During the reign of Murad I (r. 1360-1389) many prisoners of war fell into Ottoman captivity. Rather than kill those that were not worth ransom, the Ottomans used them for the Kapikulu Ocaklari, meaning ‘gate or court slaves.’ Of the captives the fittest young men were selected to begin training for service in the Sultan’s personal army. They formed the first ortas (battalions) of the Yeni Ceri ‘new army’ or Janissaries.
Toward the end of Murad’s reign, the Devsirme ‘collection’ tax of eight to fifteen year-old boys from subjected Christian population was introduced. The Devsirme became the main recruiting base for the Janissaries. Enslaving your own subjects, including Christians, was against the Sariat, the Islamic religious law, but the Ottomans followed their own unorthodox believes. Reaction to the Devsirme varied according to the time period and location. Parents hid their children or tried to flee, in what were usually futilely attempts to escape the efficient Ottoman collectors. Others volunteered their children in hopes of giving them a chance at a better career than the rural farming life. Some families, not only Christians but Muslim converts among Bosnian Slavs as well, even bribed the Ottoman officials so that their children were taken.
Assembled by their local Christian priest, who was needed to proof their Christian identity, the boys were led away by an Ottoman Surucu drover. The boys nearly all hailed from rural Balkan villages as they were fitter and deemed more naive than their ‘street wise’ city counterparts. Almost none were Balkan Greeks, who were mostly urban folk, and none were Jews, who were exempt. A few of the smarter ones were selected for schooling in office positions. The rest were assimilated into Turkish culture by serving as a farmhands for a Turkish family. In an age were slavery and the atrocities of war were commonplace, the initial shock gave way to grudging acceptance. Given human nature, no doubt many of the young lads bonded with their new Turkish families.
After four to eight years laboring on Turkish farms, the boys were sent to become the Acemi Oglans, ‘foreign boys,’ of the Acemi Ocagi, ‘hearth of the inexperienced’ -the Janissary training center at Gallipoli. For another four to eight years, the Acemi Oglans underwent rigorous infantry training, under challenging and Spartan conditions, until their Kapiya Cikma, their final examination. The young Christian farm lad was now a young Muslim soldier in the prime of his life. He would always remember with pride the evening, when after prayers he donned the soldier’s dolama to become one of the honored Janissary. Through it all, he had not forgotten his Christian parents, however, and in many cases had been able to keep in touch with them.
The young age of the recruits left more time for training in the arts of war and for indoctrination of Islam so that they would be completely obedient to their superiors and their ultimate master, the Sultan. In return the Janissaries were honored and amply rewarded for success in battle. They are generally considered the finest infantry of their heyday, which lasted into the early modern period. No European power had an infantry corps to compare with the Janissaries.
Nicolle, David, Nicopolis 1396 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1999) p. 27, 28, Nicolle David, The Janissaries (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000) p. 4, 13, Uyar, Mesut and Edward J. Erickson, A Military History of the Ottoman Turks: From Osman to Ataturk (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 2009) p. 17-20.
The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
With the German Sixth Army destroyed at Stalingrad, the Soviet juggernaut lunged west and southwest across the River Donets. The Soviets seemed unstoppable, recapturing the major city of Kharkov from the Germans on February 14, 1943. However, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was only waiting for the Soviets to overextend themselves.
Once the Soviet armor ran dry of fuel and low on ammunition, Manstein unleashed Army Group South’s riposte. Fresh panzer formations sliced into the startled Soviet flanks, ripping apart two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups). Manstein’s brilliant counteroffensive restored the southern front and culminated in an SS frontal assault and a triumphant recapture of Kharkov.
Meanwhile, to the north of the Donets campaign, the Soviet winter offensive was held at bay before Orel by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center. Operations everywhere then bogged down to a standstill as the Russian spring thawed the frozen earth and turned it to mud. The thick “rasputitsa” clung to steel tank tracks, to truck tires, to the hoofs of tired horses, and to the boots of exhausted soldiers.
The front was left with a gargantuan Soviet salient, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, bulging around the town of Kursk between the two German army groups. The Kursk salient was consequently the target of the last, great German summer offensive, ending with the legendary tank battles in the environs of Oboian and Prokhorovka.
With the third summer of the German-Soviet war approaching, the Red Army war machine had grown more powerful while that of the Germans proportionally declined. Despite von Manstein’s recent victory at Kharkov, only the most fanatical senior German commanders, along with Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union could be decisively defeated. A stalemate, however, was still in the cards, but only if the Germans managed to retain the initiative. To do so, Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of Army general staff, proposed eliminating the Kursk salient.
