THERMOPYLAE: TURNING-POINT IN WORLD HISTORY?! Part II

The Spartan hoplite is seen here in full battle array. His Corinthian helmet is of brass and decorated with a transverse crest; his shield, with Spartan blazon, is brassfaced, as are the full-length “muscled” greaves. The white linen corslet, worn over a red tunic, replaced the heavy “bell” cuirass and was made from several layers of material glued together. The lower part was cut into strips to facilitate bending down. The corslet found favour because of its lightness but was often reinforced with plates. The red cloak seen in the illustration was the characteristic Spartan uniform. It was discarded in battle. Before the time of Alexander, beards were usually worn in Greece and long hair characterised Spartan adult men. Herodotus describes how the Spartans; awaiting the Persian onslaught at Thermopylae, passed their time in taking exercise and combing their hair. This hoplite is binding a leather handgrip around the shaft of his spear to enable him to obtain a firm purchase when thrusting it overarm over the wall of phalanx shields. Unlike other hoplites, the Spartan trained all his life as a soldier, and was thus a “professional”. His drill and weapons-skill were thus superior to, and more fearsome than, that of other hoplites.

The Spartans yielded to no other Greeks in their passionate, almost fanatical attachment to competition. They even made the very act of survival at birth a matter of public competition, by entrusting elders with the task of supervising the wine-bath tests for neonates. The practice of consigning infants showing any obvious signs of physical deformity or debility to an early death at the foot of a nearby mountain ravine was not as callous or odd as it perhaps seems to us: both Plato and Aristotle advocated such ‘exposure’ of defective newborns in their respective Ideal States. Likewise, adult status for Spartan males could be achieved only by successfully passing the series of largely physical competitive tests that constituted the unique education or group socialization known as the agôgê or ‘upbringing’. Even then, becoming a full adult Spartan citizen in terms of political standing and participation was made to depend on passing a further and final acceptance test – admission by competitive election to a communal dining group, or mess, at the age of twenty.

Those unfortunates who failed any of these educational or citizenship tests were relegated to a limbo of exclusion, of non-belonging, to permanent outsider status. Nor did internal competition for status end at the age of twenty for those who did achieve full citizenship status: far from it. Not for one moment did they cease to compete amongst themselves and against others, both abroad, in war, of course, and no less famously and successfully at the Olympic Games, but also at home – in local equestrian and athletic contests, for instance, or election to high office, or for membership of the elite royal bodyguard. One disappointed Spartan who had failed to be elected to the bodyguard in his twenties was said to have claimed he was delighted to know there were three hundred Spartans better than he; and even so, he went on to achieve high public distinction in later life.

As for the general Greek passion for freedom, it was said by the right-wing Athenian political writer and activist Critias, who wrote about the Spartan way of life in both prose and verse and thereby founded the literary tradition of the Spartan ‘mirage’, that ‘In Lakedaimon are to be found those who are the most enslaved and those who are the most free’. By ‘the most free’ he meant the Spartans themselves, or more precisely the Spartan master class, who were freed by the compulsory labour of their enslaved workforce from the necessity of doing any productive work whatsoever, apart from warfare. By ‘the most enslaved’ he meant of course the Helots. These people, as noted above, were Greeks who, despite their birthright of freedom, were collectively enslaved and treated with unusual severity by the Spartans, as a conquered but permanently threatening and subversive population.

This harsh treatment at first puzzled and later deeply disturbed the more sensitive Greek observers of the Spartan scene. Plato, for example, by no means unfriendly to Sparta in general, remarked: ‘The Helot-system of Sparta is practically the most discussed and controversial subject in Greece.’ This controversy reached a peak in Plato’s adult lifetime. For, in the aftermath of the decisive defeat of Sparta at Leuctra in 371 by the Boeotians led by Thebes, the larger portion of the Helots, the Messenians, finally achieved their longed-for collective freedom and established themselves as free Greek citizens of the restored (as they saw it) free city of Messene. I must add that the Spartans were by no means untypical, let alone unique, among the ancient Greeks in seeing no incompatibility between their own freedom and the unfreedom of a servile class, and indeed in basing the former on the latter.

These two aspects of Spartan culture and society – competitiveness and contested notions of freedom – almost by themselves make our Spartan ancestors worthy of our continued cultural interest and historical study. But they very far from exhaust Sparta’s extreme fascination. Let’s take a look at those more or less well attested Spartan social customs or practices: institutionalized pederasty between a young adult citizen warrior and a teenage youth within the compulsory framework of the state-managed educational system; athletic sports including wrestling practised officially – and allegedly in the nude – by teenage girls; the public insulting and humiliation of bachelors by married women at an annual religious festival; polyandry (wives having more than one husband each); and wife-sharing without either party’s incurring the social opprobrium or legal guilt of adultery.

One common factor runs through much of this: the unusual (indeed, by Greek and even most pre-modern standards, unique) functions, status and behaviour of one half of the Spartan citizen population, the women. The extant evidence is sufficiently plentiful to have prompted a recent book on them. This is also one of several modern studies prepared to speak of the existence of a certain ‘feminism’ in Sparta. I think, however, that we should take at least some of this highly controversial evidence with a pinch of (presumably Attic?) salt, especially where the ideological or propagandistic intention is blatant. Our written sources are exclusively male, almost entirely non-Spartan and often heavily Athenocentric. But there is enough that is reliable to enable us safely to infer that Sparta really was, in such vital areas as marriage and procreation, seriously different, even alien, from the traditional Greek norms of political and social intercourse.

And this surely does make Sparta perpetually worth studying, not only by historians, but also by comparative cultural anthropologists and sociologists, among others. Herodotus, the father of (comparative cultural) anthropology as well as of history, declared famously that he agreed with the Theban lyric poet Pindar that ‘custom was king’.

He meant that in his view every human group believes that its own customs are not only relatively better than those of others, but the best possible. Not surprisingly, he took a special interest in Spartan customs, practices and beliefs. Here are just a few related illustrations. All are taken from the seventh book of his Histories, the Thermopylae book, and all of them go to establish the point that the Spartans were not just willing, but culturally predisposed and educated, to die for their ideals: that is, to sacrifice their individual lives for the sake of some greater collective goal, whether local or national.

Shortly before the epic conflict at Thermopylae, as we saw, it was reported to Great King Xerxes by a mounted spy that the Spartans in the pass were combing and styling their very long hair. He simply refused to believe that men who coiffed like women before fighting would make serious opponents in the field. Or rather, in the case of Thermopylae, not just serious opponents but men who would of set purpose put their lives on the line in the certain knowledge that they were going to be killed. That this was indeed what lay behind the Spartans’ decision to send a specially selected taskforce of three hundred under King Leonidas to Thermopylae in 480 is proven not only by the way they fought and died, but also by the fact that the men chosen all had to have a living son, so as to prevent their family lines from dying out – in other words, after their own assured deaths.

That their mission was suicidal self-sacrifice is supported further by another story in Herodotus Book 7, recounted, significantly, not long before he tells the story of Thermopylae. In the run-up to the Persian invasion of 480 the Spartans considered how they might try to persuade Xerxes to abandon it. Being a very pious people, they thought that the invasion was at least in part heaven’s way of punishing them for the sacrilege of having killed, some years earlier, the heralds sent to them by Xerxes’s father Darius – persons whose office invested them with sacrosanctity. So they conceived the idea of making atonement to Xerxes, and of sending two Spartans to be killed by him as restitution and compensation. Call the Spartans naive – certainly, that was how their gesture was reportedly regarded by Xerxes (who simply dismissed the would-be patriotic suicides from his presence with haughty contempt). But the spirit of self-sacrifice for a larger cause, in this case the good of all Greece, not just of Sparta, shines out.

