In the 16th century a little-known naval genius helped fend-off a Japanese conquest by use of a unique and effective weapon of war: the Turtle Ship!

In the last decade of the 16th century, the ambitious and capable warlord of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi conceived a plan to invade Ming China, a doddering empire, and to place the Japanese Mikado upon the Celestial Throne in Beijing. As a springboard to this, Hideyoshi planned to first conquer Korea; which stood between the two powers and acted as a stepping-stone.

The Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98) were extremely well prepared, enormous undertakings. In two waves, 300,000 fierce, battle-hardened Samurai warriors and supporting foot soldiers (Ashigaru) crossed the intervening Tsushima Strait and fought their way up the Korean peninsula. Initially the Japanese made great progress, defeating the Korean defenders at every encounter.

1442937.jpgThe Japanese had three advantages in this war. First, their Samurai were among history’s greatest warriors. Superbly trained and disciplined, they were possessed of an indomitable fighting spirit that knew no surrender. They wielded matchless swords and other bladed weapons, of a quality and cutting-power never equaled. Both on foot and as cavalry, man-for-man the Samurai had no equal. The second advantage Hideyoshi’s forces enjoyed was the widespread use (and expertise with) the matchlock arquebus. These had come into use in Japan through contact with the Portuguese; and during the last decades of the Sengoku Period had become a decisive weapon on the battlefield. The final advantage the Japanese armies enjoyed was the vast experience in war gained by a century of civil war: the Japanese troops were all veterans of numerous campaigns and battles; whose tactics were battle tested.

To counter this, the Korean defenders had a decisive weapon of their own: the Turtle Ship!

Developed and deployed by Korea’s brilliant admiral, Yi Sun-sin, the Turtle Ship (known among the Koreans as Geobukseon) was a coastal defense galley; but one possessed of some unique features. First, it was a ship whose sides and deck were covered-over; to protect the crew from missile bombardment. The roof, shaped vaguely like the shell of a turtle, was also covered with spikes to counter the Japanese’s favorite naval tactic: to board and clear enemy ships with their ferocious Samurai. It is also possible (though disputed) that the Turtle Ships were plated with iron, hexagonal plates; at least on the roof. The earliest (contemporary) accounts, including Admiral Yi’s own documents, don’t mention iron plating. However, if they indeed did possess metal armor it would make them history’s first “iron clad” warship.

These were not perfect warships, however. For one thing, they were unsuited for open water navigation; being essentially an armored barge. Their top speed was limited by their “boxy” design, which made them handle badly in strong winds. These were ships designed for a specific purpose: to navigate inter-coastal waterways and interdict enemy shipping.

1442898.jpg(Artwork from “Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

The Turtle Ship’s prime armament was some 26 cannons, of various (usually small) calibers. This gave them a stand-off capability more lethal than the archery or arquebus fire of the marines who manned the Japanese ships they opposed (which were not armed with cannon; a weapon the Japanese failed to adopt). Powered by oars, they were not subject to the vagaries of the wind (though when not in battle their propulsion was enhanced by two sails). This, combined with their design, allowed them to turn on their own radius; making them much more maneuverable than the great lumbering Junks of the Japanese.

Along with cannon, the Turtle Ships were also armed with a smoke emitting device, that produced noxious sulfurous smoke from its dragon-headed prow. This may have served to irritate the eyes of the Japanese archers and arquebusiers.

1606486.jpg(Artwork from “Fighting Ships of the Far East (2)” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Turtle ships were first used in the Battle of Sacheon (1592) and proved decisive in nearly every battle. At nearly every encounter, they were able to sink their enemies with cannon fire at close range. Their seaborne supply line cut by Yi’s squadrons, the entire Japanese invasion was nearly brought to a halt by the Turtle Ships.

However, after Yi was relieved of command, the Korean fleet was put in the hands of a court favorite and all of the Turtle ships were lost in the disastrous Battle of Chilchonryang. They may have reappeared in small numbers at the Battle of Noryang in 1598, where Admiral Yi was killed.

1442920.jpg Death of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin(Artwork from The “Samurai Invasion of Korea 1592–98” by Stephen Turnbull © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)

Though they didn’t stop the Japanese invasions by themselves (these only ended with the death of Hideyoshi that same year), the Turtle Ships gave the Koreans naval dominance and the ability to hamstring an otherwise unstoppable invasion. They occupy a unique and fascinating niche in naval history.

1442921.jpg Below deck


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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No man in his day evinced more terror than did Temūr-i Lang, known to western history as Tamerlane. His conquests left nothing but destruction in their wake, and pyramids of skulls to mark his path. But in the second year of the 15th century, a rival warlord with a military reputation almost as fearful marched against him. He was the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I, called by contemporaries “The Thunderbolt”. Their meeting in battle would be a veritable clash of titans!

 Some 30 miles from the heart of modern Ankara lies the farming plain of Çubuk. Well-watered by the local reservoir, it is known for its cherries and pickled cucumbers. But at the dawn of the 15th century this once arid plain played host to a mighty battle, fought between two of the most powerful rulers of the age. Here one of history’s great conquerors, Tamerlane, the red-handed heir to the legacy of Genghis Khan led his Turco-Mongol horde against a new and rising empire that would, in its time, be nearly as powerful as that of the Great Khans: the Ottoman Turks.


The vast Mongol Empire built by Genghis Khan and his successors began to fragment in the last decades of the 13th century, and from it emerged four independent and rival khanates: the Golden Horde to the northwest of the Caspian Sea; the Chagatai Khanate in central Asia; the Il-khanate ruling Persia and much of the Near East; and the Yuan Dynasty of China and the Mongol homeland, whose khan continued to bear the now empty title of Khagan, or “Khan of Khans”.

It was in the second of these Mongol successor states that Timur was born. His clan, the Barlas, traced its lineage to one of Chagatai Khan’s regimental commanders. It dwelt in the region around Kesh (modern Shahrisabz, Uzbekistan). By the time Timur was born, in 1336, the Mongolian Barlas had become heavily turkified, and were a powerful force in the declining Chagatai state. His father, a clan noble, gave him the name Timur, meaning “iron”.

This was a time of shifting power as the descendants of Chagatai faded into insignificance. Timur learned the arts of skirmish warfare while still but a boy, leading a small band of followers against rivals and enemies. During a raid he was wounded by an arrow in the leg that left him with a permanent limp. From this he came to be called Timūr(-i) Lang (Timur the lame), from which comes the name by which he is best known, Tamerlane.

By the age of 25 he had become a leading warlord in the region, leading an army of Mongol-Turkic freebooters drawn to his success and charisma. When his father died, he became head of the Barlas as well, adding to his power. In 1370 he married a descendant of Genghis Khan and solidified his position as de facto master of the Chagatai horde; though since he was not of the blood of Genghis he continued to rule through a puppet ruler from the House of Chagatai. Timur ever presented himself as the protector of the legacy of Genghis Khan, styling himself as “Amir” or general of the House of Chagatai. As both he and his army were largely Muslims, he also claimed to act as the sword of Islam and defender of the faithful.

In these capacities Timur conducted campaigns far beyond his Central Asian power base, to reunite the empire of Genghis Khan or to punish those who refused to recognize his role. Over the next 35 years he campaigned ceaselessly, his expeditions taking him from the plains of Russia (where he destroyed the Golden Horde in all but name) to the Ganges River, where he defeated the Sultan of Delhi and left that city a smoking ruin. A 100,000 prisoners were executed there, and their heads were stacked into vast pyramids to decorate the ruins!

Enemies of Timur gaze upon a column of skull left in the conqueror’s wake 

Timur conquered all of Persia and Mesopotamia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; and in 1400 invaded Syria where he sacked Damascus. 20,000 inhabitants were slaughtered, the women of the city given to his warriors or sold into slavery, while the skilled artisans and artists were deported to his capital, Samarkand. He also destroyed the  Umayyad Mosque, giving out that he did this to avenge the killing of Hasan ibn Ali by Umayyad caliph Muawiyah I and the murder of Husayn ibn Ali by Yazid I, events in Islam’s early years.

His raids against the Turcoman tribes of eastern Anatolia brought him into conflict with the rising power of the Ottoman Turks. Here he faced a warlord as ruthless as himself: Bayezid “the Thunderbolt”!


According to their own traditions the Ottoman Turks originated in Central Asia, a Turcoman tribe called the Kayi. In the 13th century they fled their homeland to escape the coming of the Mongols under Genghis Khan. There they were granted lands by the Seljuk Sultans of Anatolia, bordering the crumbling Byzantine Empire in the west, in the region known in ancient times as Bithynia.[1]

They tribe took its name, Ottoman, from the dynasty founded by its second ruler, Osman (sometimes transliterated as Othman). From the beginning, the Ottomans were a ghazi state, existing on the border between Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Turkish realms of Anatolia. Its purpose was always to engage in raid and harassment of the “infidel”, waging perpetual holy war.   In 1302 Osman Bey led the Ottoman Turks to their first great victory, over the Byzantines at the Battle of Bapheus, leading to the loss of their final hold on western Anatolia. For the next century-and-a-half, the Ottomans would continue expanding north and westward at Byzantine expense; eventually devouring and replacing that once great empire.

Ottoman troops,  first-half of 14th century

In 1354 the Ottomans captured the fortress of Gallipoli after an earthquake damaged the walls; giving the Turks a foothold for the first time in Europe. From here they expanded gradually throughout the southern Balkans. During this time the Byzantines were engaged in civil war, and beset by Turk and by the predatory Italian maritime states of Venice and Genoa as well. Throughout the period the Byzantines, their Italian rivals, and other Balkans powers negotiated temporary alliances with the Turks against their Christian enemies; allowing the Ottomans to play one-off against the other, and expanding their holding all the while.

The Ottoman dynasty was blessed with having a succession of capable and warlike leaders. By the accession of the fourth Ottoman ruler, now styled Sultan, their empire straddled Europe and Asia, and surrounded the Byzantine capital, Constantinople; now an isolated Christian island in a Muslim sea. Bulgaria had been conquered, Serbia reduced to vassalage, and the long conquest of Greece to the south and Bosnia to the north underway.

This fourth Sultan, Bayezid I came to the Ottoman throne following the death of his capable father, Murad I at the bloody Battle of Kossovo in 1389. There, as the battle was coming to a close and both armies had fought each other to exhaustion and virtual annihilation, a Serbian knight, brought before the Sultan, pulled a hidden dagger and killed Murad before being cut to pieces by his bodyguards. Bayezid, already a proven captain and having earned the nickname “the Thunderbolt”, quickly consolidated his hold on his slain father’s throne by having his brother strangled. The following year he consoled the defeated Serbs by marrying their princess, Olivera Despina, and recognizing her brother, Stefan Lazarević, as his vassal-ruler of Serbia.

That same year he used his Serbian vassals and other troops from his Balkan domains to campaign in Anatolia; where he expanded Ottoman dominion over several minor Muslim beyliks. By the end of 1390 the Thunderbolt had crushed a coalition of Anatolian amirs that had gathered against him; and spent the following year consolidating Ottoman rule along the Black Sea coast. Never restful, he now turned his attention back to the Balkans, where over the next four years he campaigned in northern Greece and along the Danube. His attempt to cross the river and invade Wallachia was repulsed, however, at the Battle of Rovine; the first defeat of his career.

