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
Cottrell Leonard. The Tiger of Ch’in. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. 1962, Ebrey Patrica B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge, University Press. 2000, Gernet Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University, Press. 1972, Guisso, Pagani and Miller. The First Emperor of China. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing. 1989, Huang Ray. China A Macro History. New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc. 1989 Lattimore Owen. The Inner Asian Frontiers of China. Boston: Beacon Press. 1967, Peers C.J. and McBride Angus. Ancient Chinese Armies 1500-200 BC. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 2000, Murowchick R.E. General Editor. Cradles of Civilization China. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1994, Sima Qian. Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty. Translated by Burton Watson., New York: Columbia University Press. 1993, Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Translated by Burton Watson. Records of the Grand Historian of China. Volume I&II. New York: Columbia University Press. 1961, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, William H. Nienhauser Ed., The Grand Scribe’s Records, V. I, (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), Twitchett D. and Loewe M. Editors. The Cambridge History of China. 221BC-AD.220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1986, Yu-Ning Li Editor. The First Emperor of China. New York: International Arts and Sciences Press. 1975,
World War II History Magazine & Warfare History Network
Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol
“If the Germans rightly considered the taking of Sevastopol a heroic feat of their infantry, so too the Soviets justifiably glorified their defense”
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
By late October 1941, the armies of the Third Reich had swept deep into western Soviet Russia. Leningrad lay under siege and panzer spearheads reached to within 40 miles of Moscow. The German Sixth Army, part of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, occupied Kharkov with the First Panzer Army striking for Rostov.
On Rundstet’s southern flank, General of Infantry Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army punched through the tough Soviet defenses of the Perekop isthmus. The 10-day, hotly contested battle for the Isthmus netted 100,000 Soviet prisoners and opened the door to the Crimea.
The Soviets Take a Stand a Sevastopol
Through the centuries, a myriad of peoples had fought for and settled in the Crimea. Ancient Greeks, Scythians, Goths, and Tartars came and went. Now the invaders were the Germans of the Third Reich, whose Führer planned to turn the Crimea into a pure German colony. With the main base of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and within air range of the Caucasus and Rumanian oilfields, the Crimea held strategic importance to both the Nazis and the Soviets.
The Axis troops fanned out east toward the Kerch Peninsula and south toward Sevastopol. There was no way of stopping the Germans on the open steppes. By November 16, all of the Crimea except Sevastopol was in their hands. There, the Soviet Military Council opted to make its last stand. In the Crimean War of 1854-1855, Sevastopol defied the British, French, Turks, and Sardinians for an incredible 345 days before surrendering. The Soviets were determined to do one better. Master of the blitzkrieg, mobility, and the open battlefield, Manstein was to be tested in one of the most brutal sieges in the history of warfare.
Black Sea Navy guns and crack Marines stiffened Soviet resistance. The defenders counterattacked and flung back General Eric Hansen’s 54th Corps’ probing attacks. One incident saw a politruk (political instructor) and five Black Sea sailors hurl themselves and their last grenades on German tanks to stop a breakthrough to the city. The heroism of the “five sailors of Sevastopol” was remembered in many a song and poem.
The Assault on Sevastopol Begins
It was clear that nothing less than an all-out assault by the Eleventh Army could hope to take the city. Its natural defenses alone ensured that the fight for the city would be a hard one. The city stood on the northern side of a triangular peninsula that jutted westward into the Black Sea. Immediately to the north of Sevastopol lay Severnaya Bay, while rugged wooded hills and ravines guarded the city and the entire peninsula’s landward side from the east and south.
Heavy rains and rough terrain delayed full deployment of troops for a month, so the attack did not get under way until December 17. At first the Soviet defense seemed to crumble, but then it became rock hard. New divisions entered the fray, and officers, commissars, and the NKVD, the Soviet state police, “boosted” morale. Torrential downpours and stormy weather further wore down the German soldiers, many of whom had only summer uniforms.
In his memoirs, Gefreiter (Lance Cororal) Gottlob Bidermann of the 132nd Infantry Division recounted a harrowing anti-tank gun duel with Soviet tanks on December 29th. Having enjoyed a rare breakfast of roasted potatoes, Bidermann assumed sentry duty at the shattered window of the small stone house. The Soviet artillery barrage built to a crescendo, the shells exploding amid the snow covered ground and buildings surrounding Mekensievy-Gory (Mekenzijevi Hory) rail station. The artillery stopped, leaving several buildings in flames. Bidermann watched two landsers running along a street. Red flares shot into the sky; the signal for an enemy attack.
The artillery barrage began anew, landing behind Bidermann and his crew as they raced out of their building toward their anti-tank gun position. Rifle and machine gun fire resounded through the air. Taking cover behind the gun shield, Bidermann peered over the edge. He heard the tank before he saw it. A German messenger ran past, yelling “Panzer, Panzer.”
Biderman caught a glimpse of the dark turret moving among the houses, drawing closer. The tank reappeared at about 150 m distance, on a rise in the street, headed straight at the 37 mm Pak. His eye pressed against the rubber ring of the optics, Bidermann punched the fire button. The shell hit the turret but to the horror of Bidermann, ricochet and shot skyward.
“Panzer-forty meters!” screamed Bidermann. In the blink of an eye, crew members Konrad and Wolf slammed another shell into the breech. Bidermann; “I felt the cold air and the pressure wave on my cheek as a heavy round screamed past us.” The tank round barely missed the Pak, blowing up a burned out truck to their rear. With the tank still in the cross hairs of his sight, Bidermann pressed the firing button again. The crews ears rang from the noise of their gun as the armor-piercing round smashed into the tank. With a blinding flash the ammunition inside exploded, “ripping the turret from the frame” and sending a “huge, black mushroom cloud rolling into the frosty clear blue sky.”
The crew barely had time to catch their breath when machine gun fire ripped into the snow ahead of them. “Panzer to the right!” someone screamed. The four men frantically turned the gun to face a another oncoming tank, 80 m away, smashing through a wooden garden fence. Coming to a halt, the tank turret turned towards the anti-tank gun. Zeroing in on the tank, Bidermann found himself staring through his optics “directly into the round, black muzzle of the enemy gun.” Now a fraction of a second was all that mattered between life and death. The 37-mm rocked with recoil as its shell smashed through the turret. Moments later the “crew scrambled out of the smoking tank.”
Even then it was not over. A third tank was dispatched attacking from behind the burning wreck of the first. Charging Russian infantry were dispersed with anti-personnel rounds. Later on Bidermann inspected the second tank destroyed by his Pak. He looked through the cross hairs of the gun sight; it pointed exactly at where his Pak had stood.
Fighting around Sevastopol continued into the New Year with the Eleventh Army reaching within five miles of the northern outskirts of the city. At this crucial point, Manstein was forced to divert his attention to the northeast. An unexpected amphibious Soviet counterattack drove the Germans out of the Kerch Peninsula and threatened the rear of his army.
In Sevastopol there was a feeling of euphoria; surely the whole of the Crimea would soon be liberated! Despite the occasional air raid and shelling, people emerged from shelters and caves to repair the damaged city. Their hopes were dashed when the Soviet Kerch offensive bogged down into a lengthy stalemate that lasted through the Russian winter.
In mid-May 1942, Manstein, promoted to colonel general, reconquered the Kerch Peninsula, destroying two Soviet armies at the cost of a mere 7,500 German casualties. The people of Sevastopol again disappeared into their underground shelters. They worked double shifts in the armaments works and began to evacuate their children and the elderly. The Soviets’ last attempt to forestall a decisive German drive on Sevastopol had failed.
With the advent of spring, the time for Hitler’s colossal 1942 summer offensive, code named Operation Blue, drew near. Hitler planned for a two-pronged attack that would seize Stalingrad on the Volga and drive deep into the oil-rich Caucasus. Preliminary to Blue, it was imperative to finally capture Sevastopol, a thorn in the German Army’s southern flank. Failure to do so meant that substantial German forces would remain locked up to invest the city.
Germans Plan a Second Assault; Sevastopol Strengthens Its Defenses
Supreme Command decided to recommit Manstein’s Eleventh Army for a second assault on what was possibly the world’s strongest fortress. In the words of an American intelligence officer it was a “tough nut to crack.”1 Virtually the entire 180,000 strong civilian population toiled tirelessly to ensure that the defenses were even more daunting than in the previous November. They blasted bunker, gun, and mortar positions right into the rock, strung barbed wire, dug antitank ditches, and laid a sea of mines, not just in front of the fortified zones but also right inside them. The city’s three defensive lines were 10 miles deep with 220 miles of trenches.
Underground, the civilians worked in appalling conditions to do everything they could to help the defenders above. Sewing brigades fixed damaged military clothing. Pravda correspondent Boris Voyetekhov described the scene of an old woman working side by side with a beautiful young woman. The old woman worked a stamping machine with her remaining hand, having lost her other to a bomb blast. The young woman nursed a baby while working a boring machine at the same time. Others cast shells and repaired countless guns, and in November and December alone manufactured some 20,000 hand grenades and 32,000 antipersonnel mines.
Numerous camouflaged strong points commanded the eastern hills while the immense naval guns of a fortress called Maxim Gorky II at Cape Feolent dominated the peninsula’s southern coastline. The weakest natural obstacles were to the north of Severnaya Bay, but here arose gigantic forts. The Germans named them Volga, Siberian, Lenin, Stalin, Molotov, and Maxim Gorky. The proper Soviet designations were numerical, Battery No. 30 for Maxim Gorky, for example.
To man Sevastopol’s defenses, General Ivan Y. Petrov’s Independent Maritime Army fielded seven rifle divisions, one dismounted cavalry division, two rifle and three naval brigades, two Marine regiments, two tank battalions, and various smaller formations. A further 10 artillery regiments, two mortar battalions, and an antitank regiment gave Petrov 106,000 frontline troops, 600 guns, and 2,000 mortars. They were supplied and reinforced by Vice Admiral Filip S. Oktyabrskii’s Black Sea Fleet, including tens of thousands of naval personnel to man forts and guns, and a multitude of Komsomols, the teenage boys and girls of the Communist Union of Youth.
Oktyabrskii was in overall charge of the defense of Sevastopol, with Petrov being the ground force commander. Their main weakness was the lack of support from the Soviet Air Force, which fielded a pathetic 60 old planes in the Crimea.
Women played a major role in the Soviet armed forces, not only as medical staff and radio operators, but also as antiaircraft gunners, tank crews, and snipers. Sevastopol was no exception and featured the famous machine-gunner Nina Onilova, the scout Maria Baida, and the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Pavlichenko had already racked up 187 kills in the ten weeks of fighting at Odessa prior to the city’s fall to the Germans. Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko led a sniper unit and continued to add to her personal tally.
The Eleventh Army’s Massive Force
Manstein’s Eleventh Army consisted of some 203, 000 German and Romanian troops. However, after the Kerch battle, Army Group South (now under Field Marshal Fedor von Bock) commandeered Manstein’s sole panzer division, the 22nd. Manstein’s mostly Romanian 42nd Corps was used to safeguard the Kerch Peninsula to prevent a repeat of the earlier Soviet attack there. That left Manstein with seven German divisions, each 20 percent larger than a Soviet division, and initially two Rumanian divisions, the 18th Infantry Division (ID) and the 1st Mountain Division (MD) of the Rumanian Mountain Corps. In addition, the 4th Rumanian MD arrived from Kerch to reinforce the 54th Corps on June 13.
Since the previous December’s failure, Manstein concluded that he required more and heavier artillery, so he gathered 121 batteries of 1,300 guns and 720 mortars, the greatest concentration of artillery pieces ever used by the Germans in the war. They included 190mm cannon; 305mm and 350mm mortars; and 150mm, 210mm, 280mm and even 320mm Nebelwerfer and Wurfrahmen-type rocket launchers, nicknamed “Lowing Cow” by the Russians, the Reich’s answer to the Katyusha rockets that had been nicknamed “Stalin’s Organ.”
Nothing, however, compared to the German super heavyweights, the mortars Gamma, Odin or Karl, and Thor, and the heaviest gun of World War II, Heavy Gustav or Dora. Gamma fired 427mm, one-ton projectiles for a distance of nearly nine miles. It took 235 men to service Gamma. Thor and Odin were even larger, their devastating 2.5-ton, 615mm bombs struck like the hammer of the namesake Norse thunder god to crack even the thickest concrete defenses.
Yet Gamma, Odin, and Thor were whelps compared to the titanic Heavy Gustav. Originally designed to destroy the fabled Maginot Line, it took 60 railway cars to transport her components to the Crimea. Once assembled, Heavy Gustav was 141 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 38 feet high with a weight of 1,329 tons! Protected by two flak battalions, Heavy Gustav sat 19 miles northeast of Sevastopol on double railway tracks. Heavy Gustav’s operation required 1,500 men, one colonel, and one major general. Its 107-foot, 800mm barrel fired five-ton high-explosive or seven-ton armor-piercing shells for 29 or 24 miles, respectively. During the siege, Heavy Gustav fired 40 to 50 shells at Sevastopol, one of which passed through water and 100 feet of rock to pulverize a Soviet ammunition dump beneath Severnaya Bay.
