Just six weeks after the brazen shields and deadly spears of Leonidas’ 300  Spartans failed to stop Xerxes at the pass of Thermopylae, Greece found salvation behind the “wooden walls” of the Athenian navy!

IN 480 BC there occurred one of those turning points where the trajectory of history and the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance. That event was the Persian invasion of Greece.

The roots of this conflict went back twenty years.

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of modern Turkey, then called Ionia, into his dominions. But in 500-499 B.C., the Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. The rebels were aided by the Ionian “Mother City”, Athens, and by the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived, but Persian memory was long.

1394030.jpgIn 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary force to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but the ground force (fleet aside) was likely around 50,000 men, transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. Their army then embarked again and landed on the Greek mainland, at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens. After appealing in vain for Spartan aid, the Athenians (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea) engaged the Persians at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarter fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.

1394033.jpgTen years later, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was  far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.

Building a pontoon bridge of boats across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), the vast Persian host marched into Greece; the Persian fleet maintaining their supply line from Asia. So great were their numbers that as they advanced the Persian horde drank “rivers dry”. All the peoples of Thrace and northern Greece submitted to Xerxes, rather than attempt to fight.

The Persian army reached Thermopylae in August. The battle at the “Hot Gates” against the Greek blocking force took three days. While it was raging, the Persian fleet engaged the Athenian and allied Greek naval squadrons at Cape Artemisium. This was the first time the Greeks were able to test their naval tactics against Xerxes’ Phoenician, Ionian, and Egyptian squadrons. On the whole, the Greeks held their own. While not as maneuverable as their “saltier” Phoenician opponents, the Greek ships were sturdy, fast and the Greek hoplite-marines more than a match for their counterparts on the Persian decks.


When news reached the fleet from Thermopylae that the pass must soon fall, the Greek fleet at Artemisium broke off the engagement and retreated south into the Saronic Gulf.  Meanwhile, after breaking through at Thermopylae, Xerexes’ horde passed through Boeotia on its way to Athens. Thebes, leader of the Boeotians, surrendered and “Medized“, becoming subjects of the Great King. The Persian fleet (600+ triremes strong) made its way down the Euboean Channel, carrying vital food supplies for the Great King’s vast army. As they passed Marathon on their way south some at least of the Phoenician mariners who had been part of that earlier expedition must have experience mixed feelings of vindication and trepidation.

In Athens, the people (demes) debated in the Areopagus, the Athenian democratic Assembly, whether to submit to Xerxes, defend the city, or flee. Themistocles, under whose farsighted leadership the city had built its strong fleet of 180 triremes[1], urged the population’s evacuation to Salamis Island off the Attica coast; and to trust to their fleet to turn-back the Persian invasion.

Themisticles had reason to trust the defense of Greece to the Athenian and allied Greek navies. On the eve of the Persian invasion, the Athenians had in desperation sent an embassy to Delphi. There the  Delphic Oracle had promised that Athens’ salvation lay in her “wooden walls”. Some citizens argued that the Acropolis, Athens’ ancient citadel and center of religious and civic life, be fortified with a wooden palisade, behind which the Athenians could make their stand. However, Themistocles insisted that the “wooden walls” the Pythia referred to were the wooden hulls of the city’s fleet of new triremes. In the end, the population was indeed evacuated to Salamis island, with the Greek fleet basing itself there as well. A small number of skeptics chose to hold the Acropolis, behind their wooden palisade.

NGS Picture ID:559413Xerxes’ forces crossed Mount Cithaeron into Attica, and soon arrived at Athens. The Acropolis was stormed with overwhelming force after a few-day’s struggle, and all its defenders slain. When the Persian armada rounded Cape Sounion, they beached at Phaleron, south of the city. There, on the Attic plain outside Athens, the Great King massed his forces and prepared for his next move.

