Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network
Barbarians at the Gate: The 410 Sack of Rome
While emaciated humans prowled the streets like ghouls and ate the flesh of the dead, an army of Goths waited for their kinsmen to open the gates. The AD 410 Sack of Rome was about to begin.
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
The tattered banners of Hercules fluttered in the howling wind along the Frigidus River. It was the afternoon of September 6, AD 394 in western Italy, outside the village of Aquileia and hard athwart the Adriatic Sea. For two days, the Roman emperor Theodosius the Great had mercilessly hurled his Visigoth warriors against the soldiers of a rank usurper, Eugenius of Gaul. The Goth captain Alaric, a favored protégé of the emperor, watched the dead piled higher and higher while ravens plucked the flesh and eyes from the corpses of friend and foe alike. The bloodbath had ended with a great victory for Theodosius, but more than half his 20,000 Goth warriors lay dead on the riverbank.
The men who fought for Rome that day on the banks of the Frigidus River bore little resemblance to the proud citizen legionaries of Julius Caesar’s days. Most Romans had come to despise military service, once an honored profession. Why risk your own life in a war when there were plenty of foreigners willing to fight and die for Rome instead? More and more barbarians from beyond the imperial borders were enrolled in the army, then were sent to protect the frontiers from the incursion of other barbarians much like themselves. The Visigoths or “meaning wise Goths” fighting for Theodosius were from the western region of the Goth lands; the eastern having fallen to the Huns.
Since these “barbarians” were from martial cultures, they did not mind fighting for the Romans. What they did mind was being sacrificed in battle while the Roman legions hung back. Nor did they care for the way the Romans looked down upon them as smelly, brutal, boorish savages. Still, the Goths respected a great soldier-emperor like Theodosius, who had always dealt with them firmly but fairly.
The Rise of Alaric, the Goth
When Theodosius died in AD 395, the Empire was partitioned between his two sons, 18-year-old Arcadius, who ruled the east, and 11-year-old Honorius, who presided over the west. The Visigoths, whose realm lay in the eastern portion, eyed the young Arcadius’ shifty court advisers with suspicion. It seemed increasingly apparent that Theodosius’s promises and goodwill had died with him. There was even worrisome talk of the Goths’ yearly subsidies being reduced or abolished altogether. Once again, uncertainty lay in the Visigoths’ future. To face it head on, the chiefs elected 25-year-old Alaric, of the noble house of Balthi, to safeguard their interests.
Born on an island at the mouth of the Danube, Alaric had hoped one day to command the legions of Rome himself. Along with other talented Goth youths, he had attended Theodosius’s state-sponsored School for Generals for five years. There veteran Roman soldiers gave him intensive training in the art of war, from weaponry and horseback riding to the study of tactics, diplomacy, and foreign languages—Greek, Roman, Aramaic, and German. The emperor himself sometimes conducted classes, as did his Master General, Flavius Stilicho. Favored cadets such as Alaric enjoyed the hospitality of the royal family, and the young Goth became friends with Theodosius’s sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and his youngest daughter, Galla Placidia. He would meet them all in less congenial circumstances in the years to come.
After Arcadius reduced the Visigoths’ stipend, angry calls for revenge went up among the barbarians. To reaffirm the Goths’ favored position within the Empire, Alaric felt the need to lead his people in a new war against the same legions they had fought alongside at Aquileia. Throughout their ceded homeland of Moesia, northwest of Constantinople, Goth farmer-warriors cast aside their plows and took up their spears once more.
From the trackless forests north of the Danube, other fierce, bearded barbarians heeded Alaric’s call. They rolled their ponderous war wagons across the broad and icy Danube. Thus reinforced, the Visigoths swept unopposed through Macedonia and Thrace until they approached the outskirts of Constantinople. Teenage Emperor Arcadius possessed neither the courage nor the troops to meet the Goths in open battle. Even so, Alaric soon realized that the city’s lofty walls were beyond his means to conquer. Instead, he turned west toward Thessaly, where Flavius Stilicho, now the supreme commander of the western Roman armies, waited to confront him. Alaric knew that Stilicho was not a man to be trifled with. The son of a Vandal cavalry officer and a Roman mother, Stilicho had worked his way up to become the most powerful man in the Empire. He had with him not only the crack troops of the West Roman army, but the Eastern Roman field army as well.
Behind a hastily built stockade at Thessalonika, Alaric awaited an assault by Stilicho’s larger army. The attack never came. Seeds of distrust had sprouted between the two Imperial courts. The self-serving court advisers who held Aracadius’s ear were worried that Stilicho, who already had complete control over Honorius, would extend his influence over the Eastern Empire as well. Arcadius ordered Stilicho to send the eastern army to Constantinople and return to Italy immediately. A baffled Alaric watched as Stilicho’s army suddenly broke camp and departed the field. The Visigoths marched unopposed down the historically fateful path to Thermopylae. Attica’s villages went up in flames, their men succumbing to Goth spears and their women becoming the conquerors’ spoils of war. Alaric spared Athens in return for most of its treasures. After a triumphant entrance, he relaxed with a warm bath and attended a banquet in his honor. From Attica, the Goths moved down the Peloponnese peninsula, where Corinth, Argos and Sparta yielded their treasures as well.
Stilicho Strikes Back
In the spring of AD 397, the sails of a massive armada billowed above the azure waves of the Ionian Sea. Stilicho was returning with a powerful force to put an end to Alaric’s outrages. With his greater army Stilicho drove Alaric and his Goths up the arid slopes of Mount Pholoe, where the beleaguered barbarians hunkered down for a last stand. With hunger gnawing at their ribs and thirst parching their throats, defeat seemed inevitable.
With victory all but won, Stilicho took time to enjoy the theaters and dancers of Greece. Unfortunately, so did many of his troops, who made themselves a nuisance in the countryside. Alaric saw his chance and broke through the depleted encirclement, transporting his troops, captives, and loot to the Epirus coast of northwestern Greece.
The ease of Alaric’s escape stirred rumors that Stilicho had purposely let Alaric go so that he could later use him against the Eastern Empire. At the same time, the Eastern Empire was hoping to use Alaric against Stilicho. Even though he had wreaked havoc over much of the Eastern Empire’s domain, Alaric was awarded the post of Master of Soldiers and the Prefecture of Illyricum. The fox was now guarding the hen house.
Illyricum was of no small importance to the Empire. The Prefecture covered all the Greek and Balkan provinces outside of Thrace. Both the eastern and western courts desired jurisdiction over Illyricum. Alaric had attained his original goals, and his people were pleased. In the time-honored custom of the barbarians, they lifted him high on a shield and enthusiastically proclaimed him their king.
For the next four years there was peace in Illyricum, but Alaric’s Visigoths were not the only barbarians stirring up trouble within the Empire. An independent contingent of Goth mercenaries at Constantinople seized control of the city. They were quickly overthrown, and 7,000 of them were massacred inside the city. The resultant anti-German sentiment at Constantinople turned against Alaric and his Goths, who were consequently stripped of their titles and lands.
It was time for the Visigoths to load up their wagons, mount their horses, and make the Empire take notice of them again. The west looked enticingly vulnerable at the moment. Vandals and Alans led by an eastern Goth warlord named Radagaisus, were advancing from Pannonia, and Stilicho was even now moving against them. With Stilicho squaring off against Radagaisus, Alaric’s Goths tramped into unprotected Italy in November AD 401. The invasion sent shock waves of terror through the Roman Empire. Most of the towns of Venetia fell to Alaric. Honorius quivered in fear in Milan, the seat of emperors since the end of the 3rd century AD, praying for Stilicho’s imminent return. In the midst of winter, Stilicho smashed Radagaisus’s invasion. Radagaisus escaped, but otherwise the haul of captives was so great that the price of slaves plunged on the open market. Stilicho then led his battle-hardened veterans through the snow and ice of the Alps. With them marched 12,000 of the defeated Vandals and Alans, who had been drafted into the Roman army. Stilicho was taking no chances against Alaric. Far away, along the forts of the Rhine and the Caledonian border, his messengers raced to summon all available aid against the Visigoths.
By the time Stilicho returned in February 402, Alaric had pillaged northern Italy for three months. At the Imperial palace of Milan, the palace attendants cried that Alaric’s cavalry was already riding through the suburbs. Terrified, Honorius fled Milan. Nearly captured by the Goth horsemen, he found shelter in the walled Ligurian town of Asta on the River Tanarus. As the footfalls of Stilicho’s army drew near, Alaric conferred with his long-haired chieftains. He looked at faces scared from battle, at old warriors leaning on their spears. One of the eldest had given Alaric his first bow and quiver. The grizzled veteran advised Alaric to escape from the spreading Roman net while he still had time. Unabashed, Alaric retorted that “witless age” had deprived the old man of his senses. “This land shall be mine whether I hold it in fee as a conqueror or in death as conquered,”1 he declared. With those defiant words, he decided to pursue the emperor to Asta.
The Easter Surprise Attack
At Milan, the lookouts on the walls could not tell if the dust cloud raised by Stilicho’s approaching army heralded friend or foe. When Stilicho’s helmet, glittering like a star, was recognized, the population broke out in relieved jubilation. Stilicho did not tarry in the city for long before pressing on after Alaric. He found the Visigoths encamped near Pollentia, having put Asta under siege. The Roman forces enjoyed a 2-to-1 superiority over Alaric’s estimated 20,000 warriors. Despite such odds, however, Stilicho was too prudent to waste his men in an assault on the Goth wagon barricades. Instead, he enclosed the Goths within a line of fortifications and waited until April 6, Easter Sunday, when Alaric and his men, who were Christians of the Aryan faith, devoutly celebrated the festival. Riding along the ranks of his soldiers, Stilicho shouted: “Friends of Rome, the time has come for you to exact vengeance for outraged Italy! Protect Father Tiber with your shields!”2
Saul, the pagan chief of the Alans, was called upon to lead the attack. His short but stout frame was crisscrossed with battle scars. Saul looked to the flank of the legions, where the Alan horses nervously pawed the ground. Their bushy-haired riders swore oaths to the sacred sword of their steppe war god. Fierce nomads of Iranian origin, the Alans customarily draped their horses with the skins of their foes. At length the signal was given, trumpets blared, and the Alan cavalry dashed forward. The Goths did not expect an attack on such a holy day— surprise was total. The Alan riders jumped the barricades, stampeding through the confused Goths at the fringes of the camp. Stilicho would have clinched victory then and there had it not been for Alaric. The young Visigoth king instantly rallied his troops. Brawny Goth fists tightened their grip on their shields and spears as the Alan cavalry thundered closer. The Alan horses skidded to a halt, refusing to impale themselves upon the Goth spears. Blades flashed out of dust clouds. After Saul was struck down, his warriors broke in panic. Confident that on this day, of all days, God would be with them, the Goths leapt upon their horses and galloped after the Alans with a roar.
Seeing his infantry about to be outflanked, Stilicho quickly flung a reserve legion into the battle. Buffered by the legion, the Alan horsemen turned on their pursuers. Alan and Goth cavalry sliced through each other’s ranks, their two-handed lances knocking riders from their steeds. Along the entire front, the Goth and Roman lines heaved back and forth. Spears stabbed through walls of shields, while yard-long spatha swords splintered shields and glanced off helmets. In the melee, the soldiers had to look at the designs and elaborate colors of their shields to tell friend from foe. The shields presented a dizzying array of colorful lines, rectangles, ovals, and animal motifs.
A short lull interrupted the battle. Soldiers, exhausted in their heavy iron chain mail, caught their breath before hurling themselves again into the bloody fray. By evening the maddening clamor of blaring horns, shouting men, neighing horses, and clashing arms finally quieted down. Only the pitiful groans of the wounded continued. Both sides had suffered horrendous casualties, and Alaric had no choice but to retreat or face complete destruction. The Goths abandoned both their loot and their women. Alaric had promised his wife jewels and Roman handmaidens—she got slavery instead. Violated and dragged into Roman servitude, the women clung to the hope that their husbands would soon come to free them. Meanwhile, the Italian and Greek women enslaved by the Goths were freed to return to their homes and families.
The Rise and Fall of Stilicho
Honorius, with Stilicho at his side, led his chariot in a triumphant procession through the streets of Rome. The celebrations were woefully premature. Alaric was not finished yet, although for a time he was forced to leave Italy. Angry and vengeful, the Visigoths prowled Italy’s northeastern borders. In 403, when the leaves had turned brown and yellow with the fall, Alaric assaulted Verona. Again though Alaric was confronted by Stilicho and defeated and again Stilicho failed to finish off the Goths. Alaric retreated into eastern Illyricum, an outlaw at large in the Empire. The setbacks caused a number of Goths, including Sarus, a hereditary enemy of Alaric’s house of Balthi, to defect to the Roman side.
Alaric and his Visigoths licked their wounds and waited for events to turn in their favor. Fortunately for Alaric, Stilicho still hoped to use him to help wrest Illyricum from the Eastern Empire and add it to Honorius’s jurisdiction. Within a year, Stilicho somehow convinced Honorius to reappoint Alaric as Master of Soldiers at Illyricum. This was a complete slap in the face of the Eastern emperor, Arcadius, who was still the legal sovereign of Illyricum. Stilicho’s plans were interrupted in AD 405 when Radagaisus led a huge eastern Goth invasion from the Danube basin. Stilicho crushed it and executed Radagaisus. The next year, however, Vandals, Suebi, and Alans poured into Gaul, overwhelming the depleted frontier defenses. Despite the deteriorating situation, Stilicho remained fixated on Illyricum. He sent a message to Alaric: “Along with me make war on the Eastern Emperor, strip Illyricum from his realm and annex it to Honorius.”3 Stilicho then received more alarming news. Not only was it said that Alaric was dead but in 407 the governor of Britain, Constantinus, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops.
As it turned out Alaric was alive and well. In 408, he marched into Noricum (southern Austria and Slovenia) and demanded 4,000 pounds of gold for his troubles—the yearly tribute due to him. The Roman Senate was horrified, protesting that “this is not a peace, it is a commitment to slavery.”4 In exchange for his payment, Alaric was to move against Constantinus. Unfortunately the rumor about Constantinus had proven true. The pretender had pulled his legions out of Britain, leaving it to be overrun by Picts, Scots and Saxons. Constantinus had set himself up as ruler of Gaul, where he fought the barbarians that had crossed the Rhine and later had to deal with mutineers among his own troops. Honorius had sent Sarus to fight Constantinus, with indecisive results. Honorius and the Senate hopped that Alaric would deal with Constantinus. However, Alaric never got his gold so there was no reason for him to attack Constantinus. A series of interrelated events then occurred which collapsed the teetering western Empire like stack of dominoes.
Arcadius suddenly died, leaving seven-year-old Theodosius II as his heir. Stilicho characteristically saw this as an opportune moment to press for Illyricum, but the recent setbacks had undermined Stilicho’s popularity with the Romans. Even the legions muttered in discontent. The Romans whispered that Stilicho had failed to rid the Empire of Alaric because Alaric was a German barbarian like himself. No one seemed to remember that Stilicho had a Roman mother, that he had grown up in Roman culture, and that he had saved Rome many times. The barbarians were to blame for all Rome’s ills—and Stilicho was a barbarian.
A palace official at Honorius’ court, named Olympius, spread the rumor that Stilicho was plotting the assassination of young Theodosius so that he could hand over the eastern Empire to his own son. The allegations laid the groundwork for Olympius’ palace revolt. On August 13, AD 408, Honorius summoned his legion commanders to his quarters. Not one of them stirred at his orders. Instead, they looked to Olympius, who gave them a nod. It was the signal to begin killing Olympius’s enemies, who were dragged screaming from the Western Emperor’s feet into the street and cut down in cold blood. Worried about Honorius’s safety, Stilicho hastened to his side. Honorius, however, had already decided to save his own skin and side with the mutineers. Stilicho was bound in chains and thrown into the dungeons. Although he made some bad judgments, Stilicho had served the Empire loyally for 23 years. Despite his service, on August 22 Stilicho was led outside and beheaded. His remaining supporters were clubbed to death. All the now-vacant positions were given to Olympius’ friends.
The Roman hatred of Stilicho spilled over to the barbarian auxiliaries serving in the army. In one town after another, the legionaries massacred Alan, Vandal, and Goth families whose husbands and fathers had been enrolled by Stilicho. Some 30,000 barbarian soldiers and surviving women and children fled to Alaric. Only Sarus’ Goths and a number of Huns remained with the Romans. Olympius conferred with Honorius about what to do next. On the positive side, Stilicho’s death had restored relations between the eastern and western courts. This was of no help against Alaric, who demanded money and hostages in exchange for a promise to peacefully withdraw into Pannonia. Honorius refused. His offers spurned, Alaric crossed the Alps in the late summer of 409. His barbarian army quickly overran Aquileia, Concordia, Atltinum, and Cremona. Alaric bypassed Ravenna, the new seat of the Empire. Flanked by sea, rivers, and marshes, the fortress city was nearly as impregnable as Constantinople.
The Siege of Rome
Alaric moved on to seize Ariminum. He then turned to loot his way unopposed across the backbone of Italy, past villages nestled beneath limestone cliffs and through woods of oak and beech. The highlands gave way to brush and cultivated lands as his barbarian horde descended to the banks of the Tiber, to stand at last before the fabled walls of Rome. The city walls precluded a direct assault, prompting Alaric to blockade Rome’s 12 principal gates and stop provisions coming in from the Tiber River. Faced with incipient starvation, the Roman mobs seethed in anger at the barbarians, but were too cowardly to take up arms against them. Instead, they made Stilicho’s family their scapegoats. His son was murdered and his innocent widow, Serena, was strangled to death by order of the Senate.
Serena’s death did nothing to alleviate the people’s pangs of hunger. Daily rations dropped from three pounds of bread to one-third of a pound, then to nothing. Laeta, the wealthy, aged widow of the Emperor Gratian, did her best to aid the needy, but it was not enough to feed the insatiable hunger of Rome’s over half a million inhabitants. Emaciated corpses soon joined the refuse that polluted the city’s narrow, winding streets.
Men whispered darkly of cold-blooded murders in desolate alleys, of loathsome wretches whose hunger had driven them to feed on the dead. The stench of death hung over Rome, and the plague found a fertile breeding ground in the city. The Senate had no choice but to send envoys to parley for peace. When the envoys threatened Alaric with Rome’s armed populace, he laughed in their faces; “the thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed.”5 Alaric would only break the blockade if all the gold, silver and other treasures of Rome were laid at his feet and the barbarian slaves were released from captivity. “What will be left to us?” exclaimed the envoys. “Your lives,”6 mocked Alaric.
The Senate was dumbfounded. There seemed no way out of their dire predicament. The pagans cried out for human sacrifices to the abandoned old gods, but such was the growing influence of the Christians in Rome that nobody was willing to carry out such sacrifices in public. All that was left was to beg Alaric for more reasonable terms. At last, in mid-December, he relented, demanding 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 scarlet-dyed skins, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. As the royal treasury was empty, the citizens of Rome had to come up with the ransom themselves, but even this was not enough. Gold and silver statues had to be melted down and ornaments stripped from the graven images of the gods.
After receiving the treasures and hostages, Alaric kept his word and lifted the siege, but he did not leave Italy itself. Instead, he settled into Etruria for the rest of the winter. Alaric had done well—not only were the Goths sitting on a pile of booty, but their ranks were swelled with the newly freed barbarian slaves. More reinforcements were on the way as well. Athaulf, Alaric’s brother-in-law, led a body of Goths and Huns across the Danube and cut his way through leagues of Imperial territory. Near Pisae, however, 300 Huns in Honorius’s service sprang upon Athaulf’s columns. Firing from their swift ponies, the compound bows of the Huns took a deadly toll. Before Athaulf’s men could gather their greater numbers and drive off the raiders, 1,100 Goths had been killed or wounded.
