“With speed and daring and a knack for improvisation and organization, Strachwitz achieved near miracles in battle against overwhelming odds”
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche and Camminetz’s incredible military career spanned two world wars and a civil war.
During World War I, the young Strachwitz served in the 1st Guards Cavalry Division:
“Leutnant Strachwitz exchanged his white Hussar dress uniform for field gray 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. Carrying out reconnaissance, Strachwitz impressed both his men and superiors. Because of his daring, the soldiers nicknamed Strachwitz the “last horseman.”
At the end of WWI, Strachwitz found his Silesian homeland torn by civil strife between Poles and Germans:
“Leading a counterattack, Strachwitz fought off eight Polish companies and retook his ancestral castle. During the ensuing fighting, Strachwitz captured an artillery battery and turned the guns the fleeing Poles.”
It was, however, during WWII, that Strachwitz’s military exploits made him a legend. Although assigned a rear-echelon position during the French campaign of 1940, Strachwitz could not be kept from the front. Setting out with on his own initiative, Strachwitz and his driver drove nineteen miles into French territory where he 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.”
With the German attack on Soviet Russia in 1941, Strachwitz was granted front line command as battalion commander with the 16th Panzer division. On June 26, 16th Panzer got hit by Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos’ spirited counterattack:
“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 in Barbarossa so far.”
By 1943, Strachwitz had been promoted to Oberst der Reserve (Colonel of the Reserve) and commanded the panzer regiment of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. During the night of March 15-16, Strachwitz hid his panzers in a deserted peasant village west of Belgorod:
“Strachwitz remained calm, letting the whole Soviet column enter the village. With a Soviet command tank within 70 yards, 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,” exclaimed Strachwitz’s radio operator.”
When on August 1st, 1944, the Soviets reached the Gulf of Riga at Tuckum they cut off 30 German divisions in northern Latvia and Estonia. Someone needed to break through to beleaguered Riga. “If anyone can do it, it’s Strachwitz,” said Chief of Staff Heinz Guderian.
“Strachwitz entered Riga on 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. “Hurrah Leutnant, you busted the cauldron,” called out an officer. To astonished gazes, Strachwitz replied that he was a full-fledged general. In three days, Strachwitz’s small battlegroup had captured 18,000 prisoners and destroyed numerous artillery pieces, tanks and anti-tank guns.”
In a war and theater of operations that was characterized by a descending spiral of hatred and brutality, Strachwitz did his best to treat prisoners as best he could. He also helped ailing farmers, women and children. Often his men repaired local churches, further endearing him to the population. Unlike most senior commanders of the Third Reich, upon his death in 1968, Strachwitz was buried with full military honors:
“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,” said General Heinz Georg Lemm of the Bundeswehr, himself a holder of the Oakleaves and Swords.”
Ludwig H. Dyck’s full article on Count Strachwitz is featured in Military Heritage Magazine’s July 2017 issue. Copyright L. H. Dyck.
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.”
Leader of the Lusitani resistance against the Roman Republic, Viriathus became Portugal’s First National Hero
Viriathus & the Lusitani surrender to Rome
The Lusitani were one of the large Celt-Iberian tribal groups of Hispania (Spain), the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. The Lusitani lands roughly equated with those of today’s Portugal. In 206 BCE, after Rome had appropriated the Carthaginian domains of southern Spain, the native Iberians rose up in revolt. The ongoing conflicts eventually spread to involve the free Celt-Iberian tribes to the north. The Lusitani started fighting the Romans in 194 BCE, raiding into Hispania Ulterior, (further Spain) the nearest of the two Roman Spanish provinces. When in 179 BCE hostilities finally ceased, it was largely due to the respect the Lusitani had gained for the Roman governor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the Elder). It was around this time that Viriathus was born.
Viriathus spent his childhood tending sheep in the hills and wild lands. When he became a teenager Viriathus likely started to join in local raids. Like other young Celt-Iberian warriors, he sought to prove his valor in the banditry that was common among the tribes. As Viriathus grew to manhood he watched his tribe’s relations with Rome deteriorate. The governors that had come to take Gracchus’ place were men of greed, who oppressed the neighboring tribes. After Lusitani complaints to the Roman Senate failed to improve the situation, the Lusitani resumed hostilities with Hispania Ulterior in 154 BCE. Viriathus would have been in his twenties at the time. In 153 BCE, some of the Lusitani even crossed the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) and struck into Africa. Two years later, the Lusitani inflicted a defeat on Hispania Ulterior’s Governor, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Probably Viriathus took part in at least some of these campaigns, his charisma and leadership gaining him a band of followers.
Although the Lusitani remained unbowed, the years of war had taken their toll. Almost certainly, Viriathus had lost relatives and close friends. Exhausted from having their homes burnt, their people killed or enslaved, the Lusitani sent envoys to Galba. He told them that he understood their reasons for making war. “Poorness of the soil and penury force you to do these things. But I will give my poor friends good land, and settle them in a fertile country, in three divisions” (Appian, Roman History, VI. X. 59, 60). Viriathus had heard of the great Gracchus from his elders. Perhaps Galba too was a man of his word.
Governor Galba betrays the Lusitani
Viriathus joined the men, women and children who gathered in the villages of Lusitania. They set out with their belongings, their carts, their livestock and their weapons, to meet up with others until scores became hundreds and hundreds became thousands. The year was 150 BCE and the Lusitani were surrendering to Rome. There were fully 30,000 of them when the Roman soldiers told the chieftains that the Lusitani should separate themselves into three groups. Escorted by legionaries and auxiliaries, the groups were led out of sight of each other.
Galba visited the first group, asking them to lay down their weapons to show their peaceful intentions. The Lusitani did as requested only to watch in apprehension as Roman soldiers dug a trench around them. The legionaries then forced their way through panicking Lusitani families. The Romans seized Lusitani of fighting age and killed them on the spot. A life of slavery awaited the others. Both the other tribal groups were dealt with in the same fashion. In what must have been a mad scramble to escape the slaughter, only a few escaped. Galba kept almost all of the loot and gave only a small amount to his soldiers. Back in Rome, the Senate was outraged at Galba’s disdainful behavior but were unable to reprimand him on account of his great wealth.
Viriathus leads the Lusitani to Victory
Among the survivors of Galba’s massacre was Viriathus, who swore vengeance on Rome. Viriathus became a young chieftain and in 147 BCE joined a Lusitani army raiding into Roman pacified Turdetania. Legate Gaius Vetilius responded vigorously, however, trapping the Lusitani against a river. Downcast, the Lusitani sent envoys with olive branches to Vetilius. They repeated their pleas for more fertile lands to settle on.
Vetilius agreed to the Lusitani demands but in turn demanded the surrender of their weapons. Viriathus would have none of it, reminding the tribesmen of Galba’s treachery. His words stirred their hearts and spirits so that they called upon Viriathus to take command of their entire army. Assembling the Lusitani cavalry, Viriathus led them in feint charges against the Roman lines. The skirmishing confused the Roman commanders and allowed the Lusitani infantry to flee the field.
At night, Viriathus and the cavalry slipped away to join his infantry. Vetilius came in pursuit but the heavily armored legionaries were unable to catch up with the lightly armed Lusitani. Viriathus kept just out of reach, drawing the Romans up the Barbesula River valley until the Roman column was strung out along a narrow pass, with a slope covered in thickets on one side and a cliff on the other. Here Viriathus sprung his trap, wheeling his cavalry around and attacking from the front while tribesmen hidden in the thickets stormed down the slope. The Lusitani threw javelins then closed in wielding short swords and the deadly falcata, the curved sickle-like swords that widened toward the tip. The Romans managed to fight their way out but not before losing over half their number. Vetilius was among the 4000 casualties.
As Viriathus’ renown grew, more and more tribesmen came over to his side. Here was a leader who even the Romans could not beat. Viriathus always divided the loot fairly, even distributing his own share to his bravest warriors. In a tale of his wedding, Viriathus was unimpressed by the gold and silver of his Romanized father-in-law. He leaned on his spear and ate little, offering sacrifices in the Lusitani way, then lifting his bride onto his horse and riding away into the hills.
In 146 BCE, Viriathus raided into the fertile Carpetani lands. Retreating before larger Roman forces, he wheeled back to strike at the strung out Roman column and inflicted severe casualties. The Romans named this feint and counter-strike method of fighting, the concursare. The same year Viriathus defeated another pursuing Roman army around Mt. Veneris (“Venus” mountain), harassed Roman garrisons in central Spain and captured Segobriga. Viriathus displayed the Roman standards throughout the hillsides. The Roman army commander, Claudius Unimanus left an account of the ferocity of the fighting:
“In a narrow pass 300 Lusitani faced 1000 Romans; as a result of the action 70 of the former and 320 of the latter died. When the victorious Lusitani retired and dispersed confidently, one of them on foot became separated, and was surrounded by a detachment of pursuing cavalry. The lone warrior pierced the horse of one of the riders with his spear, and with a blow of his sword cut off the Roman’s head, producing such terror among the others that they prudently retired under his arrogant and contemptuous gaze” (Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 5.4).
Attrition wears down the Viriathus
Rome’s victories in the Fourth Macedonian War (149-148 BCE) and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), freed additional resources up for the Spanish theater. In 145 BCE consul Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, of the renowned Scipio family, arrived in Hispania Ulterior with two green legions and allies totaling 15,000 foot and 2000 horse. Fabius took his time training his troops and limited them to skirmishes. In 144 BCE he engaged Viriathus directly, coming off the better and burning two cities to the ground. When Fabius was replaced by Quintus Pompeius the next year, Viriathus regained his winning streak, ambushing Quintus near Venus Mountain.
In 142 BCE, the fortunes of the war turned again when Fabius’ brother, consul Fabius Maximus Servilianus brought with him 20,000 troops and routed Viriathus near Itucci. In their next confrontation, Viriathus slashed back in one of his typical counter-strikes and inflicted 3000 casualties. Nevertheless, worn down by attrition, Viriathus fell back from central Spain to Lusitania. After him came Servilianus, who laid siege to the town of Erisana. Viriathus came to the rescue, trapping the Romans in a defile but then offering peace terms.
Viriathus’ only demand from Rome was that the Lusitani borders be respected and that the Lusitani become amici populi Romani -“Friends of the Roman People.” Although Servilianus accepted and the Senate ratified the terms, Roman pride found it hard to forgive a guerrilla leader who had humbled Rome. The Romans provoked the Lusitani until war erupted once more in 140 BCE. Servilianus’ brother, consul Q. Servilius Caepio, who took over in Hispania Ulterior, chased Viriathus through Carpentania, Lusitania and through the Vettones lands. The passage of the Roman forces was marked by destruction. When Caepio was further reinforced by Popilius Laenas from Hispania Citerior, the Lusitani were ready to plead for peace. Laenas was ready to grant it, but only if Roman deserters and all weapons were handed over. The Romans punished the deserters in Hispanic fashion, by chopping their rights hands off. Reluctant to turn over his weapons, Viriathus chose three close friends, Audax, Ditalco and Minuros to further negotiate.
