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Shih Huang-ti, First Emperor of China

Military Heritage Magazine & Military History Network

Shih Huang-ti

Shih Huang-ti possessed “the mind of a tiger,” and operated against his opponents with ruthlessness and treachery.
by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Desc: Qin Shihuangdi (259 - 210 BC) the First Qin Emperor (221-210 BC) by Hung Wu. Scene of burning books and executing scholars • Credit: [ The Art Archive / Bibliothèque Nationale Paris ] • Ref: AA335446
Desc: Qin Shihuangdi (259 – 210 BC) the First Qin Emperor (221-210 BC) by Hung Wu. Scene of burning books and executing scholars • Credit: [ The Art Archive / Bibliothèque Nationale Paris ] • Ref: AA335446

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grew up in a war-torn period, the “Warring States” (479-221 BC), when the chivalrous ways of the ancient court had been replaced by the grim brutality of mercenary warlords.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

Qin Shih Huang-ti is depicted in this 18th century Chinese painting.

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.

By Philg88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Philg88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

   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.

The Chin Imperial Guard 221 BC-206 BC, by Angus McBride
The Chin Imperial Guard 221 BC-206 BC, by Angus McBride

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”

The Great Wall of China stretches 3,000 miles from the Pacific coast to the present-day Gansu province. The massive wall was to serve as Qin Shih Huang-ti's northernmost fortification.

   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.

Thousands of terra-cotta soldiers, the result of 36 years of toil, guard Huang-ti's mausoleum.

   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.

Military Heritage Magazine Dec 2004, featuring
Military Heritage Magazine Dec 2004, featuring “Shih Huang-ti, First Emperor of China” by L. H. Dyck

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,

Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol

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
German artillery shelling Sevastopol Harbor (World War II Pics)
Looking southward across Severnaya Bay, German artillery shelling the harbor

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.

Zentralbild Generalfeldmarschall Erich EGE von Lewinski genannt von Manstein, geb. 24.11.1887 in Berlin Oberbefehlshaber der Heeresgruppe S¸d im II. Weltkrieg. Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Von einem britischen Milit‰rgericht zu 18 Jahren Haft verurteilt, 1953 jedoch bereits freigelassen. UBz.: von Manstein als Generalmajor im Jahre 1938
General Erich von Manstein, Commander of the 11th Army in October 1941 (Budesarchiv, Bild 183-HO1758/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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.
Soviet Marines (Still from Battlefield, the Battle of the Crimea)

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.

A German soldier exposes himself to Soviet gunfire as he attempts to push forward. His comrades continue to lie low behind the limited cover of a small embankment.
A German soldier exposes himself to Soviet gunfire as he attempts to push forward. His comrades continue to lie low behind the limited cover of a small embankment (Warfare History Network)

   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.

Although Sevastopol was encircled by a formidable ring of defenses, German efforts to cut off supply lines ensured that the Russians were slowly starved of supplies needed to wage war (Warfare History Network)

   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.

Beneath Sevastopol, civilians work tirelessly to support the defense of their city

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.

erman infantry shell buildings during Operation Störfang. Intense shelling by both sides left the city and countryside scarred by months of brutal combat (Warfare History Network)
German infantry shell buildings during Operation Störfang. Intense shelling by both sides left the city and countryside scarred by months of brutal combat (Warfare History Network)

   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.

Vice Admiral Filip S. Oktyabrskii’s commander of the Black Sea Fleet (Still from Soviet Storm: World War II, The Defense of Sevastopol)

   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 PavlichenkoPavlichenko 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.

Top scoring sniper ace Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s marksmanship took a heavy toll on the Germans at Sevastopol

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.



Hitler’s monster Dora 800 mm Railway Gun. Here the Fuhrer inspects his new weapon, which was first used on Sevastopol, but with relatively little strategic effect. (Speer stands to the right of Hitler, wearing a red armband. Via Flickr. Click to expand.)
Manstein employed super heavy guns and mortars to at the battle of  Sevastopol. In the picture at the bottom, Hitler looks upon the 800 mm Railway Gun Heavy Gustav. Among his entourage is Speer to the right, wearing the red armband (Via Flickr.)

   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.

Gollob's 100th victory (Die Deutsche Wochenschau)
Gollob’s 100th victory (Die Deutsche Wochenschau)
Me 109 fighters starting up during the battle of Sevastopol (Die-deutsche-wochenschau-1942-07-08-nr-618)

   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.

A weary German soldier poses for the camera during a break in the action (Warfare History Network)
A weary German soldier poses for the camera during a break in the action (Warfare History Network)
In an aerial shot of the city, plumes of smole and clouds of rock rise above Sevastopol during the German bombardment.
In an aerial shot of the city, plumes of smoke and clouds of rock rise above Sevastopol during the German bombardment (Warfare History Network)

   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.

German trooper cutting wire during assault on Sevastopol (Deutsche Wochenschau 14-06-25, Nr. 616)
German trooper cutting wire during assault on Sevastopol (Deutsche Wochenschau 14-06-25, Nr. 616)

   “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

Soviet machine gunner, Sevastopol
Soviet machine gunner, Sevastopol

   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.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

   “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.

Sevastopol 1942, German flamethrower (Die Deutsche Wochenschau)
Sevastopol 1942, German flamethrower (Die Deutsche Wochenschau, 14-06-25, Nr. 616)

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.

A battered Maxim Gorki, Battery No. 30 at Sevastopol

   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.

German assault on Maxim Gorky, Sevastopol 1942

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


Manstein congratulating the victorious assault team of Maxim Gorki (Images from Die Deutsche Wochenschau)

   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.

Original caption: 1942-Stalingrad, Russia: Members of a worker's battalion are shown as they defend their plant from the Nazi onslaughts on the outskirts of the once beseiged city of Stalingrad. The fighting men of the Red Army have thrown the Nazis back and, according to the latest reports, have almost comletely annihilated the encircled German Army on that front. Stalingrad, Russia
In a rare photo of Russian soldiers in combat, these infantrymen take up firing positions (Warfare History Network)

   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.