In the Greek allied camp there was division. The Peloponnesians (particularly the Corinthians and Spartans) were for retreating to the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow choke point they could hold against the Persian masses and prevent them marching directly into the Peloponnese. But Themistocles warned that with control of the sea, the Persians could simply land forces anywhere along the Peloponnesian coast, ignoring the defenders of the Isthmus. He urged a naval battle, instead; meeting the larger and more experienced Persian naval forces in the narrow Salamis Straits. He further threatened that if the Peloponnesians retreated to the Isthmus, abandoning Athens and the rest of Greece to the north, that he and the Athenians would abandon Greece entirely. That they would take ship and sail west to Sicily and found a new city. As the Athenian fleet was by far the largest contingent in the allied forces this threat decided the Peloponnesians to stand and fight at Salamis.[2]


To lure the Persians into the narrow straits, where their numbers could not be brought to bear, the wily Themistocles sent word to Xerxes. Pretending to be ready to betray the Greek cause in return for the restoration of Athens, he warned Xerxes that the Greeks were preparing to flee. But that if he struck now, moving against the Greeks while they were retreating out of the Salamis Strait, he would catch the Peloponnesian contingents retiring south and destroy them piecemeal.

There was mixed council in the Persian camp as well. Many of Xerxes commanders were for immediate attack into Salamis Strait. Others argued for marching overland against the Isthmus. Only the Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemesia (who was not only a brave leader, commanding her own naval squadron, but was also mistress of the Great King and one of his canniest advisers) argued for caution. Artemesia explained that the Greeks lacked supplies on Salamis, and if the Great King only waited would be forced to withdraw south. In the open waters further south, nearer the Isthmus, the larger and more experienced Phoenician mariners would have an advantage in a battle of maneuver. Finally, she counseled, it was unnatural for the Greeks to work together. That if Xerxes would only be patient, the alliance would fall apart and the cities would be left to their own individual devices. Some would make peace, and those who refused could be picked-off one-by-one.

Xerxes decided to compromise: while sending 30,000 troops toward Megara and Isthmus, he also took Themistocles’ bait. The Persian armada rowed out from Phaeleron and into the Salamis Straits.

1394378.jpgThe numbers of ships involved have been estimated as 600-900 Persian triremes verses 220-390 Greek triremes. Herodotus states that at the start of the war Xerxes fleet numbered some 1,200 ships. 600 of these were sunk in storms off the Thessalian and Euboean coast. That left 600 ships; and some 50 of these were lost during the naval skirmishes around Cape Artemesium at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus says that Xerxes was reinforced by 120 ships from Thrace and the Islands. This would seem to put the Persian fleet at approximately 670 ships. The Greek fleet was certainly outnumbered by as many as 2-1 and if the lowest number for the Greek fleet is accepted (given by Hyperides), then the Greeks were outnumbered by 3-1 (See note 1 at bottom.)

The trireme was the Ship-of-the-Line of its day. Fast, agile and deadly it was propelled by three banks of oars rowed by 170 oarsmen. Contrary to popular myth these were not slaves, but freeborn citizens (or subjects, in the case of the rowers on the Persian vessels). The trireme’s main weapon was its bronze-sheathed ram at its bow. In battle the ship’s crew and captain attempted to maneuver the trireme into position to ram an enemy ship. Various tactical maneuvers were practiced to achieve this. In succeeding generations the Athenian crews became the elite of the ancient world; experts at out-maneuvering an opponent and getting into position to ram and sink them. If the trireme found itself entangled with another, or its ram stuck in the side of its prey, it carried a compliment of 15 marines to either board or repel boarders. In the Greek fleet these were citizen hoplites. On Persian vessels they could be Persian, Phoenician, Ionian Greeks, or Egyptian soldiers.