The Murder of Viriathus
Viriathus, who for years had outwitted his foes, failed to recognize the enemy among those closest to him. After returning from the Romans, his three “friends” came to Viriathus’ tent at night. Telling the guard they urgently needed to confer with Viriathus, two of them held the sleeping Viriathus down while the third pushed a knife into his back. When the murder was discovered at daylight Viriathus’ followers were overcome with sorrow and anger. The three conspirators slipped away to the Romans. Having been paid a sum in advance, they now wanted the remainder of their payment but were told that Rome did not pay traitors. Back at the Lusitani camp, Viriathus body was dressed in rich garments and then burnt on a funeral pyre. Sacrifices were offered and warriors ran and rode around the pyre.
Although a warrior named Tantalus tried to reverse Lusitani fortunes, without Viriathus large numbers of Lusitani surrendered to Laenas in 139 BCE. Fortunately, Laenas proved a man of his word, allotting farmlands to some and deporting others to new regions. Lusitania, nevertheless, remained free of Roman dominion until the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), when the conquest of all of Hispania was completed.
Appian, Appian (Harvard University Press, 1913).
Dio Cassius, Roman History, Volume 2 (Havard University Press, 1914)
Dyck, L.H., The Roman Barbarian Wars (Pen and Sword, 2016).
Polybius, The Histories (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Wilcox, P., BARBARIANS AGAINST ROME Rome’s Celtic, Germanic, Spanish and Gallic Enemies (Osprey Publishing, 2000).
Written by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck, originally published on 07 April 2017 in Ancient History Encylopeidia under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.
Military Heritage Magazine & Military History Network
Brian Boru: Ireland’s Mighty Warrior King
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
For more than six decades, Brian Boru was at the forefront of Ireland’s nearly endless wars. Clontarf, his ultimate victory, came at a heavy price.
In 941 AD, in the fortress of Kincora overlooking the River Shannon just south of Lake Derg, Queen Be Bhionn gave birth to a son, Brian Mac Cennétig. Brian’s father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, was a petty king of the Dal Cais clan of the district of Thomond, north of Munster. To the south of Kincora, another of King Cennétig’s fortresses, Béal Boruma, guarded a river ford. There the Dalcassians paid cattle tribute to the powerful Munster clan, the Eoganacht. It was from the name of the ford that the newborn received his surname Boru (tributes), a fitting moniker for one destined to receive the tribute of all Ireland.
The Brains and Brawn of Brian Boru
As a child, Brian sat at the hearth in his father’s great hall, listening to tales of ancient Irish heroes. Thus inspired, Brian began to practice with the throwing spear as soon as he was old enough to walk. It would take more than martial skills, however, for him to become a great lord. Young Brian was sent to the monks of Inisfallen, in the lake lands of Killarney, for instruction in religious matters, science, and law.
Ireland at that time was roughly divided into the regions of Ulster in the north, Connacht in the west, Meath in the middle, Leister in the east, and Munster in the south. Each region was dominated by a king and a major clan, but there were also numerous sub-kings and minor clans. Alliances were quickly made and unmade as the kings and clans constantly fought each other. Into this political cauldron were thrown the country’s longtime foreign occupiers, the Danes and Norwegians. First as Viking raiders, then as merchants and traders, the Norsemen had established coastal bases at Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Limerick, and above all at Dublin, the future capital of Ireland.
When Brian was 11, the Eoganacht allied themselves with the Danes to defeat the Dalcassians. The war claimed the lives of Brian’s father and mother. Four years later, the Danes not only attacked the Dalcassians again, but also turned on the Eoganacht. In Munster, the Eoganacht surrendered territory after territory. In Thomond, by contrast, the Dalcassians led by their new king, Brian’s brother Mathghamhain, refused to submit. The Danes drove the Dal Cais resistance farther and farther into the ancient forests and barren limestone uplands of the Clare wilderness. Brian, now 17, fought at his older brother’s side. It was during these troublesome times that Brian married the first of several wives, Mor, who bore him three sons.
Brian the Warrior
Viking ships pillaged up and down the Shannon’s shores at will, their Norse dragon ships pushing up waterways untried by the Irish. The ships’ shallow drafts, less than four feet, allowed the raiders to jump into the water and dash unexpectedly upon riverside villages. Defeat for the Dalcassians seemed inevitable until 962, when Osraighe, a tributary kingdom of Leinster, came to the rescue by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Norsemen. With his own forces worn out, Mathghamhain welcomed the opportunity to negotiate a temporary truce with the Vikings.
Brian, however, could not forget his slain parents and opposed any sign of weakness. With only a hundred followers, he carried on the war. From hidden mountain caves and woodland strongholds, Brian and his guerrilla fighters ventured forth, weapons ready, light bags of provisions slung around their necks. At night they sneaked up on Norse outposts along the Shannon’s banks. At Brian’s signal, javelins swooshed without warning into the Norse guards. Brian and his men sprang forth, wielding their fearsome battle-axes and cleaving off whole limbs at one blow. Others drew their short swords for close-in combat, often using one in each hand. The tall Norsemen fought back fiercely, their powerful blades swinging in great arcs to slice through the hide and tanned-leather armor of the Dalcassians.
Brian’s ambushes so unnerved the Danes that there were rumors of a large Dalcassian army massing in the hills. Brian and his hungry little band paid a heavy price for their successes, finding themselves hunted incessantly through the chilling, wet winter. Brian’s followers were reduced to only 15 men, but still he did not give up. Mathghamhain, meanwhile, rebuilt his power and subdued the Eoganacht. Eventually, Brian’s unbroken spirit won Mathghamhain back to his side. In 964, the two brothers took the fight to the Danes in Limerick.
There followed four years of war, culminating in the decisive Battle of Solchoid. The Irish held the higher ground and defended from behind the cover of low willow trees and shrubs. The Norsemen, under their leader Ivar, began their assault at sunrise, but the Irish lines refused to break. At midday, the Irish stormed down to slaughter their exhausted foes. Brian and Mathghamhain marched on Limerick in the dark. The city capitulated without resistance, and the Dalcassians butchered and burned without mercy. The spoils were plentiful, but Ivar escaped to the island of Inis Cathaigh.
Avenging the Death of his Brother
Solchoid paved the way for Mathghamhain’s inauguration as king of Munster in 970. The deposed Eoganacht smoldered with resentment and bided their time. Six years later, the Eoganacht king of Desmond, Maolmhuadh, ambushed Mathghamhain on a lonely mountain road and skewered his sword through Mathghamhain’s heart. When Brian heard of his brother’s death, he swore that Mathghamahain’s murderers “shall forfeit life for this deed, or I shall perish by a violent death.”1 First to feel Brian’s wrath was Ivar, whom Brian suspected had taken a hand in the murder. Ignoring the traditional sanctuary of St. Seanan on Inis Cathaigh, Brian killed Ivar in personal combat, then slaughtered two of his sons and looted his fortress and the surrounding islands. Brian killed two more of Maolmhuadh’s allies, the treacherous Donnabhan of Fhidhghinte and Harald, Ivar’s third son and the reigning king of Limerick. Limerick was sacked again amid much killing and looting. Maolmhuadh’s end came with his defeat at the 978 Battle of Bealach Leacht, after which he was tracked down and killed by Brian’s eldest son, Murchadh.
King of Munster
Brian rode to the seat of the kings of Munster at Cashel. Under the royal tree of Maigh Adhair, he took the white wand—the royal symbol of justice—in his hand, and the royal diadem was placed on his head. In an oath of obedience, the assembled nobles of Munster placed their hands between those of Brian. The beginning of his reign was filled with battles, plundering, ravaging, and general unquiet. To face such troublesome times, Brian consolidated his position among the defeated Eoganacht, making allies of his former foes by marrying his daughter to Cian, son of the late Maolmhuadh. The marriage was a wise diplomatic move on Brian’s part, for Cian proved to be an unwavering ally.
As king of Munster, Brian faced new and more dangerous rivals. Munster and the Danes of Limerick may have been subjugated, but to the north there were more Norse strongholds and other powerful Irish kings. In 979 Brian recorded victories over the Danes of Waterford and King Ua Faolain of the neighboring Decies clan. Brian then instigated war with Leinster by demanding an 800-year-old tribute that Leinster owed the king of Munster. When Leinster refused to swear allegiance to Munster or to pay the required 300 gold-handled swords, cows with brass yokes, horses, and cloaks, Brian invaded.
War with Maol-Seachlainn
Meanwhile, the new high king of Ireland, 32-year-old Maol-Seachlainn mac Domnall II, was determined to quash anyone who questioned his authority. In 983, before he defeated the rebellious forces of Leinster and Dublin, Maol-Seachlainn veered into Munster. To warn Brian to stay put in Munster, Maol-Seachlainn uprooted Maigh Adhair. Instead, Brian riposted with a raid into Maol-Seachlainn’s realm of Meath. For the next 15 years, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn were at odds with each other. Evenly matched, they at first avoided fixed battle, instead choosing to plunder each other’s lands and prey on neighboring Irish kingdoms and Viking settlements. In 988 Brian showed himself a true opportunist when he enlisted the help of his erstwhile enemies, the Vikings of Waterford, to inflict a devastating defeat upon the king of Connacht at Lough Ree. To establish ties with the defeated King Cathal, Brian took Cathal’s daughter Dubhchobhlaigh as his wife. In 992 and again in 994, Brian’s forces met Maol-Seachlainn’s army in battle, but Brian was routed each time.
In 998, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn concluded a peace treaty, and the following year they faced the alliance of King Sigtrygg ‘Silkbeard’ Olafson of Dublin and King Maol Mórdha of Leinster. The fact that Maol Mórdha was also Sigtrygg’s uncle, while Sigtrygg himself was Maol-Seachlainn’s former stepson, showed just how closely tied the warring factions were. Sigtrygg hoped to engage Maol-Seachlainn and Brian in the open plains of Kildare, where his superior cavalry would give him the advantage, but he underestimated the speed of his foes. Brian and Maol-Seachlainn force-marched their men to intercept the Dublin-Leister army in the hills of Gleann Mama. Holding the higher ground, Brian and Maol-Seachlainn emerged victorious. Brian, not Maol-Seachlainn, claimed the battle honors, and Dublin subsequently submitted to Brian. For a week the city was sacked, yielding much gold, silver hangings, and other precious loot.
Murchadh dragged Maol Mórdha from hiding in a yew tree. Maol Mórdha’s life was spared and he was allowed to remain king of Leinster. Sigtrygg fared even better. Not only did Brian allow him to remain king of Dublin, but Brian gave him his daughter in marriage. Brian himself married the alluring Gormfhlaith, Sigtrygg’s mother and the ex-wife of Maol-Seachlainn. Gormfhlaith became Brian’s fourth wife (he also had 30 concubines). Brian hoped that his generous treatment of the defeated king and his newly forged marriage bonds would ensure Sigtrygg’s loyalty in the future.
His victory at Gleann Mama showed the rest of Ireland that Brian’s star was on the rise while that of Maol-Seachlainn was on the wane. Brian immediately turned on Maol-Seachlainn and led a great host of chiefs and forces toward Tara, a stronghold that dated back to Neolithic times and was the traditional parliament of the high kings until the 6th century. Tara remained an easily defended military position, overlooking the plains of Meath. Sent ahead of his main army, Brian’s Norse cavalry prematurely clashed with Maol-Seachlainn’s army and was nearly wiped out. Brian ignobly withdrew. King Cathal of Connacht consequently rebelled against Brian, but a year later, in 1002, Brian defeated him once again. Brian struck for Tara and demanded the high throne. By now he had intimidated all the other Irish kings. None came to fight beside Maol-Seachlainn, not even Maol-Seachlainn’s own kinsmen, the northern Ui Neill clan of Ulster. Maol-Seachlainn had little choice but to yield. At Cashel, Brian took up the diadem of high king and emperor of the Gaels. Three quarters of Ireland was now under his control.
