AD, Ammianus describes how the Alani remained one of the leading Sarmatian groups and preserved their nomadic lifestyle throughout antiquity.

Strabo describes how Sarmatian horses were comparatively small and difficult to control, but they were extraordinarily fast. The horses used for riding and war were castrated to better manage their temperament. This ensured that they remained silent and obedient when Sarmatian war-bands concealed themselves for ambush attacks. On long-range expeditions, mounted Sarmatians rode with spare mounts and used a relay system to cover great distances at a relentless pace. Ammianus explains that `they cover vast spaces in pursuit or retreat, on swift manageable horses, sometimes each rider leading one or two spare chargers, so they can preserve their strength by alternate rest periods.’ With this advantage Sarmatian armies might cover more than 50 miles per day.

Early Sarmatian warriors carried wicker shields and wore helmets and breastplates fashioned from thick layers of raw ox hide. They carried bows, but were also prepared for close combat with spears and swords. According to Strabo, in a pitched battle this light weaponry was not effective against a disciplined unit of well-armoured Greek infantry. He describes how in 100 BC, during a battle for control over the Crimea, a force of 50,000 Roxolani was overcome and massacred by a phalanx comprising only 6,000 Hellenic troops.

During this period the Sarmatians served as mounted mercenary forces in foreign wars occurring close to the Pontic-Caspian steppe by various kingdoms and other factions. The chief of the Sarmatian Siraces was said to have mobilized 20,000 mounted warriors to support Pharnaces II of Pontus (97-47 BC). Strabo thought that the Aorsi (Alani) might be able to field over 200,000 horsemen in the defence of their own territories. He estimated that this number might be larger if the more distant steppe clans mobilized, `for they held dominion over more land and rule over most of the Caspian coast’. The Greek writer Lucian heard stories from the Chersonesos kingdom about wars fought with the assistance of steppe allies. In one of these accounts 20,000 Alani and other mounted Sarmatians were recruited by a Hellenic king to fight an enemy force including 30,000 Scythians. These accounts suggest the scale of warfare conducted in the Pontic-Caspian region and Chinese records confirm that the Caspian Steppe (Yancai) could support over 100,000 mounted warriors.

In the early first century AD the Romans probably considered the Sarmatians to be a manageable threat. In AD 49, Julius Aquila, a Roman commander stationed in the Crimea, had to deal with a rebellion in the Chersonesos kingdom led by a dignitary who summoned cavalry support from the Siraces. Pro-imperial forces included native troops equipped in the Roman military manner backed by a small number of Roman cohorts numbering several thousand soldiers. But this army required cavalry support, so Aquila consequently formed an alliance with a Aorsi chief named Eunones who offered horsemen to fight for the Roman cause. Tacitus reports, `It was agreed that Eunones should engage the enemy with his cavalry and the Romans undertake the siege of towns.’

The Roman-Aorsi army advanced against the rebel districts with the armoured cohorts and the native infantry forming the centre point of the battle line and the Sarmatian horsemen formed up along the front and rear. They assaulted a fortified rebel town called Uspe which was defended by moats and earthwork ramparts created by heaping layers of soil between wickerwork hurdles. The Roman army used spears and firebrands to drive back the garrison from their wooden towers and burn their wickerwork defences. By nightfall large parts of the defences were destroyed and the Roman army prepared to assault the town using ladders to scale the breached earthworks. Spokesmen from the town sought terms and offered the entire population of 10,000 people as slaves if their lives were spared. Tacitus reports that the offer was rejected since it would have been `extremely difficult to maintain a cordon of guards round such a multitude. It was better they should die by the law of war.’ When the inhabitants of Uspe were massacred, the shocked communities from surrounding districts quickly renounced their support for the rebellion. This conflict demonstrated how quickly urban settlements on the northern coast of the Black Sea could transfer their allegiance and resources between dominant factions.

By this period the Sarmatians were adopting new forms of armour and equipment that greatly increased their military prospects. Mounted Sarmatians began to wear conical metal helmets and distinctive coats of scale-armour made from the hard plates of horse hooves strung together with strong sinew or sewn onto ox hide. When Pausanias visited Athens he saw Sarmatian armour displayed in the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine who was venerated with snake imagery. Pausanias describes this Sarmatian armour as being `like a reptile’ and fashioned `like a closed pine cone’. He explains that `Sarmatian breastplates are as well-crafted and sturdy as those of the Greeks, for they can withstand the blows of missiles.’ It was confirmation that these `foreigners are as skilled artisans as the Greeks’. Ammianus confirms that horn-armour was still utilized in the fourth century AD when the Alani fought `in cuirasses made from smooth and polished pieces of horn, fastened like scales to linen shirts’. Some Sarmatian armour could have been crafted from small iron or bronze plates riveted onto leather or sewn onto heavy cloth. When Tacitus describes the Roxolani he reports that `their princes and all their nobility wear iron scales and hard hide and although this armour is impenetrable to blows, it is difficult for the wearer to get up when thrown from his mount.’