In 1394 Bayezid set his sights upon Constantinople, capital of the fading Byzantine state and long the greatest city in “Christendom”. The Emperors of the city had become vassals of the Ottomans during the reign of his father. But Bayezid was not content to have their submission. He wanted their fabled city, for the crescent of Islam to wave over the holy city of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He began the siege by repudiating the Byzantine’s vassalage, and put the city under a loose blockade. The year before he had begun construction of a castle across the Bosporus from the city, the Anadoluhisarı, at the narrowest point between Europe and Asia. This castle, completed in 1394, constricted (though did not fully impede) seaborne supplies to the city.

Anadoluhisari (Anatolian Castle) sits beside the Bosporus, a reminder of Bayezid’s blockade of Constantinople in 1394-1402

With the great city under siege, Bayezid announced that he would be marching into Hungary to lay waste that kingdom by the following May (1396). Were Hungary to fall, central Europe would be open to Ottoman devastation.

The steady Ottoman advance in the Balkans had not gone unnoticed in the west. Though the militant religious spirit that had inspired the Crusades had largely dissipated, the growing Ottoman threat and pleas from the beleaguered Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus led Pope Boniface IX to call a new Crusade against the Turks.

The call to arms was accepted enthusiastically in France, where the 100 Years War had come to a (temporary) halt.  John, Count of Nevers (later Duke John the Fearless) the 24-year-old eldest son of the Duke of Burgundy, was the nominal commander of a powerful body of French knights and foot soldiers, who marched east to join King Sigismund of Hungary[2] at Buda. The Crusader army that gathered there numbered between 15-20,000 men, and included contingents Hungary, Croatia, Wallachia, Germany, a number of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, as well as the French/Burgundian forces.

However, there was division in the Crusader command, with the arrogant French maintaining an independence from the other contingents, and only grudgingly accepting the authority Sigismund, if at all. Besieging Turkish held Nicopolis in September, they were surprised when Bayezid’s army arrived suddenly, having marched rapidly from Adrianople.  At a hasty council of war the French demanded “pride-of-place” and to be assigned as the vanguard, first to strike a blow against the enemy; instead of allowing the Wallachian infantry archers to clear the Turkish skirmishers out of their way.

On the morning of September 25 the two armies met on the field of Nicopolis. For the Crusaders it was a crushing disaster. Any chance of victory was thrown away when the foolishly brave French knights charged the Sultan’s forces without waiting for support from the rest of their army. Though they managed to cut their way through two lines of Turkish troops, by the time they reached Bayezid’s reserves they were exhausted. A counter-attack by the Sultan’s heavy cavalry sipahis, and his personal horse guards surrounded the French and forced their surrender.

The rest of the Crusader army, coming up and seeing the elite French vanguard defeated, lost heart and withdrew from the field, hardly striking a blow. Sigismund along with the German contingent and the Knights of St. John attempted to fight a rearguard action, but were routed by the Sultan’s Serbian allies (commanded by his brother-in-law Stefan Lazarević).

After the battle, Bayezid spared only the highest ranking captives, who could pay a hefty ransom for their freedom; and those under 20 years old, who were sold into captivity[3]. Thousands of others were marched naked before the Sultan’s throne, erected in front of his pavilion, and beheaded or dismembered.

The defeat of the Crusade seemed to spell the end for Constantinople and the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire. It also ended any chance of expelling the Turks from the Balkans and from Europe. Tightening the blockade of the city, he waited for it to eventually surrender while he consolidated his hold over the southern Balkans. Nothing seemed to stand in Bayezid’s way.

Then, relief came to Constantinople from an unexpected source: in the summer of 1402 Timur came out of the east, with his veteran army of 140,000 hardened Turco-Mongol freebooters, and invaded Anatolia.

Breaking off the blockade of the city, “the Thunderbolt” marched rapidly east to meet this challenge.


With Timur pushing west and the Ottomans extending their authority into central and eastern Anatolia, it was only a matter of time till the interests of the two empires clashed. Perhaps it is inevitable that the two bullies on the block will eventually have to fight it out to see who is the toughest. On 20 July, 1402 arguably the two most feared powers in the world met to decide which leader would be paramount in the Middle East and the Islamic World. There was no room for two “commanders of the faithful”.

Bayezid marched east with some 85,000 troops.[4] These were a mixed lot of irregular Muslim Ghazis;  feudal Ottoman sipahi cavalry; the professional soldiers of the Kapikulu, the Sultan’s household troops, both   infantry Janissaries and cavalry Sipahis; the  mixed infantry and horse provided by his Anatolian Muslim vassals; and a strong contingent of Serbian knights led by his brother-in-law,  Stefan Lazarević. A quarter of Bayezid’s army were Tatars, vassals of the Turks from the Crimean region. Though once enemies of Timur, they had more in common with him than their new Ottoman masters.  (For detailed organization of the Ottoman army, go here.)

Artist’s rendering of various Ottoman troop types. Top: Feudal sipahis (l), Akinji light horse (r). Center: Ottoman infantry. Balkans infantry (l), Janissary (c), and N. African pirate (15th century). Bottom:  Anatolian troops. (l) Christian “Yaya” soldier, (c) elite sipahi, (r) Kapikulu (Janissary?) armored infantry

His advisers recommended he let Timur come to him, and meet him in the hills of northwestern Anatolia, where terrain was less favorable to a cavalry army such as the Timurids. But “the Thunderbolt”, in characteristic fashion, disregarded this counsel and marched into the hot Anatolian central plateau to find his enemy.

At Ankara Bayezid set up a well watered and provisioned camp to the northwest, on the Çubuk plain.  But on hearing that Timur’s army was pulling back to the east, Bayezid again disregarded his officer’s advice to stay there where water could be found. Instead he set off after his foe, a foolish endeavor as much of his forces were infantry while the Timurids were all cavalry. This led to an  8-day wild goose-chase, with Timur’s rapidly maneuvering horsemen eventually slipping around the Turkish flank far to the south. Coming back north,  Timur managed to cut Bayezid off from Ankara, which Timur placed under siege. Worse, he captured the Sultan’s well-laden camp, where he waited for the Turks to return.

As Bayezid thirsty troops backtracked towards Ankara, losing some 5,000 men along the way to heat, they found Timur’s army waiting for then on the plain of Çubuk. With his own army well-situated where water was easily had, Timur dammed-off the stream that ran though the plain, and  had sent out riders to poison the other water sources on the Turkish side of the field. It would be a hot, thirsty day for the tired Ottoman army.


Artist’s images of Timurid warriors

Timur’s army was mostly composed of Turco-Mongolian light cavalry, armed with the same powerful composite bow as their Turkish enemies. This could send a light arrow flying up to 400 meters in the right conditions. The Timurids also had a large number of heavy cavalry, with both man-and-horse fully armored in the Central Asian fashion (though even the Timurid light cavalry wore some armor). From his Indian campaign Timur had also brought back some 32 war elephants, a fearsome weapon the Ottoman troops had never faced.

Timur’s forces were arrayed in a four divisions, each with its own van and reserve: a vanguard commanded by his grandsons; the right and left commanded by his sons Miran and Rukh, respectively; and a reserve behind the center, where he commanded in person, composed of his elite guards. A larger reserve of light horsemen was further back still, screening the way to Ankara and both preventing a force from breaking through to the city or the garrison sallying out to aid the Sultan. The elephants were arrayed across the center.

Bayezid drew up his army with high ground protecting his rear. Across his center he placed the Janissary and Azab infantry, mostly archers though with some heavier-equipped troops. These were backed up by the Kapikulu Sipahis (the household cavalry, literally “Sipahis of the Porte”). Here Bazezid took personal command. On his left he placed the Rumeli (European troops from the southern Balkans), the best of which were 5,000 heavily armored Serbian cavalry, wearing “black armor” (almost certainly blackened plate) commanded by the reliable  Stefan Lazarević.

Bayezid’s Serbian contingent proved both the most effective and loyal of all his forces

The Turkish right was commanded by Bayezid’s son, Suleiman, and was composed of the army of Anatolia.  Much of this force was the contingents of recently subjugated Anatolian beyliks. These were backed, in turn, by a force of Tartars from the Crimea. In reserve behind the center were more sipahi heavy cavalry.

The battle began at 10 a.m. with the Ottomans advancing both their wings, supported by a cacophony of kettle drums and cymbals, as was their custom. Timur’s forces awaited their advance in silence. On the Turkish right Suleiman’s attack was met with a concentrated barrage of arrow and naphtha fire, the Timurid horsemen slinging balls of this combustible material into the Turkish ranks. Thrown into disorder, the Turks were then counter attacked by Timur’s horsemen. At this moment, the Tartars and many of the Anatolian Beys switched sides, joining Timur against their former master.

On the opposite flank, Timur concentrated his reserves, including the elite Samarkand division and his guards, and broke the Rumeli (Balkans) division as well, except for the Serbs; who repeatedly charged through the Turco-Mongol ranks and back again, “fighting like lions” and gaining Timur’s respect. Three times they cut their way through the tightening noose of Turco-Mongol cavalry. Stefan begged the Sultan to allow him to escort him from the field, but Bayezid refused to withdraw. Finally the Serbs were cut off from the Sultan and were forced to withdraw or be destroyed.

With both of the Turkish cavalry wings routed, Timur now advanced his center of 80 regiments (or minghan)[5] led by the armored war elephants, trumpeting loudly as they thundered forward, against the Janissaries and other Turkish infantry.  Exhausted by heat and thirst, the usually steady Janissaries were overwhelmed by this assault, most perishing or being captured.

The fate of Bayezid is given differently in the accounts. According to Schiltberger, a German who began the battle in Turkish service, was captured and subsequently rode under Timur, the Sultan made a stand with 1,000 horsemen of his guard. Doukas, a Greek chronicler, says that it was among the Janissaries that Bayezid fought on. Finally, the Sultan fled with a few remaining guards, only to be hunted down and captured when his horse stumbled and collapsed.

The Turkish army left 40,000 men dead on the field, the Timurids another 10,000. Proportionately, the Ottomans may have lost as much as half their force, and this from those most loyal to the dynasty.


After the battle Timur moved west, with the captive Bayezid in tow,  ravaging Western Anatolia. As a sign of his commitment to fighting the enemies of the faith, he stormed Smyrna, a stronghold of the Knights of St. John. Then, word reached him that an old enemy had taken Baghdad behind his back, and his army turned east again, leaving Anatolia for good.

Timur would recapture Baghdad and, after settling affairs in Northern Iran, return to Samarkand in triumph. He died in 1405 on the way to the conquest of Ming China.

“The Thunderbolt” died in captivity, predeceasing  Timur by two years. A legend grew up that Timur kept him in an iron cage, but this has been dismissed as mythology. But he did remain a prisoner of his enemy till his death, a sad end to the career of this world-shaker.

Timur visiting Bayezid in captivity

Ankara (or Angora as it was known by contemporaries in the west) was a nearly fatal disaster for the fledgling Ottoman Empire. The sons of Bayezid turned upon each other, fighting for the throne for the next 11 years. Only divisions and distractions among the Christian powers in the west prevented them taking advantage of this great opportunity to throw the Turks out of Europe forever. (The short-sighted Genoese and Venetians even helped Turkish survivors of Angora escape across the Bosporus into Europe, using their ships to ferry these forces.)