Maol Mórdha Rises Against Brian
To cow any potential challengers, Brian built fortresses, strengthened the fortifications of Cashel, took hostages, and sent Murchadh on punitive raids. Although Cashel was his capital, Brian preferred to rule from his boyhood home, Kincora. He was fortunate that his sons proved loyal and did not turn on each other—or on him. In the subjugated Norse towns, trade with Europe flourished in slaves, wine, walrus tusks, spices, furs, and silks. From Brian’s vassal kingdoms, a ceaseless tribute of cows, hogs, cloaks, iron, and wine flowed into Munster. Decades of raids by Vikings, by Irish lords, and even by Irish abbots had caused much damage to the land. Brian used his growing wealth to improve roads, build bridges, restore old churches and monasteries, and build new ones alongside schools. For nearly a decade, minor feuds aside, Ireland enjoyed untypical peace and a cultural renaissance.
Trouble brewed when Brian became estranged from Gormfhlaith, who left Kincora to return to Dublin. Consumed by hatred for Brian, she egged on her son, Sigtrygg, and King Maol Mórdha to rise against Brian. Brian responded with a severe new tribute that sent Leinster into near-starvation and summoned Maol Mórdha to Kincora for a show of obedience. Coaxed into an argument by Murchadh, Maol Mórdha stormed out of the castle before consulting with Brian. A messenger sent after him by Brian was later found with his skull smashed in.
Whether the threat was real or imagined, Maol Mórdha reforged his alliance with Sigtrygg. Maol-Seachlainn, however, stayed loyal to Brian. He even sent his army against Dublin, but suffered a crippling defeat. In 1013, Brian and Murchadh arrived to plunder Osraighe and southern Leinster before heading on to Dublin. Early in September, Sigtrygg watched as Brian and Murchadh’s army set up camp outside the city’s landward walls. This time, however, Sigtrygg wisely did not sally forth. The fortifications of the Viking strongholds were more formidable than those of the Irish forts and, when resolutely defended, were beyond Brian’s or any other Irish king’s power to overcome. After more than three months of blockade, Brian’s forces stirred with mutiny because supplies were running low and the foul winter weather was on the way. Sigtrygg jeered as Brian’s humbled army broke camp, but he knew that Brian would return. In search of allies, Sigtrygg set off to the hall of Sigurd Hlodvirsson the Stout, the Norse earl of the Orkneys. In return for bringing a few hundred half-heathen, half-Christian men as reinforcements, Sigurd demanded Gormfhlaith’s hand in marriage and an Irish kingdom to rule. Gormfhlaith was pleased with her son, but counseled Sigtrygg to gather an even greater force. He found more help in the pirates of the pagan Dane, Brodar of the Isle of Man. The cunning Sigtrygg promised Brodar the same reward he had promised Sigurd. Brodar and Sigtrygg reckoned that, at the comparatively advanced age of 54, Sigurd could well die in battle.
Preparing for Battle
In the coming conflict, Brian depended on his loyal Munster warriors, as well as the Danish stewards of Waterford and Limerick. Only a few reinforcements strode forth from Connacht, and none came from Ulster. Fortunately for Brian, Maol-Seachlainn promised to help, and a new ally was found in Brian’s son-in-law, King Malcolm II of Scotland, who sent a small force commanded by Domhnall, the great steward of Mar. It was also heartening to hear that southern Leinster had refused to aid Sigtrygg and Maol Mórdha. With his 5,000 warriors, Brian still held numerical superiority over Maol Mórdha and Sigtrygg, who barely commanded more than 3,000 Vikings and Irishmen between them. Nevertheless, Brian had to act quickly to wipe out Dublin’s and Leinster’s newfound independence before the neutral Irish kings could turn against him.
Brian’s youngest son, Donnach, took a few hundred men to keep an eye on southern Leinster. Brian set up his own camp north of Dublin on a hillock in the Wood of Tomar. From there he could see the city to the south, its harbor thick with Norse longboats, and between Brian’s camp and the city, the sprawling tents and campfires of his enemies. Maol Mórdha, Sigurd, Brodar, and Dubhgall, Sigtrygg’s brother, had set up their camps near the little fishing weir of Clontarf. Sigtrygg remained in Dublin with a reserve force.
On Thursday, April 22, 1014, Brian sat down to take council with his lords. Tempers flared, and as a result Maol-Seachlainn withdrew his forces to Meath. The hot-headed Murchad might well have been to blame. Brian now no longer held the numerical advantage. He immediately sent word for Donnach to hurry back, but there was little chance his son would arrive in time. Brian’s hair was now silver, and he was 73 years old. He longed for days long gone, when the vigor of youth powered his sword arm. Too old to personally lead his warriors in battle, Brian would have to depend on Murchadh, who was unquestionably brave but also reckless. That night, Brian’s mind was haunted by worries. According to legend, a banshee visited Brian and warned him that he would fall in battle, and that “this plain shall be red tomorrow with your proud blood.”2 On the Viking side, Brodar, who was widely believed to be a sorcerer, prophesied that should they fight on Good Friday, Brian would die, but his army would be victorious. Whatever the truth behind such tales, Maol Mórdha, Sigtrygg, Sigurd, and Brodar all knew that they had to strike before Donnach returned.
Praying for Victory
Brian had lost none of his regal bearing as he reviewed his army at dawn of Good Friday. He looked to his brave Dalcassians, who Murchadh would use to spearhead the attack. Ready to fight beside Murchadh was his 15-year-old son, the crown prince Tordhelbach, and Murchadh’s brothers, Conchobhar and Flann. Behind them fluttered the banner of Brian’s nephew, Conaing, king of Desmond. Also present that day were the Eoganacht lords Cian and Domhnall, Domhnall, the great steward of Mar, King Tadhg of Connacht, and an array of lesser kings and princes. On his wings, Brian stationed his 10 Danish stewards and their troops.
Brian’s army followed Murchadh’s blue banner to meet the oncoming Dublin-Leinster coalition at Clontarf. The latter advanced with Sigurd and Brodar’s Vikings in the lead, followed by the Danes from Dublin and, behind them, Maol Mórdha and his Leinster men. Murchadh recklessly initiated the attack by bolting ahead of the main army. Alarmed, Brian called for him to fall back into line. Murchadh replied that he would not retreat one step backward. Inspired by Murchadh’s valor, the rest of Brian’s army surged forward. Meanwhile, Brian knelt down before his pavilion to pray for victory. Below him the two armies collided in a deafening crescendo of clashing arms and battle cries. From behind their large round shields, protected by leather and ring-mail byrnies, the Danes slashed and thrust their axes, spears, and swords. Their Irish foes lacked armor but not spirit, and fought back with unbridled fury. There were few lulls in the fighting.
Engulfed in a semicircle, the Dublin and Leinster men slowly gave way to Brian’s battle-crazed Irish and Danish troops. Although their army fled around them, Sigurd and his guard stood like an unbroken bastion, the legend-shrouded Raven banner of the Orkneys fluttering at Sigurd’s side. One Viking warrior after another took up the banner, only to be cut down again by Murchadh’s relentless assault. The last hands to grasp the fateful Raven banner were those of its lord. Sigurd wrapped the banner around himself before he was decapitated by Murchadh with two powerful blows to the neck. Scarcely had Murchadh caught his breath from slaying Sigurd than there appeared the fierce Norse champion, Amrud, who had carved a bloody path through the Dalcassians. Murchadh grappled Amrud to the ground and tore away his sword. Murchadh leaned the pommel of the sword against his own breast and drove it three times into Amrud, piercing the earth beneath him. Gurgling blood, Amrud plunged his dagger blade into Murchadh, killing him simultaneously.
Panicked Norsemen and Leinstermen threw themselves into the ocean, hoping to reach their longboats. Heedless of their own safety and hungry for blood, their pursuers followed them into the waves. The high tide carried both to their doom. His hands locked upon the hair of a Dane, Murchadh’s son Tordhelbach was washed upon the Weir of Clontarf. A stake shot through his body, and he drowned. The number of men killed on both sides was great. Conchobhar and Flann, King Tadhag of Connacht and Domhnall of the Eoganacht were among the 30 Irish chiefs and kings who died that day. Except for Sigtrygg and Brodar, all the Norse-Leinster leaders were slain among their annihilated army. Maol Mórdha and Conaing, king of Desmond, fell by each other’s hand.
From Dublin’s ramparts, the Danish women anxiously watched the battle. Brian’s proud daughter stood there too, and at sight of the Norsemen rout she mocked her husband Sigtrygg. “It appears that the foreigners have gained their their natural inheritance—the sea,”3 she scoffed. In anger, Sigtrygg hit her in the face, knocking out one of her teeth. Sigtrygg rode forth too late to rally his men and was lucky to flee back into Dublin alive.
“Now Let Man Tell Man That Brodar Felled Brian”
On the battlefield Brodar stood panting, the muscles of his tall and powerful frame exhausted and his long black locks thick with sweat. The cuts and dents in his splendid coat of mail and crimson axe bore silent witness to the havoc he had inflicted on the Irish. Only two of Brodar’s men remained at his side, and on a whim he decided to lead them not to the sea but northward instead. Brodar hoped to circumvent the battle and reach his ship in safety that night. His route led him to the Wood of Tomar and Brian Boru’s camp. Brian, grieving over his sons’ fallen standards, had given up all hope and was dictating his will to his only companion, a page boy. Finding Brian, Brodar could scarcely believe his luck. Below them the Norse and Leinster pavilions lit up the darkening sky in flame. Brodar caught his breath—now was his chance for revenge. As Brodar fell upon him, Brian barely managed to draw his sword and slash its blade across Brodar’s leg. Ignoring the wound, Brodar smashed his axe into Brian’s skull. With a spurt of blood, Brian fell dead, and Brodar cried out, “Now let man tell man that Brodar felled Brian.”4 A second blow of his axe struck down the hapless page boy. Brodar did not survive Brian’s assassination for long. Found hiding in the wood by Brian’s men, his belly was cut open and he was wrapped around the trunk of a tree by his entrails.
When Donnach arrived from southern Leinster on Easter Sunday, only Cian of the Eoganacht remained alive to tell him of his father’s death and those of his older brothers. Brian was buried in a marble coffin at Ireland’s chief church, St. Patrick’s at Armagh, and for 12 days masses were held for Brian and Murchadh throughout the country. The Battle of Clontarf was immortalized as a heroic feat of Irish arms and the doom of the Vikings in Ireland. In reality, although Clontarf ended any chance of Norse dominance over Ireland, neither the Norse lords nor their trade disappeared from Ireland after the battle. In Dublin, Sigtrygg managed to stay in power until his death in 1042.
Clontarf did, however, spell the end to the ascendancy of the Dalcassians. Without the leadership of Brian and Murchadh, the weakened Dalcassians were unable to maintain their hold on Ireland. Maol-Seachlainn became high king again but was too old and weak to build on Brian’s final success. For the next 150 years the Irish reverted to their old habit of infighting. When the Normans invaded in the 1160 AD, there was no second Brian to rally the tribes. Ireland fell to the invaders, and Scandinavian influence too dwindled away. Brian’s death ended his dream of a united Ireland, but the memory of Brian Boru, Ireland’s mightiest warrior-king, remains unforgotten and unforgettable.