Soviet marines assault (Soviet Storm: The Defense of Sevastopol)
Soviet soldiers in street fighting (Soviet Storm: The Defense of Sevastopol)

   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 Tashkent
The Tashkent

   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.

Manstein at the front trenches (Die Deutsche Wochenschau)

   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.

German gun crew in action, Sevastopol (Die Deutsche Wochenschau, 1942-07-01,No. 617)

   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.

Two German soldiers look onto a sunken ship in Sevastopol harbor (Die Deutsche Wochenschau)

   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.

A group of Russian soldiers rests on a pile of rubble in the ruined streets of Stevastopol after a difficult but successful battle. August 1942 Sevastopol, Russia
A group of Russian soldiers rests on a pile of rubble in the ruined streets of Stevastopol after a difficult but successful battle. August 1942 Sevastopol, Russia (Warfare History Network)

   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

Romanian troops advance on the outskirts of Sevastopol

   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.

Long lines of Soviets march into captivity after the fall of Sevastopol
Long lines of Soviets march into captivity after the fall of Sevastopol

   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.

The Germans took control of Sevastopol on July 1, 1942 after heavy bombardments reduced the city to little more than a pile of rubble.
The Germans took control of Sevastopol on July 1, 1942 after heavy bombardments reduced the city to little more than a pile of rubble (Warfare History Network)

   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.

WWII History Magazine, March 2005, featuring “Sturgeon Catch 1942: The Siege of Sevastopol” by Ludwig H Dyck.

“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.


  1. Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East (Kansas. University of Kansas Press. 1998), p. 89.
  2. Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company. 1958), p. 246, 247.
  3. Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43 (London: Bantam Books, 1967), p. 500.
  4. Vladimir V. Karpov . The Commander (New York: Brassey’s Defense Publishers. 1987), p. 86.
  5. Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat in the East, p. 99.
  6. Werner Haupt,  Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945 (Atglen: Schiffer Military History. 1998), p. 121.
  7. Werner Baumbach, The Life and Death of the Luftwaffe (New York: Ballantine Books,1972), p. 140, 141.
  8. Werner Haupt,  Army Group South. The Wehrmacht in Russia 1941-1945, p. 123.
  9.  Paul Carell, Hitler Moves East 1941-43, p. 509.
  10.  Erich Von Manstein, Lost Victories, p. 256. 
  11.  Joel S.A Hayward, Stopped at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s   Defeat in the East, p. 114.
  12.  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, 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 Sources

Electronic Library. Sevastopol, 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.

Arminius, Liberator of Germania

 Ancient History Encyclopedia

Arminius, Liberator of Germania

 by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Arminius (Rezwan)

Article Summary

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.

Coin inscribed VAR(us)

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 Teutoburg Forest

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

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.

Map of Celtic and Germanic Tribes

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.

About the Author

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

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.”

Operation Goodwood: Epic Armor Clash in Normandy

Epic Armor Clash in Normandy

“Operation Goodwood”

By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
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.
From World War II Magazine, July / August 2004, painting "Prepare to Ram" by David Pentland.
From World War II Magazine, July / August 2004, painting “Prepare to Ram” by David Pentland.

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.

Despite its 56-ton weight, this Tiger I of 3./s.Pz.Abt. 503 (3rd Company 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion) was overturned at Manneville by the bombing. Three men survived.[110]By Connolly (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tiger of the 3rd Company, 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion overturned by bombing. By Connolly (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

   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.

By Royal Air Force official photographer - This is photograph TR 197 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,
Avro Landcasters in 1942. Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph TR 197 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Common

   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

At first the aerial bombing of Goodwood appeared to have obliterated any German resistance  (The Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

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. 

By Canadian government employee - Library and Archives CanadaThis image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the MIKAN ID number 4233436This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.Library and Archives Canada does not allow free use of its copyrighted works. See Category:Images from Library and Archives Canada., Public Domain,
Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. Behind him is his  Miles Messenger aircraft. By Canadian government employee – Library and Archives Canada

   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

Bill Close
Major Bill Close, commander of  A Squadron, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 11th Armored Division (Goodwood Lectures, You Tube).

   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.

By Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit - This is photograph B 7510 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-29), Public Domain,
Infantry have piled upon the two M4 Shermans in the foreground, and onto the Sherman Firefly behind them. At the very back, a Sherman Crab. All are waiting to launch the ground assault of Operation Goodwood, 18th July 1944. By Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit – This is photograph B 7510 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-29), Public Domain.

   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.

Sepp Dietrich erhält die Brillanten By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J27366 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
SS Col. Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich commanded the I SS Panzer Corps during Goodwood. Photo: Sepp Dietrich erhält die Brillanten (Sepp Dietrich is awarded the Diamonds [to his Knight’s Cross] By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J27366 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

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 16th Luftwaffe Field Division,  deployed from Touffreville west to the Colombelles factories-right in the way of the British Armor.

   The 16th Luftwaffe 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 2nd Panzer Grenadier (PzGr) battalions of his own 125th PzGr Regiment and Major Alfred Becker’s 200th Sturmgeschütze (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 9th Werfer (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.

CC BY-SA 2.5,
The Battle for Caen up to Operation Goodwoowd (dark green line). CC BY-SA 2.5

   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 16th Luftwaffe 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

"lurid lights illuminated the sea of destruction" from Battlefield The Battle for Caen
“lurid lights illuminated the sea of destruction” from Battlefield The Battle for Caen

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.

German prisoner
The first German  prisoners taken by the advancing British had been left stunned and dazed by the bombardment (The Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

   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.

Sherman moving through ruins (Still from the Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)
Sherman moving through ruins (Still from the Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

   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.  

Major Becker (Goodwood lectures, You Tube)
Major Alfred Becker commanded the 200th Sturmgeschutze battalion.He “had a remarkable talent for improvising self-propelled guns and reconnaissance vehicles from captured chassis” (Goodwood lectures, You Tube).

   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.