In the event Xerxes did invade Greece and, after stiff Greek resistance, forced the pass of Thermopylae. ‘Go tell the Spartans’, the beginning of Simonides’s famous epigram hymning the heroic Spartan dead in this encounter, has resonated in recent popular culture. As the epigram’s next words, ‘… passerby, / That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’, suggest, the laws of Sparta were unusually rigorous, and rigid. But another emblematic passage of Herodotus Book 7 – a supposed interview between Xerxes and the deposed Spartan ex-King Demaratus – makes clear how this last clause of the epigram was supposed to be read: as illustrating the characteristically Greek civic quality of obedience to the laws, a quality that the Spartans embodied and acted upon to the full.

Demaratus assures Xerxes that the Spartans will stand up to him, because they fear the Law more even than Xerxes’s subjects fear him. More importantly still, the Spartans, unlike them, were able to make a free choice. They established their own laws for themselves by collective agreement, and they chose to obey them. They were not compelled by sheer terror or force to obey the arbitrary and lawless whim of a despot or autocrat. That, certainly, was a biased, ethnocentric judgement by Herodotus. But it also contains an essential truth, both about the ancient Greeks as a whole and not least about the leading Greeks of the Persian War period: the Spartans.

The Spartans and their unique society occupy a central place in the utopian tradition. But Utopia, as the Greek-derived word’s inventor, Thomas More, was well aware, is formally ambiguous. Depending on how the prefix ‘U’ is taken, it can mean either ‘No-place’ (outopia) or ‘Well-place’ (eutopia). The news from the Spartan Nowhere is admittedly not always good. An article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, featuring my earlier Spartans book and TV series, was introduced editorially as follows: ‘They hurled babies into ravines and culled their workforce yearly. Historian Paul Cartledge thinks we could learn a thing or two from those Spartans.’ Nevertheless, I should still like to think, and like my readers to think too, that a Thermopylae-inspired eutopia might not be the worst place on earth to find ourselves – minus, of course, the exposure of infants and the exploitation of Helots.

At any rate, the ancient ideal encapsulated in the myth of Thermopylae still resonates today: it is the concept that there are some values that are worth dying for, as well as living for. That notion, however, can be a two-edged sword. As applied by certain suicide bombers, for example, it seems to me to be wholly repellent, however justified their cause. Yet when developed in the direction taken by the Spartans and their founder-lawgiver Lycurgus, it can generate ideals of communal co-operation and self-sacrifice that qualify for the honorific label of (e)utopia.

Traditionally, and rightly, Sparta is not commemorated as a hot-house of high culture. But there was, I think, no paradox or irony when William Golding, a future Nobel Laureate for literature, wrote in 1965 after a visit to the Hot Gates:

A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.

It is worth bearing this judgement in mind as one contemplates the Thermopylae memorials on offer in Greece and elsewhere today, both in Sparta and, more poignantly if also more noisily, at Thermopylae itself.

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Project 651/Juliett SSG

The Project 651/Juliett SSG was an attractive submarine and, being diesel-electric, it demonstrated the scope of the Soviet commitment to the anti-carrier role. An auxiliary nuclear power source was evaluated for these submarines, but appears not to have been pursued.

Admiral S. G. Gorshkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy from 1955 to 1981, used the term “revolution in military affairs” to describe the period of the late 1950s when cruise and ballistic missiles were integrated into the Soviet armed forces. For the Soviet Navy this led to an intensive period of development of cruise missiles, initially for the land-attack role and then for the anti-ship role, as well as the development and construction of several cruise missile submarine designs. Gorshkov observed that “. . . all the latest achievements in science, technology, and production were utilized in the course of building qualitatively new submarines, surface ships, and [their] armament.”

Significantly, of the 56 first-generation (HEN) nuclear-propelled submarines built in the Soviet Union, slightly more than half of them (29) were Project 675/Echo II cruise missile submarines. While this proportion was achieved, in part, by the termination of Project 658/Hotel ballistic missile submarine program, when considered together with the 16 Project 651/Juliett SSGs, cruise missiles represented a major Soviet investment to counter U. S. carriers that could threaten the Soviet homeland with nuclear-armed aircraft.

This was in sharp contrast to the U. S. Navy. Having aircraft carriers available for the anti-ship as well as for the land-attack roles, the U. S. Navy rapidly discarded cruise missile submarines as the Polaris ballistic missile became available.

Simultaneous with the building of Project 675 Echo II SSGN nuclear submarines, the Project 651/Juliett diesel-electric submarine was put into production. It had a submerged displacement of 4,260 tons and was 2813/4 feet (85.9 m) long. Missile armament consisted of four P-5/P-6 canisters, paired in the same manner as in the SSGNs. This was a TsKB-18 design under chief designer Abram S. Kassatsier.

Seventy-two Project 651/Juliett submarines were planned. In the event, only 16 of these submarines were built at Gor’kiy and the Baltic shipyard in Leningrad from 1963 to 1968. As with Project 675/Echo II submarines, these craft had a large, rotating radar in the leading edge of their sail, with one of these submarines later having a satellite targeting system fitted (Project 651K). The first few submarines were built with low-magnetic steel. These soon suffered significant corrosion damage as well as cracks. The later submarines were of standard steel construction.

The building of diesel-electric SSGs in parallel with nuclear SSGNs occurred because of limitations at that time in producing additional nuclear reactors. Because Juliett SSG construction was contemporaneous to the Echo II SSGN and other factors, some U. S. submarine analysts believed that there was “sufficient evidence to warrant at least consideration of the possibility that, with the advent of nuclear power, the Soviet Union, in addition to continuing the development of conventional diesel-electric submarines, also advanced the development of unconventional nonnuclear [closed-cycle] propulsion systems.” But the Project 651/Juliett SSG had conventional propulsion- except for one unit.

A small nuclear reactor-designated VAU-6- was developed to serve as an auxiliary power source in diesel-electric submarines. It was a pressurizedwater reactor with a single-loop configuration coupled with a turbogenerator. After land-based trials it was installed in a Juliett (Project 651E) during 1986-1991. The sea trials “demonstrated the workability of the system, but revealed quite a few deficiencies. Those were later corrected.” In 1960, on the basis of Project 651, the Project 683 nuclear-propelled submarine was designed, also to carry the P-5/P-6 missiles. This was to have been a larger craft with more weapons; two small, 7,000-horsepower reactor plants were to propel the submarine. However, this design was not further developed.

Submarines with anti-ship cruise missiles were developed specifically to counter U. S. aircraft carriers, which since 1950 carried nuclear-capable strike aircraft on forward deployments to within range of targets within the Soviet Union. The high priority of defense of the Soviet homeland against this threat led to major resources being allocated to the SSG/SSGN construction. From 1963 to 1968 a total of 50 “modern” missile-armed submarines of the Juliett, Echo I, and Echo II classes were sent to sea carrying 326 missiles. These submarines, in turn, forced an increase in U. S. tactical anti-submarine warfare. While on the surface the SSG/SSGNs were increasingly vulnerable to Allied detection, although they were immune to the aircraft-carried Mk 44 and Mk 46 ASW torpedoes, which could not strike surface targets. This led to development of the Harpoon anti-ship missile for use by aircraft to attack cruise missile submarines on the surface. (The Harpoon subsequently became the U. S. Navy’s principal anti-ship weapon; it was carried by aircraft, surface ships, and, briefly, submarines.)

Cruise missile submarines thus became a mainstay of the Soviet Navy. With both cruise missile and a torpedo armament, these submarines provided a potent threat to Western naval forces. Indeed, some Project 675/Echo II and Project 651/Juliett submarines remained in service into the early 1990s.

Cold Waters with Captain Turkey

The Rise of Jan Sobieski

Portrait of John III by Jan Tricius

Sobieski meeting Leopold I, by Artur Grottger. The Battle of Vienna took place at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683 after the imperial city had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle was fought by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of King John III Sobieski against the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states. The battle marked the first time the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire had cooperated militarily against the Ottomans, and it is often seen as a turning point in history, after which “the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world”. In the ensuing war that lasted until 1699, the Ottomans lost almost all of Hungary to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.

In the late 1650s Polish King Jan Kazimierz prepared a project for constitutional reform, in the belief that the crisis of the Swedish wars might predispose the szlachta to accept a strengthening of state power, particularly as, since he had no heir, the interregnum after his death was bound to be critical and possibly dangerous. At the instigation of the Queen, he proposed that his successor should be elected in his lifetime, vivente rege.