1394080 The Olympia, a modern Greek reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme. In testing, Olympias achieved a speed of 9 knots (17 km/h) and was able to execute 180 degree turns within one minute, in an arc no wider than two and a half (2.5) ship-lengths. These results, achieved with an inexperienced crew, suggest that the ancient writers were not exaggerating about the nimbleness and agility of such vessels. With an experienced crew of hardened, professional rowers these numbers would no doubt be even more impressive.

Ethnically, the Persian naval contingents were supplied by the Persian subject peoples of Phoenicia, Egypt, Caria, and the Greek cities of Ionia. The Greek squadron from the city of Halicarnassus in Caria was commanded by Queen Artemesia herself. The cream of Xerxes fleet was the contingent provided by the Phoenician cities, master-mariners of the Levant.

As the Persian armada came on in column, entering the Straits, they were led by the proud Phoenicians, followed by the Ionian Greeks and then the other subject peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. Eager to trap the Greeks fleet they erroneously believed were attempting to withdraw Xerxes’ admirals sent the Egyptian squadron around the Island to block the opposite exit, near Megara. To help rescue ship-wrecked crews or capture floating enemy survivors, a Persian garrison was landed on the tiny Island of Psyttaleia, at the entrance to the channel.

As the Phoenicians rowed majestically down the channel, to their right lay the cliffs of the Attic coast. Two-hundred feet above, on a golden throne, the Great King sat surrounded by his courtiers, observing the action below. Every man in his fleet was aware that their master’s eye was upon them; and that his scribes would note both achievements to be rewarded and failure to be punished. (In fact, after the battle, certain captains who distinguished themselves were given land grants or high positions in the governance of the empire, while others lost their lives for perceived failure or cowardice.) To the left of the Persian fleet lay the shores of Salamis Island. Of the Greek fleet they could see nothing expect sails in the distance, withdrawing as expected toward the Bay of Eleusis.

These departing ships were in fact the Corinthian squadron of the Allied fleet. They were the bait to “sell” the notion that the Greeks were fleeing, drawing the Phoenician vanguard well-and-fully into the trap. What no Persian captain could see was that the bulk of the Greek fleet was waiting in hidden coves and behind promontories along the Salamis shore.

Then, at a signal or predesignated moment the Corinthians furled their sails and dropped their masts (no galley in the ancient world went into battle with their sails hoisted), and turned about. Now, rams towards the enemy, they fell upon the head of the Phoenician column. Simultaneously, from Salamis on their left flank, the Phoenicians were suddenly assailed by the Athenians. The sleek Greek triremes darted forward, their crews raising the paean (battle hymn). The vanguard of the Persian fleet found itself unexpectedly enveloped and assailed from the flank; and in the narrow waters in such close-order even such experienced mariners as the Phoenicians could not maneuver or avoid fouling each other. This sudden melee at the head of the Persian column brought the whole to a halt, and more of the Persian ships coming up behind crowded and fouled each other.

Now, from all along their left flank, the Persian fleet was surprised by flank attacks by the darting Greek triremes, rowing rapidly from coves along the Salamis coast. In the resulting melee, many Persian ships were rammed and holed, or capsized and sunk. None of the Persian squadrons were able to maneuver or work together, while the Greek triremes acted in concert, dashing in-and-out, holing their enemy and just as quickly back-rowing and withdrawing to allow their prey do sink or capsize.

As the battle raged below, Xerxes watched from his throne on the cliffs above. Instead of observing his triumphant fleet finish off the fleeing Greeks, he watched in horror as one Persian ship after another was rammed and sunk.

Herodotus suggests that the Greek triremes were “heavier” built than those of the Phoenicians (who he states were superior seaman than the Greeks). This may have given them an advantage in the ramming battle in the Straits. In boarding actions, the Greek hoplites proved the better fighters, capturing those Persian ships they were able to grapple. (The exception was the Egyptian ships: their marines were armed with a weapon similar to the Medieval European halberd, which proved deadlier in boarding action than the Greek spear.)