Fair use,
Major Hans von Luck in center. Luck’s Kampfgruppe played a vital role in Goodwood (

   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 16th Luftwaffe 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 dreaded 88mm Flak and Anti-tank gun (Still from "88mm Flak kills 6 Shermans - Battle of Rheinland Februar 1945)
The dreaded 88mm Flak and Anti-tank gun (Still from “88mm Flak kills 6 Shermans – Battle of Rheinland Februar 1945)

   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 right, 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.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1805-12 / Scheck / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Heavy Panzer VI “Tiger I” ‘331’ of the 3rd SS Company, 101st Heavy SS Pz Battalion, in northern France, Spring 1944 (By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1805-12 / Scheck / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

   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.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Pz.-Rgts.-SS-Pz. Div. Lbstd. "Adolf Hitler", erhielt das Eichenlaub am 3.2.44 PK Alber/Scherl
Standartenfuhrer (Lt. Co) Joachim Peiper, commander of the crack 1st SS Panzer Regiment at Goodwood (By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

   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.

Advancing Mark IV Panzer crushing through fence, note the armoured skirts, Schürzen, for added protection (Still from Battlefield-The Battle for Caen)
Advancing  Panzer IV  crushing through fence, note the armored skirts, Schürzen, for added protection (Still from Battlefield-The Battle for Caen)

   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!

Prepare to Ram, Operation Goodwood, Normandy, 18th July 1944 by David Pentland
Prepare to Ram, Operation Goodwood, Normandy, 18th July 1944 by David Pentland

   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.

Cromwell of the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry Reconnaissance Regiment (Still from Operation Goodwood Lectures)

   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 16th Luftwaffe 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.

A young SS grenadier with Mg-42 (Bundes Archive)
A young SS grenadier with Mg-42 (Bundesarchiv)

   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 Hitlerjugend Kampfgruppe 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.

A StuG III in Normandy (World War Two Zone)

   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 7th Armored Division’s 22nd Brigade’s, which was 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.

Typhoons in the 'Falaise Pocket', a dramatic painting by Robert Taylor
Typhoon ground strikes (Painting by Robert Taylor)

   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.

Infantrymen of The South Saskatchewan Regiment during mopping-up operations along the Oranje Canal, Netherlands, April 12, 1945. Photograph by Lieutenant Dan
The South Saskatchewan Regiment Infantrymen (Photo taken along the  Oranje Canal, Netherlands, April 12, 1945. Photograph by Lieutenant Dan Guravich,,

   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

   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.

Canadian Infantry in Normandy 1944

   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.

Caen in ruins (Still from Battlefield, the Battle of Caen, You Tube)
Caen in ruins (Still from Battlefield, the Battle of Caen, You Tube)

   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.

Operation Goodwood is an edited and slightly revised article closely based on Dyck's original article published in World War II Magazine July/August 2004.
Operation Goodwood is an edited and slightly revised article closely based on Dyck’s original article published in World War II Magazine July/August 2004. The article has also been republished by HistoryNet in Nov. 2016.
  1. Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 199.
  2. Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy (London: Collins, 1983) p. 370, 371.
  3. J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World (New York: Granada, 1970) p. 558.
  4.  David Mason, Breakout: drive to the Seine (London: Macdonald & Co. 1968) p. 9.
  5. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy (New York: Dell Publishing, 1998) p. 207, 208.
  6. Ibid, p. 209.
  7. Ibid, p. 215.
  8. Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 196.
  9. Ibid, p. 193
  10. Ibid, p. 193.
  11. Ibid, p. 194
  12. Ibid, p. 197
  13. Ibid, p. 197
  14. Alexander McKee, Caen Anvil of Victory (London: Souvenier Press, 1964) p. 272, 273.
  15. Ibid, p. 272.
  16. Ibid. p. 274.
  17. Ibid. p. 274.
  18. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 220.
  19. Ibid p. 222.
  20. Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy, p. 381
  21. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278
  22. James Lucas, Hitler’s Commanders (Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2014) p. 128.
  23. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278.
  24. Ibid, p. 279.
  25. Ibid, p. 279.
  26. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 226.
  27. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 286.
  28. George C. Blackburn, The Guns of Normandy (Toronto: McClelland & Steward, 1995) p. 184, 185
  29. Ibid, p. 189.
  30. Ibid, p. 189.
  31. Ibid, p. 190, 191
  32. Ibid, p. 192
  33. 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.
  34. 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.


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Caesar’s elite Germanic Cavalry

Caesar’s elite Germanic Cavalry

By Ludwig H. Dyck

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.

Gaius Julius Caesar ( By Euthman - commons-wikimedia)
Gaius Julius Caesar ( By Euthman – commons-wikimedia)

   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. Others hailed from the Usipetes and from the Tencteri, a tribe renowned for its cavalry.

   The Germans first joined Caesar after he had beaten back German tribal intrusions into Gaul in 58 and 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.

Osterby Head, from remains preserved in a bog. Note the typical Suebi knot (Bullenwächter - Own work, commons-.wikimedia.
Osterby Head, from remains preserved in a bog. Note the typical Suebi knot. (Bullenwächter – commons-.wikimedia).

   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.

Germanic tribal warriors-Courtesy of Heritage History, from Soldiers and Sailors, C.F. Horn.
Germanic tribal warriors-Courtesy of Heritage History, from Soldiers and Sailors, C.F. Horn.

   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.

    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.

Reconstruction of the Roman siege fortifications at Alesia (commons-wikimedia)
Reconstruction of the Roman siege fortifications at Alesia (commons-wikimedia)

   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.

Vercingetorix surrenders his arms to Caesar (Lionel Royer - Musée CROZATIER du Puy-en-Velay, Public Domain, commons-wikimedia
Vercingetorix surrenders his arms to Caesar (Lionel Royer – Musée CROZATIER du Puy-en-Velay, Public Domain, commons-wikimedia

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. 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 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.

Caesar's Germanic cavalry is an edited and revised article based on L. Dyck's original article published in Military History July 2005.
Caesar’s Germanic cavalry is an edited and revised article based on L. Dyck’s original article published in Military History July 2005.



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The 1683 Relief Battle of Vienna: Islam at Vienna’s Gates

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights...

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights…

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

For nearly two long months, from July 14 to early September 1683, Vienna endured the siege of a vast Turkish army. The Turkish Serasker (Supreme Commander), Grand Vizier Kara “Black” Mustafa, demanded surrender, but Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, commander of Vienna’s garrison, spat back, “Let him come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.”