One Christian prince who did take advantage of the Ottoman’s subsequent weakness was Stefan Lazarević of Serbia. Retreating through Byzantine territory after the battle, where he was well received. Throwing off his allegience to the Turks, he formed a relationship with the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor John VII Palaiologos awarding him the very high title of Despot. Thereafter, till his death in 1427 he ruled an independent Serbia, fought the Turks to a standstill, and ultimately became a close ally of Hungary in defending Christendom’s southeastern borders from the Turks.

Despite losing the Battle of Ankara, the Ottoman state survived and ultimately prospered, becoming one of the great “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th century. The empire Timur forged with blood faded after his death, leaving nothing but a legacy of destruction and skulls.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


  1. During the Byzantine Empire, Bithynia was part of the Opsikion Theme.
  2. Later Holy Roman Emperor, most famous for inciting and prosecuting (unsuccessfully) the Hussite Wars.
  3. One such captive, 15 year old Johan “Hans” Schiltberger spent the next 30 years as a slave-soldier of first the Turks, then of Timur, and later in Tatar Russia before escaping to freedom and return to Germany.
  4. Numbers of combatants for both sides differ wildly according to the source. In some accounts Bayezid out numbered Timur by as much as half-again; in others the reverse is true. Numbers do not seem to have played a great part in the outcome, so are somewhat irrelevant.
  5. In the Timurid army the binlik or minghan was a 1,000 man regiment. That Timur had 80,000 men in his center at this point in the battle seems high. But it is here that our lack of certainty of the exact numbers involved betrays us.
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Examining the life and generalship of “the noblest Roman of them all”

This is the next installment in a series of posts in which we examine the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusually, we do this in video format; posting compelling biographical material; as well as images and a brief narrative.

Few great generals are better known than Julius Caesar. As the only Great Captain of antiquity to write his own campaign memoirs, both the general public of his day and history students today know of his exploits in more (albeit somewhat subjective) details than is the case with any of his fellow great commanders. This is deliberate: Caesar was not only a great general, he was also a very gifted politician and statesman.

1589795.jpgBorn in 100 BC, he was the nephew by marriage of another commander of great ability, Gaius Marius. His family was a poor branch of the Julii, a venerable patrician family claiming descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, the man who supposedly brought the survivors of Troy to Latium. Aeneas was, in legend, the son of the goddess Venus and Caesar certainly behaved as though he was descended from the goddess of love, always cutting a swath through the ladies of Rome (and elsewhere).

Caesar spent the first half of his life struggling to find financial security and to carve out a place for himself in the rough-and-tumble politics of his day. As the heir to Marius’ place as political champion of the plebeians and military veterans, Caesar built a strong connection with the “people”; who remained loyal to him till the end of his life. He used this political strength with the voters to win election to one political office after another; climbing the ladder known in Roman society as the cursus honorum. But because by Roman law he could not get an opportunity to show his metal as a general until reaching the appropriate age and standing for those offices which granted the recipient military command. It was not till he was 39 that he received his first independent command. This was as propraetor of Hispania Ulterior. This gave him the opportunity to campaign against the Lusitanians; in which he began to exhibit his gift for command.

He forged a strong alliance with two of the leading men in the Rome of his day: Pompey the Great, Rome’s most respected military leader; and Marcus Licinius Crassus, its leading financier and business leader. Between them, this Triumvirate controlled Roman politics and were able to effectively advance each other’s interests. Caesar was able to win election as Consul in 59 BC, and from there to be appointed governor of the Roman territories abutting Gaul.

Gaul was a semi-barbarous land of Celtic tribes (and some German enclaves in the east), comprised of the modern nations of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Caesar spent the next eight years in continuous campaigns, subduing the territory and creating a loyal and experienced army of 10 legions, a very substantial force. He also spent some of his time composing a narrative of these Gallic Wars, in the form of his “Commentaries”. These became a powerful propaganda tool, sent back in real-time, chapter-by-chapter as the events occurred, to enthrall and delight the Roman people; casting himself in the popular imagination as the hero of the day. Though self-serving, there is no reason to doubt that these very-well written “Commentaries” were accurate; many of the officers who served under him in Gaul later opposed him politically. None (that we know of) ever cast doubt as to the veracity of the narrative, despite having compelling political reasons to do so. What cannot be disputed is that Caesar’s Gallic Wars added a huge chunk of territory to the empire, and proved his ability to command armies in the field and his mastery of strategy.

1589796.jpgIn 54 BC Crassus, in an effort to win as much military glory as his co-Triumvir, Caesar, was killed while campaigning against the Parthians at Carrhae. The Triumvirate was thus reduced to two. After the death of his wife, who was also Caesar’s daughter, Pompey was wooed-away from Caesar by his enemies in the Senate. Civil war followed in 49 BC.

This war between Caesar and the Pompeian forces lasted for four years. During this time, Caesar campaigned from Italy to Spain; from Greece to Egypt; from Anatolia to North Africa. In the process he defeated not only his Roman rivals; but intervened in a Civil war in Ptolemaic Egypt, establishing Cleopatra on the throne and defeating the forces supporting her brother, the boy-king Ptolemy XIII. Leaving the young Cleopatra to bear their son, Caesarion, he next marched against and defeated the Pontians in Anatolia (a brief campaign succinctly summed-up with the words, “Veni, vidi, vici“: “I came, I saw, I conquered”) before returning to Rome in triumph.

Caesar was only in Rome briefly, settling affairs in Rome and quelling a mutiny among some of his legions. Then he departed again to campaign in North Africa against the remaining Pompeian forces; culminating in his triumph at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC. He would defeat the last Pompeian army in Spain at Munda a year later. This brought Caesar’s military exploits to an end; and he continued to rule Rome as Dictator till his assassination in 44 BC. In the process, he laid the groundwork for the Principate established by his nephew, Octavius Caesar Augustus in the years that followed.

1589797.jpgCaesar was a man of genius: brilliant general as well as politician, lawgiver, builder, and administrator. His charisma inspired devotion in his army seldom matched in history, a deep loyalty that lasted beyond his life, and was passed to his heir, Octavian; and it is fair to say that the magic of the name “Caesar” attached itself permanently to the office of the princeps  and imperator (to the point that “Caesar” became a title equivalent with that of emperor, the origin of the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser”).

While not as tactically imaginative on the battlefield as either Alexander or Hannibal (he was often content to rely upon the superb fighting qualities of his soldiers, who were always far superior to any foe they faced) he stands with these as among the greatest commanders in all military history. He was without doubt the most audacious commander of the ancient world. Though several times caught off guard by his enemies, he never failed to respond with cool judgement, clear decision, and rapidity of action to any contingency. He routinely seized the initiative from opponents through bold maneuver, and once he had them off-balance he seldom failed to move in for the kill. Like Alexander, he was a master of the art of siege warfare, and his massive field works at Alesia are still studied by military schools today.


This is the first of three parts, found on YouTube

If you enjoyed this, check out the other installments in our series on “Great Captains of War”:

Great Captains: Alexander the Great


Great Captains: Hannibal Barca



Great Captains: Frederick the Great



Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.

(To read Part Three, go here. To start from the beginning, go to Part One)

As part of Von Manstein’s Donetz Campaign, the SS Panzer Korps played a decisive role in the maneuver battles that had destroyed the advancing Soviet armored spearheads pushing deep into German-controlled Ukraine, following the fall of Stalingrad. Disobeying orders, the Waffen had then stormed Kharkov in March 1943, recapturing the city they had been forced to retreat from a month earlier in a well-executed and courageously conducted street battle. “General Mud” in April had brought the German counter-offensive to a halt, leaving a Soviet salient, centered on Kursk, bulging into their lines. It was decided by Hitler’s OKW that a summer offensive would be conducted to eliminate this bulge and straighten out the German lines in the east.

1430307.jpgMeanwhile, as the SS Panzer Korps was resting and refitting for the battles to come, other Waffen formations were engaged in one of the darkest incidents in German military history: the April ’43 destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

This battle began when the Jews concentrated in the Warsaw Ghetto rose in armed resistance to the Nazis attempt to “liquidate” the Ghetto and deport the residence to the Treblinka extermination camp. From 19 April to 16 May 1943, the Jewish resistance battled heroically in a doomed struggle against hopeless odds.

1430310The Germans eventually crushed the resistance, killing 13,000 of the defenders. The surviving Jewish residents were shipped to the death camps, the majority to Treblinka. In this battle, the Waffen SS played the largest supporting role, contributing 821 combat troops to infamous SS-und-Polizeiführer (SS and Police Leader) Jürgen Stroop‘s 2,054 men. These were drawn from SS Panzer Grenadier Training Battalion III (a training unit for the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf) and from the SS Cavalry Training Battalion (a training unit for the 8th SS Cavalry Division, later named Florian Geyer). This was one more example that refutes the notion that the Waffen SS were merely front-line combat formations and not involved in the Holocaust. Their participation in the Ghetto liquidation helped doom thousands of Jews to the death camps.


The 1943 German summer offensive in Russia was code named Operation Citadel.

The plan called for a double envelopment by two massive pincers meant to penetrate and surround the majority of the Soviet defenders of the Kursk salient. General Walter Model‘s 9th Army would form the northern pincer, driving south to the east of Kursk and cutting the rail line resupplying Soviet forces. Von Manstein’s Army Group South would commit the 4th Panzer Army, under Hermann Hoth, and Army Detachment Kempf, under Werner Kempf, to penetrate the southern face of the salient. This force would drive north to meet 9th Army east of Kursk. If successful, the Germans would encircle and destroy more than five Soviet armies. Such a victory would cripple Soviet offensive operations in 1943, restore the strategic initiative lost by the defeat at Stalingrad, and (by crushing the bulge and straightening their line) reduce the number of troops required to hold the front.

The SS Panzer Korps, commanded by the veteran Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, and now renamed the II SS Panzer Korps (as the another SS Panzer Corps, designated the 1st, was being assembled in the West), would form the spearhead of 4th Panzer Army; with the XLVIII Panzer Corps on its left and the III Panzer Corps of Detachment Kempf on the right.

For this operation, the II SS Panzer Korps consisted of three elite SS panzergrenadier divisions: 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich commanded by Walter Krüger, and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hermann Prieß. Leibstandarte was now under the command of SS-Brigadeführer, Theodor Wisch, as its founding commander, Sepp Dietrich, had been promoted to command the newly forming 1st SS Panzer Korps in France. The combined strength of the Korps on the eve of Kursk was between 40,000-50,000 men and approximately 300-350 tanks and assault guns (see below).