Back in Italy, Alaric was ready to settle for being named Master of Soldiers of the impoverished frontier province of Noricum. This was a lesser rank than he had held in Illyricum, but Alaric desperately needed to provide food and shelter for the multitudes of Goths under his care. Meanwhile, Honorius faced another near-mutiny in Ravenna. Olympius, the newest scapegoat for the Empire’s woes, was dismissed and forced to flee Italy. The troops, however, did not quiet down until several other high-ranking commanders were exiled and subsequently killed by their guards.
Honorius’ handling of the latest crisis must have raised his self-confidence for he refused Alaric’s demand for Master of Soldiers. When it was suggested that Alaric might soften his already reasonable territorial demands if given Stilicho’s old title, Honorius scoffed that “such an honor should never be held by Alaric, or any of his relatives.”7
To protect Rome from Alaric’s anticipated reprisal, Honorius released the flower of the legions from Ravenna. Some 6,000 Roman soldiers were heading toward Rome. Apparently, their commander, Valens, thought it was beneath his dignity to sneak around Alaric’s detachments. Alaric prepared an ambush and completely overwhelmed Valens’s puny army. Only a hundred legionaries ever reached Rome.
The Sacking of Rome
At the end of 409, Alaric, now reinforced by Athaulf, marched on Rome with 40,000 Goth, Vandal, Alan, and Hun warriors. This time Alaric occupied the huge Port of Ostia, with its massive wave-breaking moles, deep, capacious basins, and numerous outbuildings. It was here that the great grain shipments from the Province of Africa were stored. Their food supply assured, the Goths welcomed the shelter from the violent rainstorms that marked the Italian winter.
Proclaiming that his enemy was not Rome but Honorius, Alaric threatened to cut off Rome’s grain supplies unless the Senate elected a new emperor. Honorius having been of no help to them, the Senate obliged by placing the crown and purple on the city prefect, a Greek named Priscus Attalus. The fickle mob greeted the Senate’s choice with jubilation, not just in Rome but in Milan as well. Attalus boasted that he “would leave Honorius not even the name of Emperor nor yet a sound body, but would mutilate him and exile him to an island.”8 Confident of his new ally, Alaric marched immediately to besiege Ravenna.
With Attalus in Rome and Alaric’s army outside his gates, Honorius was deeply worried. He was about to flee to Constantinople when six legions, some 4,000 men, arrived from the eastern capital. With the reinforcements manning the parapets and towers, Honorius felt confident enough to remain holed up in Ravenna. He had another ally as well. Count Heraclian of Africa closed his ports. No more ships laden with grain sailed into Ostia. Whatever grain was left in the magazines the Goths used for themselves. Famine again afflicted the Romans.
Alaric broke off his investment of Ravenna and reduced most of the cities of Aemilia, which had refused Attalus’ rule. In this he received no help from Attalus, who seemed capable only of conducting fruitless negotiations with Honorius and Heraclian. Alaric soon had enough and summoned Attalus to Ariminum to publicly strip him of the purple. Alaric decided to have another try at negotiating with Honorius, whom he met in July 410, a few miles from Ravenna.
Also in Ravenna was Sarus, Alaric’s old enemy. He did not wish to see peace between Alaric and the emperor. Yelling and waving their weapons, Sarus and his Goths tore through Alaric’s camp before hightailing it back to the safety of Ravenna’s bastions. Convinced that Honorius and Sarus were working together, Alaric angrily broke off talks and marched on Rome for the third time. This time he was in no mood for mercy.
Once more the barbarians were at the gates, blockading Rome and starving its hapless population. The Goth slaves and servants inside the city, asked themselves why they should suffer for their Roman masters. At midnight on the night of August 24, 410, a group of them stole to the Salarian Gate and opened it to their erstwhile kinsmen.
The citizens of Rome awoke to the sound of the Goth trumpets—the enemy was inside the city. The barbarians stormed through the streets, sacking the city for three nightmarish days. The palace of the historian Sallust was burned to the ground, and the aristocratic houses along the Aventine went up in flames. The worst offenders were the Huns who served in Alaric’s army. Rich furniture was thrown out of windows, silk hangings were torn from the walls, jeweled flourishes were pried out of statues. Wealthy Romans were repeatedly pummeled and kicked until they revealed hidden treasures. At last the conquerors filed out of the wasted city, laden with booty and followed by throngs of captives. Among the latter was the stunningly beautiful sister of Honorius, Galla Placidia, who remained in comfortable captivity with her childhood friend Alaric.
The Legacy of Alaric
Alaric did not survive the sack of Rome for long. He led his people south, planning to sail for Africa. At Cosenza, however, the Visigoth ruler was struck by a violent fever that killed him within a matter of days. Mourned by his people, Alaric was only 40 years old when he died. His bereaved followers dammed the Busento River, and slaves buried Alaric’s body alongside a trove of treasure in the dry stream bed. To insure that no one knew the exact burial place, all the slaves were killed. The dam was then broken and the waters of the Busento washed over Alaric’s grave. Alaric died, but his people lived on. Athaulf married Galla Placidia and became the new king of the Visigoths. Under his leadership and those of succeeding kings, the Visigoths eventually settled in Spain. Their rule lasted until the Islamic invasion of the early 8th century.
Honorius continued to preside over his fragmented Empire until his death in AD 423. Although history has judged him a weak ruler, he managed to stay alive and remain in power in a political atmosphere that was more reminiscent of gang warfare than organized government. During his reign, however, Roman military losses were enormous. At least 50,000 soldiers of the field army, half its fighting strength, were killed. It was the beginning of many years of woe. In 455, the Vandals laid waste to Rome again. Twenty-two years later, a barbarian king named Odoacer disposed of the last of the Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus, bringing to an end over eight centuries of Roman domination of the western world.
“Barbarians at the Gate: the 410 Sack of Rome” was first published in Military Heritage Magazine, October 2005 and republished on January 20, 2017, online at Warfare History Network. The above version includes additional editing by the author, L.H. Dyck and images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.
1, 2. Claudian, The Gothic Wars, XXVI, Loeb Classical Library, 2 volumes, Latin texts with facing English translation by Maurice Platnauer: Harvard University Press, 1922, 3. Zosimus: Historia Nova, translated by J.J. Buchanan and H. T. Davis (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1967), 5. 26, 4. John Julius Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 131, 5, 6. Zosimus: Historia Nova, 5. 40, 7. Ibid, 5. 48, 8. Ibid, 6. 6-7.
Bill Thayer, Lacus Curtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian, Boak and Sinnegin in Nardo Don. Editor. The End of Ancient Rome. San Diago: Greenhaven Press. Inc. 2001, Bunson Matthew. A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. New York: Oxford University. 1991, Bury.J.B. The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians. New York: The Norton Library. 1967, Cary M. and Scullard H.H. A History of Rome. London: MacMillan Education.1988, Gibbon Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol.III. London: Methuen & Co. 1909, Grant Michael. The Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Colllier Books.1990, Heather P.J. Goths and Romans 332-489. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991, Jones A.H.M. The Later Roman Empire. Oxford : B. Blackwell, 1973, MacDowall Simon and Embelton Gerry. Late Roman Infantryman 236-565 AD. Osprey Publishing: Oxford. 1999, MacDowall Simon and Hook Christa. Late Roman Cavalryman 236-565 AD. Osprey Publishing: Oxford. 1999, MacDowall Simon and McBride Angus. Germanic Warrior 236 AD-568 AD. Osprey Publishing. Oxford. 1996, Malcolm Todd. Everyday Life of the Barbarians. New York: Dorset Press. 1972, Mannix Daniel P. The Way of the Gladiator. New York: ibooks. 2001, Norwich John Julius. Byzantium The Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books.1990, Orosius Paulus. The Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Translated by Deferrari Roy. J. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press. 1961, Twine Kevin, The City in Decline Rome in Late Antiquity. Middle States Geographer Vol. 25, 1992, Montclair. Montclair State College, Wolfram Herwig. History of the Goths. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988.
The death of Emperor Valens and the Battle of Adrianople during the Gothic War, August 9, 378 AD, was one of the decisive battles in Western history.
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
In 376 AD the Goths appeared on the lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire. They came as a whole tribe, with warriors, women and children. They came on foot, on horseback, and in lumbering ox-drawn wagons, refugees on the retreat from a foe even fiercer than themselves. They came knocking on the Roman door.
A Germanic people and originally of Scandinavian origin, the Goths migrated from their homeland in eastern Germany to the shores of the Black Sea in the late 2nd century AD. In 247 their raids on the Roman Empire began in earnest. On land and sea, the Goths spread terror for nearly a quarter of a century and defeated the Roman army of Emperor Decius, who was killed in battle against the invaders.
The Romans managed to contain the Gothic threat, but the western branch of the Goths, the Visigoths (“wise Goths”) pushed into the abandoned Roman province of Dacia (Transylvania). Not until the reign of Constantine the Great was a lasting peace procured with the Visigoths. They became federates of the Empire, which they were obliged to protect in exchange for yearly monetary subsidies. To the east of the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths (“bright Goths”), under their great King Hermanic, meanwhile built up a vast empire of barbarian peoples that stretched from northeast of the Dniester to the shores of the Baltic.
The nominally peaceful relations between Goth and Roman continued for about half a century. War resumed in 364, however, when the Visigoths interfered in a Roman civil war. But the rightful heir to the East Roman Empire, Emperor Flavius Julius Valens, not only managed to squash the usurper to his throne but drove the Goths back north across the Danube and pursued them into their homelands.
As it turned out, the latest Gothic incursions were but a tremor compared to the earthquake that was unleashed with the appearance of the Huns, a pastoral people who roamed the steppes between the Caspian and Aral seas. Political turmoil in their own lands caused the Huns to press toward Eastern Europe.
‘Desperate and Dangerous’ After Being Defeated by the Huns
Like the Goths, the Huns were not numerous, but relied on cunning, brutality, terror, and above all the speed and endurance of their sturdy ponies. In 372 they routed the Alans, a nomadic people of Iranian or Turkish origin, from their homeland north of the Caucasus and south of the river Don. The armies of Hermanic were next to fall; the old king slew himself in despair. Neither his successor nor the Visigoths were able to stop the Huns, whose swift mounted archers cut down the Goth infantry from afar.
Their defeat at the hands of the Huns caused great turmoil among the Goth tribes. Many became subjects of the Huns while others wandered west. The more anti-Roman and anti-Christian factions of the Visigoths pushed into the Carpathians, but the bulk of the Visigoths, the powerful Tervingi, under the leadership of Fritigern and Alavivus, sought refuge within the confines of the Roman Empire and trekked toward the Danube border, where they appeared in 376.
So it was that the Roman Empire suddenly found itself faced with upward of 50,000 barbarians in desperate need of food and land. The obvious danger was that a refusal of the Tervingi pleas would result in war. The issue demanded the personal attention of the Eastern Emperor Valens, who had successfully dealt with the Goths a decade previous. Unfortunately for the Romans, Valens was over 300 miles to the south, at Antioch, and involved in a war against the Persians.
To deal with barbarian invasions and with the more organized Persians, the Roman emperors of the late fourth century had at their disposal an army in excess of half a million men. However, the Empire’s borders were vast and the bulk of the troops were in stationary garrisons, the limitanei. Only a third were in the better trained and armed mobile army, the comitatenses. Virtually none of the soldiers and few of the generals were Romans, the soldiers being recruited from the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, Gaul, and the African frontiers, or from beyond the Rhine and Danube. Indeed, contingents of Goth troops served within the ranks of the eastern army. The barbarian ethnic origins of the Roman troops increased their fighting prowess but at the same time undermined their reliability and loyalty.
Defiantly, the Goths Refused to be Disarmed
In the east, the bulk of the Roman mobile army was deployed against Persia. The immediate defense of the lower Danube would have to be carried out by the barely adequate Thracian garrison. After much heated debate among ministers and councilors, the pleas of the Tervingi were accepted on the condition that their warriors be disarmed. Without their weapons the Goths would pose little threat and present a handy source of recruits for the legions.
Late in 376 the Tervingi received news of their acceptance. As a gesture of goodwill to the Romans, Fritigern and his people accepted the religion of the Emperor, that of Arianism, a creed of Christianity that believed Jesus the Son to be mortal and separate from, not co-eternal with, God the Father. In spite of such a show of friendship, the Tervingi prudently refused to obey the Roman demands of disarmament and defiantly kept their weapons.
The Tervingi crossed the Danube on boats and rafts made up of tree trunks. Heavy rains had swollen the river and not a few Goths drowned in its ice-cold torrents. The barbarians camped on the southern bank of the river near Durostorum (Silistria) where they endured a bitter winter. Not only were Roman food supplies barely adequate, but the corrupt Roman Count of Thrace, Lupicinus, used the supplies destined for the Goths to run a black market. The barbarians were reduced to starvation and forced to barter the favors of their women and sell their children into slavery in return for dog meat dished out by the Romans.
Around this time a tribe of Ostrogoths, the Greuthungi, appeared on the Danube border. Under their leaders, Alatheus and Saphrax, the Greuthungi managed to avoid Hunnish subjugation. Like the Tervingi, they wished to cross into the Empire. The Romans rejected their request. The Tervingi, after all, had been former federates, but the Greuthungi were an unknown factor. Roman troops deployed along the Danube as river patrols forced the Greuthungi to remain on the river’s north bank, but this was soon to change.
No longer would they suffer Hunger and Slavery
Early in 377, back at the Tervingi camp, tensions ran high and there were murmurs of revolt. To intimidate the angry barbarians, Lupicinus assembled the Roman Danube garrisons and shepherded the whole tribe toward his headquarters at Marcianople. There he might keep a better eye on them, even rid himself of potentially rebellious chieftains. But with the Danube defenses stripped of their troops, the way became clear for the Greuthungi, who forded the river and followed in the Tervingi’s wake.
At Marcianople, Lupicinus invited Fritigern and Alavivus to a dinner conference. While the chiefs’ honor guard remained outside the palace, Fritigern and Alavivus pleaded their case to Lupicinus. Of the two, Alavivus was probably the most vocal. Meanwhile, outside of the city, Roman soldiers kept the hungry Tervingi multitude away from the city’s walls. The barbarians soon turned unruly. The Romans tried to quiet them by dragging away troublesome individuals. But such bullying only inflamed the Tervingi more and some of them picked fights with the Roman soldiers.
Inside the palace, Lupicinus seemed drowsy after a luxurious meal followed by a noisy floor show. When he heard of the troubles outside the city, he suddenly ordered the Tervingi chiefs’ guard of honor to be put to death and for Alavivus to be seized and held captive. The situation looked equally dire for Fritigern but he cleverly wormed his way out of the predicament. Perhaps not too dismayed at having been rid of his rival, he promised Lupicinus to prevent bloodshed if released. It was a ruse. With swords drawn, Fritigern and his personal retainers made their way through the palace and angry crowds gathered in the city. Alavivus was never heard of again.
Once back with his people, Fritigern promptly struck out to loot the countryside. No longer would he heed the will of the Romans, no longer would they suffer hunger and slavery. From now on the Goths would take what they wanted and make war on those who opposed them. The mournful blare of the barbarian battle horns—of the wild bull, the Uri—resounded across the countryside.
In answer Lupicinus mustered his troops and met the Goths nine miles outside Marcianople. The Roman troops fought bravely but the onslaught of the Goths proved unstoppable. Leaving his troops to be slain among their fallen standards, cowardly Lupicinus rode away to hide behind Marcianople’s walls.
The Tervingi warriors equipped themselves with the arms and armor of the slain Roman soldiers. Soon after, they joined up with the Greuthungi. Their combined forces raided all the way to Adrianople. Outside the city, Fritigern found yet more allies. In light of recent events, the city populace had turned on a regiment of Goths that had formerly been part of Adrianople’s garrison. Surrounded by a clamorous multitude, which pelted the Goths with missiles, the barbarians beat their way out of their encampment in the city suburbs with their blades.
The newcomers enthusiastically joined Fritigern who led their combined forces in an assault against Adrianople’s walls. But the Goths lacked knowledge of siege craft and the city’s defenders were well armed; Adrianople was a locale of fabricae, Imperial armament factories. The barbarians suffered heavy casualties with no gain. Fritigern counseled from now on “to keep peace with walls.”1
“Everything Was Consumed in an Orgy of Killing and Burning…”
Unable to seize Adrianople, the Goths broke up into smaller bands to plunder the Thracian countryside. Escaped slaves, primarily mine workers, drifted in to join Fritigern’s army. Numerous Goth children, whom the Romans had dragged into slavery, were restored to the joyful embrace of their parents. Upon the Roman civilian population the barbarians exacted brutal vengeance. “Everything was consumed in an orgy of killing and burning that paid no regard to age or sex,”2 wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth-century Greek historian and principal source for the Goth wars.
To restore order, strong detachments of Roman troops from Armenia arrived in Thrace. Word also reached Flavius Gratian, the 18-year-old West Roman Emperor and nephew of Valens. Gratian sent regiments from Pannonia and Gaul led by Count Richomer the Frank. But even before the western reinforcements arrived, the Armenians managed to drive large numbers of barbarians into the defiles of the Haemus Mountains and push Fritigern’s main army into the marshy region of the northern Dobrudja near the town of Salices.
With his back to the Danube and the shore of the Black Sea, Fritigern decided to make his stand. The Goths drew up a laager (a circle of wagons) and went on the defensive. Not wishing to risk an attack on the Goth wagon fortress, the Romans planned to wait until hunger forced the Goths to break camp. To the frustration of the Romans, Fritigern got word of the enemy plan through a deserter and stoutly remained inside his wagon fortress. To bolster his forces, Fritigern called in all nearby raiding parties.
In late summer 377 Fritigern decided to press the attack against the inferior Roman forces. The Romans were ready and the two sides met at the crack of dawn in Ad Salices, “the battle of the Willows.” The Romans’ barbarian troops began the attack with the “barritus,” the battle song that began softly and then worked its way up to a deafening roar. The Goths responded with a thunderous chant in praise of their forefathers.
A hail of javelins, sling-shot, and arrows at long range descended on both sides, which advanced behind the barrier of shield walls. The infantry lines clashed while Goth and Roman cavalry skirmished along the flanks, chopping down loose infantry units and stragglers. With huge fire-hardened clubs the Goths threatened to cave in the Roman left wing. A fierce counterattack by Roman reserves restored the situation. Both Roman and Goth fought with unrelenting tenacity but neither could win the upper hand. At nightfall each army crept away to lick its wounds. Flocks of ravens and other carrion feeders descended upon the battlefield, which years later remained covered with the bones of the fallen.
Barbarian Hordes Pillaged with Impunity
The Romans fell back to their blockade and a lull set in. Richomer returned to the west to obtain further troops and orders from Gratian. The remaining Roman forces set up a system of outposts and pickets to maintain the blockade, which dragged on into November.
Once again the Goths faced starvation. Their future looked bleak, but Fritigern, with promises of booty, managed to entice Alani and Hun bands to cross into the Empire and join his Goth army. The newcomers tipped the balance of power and caused the Romans, who feared an imminent breach of their thin lines, to order a general withdrawal.
Hordes of barbarians now pillaged throughout Thrace. At Dibaltum the Romans suffered yet another defeat when a large troop of retreating Roman infantry was ambushed and annihilated by Goth cavalry. Emperor Valens received the news of the recent disasters while still at Antioch. He hastily concluded a peace with Persia. With the extra troops now available he left for Constantinople in 378 to personally take the field against the Goths.
When Valens arrived at Constantinople on May 30 he was dismayed to find the public in a state of unrest over his disastrous Goth policy. Brutal and sadistic, the pot-bellied and bow-legged emperor had never been popular with the people who suffered through his purges of torture, public execution, and banishment that followed the civil war of the previous decade. It also did not help matters that he was of the increasingly detested Arian faith.
To avoid the crowds, Valens stayed in his capital only a few days before he moved his headquarters to the nearby village of Melanthias. He decided to replace the commander of his infantry, Trajanus, with Sebastianus, an able general who had personally requested his recent transfer to Constantinople. Trajanus, nevertheless, remained in the emperor’s service.