   That last drop of blood had almost been reached. Turkish mines and bombardment opened huge gaps in the city walls. Sewage, rubble, and corpses littered the streets and disease ran rampant. After fending off 18 major Turkish assaults, only a third of the originally 11,500-strong garrison remained fit for combat and their munitions were nearly exhausted. Starhemberg knew that Vienna’s defenses were at their end. The city’s only hope was the timely arrival of the anxiously awaited Christian relief army. Without that army, the Turks would pour into the city and wantonly enslave and butcher its inhabitants.

Mustafa’s Fierce Ambition

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights...At least Starhemberg could take heart in knowing that conditions were little better among the enemy. Among the Turks disease was out of control owing to inadequate sanitary facilities, casualties were horrendous, and morale was sagging. Worse still, there were rumors of an immense Christian army approaching from the Vienna Woods. Nonetheless, Mustafa’s confidence in victory remained undiminished.

Mustafa had another reason to press on; he feared the Sultan’s punishment in the event of failure. By laying siege to Vienna, Mustafa disobeyed Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-1687), who intended that Mustafa do little more than capture Imperial frontier fortresses. But such modest aims did not satisfy Mustafa.

   Outwardly handsome, dignified, and a devout Muslim, inwardly the Grand Vizier was an arrogant power monger with an unveiled hatred of Christians. His one redeeming quality was his personal bravery, but even this was tarnished by acts of extreme brutality; he once flayed captured Poles alive and sent their stuffed hides to the Sultan as trophies. Mustafa cared only for his own career and freely used deceit and blackmail to make up for his lack of any real talent. Determined to follow in the footsteps of the great Islamic conquerors of old, Mustafa had set out to overcome the barrier that once before, in 1529, blocked the westward advance of the Ottoman Turks: Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Imperial dynasty, the House of Hapsburg.

Leopold I Pleads for Help

In contrast to the offensive spirit of Mustafa, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1658-1705) cowardly fled his own capital for the safety of Passau. A bookworm and music composer, the pious Leopold wasn’t much of a warrior. But he wasn’t going to abandon his capital to the Turks either and feverishly petitioned the German and Polish nobility to come to Vienna’s aid.

   Leopold’s cries for help did not remain unanswered. By September 7 a mighty army had gathered in the Tulln valley. There was John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania, with 18,000 Poles; the Elector Max Emmanuel of Bavaria with 11,000 men; and Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck with 8,000 Germans from Franconia and Swabia. Prince George of Hanover (the future King George I of England) arrived with a bodyguard of 600 cavalry sent by his father Duke Ernst August of Hanover, and there were 9,000 Saxons led by the Elector of Saxony, John George III von Wettin. Together with Imperial General Lieutenant Duke Charles of Lorraine’s 20,000 Austrians, the allied army numbered over 66,600.

   Many princely volunteers accompanied them, including young Prince Eugene of Savoy. Recently defected from the service of Louis XIV, Eugene brought nothing but his sword and steed. The “Prince volontaire” would be fighting with the Austro-German cavalry.

   With so many prominent nobles, quarrels over command were unavoidable but were resolved through the selflessness of the Duke of Lorraine. Although cursed with a pockmarked face and a limp leg, his proven combat history against both the Turks and the French, his personal courage, humility, and charm gained everyone’s affection and admiration. On Lorraine’s recommendation, Supreme Command was given to Sobieski, King of Poland. Sobieski, who refused to serve under anyone, held the highest rank and had demonstrated his valor and skill by defeating the Turks at Khocizm in 1673. Albeit past his prime and so fat as to be unable to mount his horse without assistance, Sobieski nevertheless retained a sharp mind and, decked out in luxurious garb and armor, still looked the part of a charismatic commander-in-chief.

Lorraine’s Plan to Squeeze the Turks

Sobieski would lead the Poles while Lorraine nominally commanded the Austro-German forces. Beyond this each commander led his own men while adhering to Lorraine’s tactical plan. The idea was to march the army from Tulln through the Vienna Woods to the Kahlenberg heights (“berg” in German means height or mountain). From the heights a broad, sweeping descent would squeeze the Turks against the city, the Danube arm, and the Vienna River. The approach denied the Turks the natural defenses of the aforementioned rivers and, because the allies would emerge from out of the wilderness, they hoped to catch their enemy unprepared.

   By the 10th the main army reached the Weidling Valley on the northwestern side of the Kahlenberg. Colonel Donat Heissler’s vanguard of 600 dragoons had already reached the Kahlenberg heights three days prior, to light fires and alert Vienna of its impending relief. Early in the morning of the 11th, Lorraine sent reinforcements to Heissler, who led his dragoons, musketeers, and a band of Italian volunteers against the Turkish outposts at the Chapel of St. Leopold and the ruined Camuldensian monastery. After routing the Turks from the Christian holy places, Heissler launched signal flares into the night sky. To the defenders on Vienna’s battered walls, Heissler’s fires and flares were like a sign from God that their prayers had finally been answered.

   At 11 in the morning of the 11th, the Austro-German contingent moved into position on the heights, between Leopoldsberg and the Hermannskogel: Lorraine and John George with Imperials and Saxons on the left and Waldeck and Max Emmanuel with Franconians, Bavarians, and Imperials on their right. Both contingents placed their cavalry on their outer flanks. The Poles, meanwhile, were still struggling to cross the Weidlingsbach to form the honorable right wing of the allied army, between Rosskopf and Dreimarkstein.

   Later that day, the princes and generals met on the ridge to behold a panorama of the siege. Below them Turkish siege works and camps surrounded the city, wedged beneath the Vienna River to the south and the Danube arm to the north. A dim haze of smoke rose from the constant artillery barrage, exploding mines, and campfires. More worrisome was the rugged terrain of precipices, ravines, and woodlands that led down from the hills to the plain below.

Angered, Sobieski claimed that the maps sent to him by Imperial commanders had misled him. He expected the terrain to have been far more level and now proposed either a detour to the south or a slow, meticulous advance. These ideas were stoutly overruled by the other generals who decided to continue with Lorraine’s original idea of a full-scale attack from the ridges of the Vienna Woods. Although the terrain was rough it was noted that Mustafa had done very little to fortify his besieging army. Nevertheless, the Polish king did manage to gain the transfer of four Hapsburg infantry battalions to support the Polish cavalry.