In what came to be known as Operation Citadel, the Ninth Army of von Kluge’s Army Group Center would strike for Kursk from the north while his Second Army defended the western face of the salient. At the same time, von Manstein’s Army Group South would attack toward Kursk from the south with Colonel General Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General Werner Kempf’s Army Detachment. Once the two German army groups met, the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. The Eastern Front would be straightened out, allowing German troops to be transferred to the West along with thousands of Soviet prisoners to toil in the Reich’s factories and on its farms. Such were the rewards of victory, and to achieve it Zeitzler counted on the new, vaunted Panther tanks and the Ferdinand or “Elephant” tank destroyer.
Hitler presented Zeitzler’s plan to his senior Army commander on May 3-4. Von Manstein argued that Citadel might have worked in April, when Hitler first signed the operational order, but now its “success was doubtful.”1 Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of the Ninth Army, cautioned that the plan was painfully obvious and that the Soviets were already preparing deep and strong defensive positions.
Von Kluge, who liked to curry favor with Hitler but was known as a fence sitter, supported Citadel but argued against any further delay, so if it failed he could not be blamed. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armored troops, called the idea “pointless,”2 certain to result in heavy tank casualties. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Panthers and the Elephants were in no way ready for combat.
When Wilhem Keitel, Hitler’s chief of the armed forces high command, later argued for the attack on political reasons, Guderian spat back, “How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”3 Hitler admitted the idea made his “stomach turn over,”4 but eventually not only decided in favor of Citadel but delayed it for two months until the new tanks were ready.
Historian Charles Winchester has aptly noted, “The idea that an offensive involving millions of men fighting across a battlefield half the size of England could be determined by a few hundred new tanks shows touching faith in technology.”5
Hitler’s delays played right into Soviet hands. Stalin heeded the advice of Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, deputy commander of the Red Army, and Marshal Alesksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Army general staff, to postpone a Soviet offensive until the Germans bled themselves dry on the Kursk defenses. And those defenses were awe inspiring. Half a million railcars rolled into the Kursk salient, pouring in division after division. Whole towns in the forward areas were evacuated. Three hundred thousand civilians, mostly women and old men, helped dig trenches and build fortifications. The southern shoulder of the salient alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to channel the panzers into the crossfire of antitank strongholds.
The 48th Panzer Corps Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Friedrich W. von Mellenthin, poignantly summoned up the German predicament: “The Russians were aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics, and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. Instead of seeking to create conditions in which maneuver would be possible … the German Supreme Command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent panzer divisions against Kursk, which had become the strongest fortress in the world.”6 If this was not adversity enough, the Soviets had twice as many men, two and a half times as many guns and mortars, 900 more planes, and 750 more tanks than the Germans.
Just before the battle, an SS trooper in the coal black darkness outside of a command bunker thought to himself, “The mud might slow us down but it cannot stop us. Nothing will.”7 Alfred Novotny, a fusilier of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, was of the same mind: “We were totally convinced as soldiers that Kursk would turn the war around again, in favor of Germany. We, the Fusiliers and Grenadiers, would do it!”8 The high morale was due in part to the fact that the soldiers were unaware of what they were facing. The troops were “prepared to endure any losses and carry out every task given to them,” but “the Russians are masters at the art of camouflage. Inevitably their strength was considerably underestimated,”9 reflected Mellenthin.
Over 2 million men, 35,000 guns, 6,250 tanks and assault guns, and 4,900 aircraft were flung at each other by two merciless totalitarian regimes, each bent on the utter annihilation of its foe. The German attack in the south opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1943, followed 12 hours later by the attack in the north. Forewarned of the exact time of Model’s attack by intelligence operatives, Soviet commanders ordered their artillery to bombard Model’s front lines before his own artillery had a chance to open up. The Germans answered back with air strikes and with a short but intense bombardment.
Tiger tanks, Elephant tank destroyers, and Brummbär self-propelled artillery battalions of the Ninth Army smashed gaps into the Soviet defenses and chewed up counterattacks by the Soviet Central Front. Through the gaps poured the panzer and infantry divisions, only to find another of eight skillfully defended defensive belts.
Not only were the Soviet defenses far thicker than anticipated, but Hitler’s beloved 89 Elephants, all fighting with Army Group Center, did not live up to expectations. Although their powerful, long L/71 88mm guns proved deadly to Soviet armor, the 67-ton Elephants were underpowered and lacked a machine gun for protection against enemy infantry. When attacked by Soviet close-combat infantry anti-tank units, some Elephant crews tried to fend off the Soviets by firing their MG-42 machine guns through the main barrel.
Another nasty surprise was the Central Front’s 12 new SU-152s. The front’s 152mm assault gun unit knocked out seven Elephants and 12 Tigers of Model’s attacking units, earning it the nickname Zveroboi (animal hunter). After a week of round-the-clock fighting, Model’s exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking into the open, having only penetrated nine miles.