At Melanthias, Valens attempted to boost the morale of his soldiers with pay, supplies, and flattery. The perhaps 20,000-man army then slowly marched toward Nice. Sebastianus and an elite corps of two thousand lightly armed soldiers were sent ahead to conduct guerrilla warfare against the barbarians.
Sometime in June, scouts brought the news of a large number of barbarians near Adrianople. The barbarians, heavily laden with booty, had returned from a devastating raid into the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains and were pulling back farther to the main Goth camp between Beroea and Nicopolis. Sebastianus set out in pursuit. Along the shores of the river Hebrus, he fell upon the Goths in a night ambush and killed all but a few.
More good news for the Romans was on the way with the arrival of a letter from West Roman Emperor Gratian. Gratian recently beat back serious Alemanni (West German) incursions over the Rhine and was coming to aid his uncle with the Goths. Encouraged by Sebastianus’s victory and Gratian’s forthcoming reinforcements, Valens marched forth from Nice to Adrianople, arriving at the city in mid-July.
At Adrianople, Valens received Richomer returning from the west with more news from Gratian, who beseeched his uncle to wait for his arrival and not to do anything rash. Information also came in from his scouts, who told Valens of Goth cavalry activity to his rear, threatening to sever the supply line to Constantinople. Valens sent a regiment of infantry and archers to secure the roads to his capital and entrenched his army in front of Adrianople, within a strong rampart and moat, to await his nephew. An eventual Roman victory seemed assured. However, Valens smoldered with jealousy over his popular young nephew’s recent victory. Valens resented having to be bailed out by Gratian and wished that he alone could claim the victory laurels.
On the Goth side, Fritigern was faced with the problem of how to lure Valens into battle before Gratian’s arrival —his Goth army was too weak to risk an attack on the fortified Roman encampment. Fortunately for Fritigern, Gratian was delayed by Alan raiders at Casta Martis, in eastern Dacia, who may have been acting in concert with the Goth leader. Fritigern then gathered his various foraging parties to prevent them from being destroyed piecemeal by Sebastianus, and marched to Cabyle. From there he descended toward Adrianople. Circumventing the city, he struck toward Nice to position himself between Constantinople and Valens’ army.
Roman scouts reported that the Goth army was a bare 15 miles from Adrianople, advancing toward Nice, and numbered a mere 10,000. Such tidings further strengthened Valens’ resolve to engage them on his own. After all, with a two-to-one numerical superiority, Valens could scarcely stand idly by with the main Goth army poised to ravage the countryside all the way to the gates of his capital.
A council of war was held. Victor the Sarmatian, a cavalry commander and veteran of Valens’ earlier Goth war, spoke for many of the generals who urged Valens to wait for Gratian. In contrast, Sebastianus, roused by his own success, counseled an immediate attack in what he saw as an assured victory.
At this point an Arian priest, sent by Fritigern, arrived at the Roman camp. The priest declared that the Goths were willing to accept peace if the province of Thrace, along with all its livestock and grain, was ceded to them. He also slipped Valens a secret note from Fritigern. The note asked the emperor to move out with his army to overawe Fritigern’s unruly barbarians into accepting a peace.
Valens aims to crush the Goths once and for all!
No doubt the Goth’s desire for Thrace was sincere. But their belief that the emperor would simply give it to them seemed incredibly naïve to the point of being a coverup for luring the Romans into battle. Not surprisingly Valens rejected the “peace” proposal. A decade previous Valens had defeated the Goths; he was sure he could do so again. On the morning of August 9 Valens led his army from Adrianople to crush the Goths once and for all!
The sun beat down mercilessly, with temperatures reaching of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the blazing heat, the Roman soldiers force-marched 12 miles over rough ground to Fritigern’s camp. Cavalry led the front of the column and brought up the rear, with the infantry in the middle. The infantry made up about two-thirds of the army; it consisted of thousand-men-strong, heavily armed, legions and smaller units of more versatile auxilia. Around two in the afternoon, before having their midday meal, the tired and hungry Romans unexpectedly stumbled upon the Goths. They were encamped on a hill, as usual, within their wagon burg.
Overconfident, Valens had ordered inadequate reconnaissance. The Romans were caught off guard and still strung out along the road. With much confusion and delay, barbarian howls, and a clash of shields, the Roman soldiers began to form their lines of battle. The lead cavalry took position on the right, the infantry eventually formed the center, and the rear cavalry charged ahead and attempted to form the left wing. A corps of Batavi, a Frankish tribe renowned for its cavalry, remained behind as a reserve. To make things even more difficult for the Romans, the Goths lit fires on the plain between the two armies. The heat and smoke became all but unbearable to the Romans while the Goths were able to seek shelter beneath the cool shade of their wagons.
Nevertheless, like the Romans, the Goths proved unprepared for battle. Fritigern’s entire cavalry, under Alatheus and Saphrax, were out foraging, so that only the Goth infantry defended the camp. At once Fritigern summoned Alatheus and Saphrax back. To buy time until their arrival he dispatched more envoys to the Romans. These were men of humble origins and at first were scorned by the emperor. The last brought an appeal from Fritigern who pleaded that, in return for noble Roman hostages, he would do all in his power to secure a peace. Valens accepted Fritigern’s dubious proposal. Either he, too, wished to buy time to properly deploy his troops, or the fortified position of the enemy and the exhausted state of his own men caused him to reconsider not waiting for Gratian.
The Goth Army strikes like a Thunderbolt from the Mountains
Brave Richomer volunteered to be the hostage but he never reached the Goth camp. On his way to the Goths, his overeager bodyguard of archers and skirmishers lost their nerve and prematurely opened fire. A limited Goth counterattack threw the skirmishers back against their own lines in confusion. Valens decided to order a general advance. The Roman infantry was still not fully deployed but the cavalry was ready. At this moment the cavalry of Alatheus and Saphrax appeared on both flanks of the Goth laager. The Greuthungi chiefs wasted no time and led the five thousand or so Goth, Alan, and Hun horsemen in a wild charge down the hillside.
The Goth cavalry hit the Roman cavalry, in Ammianus’s words, “like a thunderbolt from the mountains.”3 The Roman right wing cavalry was closing in on the Gothic camp when it was completely overwhelmed and scattered by the furious charge of the barbarians. The cavalry on the Roman left wing fared even worse. Having advanced too fast it opened a dangerous gap between it and the Roman infantry. Into this gap rode the Goth cavalry to strike the Roman cavalry from the sides and rear. Hewn to pieces, the Roman horsemen were swept from the field or driven back upon their infantry.
With the Roman cavalry eliminated, Alatheus and Saphrax’s horsemen galloped around the Roman infantry’s flanks and rear. Caught between the hammer of the enemy cavalry and the anvil of the wagon ramparts, the Roman soldiers were pressed together amid much confusion. Vast clouds of dust all but obscured a sky thick with the arrows of Goth archers.
Like an avalanche the Goth infantry now broke loose from behind the wagon barricades and stormed upon the legions. Surrounded and crowded, many a Roman soldier had scarce room to draw back his sword arm. But the men who fought for Rome were barbarians themselves—warriors who refused to give up without a fight. Ammianus captured the savageness of the battle:
“Strokes of Axes Split Helmet and Breastplate”
“The lines dashed together like beaked ships and tossed about like waves at seas. On both sides strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. One might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance. The infantry, their lances broke, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives.”4
The battle continued until sunset, when what remained of the Roman lines finally broke under the pressure. Valens himself stood among a battalion of elite Palatini troops, the lancearii and mattiarii who thus far had held back the enemy. Trajanus, who was with the emperor, cried out that all hope was lost unless the Batavi reserves came to the rescue. Upon hearing Trajanus’s words, General Victor hastened to find the Batavi only to find that they had already taken to flight. Everywhere the Goths, berserk with rage, hacked down fleeing Imperial infantry with their double-edged long swords or impaled them on their spears, whether they surrendered or not. Victor decided to make good his escape while he could.
Behind Victor the Palatini finally gave way to the Goths. With all but his personal bodyguard bolting in panic, Valens too attempted to flee but was mortally wounded by an arrow. Dragged to a nearby peasant’s cottage by his entourage, his bodyguard fought another small unit action against the Goths. Without knowing that the emperor himself was inside the building, the Goths set it aflame, burning everyone inside. Thus ended Valens’ 14-year reign. To the Catholic Christians of the day, it seemed that the fires of Hell had claimed the hated “Arian” Valens.
The emperor did not die alone. Beneath a dark, moonless night, the blood-drenched battlefield was covered with heaps of the 14,000 dead Roman soldiers, virtually the entire Roman infantry. Along with Victor, Richomer managed to flee the slaughter but they were the exception. Trajanus, Sebastianus, the Masters of the Stables and of the Palace, and 35 tribunes were killed. Of the Gothic losses there are no records, but considering the length of the battle they too must have been heavy.
A Bane for Rome, a Boon for the Goths
Adrianople was one of the greatest military disasters in Roman history, later heralded as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. Its immediate consequences, however, were negligible. The Goths, now splendidly equipped with Roman arms and armor, marched on to Adrianople where they hoped to capture Valens’ war treasury and supplies.
The second Goth siege of Adrianople began with preliminary and confused engagements in the suburbs on August 10. A thunderstorm dispersed the attacking army. Fritigern, who wisely remembered his earlier inability to capture the city, opposed a direct assault in favor of deserters within the city who were willing to open the gates to the Goths. When this plan failed the other Goth chiefs overruled Fritigern’s caution, and on the 12th the Goths fervently stormed the walls.
Accompanied by the drone of war horns, the chiefs led the assault. The city was jammed to the limit with war refugees from the defeated Roman army, who ably manned heavy catapults and other missile weapons in the city’s defense. With many of their men skewered by the javelins or crushed beneath the monstrous rocks of siege engines, the Goths failed to make any headway. Both below the walls and on the parapets, dead Goths and Romans lay in heaps.
Frustrated, the Goths decided to move toward Constantinople. Only when they got there did they seem to realize the utter inadequacy of their army in face of the Roman capital’s lofty fortifications. After being given a bloody nose by a sortie of Arab horsemen, the Goths abandoned any hope of taking Constantinople. This deprived Fritigern of the much-needed supplies to keep his army unified. Once again his army splintered into various small factions that preyed upon the hapless Thracian rural population.
Gratian realized that the disaster of Adrianople meant a lengthy and drawn-out campaign against the Goths—a campaign that he, with his commitments in the west, would not be able to carry out. Accordingly, in January of 379 he raised Theodosius the Spaniard, a veteran commander of the Illyrian cavalry, to be Emperor of the East.
Rome Pays a High Cost for Peace
During the next three years Theodosius had his hands full. In 380 Fritigern and the Tervingi raided as far as Thessaly where they inflicted a defeat on Theodosius. Meanwhile, Alatheus and Saphrax led the Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns into northern Illyricum but suffered a loss to Gratian’s army. The following year, small-scale actions against scattered Goth raiders drove both bands back into Thrace.
By 382 Fritigern had disappeared from the scene, due to death or because he lost the support of his followers. After years of wandering around the Balkans and continuous minor skirmishes, the Goths had become weary of battle and were ready for a peaceful resolution. Theodosius was ready to give them one.
The Greuthungi, Alans, and Huns were settled in Pannonia II and the Tervingi in Moesia II, the same region originally granted by Valens. However, under Theodosius both groups became federates of the Empire, were not required to pay tribute, and received high pensions in return for their military services. Vast numbers of Goths were also enrolled into the Imperial army, again at extraordinary salaries. Theodosius became “the friend of peace and the Gothic people.”5
For the Romans peace finally reigned throughout the land, albeit at a high monetary cost and with potentially dangerous high numbers of Germans in the army. As to the Huns, the original cause of the whole war, their migration toward the west petered out, as for now they consolidated their rule over the Ostrogoths and the former Visigoth lands of Old Dacia.
The Beginning of Rome’s End?
The battle of Adrianople has traditionally been seen as the deathblow to the legions and the advent of a thousand-year supremacy of cavalry on the battlefield. The Gothic victory is often described as one of heavy cavalry over infantry. True, after they routed the Roman cavalry, the Goth horsemen ensured the encirclement of the legions. But the ratio of cavalry units on both sides was roughly equal, with infantry comprising the bulk of both forces. The reason for the Roman defeat was not so much a lack of cavalry, but poor leadership and exhausted and disorganized troops having to fight a fresh and better-led enemy.
As to the advantage of cavalry over infantry, this was nothing new. Although for a long time the Roman army, to its detriment, continued to lack an adequate cavalry arm, the increasing strain put on the Roman army by mounted barbarians and Persian Sassanids in the third century caused the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine to raise the prevalence of the cavalry. Even the Praetorian Guard was disbanded, to be replaced by a new guard, the scholae palantinae, made up of barbarian cavalry. Thus Adrianople was less a turning point than part of an ongoing trend in which Rome’s enemies were increasingly mounted and Rome’s armies had to follow suit. By the fifth century this trend led to the cavalry replacing the legions as the primary unit of the Roman army.
The real importance of Valens’ defeat lay in the eventual peace settlement that occurred in the battle’s aftermath. For the first time, whole tribes of armed barbarians were settled within the borders of the Empire. This marked a new and ultimately disastrous stage in Roman-German relations. With whole regions given over to the rule of barbarian tribes, it was only a matter of time before these tribes declared total independence from Rome and thereby threatened to dismember the Empire from within.
“The Gothic Wars, The Battle of Adrianople” was first published in Military Heritage Magazine in the June 2001 issue and republished online at Warfare History Network, October 2015. The above version has been re-edited by the author and includes additional images sourced from the net for educational purposes only.
1. Heather P.J., Goths and Romans 332-489 (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1991), p. 142, Marcellinus Ammianus, The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378) (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 31. 6, p. 422. 2. Marcellinus Ammianus , Book 31. 6-7, 3. Macrellinus Ammianus . Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John. C.Rolfe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1939, p. 471., 4. Macrellinus Ammianus p. 473-475, 5. Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths (Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California, 1990), p. 131.
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With warrior skills learned at his father’s side, Charles the Great—Charlemagne—carved out a mighty empire in strife-torn western Europe
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
On Christmas morning, 800 AD, a tall, powerfully built man walked up the steps of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Highly pious but by no means meek, Charles, ruler of the Frankish empire, had come—so he thought—simply to attend mass. In his mid-fifties, Charles retained the characteristic vigor for which he was known, his muscles hardened by years of warfare and his two favorite pastimes, hunting and swimming. Charles usually preferred the blue cloak and cross-gartered leggings of his own people. Today, however, he had obliged Pope Leo III, who had asked Charles to wear a long tunic, Greek mantle, and shoes of Roman fashion. Despite his classical garb, Charles’ fair skin, golden hair, piercing blue eyes, and great height marked him as a man of the cold, gloomy northern realms.
If Charles had had any inkling of the elaborate ceremony about to take place, he likely would have avoided the entire affair. He was a no-nonsense sort of individual, a man more accustomed to giving orders than to taking them. But as a scrupulously practicing Catholic, he felt it his duty to obey a summons from the Pope, even one who had a good deal more reason to obey Charles than the Frankish king had to obey him.
“The Most Pious Augustus”
Once inside the church, Charles was surprised and somewhat taken aback by the emotional greeting accorded him by the Pope. Leo, having barely escaped imprisonment and mutilation by his political enemies on spurious charges of perjury and adultery, owed his recent reinstatement to Charles. Charles had publicly shown his support of the Pope and demanded that he be restored to his seat as bishop of Rome. Now the grateful Leo returned the favor by placing a golden crown on the king’s startled head while the entire congregation cried out a blessing: “To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, mighty and pacific emperor, life and victory!”1 After 324 years, there was once again an emperor in the West—not that Charles, better known to history as Charlemagne, needed a papal decree to make him emperor. He had already been one in fact, if not in name, for many years.
Through Charles’ great heart pumped the blood of the Franks, one of the major Germanic tribal groups. Centuries earlier the Franks poured into Roman Gaul from their homelands on the lower Rhine. The western Roman Empire was in its death throws and the great migrations were in full swing. Axe wielding Frank infantry, mailed Goth cavalry and fearsome Hun archers, among a colorful array of tribes, carved up the carcass of the western empire. The final act came in 476 AD, when Odoacer, a half Germanic, half Hun, barbarian general, disposed the last of the West Roman Emperors and became king of Italy.
In northern Gaul, King Clovis (c.465-511) consolidated the Franks’ hold on on the land through a combination of force and deceit. Although born a pagan, Clovis’ shrewd mind saw the Catholic Orthodox Church as a potential ally and unifying force. Clovis allowed himself to be baptized, along with thousands of his troops.
The Merovingian Franks are usurped by the Carolingians
Hedonistic excesses inevitably sapped the vigor of Clovis’s dynasty, the long-haired Merovingians. Their power gradually gravitated into the hands of their leading officials, the Arnulfing, or as they later became known, the Carolingians. The most famous of these usurpers was Charles Martel—the Hammer—who in 732 repulsed a Moorish invasion of Europe at the Battle of Tours and henceforth was immortalized as a savior of Christendom.
Martel’s grandson, eight-year-old Charles, must have looked up to his grandfather with awe. Born out of wedlock, Charles was the oldest of three children born to Pepin III, known by the unflattering nickname Pepin the Short, and to Bertrada of Laon. While his father was disposing of the last of the Merovingian kings in 751, Charles was learning from grizzled veterans how to use the weapons of war—the spear, the round shield with its heavy iron boss, the single-edged short sword, and the most powerful weapon of all, the double-edged long sword. It was a skill that would stand him in good stead in years to come.
The western Europe of Charles’s youth was fragmented by tribal rivalries, the growing power of the Catholic Church, the encroachment of Islam, and the waning influence of the Byzantine Empire. All these factions jockeyed for advantage and territory. In 754 a tear-stained Pope Stephen II threw himself at Pepin’s feet and begged for his aid against the “most evil Lombards.”2 Stephen was hoping that Pepin would help the Church retain its tenuous hold on Rome and the rest of Italy. At the time, the most prominent power in Italy was Lombard King Aistulf, who had just swallowed up the last Byzantine lands around Ravenna and was threatening to do the same to Rome. Aistulf swore that the he would butcher all the Romans unless they submit.
Honoring the Franks’ Ancient Alliance
Fortunately for the Church, Pepin decided to honor the Franks’ ancient alliance, which went back to the days of Clovis. Pepin not only wrested the Byzantine lands away from the Lombards but, instead of handing them back to their rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor, he gave them to the Church instead. In gratitude, the Pope anointed Pepin and his sons, Charles and his younger brother Carloman, as his rightful heirs.
Besides the Lombards, Pepin also fought Saxon and Moorish raiders. More often than not, Charles was at his father’s side. After a lengthy campaign, the Gothic kingdom of Septimania (Mediterranean France) was conquered and subdued in 759. Thereafter, the renowned Goth cavalry became a loyal Frankish ally. The rebel kingdom of Aquitaine, however, gave Pepin more trouble. During the eight-year-long Aquitaine War, Pepin’s Bavarian vassal, Duke Tassilo, refused to send any help, thus beginning a long feud between him and the Carolingians. Pepin, preoccupied by the fighting in Aquitaine, was unable to resolve the feud and bring Tassilo back into line.
When Pepin III passed away in 768 his Kingdom was split in Frankish tradition among his two sons. Right away, Charles was faced with a falling-out with his brother and with renewed rebellions in Aquitaine. Egged on by court flatters, Carloman resented having to share his father’s lands with a “bastard,” and refused to help his brother in Aquitaine. Like his father, Charles was left to fight in Aquitaine alone. Charles nevertheless drove the rebel leader into Gascony, whose duke not only surrendered the fugitive, but also submitted his province to Charles. Carloman was infuriated by his brother’s success.