   That night Lorraine ordered his general of artillery, Count James Leslie, to place a battery along the edges of the Kahlenberg to provide supportive fire for the main advance. While the artillerymen labored, cries of “Allah” and the incessant artillery bombardment of Vienna robbed many of the Christians of their deserved sleep. Moreover, the previous day’s march had been carried out at great speed in the face of difficult terrain and stormy weather. To lighten the load, many supplies were left behind, leaving the men with empty stomachs and forcing the horses to feed on leaves. Despite these hardships morale remained high.

The Ottomans Await the Christian Attack

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights...Below the Christians, over 70,000 Ottomans and auxiliaries, deployed between the Danube and the Vienna Rivers, awaited the Christian attack, surprise having been passed. Kara Mehmed Pasha, Beylerbeyi of Diyarbakir, with 10,000 troops—including the Bosnian-Rumelians, centered on the Nussberg—made up the right wing. Behind him, on Prater Island, there were a further 5,000 Moldavian and Wallachian reinforcements.

   The bulk of the Turkish center under Ibrahim Pasha, Beylerbeyi of Buda, and Kara Mustafa occupied the fortified ridges above the Döblingerbach and Krottenbach up to Weinhaus. Ibrahim and Mustafa’s forces, made up of cavalry, seymen peasant militia, and janissary infantry, were about 23,000 strong. Beside them, on their left, Abaza Sari Hüseyin Pasha, Beylerbeyi of Damascus, commanded the rest of the central line. His 15,000, mostly cavalry, units covered the Weinhaus-Ottakring-Baumgarten line with smaller detachments deployed in the Schafberg area to slow down and hamper the initial Christian advance. Here the walls and buildings of numerous vineyards provided shelter for the defenders.

   Along the northern bank of the Vienna River, on the left wing near Mariabrunn, stood 18,000 Tartars. “By Allah, the King is really among us,” blurted their Kahn when he discovered that Sobieski himself led the relief army. In a decision opposed by Ibrahim Pasha but approved by the other senior generals, Kara Mustafa decreed that the remaining 15,000 janissaries and provincial troops would continue the siege of Vienna.

The Battle Begins

At 5 am on the 12th, Kara Mehmed’s vanguard opened the battle by attempting to disrupt the deployment of Leslie’s artillery. From his viewpoint at the ruined monastery, Lorraine noticed that an advance of the whole Turkish right accompanied the attack on the battery. In response, Lorraine sent reinforcements to Leslie and ordered the advance of the Austro-German left wing. By sunrise, of what came to be a sunny and clear day, Waldeck and Max Emmanuel also received orders to begin the descent. After informing Sobieski of his actions and gaining his approval, Lorraine hurried off to lead the Austro-Saxon troops pouring down the defiles of the Kahlenberg. The Polish king prepared himself for battle by attending a Mass held in the Chapel of St. Leopold.

   To the Turks it seemed “as if an all consuming flood of black pitch was flowing down the hills” at whose head fluttered proudly a large red flag with a white cross. Lorraine’s main concern was the maintenance of a unified front, a daunting task due to the uneven ground.

   Reinforced by Duke Eugene of Croy’s infantry, the Austrians routed the Turks firing at Leslie’s artillery and together with John George’s Saxons to their right established a line facing the Nussberg-Karpfenwald. Supported by light artillery fire and maintaining an unrelenting barrage of musketry fire, the Austrians slowly but steadily advanced up the Nussberg. Here there was stiffening resistance by the Turks, who skillfully used the cover of the terrain to their advantage. An Imperial regiment that had reached the outskirts of Nussdorf was repulsed, while the Turks still holding Kahlenbergerdorf threatened the Austrian left flank.

   Lorraine ordered Count Caprara to storm Kahlenbergerdorf from the shoulder of the Leopoldsberg. With Heissler in the lead, the dragoons encountered initially heavy resistance but, supported by Prince Jerome Lubomirski’s heavy cavalry, seized Kahlenbergerdorf and advanced beyond it. But Mehmed’s men, now reinforced by seymen, rallied and threw the Christians back to the village. On its outskirts, the Turks fell upon the wounded, beheading the dead and dying.

Church of St. Leopold on the Leopold Berg, east of the Kahlenberg heights (L. Dyck, 2013).
Church of St. Leopold on the Leopold Berg, east of the Kahlenberg heights (L. Dyck, 2013).

   By 10 am the German left wing occupied the rim of the Nussberg. Unfortunately, on their right Waldeck and Max Emmanuel had failed to keep up with Lorraine’s advance. This exposed the right flank of the Saxons, who had veered left from the Karpfenwald to bolster the Austrian attack on the Turkish Nussberg positions. Lorraine called for a halt to allow Waldeck and the second and third Austro-Saxon battle lines to catch up and reestablish a solid front. Joined by John George, Lorraine hurried off to the front line to take personal charge of the German soldiers. Sobieski, meanwhile, left the Chapel to hasten the movement of the Poles who still had not arrived in position south of Waldeck.

   Recognizing the loss of the Nussberg to be a serious threat to their right flank, the Grand Vizier and Ibrahim Pasha mounted a vicious counterattack but were pushed back into the flatter terrain around Grinzig. A second assault proved more successful so that the Imperial infantry began to waver but was saved by the arrival of dragoons and the elite armored cuirassier heavy cavalry. John George and his bodyguard cavalry took part in the action. Wounded in the cheek by an arrow, the Saxon Elector cut down a Syrian lancer. Pursuing their advantage, the Saxons advanced down the Muckental in the direction of Heiligenstadt while the Austrians moved toward Nussdorf.

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights...

The Attack on Nussdorf

Supported by Leslie’s artillery, now deployed on the Nussberg, and Caprara’s advance from Kahlenbergerdorf, Saxon and Imperial dragoons under Margrave Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden and Heissler led the attack on Nussdorf. Entrenched in the village cellars, ditches, and ruined walls, the Turks put up fierce resistance and were only overcome by the arrival of Wilhelm’s uncle, Field Marshal Herman of Baden, leading the Austrian infantry. To the south, Field Marshal von Goltz’s Saxons successfully drove the Turks from Heiligenstadt and Grinzig.