Soviet casualties were heavy, but they did not prevent Zhukov from launching an offensive in the Orel sector on Model’s northern flank on July 11. From then on, Model was hard pressed just to contain a Soviet breakthrough. Zhukov, who had failed to destroy Army Group Center in two previous winter offensives, remained fixated on its destruction. He should have paid more attention to the southern flank of the salient, where Von Manstein’s thrust made dangerous gains.
Alfred Novotny has never forgotten the 4th Panzer Army’s opening artillery barrage and the foul weather that accompanied it: “The first hours of the Kursk offensive still cause flashbacks 50-odd years later. Sometimes I think I can still hear the incredible loud noise of the German weapons … flak, artillery, mortars, Stukas, and Nebelwerfers. I cannot forget the endless, terrible rain, rain, and more rain. We were totally drenched, heavily laden down with equipment, knee deep in mud all around us.”10
The Soviet defenses facing Novotny and his comrades were as formidable as they were in the north, but the defending Soviet armies had more front line to cover and, unlike Model, Von Manstein used massed armor formations from the onset. A bombardment that used more shells than the French and Polish campaigns combined opened the way for Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, the most powerful concentration of German armor under a single command during World War II.
The 4th Panzer Army blasted its way through the defenses of the Soviet 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army. The latter’s Guards distinction and the superior equipment that came along with it were indicative of its elite, veteran status. There were many Guards divisions at Kursk, and most of them had earned their distinction at Stalingrad.
Fighting with the 48th Panzer Corps on 4th Panzer Army’s left wing, the 200 Panthers at Kursk turned out to be a disappointment just like the Elephants to the north. Although the Panther eventually turned out to be arguably the best tank design of the war, at Kursk it suffered from mechanical problems and inadequately trained crews. By the second day of the battle, the Panthers, armed with high-velocity 75mm guns, were reduced to 50 in number. After five days, there were only 10 left.
The bulk of the fighting was left to the old workhorses of the German Army, the Panzer Mark IIIs and Mark IVGs with their new anti-tank rifle side skirts, the assault guns, and a relative few of the feared heavy Tigers, with their 88mm guns, to the defeat the Soviet armor. With their help, the battle-hardened veterans of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 48th Panzer Corps fought their way through swamps and streams and overcame mine-infested belts of trenches. Strongholds of camouflaged antitank rifle infantry, sappers with explosives, dug in heavy antitank guns, Soviet T-34 medium tanks, and tank destroyers awaited the German armor.
Not only that, but the land sloped upward toward Kursk, giving the Soviets a clear view. Even so, Grossdeutschland managed to reach the outskirts of the villages of Kruglik and Nowosselowka by July 9. On the left wing of the 48th Panzer Corps, however, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army held up the 3rd Panzer Division in the woods north of Beresowka. To capitalize on this limited success, General Nikolay F. Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, transferred two tank corps and a rifle division from his reserve to Katukov.
With its left flank dangerously exposed, Grossdeutschland abandoned its northward drive and swung to the southwest on July 10, to trap and destroy the enemy between Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division. The diary of a Grossdeutschland soldier reads, “Squadron after squadron of Stukas come over to drop their deadly eggs on the Russian armor. Dazzling white flames indicate that another enemy tank has brewed up.”11
A Major Franz of the Grossdeutschland assault gun battalion sped toward the village of Kruglik when “at 300 meters from the village … I suddenly saw fiery red arrows coming toward us from the outskirts. There were explosions directly in front of the mass of advancing assault guns … we were under fire from a Stalin Organ.”12
General Andrei L. Getman remembered, “Many of our soldiers and commanders fell heroically in the five days of ferocious battle. Nevertheless, the corps continued to resist the enemy. Meeting organized fire resistance he ceased his attacks by nightfall.”13
That evening, the 3rd Panzer Division had joined the chaotic fighting among the groves and ravines that nearly eliminated the 6th Tank Corps. On July 11, the remnants of the 6th Tank Corps and the mauled 90th Guards Rifle Division pulled back to the west. The 3rd Panzer Division filled Grossdeutschland’s forward positions, allowing the latter to prepare for a renewed push to the north. It was not to be. During the night of the 11th, reinforced Soviet counterattacks flung the 3rd Panzer Division out of its new positions.
While Grossdeutschland dealt with the problems on its left flank, Knobelsdorff ordered the 11th Panzer Division to strike north along the road to Oboian and to the River Ps’ol. Its vanguard stood on the highest point on the way to Oboian. A soldier remembered, “One could see far into the valley of the Ps’ol River, the last natural barrier before Kursk. With field glasses the towers of Oboian could be made out in the fine haze. Oboian was the objective. It seemed within an arm’s reach. Barely 12 miles away.”14
Although bloodily slashed by the 11th Panzer Division, the Soviet defenders refused to give way. Not only that, but Vatutin gathered his forces for a massive counterstroke to “encircle and destroy the main German grouping penetrating to Oboian and Prokhorovka.”15 Victory for either side still hung in the balance, for, on the right wing of the 4th Panzer Army, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was simultaneously on the verge of a decisive breakthrough.