A first century Roman poet named Valerius Flaccus imagined an attack by `fierce Sarmatians who thronged together with savage yells, their corselets ridged with flexible chain mail which also covered their steeds’. Trajan’s Column depicts the armour-encompassed Sarmatian mercenaries who fought for the Dacian kingdom in their war against the Empire (AD 101-106). The reliefs show fleeing Sarmatian horsemen dressed in long-sleeved scale-covered coats and protective leggings with a barde that extends down to their horses’ hooves. As this length of barde would have restricted the movement of the horse, these images must be based on inaccurate eye-witness descriptions.

The Sarmatian cavalry fought with long slashing swords and the remains of these weapons have been found on the steppe in small grave mounds known as kurgans. Armoured warriors also began to carry long lances held in both hands to spear enemy combatants with a direct forward charge. When Tacitus describes Sarmatian warriors in AD 68 he reports that long-swords and twohanded lances of `excessive length’ were part of their standard arms and `it is not their custom to use shields.’ Valerius Flaccus describes these lances as `a pinewood shaft that stretches out over the head and shoulders of their horse, which they rest firmly on their knees. The lances cast a long shadow over the field of conflict ready to be driven with the might of warrior and steed swift through the midst of the foe.’ Arrian reveals that the Romans called these lances `contus’ and suggests that they were a particular innovation of the Sarmatians. Tacitus explains that this combination of lance and heavy armour meant that `when the Sarmatians charge on horseback, hardly any battle-line can withstand their assault.’ Sarmatian riders were also skilled in the use of lassoes and Pausanias reports that they could `throw a lasso around any enemy, then by turning around on their horses take them off-balance’.

Sarmatian armies rode into battle with draco (dragon standards) made from a hollow metal head with a long sleeve-like streamer attached made from brightly coloured silk. When the riders charged at an enemy these banners became dramatically animated. The wind whistled through the funnel head and the silk `tail’ thrashed about to resemble dragons flying above the heads of the riders. Scenes from Trajan’s Column depict captured arms and equipment including draco standards with fish, wolves and dog-heads.

The Late Roman army adopted Sarmatian-style standards for their own military units and Ammianus describes how the Emperor Julian addressed his troops in front of a carefully arranged display of gilded ensigns (AD 357). He was `surrounded by gold and jewelled dragons, woven from purple fabric fixed to spearpoles. The broad mouths of the dragons were open to the breeze and they hissed as if animated by anger, as their tails wound in the wind.’ In his war against the Persians, Julian was able to rally a unit of Roman cavalry as they fled the battlefield. He rode into their midst with his distinctive standard and Ammianus reports, `They recognised his purple dragon ensign, fitted to the top of a very long lance and spreading out like the slough of a serpent. The tribune of one of the squadrons stopped and although pale and shaken with fear, he rode back to renew the battle.’

Ammianus had served as a soldier in the fourth century Roman army and he claimed that the Sarmatians were `more suited to predatory incursions than to regular war’. They did not maintain garrisons or conduct long-term sieges, but they became a substantial threat to the Empire due to opportunistic attacks that inflicted substantial losses on Roman armies and damage to imperial territory. Their expansion also caused population movements that created fear and disorder on the Roman frontiers.

Stuka 1940

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Ju 87B nosed over into the dive and heading down towards the target to deliver its ordnance with enviable accuracy. Airfix

The clandestine Luftwaffe had developed two generations of biplane dive-bombers, the Heinkel He 50, which went into commission with the first dive-bomber group, Gruppe I./162 on 1 April 1936, and the Henschel Hs 123, which entered service in 1937 with the St.Gr. 1./162 ‘Immelmann’. This was at the same time that the Junkers company were developing their own monoplane dive-bomber, the Junkers Ju 87, through its early design and test models, into the working ‘Anton’ series that was battle-tested in Spain and on to the ‘Bertha’ type, the B-1 version of which formed the main complement of the Stukagruppen with which Germany went to war.

There was no great consensus at the Technisches Amt of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) for the dive-bomber; in fact the higher echelons of the Luftwaffe were evenly divided into pro- and anti-dive-bomber camps. The basic requirements for Luftwaffe war operations were enumerated in the Air Field Manual of 1935. The number one priority was the securing and the maintaining of air superiority; everything else was subordinate to this. Once achieved, the second priority was spelt out as ‘action in support of the ground forces’. From this the Luftwaffe never wavered and it was in marked contrast to the air forces of Britain, the United States, France and Italy, to whom any hint of cooperation with the army, other than by aerial spotter aircraft, smacked of subservience to another service.