   At noon Lorraine called for another halt to allow his troops to recuperate. The morning’s actions had been a complete success. The whole Turkish right wing of Kara Mehmed was completely overrun or destroyed. The Austro-Saxons now faced Ibrahim Pasha across the Döblingerbach. Waldeck and Max Emmanuel, who had encountered little opposition, reached Ibrahim’s flank across the Krottenbach while Caprara and Lubomirski scattered the Romanians along the Danube.

The Poles Enter the Fray

The Poles finally appeared on the heights after an exhausting march through the rough terrain of the Weidling Valley. In the center, Sobieski with Artillery General Martin Katski descended from the Gränberg. On the left, Fieldhetman Nicolas Sieniawski came down from the Dreimarkstein, and on the right Crownhetman Stanislaw Jablonowski came down from the Rosskopf. Polish infantry and the borrowed Hapsburg battalions screened the descent to allow the establishment of an unbroken cavalry front on the plains below.

   Thorn bushes, grapevines, ditches, hedge-rows and individual gönüllü suicide charges slowed down the Polish advance. Nevertheless, in spite of a spirited defense by Abaza Sari Hüseyin, the Poles, supported by artillery fire, steadily pushed forward. With Sobieski in the lead the Michaelerberg was reached by 2 pm. The Germans, who now came into view, gave off a terrific cheer upon spotting the arrival of their Polish allies.

   Beyond the Michaelerberg, on the slopes of the Schafberg, the Poles were brought to a momentary halt. Ahead of Sieniawski, 1,000 janissaries infiltrated the vineyards behind Plötzleinsdorf, disrupting the junction between Sieniawski and Waldeck’s right wing. The janissaries put up a stout defense but were dislodged with the arrival of Imperial cuirassiers.

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights... Around 4 in the afternoon, Sobieski and Sieniawski reached the level terrain east of the Schafberg. On their right Jablonowski fended off a feeble attack by the Tartars near Mariabrunn. Sobieski now called a halt in order to build a more organized and solid front. Kara Mustafa, aware of the new Polish threat to the Turkish left wing, used the respite to withdraw troops from Ibrahim in order to bolster Hüseyin Pasha.

The Turkish Ranks Remain Unbroken

Sieniawski reopened the battle by sending out a choragiew (standard Polish cavalry unit) of Crown hussars. These crashed through two enemy lines but the 150 or so horsemen were unequal to the task. Forced to retreat they lost a third of their number.

   Falsely anticipating an Ottoman advance the overzealous Sieniawski sent in a second choragiew. Stanislaw Potocki, Starhorst of Halicz, volunteered to lead the charge. Again the Poles broke through the Turkish ranks and again the Turks rallied to close the gap. Stanislaw paid for his bravery with his life; a Turk sliced off the top of the Pole’s head.

   Further units of Polish cavalry now charged the Turks who opened their ranks and then fell upon the Poles from all sides, inflicting heavy casualties and killing several Polish lords, including Andrzej Modrzewski, the Crown Grand Treasurer. The slaughter was followed by an all-out Turkish pursuit, which soon came under fire from the Hapsburg infantry on the Galitzenberg. Reinforcements from Sobieski’s center and the timely arrival of dragoons and cuirassiers from the German right helped stop the Turks in their tracks.

   With the withering of the Turkish assault and Jablonowski occupying the Galitzenberg on the Polish right, Sobieski at last established an unbroken line for the next advance. North of the Poles the Germans had long since recuperated. Despite the heat and the exertions of the morning’s battle, the troopers were so eager to advance that officers were forced to restrain them with the flat of the blade. Facing them was Ibrahim Pasha on the ridges above the Krottenbach-Döblingerbach. The Turkish position was the strongest along the entire front but had been weakened by the dispatches sent to face the Poles.

Ottoman Turkish arsenal, note the famous re-curve, composite bows, Vienna Museum of Military History, L. Dyck.
Ottoman Turkish arsenal, note the famous re-curve, composite bows (Vienna Museum of Military History, L. Dyck, 2013).

The Glorious Charge of the Polish Cavalry

At this critical moment in the battle Lorraine hesitated. Conferring with the Saxon commanders, the duke could not decide whether another war council should be held to decide if the day’s progress was sufficient or whether to continue attacking. To this the venerable von Goltz replied that “God is pointing the way to victory … strike while the iron is still hot.” Pleased with Goltz’s advice, Lorraine shouted “Allons marchons!”

   The attack opened with a terrific barrage of musketry fire from the Christian squares, demoralizing and thinning the Turkish defense. At around 5 pm the Franconians and Bavarians launched an assault on the Türkenschanz, the location of the Holy Banner. Ibrahim Pasha’s entire front now collapsed, opening the way to Vienna. Instead of moving toward the city, however, Lorraine recognized the opportunity to strike at the right flank of Hüseyin Pasha, who was currently getting ready to withstand Sobieski’s all-out advance. Like Lorraine, Sobieski had at first been content with the day’s gains but was persuaded to continue the battle by the aggressive spirit of Sieniawski and the Germans.

   With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj” (Jesus Maria help.”) the whole Polish line rode down upon the Turks. Encased in glittering steel that covered head to thighs, with their tiger and leopard pelts fluttering in the wind and eagles’ wings affixed to their backs, the leading units of hussars presented an almost unearthly spectacle. Armed to the teeth with a 19-foot pennon-tipped kopia lance, a curved and a straight saber, four pistols, and a battle hammer, and mounted on a powerful armored steed, the hussar was the epitome of the Polish cavalier.

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights... Following the hussars were pancerny and kwarciany. Likewise made up of Polish aristocrats, the cavalrymen of the pancerny wore helmets, mailed shirts and shields and wielded short lances, falchions, the handzar dagger, poleaxes, and musketoons or bows. The kwarciany light cavalry of the poor Polish gentry and foreigners wore little armor and brandished short lances, sabers, and the occasional pistol. Leading the whole attack was Sobieski himself, his armor decked out in blue, luxurious semi-Oriental garb, his hand holding the bulawa marshal’s baton. On his side, curved saber in hand, rode 14-year-old Prince Jakób.