In 770, Charles married the second of his five successive wives, Desiderata, daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius. Engineered by Charles’ mother, it was an effort to smooth out the traditional enmity between Lombards and Franks, but it failed miserably. The Pope was outraged, cursing the union with the “perfidious and foully stinking race of the Lombards.”3 Charles was none too happy himself. Claiming that Desiderata was ill and barren, he sent her back to her insulted father within the year. Relations with the Lombards soured further after Carloman suddenly fell ill and died. When Charles annexed Carloman’s kingdom, Desiderius sheltered the anti-Charles nobles of Carloman’s court, along with Carloman’s wife, Gerberga, and his infant sons. Together, Gerberga and Desiderius hatched plots to check Charles’ growing power.
In 772, Desiderius made another grab for the Papal States and tried to bully the Pope into declaring that Carloman’s son, not the bastard Charles, was the true king of the Franks. Charles strove to resolve the situation without resorting to violence, offering Desiderius 14,000 solidi in compensation for the Papal lands. Desiderius foolishly interpreted Charlemagne’s goodwill as a sign of weakness and refused the offer. Although it was late in the year and the weather turned foul and cold, Charles believed there was no time to be lost.
Charles called for the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host. Foremost among Charles’ warriors were his elite guard, the “scara,” made up of though, battle hardened Franks, in chain or scale mail armor, with iron coifs and helmets, greaves or vambracers. A scara’s full arms and horse were of enormous expense, costing 40 solidi or as much as over a dozen cows. The military value of mail was such that any merchant exporting mail shirts was forced to forfeit his property. Only the King, his lords and bishops, could afford such splendidly equipped warriors. The bulk of the soldiers, levied by the counts and equipped by their home villages, made due with a spear or a bow and a shield. Charles’ entire armed forces numbered an estimated 30,000 heavily armed cavalry and 120,000 local levies. Most of these were absorbed in garrison duty, however, so that the field armies rarely numbered above 35,000.
In a two-pronged attack, Charles’ Frankish warriors descended upon Italy. Charles led one column down the shoulder of Mont Cenis, while his uncle, Count Bernard, moved through the St. Bernard pass, thereafter named after the count’s patron saint.
Cold wind, rain and sleet whipped at the Franks, who drew their cloaks about them and lifted one weary leg after another. Around them, rocks and pathless ridges reared to misty skies and abrupt abysses plunged to unseen depths. The slowly moving columns, with their pack horses, leather-covered ox carts, and a wide array of herdsmen, cooks, carpenters and merchants, pushed steadily onward. When Charles’ column descended into the valley of Susa, the hardest part of the trek was behind it. The soldiers may have breathed a sigh of relief, but they soon saw to their dismay the powerful Lombard fortifications that stretched across the valley ahead. Prince Adelghis, son of Desiderius, had come to contest Charles’ entry into Italy. Undaunted, Charles ordered an immediate assault.
Charles takes the Iron Crown of the Lombards
With brawny arms lifting banners high and battle horns resounding, the Franks let loose a thunderous war cry as they tore down upon the Lombard parapets and towers. Lombard bows twanged and arrows thudded into shields and faces. Lombard swords hacked through shoulder bones, blood spurted from rend mail, and spears thrust and parried as the Franks tried vainly to scale the ramparts. Charles contemplated a retreat when, according to legend, a wandering minstrel happened by. The minstrel sang of a secret mountain pass that led to the rear of the Lombard lines. “What reward shall be given to the man who shall safely conduct Charles into Italy?” the singer wondered, “on paths where no spear will be hurled, nor shield raised against him?”4
Whatever the truth of the legend, Charles sent a detachment along a high trail, which afterward was known as “The Way of the Franks.” The next morning, Charles renewed his frontal assault. Suddenly, the Lombards heard the tramp of marching feet, the clatter of arms and the neighing of horses- not just in front of them but behind them as well. Outflanked, the Lombard army broke in wild panic, the Frank cavalry riding down the stragglers. Prince Adelghis had enough. He fled to Verona and from there eventually made his way to the safety of the Byzantine court.
Unlike his son, King Desiderius was not ready to give up yet. He abandoned Susa but rallied his troops for a last stand at Pavia. Meanwhile, Charles reunited with Bernard’s column and advanced unopposed onto the Lombard capital.
In fanciful prose the Monk of Saint Gall, one of Charlemagne’s biographers, captured the scene of Desiderius watching from a high tower. Beside Desiderius stood a noble who knew Charles in person. Both anxiously awaited the first sights of the approaching Frankish army:
First the baggage train appeared over the horizon. Desiderius asked, “is that Charles in the midst of that vast array?” “No, not yet” answered the noble.
Next the Frank army marched up, causing Desiderius to snap “now Charles is advancing proudly in the midst of his troops.” When this was still not the case, Desiderius flew into a panic, “ if even more soldiers come into battle…what can we do?
“There now appeared Charles’ escort followed by his abbots and their attendants. By this time Desiderius was sobbing, “let us go down and hide our selves in the earth, in face of the fury of an enemy so terrible.
“When you see the field bristle as with ear of iron corn…then you can be sure that Charles is at hand, ” said the noble and with those words, blew “from the west a mighty gale…the wind of the true north…which turned the bright daylight into frightful gloom.
“The Emperor rode ever on…topped with his iron helm, his fists in iron gloves, his iron chest and his Platonic shoulders clad in iron cuirass. An iron spear raised high against the sky” in his other hand “his unconquered sword.” “His shield was of iron, his horse gleamed iron colored” and all those who rode with him wore the same armor. “That is Charles,” exclaimed the noble to Desiderius, who “fell half conscious to the ground.”5
Charles counted upon his scara to breach Pavia’s defenses but in spite of the Desiderius’ apparent weakness, Pavia refused to submit. Lacking powerful siege equipment, Charles had to settle in for a lengthy investment of Pavia. A siege camp, including a chapel, grew up beneath Pavia’s mighty walls, graced by the arrival of Charles’ new young queen, Hildegard. Before winter passed, Charles found time to visit Rome, where he was given a triumphant reception. Roman soldiers lined the Flamian way, children waved palms and olive branches and sang hymns of praise to the puissant savior of the Church. Meanwhile, disease and famine wore down Pavia’s defenders until in June 774 the city fell to the Franks. Charles seized the Iron Crown of the Lombards and exiled Desiderius to a monastery. Charles’ conniving sister-in-law Gerberga and her children were found at the city of Verona and promptly handed over to Charles. Presumably they too ended their days in a monastery.
During his battles the Lombard cavalry impressed Charles so much that afterwards he made them the the spearhead of his army. The rising popularity of the stirrup in the 8th century transformed man, horse and lance into one massive projectile. Already since the 5th century, cavalry had been the backbone for most armies and now too the Franks were following suite. To lead the Lombard cavalry in the future and preside over the Carolingian Italian domains, Charles choose his second son by Hildegaard, Pepin. Already in 781, while on a pilgrimage to Rome, Charles had Pepin, who was still a toddler, crowned as King of Italy (r. 781-810).
Even though Desiderius was in exile at the Francia monastery of Corbiento, the feud of his family with Charles had not yet reached its end. One of Desiderius’ daughters, Liutberga, was the wife of Tassilo, the treacherous Duke of Bavaria, and she goaded her husband against Charles. Not that Tassilo need any prodding; what he needed were powerful allies. He looked to Italy, where half of the Lombard lands still remained in the hands of their dukes. There was no questioning the loyalty to Charles of brave Eric, Duke of the march of Friuli, or of Hildebrand, Duke of Spoleto, but Arichis, Duke of Beneveto, was another matter. Arichis eagerly allied himself with Tassilo and the two of them were further strengthened by the alliance of Constantine VI (r.780-797), the Byzantine boy-emperor who was still fuming because he had been denied Charles’ daughter in marriage.
In 888 Charles crushed the brewing conspiracy before it could get out of hand. He first dealt with the Lombard Duke Arichis who fled into the unconquerable fortress of Salerno from where he bend over backwards to appease Charles. To spare the people the ravages of war, Charles accepted Arichis overtures of peace and made Arichis’ son, Grimoald, Duke of Beneveto in his stead. As Byzantine envoys appeared to indicate a change of heart in their emperor’s stance against Charles, this left only Tassilo of Bavaria of the three conspirators. Having gained Papal support, Charles with his eleven-year-old son Pippin at his side, moved their army of Frank, Italian, Saxon and Thuringian soldiers upon Bavaria in a three-pronged assault. Tassilo, who had so contemptuously refused to acknowledge Charles’ suzerainty, panicked, surrendered, and was shipped off to a distant monastery. Bavaria was now under Charles’ control.
The Ring of the Avars
Before his fall, Tassilo had opened a new Pandora’s box by inviting the much-feared Avars across his borders. From their homelands in Turkestan, the Avars had migrated to settle in the old Roman province of Pannonia (Hungary), subjugating the local Slavs. Under their “Kagan,” the great Khan, they rapidly became a menace to their Slav, Germanic and Byzantine neighbors. For years even the Byzantine Emperor was forced to pay the Avars an annual tribute of an astounding 80,000 gold solidi. Although the Avar Khaganate came to extend over territory of modern-day Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria, by the time of Charlemagne its zenith had passed.
In 782, swarthy Avar “jugars” (chiefs) with brightly colored strands interwoven into their hair, had visited Charles’ Royal and Military Assembly in Saxony. They talked of peace but Charles knew that the short, wiry Avars were as dangerous as hungry wolves, no different than his own Franks and the Saxons. If given the chance, they would sink their teeth into his growing empire.
In 788, with Charles busy subduing the troublesome Italian and Bavarian Dukes, the Avars saw their chance. They attacked Friuli in Lombardy but were unsuccessful, then advanced into Bavaria. Again they were defeated and their their terror-stricken warriors hunted down until they drowned in the Danube. After so many defeats, the Avars mused about the wisdom of having attacked Charles’ realm. In 790 their envoys came to Charles’ palace at Aachen to negotiate a mutually acceptable border with Francia along the River Enns. It was too late -the time for talk had passed.
The campaign against the Avar Khaganate was to be carried out by two armies. Charles would lead one down the Rhine, advancing from Bavaria, while a second army under Charles’ son Pepin, King of Italy (r. 781-810) would attack with the Lombards from north eastern Italy.
At the 791 Assembly, enthusiastic cheers greeted Charlemagne’s proposal to make war on the Avars. Charles assembled his army at Regensburg and from there advanced into the land of the Avars. On the bank of the Enns, Charlemagne held mass for three days, imploring “God’s help for the welfare of the army, the assistance of Lord Jesus Christ, and for victory over the Avars and revenge on them.”6
At his camp Charles received messages from Pepin telling him that he had already struck into Avar territory and on August 23rd won a great victory. Pepin’s Lombard cavalry was acquitting itself well against the Avar cavalry. It was during the Avar wars that the superbly trained Lombard cavalry established itself as premier shock troops. A prideful Charles wrote to his wife, “Our beloved son tells us that the Lord God gave them overwhelming triumph: so great a number of men have never been killed in battle.”7
Continuing along the Danube, Charles’ army of Franks, Saxons, Frisians, Serbs, Abodriti and Czechs continued on until near Vienna they reached the first Avar fortifications on both banks of the river. The Avars standing vigil on their fortifications in the wooded hills beheld the ominous sight of Charles’ great army, approaching on both banks, with a flotilla sailing in between them. God really did seem to be on Charles’ side that day, for Avars decided to abandon their defenses without a fight. They fell back to await the Franks at their legendary fortress, known as the “Ring of the Avars.”
Pepin meanwhile went on to captured the first or outer ring of Avar defenses and looted the villages therein. However, the appearance of Avar reinforcements prevented Pepin from advancing further. Pepin fell back, no doubt hoping to join his armies with that of his approaching father. However, Charles, had penetrated up to the river Raab when disaster struck. Pestilence broke out among the horses, devastating the cavalry. In addition the alarming news arrived of a palace revolution instigated by Charles’ neglected bastard son, Pepin the Hunchback. The Avar campaign was called off as Charles returned home, burning and killing along the way. Once back home, he squashed the Hunchback’s revolt and sent his deformed son to a monastery. Pepin, the king of Italy, delivered the treasures he had taken and 150 Avar prisoners to Charles at Aachen.
For several years Charles was kept busy by the Saxons (see Saxon Wars below) and other affairs. In 795, there surfaced the first indication of dissension among the Avars when the emissaries of the highest Avar “tudun” (Chancellor) appeared at Charles’ court at Aachen. The emissaries declared that the tundun wished to submit himself and his people and accept the Christian faith. The Avars had turned upon each other and were soon at each other’s throats. Civil war broke out, claiming the lives of both the Kagan and jugar.
With the Avars fighting each other, Duke Eric of Friuli sensed easy prey. In 796 Eric unleashed his Lombards under a Slav general named Wonimir. On the plains of Pannonia, armored Lombard and Avar horsemen sliced through each other’s ranks. Heavy lances powered through mail links and shattered shields. Avar horse archers sent arrow after arrow into the Lombard ranks, whose own bowmen trudged onward on foot. But the Avars were disunited and the Lombards shattered their famed Ring. The Ring went into legend as a gigantic, near impregnable, fortress of nine concentric rings of stone and clay, crowned with hedges and palisades. Modern opinion, on the other hand, holds that it more likely referred to a series of fortified earthworks surrounding Pannonia. Duke Eric of Friuli faithfully sent the vast Avar treasures to Charles.
That same year the tunus and his following received baptism but soon after broke their fealty. A second Frank army under Pepin King of Italy was needed to hold the Ring and secure the rest of the treasures. In all, 15 wagons loaded high with gold and silver coins, cloth of gold and precious ornaments rolled into Charles’ court at Aachen. A gratified Charles lavished gifts upon friends and allies and used the wealth to complete his magnificent palace and chapel. The Avars, however, were not entirely finished yet and sporadic fighting lingered on into 803 before their lands were incorporated into Charles’ empire.
The Saxon Wars
Even more savage than the Avar war was Charles’ war against the Saxons. By the end of the great migrations, the Saxons occupied most of northern Germany. Unlike most of the other Germanic peoples, they had never embraced Christianity and stayed true to the old gods and to the reverence of nature and trees. The Saxons were the most poorly equipped of Charles’ foes. Cavalry and armor were all but unheard of – a spear, an axe or, if he was lucky, a sword was all a Saxon soldier could count on. What the Saxons lacked in equipment, however, they made up in bravery, tenacity and unconventional warfare. A terrible cycle of raids and counter-raids was the order of the day along the Saxon-Frank border.
In 772, fuming with anger, a vengeful Charles crossed the Rivers Eder and Diemel. Deep in the Saxon heartland, at Eresburg, he destroyed the sacred, all sustaining pillar of the Saxons, the wooden “Irminsul.” There had been sacrificed to Othin eight different beasts and one man, hanged from branches, their blood soaking the earth of the Saxon holy site. There too, were treasures of gold and silver to enrich the Frankish war chest.
The Irminsul’s destruction only served to unite the Saxons under a powerful guerilla leader, Widukind, whose vengeful warriors set fire to Frankish border villages and churches, looting, raping and killing at will. Everywhere, Frankish villagers fled in terror of the Saxon raiders. As soon as Charles’ heavily armed troopers arrived to fight the invaders, Widukind’s raiders took to the woods or melted back into the general Saxon population. Unable to come to grips with the partisans, Charles released his Franks on the hapless Saxon villages.
To establish order Charles built strongholds or captured them from the Saxons. The Saxons struck back, infiltrating a Frankish camp in 775 and butchering the sleeping and half-awake garrison. The following year the Saxon army demolished the Frankish stronghold at Eresburg but faltered at Syburg, which resisted both the clumsily built Saxons siege engines and the torch.
Nevertheless, Charles kept up the pressure and by 777 it was the Frankish banner which fluttered over many of the circular palisades, ramparts and moats that protected the strongholds of Saxony. Charlemagne deemed that the time had come to hold his annual Assembly in Paderborn, Saxony. The Saxons found themselves called to the “heerbann,” the mustering of the host, and there were mass baptisms. Even now, however, the Saxons’ eyes burnt with an unbroken will to retain their pagan freedom.
Widukind had fled to his Kinsman, the Pagan King of Denmark but returned to lead another uprising in 778. The following year the Franks tore through the Saxon ramparts at Bochult. In the aftermath of the battle, churchmen in lavish robes moved among dead and dying, chanting Psalms and giving last rites and lending aid to the handful of doctors. The clergy became a permanent fixture of the Saxon wars, as Charles further consolidated his hold on the land by establishing mission districts.
In 782, news arrived of Slavs raiders on eastern Saxon borders. Charles sent three high-ranking commanders, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad, to take care of the intruders. The three marched their soldiers the east, when to their horror their Saxon auxiliaries deserted in another massive uprising led by the elusive Widukind. When Charles heard this, he sent in reinforcements under his cousin, Count Theodoric.
The Saxons awaited the four Frank commanders on the slopes of Süntel Mountain. Theodoric ordered a pincer movement, much to the annoyance of the other three commanders. Confident that they did not need Theodoric’s help, Adalgis, Geilo and Worad attacked prematurely. With a blare of trumpets they spurred their cavalry up the slope, right into the Saxon lines bristling with spears. It was a slaughter. The Saxon ranks stood unbroken, the Frank cavalry a writhing mess of dying and trampled horses and men. Both Adalgis and Geilo, along with five counts and 19 other nobles, perished in the attack.
A raging Charles came storming back across the Rhine but once again the Saxon army vanished into the villages and forests while Widukind found safety among the Danes. Charles’ fury knew no bounds. In a grizzly bloodbath at Verden, 4500 Saxons were rounded up and beheaded. And if that did not prove his point, Charles ordered churches built near his Saxon military outposts. He ordered the death penalty for any Saxon who refused baptism or committed even the slightest transgression against Christianity.
The next few years saw incessant punitive raids, battles and castle assaults, as Charles pushed through Saxony and into the lands of the Slavs. Those Slavs that readily submitted, he treated as allies, the others were subject to the same brutalities as the rebellious Saxons.
In 785, Widukind, after defeats at Detmold and at Osnabrück, on the “Hill of Slaughter,” finally surrendered. He had enough of the bloodshed and accepted that the Christian god was stronger than Othin was. Widukind received his baptism at Attigny. As a sign of respect for his old adversary, Charles stood as Widukind’s godfather. With Widukind no longer an adversary, peace seemed assured. Yet even though they had lost their charismatic and skilled leader, the Saxons refused to bow to Charles’ Christian yoke. In 793, Saxon rebels ambushed and annihilated Count Theodoric and his entourage, reopening the war.
Charles’ final answer was forced deportations: seven thousand Saxons in 794, every third household in 797 and1600 leaders the next year. This finally did the trick, as increasing numbers of Saxons remained loyal and the centers of resistance shrunk to the eastern borders of their realm. In 804, 10,000 Saxons, the entire population east of the Elbe, were settled in Francia. Christianity had been hammered into the Saxons. After thirty years of war and resistance, the last embers of resistance flickered out. The Saxons learned their lessons well. Centuries hence their descendants, the Teutonic Knights, marched east to convert the pagan Baltic peoples at the point of the sword.
Charlemange’s Campaigns in Spain
Charles fought longer in Saxony than anywhere else but it was in Spain, where he fought arguably his most famous battle. Ironically, it was also his greatest defeat. During the 777 assembly at Paderborn, a deputation of exotic strangers caused much attention among the tall, fair-skinned Franks and Saxons. Suleiman ibn Al-Arabi, the governor of Barcelona and Gerona, had come to ask Charles for help against his rival, the Emir Abd al Rahman of Cordova. Suleiman was ready to hand over his own cities to Charles and promised that the governor of the key strategic city of Saragossa would do so as well. Charles liked what he heard, and in 778, over 40,000 Franks and allied Lombards, Bavarians, Burgundians, Provencals, Bretons and Goths crossed the Pyrenees to meet up at Saragossa’s gates. The enraged Muslims inside, however, refused to open the gates to an infidel. For a month Charles laid siege to Saragossa. Although Suleiman kept his word and submitted both Barcelona and Gerona to Charles, he was unable to offer any concrete help. Branded as a traitor to the Muslim cause, Suleiman was assassinated by an emissary of Abd al Rahman. Frustrated, Charles called off the siege and turned back home. On the way he let his anger out on the less fortified city of Pamplona, razing the walls and sacking the city.