SS General Paul “Papa” Hausser’s cream of the Waffen SS armor reached the River Ps’ol. On his left flank, the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head) crossed the Ps’ol on pontoon bridges on the 10th and immediately engaged the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To avoid further bridging operations for his heavy tanks, Hausser’s two other panzergrenadier divisions advanced south of the river.
The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich (The State) panzergrenadier divisions pushed eastward through Soviet artillery barrages and dug-in tanks of the Soviet 2nd Tank Corps and elements of the 5th Guards Army. Leibstandarte spearheads were already at the outskirts of the Prokhorovka on July 9. The SS formations were aided by initial German air superiority and by Vatutin’s massive, chaotic redeployments, which caused Soviet units to pull back in some areas.
By July 11, paratroopers had dug in and stiffened Soviet resistance. A trooper of the 9th Guards Airborne Division recalled, “The village of Lutovo shuddered from exploding bombs, shells and mines. The soldiers observed the enemy from foxholes. Infantry poured out of the armored transporters. The distorted faces of the Fascists bore witness … that their warlike ardor was roused by a large dose of schnapps. Submachine gunners opened fire on the run and concealed themselves behind the tanks. A squall of 3rd Battalion fire met the Fascists. The long bursts of [Soviet] heavy machine guns struck the infantry in the flanks.”16
Meanwhile, General Herman Breith’s 3rd Panzer Corps’ northward thrust east of the Donets was constantly thwarted by the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army. Von Manstein urged Kempf to have Breith catch up to the 2nd SS Corps and cover its right flank. On July 11, the Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment ripped through the Soviet 305th Rifle Division and tore into the 107th Rifle Division to its rear. The 6th Panzer Division lunged forward nearly eight miles, and the 19th Panzer Division also made good progress. Although Breith’s armored spearheads were still 15 miles from Prokhorovka, the remaining Soviet defenses were too weak to absorb another German assault. Unless Vatutin immediately rushed in reinforcements, Breith and Hausser would break through to Prokhorovka.
Seven Soviet armies now surrounded the 20-mile deep bulge that the armor formations and the following infantry divisions of 4th Panzer Army and the Kempf Army had bitten into the Kursk salient. To blunt the German advance and at the same time launch his massive counteroffensive, Vatutin rushed in Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s crack 5th Guards Tank Army. The 5th Guards Tank Army, along with the already committed 5th Guards Army, was transferred from Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. Konev’s Front was to lead the planned post-Kursk counteroffensive.
The early commitment of two of the Steppe Front’s armies shows how critical the situation had become at Prokhorovka. Stalin even ordered Zhukov to fly to the Prokhorovka area and personally oversee the two Fronts. Reinforced by two tank corps and self-propelled artillery units, Rotmistrov fielded a total of 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov, “On the morning of 12 July, together with the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Army, launch a decisive offensive to destroy the enemy southwest of Prokhorovka.”17
At dawn on July 12, the 121 tanks and assault guns of the Totenkopf Division prepared to shatter the Soviet defenses and advance northeastward on the ridge line north of the Ps’ol. The day promised to be humid, and clouds hung over the horizon. Brutal, indecisive fighting against three Guards rifle divisions raged throughout the day.
South of Prokhorovka, Hoth was on the battlefield watching the ensuing carnage in Das Reich’s sector through a trench telescope. Das Reich was forced on the defensive because the delay of 3rd Panzer Corps exposed its right flank to Soviet attacks.
During the day, 50 Soviet armored vehicles drove along one of the balkas, or valley bottoms, past a group of T-34s lined up on the ridge. There were white crosses on the turrets of the T-34s on the ridge. These were captured T-34s of Das Reich, and they suddenly opened fire on the vehicles below.
The first Soviet vehicle in line was also the only one equipped with a radio, and it was hit immediately. One after another, the Soviet vehicles exploded in flames. In another area of Das Reich, a T-34 rammed into a field kitchen before being destroyed in close combat. On the 12th, SS 2nd Lt. Hans Mennel, in command of a Mark IV, knocked out his 24th Soviet tank during the fighting.
Between Totenkopf and Das Reich, the Leibstandarte launched its attack at 6:50 that morning. Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets howled upon the German formations. The Leibstandarte’s panzergrenadiers struck eastward, north, and south of the railway line that led northeast toward Prokhorovka. Crewmen in black uniforms and camouflage jackets took last puffs on their cigarettes and climbed into their sand yellow and red-brown Mark IVGs. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 67 tanks revved up their engines. Steel tracks clanged toward purple walls of smoke, flares from German reconnaissance planes, rising above the undulating ridge lines ahead. The smoke signaled a warning that enemy tanks were approaching.