   Slowed by vineyards and uneven terrain, the heavy Polish cavalry did not pick up speed until it reached the open terrain of the Baumgarten-Ottakring-Weinhaus area, where it ran into Turkish skirmishers and artillery fire. Turkish guns ripped through the Polish ranks but the charge of the cavaliers proved unstoppable. Like thunder, the shattering of Polish lances resounded over the battlefield as the cavalry overwhelmed the Turkish battle line. Sobieski followed on the heel of his hussars, capturing the Turkish guns while the Turks, demoralized by Lorraine’s advance on their right flank, rallied toward their left wing opposite Jablonowski.

Kara Mustafa Enters the Fray

In the Ottoman center, Kara Mustafa entered the fray personally to prevent the imminent capture of the Holy Banner by Waldeck’s steadily advancing Franconian-Bavarian foot. Flanked by sipâhî and silâhdar, the Grand Vizier charged against a rain of German cannon and musket fire. Mustafa grasped the banner but all around him the Turkish attack crumbled, his men fleeing toward the Vienna River. Simultaneously the Ottoman left wing completely disintegrated as Sobieski led the combined forces against the Turks who had rallied in the Breitensee area.

   Boiling with vengeance, Mustafa ordered the troops in the trenches to stop the bombardment of the city and called for the destruction of equipment and massacre of captives. Mustafa knew the battle was lost but his will to fight remained undiminished. With lance in hand he led his personal bodyguard in a heroic but doomed assault against the Christians. One by one his personal retainers, his private secretary, numerous pages, and his whole Albanian bodyguard fell to the fire and swords of the infidel. Only the argument that his own death would cause the destruction of the remaining Ottoman troops persuaded Mustafa to break off the melee. Seizing the Holy Banner of the Prophet and his private treasure, the Grand Vizier fled the battlefield at around 6 in the evening to lead the retreat back to Györ. Erroneously fearing that the Turks might rally and counterattack, Sobieski forbade a full-scale pursuit and ordered his men to stay on guard.

Detail from painting of 1683 relief battle of Vienna (Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002)
Detail from painting of 1683 relief battle of Vienna (Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002)

Vienna is Relieved

Lorraine’s forces, meanwhile, established contact with Starhemberg, who sallied out of the Schottentor to join the battle. Ludwig Wilhelm of Baden and his dragoons were given the honor of relieving the city. After marching up to the gate to the joyful tune of kettledrums and trumpets, the dragoons joined the defenders in cleaning out the few remaining Turks. At around 10 pm, after a further 600 Muslims were cut down, the battle came to an end. In the Turkish camp, Christian infants and children cringed among hundreds of butchered captives. Starhemberg’s garrison took revenge by burning the 3,000 abandoned Ottoman sick and wounded alive. In all the Turks suffered 15,000 casualties compared to 1,500 for the allies.

   Sobieski ordered the German forces around the Türkenschanz and Jablonowski’s wing on the banks of the Vienna River to remain at guard throughout the night. A few Polish squadrons hunted down Ottoman stragglers beyond the Vienna River. However, Sobieski’s and Sieniawski’s own contingents, located as they were at the Muslim main camp, could not control themselves. Order and discipline broke down as the Poles feverishly pillaged the pick of the Muslim spoils. Instead of chastising his troops, Sobieski acquired the lion’s share of the loot for himself. Within the Grand Vizier’s pavilion, with its lavish courtyards, dining halls, baths, and gardens, the King found heaps of golden and bejeweled treasures.

   On the 13th Sobieski conducted a Roman-style triumphal march into Vienna to the cheers of the populace, who cried, “Long live the king of Poland.” Sobieski’s egotism came as a bad affront to the Austro-Germans. The premature looting of the Poles was bad enough, but Sobieski’s entry into Vienna before the Emperor was an insulting breach of protocol. Lorraine particularly was disgusted by Sobieski’s vanity, which on the 13th prevented an opportune pursuit of the demoralized enemy and allowed Mustafa to carry thousands of Christian children into captivity.

Leopold Returns to Vienna

During the 1683 Battle of Vienna, relief came out of the woods and down from the heights...

On the morning of the 14th the Germans rummaged through whatever loot remained at the Turkish camp. Around noon the electors Max Emmanuel of Bavaria and John George III of Saxony met Emperor Leopold himself at Vienna’s gates. Surveying his devastated capital, Leopold found many of the buildings in ruins, although thankfully the limited range of the Turkish artillery had left much of the interior of the city untouched. Upon hearing the news of Sobieski’s march into the city, Leopold became greatly aggravated. He so lost his nerve that he tactlessly paid little attention to Lorraine’s problems of provisioning the relief force or those of George III who, being a strong Protestant, brought up the matter of Leopold’s mistreatment of the Hungarians. Fed up, John George III marched his troops back to Saxony.

   The next day Leopold rode out to the Polish camp at Schwechat to visit the self-proclaimed savior of Vienna. The meeting began well but deteriorated when Leopold coldly ignored the presence of Sobieski’s son Jakób, whom Sobieski had hoped to marry to Leopold’s daughter. Jakób showed his good nature by taking no offense, but his father, urged on by his anti-Hapsburg Francophile nobles, magnified the incident to such a degree that his relationship with Leopold remained forever strained.

   Nevertheless, Sobieski remained to lead the pursuit of the Turks. At Parkan on the 28th, he and Lorraine annihilated a Turkish corps. With the remaining Turks on the retreat back to Belgrade, the towns that had submitted to the Sultan now reaffirmed their allegiance to the Emperor.

   While the allied victory had strained, rather than cemented, the ties between the Holy Roman Empire and Poland, the rest of Christendom celebrated. In the streets of Vienna and in the cities of Austria and all through Europe there was a feeling of euphoria. It was the greatest victory over the Turks since Don John of Austria’s 1571 victory at Lepanto over the Sultan’s armada. For his heroic defense of the city, Starhemberg was awarded 100,000 crowns, the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the title of field marshal.