As the battle clearly turned into a disaster Queen Artemesia ordered her ship to withdraw. As she was fleeting from the Straits, several Greek triremes began to pursue: the Greeks had placed a bounty on the Greek queen they considered a traitor to Hellas. To throw the hunters off the scent, Artemesia ordered her ship to ram a nearby Phoenician trireme; thus fooling her pursuers into thinking she was one of their own.

1394088.jpgXerxes later approved of her action, saying that his men that day behaved like women, and his woman like a man!

The day ended in a complete and decisive victory for Themistocles and the Greek fleet. The Persian losses were somewhere between 200-300 triremes: a third to half of their fleet. The survivors limped back to the beaches of Phalerum, sheltering in the shadow of the Persian army. Herodotus says the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because most Persians did not know how to swim.[3] Some Phoenician captains tried to blame the battle’s loss on the Ionian Greek contingent’s supposed cowardice during the battle. Xerxes, having just watched from his cliff-high throne an Ionian ship capture an Aeginetan ship (from the nearby Greek island of Aegina), one of the few Persian successes during the battle, as well as the intrepid courage of Queen Artemesia, had the complaining Phoenician admirals beheaded for slandering “more noble men then themselves”.

The Battle of Salamis Xerxes watches the battle from a throne placed on the cliffs above the straits, as his fleet is defeated below.

Even the Persian garrison left on Psyttaleia was not spared the disaster: toward the end of the day, the Greeks landed on the island and slaughtered all they found.

With the Greek fleet now supreme, Xerxes position was perilous. His supply-line was dependent on seaborne supplies from Asia, and his line of retreat was only maintained by a bridge of boats across the distant Hellespont (Dardanelles). Knowing he could no longer feed so vast a horde in Greece, and fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridge across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now withdrew with the bulk of his forces. He left in Attica a picked army of some 120,000 of his best men under the command of his brother-in-law, Mardonius; a force large enough to complete the conquest of Greece, while small enough to sustain itself off of local supplies.

In this task Mardonius would fail, and his army would be destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea, ending the threat of Persian conquest. But Salamis was the turning point, tipping the balance in favor of the Greek city-states. As the Oracle predicted, Athens (and Greece) had found its salvation in its “wooden walls”.

The battle was a tipping-point, and had it gone the other way the history of the Western World would have been far different. A Persian-ruled Greece would have been unlikely to have birthed a Golden Age as was seen in the century that followed. The flowering of arts, architecture, philosophy and democratic self-governance that marked Classical Greece, and which were handed down first to Rome; then to modern man via the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and which are at the core of Western Civilization, would have been stillborn. Rome may still have dominated Europe and the Mediterranean, but it would have lacked the “civilizing” influence of Greece and Hellenic civilization. Its legacy without this would have been much harsher and less enlightening for the world.


For further reading, see:

Great Warships of History: the Greek Trireme


The Lion at the Hot Gates: Thermopylae 480 BC


Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones


  1. The number given for the Greek fleet varies with the sources: Herodotus reports that there were 378 triremes in the Greek fleet, and breaks-down the numbers by city-state (polis). In this table, Athens contributes 180 ships. However, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (who actually fought at Salamis) states that the Greek fleet numbered only 310 triremes, the Athenian contribution being 110; a number supported by Ctesias. Hyperides numbers the Greek fleet at only 220 triremes. As it reflected better upon themselves to inflate the Persian numbers and downplay their own, one should look with skepticism upon Hyperides’ numbers and give Herodotus greater due.
  2. Megara and Aegina, two other non-Peloponnesian naval states, supported Athenian strategy as well, having the most to lose should the Greek fleet abandon them.
  3. Considering that the Persian mariners were mostly from seafaring peoples, this statement seems doubtful; though may have been true of warriors from inland peoples acting as marines aboard ship.


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 Four, go here.)

Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle (The Battle of Kursk) and the Allied landings in Sicily, the SS Panzer Korps was broken up and reorganized. 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was sent to northern Italy; where it helped disarm Italian forces that had surrendered upon the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist government. 3rd SS Totenkopf and the 2nd SSPanzergrenadier Division Das Reich were sent south to aid 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking in repelling a Soviet offensive along the Mius River.

Viking had not been part of the SS-Panzer Korps during the Kursk offensive; but instead had waited at Izyum on the Donets River south of Kharkov. There, along with the 23 Panzer-Division, it was to form the reserve force for Manstein’s attacking forces. When several Soviet formations attacked towards Orel and Kharkov simultaneously, SS “Wiking” was committed against the Soviet forces near Kharkov, destroying around 100 Red Army tanks over several days. When Zitadelle was cancelled, the division remained in the area, halting Soviet attacks.

Further to the south, however, on the Mius-Front, a major Red Army offensive, Operation Rumyantsev, threatened to break the German lines. 5th SS Wiking was attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Korps, replacing LSSAH, and sent to the Mius-Bogodukhov sector to halt the Soviet attacks. In subsequent fighting, the SS divisions defeated two Soviet tank armies (totaling over 1,000 tanks), destroying over 800 of them. However, the SS formations suffered heavily in the fighting as well; as illustrated by Totenkopf’s loss of 1,500 soldiers and its Panzer regiment reduced to a mere 20 tanks.

1449713 SS-Untersturmführer Gerhard Mahn of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment Germania (5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Viking) signals to his armored units as they counter attack behind front line troops in south Russia.

Between 20 September and 20 of November 1943 Das Reich and Totenkopf were pulled out of Russia, and sent into the northwestern Balkans to conduct operations against Slovene and Croat partisans on the Istrian peninsula and north of Trieste. This operation was necessary to keep open communications with German forces operating in the south against Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. After this, both were refitted and rested, and promoted to the status of full panzer divisions (as opposed to Panzergrenadier formations).

In October, SS Viking was again pulled out of the line, and also restructured as a panzer division. To bolster the strength of the division, the Walloon volunteer unit 5th SS-Sturmbrigade “Wallonien” was attached to the division, under the command of Leon Degrelle. (The Walloons were the subject of ridicule by many “Wiking” veterans until they proved their worth in the fighting for a forest near Teklino, thereafter being considered a first-rate fighting formation.)

Following the cancellation by Hitler of the German offensive against the Kursk salient, the Soviets launched massive counterattacks all along the front of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Everywhere the Germans were forced to give ground. Manstein pulled back, and establish a strong, defensible line behind the Dnieper River (the southern part of Hitler’s Panther-Wotan Line). However, by December 1, 1943 Manstein’s line was broken by continuous Soviet armored offensives, the opening of what became known as the Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. Soon, the Soviet Army had crossed the Dnieper in force.

Because of Hitler’s reluctance to allow a general pull-back from the west-bank of the Dnieper, a German force of 58,000 men, 59 tanks and 242 artillery pieces were trapped by the Soviets in a pocket centered on the town of Korsun. Among the trapped units was 5th SS Viking. In the following Battle of the Korsun–Cherkasy Pocket (24 January 1944 – 16 February 1944), Viking acted as a mobile “fire brigade”; stamping out any Soviet penetration of the pocket. During this crises, the 1st SS Panzer Division (LSSAH) returned to Russia to join with the Army (Heer1st Panzer Division as part of the XLVIII Panzer Corps (under the skilled command of General Hermann Balck), spearheading the relief of the forces in the pocket and opening a corridor. During the breakout, Viking sustained serious losses, acting as the German rearguard.

In March 1944, LSSAH was moved to France, where it joined old comrades who had been detached to form the cadre of the newly constituted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”).

These two “sister divsions, along with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, would now form new 1st SS Panzer Korps under the command of LSSAH’s founding leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich. This formation would become the elite strike force of Hitler’s army in the last 12 months of the war in Europe.