One of the major opponents of dive-bombing was Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen, who underwent conversion during the Spanish experiences and became the leading exponent of the dive-bomber with VIII. Fliegerkorps during the Polish, French, Balkan and Russian campaigns. Udet’s greatest contribution to the existence of the Sturzkampf was his immediate reversal of Richthofen’s cancellation of dive-bomber development when he succeeded him as head of the Development Branch in June 1936.

The basic theory of dive-bombing was of the utmost simplicity. Given that various factors of the speed of the aircraft in horizontal flight, wind strength, sighting difficulties at high altitudes, drift of the bomb in descent and so on, all added to the difficulties of achieving accuracy in the delivery of bombs, it was only common sense that any method of attack which eliminated most of these would naturally result in a higher rate of success. By aiming the whole aircraft at the target, holding it there while the eye-sight was lined up, descending to a low level before bomb release, and thus ensuring the trajectory of the descending missile followed much more closely the trajectory of the aiming carrier until within the last few minutes of its flight time, enormous accuracy was achieved by dive-bombing. In fact pre-war tests showed that a factor of more than ten to one was commonly achieved.

This being a perfectly reasonable factor, the adoption of dive-bombing was a logical step for any nation to adopt. What turned the British, Americans and Italians against the concept was a combination of several factors, differing in origin, but combining to make an almost pathological aversion to the use of the dive-bomber. Let us examine each in turn.

Firstly was the ingrained wishful thinking that the heavy bomber laying waste to opposing nations’ cities and populations would quickly win any war, alone and unaided, and make protracted land warfare and naval blockades, with their respective carnage and mass starvation, a thing of the past. The air weapon was relatively new and was embraced by the popular media of the day automatically as against old methods, which had led to such terrible casualty lists in World War I. If there was a short-cut then it was welcomed by the politicians, especially in the western democracies, ever shy of providing adequate defence if it meant loss of votes. The newly formed air forces, shrilly proclaiming their independence and fighting for survival in a period of shrinking budgets, insisted that the heavy bomber was the answer. People like Douhet in Italy, Trenchard in Britain and Mitchell in the United States had their dubious but loudly proclaimed theories endorsed by, for example, the British premier Baldwin, declaring that ‘the bomber would always get through’ as an excuse for not providing sufficient fighter defences. Independence was everything to these airmen and so the total commitment to aiding the army in land battles, the cardinal feature of the Luftwaffe, was utterly alien to them.

Secondly, and allied to the above thinking, the British and Americans had convinced themselves of two incorrect assumptions. One was that the new altitude bomb sights, like the Norden in America, would produce accurate hits from a great height. The USAAF declared that the new B-17s using this device would drop ‘a bomb in a pickle barrel’. The war that came soon showed that such heady assumptions were so much hogwash. The RAF bombing campaign of 1939–42, which the BBC daily declared was destroying German cities and their capacity to wage war, was a total failure, with some bombs being dropped as much as five miles from the target. So much for high accuracy. At sea results were even worse, with moving warships proving almost impossible to hit, let alone sink, by high-altitude bombing, despite incredible claims to the contrary. The German fleet sailed through the English Channel in 1942 and was to have been attacked by over 250 RAF bombers, half of which failed to even locate the ships in that narrow stretch of water, while the other half attacked both British and German ships indiscriminately without causing any damage. In the Mediterranean the same thing happened with the Italian high-level bombing and British fleets and convoys paraded up and down the length of that sea almost as they pleased, until the arrival of the German Stukas on the scene. At the Battle of Midway the B-17s were credited in the New York press with having destroyed the Japanese fleet, but failed to score a single hit, although they almost sank an American submarine which they claimed was a Japanese heavy cruiser.

The other factor that turned the west against dive-bombing was the claim that modern ‘high-speed’ monoplane aircraft were unable to dive-bomb at an angle of much more than 30 degrees. RAF experts said it was impossible, and relied on low-level attacks by Battles and Blenheims, which proved totally useless. This was a nonsense and by the end of the war such high-performance aircraft as Spitfires, Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Typhoons were all employed as dive-bombers. Finally, and here some elements of the Luftwaffe agreed, antiaircraft fire had reached such perfection that to dive below a certain level was tantamount to suicide and could not be contemplated. Again, the theory was sound, but in practice it required very steady nerves to stand at a gun while a line of dive-bombers was descending directly towards you. In practice, losses were small and the hits achieved by the dive-bomber were many.

If a two-crewed dive-bomber, cheap to produce and economical to run, adaptable and able to keep up with a moving front line, could hit the target ten times as often as a larger six-or seven-crewed heavy bomber from its fixed airfields and with enormous costs, it made a more viable weapon of war. So dive-bombing, rejected in the west, made for a cost-effective proposition to the new Luftwaffe.