1. The Four Masters, edited by John O’Donovan, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Dublin: Hoges, Smith and Co. 1856),p. 703.
2. Newman, Roger Chatterton, Brian Boru King of Ireland (Anvil Books: Dublin. 1983), p. 168, 169.
3. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh CII.
4. Njal’s Saga 156. Brian’s Battle.
Cook Robert Editor. Njal’s Saga. London: Penguin Books, 2001, Holmes George, The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, Jones Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, King John. Kingdoms of the Celts. Blandford: London. 2000, Mason Francis K. and Windrow Martin. Dictionary of Military Biography. Hertfordshire: Woodworths Editions Ltd, 1997, Newman, Roger Chatterton. Brian Boru King of Ireland. Dublin: Anvil Books, 1983, O’Donovan, John, Editor. The Four Masters, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland. Dublin: Hoges, Smith and Co., 1856, Todd, James Henthorn Editor. Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867, Wilson David M. The Northern World. Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York. 1980.
Military Heritage Magazine & Military History Network
First Emperor of China
Shih Huang-ti possessed “the mind of a tiger,” and operated against his opponents with ruthlessness and treachery.
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
In 206 BC, doom came to Hsien Yang, the glorious capital of the Ch’in (Qin) Empire. The towers, pillars and walls, of 277 palaces roared up in flame and the streets ran red with blood. Peasant rebels led by Liu Pang executed the Emperor Tzu Ying along with his palace officials. It was an a an act of defiance that no one could have imagined under Tzu Ying’s father, Emperor Cheng “Shih huang-ti” the First August Emperor, a man so fearsome that his very name was still spoken in whispers, 15 years after his death.
Cheng was born in 259 BC in Han-tan, the capital of the Chao Kingdom. His father, future Ch’in king Tzu-ch’u, was then a hostage in Han-tan, where he became enamored of the beautiful concubine and dancer Zhao Li. The young Cheng, as he was named by his parents, grew up in a war-torn period, the “Warring States” (479-221 BC), when the chivalrous ways of the ancient court had been replaced by the grim brutality of mercenary warlords. When he succeeded his father on the Ch’in throne in 246 BC, Cheng inherited a kingdom, but not a nation. Indeed, there was no conception of China as a discrete land or culture. The people in the various kingdoms spoke different languages, had different economic and political systems, and followed a bewildering assortment of different religions.
Cheng’s “Cap and Sword”
When Cheng turned 21, he ceremoniously put on the “cap and sword” of adulthood. He would quickly find need of his sword, since he soon had to deal with his first rebellion. Lao Ai, a lover of Cheng’s mother, had misused her royal seal to win the loyalty of a number of troops, including the palace guard and capital militia. Fortunately for Cheng, a number of powerful warlords rallied to his aid, and the fighting in the capital ended with the decapitation of several hundred of Lao Ai’s men. The skulls of the palace guard commander and 20 others were spiked on poles and left to rot in the sun, while the revolt’s instigator, Lao Ai, was pulled apart by horses. Lao Ai’s entire clan was exterminated, and another 4,000 people were stripped of their hereditary nobility.
Lao Ai had actually, if unwittingly, done Cheng a favor, allowing him to clean house at the beginning of his reign and providing him with an easy military triumph that helped cement his reputation as a powerful ruler. Still, Cheng was not a natural warrior-king like his comparatively close contemporary, Alexander the Great. Instead, he was a workaholic administrator, not resting until his alloted paperwork was done each day. Wei Liao, Cheng’s chief of staff, described his master vividly, if not necessarily sympathetically, as “a man with a high-bridged nose, long narrow eyes, the breast of a bird of prey, and the voice of a jackal; of an ungrateful disposition with the mind of a tiger or a wolf.”1
Cheng was intent on continuing the rigid authoritarian methods of Ch’in Dynasty forerunner Lord Shang, who extolled a strong central government founded on the twin bolsters of agriculture and war. In carrying out his philosophy, Shang brutally suppressed the old feudal nobility and merchant classes. Military virtue—based on the number of enemy heads cut off in battle—became the only road to social advancement. Cheng continued this bully-boy course, appointing two determined acolytes of Shangian “Legalist” philosophy as his chief advisers—politically savvy diplomat Li Ssu and military theoretician Wei Liao. Both men hailed from the outlying region of Ch’u, reflecting Cheng’s openness to foreign-bred talent. Li Ssu convinced Cheng that the time was right to conquer the rest of China, and Wei Liao came up with a grand strategy to do just that, finishing off the six other states one at a time to prevent them from forming a unified front.
A Kingdom Set for War
Cheng and his kingdom were certainly ready for war. Shielded by the Yellow River on the northeast and a high wall of mountains to the southeast, Ch’in boasted a thriving population swelled by immigration. Massive irrigation projects and farsighted conservation measures protected the kingdom’s natural resources from overexploitation. Peasants working their own land proved more productive than slaves who toiled for their feudal masters, and the excess population was freed to be drafted into the army. Morale among both peasants and soldiers was high; each group felt that King Cheng looked out for ordinary men such as themselves, instead of worrying endlessly over how to placate rich feudal lords, greedy merchants, and fanciful intellectuals.
With preparations for conquest completed, Cheng first turned his eyes to Chao (Zhao), next to Ch’in the most powerful of the seven Chinese states. After provoking a war between Chao and the Kingdom of Yen (Yan) in 236 bc, Cheng waited until Chao’s army marched to attack Yen before launching his own forces across Chao’s western frontier. From their bamboo villages and outlying rice fields, the peasants of Yen watched in awe as Chi’in commanders mounted on chariots led huge armies into the field. Cheng’s armies boasted masses of bristling infantry armed with crossbows, bronze swords, spears, and nine-foot-long halberds, razor-sharp axes mounted on poles. Leather or bronze-plated armor protected the more elite units. Like the Chaos, the Ch’ins were noted for their cavalry, mounted archers, and spearmen who rode swift Mongolian ponies and employed tactics learned through years of combat with the fierce border nomads. Black flags representing the symbolic color of water, the astrological element most closely associated with the Ch’in Dynasty, hovered in the wind before the army. The flags might also have symbolized the ruthlessness with which Cheng and his generals operated against their opponents—a ruthlessness the people of Chao would soon know all too well.
The Ch’in forces easily overran Chao’s cities and outlying defensive positions. In 234 BC, Ch’in general Huan I’s troops alone decapitated a purported 100,000 Chao soldiers. The next year, however, Huan I found himself facing Li Mu, one of the most outstanding soldiers of his day. Summoned from Chao’s barbarian-riddled northern frontier, Li Mu defeated Huan I and followed the next year with two more triumphs over invading Ch’in armies. But Chao had suffered heavily in its battles with Ch’in, and wartime casualties mounted, along with the associated scourges of famine, disease, and pillaging marauders. Efforts to obtain help from the neighboring kingdom of Ch’i foundered when Cheng’s emissary somehow sabotaged the fledgling alliance.
Nevertheless, in the face of an onslaught by three separate Ch’in armies and the subsequent siege of Han-tan in 229 BC, Li Mu kept up the fight. Cheng realized that he could not defeat Li Mu in battle, but treachery was another matter. He bribed Chao minister Kuo Kai to accuse Li Mu of angling to seize power from the Chaoist king. The latter foolishly believed his minister and executed Li Mu, the only person who might have saved his country from Ch’in domination. Without its champion, the Chao army collapsed under the attack of Ch’in’s best general, Wang Jian. King Cheng personally entered the Chao capital and city of his birth, Han-tan, where he immediately executed anyone suspected of harboring resentment against him or his late mother.
More Kingdoms Captured
Meanwhile, with Ch’in armies on the doorstep of Yen, the crown prince of that kingdom, Prince Dan, plotted King Cheng’s assassination. In 227 BC, Yen envoy Jing Ke, a renowned martial arts expert, arrived at Cheng’s court, bearing as tokens of submission a map of Yen and the head of renegade Ch’in general Fan Yuqi. Within the map was hidden a dagger coated with deadly poison. When Cheng opened the package containing the map, Jing Ke seized the king’s sleeve, pulled out his blade, and lunged at the astonished monarch. Cheng jerked back in alarm, tearing his sleeve, but was unable to draw his own sword because of its great length. Fleeing behind a pillar while the court physician batted at Jing Ke with his medicine bag, Cheng managed to slash his assailant across the thigh. In a last futile attempt to complete his mission, Jing Ke hurled the poisoned dagger at the king; it missed and clanged against a bronze pillar. Palace guards swooped in and chopped the would-be assassin to pieces in a widening pool of blood.
King Cheng realized his vengeance when Wang Jian overcame a combined Yen and Tai army later that same year. Reinforced with more troops, Wang Jian drove the king of Yen out of his capital, and the king managed to save his own skin by handing over the head of Crown Prince Dan to Ch’in general Li Hsin. Continuing his march to conquest, Cheng gobbled up the small kingdoms of Han in 230 BC. and Wei in 225 BC. The only remaining force capable of resisting the Ch’in juggernaut was the vast southern kingdom of Ch’u.
In 224 BC, Ch’in troops in two armies moved toward Ch’u. Despite strong resistance from the much-despised “monkey men” of that kingdom, General Wang Jian came out of retirement after early Ch’in reverses to lead a year-long siege of Ch’u that resulted in the seizure of the Ch’u capital and its king in 223 BC. King Cheng then bribed the chancellor of Ch’i, the only remaining free state in China, to convince his own king to surrender in exchange for a peaceful retirement. The king of Ch’u did so, only to be thrown into prison and left to die of starvation. The era of the Warring States was over, and the era of the First Empire had begun.
Ruling “All Under Heaven”
Cheng proclaimed himself Shih Huang-ti, or First August Emperor, after the divine kings of China’s legendary past. He boasted that he now ruled “all under heaven” and that his empire would be “enjoyed by his sons and grandsons for ten thousand generations.”2 Shih Huang-ti then razed the walls of the conquered cities and melted down the weapons of his foes, recasting them into 12 gigantic statues of himself. Chia I, a Han Empire scholar poetically reflected: “the First Emperor…cracked his long whip and drove the universe before him, swallowed up the eastern and western Chou, and overthrew the feudal lords. He ascended the throne of honor and ruled the six directions, scourging the world with his rod, and his might shook the four seas.”3
The new Emperor set out to unify China’s culture. His empire was divided his new empire into 36 rigidly controlled commanderies subdivided into counties. Within the commanderies the official writing script, currency, systems of weights and measures, and even the gauges of the peasants’ cartwheels were standardized.
But Shih Huang-ti remained hungry for new conquests. Once more his court diviners listened to the wind and studied the heavens for celestial portents. The clamor of gongs and drums heralded the march of Shih Huang-ti’s armies, which lashed out to the north and south. Meng T’ien, whoses family had fought for Ch’in for generations, took over for the aged Wang Jian as the emperor’s premier warlord. With 100,000 troops, Meng Tien remained camped on the outer borders of the kingdom for the next 10 years, inflicting a major defeat on the Hsiung-nu barbarians, regaining the lost Ordos region of China, and striking deep into the Gobi desert. At the same time, he began the northernmost fortification of China, the 3,000-mile-long Great Wall. Meanwhile, other Ch’in armies conquered the barbarian lands of South China and Vietnam, although there the spread of Chinese culture was less effective and far-reaching, since the swampy terrain made it difficult for the Ch’in soldiers to stamp out guerrilla activity—a tradition of resistance to foreign occupation that the Vietnamese were still upholding 2,000 years later.