Luftwaffe Colonel-General Baron Wolfram von Richthofen, the nephew of the legendary ‘Red Baron’, gave additional firepower with Fliegerkorps VIII’s (8th Air Corps). Fliegerkorps VIII fielded 600 aircraft, including seven bomber groups and Jagdgeschwader 77, whose Kommodore, Knight’s Cross holder Maj Gordon Gollob won his 100th victory on May 20th. To deal with the Soviet fleet, there was also Oberst Wolfgang von Wild’s small Fliegerführer Süd (Air Command South) and a German and Italian naval flotilla.
Manstein’s armored strength included remote-controlled Goliath miniature tanks, which were designed to carry explosives into enemy defenses, and a number of Sturmgeschütz assault gun battalions. Basically, a tank with a fixed gun instead of a rotating turret, the Sturmgeschütz, or Stug, figured prominently at Sevastopol. Stugs were typically brought into position by night and camouflaged for maximum surprise. Used in concentrations, they advanced together with or directly behind screening infantry, their close-range fire knocking out enemy support weapons. The first versions carried 75mm short-barreled guns capable of dealing with soft targets, but in early 1942, Stugs with long barreled 75mm L/43 antitank guns appeared.
Operation Störfang (Sturgeon Catch)
The weight of the German attack, with Hansen’s 54th Corps, would be in the north. Notwithstanding extremely heavy Soviet defenses, the terrain was the most favorable for ground assaults and for artillery and air support. A secondary attack would come through the hilly southeastern sector by 30th Corps under Lt. Gen. Maxim Fretter-Pico. No major attack was planned from the east due to the extremely rugged and wooded terrain. Here the Romanian Mountain Corps was to pin down the enemy and later aid the German flanks.
On June 2, the roar of the German artillery heralded the beginning of Operation Störfang (Sturgeon Catch), the final assault on Fortress Sevastopol. For five days and nights, German guns and bombers relentlessly hammered the Soviet positions as a prelude to the ground offensive. Eighth Air Corps quickly established air supremacy and in defiance of heavy flak flew over 3,000 bombing missions between June 2 and 6. A deafening orchestra of mortar bombs, screaming Stukas, the metallic rings of the 88mm flak, and the earthshaking projectiles of the gargantuan Gamma, Thor, and Heavy Gustav burst blood vessels, spread terror, and shattered concrete.
The day after the guns opened fire, Manstein left the 30th Corps’ command post, a small Moorish-style palace perched on a cliff above the Black Sea coast, and boarded an Italian torpedo boat. He personally wished to inspect how much of the coastal road, the main supply line for the 30th Corps, was visible from the sea and threatened by the Black Sea Fleet’s guns. Near Yalta, the idyllic backdrop of white country houses amid green gardens and blue sky was suddenly interrupted when “without warning a hail of machine gun bullets and cannon shells began pumping into us from the sky,”2 recalled Manstein. Two Soviet fighters swept out of the sun and raked the deck, leaving seven people dead or wounded and the boat in flames. The heroic young Italian captain dived into the sea, swam to shore, and returned to the rescue with a Croatian motor boat.
Manstein escaped the calamity unscathed and soon was back at Eleventh Army’s command post in the Tartar village of Yukhary Karales. He spent endless hours at observation on the cliffs above, in the same mountains where the Germanic Goths once built their strongholds. The location, roughly between the 54th Corps to the north and the Romanian Mountain Corps to the south, offered a panoramic view of the entire battlefield. Alongside Manstein was his chief of operations, Colonel Busse, and orderly officer Pepo Specht. Dazzled by the bombardment, Specht remarked, “Fantastic fireworks!” Busse nodded, but added, “I’m not sure we’ll punch sufficiently large holes into those fortifications.”3
As dawn painted the sky red on June 7, the German artillery fire built up to a raging tempest. Southward from the cover of the Belbek Valley, roughly from Kamyshly to the Black Sea, the 54th Corps attacked with the 24th, 50th, 22nd and 132nd Infantry Divisions. The infantry charged through clouds of dust and smoke against the Soviet positions. Assault parties and sappers led the way, using shellholes as cover. Wire cutters and bangalore torpedoes cleared a path through the barbed wire. Facing them was General Laskin’s 172nd ID.
“Shells whined overhead and exploded on all sides,” Laskin wrote. “A whirlwind of fire was raging at all our positions. Enormous clods of earth and uprooted trees flew into the air. An enormous dark gray cloud of smoke and dust rose higher and higher and finally eclipsed the sun. In my sector, the Germans outnumbered us one to nine in manpower and one to ten in artillery, not to speak of tanks, because we had none.”4
In spite of the furious German attack, Busse’s pessimism proved correct. Safe from within positions of solid rock, the Soviets unleashed their own artillery. “The Russian artillery and armored fortifications spring to life everywhere, the whole horizon is a tremendous gun-flash,”5 noted a disgusted Richthofen, who surveyed the battlefield from his Storch observation plane. The German infantry attacked with its usual bravado, but the Soviets made them fight for every yard. After an optimistic start, the advance slowed to a snail’s pace.
An eyewitness recalled: “In a raging tempo the attack races down the slope, through the valley, and on to the other side, past minefields, through trip-wires and wire entanglements that were already cut by the engineers. Companies, platoons, and groups one after the other moved forward in the blue-gray powder smoke and thick dust. The going is slow through thick bushes. The Bolsheviks hide in their numberless holes, let us pass and then fall on us from the rear. Several times small and large infantry units are completely cut off. But the connection is always re-established, and then it isn’t so good for the sealed off Soviets.”6
On the 8th, a weak Soviet counterattack by Colonel Potapov’s 79th Brigade was brushed aside, but no quick headway could be made into the Soviet positions. When the going got tough, the German infantry called on the Luftwaffe, but Richthofen was already pushing his men to their limits. Eighth Air Corps topped 1,000 carpet bombing sorties a day until shortages of fuel and bombs forced Richthofen to concentrate on column bombing high-priority targets.
“The screaming descent of the Stukas and the whistling of falling bombs seemed to make even nature hold her breath. The storming troops, exposed to the pitiless heat of the burning sun, paused for a few seconds, which must have seemed an eternity to the defenders. Yet our work at Sevastopol made the highest demands on men and material. Twelve, fourteen and even up to eighteen sorties were made daily by individual crews,”7 wrote Luftwaffe General Werner Baumbach.
German hand grenades and smoke canisters doggedly drove the Soviets from camouflaged firing pits. The feared German 88mm flak proved invaluable in cracking open pillboxes at point-blank range. Nevertheless, by June 12, the 22nd ID had just reached the spot where the previous winter offensive had ground to a halt. German casualties amounted to 10,300 in the first five days alone. If things did not pick up, Hitler threatened to turn the operation into a regular siege.
The Germans Start to Make Headway
To the dismay of the Soviets, German fortunes rapidly improved on June 13. Not only were there limited gains all along the north, but the super heavy siege guns blasted apart a turret on Fort Stalin. The German guns created craters 15 feet deep.
The 16th Infantry Regiment of the 22nd ID stormed the fort. Twice before–the previous December and four days earlier–Fort Stalin’s defenses had defied them. In one section an antitank gun scored a direct hit into a pillbox porthole and killed 30. The 10 remaining Communist party members used their comrades’ dead bodies as sandbags and fought on. Flamethrowers spewed fire accompanied by blasts of potato masher grenades, but the remaining Soviets held on until their political officer shot himself. When the last four Soviets crept out of the rubble, a severely wounded German soldier remarked, “It is not so bad, we have the Stalin fort.”8 During the battle, the 16th Infantry Regiment’s two attacking battalions lost all of their officers.
Through sweltering heat and a nightmarish scene, the Germans steadily pushed on. Black clouds of flies, smoke, and ash drifted over swaths of reeking, putrid corpses. At times the smoke and stench became so unbearable that both sides wore gas masks.
The Battle for Maxim Gorky
Ahead, the mighty 12-inch armored batteries of the modern Maxim Gorky, built in 1934, controlled the entire northern line. The 50-ton barrels fired over a range of 28 miles. On the 17th, Oberleutnant Maué’s Stuka scored a direct hit and blew up the eastern turret. Salvos of Röchling bombs from 35cm German mortars took care of another gun. The 12-foot Röchlings burrowed into concrete or rock before exploding. Gorky was wounded but not dead. The last of its four huge naval guns continued to belch destructive fire into the assaulting German infantry. The battle for the fortress would eclipse the contest for Fort Stalin.
It was the task of the 213th Infantry Regiment of the 73rd ID (part of Corps reserve) to deliver the deathblow to Gorky. The regimental commander, who had already distinguished himself at Kerch, led the charge at the head of his men. The right flank of the German regiment was stopped by a desperate Soviet counterattack, but the center and left flanks made ground. For three quarters of an hour, Stukas plastered the fortress with their bombs, followed by tremendous artillery shelling and a smoke screen. A gigantic cloud formed over the fortress upon which virtually all life was extinguished. German engineers gained the final 300 feet with little opposition and blew apart the last gun.
Gorky’s guns were silenced, but the fight for the fort was far from over. The 300-yard-long and 40-yard-wide concrete structure was three stories deep. The roof was three to four yards thick, and the walls two to three yards. The fort had its own underground water and power supplies, a field hospital, canteen, engineering shops, and various arsenals and battle stations.
It took two blasting operations to fracture the thick concrete. The Soviets answered demands for surrender by spitting forth fire from all slits and openings. Groups of Soviets even made sorties from ventilation shafts and secret exits.
Inside, the fight went from one hallway and room to the next. Steel doors were burst open and hand grenades hurled inside as sappers flattened themselves against the walls. The dissipating smoke revealed piles of Soviet dead. Ever so often, the pattern was interrupted by machine-gun fire. The Germans pressed closer and closer to the command center. According to Soviet sources, the Germans even resorted to drilling a hole into a steel door and pumping poison gas inside.
A battery commander led a group of men in a desperate escape attempt out of a sewer hole. Most of his men were killed and the rest marched into captivity. The remaining Soviet defenders were ordered to fight to the last man. Their last two messages sent to Sevastopol headquarters related:
“There are forty-six of us left. The Germans are hammering at our armored doors and calling on us to surrender. We have opened up the inspection hatch to fire twice on them.
“There are twenty-six of us left. We’re getting ready to blow ourselves up. Farewell.”9
Of 1,000 defenders, only 50 were taken prisoner. The numbers of German killed and wounded were equally high. The fall of Maxim Gorky was indicative of German gains all along the northern line. To the east, the Saxons of the 31st Regiment, 24th ID, captured three forts, while the 22nd ID pushed southward from Fort Stalin. With the help of an assault-gun battalion, its 65th Infantry Regiment overcame Fort Siberia, while the 16th Infantry Regiment seized Forts Volga and Ural. Two days later, the 22nd Division was the first to reach Severnaya Bay.
To the south, the 30th Corps joined the attack on June 11. Ahead, on mountaintops and within ravines, the Soviets held a chain of concealed and fortified strong points. Behind these and halfway to the city loomed the even more formidable Sapun Heights.
The 72nd ID initiated the attack here. After heavy fighting the Germans took North Nose, Chapel Mountain, and Ruin Hill. A gap was opened for General Constatine Vasiliu-Racanu’s 1st Romanian MD, which in turn captured the Sugar Loaf position. The 170th Division, at first kept in reserve, took Kamary, and on the 18th its 72nd Reconnaissance Detachment won the Eagle Perch in front of the Sapun line. From there, it swung north to gain the Fedyukiny Heights. The 28th Light Division (LD) made slow progress over therugged hills east of Balaclava, which had been in German possession since the previous autumn. The division’s soldiers faced tenacious opposition at Tadpole Hill, Cinnabar, Rose Hill, and the vineyards.
Back at the northern front, the entire fury of the German artillery and the Luftwaffe backed the 24th ID’s assaults on the peninsula forts at the entrance of Severnaya Bay, dominated by the old but still strong North Fort. To its left, the 22nd ID took hold of the cliffs above Severnaya Bay. Here the Soviets held out within deep supply galleries driven into the rock. At the first of them a Soviet commissar inside blew up the casemate, burying the occupants and killing a squad of German engineers. A German assault gun firing at point-blank range blew up other casemates. Crowds of exhausted soldiers and civilians emerged after their commissars committed suicide.
Meanwhile, the 50th ID advanced to the eastern end of Severnaya Bay, taking the heights of Gaytany. Its defenses ripped open by German assault guns, the Soviet 25th ID retreated toward the Inkerman station. To the left of the 50th ID, General Gheorghe Manoliu’s 4th Romanian MD and Radu Baldescu’s 18th Romanian ID fought through the wooded hills southeast of Gaytany. By the evening of the 27th, the Soviet 8th Marine Brigade was pushed from the Sakharnaya Golovka Hill.
Across the Severnaya Bay, the city and harbor endured relentless attacks by the Eighth Air Corps, whose high explosive and incendiary bombs hit buildings and batteries. Smoke clouds from the flaming city reached 5,000 feet into the air and stretched nearly a hundred miles. On June 24, Stukas pounced on a Soviet Aviation delegation gathered at Kruglyi Bay, killing 48 people, among them Soviet Major Generals F.G. Korobkov and N.A. Ostriakov.