Thus it was that, on the outbreak of war, the Junkers Ju 87 B-1 (commonly known outside Germany as the Stuka, an abbreviation of Sturzkampfflugzeug which in the Luftwaffe meant all aircraft of the dive-bomber type), equipped all eleven active German dive-bomber units, the III./St.G. 51 with Luftflotte 3, the I./St.G. 1, the I., II. and III./St.G. 2, the Stab, I., II. and III./St.G. 77, IV.(St)/LG. 1 and the 4.(St)/Tr.Gr. 186 all with Luftflotte 1.

There was a theoretical establishment strength of 319 dive-bombers, given the job of destroying vital objectives well behind the front lines, such as aircraft and tank factories, ammunition dumps, airfields and aircraft on the ground, military headquarters, key rail and marshalling yards to hamper the movement of enemy troop formations, bridges and viaducts, and so on. In fact these were much the same objectives given to all other bomber arms, but the Stukas had the vital asset of accuracy, being five or six times more likely to hit what they aimed at than any level bomber.

Added to these ‘back-area’ requirements, were the ‘targets of opportunity’ and true close-support roles, in which the dive-bombers would attack any enemy strongpoint or fortress, or concentrations of artillery, tanks or infantry that sought to make a stand against the Wehrmacht It was known that the morale of unseasoned troops cracked when confronted by dive-bombing, which is a very personal form of aerial attack, and this was later to be played upon with the introduction of wind-siren devices on both the Stuka and its bombs, which added to the natural howling scream of an aircraft in a steep dive.

It was not known just how effective the Stukas would be, and their outstanding successes in all these roles came as almost as big a surprise to its Luftwaffe advocates as it did to the stunned recipients of its visitations. Critics always state that the Stuka depended totally for its initial, and its continued, success, on the establishment of air superiority. This is perfectly true, but what they do not add, ever, is that this is a requirement for all bomber aircraft, not just dive-bombers. It was proved very quickly that Allied long-range types like the Vickers Wellington could no more operate without this requirement, than could the Stuka. The RAF soon switched to night bombing as it could not face daylight fighter interception any better than could the Junkers Ju 87. The huge Allied four-engined bombers of the later war period, like the Avro Lancaster and Boeing B-17 Fortress, designed to win the war unaided, proved just as vulnerable without air superiority as the Stuka was, and their losses were appallingly higher.

What the Stuka achieved, when it had air superiority, was the transformation of air and land warfare, with countries falling in days and weeks rather than after campaigns that lasted for years. Moreover, it was the combination of Stuka and Panzer that won these battles, the combined effect of both working in harmony far outweighing the impact of the individual components, and they proved a winning, and (in terms of lives) economical team. The conquest of Poland cost a mere thirty-one Stukas, most of these to AA fire. The Stuka’s inherent accuracy, already also tested in Spain, proved to be a potent weapon against warships also, and this task too was added to its growing agenda as the war developed.

The Norwegian campaign was a small-scale affair compared to Poland, but it again emphasised the versatility of the Stuka, now equipped with long-range fuel tanks. A small number of dive-bombers operating against fortresses, slow-moving Allied troop columns and, especially, against the Allied naval forces off the coast, proved decisive.

The invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940 brought to a triumphant conclusion all the lessons learnt in the earlier campaigns and it proved the absolute superiority of the mobile form of warfare perfected by the Germans and given the name of Blitzkrieg by the American press, over the static form as practised by the Allies, who, even with nine months’ warning, proved unable to cope with it. It was Poland on an even larger scale and the defeat of the Netherlands, Belgium and France was achieved within a six-week period for the loss of only 120 Stukas from all causes, which included thirteen shot down by naval gunfire over Dunkirk.

With the fall of France a different type of situation developed and the English Channel could not be taken at the charge like the river Meuse or the Aisne. However hard the Stukas might hit RAF airfields and installations in Kent and Hampshire, the immediate follow-up and over-running of the impacted targets could not be made by the Panzers; one half of the winning team was lacking. Airfields devastated by dive-bombing were therefore given ample time to recover, fighter squadrons could be rested out of Stuka range and rotated. On the occasions when their own fighter cover failed to give them adequate protection the Ju 87s naturally suffered severe losses. In the Battle of Britain a total of fifty-nine Stukas were lost (but not the ‘hundreds’ claimed by Winston Churchill and the British press) during the months of July and August. Yet morale remained high and there is no doubt that, had the Wehrmacht finally got ashore in Britain, the smooth-running team of Panzer and Stuka would have been just as effective against the remnants of the ill-equipped British army, however gallant, as they had been earlier against the fully prepared regulars.

It was not to be, but the Stuka story was far from over; indeed it had hardly begun. The aircraft that made the very first bombing attack of World War II was to go on fighting in the front line, by day and by night, until the very last day of that conflict.