Shih Huang-ti’s relentless wars and grandiose building projects expended human lives without mercy. Some 300,000 soldiers and forced laborers chiseled, dragged, and emplaced the numberless rocks of the Great Wall, while sandstorms blinded them in summer and freezing Siberian gales battered them in winter. As many as a million workers died while building the Great Wall, which stretched from the Pacific coast to present-day Gansu province, and the wall became known was the world’s longest graveyard. The emperor specified that the wall be wide enough for six horsemen to ride abreast, six being his lucky number.
At least the Great Wall served the common good, unlike the emperor’s other grandiose construction projects. He had a replica built of every state palace he had captured—some 277 in all—and the massive Afang Palace towered above them all, some 1.5 miles long, 3,000 feet in depth, and 400 feet tall at its highest point. When Shih Huang-ti made a royal inspection of his kingdom, he traveled on pristine, 250-foot-wide roads, lined with trees and reserved exclusively for his use. He had whole valleys filled in and hills flattened to ease his progress, and once he even ordered 3,000 soldiers to deforest a mountain whose mythical goddess was said to have sent a wind to impede his crossing of a river.
Even grander—or more egocentric—was the emperor’s planned mausoleum. Seven hundred thousand castrated and banished criminals slaved away for 36 long years to prepare his final resting place. The three-acre site contained no less than 7,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers equipped with real weapons, chariots, and pottery horses. The figures of the soldiers seemed to be modeled on real-life figures—no two were alike in facial features. The poses, too, were diverse, with some soldiers standing at attention, others kneeling with crossbows, still others driving chariots or poised in hand-to-hand combat. Also buried in the subterranean chamber was a painstaking recreation of Shih Huang-ti’s royal court, complete with palace buildings, major mountain ranges, and prominent rivers modeled from quicksand. Numerous unfortunate artisans were buried alive to preserve the secrets of the mausoleum, and hair-trigger mechanical crossbows were placed inside the vaults to discourage future looting or grave-robbing.
To pay for his extravagance, Shih Huang-ti crushed his subjects with taxation. He also crushed their spirits through widespread control of their minds, limiting education to the training of future officials and eradicating all traces of knowledge deemed harmful or superfluous. In one of the most reviled acts in Chinese history, the emperor followed the advice of Grand Chancellor Li Ssu and ordered the burning of all Confucian writings, as well as the recorded histories of his former rival states. For good measure, he buried alive some 460 Confucian scholars who, it was said, had “slandered the emperor” and “spread heretical ideas to confuse the public.”4 Other intellectuals were banished to the northern frontier, including Crown Prince Fu Su, who protested in vain the draconian policies of his increasingly tyrannical father.
The Vain Pursuit of Immortality
While he lived, no mortal dared to oppose the emperor’s iron-fisted rule. But the fear of his own inevitable death gnawed at Shih Huang-ti, and he obsessively drank “magical” elixirs supposed to ensure his immortality, while sending his navy on a fruitless search for the mythical island of the blessed. Ironically, he died in 210 BC, at the premature age of 49, while on a quest to find another mystic who was said to possess the secret of eternal life. The emperor was buried in his ornate sarcophagus, alongside his treasures and a number of his sacrificed concubines.
Almost instantly, the pillars of the Ch’in empire began to crack. The always scheming Li Ssu tricked the crown prince into killing himself by producing a forged will of his father’s, installing in his place the incompetent Hu-hai, his youngest brother. Hu-hai, who cared only for sensual pleasure, immediately executed Li Ssu, along with 22 of his own brothers and sisters. Hu-hai himself was driven to suicide by a fake attack on the royal palace, and his duplicitous chamberlain, Chao Kao. Kao hung the imperial seal around his neck and attempted to rule in Hu-hai’s place. No one would listen. Shih Huang-ti’s surviving son, Tzu Ying, took vengeance by running a sword through Chao Kao’s body.
With the death of Shih Huang-ti, his family, and his best generals, peasants and garrison troops quickly threw off the imperial yoke. The old nobility rose again and once more mounted barbarians roamed across the nation’s borders. The official end of the Ch’in dynasty came in 206 BC, when Liu Pang, an army deserter, led a blood-crazed horde of peasants into the capital and killed the new emperor, Tzu Ying. Out of the ashes Liu Pang would forge the longer lasting and more tolerant Han dynasty.
Meanwhile, Shih Huang-ti slept the long sleep of the dead, increasingly forgotten by history until the chance discovery of his elaborate burial place in 1973 by an astonished peasant drilling a well. The site was excavated by the modern Chinese government, and the long-dormant clay army of the first Ch’in emperor, a man who was said to possess the mind of a tiger, once more saw the light of day.
“Shih Huang-ti, First Emperor of China” by Ludwig H. Dyck was first published in Military Heritage Magazine December 2004. On December 29, 2015, the article was re-published online at Military History Network. The version above contains additional images and minor editorial changes by the author.
1. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, William H. Nienhauser Ed., The Grand Scribe’s Records, V. I, (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 131.
2. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Translated by Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian of China, Volume I&II (New York: Columbia University Press. 1961), p. 32
3. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Translated by Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian of China, Volume I&II, p. 31
4. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, William H. Nienhauser Ed., The Grand Scribe’s Records, V. I, p. 150
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World War II History Magazine & Warfare History Network
Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol
“If the Germans rightly considered the taking of Sevastopol a heroic feat of their infantry, so too the Soviets justifiably glorified their defense”
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
By late October 1941, the armies of the Third Reich had swept deep into western Soviet Russia. Leningrad lay under siege and panzer spearheads reached to within 40 miles of Moscow. The German Sixth Army, part of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, occupied Kharkov with the First Panzer Army striking for Rostov.
On Rundstet’s southern flank, General of Infantry Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army punched through the tough Soviet defenses of the Perekop isthmus. The 10-day, hotly contested battle for the Isthmus netted 100,000 Soviet prisoners and opened the door to the Crimea.
The Soviets Take a Stand a Sevastopol
Through the centuries, a myriad of peoples had fought for and settled in the Crimea. Ancient Greeks, Scythians, Goths, and Tartars came and went. Now the invaders were the Germans of the Third Reich, whose Führer planned to turn the Crimea into a pure German colony. With the main base of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and within air range of the Caucasus and Rumanian oilfields, the Crimea held strategic importance to both the Nazis and the Soviets.
The Axis troops fanned out east toward the Kerch Peninsula and south toward Sevastopol. There was no way of stopping the Germans on the open steppes. By November 16, all of the Crimea except Sevastopol was in their hands. There, the Soviet Military Council opted to make its last stand. In the Crimean War of 1854-1855, Sevastopol defied the British, French, Turks, and Sardinians for an incredible 345 days before surrendering. The Soviets were determined to do one better. Master of the blitzkrieg, mobility, and the open battlefield, Manstein was to be tested in one of the most brutal sieges in the history of warfare.
Black Sea Navy guns and crack Marines stiffened Soviet resistance. The defenders counterattacked and flung back General Eric Hansen’s 54th Corps’ probing attacks. One incident saw a politruk (political instructor) and five Black Sea sailors hurl themselves and their last grenades on German tanks to stop a breakthrough to the city. The heroism of the “five sailors of Sevastopol” was remembered in many a song and poem.
The Assault on Sevastopol Begins
It was clear that nothing less than an all-out assault by the Eleventh Army could hope to take the city. Its natural defenses alone ensured that the fight for the city would be a hard one. The city stood on the northern side of a triangular peninsula that jutted westward into the Black Sea. Immediately to the north of Sevastopol lay Severnaya Bay, while rugged wooded hills and ravines guarded the city and the entire peninsula’s landward side from the east and south.
Heavy rains and rough terrain delayed full deployment of troops for a month, so the attack did not get under way until December 17. At first the Soviet defense seemed to crumble, but then it became rock hard. New divisions entered the fray, and officers, commissars, and the NKVD, the Soviet state police, “boosted” morale. Torrential downpours and stormy weather further wore down the German soldiers, many of whom had only summer uniforms.
Fighting around Sevastopol continued into the New Year with the Eleventh Army reaching within five miles of the northern outskirts of the city. At this crucial point, Manstein was forced to divert his attention to the northeast. An unexpected amphibious Soviet counterattack drove the Germans out of the Kerch Peninsula and threatened the rear of his army.
In Sevastopol there was a feeling of euphoria; surely the whole of the Crimea would soon be liberated! Despite the occasional air raid and shelling, people emerged from shelters and caves to repair the damaged city. Their hopes were dashed when the Soviet Kerch offensive bogged down into a lengthy stalemate that lasted through the Russian winter.
In mid-May 1942, Manstein, promoted to colonel general, reconquered the Kerch Peninsula, destroying two Soviet armies at the cost of a mere 7,500 German casualties. The people of Sevastopol again disappeared into their underground shelters. They worked double shifts in the armaments works and began to evacuate their children and the elderly. The Soviets’ last attempt to forestall a decisive German drive on Sevastopol had failed.
With the advent of spring, the time for Hitler’s colossal 1942 summer offensive, code named Operation Blue, drew near. Hitler planned for a two-pronged attack that would seize Stalingrad on the Volga and drive deep into the oil-rich Caucasus. Preliminary to Blue, it was imperative to finally capture Sevastopol, a thorn in the German Army’s southern flank. Failure to do so meant that substantial German forces would remain locked up to invest the city.
Germans Plan a Second Assault; Sevastopol Strengthens Its Defenses
Supreme Command decided to recommit Manstein’s Eleventh Army for a second assault on what was possibly the world’s strongest fortress. In the words of an American intelligence officer it was a “tough nut to crack.”1 Virtually the entire 180,000 strong civilian population toiled tirelessly to ensure that the defenses were even more daunting than in the previous November. They blasted bunker, gun, and mortar positions right into the rock, strung barbed wire, dug antitank ditches, and laid a sea of mines, not just in front of the fortified zones but also right inside them. The city’s three defensive lines were 10 miles deep with 220 miles of trenches.
Underground, the civilians worked in appalling conditions to do everything they could to help the defenders above. Sewing brigades fixed damaged military clothing. Pravda correspondent Boris Voyetekhov described the scene of an old woman working side by side with a beautiful young woman. The old woman worked a stamping machine with her remaining hand, having lost her other to a bomb blast. The young woman nursed a baby while working a boring machine at the same time. Others cast shells and repaired countless guns, and in November and December alone manufactured some 20,000 hand grenades and 32,000 antipersonnel mines.
Numerous camouflaged strong points commanded the eastern hills while the immense naval guns of a fortress called Maxim Gorky II at Cape Feolent dominated the peninsula’s southern coastline. The weakest natural obstacles were to the north of Severnaya Bay, but here arose gigantic forts. The Germans named them Volga, Siberian, Lenin, Stalin, Molotov, and Maxim Gorky. The proper Soviet designations were numerical, Battery No. 30 for Maxim Gorky, for example.
To man Sevastopol’s defenses, General Ivan Y. Petrov’s Independent Maritime Army fielded seven rifle divisions, one dismounted cavalry division, two rifle and three naval brigades, two Marine regiments, two tank battalions, and various smaller formations. A further 10 artillery regiments, two mortar battalions, and an antitank regiment gave Petrov 106,000 frontline troops, 600 guns, and 2,000 mortars. They were supplied and reinforced by Vice Admiral Filip S. Oktyabrskii’s Black Sea Fleet, including tens of thousands of naval personnel to man forts and guns, and a multitude of Komsomols, the teenage boys and girls of the Communist Union of Youth.