The Germans Go After the Soviet’s Lifeblood: Its Naval Supply Line
The lifeblood of the hard-pressed Soviets was their naval supply line. In June, the Black Sea Fleet brought over 24,000 reinforcements and 15,000 tons of freight and evacuated 25,000 wounded. To provide such aid, the Soviet ships braved a harrowing Axis gauntlet. The wrath of the Luftwaffe precluded daylight landings, but at night, when in turn there was less danger from Soviet aircraft and warships, there was the peril of German and Italian motor torpedo boats (MTBs), armed motor boats, and Italian midget submarines. Air Command South greatly aided the Axis flotilla with reconnaissance, dropping flares, and strafing Soviet warships.
Oktyabrskii responded by ordering the aerial bombardment of the Axis naval base at Yalta. He also sent light warships to attack the port. On June 19, the worst of the Soviet attacks sank two midget submarines and severely damaged an MTB. Overall Axis naval losses were superficial and did little if anything to loosen the tightening Axis noose around the Soviet supply line.
The Abkhazia, a Russian luxury liner converted to a transport, went down in the harbor after her 16th sailing to Sevastopol. Dive- bombers sank the liner Georgia in view of the harbor. Her soldiers and sailors managed to swim ashore, but 500 tons of shells followed her to the bottom of the sea. On June 18, the Belostok was the last transport to arrive at Sevastopol. The next day she succumbed to German torpedo boats.
Soviet submarines, warships, and aircraft continued the hazardous missions of carrying men and supplies Among those that managed to escape the increasingly doomed city was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Wounded by mortar fire, she was evacuated by submarine in June. At the time she had reached 309 kills, including 78 enemy snipers, becoming the top scoring female sniper of all time. Deemed too valuable for Soviet propaganda to risk loosing in combat, she went on to train future female snipers.
Many others, however, were not as lucky as Lyudmila; the SCH-214 submarine being sunk on June 20th. On June 26, the destroyers Bezuprechny and Tashkent set off from Novorossiisk. The Bezuprechny fell victim to dive-bombers, but the Tashkent repelled air attacks and evaded torpedo boats to reach Sevastopol. Surviving more than 40 supply runs and 96 air attacks, she was the last warship to reach Sevastopol harbor.
The Tashkent took in over 2,000 wounded and refugees before braving her last voyage back to Novorossiisk on the night of June 27. For four hours she fought off German dive-bombers, shooting down two enemy planes. Her hull severely damaged, the destroyer was escorted to the safety of the harbor by rescue ships. Sadly, four days later the gallant Tashkent was sunk in the harbor by a Stuka raid.
The attrition of Soviet supplies caused a rapid depletion of ammunition stockpiles. The local armaments industry could not meet the demands of the troops. Their bullets spent, Soviet soldiers fought the attacking Germans with bayonet charges. In a desperate attempt to rectify the situation, Soviet divers braved a rain of German bombardment to recover 39 tons of ammunition from the Georgia.
By June 26, the Eleventh Army had overrun virtually the entire outer ring of Sevastopol’s defenses. The 54th Corps faced the Bay of Severnaya and the honeycombed cliffs that rose from its southern shore. Running south from the inland end of the bay were the Inkerman Heights, site of another old but sturdy fort, and the 30th Corps’ main obstacle, the Sapun Heights.
Manstein’s Brazen Plan to Attack Across Severnaya Bay
Manstein came up with a brazen plan to have the 54th Corps attack straight across Severnaya Bay. His subordinate commanders shook their heads in disbelief: How could assault boats get across the bay in face of enemy fire with the soldiers fighting their way up ravines that were the only exits from the shore?
Manstein conceded that ideally the weight of the offensive would be switched to the 30th Corps in the south. This would take days for the troops and weeks for the heavy artillery. Manstein, who spent nearly all his days visiting officers from corps to battalion level as well as observation posts, was well aware that his worn-out soldiers would welcome any such respite. Many regiments were down to a few hundred men each. He recalled one company pulled out of line with but one officer and eight men remaining.
However, any cessation in the attack would give the enemy time to recoup. Furthermore, with Operation Blue imminently on the way, the Supreme Command planned for the withdrawal of the Eighth Air Corps from the Crimea. The latter had already undergone a change of command. A reluctant Richthofen was ordered to leave for Kursk to prepare future headquarters for the Eighth Air Corps; his place at Sevastopol taken by a colonel. There was thus no time to waste. The Eleventh Army would press on without hesitation.
On June 28, the 54th Corps resumed the offensive with the 50th ID storming the Inkerman position. The cliffs above the old fort held vast caverns with ammunition dumps and thousands of refugees and wounded soldiers. Suddenly, the ground shook as from an earthquake. To prevent the ammo from falling into Germans hands, fanatical commissars had blown up the caverns and condemned themselves and everyone inside to death.
During the night of the 28th, tension gripped the assault crews who prepared for their crossing of Severnaya Bay. To divert Soviet forces away from the bay, Italian MTBs and Army assault boats carried out a feigned landing near Cape Feolent that completely fooled the Soviets. The Eighth Air Corps pounded the city relentlessly to dampen any noise on the northern shore. The German artillery stood ready to unleash its fire onto the southern shore the moment the Russians perceived that they were under attack.
At one o’clock in the morning, under cover of darkness and a thick smoke screen, the first wave grenadiers of the 22nd and 24th IDs pushed their boats into the water and raced across the 1,000 yards of Severnaya Bay. Not a shot was fired until the Germans reached the enemy shore, jumped out of their boats, and greeted the surprised Soviets of the 79th Infantry Brigade with their MP-40 submachine guns. Flashes of retaliatory Soviet guns lit up the whole of the southern cliffs. The German artillery retorted from the northern shore, minimizing the losses sustained by subsequent assault waves.
As dawn rose above the horizon, the 30th Corps’ artillery fire and the long-range battery from the 54th Corps peppered the enemy defenses on the Sapun Heights. The bombardment gave the impression of an imminent attack along the entire front. Instead, the 170th ID struck into a limited area from the Fedjukiny Heights. The division penetrated the enemy defenses supported by the 300th Panzer Battalion’s Goliath tanks, direct fire from a flak regiment, and Stugs.
In the wake of the 170th ID, the 28th Light Division and 72nd ID were funneled into the ruptured enemy line. “After the successful crossing of the bay, the fall of the Heights of Inkerman and the 30th Corps breakthrough of the Sapun positions, the fate of Sevastopol was sealed,”10 Manstein noted of German progress by the 29th.
Having gained a foothold on the cliffs above the bay on the previous day, the 54th Corps secured Fort Malakhov from the remnants of the Soviet 79th Brigade and pierced the city’s last ring of defenses. Around the same time, the 72nd ID drove the Soviets from the Sapun positions. Although Petrov threw in what remained of the Soviet 25th ID, the 9th Marine and the 142nd Infantry Brigades to aid the defending 386th ID, they were unable to halt the German advance. In an adjacent sector, the 8th Brigade was virtually annihilated.
The 28th ID fought for the Soviet battery at the English Cemetery. Here a morbid battle raged amid the ruined marble monuments of the Crimean War. New cadavers joined the dead of the older war, whose graves were torn open by shelling. The 72nd ID meanwhile thrust along the south coast, taking Windmill Hill and the main road into the city. The 4th Romanian MD followed up the success by seizing the positions of Balaclava from the rear and bagging 10,000 prisoners.
All of the Soviet defensive rings were shattered and the ruined city remained in the hands of broken units. Since the battle began, the Luftwaffe had dumped several million propaganda leaflets on the defenders asking them to surrender. But the ill-supplied and starving Soviet soldiers refused to give up. Indeed, with nowhere to retreat and the bleak prospect of German imprisonment, they had little other choice. Manstein knew they would make the Germans pay in blood for every block and for every house. To avoid adding to the already high German casualties, he planned to smother the city with massive artillery and air barrages until the Soviets were simply incapable of resistance.
The Soviets Finally Evacuate Sevastopol
On June 30, flak guns, artillery, bombers, and fighters pounded the city mercilessly. The fatigued Luftwaffe ground and aircrews managed another 1,218 sorties, dropping 1,192 tons of bombs. Crowds of citizens fled to the west through rubble, flames, and clouds of black smoke, to huddle in caves and await transport and possible salvation from the doomed Crimea. Stavka had decided to evacuate Sevastopol. The same night, Oktyabrskii, Petrov, and other senior officials fled the city by submarine. Petrov went reluctantly and had to be talked out of a suicide attempt.
Major General Vasily Novikov was left to attempt some sort of rear-guard action. He gathered what infantry units he could. The city was lost and tens of thousands of civilians and wounded soldiers streamed to the beaches of the Khersones Peninsula, where a Soviet battery remained. Novikov tried to establish a defensive line across the peninsula. He did his best, but the end was only a matter of time. The German artillery and Luftwaffe raged over the whole area, pounding the Soviet positions on the Khersones. It was too much. It had gone on too long.
Many of the defenders finally cracked. “They ran with maddened eyes, with tunics torn and flopping; panic-stricken, bewildered, miserable, frightened people. They seized feverishly any kind of craft they could—rafts, rubber floats, automobile tires—and flung themselves into the sea,” wrote Boris Voyetekhov.11
There was no attempt by the Black Sea Fleet to rescue the hapless civilians and troops trapped on Cape Khersones. The fleet was simply too devastated from the losses incurred in recent weeks to risk attacks by the Axis flotilla, Luftwaffe, or by the German heavy guns that now swept the area with impunity. On July 2, German bombers even raided the fleet’s Caucasian bases, badly damaging many large vessels. The only succor to the stranded on the cape were the heroic efforts of fishing boats and other small vessels who rescued a small number of people at night.
The inactivity of the Black Sea Fleet remained a point of contention for Petrov. In no kind words, he let Oktyabrskii know that many defenders were abandoned due to the Black Sea Fleet’s poor organization. As a result, Petrov’s name was left out of Oktyabrskii’s speeches and writings about the heroic defense of Sevastopol. Likewise, there was little mention of those forsaken to the Germans.
On July 1, after 249 days of siege, the Germans finally took what remained of Sevastopol. Elsewhere, the fighting continued. The 72nd ID captured Maxim Gorki II at Cape Feolent on the southern coast. The rest of the German divisions pushed on to Cape Khersones where Novikov held out for several more days until he ran out of rations and ammo. Desperate mobs of Soviets tried to break out. Arms linked, the women and girls of the Communist Youth leading them on, they marched into the deadly hail of awaiting MG-42 machine guns.
Those that fought on made their last stand in the caverns on the cape’s shore. Victor Gurin, sergeant 2nd class, lived to tell about it: “There were thousands of corpses lying on the shore and in the water. German snipers sneaked to a position of advantage near our burnt lorries and were killing off our officers by accurate shots. During July 2 we were still clinging to the narrow strip of the shore and fighting on. We beat off ten attacks that day.”12
Thirty thousand Soviets surrendered on July 4, for a total of 90,000 prisoners, 467 guns, 758 mortars, and 155 antitank guns captured. Two more Soviet armies were smashed and an estimated 50,000 of the enemy killed on the battlefield. Including civilians, Soviet casualties were about 250,000 for the entire siege. Of the pitiful 30,000 civilians left at the end of the siege, two-thirds faced deportation or execution. Resistance did not fully peter out in the Khersones until July 9.
Scattered groups of soldiers escaped to the mountains from whence they continued guerrilla operations against the invaders. It was over. Not long afterward, a radio message arrived from a delighted Hitler, congratulating Manstein on his victory and promoting him to field marshal. His soldiers’ valor was honored with a special Crimean shield, worn on the upper left arm of the Crimean veterans’ uniforms.
A Costly Win for the Germans
Despite Manstein’s efforts to spare his infantry and crush the defenders with overwhelming bombardment, official Eleventh Army losses numbered 4,337 dead, 1,591 missing, and 18,183 wounded. Actual casualties were probably much higher, up to 75,000. In addition, they had used up 46,700 tons of munitions and 20,000 tons of bombs. In one month the Eighth Air Corps dropped more bombs on Sevastopol than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain during entire air war of 1941.
The Soviets were finally driven from the Crimea. The battered Black Sea Fleet was no longer a threat to Axis operations in the area and was forced to operate from lesser bases along the Caucasus coast. Nullified as well was the danger of Soviet air attacks on Romanian oilfields from the Crimea. As a political repercussion, Axis control of the Black Sea compelled Turkey to think twice before joining the Allies.
The Eleventh Army was now in a perfect position to join the offensive against the Caucasus by crossing the straits of Kerch to the Kuban. From there it could intercept enemy forces retreating toward the Caucasus from the lower Don Basin before the advance of German Army Group A or, at the very least, serve as a reserve force. It was not to be. To Manstein’s vexation, the Eleventh Army was ordered northward to a threatened sector around Leningrad. Who knows how the Battle of Stalingrad might have ended if Manstein and his veteran army had stayed in the southern theater of operations?
If the Germans rightly considered the taking of Sevastopol a heroic feat of their infantry, so too the Soviets justifiably glorified their defense. Fifty thousand medals were awarded to the men and women of the Soviet Army and Navy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the citizens who defended the city.