This was a red rag to the szlachta. Its right to elect the king was a cornerstone of the constitution, and any election carried out during the lifetime of a reigning monarch smacked of manipulation. In this instance it meant, as the Queen fully intended, that the French candidate nominated by the court would win. The szlachta were suspicious of the Queen’s influence, and the Habsburgs, who were alarmed at the idea of the Bourbons establishing themselves in Warsaw, did everything they could to whip up feeling against the proposals.

The project for parliamentary reform, which included earlier suggestions on voting by two-thirds majority, the removal of the sejmiks’ control over the deputy they had elected, a permanent annual tax, as well as the project for electing a successor vivente rege, came up before the Sejm of 1658. It foundered on minor points. The court party continued to press the issue in the following years, without success. The Queen, who believed that if all else failed a coup might be staged, was placing Frenchmen in key posts in the army. At the same time, Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski, who was in league with the Habsburgs, began to threaten rebellion if the court party persisted with its planned reforms. Following an attempt to impeach him in the Sejm, he rallied part of the unpaid army and groups of discontented szlachta and in 1665 staged a rebellion in the manner of Zebrzydowski. The court party decided to fight it out, and their troops were routed at Mątwy in 1666.

Not long afterwards, Jerzy Lubomirski came and begged the King’s pardon, which was duly granted. The whole affair had been just as pointless as the Zebrzydowski rebellion, and severely dented the prestige of the crown and of Jan Kazimierz himself. Louise-Marie died in 1667, and with his principal moral support gone, the ailing King abdicated two years later. Shortly after, he left for France, where he ended his days as Abbot of St Germaindes-Prés.

The election which followed was the first at which serious disturbances took place. The two principal candidates were Philip Wilhelm, Prince of Neuburg, the Habsburg favourite, and Charles de Bourbon, duc de Longueville. The szlachta who assembled at Warsaw were in no mood for ‘foreign autocrats’, and overwhelmingly voted for a Polish alternative, Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, son of the fire-eating scourge of the Cossacks, Prince Jarema. The new King was in a difficult position. Resented by the disappointed pro-Habsburg magnates and despised by the former court party, who openly referred to him as ‘le singe’, his only power base was the szlachta who had elected him. But their vote had been a protest against attempts to limit their freedom and against foreign interlopers rather than a vote of confidence in him. There was little he could do except reign.

Large Tatar tchambouls hunted unmolested as the Sejm ignored alarming reports reaching it from Hetman Jan Sobieski, who was doing his best to police the south-eastern marches. In August 1667 he challenged a combined Tatar and Cossack force of some 25,000 with an army of 14,000, more than half of it made up of his own household troops, and defeated them at Podhajce. But this victory only served to obscure a storm that was brewing as the Ottoman Porte prepared a new onslaught on Europe.

In 1672 Sultan Mehmet IV invaded at the head of a substantial army, and the Commonwealth was given a rude awakening when the seemingly impregnable fortress of Kamieniec Podolski fell to his assault. It had been defended by no more than two hundred infantry and a troop of horse, and most of its cannon had remained silent, since there were only four gunners. This level of neglect was symptomatic. There was no army with which to stem the progress of the Turkish host, and Poland could do nothing but sue for peace. The Sultan imposed the humiliating Treaty of Buczacz, which detached Kamieniec with the whole of Ukraine and Podolia from the Commonwealth, and demanded a yearly tribute. This stirred the Sejm to vote money for a new army, which provoked protest from the Porte, and another Ottoman army gathered under the Grand Vizir, Hussein Pasha of Silistria.

King Michał fell ill, and as he lay dying in Warsaw Castle, Hussein Pasha’s janissaries prepared to cross the Dniester into a Poland which faced the prospect of a new election. The King expired on 10 November 1673, and on that very same evening Hetman Jan Sobieski drew up his troops outside the Turkish camp at Chocim. On the morrow he attacked and annihilated the Ottoman army in a brilliantly executed action, news of which travelled rapidly back to the capital. The principal candidates for the throne, Charles of Lorraine, François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, and James Stuart, Duke of York (the future James II of England), were eclipsed by the aura of glory surrounding the returning hero. The szlachta assembled on the election field voted overwhelmingly for Sobieski.

Jan Sobieski, who ascended the throne as Jan III in May 1674, was an energetic man of forty-five. From his close-cropped head and his jewelled fur cap to his soft yellow boots with their silver heels he was every inch the Sarmatian magnate, and he had all the virtues and vices that implied. Since his baptism of fire at Beresteczko in 1651 he had seen service against each of Poland’s enemies in turn. Although he had commanded a 3,000-strong tchamboul of Tatar allies against the Swedes in 1656, it was the Tatars and the Turks who were his most constant and savage foes. His forebear ear żółkiewski had been slain at Cecora, his elder brother had fallen in the massacre at Batoh; the crusade against the Infidel was part of his life. Yet he spoke Tatar and Turkish and loved the amenities of the East.

At the same time he built himself an Italianate palace and collected European works of art with discrimination. He was well read in Italian and French literature, and he was one of Poland’s best letter-writers. He wrote to his French wife, Marie Casimire de la Grange d’Arquien, every day or two for twenty years, whether he was at home or on campaign, letters full of verve as well as gallantry, referring to himself as ‘Céladon’ and his wife as ‘Astrée’ or some other heroine of French literature. This Sarmatian galant was a curious mixture: he was pious, almost superstitiously so, and managed to combine this with a strong dose of cynicism. He was greedy and not always scrupulous in his private affairs, but faultlessly correct in public life. He was as ambitious and dynastically minded as most fellow magnates—there is a portrait of his son (who was not christened Konstanty for nothing) wearing Roman costume and leaning on a classical shield bearing the Sobieski arms, inscribed with the words In hoc signo Vinces (‘In this sign you will conquer’)—yet he was not ruthless in the pursuit of his aims.
Jan III was a fine soldier, combining personal bravery and dash with tactical skill and a good strategic sense. He was strong and agile, quite capable of spending days in the saddle and nights under the stars, in spite of the obesity which came with age. In politics too he lacked neither enterprise nor vision. He calculated that the way to win the necessary authority to deal with internal questions lay through a successful foreign policy, and he set about constructing one.

As the political nation had never conceived a vision of its international role, the Commonwealth had no active foreign policy, only a reactive one, and no system of alliances. This had not presented a problem while it was strong and its neighbours weak, but the values in this equation had altered fundamentally.

In the south and east, the Cossacks and Tatars, who had in the past been no more than a minor nuisance, could now combine with the Turks or with Muscovy to create a formidable threat. An even greater threat loomed in the north—Sweden. This had in the past been engaged in a struggle against Danish and Dutch dominance of the Baltic and against Poland and Muscovy over its eastern shores, but it had come out of the Thirty Years’ War as a major player on the international scene.

The Polish Commonwealth’s pool of potential allies was limited by the fact that its policy was fundamentally pacific and it had little to offer in the way of an army. The Habsburgs had expended much energy in the first half of the century to bring Poland into their orbit and use it as an ally against Sweden. From the 1640s France had taken an interest in Poland as a potential ally against the Habsburgs, but the Francophile court party had failed to bring this about. Three decades later, as Louis XIV engaged in his struggle with the Habsburgs, he again looked to Poland. And Jan III saw in this an opportunity, not just to reaffirm the power of the Commonwealth and gain the prestige necessary to carry out some fiscal reforms, but also to further his own dynastic aspirations.

In 1675 he signed the Treaty of Jaworów with France, which offered to finance an invasion of Ducal Prussia (which Jan III hoped would be given to his son as a hereditary vassal duchy) while her other ally, Sweden, invaded Brandenburg. France undertook to neutralise the Habsburgs and persuade the Ottoman Porte to give back Kamieniec and other lands ceded by the treaty of Buczacz. Sweden duly went into action against Brandenburg, but the Polish forces were not able to invade Prussia because Turkey not only refused to give back Kamieniec, but launched a new offensive into Poland. The large army which had been assembled was used not against Prussia but against the Turks, who were defeated at żurawno in 1676. By the time this operation was complete, Sweden had made peace with Brandenburg, and the opportunity had passed.