For this offensive Hitler allocated a total of 912,460 men, nearly 3,000 tanks and 10,000 guns and mortars; as well as 2,110 Luftwaffe aircraft (including a handful of the Ju 87G Stuka tank busters). To assemble this force took time. The offensive was originally planned to begin on or soon after 4 May 1943. However, the timetable was continuously pushed back to allow time for the delivery of the newly-developed Panzer Mk. V Panther Tanks, and the Ferdinand heavy tank-hunters, as well as more of the recently-operational Panzer Mk. VI Tiger I Tank. (In fact, the Panther’s earmarked for the SS formations never arrived: see below.) These heavy armored vehicles would give the SS Panzer formations (and the elite Panzer Grenadier Division Gross Grossdeutschland, part of the 48th Panzer Corps, the central element of 4th Panzer Army) greatly enhanced fighting power. The delay, however, was not without a cost.


Erich Von Manstein, commander of Army Group South; with Tiger Tanks in the background. The delay involved in refitting the elite Gross Grossdeutschland and Waffen SS Panzer formations with the newest Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinand/Elefant Tank Destroyers gave the Russians time to create massive anti-tank defenses in the Kursk Salient.

The Russians were well aware of the coming blow. Alerted through the Lucy spy ring in Switzerland and by their spy in Britain at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (who clandestinely forwarded raw decrypts directly to Moscow) they used the additional time to turn the Kursk salient into one of the strongest fortified zones in the world; consisting of massive belts of anti-tank obstacles and minefields, supported by tens of thousands guns and anti-tank guns. In all, the Soviets assembled 1,426,352 combat troops, 5,000 tanks, and 31,415 guns to repel the German assault. Most of the Soviet armor was assembled at the base of the Salient, prepared to counter-attack any German penetrations.

As May turned to June, and the Soviet preparations became increasingly apparent and the element of surprise obviously gone, Manstein and others (most notably General Heinz Guderian, father of panzer warfare and now Inspector General of the Panzer Forces) advised cancelling the offensive. Even Hitler had trepidation: “The thought of it turns my stomach.” But the plans went forward, despite the dwindling chances for a decisive (or even favorable) result.

On 5 July 1943 the Battle of Kursk began. This would be the last great German offensive in the East of the war and involved as many as 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2 million fighting men, on both sides.

1430327.jpg JU-87G Stuka tank-busters fly over the Kursk battlefield; as Tigers engage Soviet T-34s

For the Waffen troops, the battle began in the pre-dawn hours with SS combat engineers infiltrating the no-man’s land and clearing lanes through the Soviet minefields. With dawn the armored spearheads advanced, clearing outposts and driving back armored detachments of the Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army. By 9am, the SS spearheads had penetrated the Soviet’s first line of defense, and were approaching the second. The panzers, advancing in Panzerkeils (wedges), now ran into the Soviet Pakfronts. These were groupings of 76mm anti-tank guns working in cooperation and sited to engage tanks from multiple concealed positions. The elaborate system of Soviet defenses slowed the armor’s attack, as the only way to clear them without heavy loss in tanks was to lead with infantry supported by artillery, thus slowing the advance to a crawl.

1430338 A well-concealed Soviet anti-tank gun takes out German panzer

By the second day of the offensive Soviet defenses had slowed the supporting Panzer formations on either flank of the SS almost to a standstill. In the north, where Model’s 9th Army was attempting to break through, the Soviets stopped the Germans completely after only minimal penetration. But the Waffen-SS Panzers, highly adaptable and very accomplished at small-unit tactics, broke through.

The new Tiger tanks, used in large numbers for the first time, proved a fearsome beast on the battlefield.  The Tiger’s 88mm gun gave the German panzer commanders a superior stand-off capability, and the German crews were very effective at picking-off Russian tanks before these could come within range with their own inferior 76mm and 85mm guns.

During the fighting on 7 July, Tiger Tank commander SS Unterscharführer Franz Staudegger  encountered a group of 50 T-34s. In the ensuing battle, Staudegger’s Tiger knocked out 22 T-34s. For this action, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross (the first Tiger commander to be so decorated).

1430336.jpg Members of 3rd SS Totenkopf

By 9 July Hauser’s Panzer Korps had advanced 48 km (30 mi) north, through the last belts of Soviet minefields and anti-tank defenses. Totenkopf reached and established a bridgehead across the Psel River on the 11th. However, on the right flank of the advance, the XLVIII Panzer Korps was still bogged down in the second Soviet defensive line; and Detachment Kemp was stopped by a bend of the Donetz. This left the flanks (particularly the right flank) of the II SS Panzer Korps exposed to counter-attack. However, on the night of the 11th, 6th Panzer Division (of the III Panzer Korps) created a bridgehead across the river, and passed over. This formation now drove north, while the SS shifted the axis of their advance to the northeast. Both thrusts were targeted upon the the small town of Prokhorovka, where they could link-up and complete the encirclement of the Soviet 69th Army.

1430341.jpgAs the SS Panzers neared Prokhorovka, Hausser prepared to attack the town with Leibstandarte, supported on either flank by the other two divisions. However, unbeknownst to the Germans, the Soviets had moved the 5th Guards Tank Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov, to an assembly area just below Prokhorovka, in preparation for a counter-attack the following day, July 12. This was a massive force of 850 tanks and self-propelled guns, two-thirds of which were the fast and lethal T-34, more than a match for all but the newest German tanks (the Panthers and the Tigers).

The stage was set for the largest tank battle of WW-II.


(The following account is excerpted from the excellent article written by George M. Nipe, Jr., originally appearing in the February 1998 issue of World War II magazine.)

Prochorovka is one of the best-known of the many battles on the Eastern Front during World War II. It has been covered in articles, books and televised historical documentaries, but these accounts vary in accuracy; some are merely incomplete, while others border on fiction.

In the generally accepted version of the battle, Hausser’s three SS divisions attacked Prochorovka shoulder to shoulder, jammed into the terrain between the Psel and the railroad embankment. A total of 500 to 700 German tanks, including dozens of Panther medium tanks with 75mm guns and Tiger heavy tanks with deadly 88mm cannons, lumbered forward while hundreds of nimble Soviet T-34 medium tanks raced into the midst of the SS armor and threw the Germans into confusion. The Soviets closed with the panzers, negating the Tigers’ (longer range) 88mm guns, outmaneuvered the German armor and knocked out hundreds of German tanks. The Soviet tank force’s audacious tactics resulted in a disastrous defeat for the Germans, and the disorganized SS divisions withdrew, leaving 400 destroyed tanks behind, including between 70 and 100 Tigers and many Panthers. Those losses smashed the SS divisions’ fighting power, and as a result Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army had no chance to achieve even a partial victory in the south.

1430345.jpgArtistic interpretation of the battle; depicting Soviet tanks and infantry close-assaulting the German panzers

While it makes a dramatic story, nearly all of the above is essentially myth. Careful study of the daily tank strength reports and combat records of II SS Panzer Corps (available on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.) provides information that forces a historical reappraisal of the battle.

These records show, first of all, that Hausser’s corps began with far fewer tanks than previously believed and, more important, that they suffered only moderate losses (in the fighting at Prochorovka) on July 12, 1943. As those reports were intended to allow the corps commander to assess the combat strength of his divisions, they can be considered reasonably accurate.

1430361.jpg Panzers advancing deep into Soviet territory, near Prochorovka

The number of SS tanks actually involved in the battle has been variously reported as high as 700 by some authorities, while others have estimated between 300 to 600. Even before the Battle of Kursk began, however, the II SS Panzer Korps never had 500 tanks, much less 700. On July 4, the day before Operation Citadel was launched, Hausser’s three divisions possessed a total of 327 tanks between them, plus a number of command tanks. By July 11, the II SS Panzer Corps had a total of 211 operational tanks: Totenkopf had 94 tanks, Leibstandarte had only 56 and Das Reich possessed just 61. Damaged tanks or tanks undergoing repairs are not listed. (Most of the tank attrition since the beginning of the offensive was due to mechanical breakdowns or recoverable battle damage.)  Only 15 Tiger tanks were still in action at Prochorovka, and there were no SS Panthers available (the Panthers that were involved in the battle were those allocated to the Gross Grossdeutschland division, fighting to the west). The (SS) battalions that were equipped with Panthers were still training in Germany in July 1943.

1430382.jpg Soviet 76mm anti-tank gun supporting armor unit

On July 13, the day after the Battle of Prochorovka, Fourth Panzer Army reports declared that the II SS Panzer Korps had 163 operational tanks, a net loss of only 48 tanks. Actual losses were somewhat heavier, the discrepancy due to the gain of repaired tanks returned to action. Closer study of the losses of each type of tank reveals that the corps lost about 70 tanks on July 12.

In contrast, Soviet tank losses, long assumed to be moderate, were actually catastrophic. In 1984, a history of the Fifth Guards Tank Army written by Rotmistrov himself revealed that on July 13 his army lost 400 tanks to repairable damage. He gave no figure for tanks that were destroyed or not available for salvage. Evidence suggests that there were hundreds of additional Soviet tanks lost. Several German accounts mention that Hausser had to use chalk to mark and count the huge jumble of 93 knocked-out Soviet tanks in the Leibstandarte sector alone. Other Soviet sources say the tank strength of the army on July 13 was 150 to 200, indicating a loss of about 650 tanks. Those losses brought a caustic rebuke from Josef Stalin. Subsequently, the depleted Fifth Guards Tank Army did not resume offensive action, and Rotmistrov ordered his remaining tanks to dig in among the infantry positions west of the town.

1430385.jpg Soviet infantry dismount from a T-34 as the tank advances at Prochorovka

Another misconception about the battle is the image of all three SS divisions attacking shoulder-to-shoulder through the narrow lane between the Psel and the rail line west of Prochorovka. In truth, only Leibstandarte was aligned directly west of the town, and it was the only division to attack the town itself. The II SS Panzer Korps zone of battle, contrary to the impression given in many accounts, was approximately nine miles wide, with Totenkopf on the left flank, Leibstandarte in the center and Das Reich on the right flank. Totenkopf’s armor was committed primarily to the Psel bridgehead and in defensive action against Soviet attacks on the Psel bridges. Only Leibstandarte advanced into the corridor west of Prochorovka, and then only after it had thrown back initial Soviet attacks.

1430404.jpg Tigers prowl the tall grass

The Battle of Prochorovka began early on July 12, when Leibstandarte units reported a great deal of loud motor noise, indicating massing Soviet armor. Soon after 5 a.m., hundreds of Soviet tanks, carrying infantry, rolled out of Prochorovka and its environs in groups of 40 to 50. Waves of T-34 and T-70 tanks advanced at high speed in a charge straight across the open at the startled Germans. When machine-gun fire, armor-piercing shells and artillery fire struck the T-34s, the Soviet infantry jumped off and sought cover. Leaving their infantry behind, the T-34s rolled on. Those Soviet tanks that survived the initial clash with SS armor continued a linear advance and were destroyed by the Germans.

1430409.jpg Tiger provides over-watch with its 88mm long range gun for advancing panzer Mk IVs, the workhorse of the German armored forces.

When the initial Soviet attack paused, Leibstandarte pushed its armor toward the town and collided with elements of Rotmistrov’s reserve armor. A Soviet attack by the 181st Tank Regiment was defeated by several SS Tigers of the 13th Schwere (heavy) Company of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, one of which was commanded by 2nd Lt. Michael Wittmann, the most successful tank commander of the war.