Disaster befell the rear guard of Charles’ army on its way through the narrow pass of Roncesvalles. Hidden in the woods and shrubs lurked thousands of wild hill folk, the Basques. They patiently watched the Frank army march through the forbidding countryside. After a long wait, there appeared the rearguard with the baggage. The day was hot and the Frank soldiers huffed in their heavy mail and wiped rivulets of sweat from their brows. Suddenly, boulders came rumbling down the slope, crushing whoever was caught in their wake. Missiles whistled through the air, piercing shields, mail and flesh. With a roar, the lightly armed Basques swept down the slope. A furious, chaotic melee erupted. Frankish swords shattered Basque spears and splintered shields. But the Basques were too many. Overwhelmed, the Franks fought until the last man. Among the fallen was Roland, prefect of the Breton march. Darkness shrouded the crimson splattered, corpse filled, pass. The Basques looted the baggage and quickly disappeared into the night. Although a humiliation for Charles, the valor of his soldiers was later immortalized in the famous “Song of Roland.” In the song, the Basques are changed to Saracens and Roland becomes the brave hero, who blew the Oliphant horn in a desperate call for help.
The Spanish debacle of 778 was not the last time the Franks and Muslims crossed blades. The Muslim cities of the Spanish march continually tried to defect to the Emirate of Cordova and in 801 Barcelona only resubmitted after a two-year siege.
The turn of the century marked the end of Charles’ great conquests. Battles continued to rage on virtually every border of Charles’ realm, but they were for the most part wars of consolidation. Brittany rebelled repeatedly and was never really conquered. In the east, the withering of the Avar and Saxon wars gave way to escalating conflicts with the Slavs. Led by Charles’ namesake son, the Franks conquered the Sorbs and the Bohemians. In Italy, Charles’ second son, Pepin, King of Italy, was kept busy with the unfaithful Grimoald of Beneveto. Ortona and Lucera were besieged, and there were skirmishes with the Byzantines concerning Venice.
Charles rides to Battle for the last Time
With old age creeping up on him, Charles left most of the fighting to his sons and captains. He resided longer and longer at Aachen, which he loved due to its hot springs. He stayed busy with the administration of his empire.
The latest and most dangerous threat to Europe was the advent of the Vikings. From Norway, the sons of Odin hit the British Isles the earliest and the hardest. The Danes under King Godofrid likewise made war on Charles’ Slavic allies and raised a colossal rampart along the Danish-Saxon border from the Baltic to the North Sea. In 810, Godofrid’s huge fleet of 200 ships crushed the Frisians, who were part of the Saxons realm. Godofrid boasted that he could not wait to meet Charles in open battle.
For the last time, Charles mounted his battle charger. Even at nearly seventy years old, Charles, with his platinum hair and six-foot-tall gaunt frame remained a larger-than-life figure. Before the two forces could clash in combat, Godofrid was murdered by one of his retainers. His fleet returned home and his successor was eager to make peace with Charles. There would be much war to come between Vikings and Franks, but not while Charles still lived.
Charles’ Pan-European Empire
Charlemagne carved out the first pan-European empire, a feat that many future warlords, including Louis XIV the “Sun King,” and Napoleon, tried to emulate but could not. Charles lived in a brutal age and did not refrain from using overt violence to obtain his goals. Yet within his realm there was peace unknown since Pax Romana. Charles kept his soldiers on a tight leash, forbidding pillaging of the countryside and drunkenness. When possible, scouts marked out the route, warning the villagers of the cattle and sheep that would be requisitioned from them once the army passed through. Charles needed no walls to protect his villas, instead building monasteries, schools and a great bridge across the Rhine. He fostered the liberal arts and gathered to his court the intellectual elite of Europe in what became known as the Carolingian renaissance.
Charles’ ascendancy was not lost on the rest of the western world. There was correspondence with the Kings of the British Isle and with the Byzantines. For a time there was even a chance of Charles marrying the beautiful widowed Empress Irene. Harun-al Rachid, the opulent Caliph of Baghdad and enemy of the Spanish Emirate of Cordova, was Charles’ lifelong friend. One of his gifts to the great barbarian king of the north was an elephant named Abbul Abuz.
In 823, Charles personally crowned his remaining legitimate son, Louis the Pious, King of Aquitaine, as co-Emperor and successor. The crowning took place in Aachen and not in Rome. By this Charles made it clear that despite his own investiture by the Pope, it was Charles, not the Church, who choose his successor. Nevertheless, the Pope’s investiture of Charles as Holy Roman Emperor set a precedent that led to centuries of dissension between the Papacy and the Medieval Holy Roman Empire.
Originally, Charles had intended to split his Empire among his three sons but sadly both Pepin, King of Italy, and Charles the Younger, the conqueror of the Slavs, had died prematurely. Louis the Pious inherited his father’s love for learning but unlike his late brothers, he had none of his father’s warlike nature. When on January 28, 814, Charles succumbed to old age after 47 years as King of the Franks, Louis found himself unequal to the task of carrying on his father’s legacy. It was not long until feuds fragmented the empire forever.
Without Charles’ coalescing personality his empire was fated to collapse. In many ways Charles never saw himself as anything more than a great tribal warlord; his “empire” no permanent institution like that of Rome but an amalgamation of tribal kingdoms loyal to himself. The days of great empires were over anyway. The Medieval age had begun, which forever remembered Charles as the ideal king, the champion of Christ, the rex pater Europa (King father of Europe), source of glorious legends, as Charles the Great, Karl der Grosse, as “Charlemagne.”
1. Stephens, W. R. W., Hildrebrand and his times (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1988), p. 7. 2. Eduardo Fabbro, Charlemagne and the Lombard Kingdom That Was: the Lombard Past in Post-Conquest Italian Historiography (Journal of the Canadian Historical Association: Volume 25, 2., 2014) p. 5, 6., 3. Russel Chamberlin, The Emperor: Charlemagne (New York: Franklin Watts. 1986), p. 66, 70., 4. J.I. Mombert, A History of Charles the Great (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888), p. 91., 5. Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. LewisThorpe , translator and Introduction, Two Lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987), p. 162, 163., 6. Bernhard W. Scholz and Rodgers Barbara, Translators. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (The University of Michigan Press. 1972), p. 69., 7. Russel Chamberlin, p. 177.
Bunson Matthew E. Encycolpedia of the Middle Ages. New York: Facts on File. 1995, Chamberlin Russel. The Emperor: Charlemagne. New York: Franklin Watts. 1986, Clark Kenneth. Civilization. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. 1981, Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Thorpe Lewis. Translator and Introduction. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1987, Goldin Frederick. Translator. The Song of Roland. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1978, Hildinger Erik. Warriors of the Steppes. New York: Sarpedon. 1997, Joshua J. Mark, Odoacer, Avars, Ancient History Encyclopedia., Keegan John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1993, Mombert J.I. A History of Charles the Great. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. 1888, Nicolle David. The Age of Charlemagne. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2004, Norwich John Julius. Byzantim the Early Centuries. London: Penguin Books. 1990, Parker Geoffrey. Editor. Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995, Russel Charles Edward. Charlemagne, First of the Moderns. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1930, Scholz W. Bernhard and Rodgers Barbara. Translators. Carolingian Chronicles. Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories. The University of Michigan Press. 1972.
Charlemagne “Warlord of the Franks,” was originally published in Military Heritage Magazine and republished on the magazine’s website, Warfare History Network. The above re-edited version contains additional images for non-profit, educational purposes only.
During the reign of Murad I (r. 1360-1389) many prisoners of war fell into Ottoman captivity. Rather than kill those that were not worth ransom, the Ottomans used them for the Kapikulu Ocaklari, meaning ‘gate or court slaves.’ Of the captives the fittest young men were selected to begin training for service in the Sultan’s personal army. They formed the first ortas (battalions) of the Yeni Ceri ‘new army’ or Janissaries.
Toward the end of Murad’s reign, the Devsirme ‘collection’ tax of eight to fifteen year-old boys from subjected Christian population was introduced. The Devsirme became the main recruiting base for the Janissaries. Enslaving your own subjects, including Christians, was against the Sariat, the Islamic religious law, but the Ottomans followed their own unorthodox believes. Reaction to the Devsirme varied according to the time period and location. Parents hid their children or tried to flee, in what were usually futilely attempts to escape the efficient Ottoman collectors. Others volunteered their children in hopes of giving them a chance at a better career than the rural farming life. Some families, not only Christians but Muslim converts among Bosnian Slavs as well, even bribed the Ottoman officials so that their children were taken.
Assembled by their local Christian priest, who was needed to proof their Christian identity, the boys were led away by an Ottoman Surucu drover. The boys nearly all hailed from rural Balkan villages as they were fitter and deemed more naive than their ‘street wise’ city counterparts. Almost none were Balkan Greeks, who were mostly urban folk, and none were Jews, who were exempt. A few of the smarter ones were selected for schooling in office positions. The rest were assimilated into Turkish culture by serving as a farmhands for a Turkish family. In an age were slavery and the atrocities of war were commonplace, the initial shock gave way to grudging acceptance. Given human nature, no doubt many of the young lads bonded with their new Turkish families.
After four to eight years laboring on Turkish farms, the boys were sent to become the Acemi Oglans, ‘foreign boys,’ of the Acemi Ocagi, ‘hearth of the inexperienced’ -the Janissary training center at Gallipoli. For another four to eight years, the Acemi Oglans underwent rigorous infantry training, under challenging and Spartan conditions, until their Kapiya Cikma, their final examination. The young Christian farm lad was now a young Muslim soldier in the prime of his life. He would always remember with pride the evening, when after prayers he donned the soldier’s dolama to become one of the honored Janissary. Through it all, he had not forgotten his Christian parents, however, and in many cases had been able to keep in touch with them.
The young age of the recruits left more time for training in the arts of war and for indoctrination of Islam so that they would be completely obedient to their superiors and their ultimate master, the Sultan. In return the Janissaries were honored and amply rewarded for success in battle. They are generally considered the finest infantry of their heyday, which lasted into the early modern period. No European power had an infantry corps to compare with the Janissaries.
Nicolle, David, Nicopolis 1396 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999) p. 27, 28, Nicolle David, The Janissaries (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000) p. 4, 13, Uyar, Mesut and Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottoman Turks: From Osman to Ataturk (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2009) p. 17-20.
The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
With the German Sixth Army destroyed at Stalingrad, the Soviet juggernaut lunged west and southwest across the River Donets. The Soviets seemed unstoppable, recapturing the major city of Kharkov from the Germans on February 14, 1943. However, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was only waiting for the Soviets to overextend themselves.
Once the Soviet armor ran dry of fuel and low on ammunition, Manstein unleashed Army Group South’s riposte. Fresh panzer formations sliced into the startled Soviet flanks, ripping apart two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups). Manstein’s brilliant counteroffensive restored the southern front and culminated in an SS frontal assault and a triumphant recapture of Kharkov.
Meanwhile, to the north of the Donets campaign, the Soviet winter offensive was held at bay before Orel by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center. Operations everywhere then bogged down to a standstill as the Russian spring thawed the frozen earth and turned it to mud. The thick “rasputitsa” clung to steel tank tracks, to truck tires, to the hoofs of tired horses, and to the boots of exhausted soldiers.
The front was left with a gargantuan Soviet salient, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, bulging around the town of Kursk between the two German army groups. The Kursk salient was consequently the target of the last, great German summer offensive, ending with the legendary tank battles in the environs of Oboian and Prokhorovka.
With the third summer of the German-Soviet war approaching, the Red Army war machine had grown more powerful while that of the Germans proportionally declined. Despite von Manstein’s recent victory at Kharkov, only the most fanatical senior German commanders, along with Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union could be decisively defeated. A stalemate, however, was still in the cards, but only if the Germans managed to retain the initiative. To do so, Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of Army general staff, proposed eliminating the Kursk salient.
In what came to be known as Operation Citadel, the Ninth Army of von Kluge’s Army Group Center would strike for Kursk from the north while his Second Army defended the western face of the salient. At the same time, von Manstein’s Army Group South would attack toward Kursk from the south with Colonel General Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General Werner Kempf’s Army Detachment. Once the two German army groups met, the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. The Eastern Front would be straightened out, allowing German troops to be transferred to the West along with thousands of Soviet prisoners to toil in the Reich’s factories and on its farms. Such were the rewards of victory, and to achieve it Zeitzler counted on the new, vaunted Panther tanks and the Ferdinand or “Elephant” tank destroyer.
Hitler presented Zeitzler’s plan to his senior Army commander on May 3-4. Von Manstein argued that Citadel might have worked in April, when Hitler first signed the operational order, but now its “success was doubtful.”1 Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of the Ninth Army, cautioned that the plan was painfully obvious and that the Soviets were already preparing deep and strong defensive positions.
Von Kluge, who liked to curry favor with Hitler but was known as a fence sitter, supported Citadel but argued against any further delay, so if it failed he could not be blamed. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armored troops, called the idea “pointless,”2 certain to result in heavy tank casualties. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Panthers and the Elephants were in no way ready for combat.
When Wilhem Keitel, Hitler’s chief of the armed forces high command, later argued for the attack on political reasons, Guderian spat back, “How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”3 Hitler admitted the idea made his “stomach turn over,”4 but eventually not only decided in favor of Citadel but delayed it for two months until the new tanks were ready.
Historian Charles Winchester has aptly noted, “The idea that an offensive involving millions of men fighting across a battlefield half the size of England could be determined by a few hundred new tanks shows touching faith in technology.”5
Hitler’s delays played right into Soviet hands. Stalin heeded the advice of Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, deputy commander of the Red Army, and Marshal Alesksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Army general staff, to postpone a Soviet offensive until the Germans bled themselves dry on the Kursk defenses. And those defenses were awe inspiring. Half a million railcars rolled into the Kursk salient, pouring in division after division. Whole towns in the forward areas were evacuated. Three hundred thousand civilians, mostly women and old men, helped dig trenches and build fortifications. The southern shoulder of the salient alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to channel the panzers into the crossfire of antitank strongholds.
The 48th Panzer Corps Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Friedrich W. von Mellenthin, poignantly summoned up the German predicament: “The Russians were aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics, and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. Instead of seeking to create conditions in which maneuver would be possible … the German Supreme Command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent panzer divisions against Kursk, which had become the strongest fortress in the world.”6 If this was not adversity enough, the Soviets had twice as many men, two and a half times as many guns and mortars, 900 more planes, and 750 more tanks than the Germans.
Just before the battle, an SS trooper in the coal black darkness outside of a command bunker thought to himself, “The mud might slow us down but it cannot stop us. Nothing will.”7 Alfred Novotny, a fusilier of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, was of the same mind: “We were totally convinced as soldiers that Kursk would turn the war around again, in favor of Germany. We, the Fusiliers and Grenadiers, would do it!”8 The high morale was due in part to the fact that the soldiers were unaware of what they were facing. The troops were “prepared to endure any losses and carry out every task given to them,” but “the Russians are masters at the art of camouflage. Inevitably their strength was considerably underestimated,”9 reflected Mellenthin.
Over 2 million men, 35,000 guns, 6,250 tanks and assault guns, and 4,900 aircraft were flung at each other by two merciless totalitarian regimes, each bent on the utter annihilation of its foe. The German attack in the south opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1943, followed 12 hours later by the attack in the north. Forewarned of the exact time of Model’s attack by intelligence operatives, Soviet commanders ordered their artillery to bombard Model’s front lines before his own artillery had a chance to open up. The Germans answered back with air strikes and with a short but intense bombardment.
Tiger tanks, Elephant tank destroyers, and Brummbär self-propelled artillery battalions of the Ninth Army smashed gaps into the Soviet defenses and chewed up counterattacks by the Soviet Central Front. Through the gaps poured the panzer and infantry divisions, only to find another of eight skillfully defended defensive belts.
Not only were the Soviet defenses far thicker than anticipated, but Hitler’s beloved 89 Elephants, all fighting with Army Group Center, did not live up to expectations. Although their powerful, long L/71 88mm guns proved deadly to Soviet armor, the 67-ton Elephants were underpowered and lacked a machine gun for protection against enemy infantry. When attacked by Soviet close-combat infantry anti-tank units, some Elephant crews tried to fend off the Soviets by firing their MG-42 machine guns through the main barrel.
Another nasty surprise was the Central Front’s 12 new SU-152s. The front’s 152mm assault gun unit knocked out seven Elephants and 12 Tigers of Model’s attacking units, earning it the nickname Zveroboi (animal hunter). After a week of round-the-clock fighting, Model’s exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking into the open, having only penetrated nine miles.
Soviet casualties were heavy, but they did not prevent Zhukov from launching an offensive in the Orel sector on Model’s northern flank on July 11. From then on, Model was hard pressed just to contain a Soviet breakthrough. Zhukov, who had failed to destroy Army Group Center in two previous winter offensives, remained fixated on its destruction. He should have paid more attention to the southern flank of the salient, where Von Manstein’s thrust made dangerous gains.
Alfred Novotny has never forgotten the 4th Panzer Army’s opening artillery barrage and the foul weather that accompanied it: “The first hours of the Kursk offensive still cause flashbacks 50-odd years later. Sometimes I think I can still hear the incredible loud noise of the German weapons … flak, artillery, mortars, Stukas, and Nebelwerfers. I cannot forget the endless, terrible rain, rain, and more rain. We were totally drenched, heavily laden down with equipment, knee deep in mud all around us.”10
The Soviet defenses facing Novotny and his comrades were as formidable as they were in the north, but the defending Soviet armies had more front line to cover and, unlike Model, Von Manstein used massed armor formations from the onset. A bombardment that used more shells than the French and Polish campaigns combined opened the way for Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, the most powerful concentration of German armor under a single command during World War II.
The 4th Panzer Army blasted its way through the defenses of the Soviet 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army. The latter’s Guards distinction and the superior equipment that came along with it were indicative of its elite, veteran status. There were many Guards divisions at Kursk, and most of them had earned their distinction at Stalingrad.
Fighting with the 48th Panzer Corps on 4th Panzer Army’s left wing, the 200 Panthers at Kursk turned out to be a disappointment just like the Elephants to the north. Although the Panther eventually turned out to be arguably the best tank design of the war, at Kursk it suffered from mechanical problems and inadequately trained crews. By the second day of the battle, the Panthers, armed with high-velocity 75mm guns, were reduced to 50 in number. After five days, there were only 10 left.
The bulk of the fighting was left to the old workhorses of the German Army, the Panzer Mark IIIs and Mark IVGs with their new anti-tank rifle side skirts, the assault guns, and a relative few of the feared heavy Tigers, with their 88mm guns, to the defeat the Soviet armor. With their help, the battle-hardened veterans of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 48th Panzer Corps fought their way through swamps and streams and overcame mine-infested belts of trenches. Strongholds of camouflaged antitank rifle infantry, sappers with explosives, dug in heavy antitank guns, Soviet T-34 medium tanks, and tank destroyers awaited the German armor.
Not only that, but the land sloped upward toward Kursk, giving the Soviets a clear view. Even so, Grossdeutschland managed to reach the outskirts of the villages of Kruglik and Nowosselowka by July 9. On the left wing of the 48th Panzer Corps, however, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army held up the 3rd Panzer Division in the woods north of Beresowka. To capitalize on this limited success, General Nikolay F. Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, transferred two tank corps and a rifle division from his reserve to Katukov.