In the following decade, the Sultan proclaimed a new jihad and a large Ottoman army advanced into Europe. It invaded the Habsburgs’ Hungarian provinces and, in the summer of 1683, laid siege to Vienna. This provided a fresh opportunity to gain the support of France, which welcomed the Ottoman assault on the Habsburgs and would have rewarded Poland for conniving at their defeat. But the Commonwealth could not countenance the possibility of the Porte conquering a swathe of Central Europe and taking up a threatening position along the whole of its southern frontier.

As Grand Vizir Kara Mustapha approached Vienna Jan III signed a treaty with the Emperor, and the Sejm voted a levy of 36,000 troops in Poland and 12,000 in Lithuania (which never turned up, since Hetman Jan Sapieha had no intention of assisting the King). At the end of August the fifty-four-year-old King set out at the head of his army, at the beginning of September he met up with and took command of the allied troops from various parts of the Empire, and on 12 September he routed the Kara Mustapha under the walls of Vienna.

The Turks retired in disorder, but the campaign was by no means over, and Jan III pursued the retreating Turks into Hungary. The majority of Hungarians had gone over to the Ottoman camp for anti-Habsburg reasons, and the King saw an opportunity of detaching Hungary from Austria and creating a new ally for the Commonwealth. On 7 October he lost the first battle of his life, at Parkany. Although he defeated the Turks two days later, it proved difficult to conclude the campaign. Meanwhile, opposition to further prolongation of the war was mounting at home. Once again the King, now beginning to feel his age and suffering from gallstones, had to abandon his plans.

‘Future generations will wonder in astonishment,’ King Jan lamented in the Senate in March 1688, ‘that after such resounding victories, such international triumph and glory, we now face, alas, eternal shame and irreversible loss, for we now find ourselves without resources, helpless, and seemingly incapable of government.’

Malta – The Modern Crusaders I

Blenheim Mk.IV Unit: ex 431 Sqn, RAF Serial: N3688
This aircraft from OADU (Overseas Aircraft Delivery Unit) was located in Malta – on September 1940 due to navigator’s mistake has landed on Italian island Pantelleria where was captured.

AAR from the demo for Battle for Malta.

Flight Lieutenant James W. Moore DFC

I had no peace of mind when they were out. I could not stay in my office and when they returned I was afraid to ask ‘How did it go’. Those aircrew were the flower of our race; all of them had been given a good education in their youth and they were far above average in intelligence, men who knew what they were doing and why it had to be done and men who volunteered to be aircrew in preference to many other less hazardous tasks. Theirs was a calm and conscious courage. To every one of these volunteers the sinking of ships was their crusade and without doubt they were Knights of St. John – the modern Crusaders’.

Air Commodore Hugh Pughe-Lloyd

In April 1941, despite the enormous demands being made of the Blenheims and their crews in the United Kingdom, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, decided that the feasibility of crews, drawn from 2 Group, operating from the island of Malta against enemy shipping in the Mediterranean should be explored. Should the scheme prove to be feasible, squadrons should be detached from the UK on a rota basis, to operate from the island for five or six weeks before returning to England. Malta is 17 miles long and five miles wide, located only sixty miles from Sicily and 180 miles from the North African Coast. By contrast to its size, it is of immense strategic importance, having a large natural harbour at Valletta, on the route from Gibraltar (1,100 miles to the west) to Alexandria (1,000 miles to the east).The island had been subjected to eight raids by bombers of the Italian Air Force on 10 June 1940, when Mussolini declared war on the allies, raids which became part of a way of life to civilians and servicemen alike. At first there was no fighter cover at all, then four crated Sea Gladiator biplane fighters, awaiting shipment to Alexandria, were found at the docks. These were quickly assembled and brought into service to give combat, one soon being lost. The three remaining Gladiators, who for propaganda reasons became known as Faith, Hope and Charity, [pilots who flew the Gladiators, however, preferred to call them ‘Freeman, Hardy and Willis’] flew in defence of the island for three months until only Faith remained. She carried on alone until joined by Hurricanes from Egypt.

‘The flight from Britain was, in itself, difficult for the crews, many of whom were inexperienced. It was a route followed by many crews, posted with their aircraft, for service in the Middle East. The crews would take-off from RAF Portreath near Redruth in Cornwall, in tropicalised long-range Blenheim Mk IVs with long-range petrol tanks fitted in the bomb-bay. en-route, as the main tanks were being emptied, the overload fuel would be pumped by hand into the main tanks, care having to be taken not to pump air into the main tanks system, which would of course have disastrous results. Their route took them over the Scilly isles before turning south across the Bay of Biscay, where they were liable to meet enemy aircraft, to Cap Finisterre off the north-west coast of Spain. They then flew south, parallel to the coast of Portugal, to Cape Vincent where they turned east for the difficult approach to Gibraltar. overall, a flight of 1,500 miles which, without the aid of an automatic pilot, or other ‘mod cons’ took 8½ hours. Their troubles were not yet over for the runway at Gibraltar – formerly the racecourse – was short and because of the turbulence from the rock, was dangerous. There were a number of wrecked aircraft to testify to the problems encountered by other pilots.

They stayed in Gibraltar, where refuelling was done from four-gallon petrol cans, for suitable weather for the next leg of their flight to Malta. the first leg of their flight, the 1,100 miles to the island, was generally flown at heights of 10,000 feet or more, before returning to sea-level as they approached the Sicilian channel, the stretch of sea between Sicily and Tunisia. At the centre of the channel was the Italian island of Pantellaria, enemy fighters and radar being based both there and in Sicily, as many crews found to their cost. Having survived all these hazards the crews landed their Blenheims at Luqa airfield where they would be based.

On arrival they found themselves subjected to regular bombing raids, food in short supply, poor living conditions and as time went by, the prospect of a very short life. In the case of crews on their way to the Middle East, whose journey was not interrupted, they still had a further 1,000 miles to fly before they reached their destination in Egypt. I hardly need to add that many crews were lost due to enemy action, lack of fuel, mechanical failure or human error on this long and perilous journey.

The officer selected to explore the possibility of Blenheims operating from Malta against Axis shipping was Squadron Leader ‘Attie’ Atkinson DSO DFC of 2 Group, a highly regarded leader who became a legend to those who flew in these medium bombers. On 31 March 1941 Squadron Leader ‘Atty’ Atkinson led eight of his crews on 21 Squadron, having been briefed to attack ships off the Dutch Frisian Islands and to open the campaign against ‘fringe targets’. ‘Attie’ found two destroyers. One was bombed from fifty feet, with hits scored on the ship’s stern. She slewed round, listing heavily to port as a column of black smoke belched into the sky. Not content with this success, he then led the formation across the islands of the north Dutch coast, saw a German parade, dropped his bombs plumb between the ranks and then chased the regimental cook up a lane. Asked by the Intelligence Officer how he could tell it was a cook, ‘Attie’ replied soberly that it might have been disguise, but he was wearing a chef’s cap and apron. And then his observer commented, ‘Dammit, at the height we were flying we could not only tell that it was a cook, we could even tell what the cook was thinking.’