The engine noise of the Red Army’s 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared from the direction of Prokhorovka. Hundreds of Soviet tanks in waves of 40 or 50, with Guards Airborne riflemen piled on top of them, rolled out of the town and surrounding area.
The Soviet tanks charged at great speed, colliding head-on with the SS grenadiers and SS Major Martin Gross’s 2nd Panzer Battalion. An SS 2nd lieutenant related, “They were around us, on top of us, and between us. We fought man to man, jumping out of our foxholes to lob our magnetic hollow charge grenades at the enemy tanks. It was hell! Our company alone destroyed 15 Russian tanks.”18
SS 1st Lt. Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the Nazi foreign minister, commanded a company of six Mark IVs, which drove down a slope to aid the hard-pressed panzergrenadiers. Ribbentrop’s company knocked out a handful of T-34s at 800 meters. The Mark IV, the most common German tank at Kursk, was not as fast as the T-34 or as heavily armored, but it had a superior gun and fire control. In the end, tactics and training proved decisive.
Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off the burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, the Soviet armor bravely sped on until the tanks of both sides sliced through each other. “There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. The shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor,”19 witnessed Rotmistrov from his observation post on a hill.
“A T-34 began to burn,” reported Ribbentrop. “It was only 50 to 70 meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames. The avalanche of tanks rolled straight toward us … from this range every round was a hit.”20
Ribbentrop knocked out four more Soviet tanks. On the last one, he scored a direct hit at 10 meters. He recalled, “The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”21
Ribbentrop had turned with the waves of Soviet tanks that swept by him. Soon they were under withering fire from German assault guns and two more panzer companies lurking down the slope behind an antitank ditch. Amid the thick smoke and dust, the jumble of Soviet tanks and wrecked vehicles, Ribbentrop’s Mark IV remained unnoticed by the Soviet tanks around him. “Machine guns firing, we rolled through a mass of [Soviet] troops from behind,”22 he said.
Ribbentrop pulled his Mark IV into cover behind a destroyed T-34 and joined the slaughter of the Soviets tanks trying desperately to cross a bridge over the antitank ditch. “Burning T-34s ran into and over one another. It was a total inferno of fire and smoke, and impacting shells and explosions,”23 he remembered. A shell hit Ribbentrop’s turret, driving the gunner’s sight into his eye and inflicting a serious head injury. He was able to reach the safety of the German lines after he and his crew had knocked out 14 Soviet tanks.
Meanwhile, north of Oktiabrs’kii, the Tigers of SS Captain Heinrich Kling’s 13th Heavy Panzer Company crushed through hedgerows and thickets. Suddenly, a wave of 60 Soviet tanks swept out of a wood less than a mile away. Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann’s Tiger rocked from the recoil as his 88mm gun knocked out the first T-34. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance. Four Tigers were hit and temporarily crippled.
Wittmann’s Tiger shuddered from two hits but remained unfazed although his radio operator received a wound in the upper arm. “Three o’clock, three hundred!”24 cried Wittmann. A T-34 appeared out of some bushes. It swung its 76.2mm gun toward Wittmann’s Tiger, but Wittmann’s gunner, Balthasar Woll, was faster. The 88mm muzzle flashed and blew the turret off the T-34.
Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel’s Stukas appeared above the dueling tanks. Oily black smoke spiraled into the sky. Like birds of prey, the Stukas howled down upon the Soviet tanks. Swarms of Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters tore into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky.
Wittmann’s platoon of three Tigers pushed on through the storm of steel, through the flames and smoke of burning grass. He had passed Prokhorovka when Kling’s voice rang through the radio, “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”25 Soviet tanks of the 181st Tank Brigade closed in from about a mile away, disappearing into a valley and then reappearing over a rise. The stationary Tigers’ guns opened and maintained a rapid rate of fire. Numerous Soviet tanks were blown to pieces, but the remaining machines kept coming. They had to close to within 800 meters to be able to penetrate the Tigers’ frontal armor.
Leading a group of 15 tanks, Captain P. A. Skripkin’s T-34 closed in on Wittmann’s platoon. “Forward, follow me!”26 he shouted. Skripkin fired a round into a Tiger’s side, disabling it. Wittmann’s Tiger responded by pumping two rounds into Skripkin’s tank. Skripkin was wounded, and his crew pulled him out of the burning T-34. The driver jumped back in, and like a flaming ball of fire his T-34 tore down onto SS Staff Sergeant Georg Lötzsch’s Tiger. Lötzsch steered straight toward the oncoming Soviet tank, slammed on the brakes and fired. The 88mm round hit the edge of the turret and ricocheted into the sky. The 30-ton T-34 rammed into Lötzsch’s Tiger, shaking the ground with its impact. Flames engulfed both tanks. Lötzsch kept his nerves and backed out just before the T-34’s ammunition exploded.