Russian propaganda turned the loss of Sevastopol into a great moral victory and claimed 300,000 Germans killed. Sevastopol became one of the four hero cities of the Soviet Union, alongside Odessa, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. The city remained under German occupation until liberated by the Soviets on May 9, 1944, with twice the number of artillery pieces used by the Germans in 1942.
“Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol,” Ludwig H Dyck’s article about the Nazi Germany’s assault on the Soviet Crimean port, was first published in WWII History Magazine, March 2005. On Dec. 1, 2015 and on Dec. 27, 2016, the article was re-published online at Warfare History Network. The version above features minor editorial changes by the author as well as additional images.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East (Kansas. University of Kansas Press. 1998), p. 89.
Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. 1958), p. 246, 247.
Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43 (London: Bantam Books, 1967), p. 500.
Vladimir V. Karpov . The Commander (New York: Brassey’s Defense Publishers. 1987), p. 86.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, p. 99.
Werner Haupt, Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945 (Atglen: Schiffer Military History. 1998), p. 121.
Werner Baumbach, The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe (New York: Ballantine Books,1972), p. 140, 141.
Werner Haupt, Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945, p. 123.
Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43, p. 509.
Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories, p. 256.
Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, p. 114.
Vladimir V. Karpov . The Commander, p. 98.
Bauer E. The History of World War II. Ontario: Prospero Books, Baumbach Werner. The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972, Bidermann, Gottlob H., In Deadly Combat (Kansas; Kansas University Press, 2000), Carell Paul. Hitler Moves East 1941-1943. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1963, Dear I.C.B. Editor. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford: University Press. 2001, Dahms Hellmuth Gunther. Der Weltanschauungskrieg gegen die Sowjetunion. In Der 2. Weltkrieg. Munich: Bertelsmann Lexikon Verglag. 1976, Dupuy Ernest and Dupuy Trevor N. The Encyclopedia of Military History. New York: Harper & Row. 1977, Garrard John and Carrad Carol. Editors. World War 2 and the Soviet People. St.Martin’s Press. 1990, Guderian Heinz. Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Haupt Werner. Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945. Atglen: Schiffer Military History. 1998, Hayward Joel S.A. Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East. Kansas. University of Kansas Press. 1998, Karpov Vladimir V. The Commander. New York: Brassey’s Defense Publishers. 1987, Keegan John. General Editior. Encyclopedia of WWII. London: Bison Books Ltd. 1994, Lucas James. Hitler’s Enforcers, Leaders of the German War Machine 1933-1945. London: Brockhampton Press. 1996, Manstein Erich Von. Lost Victories. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. 1958, Maslov Aleksander A. Fallen Soviet Generals. London: Frank Crass. 1998, Minsayan M. M. Editor in Chief. Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union 1941-1945. Moscow: Moscow Progress Publishers. 1974, Mitcham Samuel W. Hitler’s Field Marshals and their Battles. Lanham: Scarborough House. 1990, Parrish Thomas. Editor. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1978, Shaw John. Red Army Resurgent. Chicago: Time Life Books. 1979, Seaton Albert. The Russo-German War 1941-45. London: Arthur Barker Limited. 1971, Stronge Charles, Sniper in Action: History, Equipment and Techniques. Amber Books, 2011, E-book, Werth Alexander. Russia At War 1941-1945. New York: Dutton 1964, Winchester Charles. Ostfront Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-45. Oxford: OspreyPublishing Ltd. 1998.
Electronic Library. Encyclopedia.com. Sevastopol, Feldgrau.com. A German military history research site 1919 – 1945, U.S. War Department “Handbook On German Military Forces” (Mar’45), The Romanian Army in WWII, The Soviet Military Awards Webpage.
The Cherusci noble Arminius (c. 18 BCE – 19 CE) led the resistance to Roman conquest of Germania during the years 9-16 CE. Likely raised as a child hostage in Rome, Arminius gained command of a German auxiliary cohort in the Roman army. Posted on the Rhine, Arminius served under the command of Governor Publius Q. Varus. Varus’ task was to complete the conquest of Germania but his rough-handed methods and demands for tax incited the tribes into revolt. Seeing his countrymen oppressed by the Romans, Arminius became the leader of the rebels. In 9 CE Arminius lured Varus into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. Varus fell on his sword as his legions were decimated around him. It was one of Rome’s worst defeats and caused Emperor Augustus to abandon the conquest of Germania.
Nevertheless, the Roman hero Germanicus continued to lead campaigns of retribution. Arminius suffered defeats but won the war, when Germanicus was recalled to Rome by the new emperor Tiberius. Having successfully liberated and defended Germania against the Romans, Arminius next squared off against Maroboduus, the powerful king of the Marcomanni. Defeating Maroboduus, Arminius had become the most powerful leader in Germania. Arminius aspired to be king but many tribal factions resented his authority. Betrayed by his relatives, Arminius was killed in 19 CE.
Arminius in the Service of Rome
Born c. 18 BCE, Arminius was the eldest son of the Cherusci chief Segimer. To secure peace with Rome, Segimer is thought to have surrendered both Arminius and his younger brother Flavus to Rome as child hostages. Raised like noble Romans, the brothers learned Latin and the Roman way of war. Most likely both brothers fought beside the legions under Tiberius Claudius Nero, stepson of Emperor Augustus, suppressing the huge Pannonian and Illyrian revolts of 7-9 CE.
Around 8 CE Arminius was transferred to the Rhine to serve under Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus. Varus’ mission was to turn Germania Magna (Greater Germany), the tribal territories east of the Rhine, into a full-fledged Roman province. The tribes had largely been pacified in the Tiberius’ campaigns of 4-5 CE. Tiberius had achieved more by negotiations and diplomacy than had been gained by two decades of warfare. Varus, however, demanded tribute and treated the natives like slaves. Soon the tribes simmered with revolt.
Varus trusted and liked his charismatic auxiliary commander, Arminius, who was also a useful liaison with the tribal nobility. During the summer 9 CE, Varus marched his army of three legions and supporting auxiliaries from Vetera (Xanten) on the Rhine into central Germania. Varus’ army took the route along the Lippe River and from there north to the western regions of the Weser Hills. He built a camp on the upper Weser River, right in the middle of Cherusci territory. Varus collected tribute and meted out Roman justice and law, and tribesmen came to trade at the huge Roman camp. For Arminius, however, it meant a chance to reunite with his family, and soon Arminius and Segimer sat together at Varus’ table, assuring him all was well.
Arminius turns against Rome
Arminius and Segimer’s goodwill was but a farce, meant to fool Varus until it was time to throw off the Roman yoke. Although the Cherusci had received federated status within the empire, to Arminius it was clear that his people were not treated as equals. As he saw it, Rome took Germania’s youths to fight in Rome’s armies and the people were fleeced of what little wealth they possessed. The Romans even destroyed the land itself, cutting down the timber of ancient and sacred forests. Arminius met the chieftains in a secret glade to plot the Romans’ demise.
To defeat the legions, Arminius united the tribes & lured Varus’ legions into the Teutoburg Forest where the difficult terrain favored the lighter-armed Germanic warriors. Arminius knew that the legions would not go down easily. The huge Roman camp dwarfed the local villages, and its fortifications made the legionaries near invincible. The legionaries had better armor, weapons, and discipline than the Germanic warriors, the vast bulk of which were farmers. The nobles did have bands of well-armed personal retainers, but these were relatively few in number. To defeat the legions, Arminius united the tribes. He would lure Varus and his legions into the Teutoburg Forest. There the difficult terrain favored Arminius’ lighter-armed, quick and nimble Germanic warriors.
Not all the Germanic chiefs were ready to give up the privileges they received from Rome. Arminius’ uncle Inguiomerus opted to stay neutral while the herculean Segestes even revealed the conspiracy to Varus. Varus, however, thought Segestes’ warning as nothing more than slander. Varus was well aware that Segestes did not like Arminius because Arminius had his eye on Thusnelda, Segestes’ daughter, who was already betrothed to somebody else.
With the approach of fall, the Roman army prepared to march back to their winter quarters on the Rhine. At this time news arrived of a tribal revolt to the northwest. Arminius suggested that instead of taking the usual route to the Rhine via the Lippe Varus should take a different route north of the Weser Hills. That way he could crush the insurrection on the way. Varus took the bait and marched his three legions, auxiliaries, and supporting staff into the Teutoburg Forest.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Arminius rode away from the plodding Roman column after he told Varus that he was off to gather more reinforcements. Reinforcements came, not just from the Cherusci but also from the Marsi, the Bructeri, and from other tribes as well. They did not come to aid the Romans, though, but to destroy them. Segestes, however, remained loyal to Rome. He even tried holding Arminius captive for a while but was forced to release him. Having little choice, Segestes threw his lot in with the rebels.
The weather also turned against the Romans who were caught in a thunderstorm on the second day. Mud and puddles, overflowing creeks, and fallen branches slowed down wheel, hoof, and foot. Then the skirmishing attacks began. The barbarians showered the Romans with javelins and sling stones; striking at soldiers, civilians, and pack animals alike. Seasoned centurions tried to restore order and counter-attack but the terrain jumbled up Roman formations and their heavy armor made the legionaries too slow. Arminius was likely in the thick of it, personally leading the most critical attacks, as well as taking time co-ordinate the deployment of the various tribal forces along the Roman route.
The weary Romans were able to entrench themselves for a night of much-needed rest. Varus was aware that Arminius had betrayed him and that he was faced with a major uprising. However, the way ahead seemed far shorter than backtracking to the Lippe. The next day Varus pressed on, abandoning most of his heavy and surplus equipment to lighten the load. At times the weather improved, at times the woods gave way to fields of long grasses, but the attacks continued.
Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
At least the legions were able to find suitable ground for their marching camp. By the end of the third day, Varus’ army had reached the edge of Kalkrieser Berg (mountain), part of the northern extremities of the Weser Hills, which protruded into the Great Moor. Behind them, along the 12-20 mile (18-30 km) passage of the Roman column, lay thousands of their dead. During the night, the barbarians stormed the Roman camp and tore the breastwork to pieces. Varus fell on his sword before the last legion line protecting him was overwhelmed.
Probably due to premature looting by the tribesmen, a sizable Roman contingent managed to fight its way out. At first, it seemed that the survivors eluded any pursuer, but then the path ahead narrowed with the marsh on one side and an earth embankment on the other. A wall of stakes and interlaced branches topped the embankment and behind it more barbarians waited. The Romans desperately tried to break through but were repulsed. Fleeing into the marsh, all but a handful of were hunted down.
The Emperor abandons the Conquest of Germania
Arminius addressed his victorious men and mocked the Romans. The tribesmen took terrible vengeance on the captured Romans, torturing and sacrificing their victims while slavery awaited the remainder. As an illustration of his own power, Arminius sent Varus’ head to Maroboduus, the mighty King of the Marcomanni who dwelt in the area of today’s Czech Republic.
Arminius next targeted the Roman fort of Aliso on the Lippe, where he displayed the heads of slain legionaries to the defenders. The camp commander answered with a volley of arrows, and though Arminius assaulted the camp, he could not take it. During a stormy night, the Romans managed to break out but abandoned the accompanying civilians to the enemy.
Kalkriese Face Mask
News of the destruction of three legions reached Emperor Augustus along with the head of Varus, courtesy of Maroboduus. An irate Augustus shouted, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, II. 23). In light of the disaster in the Teutoburg, the Clades Variana, Augustus abandoned the conquest of Germania. Tiberius conducted minor offensives into Germania in 10 and 11 CE and then returned to Rome. With the elderly Augustus of failing health, Tiberius needed to ensure his own succession and so left behind his nephew Germanicus Julius Caesar to command the two armies guarding the Rhine frontier.
Arminius vs. Germanicus
Germanicus was only a few years younger than Arminius and in many ways his Roman counterpart. In the aftermath of Augustus’ death and Tiberius’ succession, the legions of Germania Inferior (the lower Rhine) revolted. Germanicus put down the rebellion, having to pay the legions to stand down. He channeled the frustration of the legionaries against the Germanic tribes, to avenge the Clades Variana. Germanicus started off in 14 CE by massacring Marsi villages and then fending off a dangerous tribal counter-attack.
Arminius meanwhile was faced with a belligerent Segestes, who redeclared himself for Rome. Early in 15 CE, Arminius besieged Segestes’ stronghold but was forced to retreat when Roman legions came to Segestes’ aid. Segestes and his family were escorted to the safety of the Roman forts on the Rhine. Among them was Thusnelda, who against her father’s wishes had married Arminius and was carrying his child. Tacitus relates Arminius’ reaction to the loss of his pregnant wife:
Arminius, with his naturally furious temper, was driven to frenzy by the seizure of his wife and the foredooming to slavery of his wife’s unborn child. “Noble the father,” he would say, “mighty the general, brave the army which, with such strength, has carried off one weak woman. Before me, three legions, three commanders have fallen. Let Segestes dwell on the conquered bank…one thing there is which Germans will never thoroughly excuse, their having seen between the Elbe and the Rhine the Roman rods, axes, and toga. If you prefer your fatherland, your ancestors, your ancient life to tyrants and to new colonies, follow as your leader Arminius to glory…” (Tacitus, Annals, I.59)
Arminius’ emotional appeals further unified and roused the tribes. His powerful uncle Inguiomerus finally joined the war against Rome.