Wittmann’s group was advancing in flank support of the German main attack when it was engaged by the Soviet tank regiment at long range. The Soviet charge, straight at the Tigers over open ground, was suicidal. The frontal armor of the Tiger was impervious to the 76mm guns of the T-34s at any great distance. The field was soon littered with burning T-34s and T-70s. None of the Tigers were lost, but the Soviet 181st Tank Regiment was annihilated. (Wittmann and his Tiger alone are credited with destroying “at least” 30 tanks during this battle, according to his biography, for which he was later awarded the Knight’s Cross.) Late in the day, Rotmistrov committed his last reserves, elements of the V Mechanized Corps, which finally halted Leibstandarte.

1430410.jpg1430413.jpg Michael Wittmann, Germany’s greatest “Panzer Ace”, personally killed “at least” 30 tanks at Kursk

Das Reich began its attack from several kilometers southwest of Prochorovka and was quickly engaged by aggressive battle groups of the II Tank Corps and II Guards Tank Corps. Fierce, somewhat confused fighting broke out all along the division’s axis of advance. Battle groups of 20 to 40 Soviet tanks, supported by infantry and ground-attack planes, collided with Das Reich regimental spearheads. Rotmistrov continued to throw armor against the division, and combat raged throughout the day, with heavy losses of Soviet tanks. Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward, advancing into the night while suffering relatively light tank losses.

1430434.jpg Infantry elements of Das Reich advance, an MG-42 in the lead.

Meanwhile, on the left flank, Soviet First Tank Army elements unsuccessfully tried to crush Totenkopf’s bridgehead. The SS division fought off the XXXI and X Tank Corps, supported by elements of the XXXIII Rifle Corps. In spite of the Soviet attacks, Totenkopf’s panzer group drove toward a road that ran from the village of Kartaschevka, southeast across the river and into Prochorovka.

1430419.jpgThe fighting, characterized by massive losses of Soviet armor, continued throughout July 12 without a decisive success by either side–contrary to the accounts given in many well-known studies of the Eastern Front, which state that the fighting ended on July 12 with a decisive German defeat. These authors describe the battlefield as littered with hundreds of destroyed German tanks and report that the Soviets overran the SS tank repair units. In fact, the fighting continued around Prochorovka for several more days. Das Reich continued to push slowly eastward in the area south of the town until July 16. That advance enabled the III Panzer Corps to link up with the SS division on July 14 and encircle several Soviet rifle divisions south of Prochorovka. Totenkopf eventually reached the Kartaschevka-­Prochorovka road, and the division took several tactically important hills on the north edge of its perimeter as well.

Those successes were not exploited, however, due to strategic decisions made by Adolf Hitler.

After receiving the news of the Allied invasion of Sicily, as well as reports of impending Soviet attacks on the Mius River and at Izyum south of the fighting, Hitler decided to cancel Operation Citadel. Manstein argued that he should be allowed to finish off the two Soviet tank armies. He had unused reserves, consisting of three experienced panzer divisions of XXIV Panzer Corps, in position for quick commitment. That corps could have been used to attack the Fifth Guards Tank Army in its flank, to break out from the Psel bridgehead or to cross the Psel east of Prochorovka. All of the available Soviet armor in the south was committed and could not be withdrawn without causing a collapse of the Soviet defenses. Manstein correctly realized that he had the opportunity to destroy the Soviet operational and strategic armor in the Prochorovka area.

1430422Built low to the ground, the Soviet SU-122 Assault Gun packed a heavy punch, and was effective in its role of providing direct fire on strongholds.

Hitler could not be persuaded to continue the attack, however. Instead, he dispersed the divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps to deal with the anticipated Soviet diversionary attacks south of the Belgorod­/Kharkov sector. On the night of July 17-18, the corps withdrew from its positions around Prochorovka.

Thus, the battle for Prochorovka ended, not because of German tank losses (Hausser had over 200 operational tanks on July 17) but because Hitler lacked the will to continue the offensive. The SS panzer divisions were still full of fight; in fact, two of them continued to fight effectively in southern Russia for the rest of the summer.

(Manstein considered this failure to exploit the successes of the SS Panzer Korps after the fighting at Prochorovka an example of “lost victories”. German casualties on the 12th were very light, considering the intensity of the fighting, and belie the often related “official version” that the battle was a bloody draw. The Waffen suffered a mere 842 casualties, killed, wounded, or missing; compared to the estimated 5,000-8,000 Soviets casualties in the fighting against them. Armor losses were also extremely one-sided. 43 German tanks were disabled during the battle, and most were recovered, as the Germans retained the battlefield. German archival data for II SS-Panzer Korps indicates that the Corps ultimately lost a mere three to five tanks! By the end of 16 July, the II SS Panzer corps had almost the same number of serviceable tanks it had at the beginning of the battle.

By contrast, Soviet armored losses were staggering. Estimates vary in the sources, but all agree that not less than 400 and perhaps as many as 800 tanks were lost in the suicidal assaults upon the SS panzers at or around Prokhorovka.

1430426.jpgDespite the ultimate strategic outcome for the Germans, the Battle of Prochorovka was tremendous, one-sided tactical victory for the Waffen-SS panzers. The Waffen-SS had grown into a mature and highly capable fighting force, perhaps the most capable and lethal armored force in the world.


A Russian tank commander recounts his experience in the battle.

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A  furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine! 

“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord.”

This simple prayer was once on the lips of priests and parishioners across all of northern Europe as sleek, dragon-prowed longships carried savage bands of Viking warriors in search of plunder and conquest. In the midst of the “Dark Ages”, a brutal age of hard men, none were harder than the Northmen!

Starting in the late 8th century there occurred one of those sociological events that, from time-to-time, cause historians and social scientists to scratch their heads in fruitless attempt to explain. For reasons imperfectly known, fearsome warriors from the nascent nations of Scandinavia began to raid throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. One theory is that a global warming trend produced a surplus of population in Scandinavia, resulting in a bold search for new lands to settle. An alternative theory is that the Saxon campaigns of Charlemagne, in the late 8th century, and his suppression of the pagan religion the Saxons shared with the peoples of Scandinavia led to a violent counter-reaction by the Danes and Norse.

However, the simplest explanation may be the correct one: they raided because they could. The initial raids on such isolated places as the coastal monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria (793 AD) were so successful and opposition so feeble, they encouraged further aggression.

Whether Danes, Norsemen or Svear, whatever their motivation, to the terrified peoples of the West they were known collectively as the “Vikings”.

It is curious that at a time in our culture when boys are taught to “use their words” instead of their fists, and young men are inculcated with a “political correctness” that emphasizes the modern values of sensitivity, inclusiveness and non-violence, that the Vikings are looked upon with such uncritical admiration. They continue to be celebrated on the screen and in literature. Dozens of films over the years portray the adventures of Viking heroes. The Icelandic Sagas, written in the 13th century, are read by a far wider audience today than perhaps at any other time in history. Across the world, “Historical Reenactors” spend their leisure time dressing as Vikings, recreating their culture and styles of combat. Airing currently on American television is the dramatic series, “Vikings”, based upon the saga of the semi-legendary Viking leader and hero, Ragnar Lothbrok. While on the BBC a series based upon the Bernard Corwell book, “The Last Kingdom“, telling the story of a Saxon warrior who grows-up among the Danes, only to become their greatest foe; is in its second season.

1385091.jpgSo who were the Vikings; and why such an enduring fascination?

To begin to understand the Vikings, it is necessary to first understand what made their seaborne expeditions possible: their longships. These vessels were a marvel of construction, being shallow drafted and yet immensely seaworthy. The former attribute allowed them to navigate even the smallest river or creek, and appear unexpectedly out of the predawn mists, bringing death and destruction to the unfortunate local inhabitants rising from their beds. The ship’s latter characteristic allowed the Vikings to venture forth across wide seas and open ocean, from Norway to North America, from Britain to Byzantium.

1385092.jpgViking ships varied in size. The smallest and most commonly used was the snekkja (snake or worm). A typical snekkja was 56 ft. in length, 8.2 ft. width, with a draught of only 1.6 ft. It would carry a crew of around 41 men (40 oarsmen and one coxswain). Skeid and Drekkar (Dragons) were larger warships, carrying a crew of up to 100. The Ormrinn Langi (The Long Serpent), the flagship of Norwegian King Olav Tryggvason had 68 rowers, and was perhaps 148 feet long, indisputably the greatest Viking ship of its day. Harald Hardrada had a similar vessel, perhaps even a bit larger, called the Great Dragon, sixty years later. A Viking expedition could be a single ship, packed with warriors, or a fleet as large as several hundred ships of varying sizes, carrying an army.

Most Viking expeditions were mere piratical ventures launched by a consortium of neighboring bondi, the free farmers that comprised the majority of men in Scandinavian society at the time. After the spring planting, these hardy freemen would go to sea for the summer, trading and raiding in foreign lands; returning home for the harvest laden with trade goods, looted treasure, and slaves.

Great leaders launched much larger expedition, pillaging or conquering foreign lands in campaigns that lasted for many years. In 911 such an expedition arrived on the northern coast of France. It was led by Hrolf Ganger (“the Walker”), an exiled Norwegian warrior allegedly too tall to ride a horse! His band of Danes and Norsemen conquered this area of France, which became known as Normandy. A descendant of this Norwegian Viking conquered England in 1066, and is known to history as William the Conqueror.

In 864-865, the legendary Danish Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok was supposedly shipwrecked on the Northumbrian coast of Britain. He was taken before the Northumbrian king, Ælle , who executed Ragnar by throwing him into a pit of snakes. In retaliation, the sons of Ragnar led their father’s army against England in the autumn of 865.

1385097.jpgThis so-called “Great Heathen Army” was commanded by Ragnar’s capable and much feared sons: Ubba, Halfdan, and first-and-foremost, Ivar the Boneless.[1] In just a few short years these Danes had laid three-of-the-four English kingdoms (Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia) beneath their swords. Only Saxon Wessex, led by Alfred the Great, maintained its independence in the following decades. All of the rest of England became for several generations lands ruled by the Danes, known as “the Danelaw”.

In 860, a Viking expedition passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, entering the Mediterranean. Led by the Viking leaders Björn “Ironsides” and Hastein (either of which may, too, have been sons of Ragnar Lothbrok), they raided northern Italy, sacking the towns of Pisa and Luna.

1385100.jpgOther Vikings, largely Swedes, settled in Russia and founded such kingdoms as Novgorod and Kiev. Sailing their longships down the great rivers of Ukraine, Viking expeditions even raided into the Black Sea. Groups of Swedish Vikings and Rus warriors (as the mixed Slavic and Svear ruling-class in Russia came to be called) were taken into the service of the Byzantine Emperors, forming the famed Varangian Guard. Later adventurers from across the Viking world came to make their fortunes in this fabled elite force. Harald Hardrada, when but a young exiled prince of Norway, became a captain in the Varangians. He had a successful career,  campaigning for the Byzantines in Syria and Sicily, in the process amassing a great fortune before returning to Norway to seize the throne.

Other Norsemen left their homeland in the 10th century and founded a thriving republic in Iceland (where the language of the Vikings, Old Norse, is still spoken as Icelandic today). Here the folke met on the plains of Þingvellir; where they established the first parliamentary institution in northern Europe: the Alþingi. Meeting at a field below a great flat stone, 28 miles from modern Reykjavík speakers debated and the free bondi made laws.