With its left flank dangerously exposed, Grossdeutschland abandoned its northward drive and swung to the southwest on July 10, to trap and destroy the enemy between Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division. The diary of a Grossdeutschland soldier reads, “Squadron after squadron of Stukas come over to drop their deadly eggs on the Russian armor. Dazzling white flames indicate that another enemy tank has brewed up.”11
A Major Franz of the Grossdeutschland assault gun battalion sped toward the village of Kruglik when “at 300 meters from the village … I suddenly saw fiery red arrows coming toward us from the outskirts. There were explosions directly in front of the mass of advancing assault guns … we were under fire from a Stalin Organ.”12
General Andrei L. Getman remembered, “Many of our soldiers and commanders fell heroically in the five days of ferocious battle. Nevertheless, the corps continued to resist the enemy. Meeting organized fire resistance he ceased his attacks by nightfall.”13
That evening, the 3rd Panzer Division had joined the chaotic fighting among the groves and ravines that nearly eliminated the 6th Tank Corps. On July 11, the remnants of the 6th Tank Corps and the mauled 90th Guards Rifle Division pulled back to the west. The 3rd Panzer Division filled Grossdeutschland’s forward positions, allowing the latter to prepare for a renewed push to the north. It was not to be. During the night of the 11th, reinforced Soviet counterattacks flung the 3rd Panzer Division out of its new positions.
While Grossdeutschland dealt with the problems on its left flank, Knobelsdorff ordered the 11th Panzer Division to strike north along the road to Oboian and to the River Ps’ol. Its vanguard stood on the highest point on the way to Oboian. A soldier remembered, “One could see far into the valley of the Ps’ol River, the last natural barrier before Kursk. With field glasses the towers of Oboian could be made out in the fine haze. Oboian was the objective. It seemed within an arm’s reach. Barely 12 miles away.”14
Although bloodily slashed by the 11th Panzer Division, the Soviet defenders refused to give way. Not only that, but Vatutin gathered his forces for a massive counterstroke to “encircle and destroy the main German grouping penetrating to Oboian and Prokhorovka.”15 Victory for either side still hung in the balance, for, on the right wing of the 4th Panzer Army, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was simultaneously on the verge of a decisive breakthrough.
SS General Paul “Papa” Hausser’s cream of the Waffen SS armor reached the River Ps’ol. On his left flank, the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head) crossed the Ps’ol on pontoon bridges on the 10th and immediately engaged the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To avoid further bridging operations for his heavy tanks, Hausser’s two other panzergrenadier divisions advanced south of the river.
The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich (The State) panzergrenadier divisions pushed eastward through Soviet artillery barrages and dug-in tanks of the Soviet 2nd Tank Corps and elements of the 5th Guards Army. Leibstandarte spearheads were already at the outskirts of the Prokhorovka on July 9. The SS formations were aided by initial German air superiority and by Vatutin’s massive, chaotic redeployments, which caused Soviet units to pull back in some areas.
By July 11, paratroopers had dug in and stiffened Soviet resistance. A trooper of the 9th Guards Airborne Division recalled, “The village of Lutovo shuddered from exploding bombs, shells and mines. The soldiers observed the enemy from foxholes. Infantry poured out of the armored transporters. The distorted faces of the Fascists bore witness … that their warlike ardor was roused by a large dose of schnapps. Submachine gunners opened fire on the run and concealed themselves behind the tanks. A squall of 3rd Battalion fire met the Fascists. The long bursts of [Soviet] heavy machine guns struck the infantry in the flanks.”16
Meanwhile, General Herman Breith’s 3rd Panzer Corps’ northward thrust east of the Donets was constantly thwarted by the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army. Von Manstein urged Kempf to have Breith catch up to the 2nd SS Corps and cover its right flank. On July 11, the Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment ripped through the Soviet 305th Rifle Division and tore into the 107th Rifle Division to its rear. The 6th Panzer Division lunged forward nearly eight miles, and the 19th Panzer Division also made good progress. Although Breith’s armored spearheads were still 15 miles from Prokhorovka, the remaining Soviet defenses were too weak to absorb another German assault. Unless Vatutin immediately rushed in reinforcements, Breith and Hausser would break through to Prokhorovka.
Seven Soviet armies now surrounded the 20-mile deep bulge that the armor formations and the following infantry divisions of 4th Panzer Army and the Kempf Army had bitten into the Kursk salient. To blunt the German advance and at the same time launch his massive counteroffensive, Vatutin rushed in Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s crack 5th Guards Tank Army. The 5th Guards Tank Army, along with the already committed 5th Guards Army, was transferred from Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. Konev’s Front was to lead the planned post-Kursk counteroffensive.
The early commitment of two of the Steppe Front’s armies shows how critical the situation had become at Prokhorovka. Stalin even ordered Zhukov to fly to the Prokhorovka area and personally oversee the two Fronts. Reinforced by two tank corps and self-propelled artillery units, Rotmistrov fielded a total of 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov, “On the morning of 12 July, together with the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Army, launch a decisive offensive to destroy the enemy southwest of Prokhorovka.”17
At dawn on July 12, the 121 tanks and assault guns of the Totenkopf Division prepared to shatter the Soviet defenses and advance northeastward on the ridge line north of the Ps’ol. The day promised to be humid, and clouds hung over the horizon. Brutal, indecisive fighting against three Guards rifle divisions raged throughout the day.
South of Prokhorovka, Hoth was on the battlefield watching the ensuing carnage in Das Reich’s sector through a trench telescope. Das Reich was forced on the defensive because the delay of 3rd Panzer Corps exposed its right flank to Soviet attacks.
During the day, 50 Soviet armored vehicles drove along one of the balkas, or valley bottoms, past a group of T-34s lined up on the ridge. There were white crosses on the turrets of the T-34s on the ridge. These were captured T-34s of Das Reich, and they suddenly opened fire on the vehicles below.
The first Soviet vehicle in line was also the only one equipped with a radio, and it was hit immediately. One after another, the Soviet vehicles exploded in flames. In another area of Das Reich, a T-34 rammed into a field kitchen before being destroyed in close combat. On the 12th, SS 2nd Lt. Hans Mennel, in command of a Mark IV, knocked out his 24th Soviet tank during the fighting.
Between Totenkopf and Das Reich, the Leibstandarte launched its attack at 6:50 that morning. Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets howled upon the German formations. The Leibstandarte’s panzergrenadiers struck eastward, north, and south of the railway line that led northeast toward Prokhorovka. Crewmen in black uniforms and camouflage jackets took last puffs on their cigarettes and climbed into their sand yellow and red-brown Mark IVGs. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 67 tanks revved up their engines. Steel tracks clanged toward purple walls of smoke, flares from German reconnaissance planes, rising above the undulating ridge lines ahead. The smoke signaled a warning that enemy tanks were approaching.
The engine noise of the Red Army’s 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared from the direction of Prokhorovka. Hundreds of Soviet tanks in waves of 40 or 50, with Guards Airborne riflemen piled on top of them, rolled out of the town and surrounding area.
The Soviet tanks charged at great speed, colliding head-on with the SS grenadiers and SS Major Martin Gross’s 2nd Panzer Battalion. An SS 2nd lieutenant related, “They were around us, on top of us, and between us. We fought man to man, jumping out of our foxholes to lob our magnetic hollow charge grenades at the enemy tanks. It was hell! Our company alone destroyed 15 Russian tanks.”18
SS 1st Lt. Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the Nazi foreign minister, commanded a company of six Mark IVs, which drove down a slope to aid the hard-pressed panzergrenadiers. Ribbentrop’s company knocked out a handful of T-34s at 800 meters. The Mark IV, the most common German tank at Kursk, was not as fast as the T-34 or as heavily armored, but it had a superior gun and fire control. In the end, tactics and training proved decisive.
Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off the burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, the Soviet armor bravely sped on until the tanks of both sides sliced through each other. “There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. The shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor,”19 witnessed Rotmistrov from his observation post on a hill.
“A T-34 began to burn,” reported Ribbentrop. “It was only 50 to 70 meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames. The avalanche of tanks rolled straight toward us … from this range every round was a hit.”20
Ribbentrop knocked out four more Soviet tanks. On the last one, he scored a direct hit at 10 meters. He recalled, “The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”21
Ribbentrop had turned with the waves of Soviet tanks that swept by him. Soon they were under withering fire from German assault guns and two more panzer companies lurking down the slope behind an antitank ditch. Amid the thick smoke and dust, the jumble of Soviet tanks and wrecked vehicles, Ribbentrop’s Mark IV remained unnoticed by the Soviet tanks around him. “Machine guns firing, we rolled through a mass of [Soviet] troops from behind,”22 he said.
Ribbentrop pulled his Mark IV into cover behind a destroyed T-34 and joined the slaughter of the Soviets tanks trying desperately to cross a bridge over the antitank ditch. “Burning T-34s ran into and over one another. It was a total inferno of fire and smoke, and impacting shells and explosions,”23 he remembered. A shell hit Ribbentrop’s turret, driving the gunner’s sight into his eye and inflicting a serious head injury. He was able to reach the safety of the German lines after he and his crew had knocked out 14 Soviet tanks.
Meanwhile, north of Oktiabrs’kii, the Tigers of SS Captain Heinrich Kling’s 13th Heavy Panzer Company crushed through hedgerows and thickets. Suddenly, a wave of 60 Soviet tanks swept out of a wood less than a mile away. Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann’s Tiger rocked from the recoil as his 88mm gun knocked out the first T-34. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance. Four Tigers were hit and temporarily crippled.
Wittmann’s Tiger shuddered from two hits but remained unfazed although his radio operator received a wound in the upper arm. “Three o’clock, three hundred!”24 cried Wittmann. A T-34 appeared out of some bushes. It swung its 76.2mm gun toward Wittmann’s Tiger, but Wittmann’s gunner, Balthasar Woll, was faster. The 88mm muzzle flashed and blew the turret off the T-34.
Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel’s Stukas appeared above the dueling tanks. Oily black smoke spiraled into the sky. Like birds of prey, the Stukas howled down upon the Soviet tanks. Swarms of Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters tore into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky.
Wittmann’s platoon of three Tigers pushed on through the storm of steel, through the flames and smoke of burning grass. He had passed Prokhorovka when Kling’s voice rang through the radio, “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”25 Soviet tanks of the 181st Tank Brigade closed in from about a mile away, disappearing into a valley and then reappearing over a rise. The stationary Tigers’ guns opened and maintained a rapid rate of fire. Numerous Soviet tanks were blown to pieces, but the remaining machines kept coming. They had to close to within 800 meters to be able to penetrate the Tigers’ frontal armor.
Leading a group of 15 tanks, Captain P. A. Skripkin’s T-34 closed in on Wittmann’s platoon. “Forward, follow me!”26 he shouted. Skripkin fired a round into a Tiger’s side, disabling it. Wittmann’s Tiger responded by pumping two rounds into Skripkin’s tank. Skripkin was wounded, and his crew pulled him out of the burning T-34. The driver jumped back in, and like a flaming ball of fire his T-34 tore down onto SS Staff Sergeant Georg Lötzsch’s Tiger. Lötzsch steered straight toward the oncoming Soviet tank, slammed on the brakes and fired. The 88mm round hit the edge of the turret and ricocheted into the sky. The 30-ton T-34 rammed into Lötzsch’s Tiger, shaking the ground with its impact. Flames engulfed both tanks. Lötzsch kept his nerves and backed out just before the T-34’s ammunition exploded.
Despite horrendous losses, the Soviets kept up the pressure. From north of Oktiabr’skii to south of Storozheveo, the battle seesawed back and forth. The Leibstandarte’s efforts to advance were thwarted by packs of Soviet tanks and infantry. The 1st Panzer Regiment was forced back to Oktiabr’skii. By 6 pm, the 181st Tank Brigade, assisted by the 170th Tank Brigade, threatened to sever the link between the Leibstandarte and Totenkopf at the village of Vasil’evka. Meanwhile, at Storozhevoe, Leibstandarte grenadiers reeled under an avalanche of Soviet tanks and mounted infantry.
A tank destroyer crewman recounted, “Salvo after salvo of Stalin’s Organs rained down upon our positions, with artillery and mortar shells in between. T-34 after T-34 rolled over the hill … three … five … ten … but what was the use of counting?”27 At one point Soviet tanks penetrated to Komsomolets, threatening Leibstandarte’s command post and engaging its artillery regiment at point-blank range.
By mid afternoon the sky broke into heavy showers. Rain sizzled on swaths of smoldering tank carcasses, and roads turned into mud pits. Combat in the 29th and 18th Tank Corps sector ground to a halt. Both sides were too drained by the terrible ordeal to go on.
All along Vatutin’s front, the 4th Panzer Army advances on July 12th had been arrested or slowed down, but so had Vatutin’s own offensive. The cost had been extremely heavy. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost about 650 tanks, although only 250 or so of them were total write-offs. Gross’s battalion alone accounted for 90 Soviet tanks, earning him the Knight’s Cross. The 2nd SS Corps lost just over 60 tanks and assault guns completely destroyed. The SS owed part of its success to the one-eyed “Papa” Hausser who “untiringly led all day from the front,”28 inspiring his troops with “his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations,” noted Hoth, whose recommendation earned Hausser the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross.
During the night, troopers dug in and prepared for renewed offensives on the 13th. Soviet and German soldiers alike felt that victory could be achieved if, somehow, the last bits of energy could be called forth. The following day, the weight of the battle in the 2nd SS Corps sector switched from the Leibstandarte to Totenkopf and Das Reich. With its remaining 54 tanks and 20 assault guns, Totenkopf continued to advance north of the Ps’ol, engaging two Guards rifle divisions and the 51st Guards Tank Regiment. Totenkopf reached its objective, the Prokhorovka-Kartasshevka road, but was forced to relinquish its gains due to serious attacks on its left flank and the Leibstandarte’s failure to keep abreast south of the river.
Northeast of Oktiabri’skii, the Leibstandarte was flung back by airborne troops and riflemen supported by Soviet tanks, antitank guns, artillery, and mines. Rotmistrov related, “The fire of our Katyushas always instilled terror in the Fascists. Suffering great losses, the enemy was forced to fall back, abandoning the burning tanks and the bodies of his dead soldiers and officers.”29 The Soviets went on the offensive, but just north of Komsomolets State Farm they were given a dose of the German’s own nebelwerfer rocket launchers.
South of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich captured Storozhevoe and reached the outskirts of Vingoradovka, giving the Soviets cause for concern. It looked like Das Reich might link up with the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was rapidly gaining ground due to a daring night coup by Major Franz Bäke of the 6th Panzer Division.
A T-34 had led a column of vehicles into the darkness behind Soviet lines. The guards at the trenches must not have looked closely, because the T-34s’ markings were painted over and replaced with a small cross. It was one of the score or so of T-34s in German service, and Bäke used it and favorable terrain to lead his battalion of German tanks past the Soviet sentries. Bäke’s battalion was the spearhead of Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s battle group whose objective was the Donets bridge at Rzhavets. However, after six miles or so, the T-34 broke down, “no doubt moved by national sentiments”30 Bäke opined.
Abandoning the T-34, Bäke’s battalion crept onward while continuing to keep radio silence. The lead was now taken by a Mark IV. The German column rumbled past stationary T-34s and anti-tank guns. Exhausted Soviet crews slept in the grass, secure in their knowledge that the front was far away.
Things got dicey when a column of Soviet tanks, some mounted with infantry, appeared heading in the opposite direction. In the darkness, the Soviets appeared to believe Bäke’s tanks were their own returning from the front, or did they? At first twenty-two tanks passed his unit, almost track to track, but then six or seven pulled out of the column, turned, rolled back and pulled behind Bäke’s panzers. Bäke turned his panzer to block the T-34s. Although his own command panzer had only a dummy gun for protection, Bäke ordered the rest of his unit to continue and to secure the objective bridge.
The T-34s ominously drew up in a semicircle while Bäke and his operations officer slipped out of their panzer. They crept up to the T-34s and attached hollow charges. A handful of infantry was hitching a ride on one of the T-34s. One of them noticed Bäke and raised his rifle. Before the surprised Soviet managed to pull the trigger, Bäke snatched the rifle from his hand and jumped into a ditch. One after the other, three explosions lit up the night while one of Bäke’s tanks knocked out a fourth T-34. A cacophony of German and Soviet machine-gun and tank fire erupted. When the rest of the battle group joined the attack, the startled Soviets withdrew across the nearby Donets bridge. They blew up the bridge behind them but could not prevent German grenadiers from wading across the river.
The bridge was captured and repaired, leaving the 3rd Panzer Corps free to thrust northward. To stop them, General Kuzma Trufanov, deputy commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, hurled one rifle division, two reinforced Guards tank and two mechanized brigades at the 3rd Panzer Corps. On July 13, while the 19th Panzer Division, and behind it the 7th Panzer Division, were trying to move out of the bridgehead, the 6th Panzer Division was busy fending off Trufanov’s divisions around Aleksandrovka to the east. That day, the 6th Panzer Division suffered a heavy blow from friendly fire. A German Heinkel He-111 bomber accidentally bombed 6th Panzer Division headquarters, killing 15 and wounding Bäke and his division commander, Maj. Gen. Walther von Hünersdorf, and 47 other officers.
To the west, Grossdeutschland’s northward advance on July 13 was cancelled due to renewed Soviet onslaughts against the 3rd Panzer Division. For a while all contact with the 3rd Panzer Division was lost as the Soviets recaptured Beresowka. On Grossdeutschland’s right flank, the 11th Panzer Division was also unable to press forward due to intense Soviet counterattacks. Rain and muddy roads also hampered the supply of the troops.
Despite the setbacks, Hoth and Kempf continued to have full confidence in victory. Hitler had other ideas. The Führer summoned his army commanders to his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler told them that the Allies had landed in Sicily on July 10 and that Citadel must be called off immediately to enable the transfer of troops to Italy. Kluge agreed because he was already embroiled in Zhukov’s Orel counteroffensive.
Von Manstein, who had originally argued against the whole Kursk operation, pressed for the attack to continue, saying, “To break off the battle now would probably mean throwing away victory.”31 Von Manstein still had the fresh 24th Panzer Corps with 112 tanks in reserve. He wanted to wear the Soviets down through attrition and thereby forestall major Soviet offensives elsewhere.
“We were now in the position of a man who has seized the wolf by the ears and dare not let him go,”32 was von Mellenthin’s impression. Hitler, however, had made up his mind. Four days later he ordered the withdrawal of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps followed by the transfer of Grossdeutschland to Army Group Center. Until then, von Manstein did his best to destroy as many of the enemy as he could.
On July 14 and 15, Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division beat back two tank corps, a Guards corps, and Soviet rifle divisions to recapture the territory lost on the 12th. Throngs of Soviet infantry were sent fleeing to the west to be caught in a barrage of murderous German artillery fire. For the Soviets, however, the most dangerous situation was a linkup between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps. If this happened, the Soviet salient between the two German corps would be closed and the five Soviet divisions therein trapped.
Despite their recent wounds, both Bäke and Hünersdorf were back leading the 6th Panzer Division on another attack on Alexandrowaka. Bäke himself knocked out two Soviet tanks and an antitank gun while his battle group destroyed another 29 tanks and 25 antitank guns. Hünersdorf’s luck, however, ran out. A sniper shot him in the head on July 14, killing him.
That same day in the Das Reich sector, grenadiers fought house to house in the village of Belenichino, destroying 12 Soviet tanks in close combat. SS Lance Corporal Simon Grascher remained glued to the ground in a storm of small caliber, grenade, and antitank fire. The flanking fire of two T-34s was decimating his company. Spurning the dangers, Grascher fought his way forward. He overcame two bunkers and a number of machine gun nests to destroy one of the T-34s with his last hollow charge. Grascher knocked out the second T-34 by throwing a grenade in the temporarily opened hatch. Grascher was killed in the fierce battles that followed, receiving his Knight’s Cross posthumously.
Men like Grascher kept a heavily reinforced Trufanov from being able to do more than slow down the contact between Das Reich and the 7th Panzer Division on July 15. Trufanov did, however, buy the time for most of the Soviet divisions to slip out of the closing German pincers.