Germanicus’ next offensive was an all-out-assault on the Bructeri, involving four legions, 40 additional cohorts and two mobile columns. The lands were devastated, one of the legion eagle standards lost in the Teutoburg was recovered, and the site of the Varus disaster was found. Burying all the bones of their fallen countrymen proved too great a task for even the legions.
Seeking vengeance, Germanicus advanced east toward the Cherusci. Outnumbered, Arminius fell back into the wilderness. Arminius lured the Roman cavalry into a deadly ambush in a swamp, but the legions came to the rescue in the nick of time. Short on supplies, Germanicus broke off the campaign and with four legions returned to his fleet on the Ems. The other half of the army, commanded by Aulus Caecina Severus, returned via the old Roman land route known as the ‘Long Bridges’ first pioneered by Lucius D. Ahenobarbus 18 years ago.
The ‘Long Bridges’ led through swampy ground, perfect for ambushes, which Arminius was quick to exploit. Arminius struck at Caecina’s column while it was repairing a causeway. In a harrowing battle, Caecina was barely able to lead his army into a defensive position. The next morning, Arminius personally spearheaded the attack. He came close to inflicting a total defeat on Caecina when the tribesmen started looting. Caecina was able to fight his way out and find dry ground to entrench himself for the night. Arminius wisely wanted to wait until Caecina’s army was again on the march and vulnerable. Inguiomerus, however, thought the Romans a beaten enemy and incited the overzealous chiefs and warriors into a night assault. Thinking the battle won, the tribesmen were overwhelmed and scattered when the Romans boldly sallied forth at the right moment. The defensive victory allowed Caecina to safely reach the Rhine.
In 16 CE Germanicus decided to alleviate his supply problems by embarking his entire army on a gigantic fleet of 1,000 ships. Arminius tried to retain the initiative by attacking a Roman fort on the Lippe, forcing Germanicus to delay his summer offensive and come to the rescue with six legions. Arminius was driven off, and Germanicus returned to the Rhine where he reinforced his army with Batavian cavalry from the Rhine Island, led by their chief Chariovalda. The Roman fleet sailed to the sea, east along the Mare Germanicum (North Sea) coast and up the River Ems. Disembarking, Germanicus led his army cross country, further east, towards the Weser and Cherusci territory.
Standing on the eastern bank of the Weser, Arminius came to face his brother Flavus, who was with Germanicus’ army, across the river. A scar and empty eye socket disfigured Flavus’ face. Arminius called across the water, taunting Flavus as to what Rome had given him for his disfigurement. Flavus proudly spoke of the battle, of rewards, and of the justice and the mercy of Rome. Arminius retorted with words of ancestral freedoms, the gods of the north, and their mother who was praying for Flavus to come back to their side. Each brother was deaf to the other. An enraged Flavus had to be physically restrained from plunging his steed into the water to fight his brother.
Arminius commanded over too few troops to seriously challenge Germanicus’ river crossing, but his Cherusci ambushed the Batavians and slew their chief, Chariovalda. Falling back before Germanicus’ column, Arminius gathered his army in the sacred wood of Hercules (the Roman name given to the German Donner and Scandinavian Thor). With Inguiomerus at his side, Arminius spoke to his assembled warrior: “Is there anything left for us but to retain or freedom or die before we are enslaved?” (Tacitus, Annals, II. 15)
Out from beneath the great forest strode forth the tribal warriors. Before them, the ground sloped down towards the Idistaviso plain, skirted by a bend in the Weser River. There the Roman army drew up; cohort after cohort of auxiliaries and of eight legions. Germanicus himself rode up with two cohorts of Praetorian Guards. The two forces clashed on the plain in a fierce battle. Arminius slashed his way through the Roman archers but was beset from all sides by auxiliaries. Arminius’ face was smeared in blood as his horse broke through and carried him to safety. The battle ended in a resounding Roman victory. Barbarian casualties were heavy, scattered across the plain and into the forest beyond.
Arminius had suffered a defeat but was far from finished. Tribesmen were still arriving, more than making good his losses. He would make another stand in what was the battle of the Angrivarii barrier; a vast breastwork marking the border between the Angrivarii and the Cherusci between the Weser River and a forest. The Germans fiercely defended the barrier and drew the Romans into a confusing forest battle. Roman siege engines at last burst through the barrier. In the forest, Roman shield walls pushed the tribesmen against a swamp to their rear. His wound still hampering him, Arminius was less active. Inguiomerus led the attack but was unable to prevent another Roman victory.
Arminius had lost another battle but not the war. Roman casualties were severe, the legionaries and auxiliaries were worn out and their supplies were in all likelihood nearly exhausted. Disaster struck on the sea voyage home, a storm wreaking havoc on both ships and troops. Even so, Germanicus was able to muster enough troops to inflict a terror campaign upon the Chatti and Marsi.
Against Germanicus’ protests, Emperor Tiberius decided to call an end to the fruitless and costly campaigns. There would be no resumption of the war in 17 CE. Germanicus was honored with a lavish triumphal march. Among the displayed captives were Arminius’ wife Thusnelda and their toddler son, Thumelicus.
Arminius thrives to become King
Arminius now held sway over much of Germania, his only rival was Maroboduus, King of the Marcomanni. According to Tacitus, “the title of king rendered Maroboduus hated among his countrymen, while Arminius was regarded with favor as the champion of freedom” (Tacitus, The Annals, II. 88). As a result, the Langobardi and Semnones went over from Maroboduus to Arminius. Inguiomerus, however, joined Maroboduus.
Both Arminius and Maroboduus assembled their armies to meet in battle. In a pre-battle speech, Arminius boasted of his victory over the legions and called Maroboduus a traitor. Maroboduus, in turn, bragged that he held off Tiberius’ legions, though in truth they had been diverted by the Pannonian rebellion. Maroboduus also falsely claimed that it was Inguiomerus who had brought about Arminius’ victories. Both armies deployed and fought in Roman fashion, with units keeping to their standards, following orders, and keeping forces in reserve. After a hard fought battle it was Maroboduus who fled to the hills. His lands beset by other tribes, Maroboduus found asylum in Rome.
Arminius now had no rival in Germania. However, many tribesmen resented any authority and Arminius’ ambitions to be their king. In 19 AD a Chatti chief came to Rome offering to poison Arminius. Rome refused, telling the chief that Rome took vengeance in battle and not by “treason or in the dark” (Tacitus, Annals, II. 88). Later that year, after tribal in-fighting that raged back and forth, Arminius was killed after being betrayed by his relatives. Tacitus left a poignant tribute to Arminius:
He was unmistakably the liberator of Germany. Challenger of Rome – not in its infancy, like kings and commanders before him, but at the height of its power – he had fought undecided battles, and never lost a war… To this day, the tribes sing of him. (Tacitus, The Annals, II. 88)
As a military leader, Arminius showed intelligence, bravery, and charisma. He understood both the limitations and advantages of his own men and of his enemy. Arminius made skillful use of local terrain to defeat what was a superior trained and equipped enemy. Arminius also used his Roman training to improve the battlefield tactics of his own troops. In battle, he personally led attacks and was able to unite the tribes even after suffering tactical defeats. Arminius’ victory in the Teutoburg forest and his resistance to Germanicus kept the Germanic tribes free of Roman dominion. Centuries later, their freedom would make possible the emergence of the nations of Germany, France, and England.
Born in Germany, Ludwig H. Dyck became a Canadian citizen through his father’s citizenship. Since his first publication in 1998, Dyck has written for numerous popular US history magazines. His first book is the “The Roman Barbarian Wars.”
Frustrated by weeks of failed attempts to break the deadlock around the British invasion beaches and move inland, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery seized upon the idea of launching a massive armored onslaught that would capture Caen and end the stalemate in Normandy.
A burst from a titanic bomb flung the colossal 58-ton Tiger tank into the air and onto its back. Four Tigers of the 3rd Company 503rd Heavy Panzer battalion, virtually invulnerable to anything but artillery fire and air strikes, were knocked out in the orchard outside of the hamlet of Manneville. Others were smothered in earth that erupted from 30-foot deep bomb craters. Though sheltered in foxholes beneath the steel behemoths, the crews’ nerves snapped. One man went insane while two others committed suicide.
Lieutenant Freiherr von Rosen remembered asking to himself “Will there never be an end to these explosions?” Later he remarked that “the bombing was the worst we ever experienced in the war…Of my 14 Tigers not one was operational. All had been covered in dust and earth, the guns dis-adjusted, the cooling systems of the engines out of action.”1
The 3rd Company’s troubles began on July 18, 1944, at 0525 hours with an with an artillery barrage that erupted on the German positions a few kilometers to the east-southeast of Caen. Ten minutes later there followed the drone of 1,100 British heavy bombers.
The British Twenty-first Army Group Chief of Staff, Freddie De Guingand, climbed on top a haystack to witness the spectacle: “It looked just like a swarm of bees homing upon their hives…One appreciated the great bravery of those pilots and crews as they flew into the most ghastly looking flak. Every now and then an aircraft would burst into flames and usually shortly afterwards a few parachutes could be seen making their way to earth.”2
British Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxes carpet-bombed with high explosives to suppress German anti-tank guns along the flanks of the planned British attack. At 0700hrs, 482 heavy and medium bombers of the US Eighth and Ninth air forces sought victims for their non-cratering fragmentation bombs along the central path of the British advance. Three hundred additional fighters and fighter-bombers swept down on German strong points and gun emplacements.
Huge clouds of smoke and dust from the explosions diffused into the hazy opal sky above the Norman countryside. Their view obscured, many pilots aborted their missions. Still it was not over. At 0800hrs, 495 Eighth Air Force heavy bombers pounded the German defenders. The day would see more than 4,500 Allied aircraft in action against the Germans east of the River Orne. Some 7,700 tons of bombs were dropped on the German lines, nearly half of them in less than 45 minutes. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, called it “the heaviest and most concentrated air assault hitherto employed in support of ground operations.”3
The allied air strikes were the prelude to Operation “Goodwood,” the latest in a series of British offensives against the German positions in the Caen area. Like the Americans on their right flank, the British had failed to make any decisive progress since early June, advancing at a snail’s pace and at the cost of high casualties and materiel. General Eisenhower blamed the stalemate in Normandy after D-Day on “first as always the fighting quality of the German soldier; second the nature of the country; third the weather.”4
Though watered down by low morale foreign troops, veteran Waffen-SS, Paratroop and Wehrmacht soldiers of the German Seventh Army made the tangled bocage, or hedgerow country, a nightmare for the U.S. First Army, while its Panzer Divisions squared off against Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army. Storms played havoc with Allied shipping in the channel. The Germans in turn faced the more serious problem of Allied air supremacy, which precluded all but night travel. If the Allies had failed to break out into the open country to the south, the Germans were likewise unable to hurl the invader back into the sea.
Goodwood was meant to break the stalemate in conjunction with Operation “Cobra,” an equally devastating American breakout on the Allied western flank, several days later. For Goodwood a vast bombardment would precede an overwhelming armored assault from the eastern side of Caen. The operation was the brainchild of Dempsey and found favor with Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, overall commander of Allied ground forces., who said, “the Second Army is now very strong…and can get no stronger…So I have decided that the time has come for a real ‘showdown’ on the eastern flank, and to loose a corps of three armored divisions into the open country about the Caen-Falaise road.”5 The objective of was “to engage the German armor in battle and write it down” to “destroy German equipment and personnel, as a preliminary to a possible wide exploitation of success.”6 Specific tactical objectives were the villages of Vimont, Garcelles, Hubert-Folie, Verrieres and Bretteville-sur-Laize, on the commanding Bourguébus Ridge.
Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Armored Corps spearheaded the British Armored thrust, with its 11th Armored Division in the vanguard. The 11th was arguably the best British armored division, commanded by the very able Africa veteran, Major General “Pip” Roberts. At 37 years of age, Roberts was the youngest British divisional commander. After the 11th came Maj. Gen. Allan Adair’s Guards Armored Division with Maj. Gen. Bobby Erskine 7th Armored, the famed “Desert Rats,” bringing up the rear. With some 266 tanks, 361 scout and armored cars and 2,000 trucks in each division, the three together boasted over 8000 vehicles.
Covering the VIII Armored Corps’ left flank was Lt. General John Crocker’s I British Corps. To the right, General Guy G. Simmonds’ II Canadian Corps, in the joint operation dubbed “Atlantic”, hoped to oust the Germans out of southern Caen by attacking from eastern, central and western areas of the city.
At 0745 a creeping artillery barrage of 200 guns heralded the armored advance. Many guns fired more than 400 rounds but unfortunately some of the shells fell short of their target. The friendly fire killed and wounded a number of unlucky crews who enjoyed a last cigarette outside of their tanks. Major Bill Close, commander of A Squadron 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) 11th Armored, recalled “This happening a few seconds before we were to start, added considerably to the confusion, and we set off after the barrage in some disorder.”7
With an order of “Move now” the ground trembled, as the Shermans of the 29th Armored Brigade rumbled through the dust. With their crews’ vision obscured and the ground pockmarked by bomb craters, the tanks became jumbled and soon fell behind the advancing artillery fire. From the bridgehead south of the Orne River, the tanks continued in a narrow column, first through the cleared British minefields and then through a two-kilometer wide corridor flanked by the Caen’s factories to the west and a forest to the east. Beyond, a swath of flat and open ground, sprinkled with wheat fields and hamlets, lay before the main objective some 15 kilometers to the south, the Bourguébus Ridge.