‘Attie’s report to Intelligence afterwards was typical. ‘At Ameland, at about 1400 hours,’ he said, ‘we sighted what I suppose must have been an after-lunch parade. I alerted my gunner and we sprayed the lot of them. After this, we found a fellow on a gun emplacement, said ‘good afternoon’ and went on our way.’ Their visit had not gone unnoticed, for their presence had attracted a great deal of flak, which, not too surprisingly, accounted for two of the Blenheims. Another successful attack saw ‘Attie’ being awarded a Bar to the DFC. But he missed the party to celebrate it. On 26 April ‘Attie’ took-off leading six crews of 21 Squadron on their flight out to Malta, which all of them completed successfully. On their arrival they flew a number of shipping sorties, having their aircraft serviced by naval personnel, losing one aircraft in an air-raid. ‘Attie’ led the first attack on a convoy to Tripoli and personally sank a 4,000-tonner, while others in the flight sank a destroyer. There were four more attacks on convoys and then the Blenheims came home, flying all the way from the Bay of Biscay to England on one engine. Sea spray had got in the other. Atkinson ran out of fuel and had to make an undignified, but safe, belly landing in a friendly Cornish field. ‘Attie’ was then posted back to his own original 82 Squadron. The man from Church House who had joined them as Acting Pilot Officer was, at twenty-six, in command of the Squadron. Some of the men who were now with him had escaped from Gembloux, but most of the faces were new. Wing Commander Atkinson flew again to his familiar base at Luqa, taking his Squadron with him.

As Squadron Commander ‘Attie’ often went out himself after the ships. Ship-sinking was a matter of gambits. Most frequently the big cargo-boats and even the smaller fry for Rommel would be accompanied by a single Italian destroyer. The Blenheims would fly around, looking for an opening, while the destroyer would frantically circle her charge, sending up showers of spray in an effort to get between the attacking Blenheims and the cargo-boat. The game was hard on both sides, ending sometimes in the loss of both Italian ships, guardian and ward and sometimes with the loss of the Blenheims.

On his return, Atkinson reported that the situation in Malta was far from satisfactory, things having been neglected for years. However, he considered the plan feasible to operate there on a squadron, or ‘squadron plus’ basis. On receipt of Atkinson’s report Sir Charles Portal sent for the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) of 2 Group, Group Captain Hugh Pughe-Lloyd, to tell him he had been selected to command the detachments of 2 Group in Malta. His brief was ‘to sink Axis shipping between Europe and Africa’. It was, in effect, the same task in which the aircrew of 2 Group in the UK were already involved in over the seas off occupied Western Europe.

On his arrival in Malta, Pughe-Lloyd [who enlisted as a private in World War One and stayed on with the British Army to receive a knighthood for his defence of Malta] was horrified to find defences and facilities in a deplorable state, airfields ill-prepared as operational bases. Little thought had obviously been given to the use of the island as a base from which fighter or bomber aircraft could operate. It is to his considerable credit that the aerodrome at Luqa was soon made ready for the arrival of the first detachment of Blenheims.

The first squadron to be detached to the island was 82, commanded by Atkinson, now a Wing Commander, whose presence had been specifically requested by Pughe-Lloyd, now an Air Commodore. The first aircraft to leave England, led by Atkinson, took-off on 4 June, followed a week later by a further nine Blenheims. All of the aircraft carried in addition to their aircrew, two unfortunate ground-crew sitting as comfortable as possible in the well of the aircraft. They all arrived safely, although the last of the crews had to land after dark, using a flarepath which some character, fearful of enemy bombing raids, did his best to extinguish.

Apart from the Hurricanes on Malta there were seven twin-engined Martin Maryland reconnaissance aircraft, a squadron of Wellingtons and a number of Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm. The role of the Marylands was to reconnoitre for enemy shipping, keeping a special eye on Naples for signs of sailings or the assembling of convoys for the journey to Africa. On receipt of reports of the movement of enemy shipping, attacks would be launched during the day by Blenheims and Swordfish, with the Wellingtons operating at night.

The enemy convoys from Naples carrying supplies to the Axis Armies in North Africa followed routes which brought them no closer than 140 miles from Malta. Either sailing to the west of Sicily, then directly across to Africa, staying close to the shore until they reached Tripoli, or through the Straits of Messina, then east to Greece before turning south to Benghazi.

South of Pantelleria on 22 June, a biggish convoy escorted by destroyers and enemy fighters was found by six crews of 82 Squadron. The aircrews went into the attack in the manner they had perfected over the North Sea, despite intense anti-aircraft fire and the presence of the fighters. The crew of one Blenheim, Flight Lieutenant T. J. Watkins pilot, Sergeant observer J. S. Sargent and Sergeant WOp/air gunner Eric F. Chandler, dropped their bombs gaining hits on a merchantman. Their aircraft was badly damaged by flak, the explosion of one almost severing Watkins leg. Despite severe pain and shock he managed to right the aircraft, giving Sargent time to come to his aid. Meanwhile Chandler was doing battle with an Italian Fiat CR42 Falco biplane fighter, which he succeeded in shooting down, which earned him a DFM. Showing immense courage Watkins managed to stay conscious during the long flight back to Luqa to give Sargent flying instructions, where miraculously Watkins brought the aircraft safely into land at Luqa and then collapsed. Watkins was awarded an immediate DSO, Sargent and Chandler, who was credited with having shot down an enemy fighter, each received the DFM. The damage to their aircraft was so severe it had to be written off. By a strange twist of fate, three months later, on their return to England, Sargent and Chandler were flying a shipping sweep off the Frisian Islands when their pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bartlett was injured. Sargent flew their aircraft back to base, landing it successfully despite a live bomb on board. As soon as their aircraft came to a stop, Sargent and Chandler leapt out dragging their wounded pilot between them before the bomb exploded.

Malta – The Modern Crusaders II

Bristol Blenheim Malta

On 24 June, led by Wing Commander Atkinson, crews on 82 Squadron delivered the first low-level attack on Tripoli harbour, where they bombed the remainder of the convoy that they had attacked two days earlier. That day, it was said, the Squadron really went to town -Tripoli town – at anything from twenty to nought feet. The Wing Commander and two others bombed a 20,000-ton liner and his gunner saw the whole of the top deck blow off.

The squadron continued to operate daily from Luqa, suffering heavy casualties until they could operate no longer. One of their operations worth recalling, was another low-level raid, led once again by Atkinson, on the harbour at Palermo on the north coast of Sicily, which they approached by flying through the Sicilian Channel and coming in from the north. Having dropped their bombs they headed due south across this mountainous island and back to Luqa. The enemy was so surprised that not one shot was fired at the Blenheims, yet the raid was an enormous success. Two ships, one a 10,000 tonner, the other of 5,000 tons had been destroyed; another 10,000 tonner had a broken back, whilst three others had been badly damaged.

Their contribution to the Maltese Campaign completed, the surviving aircrew, despite instructions to the contrary, found their way back to the UK to join their beloved 2 Group by hitching a lift to Gibraltar in a Catalina flying boat and then on by ship.

On 1 July 1941 the second detachment, 17 Blenheims and their crews on 110 Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Theo ‘Joe’ Hunt DFC, flew out to Malta, where they wasted no time in getting into action. Their first operation was a low-level attack on three merchantmen in Tripoli harbour, followed on the 13th with the destruction of three more vessels. The next day they switched their attention to Libya, where they bombed a Luftwaffe airfield with some success, followed four days later by a raid on a power station at Tripoli, where Wing Commander ‘Joe’ Hunt and his crew were shot down into the sea by a CR 42 fighter. Shipping was not neglected, an 8,000 ton merchantman being damaged on the 15th, two ships being destroyed on the 22nd and then four crews bombed and destroyed two more in another visit to Tripoli harbour. In the latter operation the formation leader, Sergeant N. A. C. Cathles, twice hit the sea en-route to the target, which he bombed before he was forced to make a belly-landing in enemy territory. Yet another demonstration of the courage and determination of these young aircrew.