Above: Þingvellir, Iceland, the site of the ancient Alþingi.
Below: artist conception of the “Althing” in session, 9th-10 century

1385102.jpgThe Althing mirrored similar gatherings of freemen in every Scandinavian country. This fierce love of freedom and respect for the nobility of the common freeman characterized the Vikings wherever they went. It’s a tradition that made its way, via the Danelaw, into English Common Law and tradition. This would lead to Magna Charta, a powerful parliamentary system, and eventually influence the founding principals of America.

Coincidentally, it was a Norseman, Leif Erikson, who made the first recorded and verified voyage from Europe to North America.

He was the son of Erik the Red, founder of the Norse colony in Greenland. (In those climatically warmer times, Greenland was actually green and capable of supporting farming.) Leif ventured westward, exploring and founding a temporary settlement on the east coast of North America, in Newfoundland and Maine (which he named “Vinland”). It would be another four centuries before European shipbuilding caught up with the Norse, allowing Columbus to follow in Leif Ericson’s footsteps, crossing the Atlantic to North America.

The Viking settlement in Vinland failed for many reasons. But foremost of these was the hostility of the Native American peoples they encountered, whom they called skrælingjar. The presence of a unremittingly hostile people living in close proximity made living a normal life in Vinland impossible for the small number of Norse settlers seeking a new life. Within a generation, the colony in North America was abandoned.

Women had a special place in Norse society: with their men away so much of the time, the wives gained a great measure of equality in their society; running the farms and supervising the affairs of the household. Noted for their boldness in speaking their minds, and the readiness with which they asserted themselves, Norse women were perhaps the archetypes of the modern sexually liberated and independent woman.

Such a woman was Freydís Eiríksdóttir (sister of Leif Ericson), who participated in her own expedition to North America. She is credited, while pregnant, with taking up the sword of a fallen warrior and driving off attacking skrælingjar from their settlement. One suspects she would be very much at home today as a business woman, female athlete, or Armed Forces member.

1385104.jpgBut it was as warriors, not explorers that the Vikings are best remembered: as unapologetic icons of bold masculinity. It is as such that they are admired by so many men today. There is something that resides deep in the male psyche which is attracted to these flamboyant avatars of the Id. As society and civilization seeks to fetter men’s primal “maleness”, turning modern men into hairy women, the image of the Viking warrior becomes even more attractive. Ever-free, never compromising, venturing forth with his band of “sword-brothers” to explore new worlds and return home with stolen riches and captive beauties. This is the fantasy that makes the Viking more popular today than ever before.

“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us!”


If you enjoyed this you might also like:

Jomsvikings: Elite Warriors of the Dark Ages


Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.



  1. According to the Ragnars saga Loðbrókar the son of Ragnar Lodbrok included three others as well: Björn IronsideHvitserk, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But they apparently did not join the other three brothers in invading England.
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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day. This multi-part series is neither an attempt to glorify or to condemn the Waffen SS; but to examine the military record of this elite organization as objectively as possible, and to present the facts in a balanced fashion.

(To read the previous installment, go here. To read Part One, go here.)

From the start of the war in 1939 to the beginning of operations in 1943, the main formations of the Waffen-SS earned a reputation for bravery, audacity, and tactical innovation second to none in the German armed forces. However, they also developed a reputation for reckless courage and tenacity that led to a higher-than-necessary casualty rate. Worse, they reflected the darker, sinister side of the Nazi state; committing numerous atrocities that would later lead to the Waffen being declared a “criminal organization” and many of its officers tried (and in most cases convicted) for war crimes.

Sepp Dietrich SS-Gruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, commander of LSSAH till ’43, then of the 1st SS-Panzer Korps. One of Hitler’s favorite soldiers, Dietrich was indicted and convicted at Nuremberg for culpability in war crimes committed by Waffen-SS units under his command. He was sentenced to 25 years, but only served 10.

Though not directly responsible for the implementation of Hitler’s genocidal policies towards Jews and various other ethnic or political groups, certain Waffen-SS formations were at times tasked with helping their komraden in the Allgemeine SS and in the SS-Totenkopfverbände (concentration camp guards) to carry out these vile acts of repression and murder. Efforts by apologists to absolve the Waffen of any culpability in these crimes rings as hollow today as it did during the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal hearings.

That said, the bulk of all Waffen-SS formations were involved with direct military actions through most of the war, fighting beside other formations of the Wehrmacht and under the direct operational control of the German Army (Heer). In previous chapters we discussed the expansion of the Waffen-SS through 1939 to the end of 1942. During this period, the premiere Waffen-SS combat formations were originally organized as motorized infantry. They were continuously upgraded, first to Panzergrenadier divisions, then to full Panzer division status. In all cases Waffen formations were over-strengthened: a Waffen Panzergrenadier division had as many tanks as a regular German army Panzer division (a full regiment of tanks rather than only a battalion); and a Waffen Panzer division was stronger than any equivalent formation in the Wehrmacht.

By 1942 the Waffen was receiving the best and most modern equipment available (and, in some cases, captured Allied equipment, particularly Russian). This had not always been the case: at the start of the war, the Waffen formations were under-equipped and even using obsolete weapons discarded by the Heer. But by the mid-war only Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland had an equal priority to the best men and equipment.

1597492.jpg A widely circulated propaganda postcard, showing Waffen-SS soldiers carrying a wounded comrade during actions in Belgium, 1940. This image shows the Waffen soldiers carrying a variety of weapons, including the obsolete MP-34.

After being pulled out of intense fighting in Russia in 1941 and early 1942, most of the main-line formations were sent to rest and refit in France. During this period, at the urging of and under the command of SS-General Paul (“Papa”) Hausser, three of the premiere combat formation were formed into an SS-Panzer Korps. This was comprised of 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich (DR), and the 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf (TK). As pointed out above, all three were over-strength panzer divisions in all but name, in fact stronger than a standard army panzer division.

1415638 SS Panzer Korps commander, Paul “Papa” Hausser (left) lost an eye in combat during Operation Barbarossa.

While the authorized strength for a panzer division was 13,000–17,000, these Waffen divisions were about 19,000 strong. While most Panzer divisions were woefully under-strength in tanks (only able to field 70-100 panzers at any given time during this period), the rested and reconstituted Waffen panzergrenadier divisions had about 150 tank, as well as a battalion of self-propelled assault guns and enough half-tracks (as opposed to trucks) for all of its infantry. Further, each had been assigned a Heavy Tank (Schwere Panzer) Company of 9 Tiger tanks (Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E), Germany’s new “super-tank”; very well armored and armed with the deadly 88mm gun, capable of killing even the best-armored Allied tanks.

1415645.jpg Waffen-SS Tiger tank in action. In 1942, each division of the SS-Panzer Korps received a Heavy Company of Tigers.

This newly christened SS-Panzer Korps was a very potent formation, indeed.

In early 1943, crises on the Eastern Front called the Korps back to Russia, where it would fight in some of the greatest tank battles in history.


On January 2, 1943, the Soviets forces in south Russia/Ukraine launched Operation Star and Operation Gallop, which over the next month broke German defenses. On 2 February, German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad. This freed-up large numbers of Soviet troops to join the offensive. The resulting drive shattered the German line, annihilating the Italian 8th Army in the process and surrounding German forces between the Don and Donets.

1415664.jpg Red Army troops on the attack. Here a T-34 Medium Tank leads an attack, supported by infantry.

In response, Hitler reorganized the German forces in south Russia. He created Army Group South out of the shattered remnants of the old Army Group A, B and Don, placing all under the command of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Germany’s most talented strategist.

1415666.jpg Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein, Germany’s premiere strategist. Portrait by Virgilio Bettinaglio

Meanwhile, Hausser and the SS-Panzer Korp were sent into this cauldron of destruction to reinforce Manstein’s forces. Arriving on the front in late January 1943, the SS-Panzer Korps was thrown into the line defending Kharkov. They found themselves facing a deluge of hundreds of Soviet tanks of Mobile Group Popov, a Soviet Army sized formation spearheading the Soviet advance.

During the second week of February 1943, the LSSAH’s 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, and SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche‘s 1st SS Panzer Regiment fought a bitter delaying action near the town of Merefa, halting a major Soviet attack. LSSAH and its sister divisions in the SS-Panzer Korps conducted a series of fierce defensive battles over the next weeks, gradually being pushed back into the city of Kharkov itself.

1415673.jpg SS-Totenkopf soldiers, Kharkov 1943

While the Waffen divisions succeeded in throwing back every Soviet attack, their position became desperate as the Soviets maneuvered around the city, threatening to surround the SS force. On February 15, Hausser disobeyed Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs and withdrew his Corps from the city towards Krasnograd. Over the next week, the SS Panzer Korps fought a series or running battles against the advancing Soviet armored forces. In the process the SS formations showed great skill in the art of maneuver, destroying several Russian divisions and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, annihilating Soviet Mobile Group Popov.

1415710.jpg Waffen-SS panzergrenadiers riding in Sd.Kfz. 251 half-tracks, advancing along the snow-covered tracks.

Meanwhile to their south the Soviet spearheads had driven deep into German-held territory, driving west across the wide steppes of the Ukraine. At one point, Soviet tanks were within gun range of Hitler himself, in conference with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. The German Führer asked whose tanks these were approaching, and was shocked when told they were Soviet!

Ostfront, Adolf Hitler, Erich v. Manstein Hitler meeting with Manstein at the airfield at Zaporozhe. It was during this meeting that Hitler came close to being fired upon by Soviet tanks. This convinced the shaken Hitler that the crises in south Russia required extraordinary measures. Manstein was given permission to act without (the usual) interference by Hitler and his staff.

However great their gains, the Soviet forces had become overextended. To their south flank, Manstein prepared a large mobile force with which to counter-attack the southern flank of the Soviet bulge in the German lines. These forces included the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies, and the SS Panzer Korps which was placed under the operational control of 4th Panzer Army, commanded by Herman Hoth.

Manstein’s Donets Campaign began on 19 February and lasted through 15 March, 1943. It caught the advancing Soviet forces “flat-footed”, with the German panzer forces rolling north and destroying Soviet formations piecemeal in a series of meeting engagements. Soviet spearheads in the west were cut off from their supply sources and eventually destroyed. In this offensive, the SS-Panzer Korps played a key role; advancing from the north and linking up with 4th Panzer Army thrusting from the south and “bagging” and destroying large and powerful Soviet armored forces.

The Russian formations suffered from exhaustion after weeks of continuous combat, having penetrated (in some cases) 500 hundred miles; and having outrun their supplies were short on fuel and ammunition. In the rapidly changing conditions of rolling tank battles on the steppes, the Russians were severely handicapped by a lack of radios in each tank; and by a rigid operational doctrine that did not encourage initiative among junior officers, or straying from original battle plans by senior officers, no matter how much the situation changed on the ground. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, and particularly that of the Waffen-SS which fully encouraged individual initiative and aggressiveness, and an informality between superiors and their subordinates. This is a feature found in all “Special Operations” units in modern history but is seldom found in “conventional” forces. (Time and again, Waffen-SS commanders defied orders and took what actions they saw necessary. It is telling that Hausser could defy Hitler himself at Kharkov and be spared even a reprimand. In the Red Army, attempt at such action would have been cut-short by a Kommissar’s bullet to the head!)