To surprise the Germans, only the 11th Armored Division’s 29th Armored Brigade crossed the River Orne before H-hour. But the deafening thunder of so many tanks could not be covered up. Oberstgruppenführer (SS-Colonel General) “Sepp” Dietrich pressed an ear to the ground and heard the sound resound through the limestone of the Caen plain. It was a technique he had used many times before in Russia. The Germans also enjoyed a view over the whole Orne bridgehead from their positions in the Colombelles factories south of Caen. They knew something big was about to happen.
Facing the British-Canadian onslaught were the soldiers of Panzer Group West, commanded by Gen. Hans Eberbach. The Panzer Group was part of Army Group B, which in light of Rommel’s injury on July 17th was under the direct command of the commander of the western front, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. Panzer Group West fielded 194 guns, 272 rocket launchers and 377 Panzers and self-propelled (SP) assault guns-far more than the Allies anticipated.
The Panzer Group was divided into two corps, with General Hans von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps facing the British. The corps’ 346th Infantry Division was deployed from the coast to just north of Touffreville and out of the way of the main British-Canadian thrust. The opposite was true of the already badly mauled 16thLuftwaffe Field Division, deployed from Touffreville west to the Colombelles factories-right in the way of the British Armor.
The 16thLuftwaffe Field Division provided little more than a thin screen. The key division to hold up the British Armor was Lt. Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzer Division (PzDiv) of Africa Korps fame and its Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) Luck. Major Hans von Luck’s Kampfgruppe included the 1st and 2ndPanzer Grenadier (PzGr) battalions of his own 125th PzGr Regiment and Major Alfred Becker’s 200thSturmgeschütze (StuG) battalion with 75mm SP assault guns and 105mm SP artillery. On the left flank of Kampfgruppe Luck, the 21st Division’s 192nd Panzer Grenadier (PzGr) Regiment augmented a Luftwaffe PanzerJäger (Anti-tank) battalion at the Colombelles factories. The 21st Division’s 1st Panzer Battalion and the independent 503rd Heavy Panzer battalion, including a few Tiger IIs, covered the right flank between Sanderville and Emviélle. A battalion of the 9thWerfer (rocket launcher) Brigade was also positioned near Grentheville.
On the German left wing, Panzer Group West’s I SS Pz Corps, led by SS Col. Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, awaited the Canadians. Dietrich had just received the 272nd Infantry Division to take over the forward position in Caen south from the exhausted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. After very little recovery time, Hitlerjugend was ordered into reserve on July 16th. It had a Kampfgruppe stationed farther east at Lisieux, while the rest of the division was to the south, just north of Falaise. Unknown to the British, Dietrich’s other Panzer division, the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) was also in reserve, on and behind the western slopes of the Bourguébus Ridge with some of its units in additional corps reserve west of the Orne.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Heinrich Eberbach had ensured that Panzer Group West sported the deepest and toughest defenses in Normandy-at 12 kilometers deep, they were far deeper than the seven kilometer estimated by the Allies. Because of this, most of the vital German positions remained relatively unscathed by the Allied bombardment. These included the artillery and Nebelwerfers deployed behind Bourguébus Ridge. The remnants of the green 16thLuftwaffe Field Division, however, bore the full brunt of the bombardment and were virtually obliterated. Initial German prisoners taken were so stunned that they could not be interrogated for 24 hours. The general allied perception was “no one will survive this inferno. We need only march in with our tanks to open the way to Paris…how wrong we were.”8
At first though, things went smoothly for the British. As the British tankers drove by villages of Cuverville and Démouville, dazed, pallied German infantry wandered out of the wheat fields to surrender. At Démouville a Panzer Mark IV appeared and was promptly knocked out by the Shermans. Most German survivors remained stunned in their trenches. A few took potshots at exposed tank commanders. The tanks and motorized companies left them to be mopped up by the British infantry following behind.
The Mark IVs of the 1st Panzer Battalion stationed in the woods between Sanderville and Emviélle suffered severely under the bombardment. Although not many were complete write-offs, they were deluged with tons of soil, fouling their engines. The waves of Shermans shot up four of the Mark IVs and overran another five, capturing their startled crews. The Tigers of the aforementioned 503rd in the same area fared somewhat better. Those that could not be repaired were towed out, sometimes only minutes before the arrival of British tanks. No British Recovery units could move a Tiger anyway-in one instance it took three Tigers to tow one Tiger out! A number of Mark IVs and Tigers were repaired in the field by noon and thereafter harassed the British advance.
Colonel David Silvertop’s leading 3rd RTR reached the Caen-Troarn railway line at 0830. There was some confusion due to poor visibility and congestion as the 11th Armored’s other tank regiments, the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, and the 23rd Hussars began to catch up with the 3rd RTR. Half an hour later the dull thumps of the artillery barrage ceased, leaving only a few 25-pounder SP batteries to support the British armor.
At Le Mesnil-Frémentel the ground began to slope upward to the Bourguébus Ridge. The 3rd RTR veered to the west, while the 2nd Fife and Forfar headed eastward and then south. From the wheat fields, Nebelwerfer rockets howled into the air, leaving long blue-white trails. The British tanks simply overran many of them. But as they did so the Shermans and their motorized company rolled into the gun optics of Becker’s 75mm SP assault guns hidden in le Mesnil-Frémentel and in le Poirier, which burst up a handful of Shermans from the leading squadron of 3rd RTR. The rear squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfar lost another 12. To deal with the StuGs and their supporting grenadiers, the British needed more infantry but the 11th Armored Division’s 159th Infantry Brigade was busy clearing out the remaining Germans in Cuverville and Démouville to the north. After inflicting the damage, Becker skillfully withdrew his guns back to the south where more batteries of StuGs and 88 dual purpose Flak/Pak stood ready to engage the enemy.
On July 18th, Major Hans von Luck, just back from a well earned leave to Paris and recently recommended for the Knight’s Cross, pulled his car into Cagny. The village stood just south east of Le Mesnil-Frémentel and smack-dab in the middle of the British assault. The RAF had plastered the village with 650 tons of bombs in ten minutes, flattening eastern Cagny to the ground and causing confusion and lost radio contacts among the defenders.
Dismayed, the lean and wiry Luck beheld 25 to 30 British tanks bypassing the western edge of the village. His eyes scanned north to where his 1st Battalion, 125th Regiment should have been. Instead the area was swamped with British tanks moving south. “My God,” thought von Luck, “the bombing and artillery barrage destroyed the battalion.”9
Luck drove past the still standing village church when he espied a 16thLuftwaffe Division battery, its four 88mm barrels pointed into the sky. At once von Luck informed the young battery captain of the critical situation and told him to: “Hit the enemy in the flank. In that way you’ll force the advance to a halt.” The captain calmly retorted: “ Major, my concern is enemy planes, fighting tanks is your job-I’m Luftwaffe.” Von Luck pulled out his pistol and pointed it at him: “Either you’re a dead man or you can earn yourself a medal.”10
“I bow to your force,”11 exclaimed the Captain. What must I do?”Hidden in an apple orchard, the 88s lowered their muzzles at the British tanks. Salvos of 88s zoomed as Luck phrased it, “through a corn field like torpedoes.”12 Joining the Flak ambush were the last Pak 88 and Mark IV that remained at Cagny. Sixteen Shermans from the 2nd Fife and Forfar were blasted to bits.
The German gunners were trained to single out ‘command’ or other special duty tanks. It is possible that it was the Cagny 88s or Becker’s earlier ambush knocked out the 29th Brigade’s air support signal tank. It contained an airman who could call up fighter-bombers. This was a real loss to the British.
Silvertop’s 3rd RTR and its supporting motorized rifle company managed to reach the vicinity of the Cormelles factory area to the west some time after 1000. On the horizon to the north, flames and clouds of smoke spiraled up from Caen. Up to 3000 Frenchmen perished in the Allied bombing.
The regiment turned south crossing the Caen-Paris road and struck for their objectives of Bras and Hubert Folie. To their left, the 2nd Fife and Forfar pushed past Four and Soliers toward the eastern leg of the Bourguébus ridge, between Bourguébus village and la Hogue.
The two tank regiments charged up the open slope. When they were within a kilometer of the walled brick-and-stone Norman villages that dotted the Bourguébus ridge, scores of dug-in and camouflaged 88s flashed into action. The Tigers of Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Michael Wittmann’s 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, likely joined the 88 Flak and Pak in the shoot out. Wittmann, arguably the greatest tank ace of all time, had only been promoted to battalion commander a mere eight days ago.
Major Close watched two tanks on his left get knocked out before his own rocked to the impact of an armor piercing round. “Bail out, sir!” shouted his crew. Fortunately the hit had only severed a track so that they all made it out. Close ran over to the next tank, got inside and resumed command of A Squadron. Despite his bravery, the situation turned hopeless. “Within seconds, 15 of our tanks were stationary and on fire,” he remembered. “All attempts to turn aside to left or right failed. By late afternoon we had only a few tanks left that were still in tact. The other company fared no better. We had to break off the advance and withdraw.”13
The grinding steel tracks of Standartenführer (Lt. Col) Joachim Peiper’s dreaded 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s Panthers and StuGs reverberated from the ridge. They pulled into position to greet the 2nd Fife and Forfar. Peiper’s armor was part of Dietrich’s crack unit, which General Eberbach had ordered over to the LXXXVI Corps sector to stop the imminent threat of the British armor. The open ground was perfect country for the Panther’s long-range, high velocity 75mmguns. Within a few minutes the LAH StuGs and Panthers shot up 29 Shermans, killing their commanding officers.
While the 3 rd RTR and the 2nd Fife and Forfar were being decimated, the 23rd Hussars, held in reserve around Grentheville, were temporarily ordered not to advance past Soliers. Behind them the tanks of the Guards Armored Division’s 5th Armored Brigade entered the battle. Its 1st Armored Coldstream Guards and 2nd Armored Irish Guards regiments bypassed Cagny via a detour through le Mesnil-Frémentel on their way to Vimont. But by doing so, they blocked the forward elements of the 7th Armored Division coming up from behind. Simultaneously, the 3rd Guards’ tank regiment, the 2nd Armored Grenadier Guards, engaged the Cagny 88s. Within seconds the anti-tank fire from Cagny took a toll of another 20 tanks.
To the rescue of the beleaguered Cagny Flak came nine Mark IVs and ten Tigers from the Emviélle area. Although they could drive and shoot, all of the ‘working’ Tigers of the 503rd were in rough shape and their sights were still out of alignment. Worse still, the Luftwaffe 88’s mistook them for Shermans and knocked out two Tigers. The counterattack floundered, and the Tigers and Mark IV’s drew back to Le Poirier and Frénouville.
At 1600 the troublesome 88s were finally subdued. Faced with the arrival of the Guards Division’s 32nd Infantry Brigade, the Luftwaffe crews blew up their 88s and withdrew. Wireless Guards operator G.H. Marsen describes the scene: “I could see Caen just to my right, the whole area was on fire, the earth shuddering from the bombing and shelling. I saw at least 40 Sherman tanks blazing…Our captives were mere boys, running toward our lines with hands on their heads…But they still retaliated with shellfire and most of all the dreaded ‘Moaning Mines’, the electrically propelled mortar; to be caught in their fire was certain disaster.”14 Even so, German resistance lingered on at Cagny until 2000.
Meanwhile, around 1430 the 23rd Hussars reached the smoldering tank husks of the 2nd Fife and Forfars near Soliers and Four. On the ridge, the German division commander, SS-Brigadeführer (Brig. Gen) “Teddy” Wisch, joined the LAH Panzers. They combined with Becker’s assault guns in Soliers and the Panzers in Le Poirier and Frénouville, to engulf the Hussars in a cauldron of fire.
In the words of the Story of the 23rd Hussars: “With no time for retaliation, no time to do anything but take one quick glance at the situation, almost in one minute, all its tanks were hit, blazing and exploding. Everywhere wounded or burning figures ran or struggled painfully for cover, while a remorseless rain of armor-piercing shot riddled the already helpless Shermans.”15 C Squadron lost every one of its tanks.
The 1st Coldstream Guards captured Le Poirier at 1630. Two and half-hours later, Panzer fire from Frénouville stopped an advance by the 2nd Irish Guards on Vimont. On the way there, Lieutenant John Gorman of the Irish Guards drove his tank headlong into a Tiger II plowing through a hedge. With the order “Traverse left-on-fire!”16the Sherman’s 75mm shell hit the front of the Tiger but bounced off into the air. When ordered to fire again the gunner replied “Gun jammed sir.”17 With horror the lieutenant watched the Tiger’s gun slowly turn toward him. Risking it all, the Irish troopers rammed their tank into the Tiger before it had a chance to fire. On impact, both crews bailed out, and with heavy shelling going on, both jumped for cover into the same slit trench. The lieutenant, however, crawled back to a nearby Sherman Firefly, loaded its 17-pounder gun and “brewed up the Tiger” at point-blank range. He then collected his own and the Tiger’s crew!