On 28 July, after a short but highly successful attachment, the surviving crews found their way back to the UK, to be replaced by twelve crews on 105 Squadron led by Wing Commander Hughie Edwards VC DFC a matter of a mere 24 days after he had led the epic low-level raid on Bremen. In their first operation six of the crews found a convoy of four merchantmen escorted by a destroyer and Fiat CR 42 fighters, who put up such an effective defence the raid had to be abandoned. The next day three crews found a destroyer escorted convoy close to the island of Lampedusa, which they attacked and lost one of their number to anti-aircraft fire. Apart from flying shipping sweeps the crews were not neglecting land targets such as a barracks at Misura in Libya. In their attacks on shipping they continued to have their successes, as on 7 August, when only two out of a convoy of six ships reached their destination in Africa. One of these, a tanker beached on Lampedusa, where after a second raid, it burnt for days. On the 15th, five crews of 105 Squadron found two escorted tankers, carrying fuel for the Afrika Corps, between Tripoli and Benghazi, which they bombed. One of the tankers exploded whilst the other was very badly damaged, although the Blenheim crews had to pay a high price. The Blenheim piloted by Pilot Officer P. H. Standfast being hit by flak exploded, a second was shot down by machine-gun fire and a third was lost when it collided with the mast of one of the ships and cart wheeled into the sea.105 Squadron were certainly making its presence felt, scoring three hits on two merchantmen on the 28th off the coast of Greece, a shipping sweep so far from Malta it was almost at the limit of their fuel capacity. Then closer to home, they bombed an ammunition factory and a power station at Licata on the south coast of Sicily. On 31 July the command of the squadron had been handed over from Wing Commander Edwards to Wing Commander P. H. A. Simmons, the former returning to the UK for a well deserved ‘rest’.

By the end of August it was estimated that 58% of all enemy supplies heading for North Africa had been lost at sea. Those who successfully completed the journey were still not safe in Tripoli harbour, where they were liable to be bombed by day by the Blenheims and at night by the Wellington crews. Understandably, the enemy did not stand idle in the face of this threat to their lifeline to their armed forces in Africa, increasing the anti-aircraft defences on their merchantmen and escorts. The casualty rate for the Blenheim crews was around 12%, an average of one crew per day or one squadron per week. Replacement crews were found by ‘press-ganging’ unsuspecting crews and their aircraft on their way out to Egypt into service with the squadrons on Malta.

The need to maintain the momentum of attacks on enemy shipping meant that 105 Squadron had to remain in Malta longer than the intended 5-6 weeks. At the end of August 26 Blenheims and their crews of 107 Squadron arrived in Malta to play their part in the campaign. On 17 September three crews flew a low level raid on factories at Licata, whilst at dawn the same day another three crews bombed a large liner in Tripoli harbour and so it continued. On the 22nd in a raid by crews from both squadrons on barracks, ammunition dumps and lorries on the Tripoli-Benghazi road two of the Blenheims collided. The tail was knocked off the aircraft piloted by Wing Commander Don Scivier AFC, which crashed, whereas the other one, piloted by Sergeant Tommy Williams managed to limp back to Luqa. Many convoys were escorted by fighters which, bearing in mind the improved anti-aircraft defences, added to the danger as for example, a formation of six Blenheims found five merchantmen escorted, not only by five destroyers but four Junkers 88 twin-engined fighter-bombers as well. Undaunted the first vie flew into the attack dropping their bombs, followed closely by the second vic led by Wing Commander N. E. W. Pepper DFC. As the latter flew over the convoy the eleven second delay bombs of the first wave exploded, blowing-up Pepper’s aircraft. Another, severely damaged did however manage to limp back to Luqa. An indication of the success of the campaign was that the enemy now stopped routing their convoys to the west of Sicily, sending them on the longer journey via the coast of Greece.

On Thursday 4 October 1941 eight crews on 107 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Barnes, set out to bomb the harbour at Zuara on the African coast. The flak from three destroyers in the harbour was so fierce the first vie was beaten off and they came under attack from Fiat CR.42 fighters. The other five Blenheims sought other targets inland, when they too were attacked by fighters, who shot down the Blenheim piloted by Sergeant D. E. Hamlyn. All three crew spent six days in their dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Djerba by an Arab ship, which took them to Tunis and internment. The engagement with the fighters lasted until the Blenheims were fifty miles out to sea on their way back to base. During the night of 7/8 October, a low-level attack in bright moonlight was carried out on a 2,000 ton merchantman off Tripoli, on which two hits were scored causing an explosion.’

On the 11th 107 Squadron found a convoy in the Gulf of Sirte escorted by one twin-engined monoplane. Flying Officer Ronald Arthur Greenhill hit a large motor vessel forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sergeant Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. Sergeant Ivor Broom attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Harrison saw Sergeant Routh attack a small cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large motor vessel. Sergeants Leven, Baker and Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. In the afternoon of 11 October a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Blenheims in low-level flight. While turning and climbing the Blenheims dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel. Almost at the same time, two Blenheims appeared to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard and then dived into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still managed a half turn and then dived into the sea nose first, vanishing completely. The third Blenheim carried out a wide turn and then continued to remain cruising for some minutes. One of the Blenheims, which prior to crashing, hit the foremast of the Priaruggia, bursting into flames and breaking off the mast. The Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but the Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October. The lost Blenheims were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. Their loss was not completely in vain however. Priaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

‘Mid-October saw the arrival of a detachment on 18 Squadron, who were to remain on Malta until the end of the campaign, replacing the surviving personnel on 105 Squadron, who arrived back in the UK on 11 October. The casualty rate was rising at an alarming rate, for instance, the new commander of 107 Squadron was lost on 9 October, followed a few days later by his deputy, Squadron Leader Barnes. By the end of the month the squadron had no commissioned officer pilots left, command falling on the shoulders of Sergeant Ivor Broom, who was awarded an immediate commission. Ivor and his crew of Sergeant ‘Bill’ North, observer and Sergeant Les Harrison, WOp/AG had been on their way to North Africa when they had been hi-jacked by Hugh Pughe-Lloyd.3 During the remainder of October, raids were concentrated on Axis targets in North Africa, although Sicily was not forgotten. On the 17th six Blenheims of 18 Squadron with an escort of Hurricanes carried out a successful ‘Circus’ attack on the enemy’s seaplane base at Syracuse, with other low-level operations being directed against factories at Licata and Catania.

The first major success in November occurred on the 5th, when six crews of 18 Squadron found and attacked two 3,000 ton tankers escorted by a destroyer. They had to pay a high price for their success, as two of the Blenheims were shot down. On the 8th six crews from 107 Squadron found a merchantman escorted by a destroyer, a desperate battle ensued with one Blenheim, on being hit by flak crashed into the ship’s mast and exploded. Another was hit in the turret, yet despite this, the survivors made a further four attacks without gaining any hits on their target. A follow-up attack was carried out by six crews of ..8 Squadron, who lost two of their number without being able to sink the merchantman. Successful attacks during the same period were carried out in low-level

On Thursday 4 October 1941 eight crews on 107 Squadron led by Squadron Leader Barnes, set out to bomb the harbour at Zuara on the African coast. The flak from three destroyers in the harbour was so fierce the first vie was beaten off and they came under attack from Fiat CR.42 fighters. The other five Blenheims sought other targets inland, when they too were attacked by fighters, who shot down the Blenheim piloted by Sergeant D. E. Hamlyn. All three crew spent six days in their dinghy before being rescued off the coast of Djerba by an Arab ship, which took them to Tunis and internment. The engagement with the fighters lasted until the Blenheims were fifty miles out to sea on their way back to base. During the night of 7/8 October, a low-level attack in bright moonlight was carried out on a 2,000 ton merchantman off Tripoli, on which two hits were scored causing an explosion.’