By July 16, Hoth and Kempf were finally in a position to resume the push for Kursk. Although their divisions were largely intact, they were battered and their men were worn down, and 60 miles still lay between them and Model’s northern pincer. Von Mellenthin stated, “Gross Deutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for 10 days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.”33
Indeed, the remaining 27th and 53rd Armies of Konev’s Steppe Front alongside the fresh 4th Guards Tank Corps and 1st Mechanized Corps, with nearly 400 tanks, were closing in on Oboian and northwest of Prokhorovka. How they would have fared against von Manstein’s reserves is a matter of speculation, for on July 17, von Manstein began his withdrawal. Zhukov noted, “Because of the exhaustion of our own First Tank Army and the Sixth and Seventh Guards field armies, the enemy was able to pull his main forces back to the Belgorod defense line by July 23.”34 Inevitably, most of the German divisions were soon drawn into new battles against Soviet offensives elsewhere.
As exemplified by the e´lan of the German panzer formations at Oboian and Prokhorovka, the Germans inflicted deep wounds on the Soviets at Kursk while remaining themselves relatively unscathed. Together, Army Group Center and Army Group South lost 323 tanks and assault guns irreparably destroyed during the Kursk battles. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Red Army personnel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with combat losses between 20 and 70 percent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehicles irreparably destroyed.
Losses to both the Germans and the Soviets in damaged armored vehicles were much higher than destroyed vehicles. By the time Wittmann’s Tigers disengaged on the 17th, Wittmann himself had accounted for 30 Soviet tanks and 28 antitank guns. From July 5-16, Das Reich alone knocked out 448 Soviet tanks and assault guns against a loss of 46 of its own. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps chalked up 1,149 Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles. The trend of high Soviet losses against those of the Germans would continue for a long time to come, and often at times be exceeded, as in future battles the Germans were usually on the defensive.
Nevertheless, the strategic consequences at Kursk were not lost on the German commanders. “Citadel had been a complete and most regrettable failure…with the failure of our supreme effort, the strategic initiative passed to the Russians,”35 reflected Von Mellenthin. Von Manstein commented, “When Citadel was called off, the initiative in the Eastern theater of war finally passed to the Russians.”36 Guderian agreed, “By the failure of Citadel we suffered a decisive defeat.”37
Soviet propaganda naturally made the most of the Red Army victory by completely inflating the German losses. Zhukov wrote, “The picked and most powerful grouping of the Germans destroyed here [Kursk] … the faith of the German Army and the German people in the Nazi leadership … was irrevocably shattered.”38 Marshal Alexsandr M. Vasilevsky boasted of 500,000 German casualties. The massacre of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on July 12 was turned into the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army.” The Soviets claimed 400 German tanks destroyed that day and 3,100 German tanks destroyed during the whole Kursk battle. The reality was rather the reverse, and German morale remained high, both among civilians at home and among the soldiers at the front.
Only the relatively recent declassification of Waffen SS combat records and the public accessibility of Russian archival material has revealed the true nature of Kursk: a brilliant tactical victory for the Germans, but a decisive strategic victory for the Soviets.
“The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian” by L. H. Dyck was first published in World War II History Magazine September 2006 and republished on September 2016 at Warfare History Network . The article above features additional images sourced from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.
1, 2. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990), p. 30., 3, 4. Ibid., p. 309, 5. Charles Winchester, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945 ( Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998), p. 106., 6. F. W. vonMellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballatine Books, 1973), p. 264., 7. A.J. Barker, Waffen SS at War (Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing, 1998), p. 72., 8. AlfredNovotny, The Good Soldier (Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003), p. 55., 9. F. W. Mellenthin p. 264.,10. Novotny p. 52-53., 11. Mellenthin p. 273., 12, 13. David M. Glantz and House Jonathan M., The Battle of Kursk (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 152, 153., 14, 15. Ibid., p. 159., 16. Ibid, p. 173., 17. Ibib, p. 169., 18. Ibid., p. 185, Ibid., p. 188, Franz Kurowski, Panzer Aces (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), p. 178., 21. Ibid., p. 179-180., 22. Ibid., 180., 23. Ibid., p. 181., 24. Ibid., p. 312., 25. Ibid., p. 313., 26. Paul Carell, Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), p. 77., 27. Glantz and House, p. 186., 28. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Mueller Gene, Hitler’s Commanders (Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 281., 29. Glantz and House, p. 215., 30. Ibid. p. 199., 31. Carell, p. 88., 32. Mellenthin, p. 278., 33. Ibid. p. 276., 34. Zhukov Georgi R., Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 244., 35. Mellenthin, p. 277-278., 36. Glantz and House, p. 277., 37. Guderian, p. 312., 38. Ibid.,p. 278.
Barker A.J. Waffen SS at War. Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing. 1998, Carell Paul. Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, Glantz David M. and House Jonathan M. The Battle of Kursk. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1999, Guderian Heinz, Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Kurowski Franz. Panzer Aces. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2004, Mellenthin F. W. von, Panzer Battles. New York: Ballatine Books, 1973, Mitcham Samuel W. Jr. and Mueller Gene. Hitler’s Commanders. Lanham: Cooper Square Press. 2000, Novotny Alfred. The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003,Winchester Charles, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 1998, Zhukov Georgi R. Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles.New York: Harper & Row. 1969.
Military Heritage Magazine & Warfare History Network
The Unstoppable Panzer Count Strachwitz
Using speed and daring, Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz achieved multiple victories on the Eastern Front in World War II.
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
The wide tracks of Soviet T-34S and colossal KV-1S crunched through the snow. Night had fallen west of Belgorod on March 15, 1943. The Soviet tank column was headed toward a village, looking for shelter for the night. Although the village appeared deserted, the Soviet commander was wary. For days now there had been heavy fighting, with the Nazis trying to recapture Kharkov from the Soviets. The T-34s fired incendiary shells, setting ablaze a few peasant huts. When nothing moved, the tanks rumbled into the village. The commander’s tank came to halt, unaware that the muzzle of a Tiger tank hidden in a barn was pointed straight at him. Flames shot out of the barn and an 88mm shell smashed into the command tank. Suddenly, the whole village erupted in cannon fire from hidden panzers. Everywhere Soviet tanks were bursting into flames. Panic gripped the Soviet tankers, for they had recognized the hand of enemy commander, Graf Strachwitz, the “Panzer Count,” whose exploits on the Russian front would make him a legend in World War II.
Strachwitz’s story began on July 30, 1893, in Grosstein Castle, when Countess Alexandrine of Matuschka gave birth to a boy sired by Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz. As the first-born son in the family and like his father, the newborn was named after the 13th-century Dominican Saint Hyazinth. The Strachwitzes were an old and noble Upper Silesian family, traditionally allied to the Hohenzollern, the dynasty to which belonged the Electors of Brandenburg, the kings of Prussia, and the German emperor.
The young Strachwitz grew up on the agricultural and forest estates of his family, who were among the richest land owners in Silesia. Strachwitz attended the Volksschule and the Gymnasium1 of Oppeln. He began his cadet training at the Royal Prussian Junior Cadet School in Wahlstatt and then transferred to the renowned Central Cadet School at Berlin-Lichterfelde. Strachwitz had no problems with academics, excelled at sports and at horse riding, and was a superb fencer.
In 1912 Strachwitz joined the elite Imperial Potsdamer Cavalry Regiment of the Garde du Corps. Before the year was over, Strachwitz’s horsemanship singled him out for further officer training at Hannover’s prestigious Cavalry School. Put in charge of sporting activities, Leutnant Strachwitz and many of his comrades eagerly prepared for the upcoming 1916 Olympics. It was not to be—World War I broke out in 1914.
Soldiers and civilians throughout Europe rejoiced at what they thought would be a short and glorious war. Everywhere people shook Strachwitz’s hand and invited him for beer and sausages. Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for a gray field one and rode off to war at the front of his squadron. Soon the dashing Hussars found themselves stuck in clouds of dust, raised by thousands of infantry and supply wagons.
Strachwitz’s regiment was part of the 1st Guards Cavalry Division and Generaloberst Karl von Bulow’s 2nd Army. Bulow was attacking through Belgium and headed toward the Marne. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and his superiors. Even the latter addressed him as Herr Graf, as Strachwitz preferred. Because of his daring, the soldiers nick- named Strachwitz the “Last Horseman.” Soon Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class and recommended for the Iron Cross 1st Class.
With the German Army already in northeastern France by late August, Strachwitz volunteered to lead a deep reconnaissance toward Paris. Strachwitz set out early one morning with 16 of his own volunteers. The patrol avoided settlements and stuck to woods and fields but soon happened upon French cavalry. Saber in hand, Strachwitz scattered the chasseurs and freed some German prisoners.
At midday, the way was blocked again. This time the obstruction was a large English camp. Strachwitz’s Hussars burst out of an adjacent forest and through the startled soldiers. With bullets zipping past them, the German cavalry disappeared through the other side as quickly as they had appeared. Strachwitz later joined up with two other German patrols and together they reached Melun by the following morning.
While trying to blow up a railway track, the Germans were stopped by French soldiers. Frightened by the rifle shots, the German horses bolted. Without horses and hunted down by increasing numbers of French and English, Strachwitz’s band became smaller and smaller. Strachwitz nevertheless managed to demolish rail tracks and a signal box near Fontainbleau, causing panic in nearby Paris.
With the way back to the German lines blocked by the alerted French, Strachwitz led his men south in hope of finding a lightly guarded section. They continued walking through muddy ground and pouring rain and they slept under the stars or, if lucky, in a barn. One week after another, Strachwitz’s little group eluded capture. On one occasion, Strachwitz escaped a French company by running up to the crest of a wooded hill. In plain sight, he shouted and pointed for his men to escape to the right. Once on the other side of the crest, Strachwitz and his men ran to the left. The pursuing French were fooled and ran to the right. Unfortunately, during the escape a bullet caught Oberleuntnant Schierstaedt. Seriously wounded, he needed help.
To appear less conspicuous, Strachwitz gave a gold piece to an astonished farmer for some civilian clothes. The count left a whole pouch full of gold when he took a cart and horse from an abandoned barn. Strachwitz needed the cart to transport Schierstaedt but was forced to abandon both when confronted by a French roadblock. The exhausted Germans sought refuge in a wood but were finally caught and overpowered by French Senegalese soldiers.
Strachwitz’s capture in October 1914 was the beginning of a long ordeal fraught with hardship. Because they had been caught in civilian clothing, the French regarded them as spies and saboteurs. Twice it looked like Strachwitz and his men would face the firing squad, but their sentence was five years at hard labor. At Avignon, Strachwitz underwent a year of torture and humiliation. Regaining his soldier’s status, Strachwitz was transferred to the German officer prison at Fort Barre. Strachwitz tried to escape by digging a tunnel but was caught. As punishment, he was chained up in the hold of a French ship to deter U-boat attacks. Strachwitz was emaciated by the time he was returned to Fort Barre. As soon as he recovered, Strachwitz joined Oberleutnant von Lossow in another escape attempt. The two climbed the wall, threw a guard off the parapet, and jumped down the other side. Strachwitz landed in barbed wire and tore his foot, but he and Lossow were free.
Strachwitz and Lossow hid in woods during the day, marching at night and avoiding settlements. After two weeks they reached the vicinity of Mont Blanc and the Swiss border. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s painful wound had become infected. While climbing a rock face, Strachwitz slipped and sustained further injuries. After finding shelter in a cabin, he unsuccessfully pleaded with Lossow to abandon him. Detected by locals, the two fugitives were apprehended by gendarmerie.
Strachwitz ended up in the officer prison at Carcassonne in southwestern France where he recovered sufficiently to saw at the window bars with a homemade file. Betrayed by an informant, Strachwitz was thrown in solitary. His untreated wound got worse but proved to be his salvation when an inspecting Swiss doctor demanded that the fever-ridden Strachwitz be handed over to the Swiss Red Cross. As his health improved in a Geneva hospital, Strachwitz avoided being returned to France as a prisoner by faking mental illness. Confined at Herisau Institute, the mental anguish of the inmates nearly drove Strachwitz to suicide. After the war ended on November 11, 1918, Strachwitz was released.
With German Emperor Wilhelm II being forced to abdicate, Germany plunged into civil strife. Strachwitz arrived in Berlin where the fledgling republic was threatened by communist revolutionaries. Joining government loyalist troops, Strachwitz took part in the weeks of fighting that lasted into January 1919.
Silesia had been part of Prussia for nearly two centuries. Before Prussia it had been ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs, and before them by Bohemia; however, for most of the Middle Ages, Upper Silesia had been Polish. With the recreation of Poland after World War I, the Poles wanted Upper Silesia to become part of Poland again. Token French, English, and Italian garrisons were supposed to keep the peace between the Germans and the Poles but mostly stayed neutral or, in the case of the French, actively supported the Poles. During these uncertain times, Strachwitz remained active in the illegal militia while managing the family estate. In July, Strachwitz married Alexandrine “Alda” Freiin Surma-Jeltsch, who nine months later gave birth to their son.
In March 1921 Upper Silesia voted whether to remain in Germany or be ceded to Poland. Although the German vote won, the region that voted Polish was allowed to join Poland. Unsatisfied, militant Poles led by Wojciech Korfanty tried to seize the German territory as well. At Gross Stein, Strachwitz awoke to gun shots and the sound of refugees fleeing from the advancing Poles. Strachwitz brought his family, including his pregnant wife, to safety then hurried back to join the German resistance.
Although the Poles outnumbered the Germans, the Germans had more combat experience and were buffered by paramilitary Freikorps. Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. The fighting climaxed on May 21, 1921, with the iconic Battle of Annaberg. While the Germans under General Karl Höfer and Bernhard von Hülsen attacked the Polish-held mountain from the front, Strachwitz sneaked his men around the rear. Strachwitz forced the Poles on the summit to surrender after a short but violent fight.
In the ensuing battles, the Germans repulsed more Polish attacks. Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns against the fleeing Poles. The conflict was finally settled in 1922 with Germany retaining the western two thirds of Upper Silesia while the industrial eastern third was ceded to Poland. Strachwitz received the Silesian Order of the Eagle, second and first class.
During the interwar years, Strachwitz moved his growing family to Alt Siedel manor. He educated himself in forest management and modern methods of agriculture. In 1931 Strachwitz joined the Nazi Party, reckoning that doing so would benefit his Silesian homeland. Two years later he was admitted into the Schutzstaffel (SS), which was eager to have aristocrats in its ranks; however, Strachwitz never served in the SS and remained a reserve officer under the command of the new Wehrmacht. The latter made Strachwitz Rittmeister der Reserve (Cavalry Master of the Reserve) in 1936.
When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Strachwitz was put in charge of supply and reinforcement for the 1st Panzer Division’s 2nd Panzer Regiment. Despite his rear-echelon position, he participated in the fighting and earned the Iron Cross Second Class. To help the wounded, Strachwitz allowed Gross Stein to be used as a military hospital. Back at Alt Siedel by mid-October, Strachwitz returned to his division at the end of the year.
During the six-week-long Battle of France in the spring of 1940, the 1st Panzer Division spearheaded General Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps’ fateful drive through the Ardennes to the English Channel. At the start of the offensive, a young officer asked Strachwitz if he hated the French. In spite of his bad experiences, Strachwitz replied that he had no hate and that he respected the French as soldiers, who ceased to be his enemy once they were defeated.
On the morning of May 14, French aircraft struck the German crossing of the Meuse Bridge. Strachwitz directed traffic and ordered the men to take cover. After the German break through over the Meuse, Strachwitz set out with his Kubelwagen and driver for a reconnaissance. Nineteen miles into French territory, they pulled up to a French signals garrison. Strachwitz got out of the car, calmly lit a cigarette, and demanded the surrender of the garrison in perfect French. He told the captain that his panzers were only minutes away. The bluff worked and 600 French soldiers surrendered. Strachwitz delivered the captives in their own new trucks. “Strachwitz, that devil”2 exclaimed General Friedrich Kirchner of the 1st Panzer Division upon learning of the feat. Promoted to major, Strachwitz was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class in June.
Strachwitz was on another excursion when he watched the embarkation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. He was dumbfounded by Hitler’s order to halt the panzers in favor of air strikes. The miraculous British evacuation was soon eclipsed by the fall of France, however. Alongside the 2nd Panzer Regiment, Strachwitz was transferred to East Prussia and to the new 16th Panzer Division led by Generalmajor Hans-Valentin Hube.
The one-armed Hube clapped Strachwitz on the shoulder, granted Strachwitz’s frontline request, and assigned him the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Regiment, 16th Panzer Division. Strachwitz briefly took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia before being withdrawn to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
At the outset of the invasion, the 16th Panzer Division was in the forefront of Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist’s First Panzer Group, which had as its initial objective the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. On June 26, Kleist was more than 75 miles into Soviet territory when Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos launched a spirited counterattack. In the hills west of the Ikwa River, 2nd Panzer Regiment sallied forth to intercept masses of Soviet tanks. Amid deafening explosions, fountains of earth, and clouds of smoke, an adjutant reported to Strachwitz that they were T-26 light tanks. Strachwitz’s binoculars zeroed in on more Soviet tanks in the woods to the rear. He ordered the heavier Mark IVs to counter the Soviet outflanking attempt. Soviet infantry swarmed through the panzers. A bullet grazed Strachwitz’s arm. Roughly bandaged, the wound continued to bleed into the cloth. At dusk, after hours of fighting, the Soviets were thrown back but the regiment had been cut off from the division.
It was only the first day of the largest tank battle of Barbarossa so far. The panzer guns proved to be nearly impotent against the new Soviet T-34s and KV-Is. The Germans made up for it with superior tactics, Junkers Ju-87 Stuka support, and tank-busting 88mm guns. Strachwitz drove back attacking tank packs, chased them into the night, and shot up Soviet batteries. The battle wound down at the beginning of July, with Kirponos withdrawing toward Kiev.
The First Panzer Group headed south, intending to link up with Seventeenth Army and trap Soviet forces in a pocket at Uman, 200 miles south of Kiev. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz had his panzers move their guns to a six o’clock position in Soviet fashion, which enabled him to ambush the enemy or wreak havoc behind their lines. Strachwitz sustained additional minor wounds in the head and the arm. The regiment had suffered as well. Its remaining panzers were combined into one battalion led by Strachwitz.
On August 3, while attempting to secure the bridge over the Southern Bug at Pervomaisk, Strachwitz’s panzer took a direct hit by an artillery shell. The radio operator was killed but Strachwitz and his remaining crew were able to crawl out of the smoking wreck. Fighting off Soviet infantry with MP-40s and grenades, Strachwitz climbed into the next panzer. He led his battalion to the wooden bridge that the Soviets were trying to blow up. The panzers opened fire to cover the German pioneers storming across. The Soviets pulled back, but they maintained a withering fire. The pioneers struggled to disassemble the demolition charges until Strachwitz sped across the bridge with his panzer.
The Battle of Uman ended in another German victory. Six weeks into Barbarossa, Strachwitz’s panzers had covered 440 miles but the steppes of the Ukraine seemed endless. Sixteenth Panzer Division pushed toward the Black Sea, where Nikolajew fell on the eve of August 16. Late in August, the division was back north, resting south of Kirovograd. On August 25, Hube awarded Strachwitz with the Knight’s Cross.
Restored to two battalions, Panzer Regiment 2 returned to action in September as part of the southern pincer of the Kiev encirclement. On September 16 the gigantic pocket of the Dnieper bend was closed 130 miles east of Kiev. Strachwitz’s battalion engaged Soviet troops desperately trying to break through to the east. When a Soviet division commander of German ancestry was captured, Strachwitz refused to take him prisoner unless the commander returned with his whole division. The next morning 7,000 men marched out of the nearby wood and into captivity. They were among the 663,000 Soviet prisoners captured at Kiev.
Strachwitz did his best to treat the prisoners well and also helped ailing farmers, women, and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unfortunately, Strachwitz’s goodwill and that of others like him was undone by Nazi terror in conquered areas. Most of the prisoners ended up starving to death or were executed, fueling hate and hardening resistance.