Heavy fighting continued at the western flank of the battle. At Bras the LAH StuGs met Pip Robert’s last reserves, his Cromwells of his 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry (NY) Reconnaissance Regiment. Knight’s Cross holder SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Karl Rettlinger’s remembered his StuG attack: “ …2nd Company moved around Bras from the east…the 1st Company moved around from the north. The pincers caught the enemy tanks…two of their tanks burst into flames immediately and some took direct hits. Panic overtook the enemy….We lost not a Panzer. By then it was 1900hrs.”18 Sixteen Cromwells were destroyed. Together with the 33 tanks lost by the 23rd Hussars, the 45 from the 3rd RTR and the 47 from the 2nd Fife and Forfars, the 11th Armored Division lost 141 tanks. The Guards division lost another 60. Churned tank carcasses dotted the whole plain north of the Bourguébus ridge. Greasy black smoke billowed up into the air.
Hans von Luck blamed the poor British performance on lack of infantry support to take out German antitank pockets. Standartenführer (Colonel) Kurt Meyer of the Hitlerjugend asked: “Where is the spirit of the Light Brigade at Balaclava…? The enemy drag themselves across the ground like turtles….”19 In fact, slowed down by traffic congestion, by the fighting ahead of it and by roaming Tigers, the 7th Armored Division did not even manage to join the battle.38
At the end of the day, British tanks and infantry were entrenched from Le Mesnil-Frémentel-Cagny to Frénouville-Emieville. But the British advance had crawled to a standstill, and the villages on the crest of the Bourguébus ridge remained firmly in German hands. At least the British could console themselves in that human casualties were light. The VIII Corps lost 521 men, with only 81 killed in the tank regiments. Casualties among the 11th Armored’s infantry battalions were only 20, mainly because overly cautious movement and poor coordination kept the infantry from supporting their tank regiments at vital times.
On the western flank of the British Armor, the Canadian I Corps seized the Caen suburbs and factories from the 272nd Infantry Division and 16thLuftwaffe elements after a stiff fight that claimed 200 Canadian casualties. On the eastern flank, the British I Corps inflicted 651 German casualties and knocked out 18 tanks, mostly as a result of the bombardment, and drove the Germans out of Touffreville and Sannerville.
All this was less than clear at the various British headquarters, where complete confusion reigned. Army commander Dempsey even turned down an offer from RAF’s Tactical Air Force for a bombing run of Bourguébus ridge because he thought it unnecessary. Montgomery himself seemed to be on another planet. While his armor bled to death on the Bourguébus, he ecstatically sent a message to the chief of Imperial General Staff, “Complete success…bombing decisive…spectacle terrific…difficult to see what enemy can do…few tanks met so far.”20 That night at 2100, BBC news blurted out the words “Second Army attacked and broke through…General Montgomery is well satisfied.”21 Everyone thought Montgomery had achieved a second Alamein.
The Germans dreaded an infantry night attack, but none came. Instead the British consolidated their position and funneled in a number of replacement tanks for their mauled regiments. That same night it was the turn of the Luftwaffe to carry out a successful 50-plane raid against the British bridgehead. The Guards and 11th Armored Division’s administrative personnel and replacement tank crews sustained heavy casualties during the raid.
With the British poised for another assault, elements from Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division trickled in at 0530 on July 19. At 34 years of age, the ruthless Kurt “Panzer” Meyer was the youngest German division commander. General Feuchtinger of the 21st PzDiv rightly called Meyer the “soul of the fanatical resistance. that stopped the enemy from capturing Caen.”22 By midday, a HitlerjugendKampfgruppe took over the majority of 21st Panzer’s western positions as Luck’s Kampfgruppe pulled out for a rest. With Hitlerjugend holding the eastern Bourguébus ridges and the area east to the woods, and the LAH on the western ridges, the panzer divisions of the I SS Corps fought shoulder to shoulder for the first time.
At first light 3rd RTR again drove up the slope towards Bras and Hubert-Folie. Major Close related that “as we reached the line of tanks burned out the day before, we again encountered heavy fire, intensified by more tanks on the ridge.”23 No sooner had Close hopped out of his tank to help some wounded crews than a shell smashed into his own tank’s turret, instantly killing the gunner and operator. “Once again I had to turn out a tank commander and take command from his tank,”24 remembered Close.
At 0700 a company of the LAH’s 2nd SS-PzGr Regiment attacked from the village of Four and recaptured Le Poirier. To the east, a Hitlerjugend grenadier battalion with armored half-tracks repulsed weak attacks by the 32nd Guards Infantry Brigade at Emiéville.
The 2 NY went for Bras but got lost and exposed their flanks to the German guns in the village of Ifs. “Half their tanks were brewed up or knocked out”25 Close remembered. The situation changed with the arrival of British field guns by the afternoon. After they pounded the village, the 3rd RTR with grenadiers joined the assault under the cover of a smoke screen. One of the two LAH StuGs defending the village was knocked out. An SS Grenadier relates: “The tanks rolled up. Two, five, eight, ten, we stopped counting. They approached our foxholes carefully. Dread and fear paralyzed us. We knew they would pulverize us. Those of us who survived were taken prisoner.”26 The LAH grenadiers abandoned Bras at 1900, leaving many of their dead behind. By that time the victorious 3rd RTR was reduced to a pitiful nine tanks from an original 63.
While British Grenadiers were still busy mopping up in Bras, the 2 NY’s Cromwells drove on to Hubert-Folie at 1810. A hail of high-pitched machine gun fire erupted from LAH Grenadiers and StuGs in the village, supported by Peiper’s hull-down panzers farther up on the ridge, decimating the 2nd NY. At 2000 it was the 2nd Fife and Forfar’s turn to storm Hubert-Folie. To their surprise they took the village without opposition, the LAH grenadiers having pulled back up the ridge to join Peiper’s panzers at Verriéres.
An hour earlier, the 32nd Guards Infantry went for Le Poirier. The village again changed hands. But when the 32nd pushed on to Frénouville the Hitlerjugend grenadiers backed by Jagdpanzers brought them to a halt.
At Four and Soliers, the LAH’s 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment carried out a similar fight-and-withdraw tactic, at first delaying the advance of the 7th Armored Division’s 22nd Brigade’s, then pulling back to the Bourguébus-la Hogue ridge. The 5 RTR attempted to sweep around Bourguébus village but their attack again withered in the face of Peiper’s 1st Panzer Regiment. The British tankers drew back to Four and Soliers, leaving behind eight smoldering Shermans.
With nightfall of the second day of Goodwood, the British-Canadian forces stood poised in front of their prime objective, the Bourguébus ridge, which still remained in German possession. The defensive victory was especially hard on LAH’s 1st StuG battalion: reduced to only three operational vehicles left from an original 20.
The next day, July20th, saw the Guards Armored Division thrust towards the southeast, taking Frénouville and Emieville. The villages, hotly contested earlier, were abandoned by the Hitlerjugend to shorten their frontal sector. However, the youths of the 12th SS repulsed the Guards at Vimont.
In the British center, the 7th Armored Divison finally secured the likewise abandoned Bourguébus village. But its 4th County of London Yeomandry Armored Regiment and a company of the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade were prevented from advancing further up the gentle slope toward Verriéres by the fire of Dietrich’s panzers and the Tigers of Wittmann’s 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion.
Dempsey decided that his armored regiments were too battered to continue and ordered the tanks to pull back. Eighth Corps would hold its current positions with infantry. It was now time for the Canadians to show their mettle and make a try for Verriéres.
Around 1500, supported by Canadian and British artillery fire and Hawker Typhoons, the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade met the SS and a newly arrived Kampfgruppe of the 2nd (Austrian) Pz Div in a climatic final. In a reverse of earlier British armored attacks, which lacked infantry support, the Canadian infantry attacked with precious little tank support.
The Canadians began with a promising start. “The weather was hot and the roads were dusty,” recalled anti-tank gunner Gordon Amos, “We were green but we soon ripened up.”27 Supported by rocket firing Hawker Typhoons, the Camerons of Canada seized St. Andre-sur-Orne from the 272nd Infantry Division. Shortly thereafter the Germans plastered the village with artillery and mortar fire.
The South Saskatchewan Regiment struck for the Beauvoir and Torteval farms. German sniper fire hit the Canadians from wheat shocks. The Canadians replied with phosphorus grenades. “When the snipers see the odd guy come screaming out of a grain stook, his uniform covered with burning phosphorus, they start popping up all over the place with their hands up”27 related Captain Britton Smith.
When rain clouded the skies and drove off the Typhoons, Mark IV panzers of the 5th and 6th companies of the LAH’s 2nd SS Panzer Battalion, a StuG company and SS grenadiers viciously counter assaulted. MG-42’s nicknamed “Hitler’s scythe and buzz saw” cut down scores of Canadian infantrymen. Panzer shells burst up the few supporting Canadian tanks. The Canadians in the center broke and ran through the cornfields. Panthers rampaged through the wheat fields with impunity, flushing out their hidden prey. Two companies of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal were all but annihilated. In its first real action, the South Saskatchewans alone took 208 casualties, including their commander.
The Essex Scottish Regiment was up next. Lance-Bombardier Munro remembered: “its our men against tanks – the best tanks in the war…at the same time we’re facing heavy mortar and artillery fire.”29 A retreating South Saskatchewan yelled, “It’s bloody suicide up there!”30
Despite their bloody casualties, the tough Canadians gritted their teeth and kept fighting. The German versus Canadian duel continued throughout the night. Thunder boomed in the sky and the rain poured in buckets over the war torn slopes. The ground turned into a quagmire. Unrelenting fire from their field guns enabled the Fusiliers Mont Royal to hold onto Troteval farm into the next morning.
Artillery Captain Britton Smith remembers: “He’s [a tiger] so bloody close-only two hundred yards away–that each time he fires, the muzzle blast bang our ears together and flattens the grain all around us as the shot screeches overhead and a shower of sparks goes up from one of our tanks up on the hill…I put a battery of mediums on him and hammer him for about half an hour. I may not have knocked him out, but I’ll bet I loosened up the bowels of the crew.”31 The artillery fire copes with the enemy infantry but “when they begin coming with tanks, we realize the jig is up.”32
Renewed attacks by the LAH in the morning of the 21st brought the Essex Scottish casualties up to 301. The regiment was only able to withdraw due to a timely appearance by the Canadian Black Watch alongside tanks of the 1st Hussars and Sherbrooke Fusiliers.
Goodwood had reached its end; the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS had shredded the British and Canadians to pieces. Skillfull fighting withdrawals combined with aggressive and well-coordinated counterattacks within a deep defensive belt demonstrated the German genius for a fluid defense. Sepp Dietrich also praised the mechanics of the nearby German tank repair shops. The mechanics, who made extensive repairs within a few short hours, had been vital for keeping his armor in battle. Dietrich personally awarded them the Iron Cross Second Class.
Aided by poor weather, that limited Allied air support, and poor British coordination and intelligence, Goodwood became perhaps the greatest German defensive victory of the Normandy campaign. The British suffered 3,474 casualties among VIII and I corps, the Canadians another 1,965. Two hundred and fifty three tanks were destroyed, although a fair number of them were later repaired. On the other hand the Germans likewise salvaged enough Shermans to equip an entire company of the 21st Panzer Division. The heavy British and Canadian sacrifices only extended the Allied bridgehead by only nine kilometers and failed to secure the vital crest of the Bourguébus ridge. Though the British-Canadians held most of the northern slope, only one of the five main tactical objectives, the village of Hubert-Folie, had been secured.
Goodwood also failed to “write down the German armor,”33 as Montgomery had phrased it. The Germans lost only 75 tanks in the battle. And, significantly, more than 40 of those were lost to Allied bombing. German personnel losses were relatively light as well, though the continuing attrition was clearly wearing down the panzer divisions.
Incredibly, Montgomery calmly claimed that Goodwood achieved everything he hoped for. The validity of his position after Goodwood when compared to his prebattle expectations has been much debated. This was because Dempsey’s original operational order had also listed Falaise as one of the objectives. On July 15th, however, Montgomery changed Falaise to a target for reconnaissance units only, but then failed to notify Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) of the change. The likely reason was that Montgomery doubted that Goodwood would achieve a decisive breakthrough, but publicly he supported this notion to gain the required air support.
What the British and Canadian troops expected became clear to von Luck. Canadian prisoners told him that Monty had called out: “To Falaise, boys, we’re going to march on Paris.”34 SHAEF certainly expected as much. Furious at Monty’s failure, Eisenhower commented that the Allies could hardly expect to advance through France at the rate of 1,000 tons of bombs per mile! All the senior Air commanders were angry, as they had been eager to secure airfields for their short-range fighters south of Caen. Even Churchill was disappointed with Monty. With many calling for Mongomery to be fired, Goodwood was another nail in the coffin that buried his chance of remaining overall land force commander.
In Montgomery’s defense, though, Goodwood managed to draw the bulk of the panzer divisions away from the American western flank. On July 25th the American breakout of “Cobra”, delayed by the bad weather, finally got underway to coincide with “Spring” another British-Canadian offensive with virtually the same goals as “Goodwood.” By that time there were seven Panzer divisions facing the British-Canadians as opposed to the two Panzer divisions and one Panzergrenadier division that bolstered the German infantry divisions facing the Americans. Nevertheless, the major contribution of Goodwood was not so much the diversion of German armor but rather the diversion of the deteriorating German supplies to the British sector. When Cobra broke loose in the St. Lô sector, the Germans not only faced a better-planned and-executed operation but also lacked the supplies to sustain an effective defense.
Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 199.
Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy (London: Collins, 1983) p. 370, 371.
J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World (New York: Granada, 1970) p. 558.
David Mason, Breakout: drive to the Seine (London: Macdonald & Co. 1968) p. 9.
Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy (New York: Dell Publishing, 1998) p. 207, 208.
Ibid, p. 209.
Ibid, p. 215.
Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 196.
Ibid, p. 193
Ibid, p. 193.
Ibid, p. 194
Ibid, p. 197
Ibid, p. 197
Alexander McKee, Caen Anvil of Victory(London: Souvenier Press, 1964) p. 272, 273.
Ibid, p. 272.
Ibid. p. 274.
Ibid. p. 274.
Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 220.
Ibid p. 222.
Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy, p. 381
Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278
James Lucas, Hitler’s Commanders (Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2014) p. 128.
Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278.
Ibid, p. 279.
Ibid, p. 279.
Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 226.
Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 286.
George C. Blackburn, The Guns of Normandy (Toronto: McClelland & Steward, 1995) p. 184, 185
Ibid, p. 189.
Ibid, p. 189.
Ibid, p. 190, 191
Ibid, p. 192
Russell A. Hart, A Clash of Arms (London: Lynne Rienner, 2001) p. 314, Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 209, 231.
Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 201.
Bercuson David J. Maple Leaf against the Axis. Toronto: Stoddard. 1995, Blackburn George C. The Guns of Normandy. Toronto: McClelland & Steward. 1995, Blumenson Martin. Liberation. Virginia. Time Life Books. 1978, d’Este Carlo. Decision in Normandy. London: Collins. 1983, Donnelly Tom and Naylor Sean. Clash of Chariots. New York: Berkley Books. 1996, Fuller J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World. New York: Granada. 1970, Hart Russel A. Clash of Arms. London: Lynne Rienner. 2001, Luck, Hans von. Panzer Commander. New York: Dell Publishing. 1991, Mason David. Breakout: drive to the Seine. London: Macdonald & Co. 1968, McKee Alexander. Caen Anvil of Victory. London: Souvenier Press. 1964, Reynolds Michael. Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy. New York: Dell Publishing. 1998.
During Gaius Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58-51 BC) and during the civil war (50-45 BC) that followed, Caesar commanded over an army of Roman legions and tribal auxiliaries. Among the latter was a troop of German tribesmen, who, out of all proportion to their paltry numbers, would, time and again, lead Caesar to victory.
The Germanic tribesmen were tall men, with skin leathered by the elements and scarred from battle wounds. Their limbs were gnarled and muscular, their eyes wild and fierce. Men of war; they were armed with spears and swords, shields and helmets. Some wore their long blond or red hair combed sideways and done up in a knot, after the fashion of their people, the feared Suebi. Most hailed from the Usipetes and from the Tencteri, a tribe renowned for its cavalry.
The Germans first joined Caesar after he had beaten back tribal intrusions into Gaul by the Suebi in 58 and by the Usipetes and Tencteri in 55 BC. There were four hundred of them, hostages of tribal nobles and their retainers. They were there as a show of good will and trust, and for the loot and glory in battle.
That the Germans would fight for former foes was not at all unusual. The retainers of a German chief hailed not just from his own tribe, but from tribal hostages and from warriors that wandered the land in search of battle and plunder. What did it matter to them, if they fought for a German chief or a Roman consul? Germanic warriors even served as bodyguards for Cleopatra and for Herod the Great. The Germans were not the only tribal auxiliaries in Caesar’s army. For the vast bulk of his cavalry, Caesar depended on allied Gallic tribes and there was also a small detachment of Spanish cavalry.
Caesar was impressed by the martial spirit of the Germans. According to Caesar; although in the past, the Gauls had been more warlike than the Germans, the Gauls had come to “not even pretend to compete with the Germans in bravery” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, IV. 24). Even the “fierce glance of their eyes was more than they (the Gauls) could endure” (Caesar, I. 39).
Caesar blamed the softening of the Gauls to their trade with Roman provinces, which provided them the luxuries of civilization. In comparison, the Germans maintained their hardiness through their harsh more primitive lifestyle. In reality, the ethnicity of tribes facing each other across the Rhine was not as clear cut as Caesar maintained although the river served as a rough border between Celts and Germans.
In battle, the fleet German light infantry ran alongside the cavalryman, clinging to the horse’s mane to keep pace. He protected the cavalryman’s flanks and stabbed at the enemy horse. Caesar valued his German warriors so highly, that he replaced their pony-like horses with the larger steeds of his bodyguard, tribunes and knights.
It was in 52 BC, during the final and most critical year of Caesar’s Gallic war, when Caesar’s fortunes would fall to an all time low, that his German cavalry would rise to the occasion.
Caesar was accepting the surrender of the town of Noviodunum Biturigum, when the cavalry of King Vercingetorix, the charismatic Gallic resistance leader, appeared on the horizon. Caesar ordered his several-thousand-strong allied Gallic cavalry to take the field. Caesar’s Gauls had the worst of the ensuing fight, prompting Caesar to sent in his 400 Germans. With a furious charge, the Germans scattered the enemy and inflicted heavy casualties.
Vercingetorix, however, re-gained the initiative with a defensive victory at Gergovia. With many of this Gallic allies having switched sides, Caesar recruited another 600 German tribal cavalry and light troops from across the Rhine. Quite possibly these included Batavi from the Rhine Island between the Waal and the Meuse.
Caesar tried to retreat back to the threatened province of Gallia Narbonensis when Vercingetorix again attacked with his cavalry. Vercingetorix’ sudden appearance caught Caesar unprepared. However, the Gallic cavalry failed to close in for combat with the Romans and skirmished about instead. Caesar’s auxiliary cavalry kept the hostiles at bay, allowing the legionaries to form a defensive square. Caesar’s German cavalry meanwhile gained the summit of a nearby hill. Not content with being on the defensive, the Germans routed a body of Gallic horsemen and hurled them back upon their own infantry. The rout caused the entire Gallic cavalry to take to flight.
The Gauls placed the greatest reliance on their cavalry arm and with its defeat, their spirits sank. The initiative was back in Caesar’s hands. Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold town of Alesia. Perched on a plateau and surrounded by hills and streams, Alesia seemed impervious to assault. Below the town ramparts a hastily constructed six-foot wall and trench enclosed the camp of Vercingetorix’ army.
Caesar surrounded the Alesia with over 14-miles of two concentric rings of earthworks, ditches, ramparts, spikes, stakes, covered pits, forts and camps. An inner ring of fortifications faced the defenders of Alesia while an outer ring protected the Romans from the anticipated Gallic relief army.
Construction of the Roman fortifications was still going on, when Vercingetorix’s cavalry sallied out of the Gallic camp. Possibly numbering over 10,000, the Gauls were met in battle by Caesar’s cavalry. The earth rumbled from galloping horses, with the fighting sweeping over a three-mile stretch of plains between the hills. The Gallic horsemen gained the upper hand over Caesar’s auxiliary Gallic and Spanish cavalry but once again, Caesar had kept his Germans in reserve. The Germans turned the tide and harried the Gauls back against their outer wall and trench.
Behind the attacking Germans, the legions drew themselves up for battle. A general panic now erupted among the Gauls as the it looked like the legions were preparing for an assault. Masses of Gauls tried to flee into the town but Vercingetorix had the gates shut. Below them at the camp ramparts, frantic Gauls jammed up the narrow gates or abandoned their mounts to scramble through the trench and up the wall. The Germans were right behind them, swords slashing and spears thrusting, riding down their panicked foes and captured a number of horses in the bargain. Vercingetorix was forced to change his strategy, remaining on the defensive and sending out cavalry to raise a relief army among the rebellious tribes.
As the siege dragged on, the perhaps 25,000 defending Gauls and the tens of thousands of non-combatants of Alesia were reduced to near starvation. Their spirits rose with the sighting of the arrival of the Gallic relief army under Commius, King of the Atrebates. Commius’ army numbered an estimated 120,000 men, three times larger than Caesar’s worn down legions and remaining auxiliaries. Caesar was now in a real bind, as Vercingetorix’s men stormed the inner line of Roman fortifications while Commius sent forth his cavalry, archers and light armed troops to assault the outward facing Roman defenses.
With his legionaries defending against Vercingetorix’ men, Caesar sent his cavalry to engage Commius’ troops. The besieged Gauls in Alesia shouted to encourage their own, more numerous cavalry. The hard fought battle lasted until the sun neared the horizon. It was then that the Germans massed all their squadrons for a charge. The German cavalry struck Commius’ Gallic horsemen like a thunderbolt. Commius’ cavalry fled the field, exposing his archers who were easily cut down.
With Commius’ cavalry setback, Vercingetorix withdrew his demoralized men back into Alesia. A second Gallic assault at night died in the fire of Roman siege engines. A third attack saw Caesar’s cavalry strike at Commius’ infantry from the rear, utterly beating them. With no help left, Vercingetorix surrendered. Aside from relatively minor engagements, it was the end of the Gallic wars.
Caesar plunged the Roman Republic into civil war in 50 BC, when he marched his legions across the Rubicon and into Italy. For four years his Gallic and German cavalry accompanied the legions through the civil war against the Pompeians and the interludes of the Egyptian and Pontic wars. After performing admirably in the Spanish campaign of 49, the auxiliary cavalry followed the legions to confront Pompey’s army in Greece.
In 48 BC, Caesar blocked Pompey from reaching his supply base at Dyrrachium. In turn, Caesar found his own supply route to Italy severed by Pompey’s naval dominance of the Adriatic. When Pompey tried to break through Caesar’s entrenchments, the Germans fought on foot beside the legions. Sallying forth over their own fortifications, the Germans slew several Pompeians before returning back to Caesar’s camp. Nevertheless, Pompey eventually managed to pierce the blockade. Forced to withdraw, Caesar’s army was demoralized and low on supplies.
Withdrawing into Thessaly, Caesar stormed the defiant town of Gomphi and gave it over to be ransacked by his half-starved soldiers. The whole army, especially the Germans, embarked on an orgy of gluttony and drinking. Pompey finally caught up with Caesar at Pharsalu. Caesar overthrew Pompey’s initially successful cavalry charge and inflicted a crushing defeat. Pompey fled to Egypt where the ministers of Ptolemy XII assassinated him.
Caesar became involved with Cleopatra and her dynastic struggles with her brother and co-regent Ptolemy. With the aid of Mithridates of Pergamum, Caesar cornered Ptolemy near the Nile. The Egyptian army sought protection on a hill flanked by a canal. The German cavalry swam the canal, striking the Egyptians in the flank and allowing the Romans to cross the canal unopposed and annihilate the Egyptians. Most likely the German cavalry in question were the Batavi who were famed for their ability to swim in full gear with their horses. After a lightning campaign against Pharnaces of Pontus, who had occupied Armenia and Cappadocia, Caesar returned to Italy.
In 46 BC Caesar continued the war against the followers of Pompey in North Africa. At fist Caesar was vastly outnumbered by the forces of Quintus Mettelus Scipio and King Juba but after being reinforced, brought the campaign to a victorious end at Thapsus. Caesar’s overeager veterans launched themselves into battle before the lines had been formed and without Caesar’s orders. Simultaneously his archers targeted the elephants which panicked and steam-rolled through their own lines, causing a general collapse among the opposing legions and the Numidians.
The civil war was brought to an end in 45 BC, when Caesar faced Gnaeus Pompeius’ legions at Munda. In addition to eight legions, Caesar possessed over 8000 cavalry, including his veteran Gauls and Germans and King Bogud of Maurentia, with his corps of Moorish horsemen. The 10th legion caved in the enemy’s left flank while the cavalry, with Bogud in the lead, vanquished the enemy horse and fell upon the enemy’s flank and rear.
Caesar returned to Rome and became dictator. He rewarded his veteran legionaries with a generous gold coins equal to 27 years pay! Caesar disbanded his Praetorian bodyguard and his Spanish cohorts. Likely his Gallic and German cavalry disbanded as well, returning to their tribes with plunder and coin. Perhaps a few of their number were even granted the coveted Roman citizenship. No doubt, many stayed in some sort of military service for the Romans. There was certainly no lack of opportunity for a skilled sword for hire when, upon Caesar’s death in 44 BC, a new civil war erupted.
Caesar’s German cavalry had certainly proved their worth. In Gaul they gave Caesar the advantage over hostile cavalry and returned the initiative to Caesar’s hands. Alongside the siege craft and tenacity of the legions, the German cavalry brought about Caesar’s victory at Alesia. In Greece, the German tribesmen proved that they could fight as well on foot as they could on horse. In Egypt they helped clinch the victory over Ptolemy. Few in number, Caesar treated his German cavalry as elite, often holding them in reserve until the situation became desperate. It was then, that this small but crack corps of warriors could decisively influence the course of a war.
Feature Image: Angus McBride, copyright, used under Fair Use for non-profit, educational purposes only.
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