Oktyabrskii was in overall charge of the defense of Sevastopol, with Petrov being the ground force commander. Their main weakness was the lack of support from the Soviet Air Force, which fielded a pathetic 60 old planes in the Crimea.
Women played a major role in the Soviet armed forces, not only as medical staff and radio operators, but also as antiaircraft gunners, tank crews, and snipers. Sevastopol was no exception and featured the famous machine-gunner Nina Onilova, the scout Maria Baida, and the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Pavlichenko had already racked up 187 kills in the ten weeks of fighting at Odessa prior to the city’s fall to the Germans. Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko led a sniper unit and continued to add to her personal tally.
The Eleventh Army’s Massive Force
Manstein’s Eleventh Army consisted of some 203, 000 German and Romanian troops. However, after the Kerch battle, Army Group South (now under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock) commandeered Manstein’s sole panzer division, the 22nd. Manstein’s mostly Romanian 42nd Corps was used to safeguard the Kerch Peninsula to prevent a repeat of the earlier Soviet attack there. That left Manstein with seven German divisions, each 20 percent larger than a Soviet division, and initially two Rumanian divisions, the 18th Infantry Division (ID) and the 1st Mountain Division (MD) of the Rumanian Mountain Corps. In addition, the 4th Rumanian MD arrived from Kerch to reinforce the 54th Corps on June 13.
Since the previous December’s failure, Manstein concluded that he required more and heavier artillery, so he gathered 121 batteries of 1,300 guns and 720 mortars, the greatest concentration of artillery pieces ever used by the Germans in the war. They included 190mm cannon; 305mm and 350mm mortars; and 150mm, 210mm, 280mm and even 320mm Nebelwerfer and Wurfrahmen-type rocket launchers, nicknamed “Lowing Cow” by the Russians, the Reich’s answer to the Katyusha rockets that had been nicknamed “Stalin’s Organ.”
Nothing, however, compared to the German super heavyweights, the mortars Gamma, Odin or Karl, and Thor, and the heaviest gun of World War II, Heavy Gustav or Dora. Gamma fired 427mm, one-ton projectiles for a distance of nearly nine miles. It took 235 men to service Gamma. Thor and Odin were even larger, their devastating 2.5-ton, 615mm bombs struck like the hammer of the namesake Norse thunder god to crack even the thickest concrete defenses.
Yet Gamma, Odin, and Thor were whelps compared to the titanic Heavy Gustav. Originally designed to destroy the fabled Maginot Line, it took 60 railway cars to transport her components to the Crimea. Once assembled, Heavy Gustav was 141 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 38 feet high with a weight of 1,329 tons! Protected by two flak battalions, Heavy Gustav sat 19 miles northeast of Sevastopol on double railway tracks. Heavy Gustav’s operation required 1,500 men, one colonel, and one major general. Its 107-foot, 800mm barrel fired five-ton high-explosive or seven-ton armor-piercing shells for 29 or 24 miles, respectively. During the siege, Heavy Gustav fired 40 to 50 shells at Sevastopol, one of which passed through water and 100 feet of rock to pulverize a Soviet ammunition dump beneath Severnaya Bay.
Luftwaffe Colonel-General Baron Wolfram von Richthofen, the nephew of the legendary ‘Red Baron’, gave additional firepower with Fliegerkorps VIII’s (8th Air Corps). Fliegerkorps VIII fielded 600 aircraft, including seven bomber groups and Jagdgeschwader 77, whose Kommodore, Knight’s Cross holder Maj Gordon Gollob won his 100th victory on May 20th. To deal with the Soviet fleet, there was also Oberst Wolfgang von Wild’s small Fliegerführer Süd (Air Command South) and a German and Italian naval flotilla.
Manstein’s armored strength included remote-controlled Goliath miniature tanks, which were designed to carry explosives into enemy defenses, and a number of Sturmgeschütz assault gun battalions. Basically, a tank with a fixed gun instead of a rotating turret, the Sturmgeschütz, or Stug, figured prominently at Sevastopol. Stugs were typically brought into position by night and camouflaged for maximum surprise. Used in concentrations, they advanced together with or directly behind screening infantry, their close-range fire knocking out enemy support weapons. The first versions carried 75mm short-barreled guns capable of dealing with soft targets, but in early 1942, Stugs with long barreled 75mm L/43 antitank guns appeared.
Operation Störfang (Sturgeon Catch)
The weight of the German attack, with Hansen’s 54th Corps, would be in the north. Notwithstanding extremely heavy Soviet defenses, the terrain was the most favorable for ground assaults and for artillery and air support. A secondary attack would come through the hilly southeastern sector by 30th Corps under Lt. Gen. Maxim Fretter-Pico. No major attack was planned from the east due to the extremely rugged and wooded terrain. Here the Romanian Mountain Corps was to pin down the enemy and later aid the German flanks.
On June 2, the roar of the German artillery heralded the beginning of Operation Störfang (Sturgeon Catch), the final assault on Fortress Sevastopol. For five days and nights, German guns and bombers relentlessly hammered the Soviet positions as a prelude to the ground offensive. Eighth Air Corps quickly established air supremacy and in defiance of heavy flak flew over 3,000 bombing missions between June 2 and 6. A deafening orchestra of mortar bombs, screaming Stukas, the metallic rings of the 88mm flak, and the earthshaking projectiles of the gargantuan Gamma, Thor, and Heavy Gustav burst blood vessels, spread terror, and shattered concrete.
The day after the guns opened fire, Manstein left the 30th Corps’ command post, a small Moorish-style palace perched on a cliff above the Black Sea coast, and boarded an Italian torpedo boat. He personally wished to inspect how much of the coastal road, the main supply line for the 30th Corps, was visible from the sea and threatened by the Black Sea Fleet’s guns. Near Yalta, the idyllic backdrop of white country houses amid green gardens and blue sky was suddenly interrupted when “without warning a hail of machine gun bullets and cannon shells began pumping into us from the sky,”2 recalled Manstein. Two Soviet fighters swept out of the sun and raked the deck, leaving seven people dead or wounded and the boat in flames. The heroic young Italian captain dived into the sea, swam to shore, and returned to the rescue with a Croatian motor boat.
Manstein escaped the calamity unscathed and soon was back at Eleventh Army’s command post in the Tartar village of Yukhary Karales. He spent endless hours at observation on the cliffs above, in the same mountains where the Germanic Goths once built their strongholds. The location, roughly between the 54th Corps to the north and the Romanian Mountain Corps to the south, offered a panoramic view of the entire battlefield. Alongside Manstein was his chief of operations, Colonel Busse, and orderly officer Pepo Specht. Dazzled by the bombardment, Specht remarked, “Fantastic fireworks!” Busse nodded, but added, “I’m not sure we’ll punch sufficiently large holes into those fortifications.”3
As dawn painted the sky red on June 7, the German artillery fire built up to a raging tempest. Southward from the cover of the Belbek Valley, roughly from Kamyshly to the Black Sea, the 54th Corps attacked with the 24th, 50th, 22nd and 132nd Infantry Divisions. The infantry charged through clouds of dust and smoke against the Soviet positions. Assault parties and sappers led the way, using shellholes as cover. Wire cutters and bangalore torpedoes cleared a path through the barbed wire. Facing them was General Laskin’s 172nd ID.
“Shells whined overhead and exploded on all sides,” Laskin wrote. “A whirlwind of fire was raging at all our positions. Enormous clods of earth and uprooted trees flew into the air. An enormous dark gray cloud of smoke and dust rose higher and higher and finally eclipsed the sun. In my sector, the Germans outnumbered us one to nine in manpower and one to ten in artillery, not to speak of tanks, because we had none.”4
In spite of the furious German attack, Busse’s pessimism proved correct. Safe from within positions of solid rock, the Soviets unleashed their own artillery. “The Russian artillery and armored fortifications spring to life everywhere, the whole horizon is a tremendous gun-flash,”5 noted a disgusted Richthofen, who surveyed the battlefield from his Storch observation plane. The German infantry attacked with its usual bravado, but the Soviets made them fight for every yard. After an optimistic start, the advance slowed to a snail’s pace.
An eyewitness recalled: “In a raging tempo the attack races down the slope, through the valley, and on to the other side, past minefields, through trip-wires and wire entanglements that were already cut by the engineers. Companies, platoons, and groups one after the other moved forward in the blue-gray powder smoke and thick dust. The going is slow through thick bushes. The Bolsheviks hide in their numberless holes, let us pass and then fall on us from the rear. Several times small and large infantry units are completely cut off. But the connection is always re-established, and then it isn’t so good for the sealed off Soviets.”6
On the 8th, a weak Soviet counterattack by Colonel Potapov’s 79th Brigade was brushed aside, but no quick headway could be made into the Soviet positions. When the going got tough, the German infantry called on the Luftwaffe, but Richthofen was already pushing his men to their limits. Eighth Air Corps topped 1,000 carpet bombing sorties a day until shortages of fuel and bombs forced Richthofen to concentrate on column bombing high-priority targets.
“The screaming descent of the Stukas and the whistling of falling bombs seemed to make even nature hold her breath. The storming troops, exposed to the pitiless heat of the burning sun, paused for a few seconds, which must have seemed an eternity to the defenders. Yet our work at Sevastopol made the highest demands on men and material. Twelve, fourteen and even up to eighteen sorties were made daily by individual crews,”7 wrote Luftwaffe General Werner Baumbach.
German hand grenades and smoke canisters doggedly drove the Soviets from camouflaged firing pits. The feared German 88mm flak proved invaluable in cracking open pillboxes at point-blank range. Nevertheless, by June 12, the 22nd ID had just reached the spot where the previous winter offensive had ground to a halt. German casualties amounted to 10,300 in the first five days alone. If things did not pick up, Hitler threatened to turn the operation into a regular siege.
The Germans Start to Make Headway
To the dismay of the Soviets, German fortunes rapidly improved on June 13. Not only were there limited gains all along the north, but the super heavy siege guns blasted apart a turret on Fort Stalin. The German guns created craters 15 feet deep.
The 16th Infantry Regiment of the 22nd ID stormed the fort. Twice before–the previous December and four days earlier–Fort Stalin’s defenses had defied them. In one section an antitank gun scored a direct hit into a pillbox porthole and killed 30. The 10 remaining Communist party members used their comrades’ dead bodies as sandbags and fought on. Flamethrowers spewed fire accompanied by blasts of potato masher grenades, but the remaining Soviets held on until their political officer shot himself. When the last four Soviets crept out of the rubble, a severely wounded German soldier remarked, “It is not so bad, we have the Stalin fort.”8 During the battle, the 16th Infantry Regiment’s two attacking battalions lost all of their officers.
Through sweltering heat and a nightmarish scene, the Germans steadily pushed on. Black clouds of flies, smoke, and ash drifted over swaths of reeking, putrid corpses. At times the smoke and stench became so unbearable that both sides wore gas masks
The Battle for Maxim Gorky
Ahead, the mighty 12-inch armored batteries of the modern Maxim Gorky, built in 1934, controlled the entire northern line. The 50-ton barrels fired over a range of 28 miles. On the 17th, Oberleutnant Maué’s Stuka scored a direct hit and blew up the eastern turret. Salvos of Röchling bombs from 35cm German mortars took care of another gun. The 12-foot Röchlings burrowed into concrete or rock before exploding. Gorky was wounded but not dead. The last of its four huge naval guns continued to belch destructive fire into the assaulting German infantry. The battle for the fortress would eclipse the contest for Fort Stalin.