Despite horrendous losses, the Soviets kept up the pressure. From north of Oktiabr’skii to south of Storozheveo, the battle seesawed back and forth. The Leibstandarte’s efforts to advance were thwarted by packs of Soviet tanks and infantry. The 1st Panzer Regiment was forced back to Oktiabr’skii. By 6 pm, the 181st Tank Brigade, assisted by the 170th Tank Brigade, threatened to sever the link between the Leibstandarte and Totenkopf at the village of Vasil’evka. Meanwhile, at Storozhevoe, Leibstandarte grenadiers reeled under an avalanche of Soviet tanks and mounted infantry.
A tank destroyer crewman recounted, “Salvo after salvo of Stalin’s Organs rained down upon our positions, with artillery and mortar shells in between. T-34 after T-34 rolled over the hill … three … five … ten … but what was the use of counting?”27 At one point Soviet tanks penetrated to Komsomolets, threatening Leibstandarte’s command post and engaging its artillery regiment at point-blank range.
By mid afternoon the sky broke into heavy showers. Rain sizzled on swaths of smoldering tank carcasses, and roads turned into mud pits. Combat in the 29th and 18th Tank Corps sector ground to a halt. Both sides were too drained by the terrible ordeal to go on.
All along Vatutin’s front, the 4th Panzer Army advances on July 12th had been arrested or slowed down, but so had Vatutin’s own offensive. The cost had been extremely heavy. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost about 650 tanks, although only 250 or so of them were total write-offs. Gross’s battalion alone accounted for 90 Soviet tanks, earning him the Knight’s Cross. The 2nd SS Corps lost just over 60 tanks and assault guns completely destroyed. The SS owed part of its success to the one-eyed “Papa” Hausser who “untiringly led all day from the front,”28 inspiring his troops with “his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations,” noted Hoth, whose recommendation earned Hausser the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross.
During the night, troopers dug in and prepared for renewed offensives on the 13th. Soviet and German soldiers alike felt that victory could be achieved if, somehow, the last bits of energy could be called forth. The following day, the weight of the battle in the 2nd SS Corps sector switched from the Leibstandarte to Totenkopf and Das Reich. With its remaining 54 tanks and 20 assault guns, Totenkopf continued to advance north of the Ps’ol, engaging two Guards rifle divisions and the 51st Guards Tank Regiment. Totenkopf reached its objective, the Prokhorovka-Kartasshevka road, but was forced to relinquish its gains due to serious attacks on its left flank and the Leibstandarte’s failure to keep abreast south of the river.
Northeast of Oktiabri’skii, the Leibstandarte was flung back by airborne troops and riflemen supported by Soviet tanks, antitank guns, artillery, and mines. Rotmistrov related, “The fire of our Katyushas always instilled terror in the Fascists. Suffering great losses, the enemy was forced to fall back, abandoning the burning tanks and the bodies of his dead soldiers and officers.”29 The Soviets went on the offensive, but just north of Komsomolets State Farm they were given a dose of the German’s own nebelwerfer rocket launchers.
South of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich captured Storozhevoe and reached the outskirts of Vingoradovka, giving the Soviets cause for concern. It looked like Das Reich might link up with the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was rapidly gaining ground due to a daring night coup by Major Franz Bäke of the 6th Panzer Division.
A T-34 had led a column of vehicles into the darkness behind Soviet lines. The guards at the trenches must not have looked closely, because the T-34s’ markings were painted over and replaced with a small cross. It was one of the score or so of T-34s in German service, and Bäke used it and favorable terrain to lead his battalion of German tanks past the Soviet sentries. Bäke’s battalion was the spearhead of Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s battle group whose objective was the Donets bridge at Rzhavets. However, after six miles or so, the T-34 broke down, “no doubt moved by national sentiments”30 Bäke opined.
Abandoning the T-34, Bäke’s battalion crept onward while continuing to keep radio silence. The lead was now taken by a Mark IV. The German column rumbled past stationary T-34s and anti-tank guns. Exhausted Soviet crews slept in the grass, secure in their knowledge that the front was far away.
Things got dicey when a column of Soviet tanks, some mounted with infantry, appeared heading in the opposite direction. In the darkness, the Soviets appeared to believe Bäke’s tanks were their own returning from the front, or did they? At first twenty-two tanks passed his unit, almost track to track, but then six or seven pulled out of the column, turned, rolled back and pulled behind Bäke’s panzers. Bäke turned his panzer to block the T-34s. Although his own command panzer had only a dummy gun for protection, Bäke ordered the rest of his unit to continue and to secure the objective bridge.