Unit symbol of the 12 SS Hitlerjugend (R); combining the sigrunen of the Hitler Youth with the skeleton-key symbol of its parent unit, the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (L)

The idea of forming a Waffen-SS divison composed of Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 (17 year olds) was a project enthusiastically supported by Adolf Hitler; and the division was officially created on 13 February 1943. While the rank-and-file was drawn from these Nazi “Eagle Scouts”, the NCO and officer cadre was drawn from veterans of LSSAH. Its commander was SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt, who had served with great distinction in all of LSSAH’s battles to date. Witt had commanded the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment during the Third Battle of Kharkov (where Witt was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight’s Cross he’d earned in France during the 1940 campaign) and during the fighting at Kursk. His former commander, Paul Hausser, in his Knight’s Cross citation described Witt as “the model of the young leader, never retreating in the face of anything”. He was an example of the caliber of officers who had survived the first bloody years of the war to come of age by 1943-44: bold and imaginative in a way few “conventional” officers ever are, but which is the hallmark of “special ops” soldiers the world over.

This leavening of young, near-fanatical Nazi youth with veteran LSSAH leaders created, in very short time, an elite division worthy of fighting beside its parent division. They would soon be tested, and in the testing nearly perish, in the battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944.


In preparation for the expected Allied landings in France, Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzer Korps was moved to a bivouac to the west of Paris. Together with the above named SS divisions (1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 12 SS Hitlerjugend, and the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen) the Korps was augmented by the addition of the Heer’s (Army’s) elite Panzer-Lehr-Division. This was a very strong armored formation comprised of experienced personnel drawn from the cadre of various panzer (tank) training schools. These former teachers were some of the most experienced and highly-trained panzer operators in the German army. Almost all were decorated veterans of combat in Russia, North Africa, or Sicily/Italy. It was equipped to a higher standard than any other formation in the Heer (with the possible exception of Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland). For these reasons Panzer Lehr was considered an elite unit from the time of its formation in November ’43 and worthy to fight beside the elite 1st SS Panzer Korps.

Dietrich’s Korps was to form a part of Panzer Group West, the Western theater’s armored reserve. Because the German High Command was uncertain of where the Allies would land, these panzer forces were meant to act as the mobile reserve, ready to respond to wherever the landings occurred.

The Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The SS Panzer Korps began moving forward towards the landing zones. However, as Rommel (who had faced the Western Allies in Africa) warned during the months of planning leading-up to the invasion, Allied air power made movement by day extremely problematic. Forced to move only at night the Korps arrived in Normandy in dribs-and-drabs, taking casualties from air attacks along the way.

1449789.jpgKurt Myer (second from left) addressing some of his officers in the field, Normandy

12 SS Hitlerjugend arrived first in the battle area on June 7, one day after the Allied landings (to Allied planners”D+1″) in the Caen area, opposing the advance of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery‘s British and Canadian forces. Brigadeführer Kurt “Panzer” Meyer‘s 25th Panzergrenadier Regiment took over the Ardenne Abbey as regimental headquarters; the Abbey’s Medieval turret allowing for a clear view of the battlefield. That very first day, as the SS made contact with advancing Canadian forces and prisoners were taken, there occurred another of the all-too familiar incidents of war crimes that came to be associated with the Waffen-SS.

Canadian prisoners were taken to the regimental headquarters. When asked what to do with them, Myers is reported to have said: “What should we do with these prisoners; they only eat up our rations?” Afterwards, he announced: “In the future, no more prisoners are to be taken”. This was the “war to the knives” that the hardened Waffen veterans had practiced in Russia now brought to the Western Front as well. The Canadians were taken out into the Abbey garden and executed. Other groups were killed in the same fashion the next day.[1]

1450324.jpg Battles of Carentan and Bloody Gulch

On June 10 SS Götz von Berlichingen was ordered to reinforce Carentan, where two battalions of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 6 (the 6th Parachute Regiment) were defending the town from elements of the 101st Airborne Division. The advance of the Waffen forces was delayed by the stubborn resistance it encountered along the way at Graignes, held by a mere 182 troopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division. After finally forcing the defenders to retreat on the 11th, the SS committed yet another atrocity, executing townsmen for aiding the Americans, as well as American wounded overrun in a makeshift field hospital.