Malta – The Modern Crusaders III

Blenheim Mk IV

On the 11th 107 Squadron found a convoy in the Gulf of Sirte escorted by one twin-engined monoplane. Flying Officer Ronald Arthur Greenhill hit a large motor vessel forward and his aircraft was then seen by Sergeant Harrison to be hit in the belly and crash in the sea as he climbed over the ship. Sergeant Ivor Broom attacked the same vessel and hit it aft and left the vessel in flames with grey smoke pouring from it. He was chased by the escort plane which did not get within firing range. Harrison saw Sergeant Routh attack a small cargo boat, set it on fire and then crash into the sea having been hit by guns from the large motor vessel. Sergeants Leven, Baker and Hopkinson did not make an attack and brought back their bombs. In the afternoon of 11 October a convoy consisting of the steamer Priaruggia, the tanker Fassio, escorted by the corvette Partenope, which left Tripoli at 1600 hours on 10 October, was attacked by three Blenheims in low-level flight. While turning and climbing the Blenheims dropped a series of small bombs and strafed the convoy with machine guns. Of the bombs, one hit Priaruggia at the base of the funnel. Almost at the same time, two Blenheims appeared to be hit by the precise fire of Partenope, one in a staggering turn trying to touch down on the water, hitting hard and then dived into the sea breaking up. The other, on fire, still managed a half turn and then dived into the sea nose first, vanishing completely. The third Blenheim carried out a wide turn and then continued to remain cruising for some minutes. One of the Blenheims, which prior to crashing, hit the foremast of the Priaruggia, bursting into flames and breaking off the mast. The Priaruggia must have appeared very badly hit, but the Fassio was neither hit nor attacked. The episode shows very clearly the dangers the pilots on Malta exposed themselves to and the brutal and very quick end that awaited most of them. Fassio arrived in Benghasi on 13 October. The lost Blenheims were Z7618 and Z9663. While Sergeant Whidden survived the crash, he died of his wounds in hospital shortly after. Their loss was not completely in vain however. Priaruggia was badly enough damaged that she had to return in tow to Tripoli after an initial stay at Misurata. When she arrived (still with the same cargo, including ammunition) in Benghazi six weeks later, after the conclusion of repairs, she was bombed on the night of her arrival and all her cargo was lost when she blew up.

‘Mid-October saw the arrival of a detachment on 18 Squadron, who were to remain on Malta until the end of the campaign, replacing the surviving personnel on 105 Squadron, who arrived back in the UK on 11 October. The casualty rate was rising at an alarming rate, for instance, the new commander of 107 Squadron was lost on 9 October, followed a few days later by his deputy, Squadron Leader Barnes. By the end of the month the squadron had no commissioned officer pilots left, command falling on the shoulders of Sergeant Ivor Broom, who was awarded an immediate commission. Ivor and his crew of Sergeant ‘Bill’ North, observer and Sergeant Les Harrison, WOp/AG had been on their way to North Africa when they had been hi-jacked by Hugh Pughe-Lloyd. During the remainder of October, raids were concentrated on Axis targets in North Africa, although Sicily was not forgotten. On the 17th six Blenheims of 18 Squadron with an escort of Hurricanes carried out a successful ‘Circus’ attack on the enemy’s seaplane base at Syracuse, with other low-level operations being directed against factories at Licata and Catania.

The first major success in November occurred on the 5th, when six crews of 18 Squadron found and attacked two 3,000 ton tankers escorted by a destroyer. They had to pay a high price for their success, as two of the Blenheims were shot down. On the 8th six crews from 107 Squadron found a merchantman escorted by a destroyer, a desperate battle ensued with one Blenheim, on being hit by flak crashed into the ship’s mast and exploded. Another was hit in the turret, yet despite this, the survivors made a further four attacks without gaining any hits on their target. A follow-up attack was carried out by six crews of ..8 Squadron, who lost two of their number without being able to sink the merchantman. Successful attacks during the same period were carried out in low-level raids on Mellaha airfield, a 4,000 tonner off Cape Kiri and on another convoy of three merchantmen.

About this time a crew arrived in Malta, en-route to Egypt and were ‘press-ganged’ into service on 107 Squadron. They ‘were three inexperienced Sergeants’, Ray Noseda RAAF, pilot, Freddie Deeks, observer and Webber, WOp/Air Gunner, who had the good fortune to survive a full tour of operations from Malta before the end of January 1942. I got to know Freddie Deeks when we flew our second tour together on Douglas Bostons on 88 Squadron during 1942-43. Their arrival coincided with a decision by the German High Command to neutralise Malta as a base for Allied shipping and to stop the attacks on their convoys by the bombers of the RAF. The task was given to Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who transferred aircraft from the Russian Front to supplement those already in Sicily, Pantellaria and North Africa. So, with a force of 600 bombers and a large number of fighters, the Luftwaffe set about the task of bombing Malta into submission and with only three Hurricane squadrons to oppose them, success seemed highly probable. The courageous resistance of the islanders is now a matter of history, as indicated by the award of the George Cross. The citation reads: ‘To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’.

In his story of air power, Philip Guedalla relates in his book Middle East 1940-42: ‘Hitherto no more than seventy aircraft had been operating weekly against Malta and they rarely came more than twenty at a time. But in December the weekly number rose to two hundred and the weight of bombs dropped on the island was multiplied by ten. This was doubled in the first eight weeks of1942 and quadrupled in March. By April, as the Axis shipping lanes were crowded with supplies for Rommel’s next advance in Libya, the air attacks on Malta mounted to a crescendo and the island’s ability to influence events in Africa, which had still been exercised against shipping at Palermo early in March, was practically paralysed. For April saw Malta fighting for its life’.

At the end of November the crew of a Martin Maryland recce’ aircraft located a fast new 10,000 ton tanker leaving Naples en-route to Africa escorted by a destroyer. Crews on 18 and 107 Squadrons found and attacked this highly desirable target off Tripoli, following the Blenheims’ first attack the tanker’s seamen abandoned ship. On the same day four other Blenheims bombed train ferries at San Giorvani, which is the Italian terminus for the ferry from the mainland to Sicily.

The Blenheim losses continued. In bad weather on 8 December 1941 during an attack on shipping off Catania two Blenheims collided and were lost. These were followed three days later during an attack on the harbour at Argostoli when another was shot down. Then on the 12th, two out of six 18 Squadron Blenheims were shot down during an attack on a heavily defended convoy. On the 13th Ivor Broom – now a Pilot Officer – led six Blenheims on 107 Squadron in a further attack on the harbour at Argostoli. The second vic was led by Sergeant E. Crossley on his second detachment to Malta, who is described by Freddie Deeks as one of the many unsung heroes. Sadly, this courageous young pilot and his crew were shot down and killed on 24 December in an attack on shipping in Zuara harbour.

One notable and highly successful raid that took place during the afternoon of 4 January 1942, in which the only serviceable Blenheims totalled ten, from 18 and 107 Squadrons, took part. Due to the winter weather there were only four serviceable Italian airfields in Sicily and the best of these was at Castel Vetrano. The ten bombers crossed the Sicilian coast at low-level, flying up a deep valley on their way to the target. As they drew closer they could see the grounded enemy aircraft silhouetted against the skyline, presenting a perfect target. They flew across the airfield line abreast, bombing and machine-gunning the aircraft, which were lined up wing-tip to wing-tip. At least thirty of these aircraft were destroyed, many others seriously damaged and a great many service personnel killed or injured. The enemy had been taken completely by surprise and the raid provoked no opposition.

That night Wellingtons followed the above attack with another raid, destroying a further fourteen enemy aircraft. Then on 14 January in a shipping strike along the North African coast four Blenheims found and attacked a 4,000 ton motor vessel escorted by a destroyer. The merchantman was damaged, but only one of the bombers returned to Malta.

About this time a detachment on 21 Squadron arrived at Luqa, the same squadron who had supplied the six crews who had made the exploratory flight to Malta in May 1941. Had any of the original six crews arrived they would have found it to be a very different place, with the increased activity of the Axis Air Forces, the airfield being bombed regularly and Blenheims being destroyed on the ground.

On 4 February the new boys’ despatched six of their crews to bomb shipping in Palermo harbour, an operation which, without any interference from the enemy, went disastrously wrong. First of all they made the wrong landfall and as they turned to correct this fault, the wingtip of one of the Blenheims touched the sea and it piled straight in. Having missed the original target the remaining five crews dropped their bombs on a goods train and a railway bridge, when they found themselves heading straight for the hills, which were shrouded in cloud. Unable to gain sufficient height to clear the hills they sought in vain for a valley. Tragically, three of the Blenheims crashed into the hillsides, leaving two shattered crews to fly back to Luqa.

Returning to base became increasingly dangerous as German fighters were likely to be waiting for them, as happened on 6 February, when three Blenheims returning to Malta from a shipping sweep, were shot down by Me 109s. There were no survivors. Five days later, three more Blenheims came in for the same treatment although, on this occasion, only one of them was shot down.