The T-34s ominously drew up in a semicircle while Bäke and his operations officer slipped out of their panzer. They crept up to the T-34s and attached hollow charges. A handful of infantry was hitching a ride on one of the T-34s. One of them noticed Bäke and raised his rifle. Before the surprised Soviet managed to pull the trigger, Bäke snatched the rifle from his hand and jumped into a ditch. One after the other, three explosions lit up the night while one of Bäke’s tanks knocked out a fourth T-34. A cacophony of German and Soviet machine-gun and tank fire erupted. When the rest of the battle group joined the attack, the startled Soviets withdrew across the nearby Donets bridge. They blew up the bridge behind them but could not prevent German grenadiers from wading across the river.
The bridge was captured and repaired, leaving the 3rd Panzer Corps free to thrust northward. To stop them, General Kuzma Trufanov, deputy commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, hurled one rifle division, two reinforced Guards tank and two mechanized brigades at the 3rd Panzer Corps. On July 13, while the 19th Panzer Division, and behind it the 7th Panzer Division, were trying to move out of the bridgehead, the 6th Panzer Division was busy fending off Trufanov’s divisions around Aleksandrovka to the east. That day, the 6th Panzer Division suffered a heavy blow from friendly fire. A German Heinkel He-111 bomber accidentally bombed 6th Panzer Division headquarters, killing 15 and wounding Bäke and his division commander, Maj. Gen. Walther von Hünersdorf, and 47 other officers.
To the west, Grossdeutschland’s northward advance on July 13 was cancelled due to renewed Soviet onslaughts against the 3rd Panzer Division. For a while all contact with the 3rd Panzer Division was lost as the Soviets recaptured Beresowka. On Grossdeutschland’s right flank, the 11th Panzer Division was also unable to press forward due to intense Soviet counterattacks. Rain and muddy roads also hampered the supply of the troops.
Despite the setbacks, Hoth and Kempf continued to have full confidence in victory. Hitler had other ideas. The Führer summoned his army commanders to his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler told them that the Allies had landed in Sicily on July 10 and that Citadel must be called off immediately to enable the transfer of troops to Italy. Kluge agreed because he was already embroiled in Zhukov’s Orel counteroffensive.
Von Manstein, who had originally argued against the whole Kursk operation, pressed for the attack to continue, saying, “To break off the battle now would probably mean throwing away victory.”31 Von Manstein still had the fresh 24th Panzer Corps with 112 tanks in reserve. He wanted to wear the Soviets down through attrition and thereby forestall major Soviet offensives elsewhere.
“We were now in the position of a man who has seized the wolf by the ears and dare not let him go,”32 was von Mellenthin’s impression. Hitler, however, had made up his mind. Four days later he ordered the withdrawal of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps followed by the transfer of Grossdeutschland to Army Group Center. Until then, von Manstein did his best to destroy as many of the enemy as he could.
On July 14 and 15, Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division beat back two tank corps, a Guards corps, and Soviet rifle divisions to recapture the territory lost on the 12th. Throngs of Soviet infantry were sent fleeing to the west to be caught in a barrage of murderous German artillery fire. For the Soviets, however, the most dangerous situation was a linkup between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps. If this happened, the Soviet salient between the two German corps would be closed and the five Soviet divisions therein trapped.
Despite their recent wounds, both Bäke and Hünersdorf were back leading the 6th Panzer Division on another attack on Alexandrowaka. Bäke himself knocked out two Soviet tanks and an antitank gun while his battle group destroyed another 29 tanks and 25 antitank guns. Hünersdorf’s luck, however, ran out. A sniper shot him in the head on July 14, killing him.
That same day in the Das Reich sector, grenadiers fought house to house in the village of Belenichino, destroying 12 Soviet tanks in close combat. SS Lance Corporal Simon Grascher remained glued to the ground in a storm of small caliber, grenade, and antitank fire. The flanking fire of two T-34s was decimating his company. Spurning the dangers, Grascher fought his way forward. He overcame two bunkers and a number of machine gun nests to destroy one of the T-34s with his last hollow charge. Grascher knocked out the second T-34 by throwing a grenade in the temporarily opened hatch. Grascher was killed in the fierce battles that followed, receiving his Knight’s Cross posthumously.
Men like Grascher kept a heavily reinforced Trufanov from being able to do more than slow down the contact between Das Reich and the 7th Panzer Division on July 15. Trufanov did, however, buy the time for most of the Soviet divisions to slip out of the closing German pincers.
By July 16, Hoth and Kempf were finally in a position to resume the push for Kursk. Although their divisions were largely intact, they were battered and their men were worn down, and 60 miles still lay between them and Model’s northern pincer. Von Mellenthin stated, “Gross Deutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for 10 days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.”33
Indeed, the remaining 27th and 53rd Armies of Konev’s Steppe Front alongside the fresh 4th Guards Tank Corps and 1st Mechanized Corps, with nearly 400 tanks, were closing in on Oboian and northwest of Prokhorovka. How they would have fared against von Manstein’s reserves is a matter of speculation, for on July 17, von Manstein began his withdrawal. Zhukov noted, “Because of the exhaustion of our own First Tank Army and the Sixth and Seventh Guards field armies, the enemy was able to pull his main forces back to the Belgorod defense line by July 23.”34 Inevitably, most of the German divisions were soon drawn into new battles against Soviet offensives elsewhere.