The SS-Panzer Korps prepares to advance and recapture Kharkov

By 5 March the SS-Panzer Korps had reached the outskirts of Kharkov again. Ordered to encircle the city to the north, Hausser instead chose to attack the city on 11 March, disobeying orders from both Hoth and Manstein. For the SS it was now a matter of pride that they recapture the city they had been forced to abandon just weeks earlier. A bloody and decisive struggle ensued, the 3rd Battle of Kharkov. LSSAH attacked from north, Das Reich from the west, and Totenkopf formed a protective screen along the north and northwestern flanks.

1415827Waffen panzergrenadiers advancing through the streets of Kharkov

For this operation LSSAH divided into flexible Kampfgruppe (“Battle Groups”), commanded by intrepid young commanders Fritz Witt, Theodor ‘Teddy’ Wisch, Max Wünsche, Joachim Peiper, and Kurt Meyer; under overall command of division commander Sepp Dietrich. The attacks were fiercely resisted by the Red Army. But the SS formations conducted a skilled and determined assault, sometimes fighting house-to-house, block by stubborn block. During the battle, Myer’s Kampfgruppe succeeded in capturing the entire command staff of a Soviet division. However, their rapid advance outpaced other supporting units, and Myer’s group found itself surrounded in the middle of the city. Despite fierce attack by much larger Soviet forces bent on annihilating his surrounded command, Meyer’s grenadiers held on until relieved by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe; Meyer’s small-unit leadership greatly contributing to his force’s success. By 14 March, Kharkov had fallen again and the German battle flag once more waved over Dzerzhinsky Square.

Waffen-SS “Young Guns”: (top row, left-to-right) Joachim Peiper, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer. Bottom row, left-to-right: Theodor Wisch and Max Wünsche

The spring thaw (rasputitsa) and the resulting muddy morass brought Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt none too soon for the Soviets. Army Group South’s Donets Campaign had cost the Red Army some 52 divisions, over 70,000–80,000 casualties, and these from their most mobile forces. The Germans had destroyed the Soviets west of the Donets, restoring the line and retaking Kharkov and Belgorod (captured on March 18). It was the last great victory of German arms in the eastern front.

Russland, Herausziehen eines AutosThe spring thaw turned the dirt roads of Russia into a muddy morass, bringing Manstein’s counter-offensive to a halt, and setting the stage for the Battle of Kursk.

For the SS-Panzer Korps the cost had been high. Leibstandarte alone had suffered some 4,500 casualties, and losses within the other two SS divisions were as proportionately high. The founding commander of SS-Totenkopf, Theodor Eicke, had been killed on the 26 February while conducting an aerial reconnaissance over the battlefield, when his single-engine Fieseler Storch was shot down. (Eicke was succeeded by the very capable Hermann Priess.)

As was often the case during the war, the Waffen was again involved with an atrocity: after the recapture of Kharkov soldiers from LSSAH allegedly murdered several hundred wounded Soviet soldiers in the city’s military hospital. Such abominable actions blackened the name of what was an otherwise superb and admirable fighting force.


Standartenfuhrer Fritz Witt, commanding officer of 1st SS PG Regiment, conferring with Hauptsturmfuhrer Max Wünsche, commander of 1st Battalion/1st SS Panzer Regiment during the fighting around Kharkov.

The mud had brought the advance to a halt short of Kursk, and left a westward bulge remaining in German lines. Manstein wished to continue the northward drive and eliminate this dangerous salient as soon as the ground hardened.

Hitler agreed, but decided to make this operation the main German summer offensive on the Eastern Front. To this end plans were drawn-up at OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, “Supreme Command of the Armed Forces”) for a grand offensive, a pincer move from the north and the south of this salient.

The stage was set for the Battle of Kursk.



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Long before George R.R. Martin penned his tale of war, intrigue and treachery the ancient world was scene to its own version of The Game of Thrones.

(This is the third in a series concerning the Wars of the Diadochi. Part 1 can be read here, and includes comprehensive biographies of the players in this drama. Part  2  can be found here.  It is strongly advised that you start there before reading on. Stay tuned to this blog for future installments!)


Greece had long been under the thumb of Macedon, ever since Philip II’s victory over the Athenian and Theban alliance at Chaeronea in 338 BC. Upon Philip’s assassination two years later Thebes had revolted, but there had been no general rising, and one of Alexander’s first campaigns had been to crush the Theban revolt. The City of Heracles was stormed by Alexander’s forces, sacked and destroyed and its citizens sold into slavery, a grisly warning that kept the other Greek states in line for the rest of Alexander’s reign. Marching off to his conquest of Persia, Alexander compelled the Greek cities (with the notable exception of Sparta, which had never submitted to either Philip or Alexander) to furnish men or ships.

Many of the most bitter anti-Macedonians left Greece (or were forced into exile), and a large number had taken service as mercenaries with the Persians. Defeated along with Darius at  Issus, some had returned home to Hellas and enlisted under the Spartan king Agis III to fight against Alexander’s regent in Greece, Antipater. Others had followed the defeated Darius east, to fight again at the Battle of Gaugamela. After that crushing defeat, they had accompanied the fugitive Darius into the Upper Satrapies.  There the last Achaemenid “King of Kings” was ultimately assassinated by his own disgruntled nobles. Following this, Alexander settled many of them (along with Greek mercenaries who had served in his own army) in these Upper Satrapies, particularly in Bactria in one of the many Alexandrias that he founded. Meanwhile, back in Greece, the Spartan revolt was defeated by Antipater at Megalopolis in 331.

When the conqueror died in Babylon in June of 323 confirmation was slow to arrive back in Greece. Initially, many doubted the news (this was not the first time that Greeks had heard unfounded rumors of Alexander’s death: it was just such a rumor that had inspired the Theban revolt of 335, leading to that city’s destruction). Demades, the Athenian statesman, quipped, “If Alexander were (truly) dead, the stench would fill the world!” But by September that year the King’s death was confirmed.

In Athens, this was the signal for revolt.

Greece was at that time rife for upheaval. Antipater had installed pro-Macedonian oligarchies (and in some cases garrisons) in many of the cities. But Alexander’s Exile Decree of 324 had the unintended consequence that many of the returnees were men exiled by Antipater’s clients, and who had strong ant-Macedonian sentiments. The Exile Decree was particularly upsetting to Athens and Aetolia for other reasons. The former had seized the island of Samos, once base to the Athenian navy and a colony; the latter had taken the city of Oeniadae, expelling the inhabitants and settling their own citizens within. Now the exiled former inhabitants were to be allowed to return, and their property restored. This was the final straw of Macedonian meddling that broke the camel’s back.

The leader of the radical anti-Macedonian faction in Athens was the orator, orateurpnyxHyperides. He seems already to have been in close contact with Leosthenes, an Athenian exile and mercenary commander of some renown[1]. This staunch anti-Macedonian was camped at Cape Taenarum at the end of the Mani Peninsula with some 8,000 mercenary soldiers. Taenarum was the main emporium for Greek mercenary soldiers in the Hellenistic World. Some of his men had fought against Antipater at Megalopolis, and after their defeat had come here to find employers, all the while nursing their grudges against the Macedonians. Others had been dismissed from the service of the Macedonian satraps in Asia in the last months of Alexander’s reign, when he had ordered the disbanding of the private armies raised by his governors during his absence in India. These troops were likely hoplites, heavy infantry spearmen, still the most common and sought after Greek troop-type. However, some or all may alternately have been of the troop-type known as “peltasts”, lighter than hoplites but heavier than light infantry skirmishers (psiloi).

With the confirmation of Alexander’s death Leosthenes now came to Athens, and along with Hyperides persuaded the Assembly that the time was ripe to cast off their shackles. The Assembly voted war, with the grand purpose of attaining the freedom “of all Hellas”. The soldiers at Taenarum were contracted, and Athens put on a war footing. 200 triremes and 40 quadremes were to be mobilized, along with all citizens under 40. The experienced Leosthenes was chosen to command the Greek forces of a new Hellenic League.

Hoplite - Later 2

The appearance of the Greek hoplite had changed greatly since the Classical Age of Marathon and Thermopylae. By the last decades of the 4th century citizen hoplites were increasingly augmented or replaced altogether  by mercenary hoplites. In his battles against Darius, Alexander’s most dangerous foes were Greek mercenary hoplites serving in Persian service. During the Lamian War, many Greek soldiers returned home to fight against the Macedonian overlords. This image is one such hoplite. His equipment is not very much different than that of the Macedonian phalangites he opposed, save for his the shorter spear (dori) instead of the longer Macedonian sarissa.

This pan-Hellenic alliance took months to finalize. But the rapidity of events and the far-sweeping nature of the rising against Macedon would seem to indicate an underpinning conspiracy that may have dated to before Alexander’s death. Aetolia immediately joined in the war, along with Elis, Messenia, Argos and Sicyon. Other states were frozen in place by Macedonian garrisons (such as Corinth and Chalcis), or the near proximity of such (Megara, over-awed by Antipater’s garrison in Corinth). More indicative of a long-planned rebellion was that in far-off Bactria an army of those Greek mercenaries settled there by Alexander now banded together and began marching west towards home.

Antipater in Macedon found himself in a difficult position. Macedonia had been bled of troops, as so many had been sent east to reinforce Alexander’s army and provide garrisons in the conquered territories. He had on hand only 13,000 foot and 600 horse. He sent word to the nearest of the Macedonian satraps, Leonnatus in Hellespontine Phrygia (See Part 2), for help. He also sent off to more distant Craterus, marching to Macedonia with 10,000 discharged veterans of Alexander’s wars. After delaying as long as he could, Antipater took what he had on hand and marched south into Thessaly. There he was joined by 2,000 superb Thessalian heavy cavalry, many of whom had served under the long-dead Parmenion  in Alexander’s early campaigns. These were commanded by Menon of Pharsalus (the maternal grandfather of the great Epirote king and conqueror, Pyrrhus).



The reputation of the horsemen of Thessaly was second only to that of the Macedonians themselves.

Meanwhile, Leosthenes had not been laggard. If he had learned anything from Alexander, it was that in war bold and rapid action usually paid high dividends. Soon after the declaration of hostilities, Leosthenes had crossed the Corinthian Gulf to Aetolia, where he had shipped the 8,000 mercenaries that had been with him at Taenarum. He was joined there by another 7,000 Aetolians, excellent-quality light infantry. With this combined army he marched overland to Thermopylae [2].


From there he learned that the Athenians had gathered a force of 5,500 citizens (presumably hoplites) and 2,000 mercenaries, and were on route to join him at Thermopylae; but had been held up in Boeotia by a pro-Macedonian army of Boeotians and Euboeans. Not all Greeks supported the rebellion: the Boeotians feared that the Athenians would rebuild Thebes (which in its day had dominated and bullied the other Boeotian cities) as a bulwark against the Macedonians. Leosthenes hastened south into Boeotia from Thermopylae, defeated the Boeotians and united with the Athenian expedition. His forces united, he now reversed his march, and arrived back at the “Hot Gates” in time to meet Antipater’s army coming from the north.