During the second half of February the few serviceable Blenheims were engaged on flying shipping sweeps off the Balkan coast, almost at the limit of their fuel endurance, although the bad weather cut down the number of successes. The Blenheim campaign from Malta was brought to an end when, due to the sustained attack on the island, it was no longer feasible to maintain the offensive. All the fuel and supplies which managed to reach the island in the convoys, which were under attack from enemy submarines, surface vessels and bombers, were needed for the defence of Malta and it’s naval base of Valletta.

During March the three remaining units, 18, 21 and 107 Squadrons, or what was left of them, departed to be reformed in England with new personnel, the personnel who had served them being absorbed into Middle East units.

What had the Blenheims achieved in waging this very costly campaign? By January 1942 Rommel had only three days of supplies left for his armies and nearly all his oil tankers had been sunk, also the passage of enemy shipping from Italy via the west coast of Sicily had been brought to a halt. As a bonus, the Blenheim and its crews had been largely responsible for persuading the Germans to withdraw Luftwaffe units from the Russian Front for the onslaught on Malta.

 

The Pirate Earl

John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford
Born: September 8, 1442
Died: March 10, 1513
Braintree, Essex, England (Age 70)

The first of the irreconcilable Lancastrians to break ranks was John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Not quite twenty when his father and eldest brother had been executed by John Tiptoft, making him head of the family, John had initially been attainted but Edward IV later relented, allowing him to take possession of the earldom in 1464. In 1465 he officiated at Elizabeth Woodville’s coronation, acting as her chamberlain. In spite of this, it is likely that Oxford’s loyalty was always suspected and when trouble began in 1468 he was swiftly arrested and imprisoned within the Tower. Released in early 1469, by the middle of the year he had joined Warwick and Clarence in their efforts to remove Edward, perhaps reminded of the treatment that the king had meted out to his father and brother.

The readeption of Henry VI saw Oxford carrying the Sword of State for Henry’s re-coronation on 13 October 1470. Appointed Constable of England in place of John Tiptoft, Oxford oversaw the trial and execution of the man who had condemned his father and brother. When Edward IV attempted to return it was Oxford’s men, led by his brother Thomas, who prevented the Yorkists from landing in Norfolk. Unlike many staunch Lancastrians, Oxford did not baulk at following Warwick and his flank performed extremely well at Barnet, routing his opposite number but then losing discipline as they celebrated their victory prematurely. When Oxford returned to the battlefield it was to chaos as his men were mistaken for Yorkist forces and attacked. Amid cries of treason, he finally fled the battlefield and rode north.

Remaining in Scotland for only a short period, Oxford sailed for France, by which time Margaret had left and her cause lay broken in a field outside Tewkesbury. Edward IV was fully restored and all of Oxford’s allies, Lancastrian and Neville, were gone. Although remembered as the archetypal Lancastrian, John de Vere’s alliances were less clear during the period surrounding the readeption. John had married Margaret Neville, sister of Richard, Earl of Warwick, and his early involvement in Warwick and Clarence’s plans to unseat Edward in favour of his younger brother suggests that not only was he fixated upon a Lancastrian restoration, but the removal of Edward was his primary concern.

John de Vere had been engaged in piracy in the English Channel since shortly after his arrival in France. He spent almost two years raiding Calais, harassing English shipping and stealing from merchants. The earl appears to have made a good living for himself as a pirate, while simultaneously causing trouble for his enemy Edward IV. In May 1473 he radically altered his tactics, and it is likely that his mother’s rough treatment contributed to his decision to act more directly.

George Neville, Archbishop of York, was to find himself another victim of Edward’s determination to sweep his kingdom clean. The archbishop did not possess the military might to threaten Edward but he was a wealthy and influential man. He had made peace with Edward, handing the capital and King Henry over in 1471, but a little while later Warkworth recorded that he became a focus of Edward’s efforts to ensure his own security. In 1472 George was at Windsor with the king enjoying the hunting, high in the favour of the restored king and bucking the fate of his brothers. Edward told the archbishop that he would honour him by visiting his manor at Moore to sample the hunting there and George, overcome with excitement, hurried home to make preparations. He called for all of his plate and goods that he had placed in hiding after Barnet and Tewkesbury and borrowed heavily to make ready to receive the king. He purchased enough food and drink for his visitors to stay for several days and awaited the king’s arrival on the appointed day in April.

The day before Edward was due to arrive a messenger brought a summons for George to go instead to the king at Windsor immediately. The archbishop obliged and on his arrival found himself arrested for high treason, charged with aiding John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Sending George across the Channel to Hammes Castle at Calais, an unlikely destination for one genuinely suspected of assisting a pirate rebel at large in the Channel and frequently attacking Calais, Edward despatched several of his men to Moore where they seized all of the archbishop’s neatly gathered treasure. His properties were transferred to Edward, his mitre was broken and the jewels used to make a new crown for Edward. Much of the wealth was passed to the infant Prince Edward, the king’s son and heir. What George Neville had so carefully built over decades was lost in a single day. Although he was released in 1475, George died in poverty and disgrace the following year.

Oxford attempted to land an invasion force on the Essex coast near St Osyth in May 1473 but was repelled. Sailing west along the coast, he eventually arrived at St Michael’s Mount, just off the southern tip of Cornwall. Set atop a tidal island, St Michael’s Mount is the English counterpart of the French Mont Saint-Michel. At low tide there is a beach connecting the fortress perched atop the rocky mount to the mainland, but at high tide it becomes an island with no bridge connecting it. John, along with eighty other men, including two of his brothers, seized the monastery and dug themselves in. Precisely what John hoped to achieve is worth considering, with Lancastrian hope long gone. It is feasible that he was seeking to resurrect a previous alliance with George, Duke of Clarence, whom he believed could still be tempted to topple Edward, having come into possession of his own large Warwick portion.

In September, word reached Edward that Oxford was moving about Cornwall and was receiving a warm welcome. The king sent orders to Sir Henry Bodrugan, chief landowner in the area, to lay siege to St Michael’s Mount and deal with Oxford. Bodrugan duly did as he was instructed, but each day at low tide the Earl of Oxford’s men would come out of St Michael’s Mount under a flag of truce to parlay with Bodrugan before returning to the security of the fortress, which Warkworth claimed could be defended by twenty men against all the world for as long as their provisions lasted. Eventually, on one of his forays out of St Michael’s Mount, Oxford complained that his provisions were running low. At this, Bodrugan had fresh supplies brought to the earl and the mount was restocked.

When Edward heard of Bodrugan’s mismanagement of the siege, he was furious, and sent one of his squires of the body to replace Sir Henry. When Richard Fortescu arrived at the end of December he met angry resistance from Bodrugan but laid siege to the mount. Almost every day the two sides fought, Fortescu losing men and occasional truces being called for a day or two. During the truces Oxford’s men were offered pardons and grants of land if they would abandon the earl so that finally less than a dozen were willing to stay with Oxford. On 15 February 1474 Oxford was forced to surrender St Michael’s Mount. When Fortescu entered he found enough provisions to have lasted many more months. Warkworth believed that Oxford’s willingness to speak to the less friendly Fortescu was his undoing, quoting an old saying that ‘a castle that speaks and a woman that will hear, they will be gotten both’.

Oxford was taken into custody and sent to Hammes Castle at Calais to be imprisoned indefinitely. John de Vere’s part in the story of the Wars of the Roses was far from over but he would be removed from action for a decade now. John de Vere, the pirate Earl of Oxford, scaled the walls of Hammes Castle and jumped from the top into the moat. The water was only shoulder depth and John was swiftly recaptured. It remains unclear whether this was an attempt to escape or to end his own life. John had been a natural Lancastrian but was also Warwick’s brother-in-law and had supported the earl’s attempts to place George upon the throne before the readeption. An implacable enemy to Edward as much as a supporter of any other particular cause, all of his hopes appeared finally lost. It may have been an attempt to gain his freedom but the timing makes a resigned bid to end his life possible too.