This delay at Graignes allowed the 101st to capture Carentan and to set up defensive positions southwest of the town. Here on 13th June the advance elements of Götz von Berlichingen joined the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment in an effort to break through the 101st Airborne’s defensive perimeter. At what came to be called “Bloody Gulch“, the armored vehicles assaulted the dug-in paratroopers at close quarters, nearly breaking their position until struck in flank and routed by sixty tanks from Combat CommandA of the 2nd Armored Division accompanied by infantry of the 29th Division. This repulse of the SS counter-attack and securing of Carentan allowed the linkup of forces from Utah and Omaha Beachs, creating a secure beach-head for further American operations.


SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101 arrived in the next few days to protect the left wing of the I SS Panzer Korps, which was mostly engaged in defending around Caen. The rest of SS Leibstandarte arrived towards the end of the month with lead elements becoming embroiled in the British offensive Operation Epsom.

This offensive was intended to outflank and seize the city of Caen. Overly-ambitious, Montgomery’s plan called for Caen to fall on D-Day (June 6). In fact, German resistance combined with inept British operational action prevented Allied capture of this objective for six long, hard-fought weeks.

An attempted pincer attack on Caen, on June 7, was thwarted by the 21st Panzer Division (a veteran formation of Rommel’s Africa Korps) and the Panzer-Lehr. With these two heavy divisions blocking direct attack, another attempt (Operation Perch) was launched on the 13th to cut off and “bag” Caen. This was to be accomplished by an armored sweep of the veteran 7th Armoured Division (the “Desert Rats” of the African campaign) around the southwest of Caen. This attack was meant to exploit a gap at Caumont between the left-flank of Panzer-Lehr and 17th SS Götz von Berlichingen, where 2nd Panzer Division had been delayed and had yet to move up into position.

This British attack led to the Battle of Villers-Bocage, a battle in which SSObersturmführer Michael Wittmann would win immortal fame.

1449791.jpg Operation Perch, and the movement of 7th Armored Division towards Villers-Bocage

On 13 June a mixed combat group of tanks, infantry and artillery drawn from elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, under the command of the colorfully-named Brigadier William “Loony” Hinde advanced through the Caumont gap towards Villers-Bocage. After advancing 5 miles, the column, led by the 4th County of London Yeomanry (4th CLY), with a company of the 1st Rifle Brigade, entered the town along its single narrow lane at 08:30 AM, greeted by a crowd of celebrating residents. The long column of tanks and transport vehicles slowly rumbled through the town, its spearhead reaching the important high ground beyond, designated Hill 213. There the entire column halted, each vehicle nose-to-tail, while the company commanders assembled on Hill 213 for a leadership conference.

Unbeknownst to Brigadier Hinde or his officers, Tigers were prowling in the ground to the south.


Aware of the gap in his line, Sepp Dietrich ordered his only reserve, Schwere (heavy) SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 to move behind the Panzer-Lehr and 12th SS-Panzer divisions to the Villers-Bocage area, as a precaution against just such an attempt as was now unfolding. The battalion had only 17 Panzer Mk VI Tiger tanks, and these were spread in company units across several miles. Unfortunately for “Looney” Hinde and his command, directly southwest of Hill 213 and Villers-Bocage was 2nd Company, commanded by Germany’s top “panzer ace”, Michael Wittmann.

Wittmann was surprised at the arrival of a massive enemy column in his company area. Thus far his force had remained undetected, but with the British occupying the high ground at Hill 213 it was likely his command would soon be observed and come under fire.