Upgraded to First Panzer Army, the former First Panzer Group attacked the Soviet Dnieper Front from the north in late September. On October 6 Strachwitz’s battalion captured the main road junction of Andrejewka, closing one of the last links of another huge encirclement. On October 9 the temperature dropped and falling snow obscured the view. Fighting to seal off penetrations, Strachwitz was again wounded in the head. Cutting short his field hospital stay, he returned to the front on the same day.
After the successful conclusion of the cauldron battle north of the Azov Sea, First Panzer Army pushed toward Rostov. The remaining panzers of the depleted 2nd Panzer Regiment were again amalgamated under Strachwitz’s command. At the end of October, rain, snow, and slush turned roads into swamps. Supplies slowed down and vehicles were stranded without petrol. While Strachwitz’s panzers underwent repairs at Uspenkaja, a Soviet bomber hit a camp of their own prisoners. Distraught at the bloody carnage, Strachwitz moved the Soviet prisoners farther behind the front lines.
The temperature plummeted, freezing anything stuck in the mud. Alongside 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, the 16th Panzer Division engaged a Soviet counterattack. Strachwitz rescued a Wiking pioneer battalion cut off at Balabanow. By November 23, 2nd Panzer Regiment only had 20 panzers left and was forced to fall back to the west bank of the Mius River. Strachwitz left for Germany to recover from his many combat wounds. Meanwhile, the German Army withstood the fierce Soviet winter offensive of 1941-1942 and the extreme weather that wreaked havoc among the ill-equipped troops.
Strachwitz was back with his regiment in March 1942, promoted to Oberstleutnant and awarded the wound badge in silver. On May 12 the Soviets renewed their push for Kharkov. Kleist’s panzer army riposted, attacking from south of Izyum to slice off the southern pincer of the South West Front. On May 23, Strachwitz’s battalion met the 23rd Panzer Division south of Balakleya. Marshal Semyon Timoshenko’s armies were encircled. Alongside several officers standing on a small rise of ground, Strachwitz observed columns of Soviets trying to break out. Warned by his uncanny instinct, Strachwitz suddenly grabbed the arm of the adjacent Hauptmann Freytag von Loringhoven and jerked him downhill. In the next instant a shell exploded where they had stood, killing the others.
A brief period of rest followed the German victory at Izyum. Around this time Strachwitz took over command of the entire regiment, which from June 10 onward took part in the preliminary battles for Case Blue, the massive German summer offensive of 1942. Through drenching rainstorms and seas of mud, Strachwitz engaged more Soviet armor and fought off night attacks. The 16th Panzer Division captured the heavily fortified city of Kupjansk in mid-June. During the fighting, a shell splinter struck Strachwitz’s head. He had the wound provisionally treated, then quickly returned to his men.
On July 8, once more rested and refitted, 16th Panzer Division took part in Sixth Army’s drive for Stalingrad on the Volga River. Assault- ing the Soviet bridgehead over the Don River west of Kalach in late July, Sixth Army won its last great encirclement battle. Armor combat raged through the villages and on the heat- scorched grass steppes, mirrored by equally fierce aerial engagements in the sky above. Strachwitz was again wounded. His regiment breached one of the last Soviet defenses north of Kalach, enabling the linkup with 24th Panzer Division. During the battle, Strachwitz’s regiment knocked out well over 100 enemy tanks.
After waiting out a morning barrage of Soviet artillery and rockets on August 23 in a foxhole, Strachwitz led his panzers in XIV Panzer Corps’ final 35-mile drive to Stalingrad. Henschel Hs-129 and Ju-87 ground attack aircraft opened the way for 400 panzers, breaking all resistance. Upon approaching the northern suburbs, the Soviets used their heavy antiaircraft guns in a ground fire role against Strachwitz’s panzers. With the help of Stukas, Strachwitz destroyed 37 of these antiaircraft guns without suffering a loss. The Germans were shocked to discover that the mangled gun crews were women, poorly trained in engaging ground targets.
Strachwitz led his panzers down a street, driving along the edge in case the road was mined. A hidden antitank gun opened up, barely missing Strachwitz’s panzer. The Soviet gun was quickly knocked out, and Strachwitz kept going until he reached the high western banks of the Volga. He marveled at the spectacle of the city and river below. With the exception of the onion shaped cathedral spires of the old town, Stalingrad was a modern industrial city. Factories, smokestacks, and suburbs extended in a narrow strip along the Volga. Clouds of smoke from bombing Stukas and Soviet antiaircraft guns drifted over the whole scene. The river was full of boats against which Strachwitz directed his panzer cannons, sinking several vessels.
Ordered to help defend the northern industrial suburbs, Strachwitz hid his three companies at the bottom of a long hill. Multiple waves of Soviet armor obstinately attacked over the crest. At a range of 300 to 500 yards, the panzers knocked out more than 100 tanks in two days. “Our Panzer Count only needed to sit behind the front in his command tank, which had a wooden dummy gun, tallying up the knocked out enemy tanks reported by the companies,”3 said von Loringhoven. Heavy fighting for the northern sector continued through September into October, with Hitler insisting on capturing positions no matter what the cost. On October 13 Strachwitz’s panzer received a direct hit. Severely burned, Strachwitz was flown to the Reserve Hospital at Breslau. He was still recuperating when the Soviet counteroffensive in late November encircled the doomed German Sixth Army. Strachwitz pleaded to return to the front but, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, General Hube refused.
Strachwitz received the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross in December and a promotion to Oberst der Reserve on January 1, 1943. His new command was the panzer regiment of the elite Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland. On March 9 Strachwitz’s regiment joined Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s counterattack against the overextended Soviets at Kharkov. West of Belgorod, Grossdeutschland squared off against three Soviet tank corps.
The fighting included an intense night battle on March 15-16. Having seen the dark silhouettes of Soviet tanks against the snow converging on his position, Strachwitz hid his panzers, including three Tigers, in a deserted peasant village. In a horseshoe formation, camouflaged, dug in, or hidden in the thatched huts, the panzers waited until nightfall. The rumbling of as many as 50 Soviet tanks resounded through the dark. A few huts were hit by incendiary shells and burst into flames.
Strachwitz remained calm, letting the whole Soviet column enter the village. With a Soviet command tank within 70 meters, Strachwitz’s hidden Tiger fired and blasted the turret right off the T-34. The other panzers let loose, knocking out 18 T-34s and KV-1s in a few minutes. Strachwitz climbed on top of his turret and watched the inferno. “The Russians have recognized us, they’re broadcasting, ‘Watch out, it’s Strachwitz,”4 said Strachwitz’s radio operator. The Soviets desperately tried to pull out but were shot up in the process. The Soviet losses were only part of the more than 300 Soviet tanks destroyed or disabled by Strachwitz’s regiment between March 14 and March 19.
Strachwitz was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross on March 28. His soldiers honored him by substituting Strachwitz’s name for that of the Napoleonic-era Lutzow in the popular soldier’s song “Lutzow’s Wild, Venturous Hunt.” Strachwitz took two weeks of hol- iday visiting Berchtesgaden with his wife Alda. Appearing on a radio show, Strachwitz accredited his successes to the close cooperation, the high skill level, and the total commitment of every single man in his regiment.
During Operation Citadel, the German summer offensive of 1943, Grossdeutschland fought as part of Fourth Panzer Army, forming the southern pincer during the Battle of Kursk. Morale among the soldiers was high, not the least because Strachwitz was fighting with them. “I remember how much talk there was among us that we had nothing to fear, because we had Graf von Strachwitz and his new, invincible Panther tanks with us,”5 said Grossdeutschland fusilier Alfred Novotny.
Heavy rain fell on July 5th, as massive artillery salvos opened the battle. Grossdeutschland fought its way through the deep Soviet defenses of minefields, antitank guns, and dug-in tanks north of Belgorod. Strachwitz took over command of Panzer Brigade 10, which included his own regiment and Panzerregiment 39 with its new Panthers, from July 7 to July 11. The fighting on July 7 alone accounted for 62 Soviet tanks and 55 antitank guns destroyed, but Soviet resistance stiffened toward the Oboyan Heights.
On July 9 Strachwitz received the news that his oldest son had been seriously wounded. The day after, Strachwitz was resting his arm on the breech lock when his new gunner fired prematurely; smashing the count’s arm. Receiving a plaster cast, Strachwitz hurried back to his regiment, led another attack, and received another light wound. Outraged at Strachwitz’s self-sacrifice, Generalleutnant Walter Hoernlein sent the count back to the field hospital.
Strachwitz returned to combat in August. The Battle of Kursk had meanwhile ended in a German defeat, forcing the German Army to withdraw ever farther westward. So severe was the fighting that Strachwitz only had one operational panzer by the end of September. By late December, Grossdeutschland was across the Dnieper River at Kirovgrad. Strachwitz received another serious wound, this time in the left arm. After being sent to Breslau hospital, he completed his convalescence at home
Early in January 1944, Strachwitz was promoted to Hoheren Panzerführer (Higher Panzer Commander) of Army Group North. The northern German front had fallen back to the city of Narva, the gateway to Estonia. Strachwitz sought to eliminate the Soviet bridgehead over the Narva River at Krivasso. The bridgehead was so large that it needed to be divided into three parts and eliminated one part at a time.
On March 26, Strachwitz attacked head-on as swampy wooded terrain precluded any outflanking. Spearheading the attack in one of the first three Panzer IVs, Strachwitz was nearly hit by friendly fire from a Stuka. The fighting continued through the night in dark, claustrophobic conditions. Walking stick in hand, wearing his trademark sheepskin jacket, Strachwitz was always at the front, keeping up on the latest battle developments and insuring sufficient supplies. He handed out cognac and chocolate, offered encouragement, and awarded Iron Crosses. It took several days of hard fighting until the Soviets were defeated.
Promoted to major general of the reserve on April 1, Strachwitz prepared for the attack on the next portion of the bridgehead. This time the terrain allowed the use of the Tigers of Heavy Panzer Battalion 502. “[Strachwitz] won our confidence from the very beginning,” commented Panzer ace Leutnant Otto Carius of Battalion 502. For Carius, Strachwitz “was one of those personalities who one could never forget.”6
Carius’s Tigers took the lead, shielding the fusiliers following behind. Soviet small arms fire ricocheting off the Tigers, but ripped into some of the fusiliers. Contact was established with German troops trapped in the pocket. At night, Soviets hidden in the forest ambushed German infantry and armored personnel carriers. Nevertheless, by April 9, after four days of intense fighting, the last Soviet resistance was eliminated.
The last of the bridgehead still remained, however, and it was nearly twice the size of the previous ones. Strachwitz directed the offensive via radio in a bunker, which the Soviets continued to shell. This time, though, the Soviets were alert, their defenses were too strong, and the spring melt had begun. After three days, on April 21, the offensive had to be called off.
In recognition of Strachwitz’s initial successes, Hitler presented him with the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross. Strachwitz bluntly rejected Hitler’s request to eliminate the remain- ing bridgehead. “Panzers can’t drive in the swamp,”7 Strachwitz told Hitler. Strachwitz continued to lead infiltrating actions on the southern flank of Army Group North. Penetrating 90 miles into enemy territory, Strachwitz burst upon an unsuspecting Soviet tank lager, blowing up tank after tank and spraying their startled crews with machine-gun fire.
There was no stopping the Soviet juggernaut, though, when, on June 22 Operation Bagration overwhelmed the undermanned and under-equipped lines of Army Group Center. Strachwitz was part of the relief attempt of Vilnius, making it possible to evacuate thousands of wounded soldiers before the city fell to the Soviets on July 13.
A significant event occurred that month at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. On July 20 Major Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb at the Wolf’s Lair in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. At the time, Strachwitz was nursing a leg wound in Silesia. Many of Strachwitz’s acquaintances and friends were arrested and interrogated. The count tried to intervene but came under suspicion himself. When the Gestapo questioned Strachwitz’s Catholic religion and connections, Strachwitz admonished them for their Nazi atheism.
Strachwitz was soon needed back at the front. On August 1 the Soviets reached the Gulf of Riga at Tuckum, stranding 30 German divisions in northern Latvia and Estonia. In Operation Double Head, Third Panzer Army sought to reestablish contact by recapturing Tuckum and coming to the relief of beleaguered Riga. “If anyone can do it, it’s Strachwitz,”8 said Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian upon being informed that Strachwitz was to spearhead the attack.
On August 18, Strachwitz’s battle group advanced from of Frauenburg, East Prussia, crossing Lithuania on its way to Tuckum. Strachwitz’s command consisted of about 2,500 Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers and 60 panzers, mostly new Panthers from Panzer Brigade 101. There were also a couple of Tigers from the 103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, Mark IIIs and IVs of SS Brigade Gross, and armored personnel carriers and flak units.
At a bridge west of Tuckum, the surprised Soviet battalion gave up without a fight. Reaching the outskirts of the city on August 20, Stra- chwitz called for support from the cruiser Prinz Eugen in the Gulf of Riga. Prinz Eugen’s 203mm guns and the guns of several destroyers zeroed in on Tuckum’s market square, obliterating dozens of parked T-34s. Strachwitz’s panzer entered the city, driving by charred tanks. Some were overturned and their crews dead and burned. As for the survivors, they were too dazed to fight back. A few remaining tanks were easily dispatched. With SS Brigade Gross holding Tuckum, Strachwitz intercepted an approaching Soviet convoy. Believing themselves surrounded, the whole convoy surrendered.
Strachwitz pushed on to Riga with his grenadier battalions and his nine remaining Panthers, as many of the Panthers had broken down. After further engagements in a wood, Strachwitz entered Riga on the August 21. Driving by cheering Latvians and German troops, the count’s Panther stopped in the marketplace right in front of a number of high-ranking officers. In his sweat- and dirt-stained overall, his face smeared in oil, Strachwitz emerged from the cupola. “Hurra, Leutnant, you have busted the cauldron,”9 called out an officer. To astonished gazes, Strachwitz replied that he was a full fledged general.
Grossly overestimating Strachwitz’s force, the Soviet Fifty-First Army claimed that Tuckum had been attacked by 300 tanks. In three days, Strachwitz’s small battle group had captured 18,000 prisoners and destroyed numerous artillery pieces, tanks, and antitank guns. The wounded could be evacuated out of Riga and contact had been reestablished, albeit only temporarily, with Army Group North.
On August 24, 1944, Strachwitz was nearly killed in a traffic accident. Knocked uncon- scious, he woke up two weeks later in Riga hospital. He could hear the Soviets firing artillery at the city. Some rounds hit the hospital, but Strachwitz’s injuries prevented his transport. It was not until early October, with the fall of Riga imminent, that Strachwitz was flown to Breslau. The doctors counted on keeping him hospitalized for eight months. Strachwitz left after only seven days, continuing his recovery at Alt Siedel.
With the Soviets surging into Silesia on January 16, 1945, Strachwitz showed up at Field Marshal Ferdinand Schorner’s Oppeln headquarters on crutches. Strachwitz asked to return to the front to defend his homeland. Even Schorner, who sent anyone remotely combat-worthy to the front, was stunned. Schorner needed someone to organize tank hunters armed with panzerfausts. Strachwitz undertook the effort. Within a few weeks, 8,000 men volunteered. The force included hardened veterans, returning wounded, and idealistic teenagers. The desperate nature of the final days of fighting was embodied by Strachwitz’s youngest son, Hubertus Arthur, who despite being a leg amputee, volunteered to return to the front and was killed on March 25.
After Germany’s surrender on May 8, Strachwitz ensured that most of his soldiers ended up in American captivity. A still limping Strachwitz surrendered to an American lieutenant in Felgen. The count looked so haggard that the lieutenant thought he needed medical help. Taken to the Allendorf, Strachwitz found himself in the company of several hundred German officers, including Guderian and Adolf Galland. They were treated well and used to gain records of the war and military tactics. Strachwitz spent two years in captivity, during which he received the disheartening news that his wife Alda had been killed by a U.S. military truck.
Upon regaining his freedom in the spring of 1947, Strachwitz no longer had a home to which he could return. His ancestral lands in Upper Silesia had been occupied by Russians who later handed them over to Poland. His tattered uniform and his medals were all that Strachwitz had left. In a fresh start to a new life, Strachwitz married again. His bride was the much younger Nora von Stumm. After two years abroad beginning in 1949, the couple eventually returned to Germany, settling in upper Bavaria. Strachwitz founded a refugee foundation for displaced Silesians and became a Knight of Devotion of the Order of St. John.
On April 25, 1968, the 75-year-old Strachwitz, who was a heavy smoker, succumbed to lung cancer. “It was because of his bravery, which served as an example to all officers and soldiers, that he carried the highest decorations of the Knight’s Cross, the Oakleaves, the Swords and the Diamonds,”10 said General Heinz-Georg Lemm of the Bundeswehr, himself a holder of the Oak Leaves and Swords, at Strachwitz’s funeral. Unlike most senior commanders of the Third Reich, Strachwitz was buried with full military honors.
Strachwitz’s motto was, “Panzers should not be standing around, they should be rolling along, either shooting at the enemy or attacking and pursuing.”11 With speed and daring and a knack for improvisation and organization, Strachwitz achieved victories against great odds. Strachwitz was wounded 14 times, but he proved as tough as the wild boar on the Strachwitz coat of arms. Guderian rightly considered Strachwitz to be one of the greatest panzer leaders.
“The Unstoppable Count Strachwitz” by L. H. Dyck was first published by Military Heritage Magazine in July 2017, then re-published on their online website Warfare History Network in 2018. Since then it has been picked up by The National Interest and by Yahoo News which renamed the article “Russia Feared Hitler’s Panzer Tanks But They Might Have Feared Who Led Them Even More” and generated a considerable number of views. As the author I do not favor the later title, which to me seems provocative. From a Russian standpoint, the title could be seen as belittling the courageous war efforts of the Soviet army- which deserves the lion’s share of the victory laurels against Nazi Germany. The article tells of the heroic deeds in battle of Count Strachwitz, by all accounts a man of honor, but in no way is it meant to glorify the regime he fought for.
The present article has been re-edited by the author and contains notes and sources as well as additional images from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.
1. The gymnasium is a German high school that prepares students for university as opposed to the trades, 2. Hans-Joachim Rõll, Generalleutnant der Reserve Hyacinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz (Würtzburg; Flechsig, 2001, p. 54), 3. Ibid., p. 110, 4. Ibid., p. 134, 5. Novotny Afred, The Good Soldier ( Bedford: Aberjona Press, 2003), p. 52, 6. Hans-Joachim Rõll, p. 139, 7. Ibid., p. 152, 8. Ibid., p. 153, 9. Ibid., p. 159, 10. Ibid., p. 181, 11. Ibid., p. 169.
Bagdonas, Raymond. The Devil’s General. Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2013, Carrell, Paul , Hitler Moves East 1941-1943. New York: Bantam Books, 1967, Encyclopedia Britannica, Silesia, https://www.britannica.com/place/Silesia#ref1231547, Langer William L. , editor, The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1972, Lucas, James, Hitler’s Enforcers. London: Brockhampton Press, 1999, Mitcham, Samuel W. JR., Hitler’s Field Marshals and their Battles. Landham: Scarborough House, 1990, Novotny Alfred, The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press, 2003, Perret, Bryan, Knights of the Black Cross. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986, Rebentisch, Ernst, The Combat History of the 23rd Panzer Division in World War II, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2012, Rõll, Hans-Joachim. Generalleutnant der Reserve Hyacinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz. Würtzburg; Flechsig, 2001, Der Spiegel, Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz, Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44435520.html, Stokesbury James L. . A Short History of World War I. London: Robert Hall, 1981., Williamson, Gorden, Knight’s Cross with Diamonds Recipients. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006, Winchester, Charles, Ostfront. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998.
Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”
Ludwig H. Dyck
Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;
“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”
“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;
“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”
Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”
As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.
“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”
Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;
“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”