It was the task of the 213th Infantry Regiment of the 73rd ID (part of Corps reserve) to deliver the deathblow to Gorky. The regimental commander, who had already distinguished himself at Kerch, led the charge at the head of his men. The right flank of the German regiment was stopped by a desperate Soviet counterattack, but the center and left flanks made ground. For three quarters of an hour, Stukas plastered the fortress with their bombs, followed by tremendous artillery shelling and a smoke screen. A gigantic cloud formed over the fortress upon which virtually all life was extinguished. German engineers gained the final 300 feet with little opposition and blew apart the last gun.
Gorky’s guns were silenced, but the fight for the fort was far from over. The 300-yard-long and 40-yard-wide concrete structure was three stories deep. The roof was three to four yards thick, and the walls two to three yards. The fort had its own underground water and power supplies, a field hospital, canteen, engineering shops, and various arsenals and battle stations.
It took two blasting operations to fracture the thick concrete. The Soviets answered demands for surrender by spitting forth fire from all slits and openings. Groups of Soviets even made sorties from ventilation shafts and secret exits.
Inside, the fight went from one hallway and room to the next. Steel doors were burst open and hand grenades hurled inside as sappers flattened themselves against the walls. The dissipating smoke revealed piles of Soviet dead. Ever so often, the pattern was interrupted by machine-gun fire. The Germans pressed closer and closer to the command center. According to Soviet sources, the Germans even resorted to drilling a hole into a steel door and pumping poison gas inside.
A battery commander led a group of men in a desperate escape attempt out of a sewer hole. Most of his men were killed and the rest marched into captivity. The remaining Soviet defenders were ordered to fight to the last man. Their last two messages sent to Sevastopol headquarters related:
“There are forty-six of us left. The Germans are hammering at our armored doors and calling on us to surrender. We have opened up the inspection hatch to fire twice on them.
“There are twenty-six of us left. We’re getting ready to blow ourselves up. Farewell.”9
Of 1,000 defenders, only 50 were taken prisoner. The numbers of German killed and wounded were equally high. The fall of Maxim Gorky was indicative of German gains all along the northern line. To the east, the Saxons of the 31st Regiment, 24th ID, captured three forts, while the 22nd ID pushed southward from Fort Stalin. With the help of an assault-gun battalion, its 65th Infantry Regiment overcame Fort Siberia, while the 16th Infantry Regiment seized Forts Volga and Ural. Two days later, the 22nd Division was the first to reach Severnaya Bay.
To the south, the 30th Corps joined the attack on June 11. Ahead, on mountaintops and within ravines, the Soviets held a chain of concealed and fortified strong points. Behind these and halfway to the city loomed the even more formidable Sapun Heights.
The 72nd ID initiated the attack here. After heavy fighting the Germans took North Nose, Chapel Mountain, and Ruin Hill. A gap was opened for General Constatine Vasiliu-Racanu’s 1st Romanian MD, which in turn captured the Sugar Loaf position. The 170th Division, at first kept in reserve, took Kamary, and on the 18th its 72nd Reconnaissance Detachment won the Eagle Perch in front of the Sapun line. From there, it swung north to gain the Fedyukiny Heights. The 28th Light Division (LD) made slow progress over therugged hills east of Balaclava, which had been in German possession since the previous autumn. The division’s soldiers faced tenacious opposition at Tadpole Hill, Cinnabar, Rose Hill, and the vineyards.
Back at the northern front, the entire fury of the German artillery and the Luftwaffe backed the 24th ID’s assaults on the peninsula forts at the entrance of Severnaya Bay, dominated by the old but still strong North Fort. To its left, the 22nd ID took hold of the cliffs above Severnaya Bay. Here the Soviets held out within deep supply galleries driven into the rock. At the first of them a Soviet commissar inside blew up the casemate, burying the occupants and killing a squad of German engineers. A German assault gun firing at point-blank range blew up other casemates. Crowds of exhausted soldiers and civilians emerged after their commissars committed suicide.
Meanwhile, the 50th ID advanced to the eastern end of Severnaya Bay, taking the heights of Gaytany. Its defenses ripped open by German assault guns, the Soviet 25th ID retreated toward the Inkerman station. To the left of the 50th ID, General Gheorghe Manoliu’s 4th Romanian MD and Radu Baldescu’s 18th Romanian ID fought through the wooded hills southeast of Gaytany. By the evening of the 27th, the Soviet 8th Marine Brigade was pushed from the Sakharnaya Golovka Hill.
Across the Severnaya Bay, the city and harbor endured relentless attacks by the Eighth Air Corps, whose high explosive and incendiary bombs hit buildings and batteries. Smoke clouds from the flaming city reached 5,000 feet into the air and stretched nearly a hundred miles. On June 24, Stukas pounced on a Soviet Aviation delegation gathered at Kruglyi Bay, killing 48 people, among them Soviet Major Generals F.G. Korobkov and N.A. Ostriakov.
The Germans Go After the Soviet’s Lifeblood: Its Naval Supply Line
The lifeblood of the hard-pressed Soviets was their naval supply line. In June, the Black Sea Fleet brought over 24,000 reinforcements and 15,000 tons of freight and evacuated 25,000 wounded. To provide such aid, the Soviet ships braved a harrowing Axis gauntlet. The wrath of the Luftwaffe precluded daylight landings, but at night, when in turn there was less danger from Soviet aircraft and warships, there was the peril of German and Italian motor torpedo boats (MTBs), armed motor boats, and Italian midget submarines. Air Command South greatly aided the Axis flotilla with reconnaissance, dropping flares, and strafing Soviet warships.
Oktyabrskii responded by ordering the aerial bombardment of the Axis naval base at Yalta. He also sent light warships to attack the port. On June 19, the worst of the Soviet attacks sank two midget submarines and severely damaged an MTB. Overall Axis naval losses were superficial and did little if anything to loosen the tightening Axis noose around the Soviet supply line.
The Abkhazia, a Russian luxury liner converted to a transport, went down in the harbor after her 16th sailing to Sevastopol. Dive- bombers sank the liner Georgia in view of the harbor. Her soldiers and sailors managed to swim ashore, but 500 tons of shells followed her to the bottom of the sea. On June 18, the Belostok was the last transport to arrive at Sevastopol. The next day she succumbed to German torpedo boats.
Soviet submarines, warships, and aircraft continued the hazardous missions of carrying men and supplies Among those that managed to escape the increasingly doomed city was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Wounded by mortar fire, she was evacuated by submarine in June. At the time she had reached 309 kills, including 78 enemy snipers, becoming the top scoring female sniper of all time. Deemed too valuable for Soviet propaganda to risk loosing in combat, she went on to train future female snipers.
Many others, however, were not as lucky as Lyudmila; the SCH-214 submarine being sunk on June 20th. On June 26, the destroyers Bezuprechny and Tashkent set off from Novorossiisk. The Bezuprechny fell victim to dive-bombers, but the Tashkent repelled air attacks and evaded torpedo boats to reach Sevastopol. Surviving more than 40 supply runs and 96 air attacks, she was the last warship to reach Sevastopol harbor.
The Tashkent took in over 2,000 wounded and refugees before braving her last voyage back to Novorossiisk on the night of June 27. For four hours she fought off German dive-bombers, shooting down two enemy planes. Her hull severely damaged, the destroyer was escorted to the safety of the harbor by rescue ships. Sadly, four days later the gallant Tashkent was sunk in the harbor by a Stuka raid.
The attrition of Soviet supplies caused a rapid depletion of ammunition stockpiles. The local armaments industry could not meet the demands of the troops. Their bullets spent, Soviet soldiers fought the attacking Germans with bayonet charges. In a desperate attempt to rectify the situation, Soviet divers braved a rain of German bombardment to recover 39 tons of ammunition from the Georgia.
By June 26, the Eleventh Army had overrun virtually the entire outer ring of Sevastopol’s defenses. The 54th Corps faced the Bay of Severnaya and the honeycombed cliffs that rose from its southern shore. Running south from the inland end of the bay were the Inkerman Heights, site of another old but sturdy fort, and the 30th Corps’ main obstacle, the Sapun Heights.
Manstein’s Brazen Plan to Attack Across Severnaya Bay
Manstein came up with a brazen plan to have the 54th Corps attack straight across Severnaya Bay. His subordinate commanders shook their heads in disbelief: How could assault boats get across the bay in face of enemy fire with the soldiers fighting their way up ravines that were the only exits from the shore?
Manstein conceded that ideally the weight of the offensive would be switched to the 30th Corps in the south. This would take days for the troops and weeks for the heavy artillery. Manstein, who spent nearly all his days visiting officers from corps to battalion level as well as observation posts, was well aware that his worn-out soldiers would welcome any such respite. Many regiments were down to a few hundred men each. He recalled one company pulled out of line with but one officer and eight men remaining.
However, any cessation in the attack would give the enemy time to recoup. Furthermore, with Operation Blue imminently on the way, the Supreme Command planned for the withdrawal of the Eighth Air Corps from the Crimea. The latter had already undergone a change of command. A reluctant Richthofen was ordered to leave for Kursk to prepare future headquarters for the Eighth Air Corps; his place at Sevastopol taken by a colonel. There was thus no time to waste. The Eleventh Army would press on without hesitation.
On June 28, the 54th Corps resumed the offensive with the 50th ID storming the Inkerman position. The cliffs above the old fort held vast caverns with ammunition dumps and thousands of refugees and wounded soldiers. Suddenly, the ground shook as from an earthquake. To prevent the ammo from falling into Germans hands, fanatical commissars had blown up the caverns and condemned themselves and everyone inside to death.
During the night of the 28th, tension gripped the assault crews who prepared for their crossing of Severnaya Bay. To divert Soviet forces away from the bay, Italian MTBs and Army assault boats carried out a feigned landing near Cape Feolent that completely fooled the Soviets. The Eighth Air Corps pounded the city relentlessly to dampen any noise on the northern shore. The German artillery stood ready to unleash its fire onto the southern shore the moment the Russians perceived that they were under attack.
At one o’clock in the morning, under cover of darkness and a thick smoke screen, the first wave grenadiers of the 22nd and 24th IDs pushed their boats into the water and raced across the 1,000 yards of Severnaya Bay. Not a shot was fired until the Germans reached the enemy shore, jumped out of their boats, and greeted the surprised Soviets of the 79th Infantry Brigade with their MP-40 submachine guns. Flashes of retaliatory Soviet guns lit up the whole of the southern cliffs. The German artillery retorted from the northern shore, minimizing the losses sustained by subsequent assault waves.
As dawn rose above the horizon, the 30th Corps’ artillery fire and the long-range battery from the 54th Corps peppered the enemy defenses on the Sapun Heights. The bombardment gave the impression of an imminent attack along the entire front. Instead, the 170th ID struck into a limited area from the Fedjukiny Heights. The division penetrated the enemy defenses supported by the 300th Panzer Battalion’s Goliath tanks, direct fire from a flak regiment, and Stugs.