Greek hoplites 1Athenian citizen infantry preparing for battle.

We don’t know where the subsequent battle actually took place. It was in the vicinity of Thermopylae, though it is unlikely the armies engaged within the pass itself. To the northwest is a broad alluvial plain watered by the Spercheios, Dyras (the modern Gorgopotamos) and Asopus rivers. It was on this plain that Xerxes’ army assembled before attempting to force the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC., and where the Bulgarians were defeated by the Byzantines in 997.  I suggest it is on this plain that the battle likely took place.

The plain can be entered from Thessaly at Lamia, a town situated at its northern extremis, perched on the edge of the foothills of the Othrys mountains. It is likely that Antipater’s 15,500 man army came south from Thessaly through the pass here at Lamia, entering the plain. We can only speculate, but it is easy to imagine that he then deployed for battle, north of the Spercheios River; and awaited Leosthenes’ advance. With Menon’s 2,000 Thessalian horsemen and the 600 cavalry he had brought from Macedon he was confident of having a cavalry advantage in the coming fight; and would have wanted to give battle where there was room for  maneuver. Leosthenes may have had some cavalry of his own, as Athens could historically field as many as 1,000 horsemen by itself, and Aetolia a few hundreds of their own. But these could not be expected to stand up to the Thessalians and Macedonians in battle. (The Aetolians in the 3rd century became renown for the quality of their cavalry, but by that period the Aetolian League encompassed most of Thessaly, always able to field superb horsemen.)

thermopylae and Lamia(Battle diagram not to scale.)

In any case, Antipater’s expectations were confounded and the battle took a disastrous turn when Menon switched sides in the middle of the battle, bringing his Thessalians over to join Leosthenes and their fellow Greeks. It is a testament to both Antipater’s generalship and the steadiness of the second-class Macedonian home levies he commanded that he was able to extricate some portion of his army from the resulting debacle. Retreating back north across the plain, no doubt with his erstwhile Thessalian allies slashing at his heals, he found refuge for the remnants of his army in Lamia.


Sunset over Lamia, looking toward the southwest. In the distance is the mountains of Trachis. The modern city has spilled south into the plain; in ancient times it would have hugged the area around the modern castle, seen on the high ground to the right. The plain of the Sperchios River can be seen distantly, beyond the town on the left.

Here he was besieged by Leosthenes. Due to a lack of siege train, the Athenian could only blockade the Macedonians, not batter the place into submission. Antipater would be beleaguered throughout the winter, his only hope now lying in outside relief.


It goes without saying that none had taken Alexander’s death harder than his own mother, Olympias.

They had always enjoyed a close, though strained relationship. However much he learned of statecraft and the arts of war from his father, he was very much his mother’s son. From her he inherited his good looks, his flair for the dramatic, his dry wit and his passionate and sometimes violent temperament. For she was not only beautiful and passionate, she was also witty and highly intelligent, perhaps even borderline genius (as well as borderline insane!).  Though Alexander’s military education was provided by his extraordinarily capable father, the genius with which he grasped the lessons and applied them was likely Olympias’ genetic.

olympias1Olympias as portrayed by Angelina Jolie in “Alexander the Great” (2004)

A princess of the Epirote royal house, Olympias had become queen of Macedon as a teenage girl after meeting the young King Philip at Samothrace, where both were initiated into the mysteries. It was both a love match and a political one, as the marriage sealed an alliance between the kingdoms. Olympias quickly bore Philip two children, Alexander and a younger sister, Cleopatra. But Philip’s ardor soon cooled (one tale being that queen’s keeping of sacred snakes in her bed disgusted her husband), and he took other women and even wives as the moment called for. Olympias, a woman who both loved and hated with equal passion, came to bitterly despise the husband who neglected her. She used their son against him, raising Alexander to be his father’s rival.

Macedon had known strong, passionate queens before. Philip’s own mother, Eurydice, had been such. But no queen before the dramatic and overbearing Olympias seems to have had ambitions to rule. Philip’s death left her in a very good position, and Olympias thought to rule through her son, in his absence. But in this she was to be greatly disappointed. When he departed for Asia, Alexander left Olympias in Pella, but not as his regent. Instead he picked Antipater, long his father’s right-hand-man, as his Regent and General in Europe. Over the next decade, as he swept through Asia like a forest fire, she burdened her son with a constant stream of invective-laced letters, vilifying the Regent and others she distrusted. She everywhere saw plots against Alexander and threats to his kingship, and wasted much parchment in warning him against this friend or that supporter. When he failed to take the actions she suggested/demanded, she would rail against him and his lack of faith in or love for her, his mother. After reading one such letter, he famously turned to Hephaistion (who alone of his inner circle Olympias, grudgingly, trusted) and observed, “Mother’s charge a heavy rent for nine month’s lodging!” But he never lost his love for her, and as they were much alike he understood her frustrations and always answered her violent letters with soft words of consolation.


Olympias was known for her intelligence and wit as well as her passionate nature. When she learned that Alexander (here depicted on one of his coins bearing the horns of ram-headed Zeus-Ammon) claimed Zeus as his true father,  she shrugged it off,  quipping, “Will Alexander never stop  getting me in trouble with Hera?”

But he was equally deaf to Antipater’s correspondences concerning Olympias’ various and regular misdemeanors. After reading a letter from the Regent containing a long list of grievances against her, he said to Hephaistion (who regularly read over his friend’s shoulder) that Antipater failed to understand that a single mother’s tear washed away a thousand such letters. [3]

The old soldier, who had 10 children (three of which were daughters) and was obviously not averse to women in general, became in time an ardent anti-feminist. Worn down by his constant struggles with Olympias (and, later, the teenage Queen Eurydike), Antipater on his deathbed warned the Macedonians to “never let a woman rule them”![4]

By 331 BC, the year Alexander fought the decisive battle of Gaugamela, Olympias had made herself so detested at the Macedonian court that Alexander finally ordered her to refrain from further meddling in politics. She left Macedon, and returned to her native Epirus. There her 23 year old daughter, Cleopatra, was regent for her royal husband, Alexander son of Neoptolemus. This other Alexander (the Molossian) was both Olympias brother and her son-in-law, having married his niece. Like his more famous nephew he was away attempting to create an empire, this one in Italy. There he was battling the fierce southern Italian tribes of the interior as champion of the Greek coastal cities (particularly Tarentum).[5] He was slain that winter at Pandosia by an Italian turncoat in his retinue. His death left Cleopatra regent for her 4 year old son, Neoptolemus.


But Olympias was very soon the power in Epirus, and played the great lady. When Alexander sent rich gifts to both her and his sister, she used some of this wealth to dedicate golden crowns at Olympia, and to adorn temples as far away as Athens. It was said that Alexander planned on having her deified, as the crowning glory to his labors, upon his return. No doubt the notion mollified her thwarted ambition to rule in Macedon; and Alexander surely thought she could do much less damage as a goddess of her own cult than she could meddling in politics (a point made by Macurdy [6]).

It seems that she and her daughter were of one mind in opposition to Antipater and in looking after Alexander’s interest in Macedon. To this end, Cleopatra returned to Macedon in 325, leaving her children in their grandmother’s care. It was perhaps Cleopatra, corroborating his mother’s concerns regarding Antipater’s loyalty, that led Alexander to recall the Regent’s to Babylon in spring of 323, with plans to replace him with Craterus.

News of her brother’s death in Babylon reached Cleopatra in Pella, and Olympias in Epirus later that summer. It must have come as a terrible shock for Cleopatra, but for Olympias her son’s death was devastating. Gone was the son she loved and had devoted herself to. Gone too was the long-awaited fall of Antipater, and her own triumphant return to Macedon. Any prospect of deification was lost as well.

Her hatred of Antipater only increased, and very soon a rumor would spread, likely originating from Olympias (though possibly beginning in Babylon) that Alexander was poisoned by Antipater’s son, Iollus.  He was Alexander’s Cup Bearer, and  had given him (poisoned?) wine at both the fateful banquet of Medius where Alexander was first stricken down, and later on his deathbed. (See Part 1) It was a rumor that was apparently widely believed, and the Hyperides in Athens proposed a vote of thanks to Iollus in the Assembly for his part in Alexander’s death. Later, when once more in power in Macedon, Olympias would vent her hatred by desecrating Iollus’ grave.

For now, though, she was left powerless and exiled in Epirus by her son’s death. However, the outbreak of the Lamian War and Antipater’s confinement in Lamia gave her an opportunity to make a move of her own on the chessboard.

Sending to Cleopatra in Pella, she persuaded her daughter that their best chance was to make an advantageous marriage for the widowed princess, to one of Alexander’s emerging “Successors”. Thankfully, the nearest in proximity was also the most desirable to Cleopatra and Olympias.

This was Leonnatus the Bodyguard. A member of the Macedonian royal family (he was in some way kin to Philip II’s mother, Eurydice), he was approximately the same age as Cleopatra, and they had grown up together at the Royal Court in Pella. He was much like her dead brother in height and good looks, and since Alexander’s death had affected to increase the resemblance by wearing his hair long and keeping his cheeks closely shaved (a fashion aped by all Macedonians and men in general in the Hellenistic and Roman world for centuries after the conqueror’s death).

Alexander_the_Great_-_Walters_23121Like many of his Successors, Leonnatus affected the long locks and shaven face of Alexander

Leonnatus had lobbied in Babylon for his own appointment as satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, to be near to Macedon and Cleopatra with just such a marriage in mind. It is not clear who initiated the proposal, Cleopatra, Olympias or he But in either case they were of one mind. As husband to Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s sister, along with his own royal family connections, he would be well positioned to claim the throne now held by a brain-damaged (autistic?) man and a newborn, half-Asian infant (to whom he was, in fact, an official “Guardian”).

What Leonnatus needed first was a military triumph, to convince the Macedonians that he was a worthy successor to Philip and Alexander. Fortune seemed to be smiling, for the Greeks had risen and Antipater was defeated and besieged at Lamia. The moment called for Leonnatus to cross the Hellespont, march into Europe and defeat the Greek rebels, and become the hero of the day.


For more, read Great Captains: Alexander the Great

And The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World

And Granicus, Alexander’s Most Perilous Battle


Funeral Games



  1. Though Leosthenes former services which brought him to prominence prior to the Lamian War are unknown. Hyperides, in his funeral oration after Leosthenes’ death, says of him only that Athens needed a man, and the man came. Tarn suggests he was a leader of mercenaries under Alexander himself; where he learned his trade and made for himself a reputation.
  2. Likely marching along the north shore of the Corinthian Gulf east to Amphissa, then north through the valley of Doris to Heraclea Trachis, and then arriving at Thermopylae from the west.
  3. Plutarch Alexander XXXIX
  4. Diodorus XIX, 11
  5. The Italian tribes were valiant and ferocious opponents. Though he did well for a time against them, Alexander of Epirus had his hands full. When told of Alexander’s victories against the Persians, he is supposed to have scoffed: “My nephew battles women; while I battle against men!” Livy 9.19.10-11; echoed by Curtius, 8.1.37
  6. Macurdy, Grace Harriet, Hellenistic Queens

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