Commemoration in honor of John III Sobieski, King of Poland, supreme leader of the allied army, for the relief of Vienna and the saving of Christendom on the 300th day of the year 1683 (St. Joseph Church on the Kahlenberg , L. Dyck, 2013).

A Huge Loss for the Ottomans

The magnitude of the defeat was not lost to Kara Mustafa who sought to escape the Sultan’s vengeance by blaming his defeat on subordinate commanders, executing those that might inform the Sultan of the Grand Vizier’s mishandling of the Ottoman army.

   Mehmed IV remained unconvinced. During the battle, the Christian commanders and troopers fought with skill and courage while, tactically, their attack through the Vienna Woods wisely avoided the natural defenses of the Danube and Vienna Rivers. Nevertheless, their victory was not so much due to any Christian brilliance as it was to Mustafa’s negligence and arrogance. By failing to properly fortify his army from an outside attack and leaving many of his janissary units in the trenches surrounding Vienna, the Grand Vizier sealed the fate of his army.

   Mustafa would pay for his failure. On December 25, 1683, while staying in the palace at Belgrade, the sultan’s emissaries executed the Grand Vizier by strangulation and sent his head to Constantinople.

   The sultan’s anger was not unfounded. A Turkish victory would not have meant the end of free Christendom, because France would have presented a bulwark to further Ottoman expansion. However, Austria was saved and, more importantly, the initiative passed to the Holy Roman Empire. After hundreds of years of warfare the Christians had turned the tide against the sword of Islam. Under Max Emmanuel, Ludwig Wilhelm “Türken Louis” of Baden and above all Lorraine and Prince Eugene of Savoy, the Holy Roman Empire would slowly but surely roll back the Ottoman hold on Eastern Europe.

“Islam at Vienna’s Gates,” Ludwig H. Dyck’s account of the 1683 battle for Vienna,  a battle on which hinged the fate of Europe,  was originally published in Military Heritage Magazine, October 2002. In Nov. 2015 the article was re-published online at Military History Network. The version above contains additional images and minor editorial changes by the author.

Military Heritage Magazine June 2002, featuring "Islam at Vienna's Gates" by Ludwig H. Dyck
Military Heritage Magazine October 2002, featuring “Islam at Vienna’s Gates” by Ludwig H. Dyck

Stuka Pilot sinks Battleship

Stuka Pilot Ulrich Rudel sinks the Soviet Battleship Marat

By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Colonel Ulrich Rudel, the most decorated serviceman of the Third Reich (Wikipedia, non-free media-via fair use)

The 20-year-old Silesian pastor’s son, Ulrich Rudel began his pilot training for the German Luftwaffe in 1936. Rudel volunteered for the new dive-bombing Stuka formations but started off as only an average pilot. His clean living, exercise and tea-toddling, further ostracized him from the hard-partying pilot culture. No one at the time, could have imagined the extraordinary combat career that lay ahead of the odd-ball Rudel.

   With Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Soviet Russia on June 22, 1941, Rudel was finally given a chance to show his mettle. By this time, Rudel’s flying skills and gunnery had improved greatly. Rudel was in the air from 3 am to as late as 10 pm,  supporting the advance of Army Group Center into Belorussia.

   In September 1941, Rudel’s Stukageschwader 2, the “Immelmann” Wing, joined Army Group North’s siege of Leningrad. It was here that Rudel would leave his first mark in military history. The Stukas’ targets included the Soviet battleships, cruisers and destroyers, which laid down devastating support fire for the defenders of the city. The fleet was based out of the island of Kronstadt, 12.5 miles from the harbor of Leningrad in the Gulf of Finland.

By Неизвестен. - Архив фотографий кораблей русского и советского ВМФ., Public Domain,
The Marat Soviet Battleship, By Неизвестен. – Архив фотографий кораблей русского и советского ВМФ., Public Domain, Wikimedia commons

   When on the 16th reconnaissance spotted the battleship Marat in open water, the whole Stuka wing, some thirty aircraft, were ordered to attack in the foulest weather. With anti-aircraft fire bursting “like the clap of doomsday,”¹ the Marat appeared through a gap in the clouds. Rudel followed Hauptman Ernst Steen into the attack. Steen’s bomb was a near miss; Rudel’s was dead on. His thousand pound bomb hit the deck which erupted in flames. AA fire followed Rudel’s Stuka back into the clouds. Later it is confirmed that the Marat survived, lying in repair in heavily defended Kronstadt harbor. Rudel saw red.

   Braving a gauntlet of enemy fighters and ultra heavy AA, Rudel followed Steen into the another attack on September 22nd. This time Rudel dove to within 900 feet. Rudel was so absorbed with hitting his target that he forgot that the new 2000 pound bomb he released had a fragmentation effect of 3000 feet!

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-646-5188-17 / Opitz / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Stukas over the Eastern Front-Bundesarchiv, Bild,wikimedia-commons

“The ship is centered plumb in the middle of my sights. My Ju 87 keeps perfectly steady as I dive; she does not serve an inch. I have a feeling that to miss is now impossible. Then I see the Marat large as life in front of me. Sailors are running across the deck, carrying ammunition. Now I press the bomb release switch on my stick and pull with all my strength.”²

Rudel momentarily blacked out, tugging at his stick. He regained consciousness at the sound of his  rear-gunner Scharnovski’s voice, “she is blowing up, sir.”³ As Rudel’s Stuka skimmed ten feet above the water, he thought of the “thousands of grateful infantrymen.”4

   Rudel continued his sorties over the Gulf of Finland, adding a cruiser to a prior destroyer and the battleship Marat. He nearly added a second battleship but his 2000 pounder failed to explode on target.  Rudel’s sinking of the Mara was only one of his many exploits that would make him a legend in military history.  During his 2530 combat missions, unmatched by any pilot, Rudel destroyed 547 tanks and 2,000 ground targets. Field Marshall Schörner did not exaggerate much when he praised Rudel as being “worth an entire division.”5

1,2,3,4 Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot (London: Black House Publishing, 2012), p. 35,5 Gorden Williamson, Knights’ Cross with Diamonds Recipients (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006), p. 27.