In the wake of the 170th ID, the 28th Light Division and 72nd ID were funneled into the ruptured enemy line. “After the successful crossing of the bay, the fall of the Heights of Inkerman and the 30th Corps breakthrough of the Sapun positions, the fate of Sevastopol was sealed,”10 Manstein noted of German progress by the 29th.
Having gained a foothold on the cliffs above the bay on the previous day, the 54th Corps secured Fort Malakhov from the remnants of the Soviet 79th Brigade and pierced the city’s last ring of defenses. Around the same time, the 72nd ID drove the Soviets from the Sapun positions. Although Petrov threw in what remained of the Soviet 25th ID, the 9th Marine and the 142nd Infantry Brigades to aid the defending 386th ID, they were unable to halt the German advance. In an adjacent sector, the 8th Brigade was virtually annihilated.
The 28th ID fought for the Soviet battery at the English Cemetery. Here a morbid battle raged amid the ruined marble monuments of the Crimean War. New cadavers joined the dead of the older war, whose graves were torn open by shelling. The 72nd ID meanwhile thrust along the south coast, taking Windmill Hill and the main road into the city. The 4th Romanian MD followed up the success by seizing the positions of Balaclava from the rear and bagging 10,000 prisoners.
All of the Soviet defensive rings were shattered and the ruined city remained in the hands of broken units. Since the battle began, the Luftwaffe had dumped several million propaganda leaflets on the defenders asking them to surrender. But the ill-supplied and starving Soviet soldiers refused to give up. Indeed, with nowhere to retreat and the bleak prospect of German imprisonment, they had little other choice. Manstein knew they would make the Germans pay in blood for every block and for every house. To avoid adding to the already high German casualties, he planned to smother the city with massive artillery and air barrages until the Soviets were simply incapable of resistance.
The Soviets Finally Evacuate Sevastopol
On June 30, flak guns, artillery, bombers, and fighters pounded the city mercilessly. The fatigued Luftwaffe ground and aircrews managed another 1,218 sorties, dropping 1,192 tons of bombs. Crowds of citizens fled to the west through rubble, flames, and clouds of black smoke, to huddle in caves and await transport and possible salvation from the doomed Crimea. Stavka had decided to evacuate Sevastopol. The same night, Oktyabrskii, Petrov, and other senior officials fled the city by submarine. Petrov went reluctantly and had to be talked out of a suicide attempt.
Major General Vasily Novikov was left to attempt some sort of rear-guard action. He gathered what infantry units he could. The city was lost and tens of thousands of civilians and wounded soldiers streamed to the beaches of the Khersones Peninsula, where a Soviet battery remained. Novikov tried to establish a defensive line across the peninsula. He did his best, but the end was only a matter of time. The German artillery and Luftwaffe raged over the whole area, pounding the Soviet positions on the Khersones. It was too much. It had gone on too long.
Many of the defenders finally cracked. “They ran with maddened eyes, with tunics torn and flopping; panic-stricken, bewildered, miserable, frightened people. They seized feverishly any kind of craft they could—rafts, rubber floats, automobile tires—and flung themselves into the sea,” wrote Boris Voyetekhov.11
There was no attempt by the Black Sea Fleet to rescue the hapless civilians and troops trapped on Cape Khersones. The fleet was simply too devastated from the losses incurred in recent weeks to risk attacks by the Axis flotilla, Luftwaffe, or by the German heavy guns that now swept the area with impunity. On July 2, German bombers even raided the fleet’s Caucasian bases, badly damaging many large vessels. The only succor to the stranded on the cape were the heroic efforts of fishing boats and other small vessels who rescued a small number of people at night.
The inactivity of the Black Sea Fleet remained a point of contention for Petrov. In no kind words, he let Oktyabrskii know that many defenders were abandoned due to the Black Sea Fleet’s poor organization. As a result, Petrov’s name was left out of Oktyabrskii’s speeches and writings about the heroic defense of Sevastopol. Likewise, there was little mention of those forsaken to the Germans.
On July 1, after 249 days of siege, the Germans finally took what remained of Sevastopol. Elsewhere, the fighting continued. The 72nd ID captured Maxim Gorki II at Cape Feolent on the southern coast. The rest of the German divisions pushed on to Cape Khersones where Novikov held out for several more days until he ran out of rations and ammo. Desperate mobs of Soviets tried to break out. Arms linked, the women and girls of the Communist Youth leading them on, they marched into the deadly hail of awaiting MG-42 machine guns.
Those that fought on made their last stand in the caverns on the cape’s shore. Victor Gurin, sergeant 2nd class, lived to tell about it: “There were thousands of corpses lying on the shore and in the water. German snipers sneaked to a position of advantage near our burnt lorries and were killing off our officers by accurate shots. During July 2 we were still clinging to the narrow strip of the shore and fighting on. We beat off ten attacks that day.”12
Thirty thousand Soviets surrendered on July 4, for a total of 90,000 prisoners, 467 guns, 758 mortars, and 155 antitank guns captured. Two more Soviet armies were smashed and an estimated 50,000 of the enemy killed on the battlefield. Including civilians, Soviet casualties were about 250,000 for the entire siege. Of the pitiful 30,000 civilians left at the end of the siege, two-thirds faced deportation or execution. Resistance did not fully peter out in the Khersones until July 9.
Scattered groups of soldiers escaped to the mountains from whence they continued guerrilla operations against the invaders. It was over. Not long afterward, a radio message arrived from a delighted Hitler, congratulating Manstein on his victory and promoting him to field marshal. His soldiers’ valor was honored with a special Crimean shield, worn on the upper left arm of the Crimean veterans’ uniforms.
A Costly Win for the Germans
Despite Manstein’s efforts to spare his infantry and crush the defenders with overwhelming bombardment, official Eleventh Army losses numbered 4,337 dead, 1,591 missing, and 18,183 wounded. Actual casualties were probably much higher, up to 75,000. In addition, they had used up 46,700 tons of munitions and 20,000 tons of bombs. In one month the Eighth Air Corps dropped more bombs on Sevastopol than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain during entire air war of 1941.
The Soviets were finally driven from the Crimea. The battered Black Sea Fleet was no longer a threat to Axis operations in the area and was forced to operate from lesser bases along the Caucasus coast. Nullified as well was the danger of Soviet air attacks on Romanian oilfields from the Crimea. As a political repercussion, Axis control of the Black Sea compelled Turkey to think twice before joining the Allies.
The Eleventh Army was now in a perfect position to join the offensive against the Caucasus by crossing the straits of Kerch to the Kuban. From there it could intercept enemy forces retreating toward the Caucasus from the lower Don Basin before the advance of German Army Group A or, at the very least, serve as a reserve force. It was not to be. To Manstein’s vexation, the Eleventh Army was ordered northward to a threatened sector around Leningrad. Who knows how the Battle of Stalingrad might have ended if Manstein and his veteran army had stayed in the southern theater of operations?
If the Germans rightly considered the taking of Sevastopol a heroic feat of their infantry, so too the Soviets justifiably glorified their defense. Fifty thousand medals were awarded to the men and women of the Soviet Army and Navy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the citizens who defended the city.
Russian propaganda turned the loss of Sevastopol into a great moral victory and claimed 300,000 Germans killed. Sevastopol became one of the four hero cities of the Soviet Union, alongside Odessa, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. The city remained under German occupation until liberated by the Soviets on May 9, 1944, with twice the number of artillery pieces used by the Germans in 1942.
“Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol,” Ludwig H Dyck’s article about the Nazi Germany’s assault on the Soviet Crimean port, was first published in WWII History Magazine, March 2005. On Dec. 1, 2015 and on Dec. 27, 2016, the article was re-published online at Warfare History Network. The version above features minor editorial changes by the author as well as additional images.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East (Kansas. University of Kansas Press. 1998), p. 89.
Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. 1958), p. 246, 247.
Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43 (London: Bantam Books, 1967), p. 500.
Vladimir V. Karpov . The Commander (New York: Brassey’s Defense Publishers. 1987), p. 86.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, p. 99.
Werner Haupt, Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945 (Atglen: Schiffer Military History. 1998), p. 121.
Werner Baumbach, The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe (New York: Ballantine Books,1972), p. 140, 141.
Werner Haupt, Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945, p. 123.
Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43, p. 509.
Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories, p. 256.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, p. 114.
Vladimir V. Karpov . The Commander, p. 98.
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“Hungary’s national hero, Janos Hunyadi was one of the great captains in the war between Europe and the Ottoman Turks. Hunyadi rose from obscurity to dominate Hungarian politics in the first half of the 15th century.
“The 15th century historian Thuroczi represented Hunyadi as a “man of war, born to bear arms.” A devout Catholic, Hunyadi would leave his bed at night to spent hours praying at the chapel. He believed in strict discipline for himself and for his men.
“During the spring of 1441, Mezid Pasha, Bey of Vidin, led 17,000 sipahis (Ottoman cavalry) into central Transylvania. The panic spread by Mezid’s ravages drew Hunyadi into an ill-prepared engagement at Santimbru. Hunyadi barely escaped but rallied peasant reinforcements and riposted only a few days later. Mezid ordered his best troops to take out Hunyadi. “To kill a lion, his heart must be pierced,” Mezid told his troops, advising them that Hunyadi “wears a silver helmet and carries a shield emblazoned with a raven. Mounted on a white horse, he is always found in the thick of battle.” Forewarned by a spy, Hunyadi let a volunteer, Simon Kemeny, wear his armor. Kemeny was slain but Hunyadi was left free to lead the attack and defeat Mezid on March 22. A wagonload of severed Ottoman heads was sent back to Buda.”
Hunyadi won many such victories against the Turks but also suffered reverses such as at Varna in 1444. At the time, Hunyadi served under the teenage Wladyslaw III (Ulaszlo I) King of Poland and Hungary.
“Victory all but in his grasp, Wladyslaw entered the fray with 500 cavalry. The young king smote through the janissaries, but then his horse was killed under him. Wladyslaw was hurled to the ground where a janissary swooped off his head and hoisted it on the tip of his lance. Galloping back to the battle, Hunyadi tried in vain to stem the growing panic. The sun set upon a vanquished Hungarian army.”
Though at times defeated, Hungary never faltered in his resolve to carry on the war: “We have had enough of our men enslaved, our women raped, wagons loaded with the heads of our people, the sale of chained captives, the mockery of our religion…we shall not stop until we succeed in expelling the enemy from Europe.”
Hunyadi’s greatest victory, no doubt was his 1456 relief and defense of Belgrade against Sultan Mehemed II “The Conqueror.”
“By nightfall the Turks were fighting in the streets. Hunyadi ordered his men to throw tarred wood and blankets saturated with sulfur into the moat. Set alight, the moat erupted in flames and burned the Ottomans trying to gain the walls. The isolated janissaries in the city were slaughtered.”
The fighting was so dreadful that to Ottoman historian Tursun Bey it seemed as if “even the dead climbed out of the fortress and fell upon the army of Islam.”
On August 11th, less than a month after forcing the Ottomans to retreat, Hunyadi passed away from illness. In all probability he succumbed to the plague that had spread from Mehemed’s army into Belgrade. With his last words, the dying Hunyadi pleaded for the continued defense of Hungary and Christianity.
“Hunyadi’s deeds elevated him into the realm of legend, to become Torokvero, the “scourge of the Turks.”
L. H. Dyck’s full article on the life of Janos Hunyadi appears in Military Heritage January 2017.