As exemplified by the e´lan of the German panzer formations at Oboian and Prokhorovka, the Germans inflicted deep wounds on the Soviets at Kursk while remaining themselves relatively unscathed. Together, Army Group Center and Army Group South lost 323 tanks and assault guns irreparably destroyed during the Kursk battles. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Red Army personnel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with combat losses between 20 and 70 percent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehicles irreparably destroyed.
Losses to both the Germans and the Soviets in damaged armored vehicles were much higher than destroyed vehicles. By the time Wittmann’s Tigers disengaged on the 17th, Wittmann himself had accounted for 30 Soviet tanks and 28 antitank guns. From July 5-16, Das Reich alone knocked out 448 Soviet tanks and assault guns against a loss of 46 of its own. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps chalked up 1,149 Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles. The trend of high Soviet losses against those of the Germans would continue for a long time to come, and often at times be exceeded, as in future battles the Germans were usually on the defensive.
Nevertheless, the strategic consequences at Kursk were not lost on the German commanders. “Citadel had been a complete and most regrettable failure…with the failure of our supreme effort, the strategic initiative passed to the Russians,”35 reflected Von Mellenthin. Von Manstein commented, “When Citadel was called off, the initiative in the Eastern theater of war finally passed to the Russians.”36 Guderian agreed, “By the failure of Citadel we suffered a decisive defeat.”37
Soviet propaganda naturally made the most of the Red Army victory by completely inflating the German losses. Zhukov wrote, “The picked and most powerful grouping of the Germans destroyed here [Kursk] … the faith of the German Army and the German people in the Nazi leadership … was irrevocably shattered.”38 Marshal Alexsandr M. Vasilevsky boasted of 500,000 German casualties. The massacre of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on July 12 was turned into the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army.” The Soviets claimed 400 German tanks destroyed that day and 3,100 German tanks destroyed during the whole Kursk battle. The reality was rather the reverse, and German morale remained high, both among civilians at home and among the soldiers at the front.
Only the relatively recent declassification of Waffen SS combat records and the public accessibility of Russian archival material has revealed the true nature of Kursk: a brilliant tactical victory for the Germans, but a decisive strategic victory for the Soviets.
“The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian” by L. H. Dyck was first published in World War II History Magazine September 2006 and republished on September 2016 at Warfare History Network . The article above features additional images sourced from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.
1, 2. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990), p. 30., 3, 4. Ibid., p. 309, 5. Charles Winchester, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945 ( Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998), p. 106., 6. F. W. vonMellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballatine Books, 1973), p. 264., 7. A.J. Barker, Waffen SS at War (Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing, 1998), p. 72., 8. AlfredNovotny, The Good Soldier (Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003), p. 55., 9. F. W. Mellenthin p. 264.,10. Novotny p. 52-53., 11. Mellenthin p. 273., 12, 13. David M. Glantz and House Jonathan M., The Battle of Kursk (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 152, 153., 14, 15. Ibid., p. 159., 16. Ibid, p. 173., 17. Ibib, p. 169., 18. Ibid., p. 185, Ibid., p. 188, Franz Kurowski, Panzer Aces (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), p. 178., 21. Ibid., p. 179-180., 22. Ibid., 180., 23. Ibid., p. 181., 24. Ibid., p. 312., 25. Ibid., p. 313., 26. Paul Carell, Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), p. 77., 27. Glantz and House, p. 186., 28. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Mueller Gene, Hitler’s Commanders (Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 281., 29. Glantz and House, p. 215., 30. Ibid. p. 199., 31. Carell, p. 88., 32. Mellenthin, p. 278., 33. Ibid. p. 276., 34. Zhukov Georgi R., Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 244., 35. Mellenthin, p. 277-278., 36. Glantz and House, p. 277., 37. Guderian, p. 312., 38. Ibid.,p. 278.
Barker A.J. Waffen SS at War. Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing. 1998, Carell Paul. Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, Glantz David M. and House Jonathan M. The Battle of Kursk. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1999, Guderian Heinz, Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Kurowski Franz. Panzer Aces. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2004, Mellenthin F. W. von, Panzer Battles. New York: Ballatine Books, 1973, Mitcham Samuel W. Jr. and Mueller Gene. Hitler’s Commanders. Lanham: Cooper Square Press. 2000, Novotny Alfred. The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003,Winchester Charles, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 1998, Zhukov Georgi R. Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles.New York: Harper & Row. 1969.
“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 Encyclopedia 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. The article above contains additional images.
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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