“I had no time to assemble my company; instead I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank (his own command vehicle) and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground.” – Michael Wittmann

Wittmann had only 5 Tigers available for action, and was thus severely outnumbered in both tanks and men. However, he had three advantages that morning at Villers-Bocage. First was the element of surprise: though Wittmann assumed otherwise, the British had not yet spotted his Tigers concealed on their right (southern) flank. Secondly, no doubt to Wittmann’s surprise and delight, the British vehicles were halted and tightly packed along the road. Within the village’s narrow lanes the Allied vehicles had no room to maneuver, or routes of escape Finally, he had beneath him an armored behemoth which, despite its many mechanical drawbacks, was nearly impervious (frontally and along its sides) to most of the weapons he faced. While his Tiger’s powerful 88 mm gun was a proven tank-killer that could pierce the armor and destroy any Allied armored vehicle it met.

While unaware that Tigers were poised to attack the flank of his regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur, Viscount Cranley, commander of the 4th CLY, was concerned that his column, halted and strung out along the road, was vulnerable. “Out on a limb”, was the way he described his position. He expressed this concern to his superior, “Looney” Hinde; who brushed these aside and ordered him to join the leader’s conference on Point 213, at the front of the column. Hinde himself left Villers-Bocage to return to his Brigade headquarters 4 kilometers to the rear.

Thus at the very moment that Wittmann was advancing to the attack the British troops and vehicles sitting at Villers-Bocage were virtually without leadership. Their brigade commander, the blissfully over-confident and well-named “Looney” Hinde was headed away from the battle area, and their battalion and company commanders were all gathered at the head of the column for a conference.

At around 0900 AM, a certain Sergeant O’Connor of the Rifle Brigade, travelling towards this conference atop Point 213 in a half-track, spotted Wittmann’s tank breaking cover and advancing parallel to the road, only 50 yards away. Breaking radio silence to give warning, O’Connor shouted out: “For Christ’s sake get a move on! There’s a Tiger running alongside us fifty yards away!”

But his warning came too late for the British at Villers-Bocage. Caught flat-footed, their tank crews stretching their legs and making tea, the British had no chance to prepare an effective resistance. The tiger was loose among the sheep.

What followed in the next 15 minutes was one of those moments in military history that beg credulity. Michael Wittmann, in a single Tiger Tank (marginally supported by the other 4 Tigers available, who took on the vehicles on Hill 213) brought the advance of the entire 7th Armored Division to a halt.


Breaking cover along the south side of the road, Wittmann first fired upon and knocked out the rearmost tank at Point 213, a Cromwell MK VIII cruiser. A quick second shot set ablaze a Sherman Firefly. These two burning tanks now blocked the road.

Driving west parallel to the column, Wittmann’s Tiger next took under fire and destroyed one vehicle after another as he went.

“The enemy (Wittmann) attended first of all to the motor platoons…trundling back toward Villers, shooting up vehicles and riflemen section by section; with only the company’s 6pdr anti-tank guns able to offer even a measure of resistance, which I learned afterward they did with considerable bravery but with little effect.” – Christopher Milner, Commander, “A” Company, CLY[2]

At the east end of Villers-Bocage Wittmann engaged and knocked out three M5 Stuart light tanks of the 4th CLY Reconnaissance Troop, these the headquarters troop.


Wittmann then entered the town, his Tiger’s 88 blazing at targets at close range. British tanks and vehicles went up in flames, as the Tiger raged among them. Finally, as his tank exited the town on the north side, Wittmann’s Tiger was disabled by an ant-tank round. Bailing out, he and his crew made their way safely on foot  to the headquarters of Panzer-Lehr Division.

Villers-Bocage, zerstörte Militärfahrzeuge

Carnage at Villers-Bocage (T);  Wrecked British vehicles on Hill 213 (B).

Villers-Bocage, zerstörte britische Panzer

Meanwhile, the Germans were now attacking Villers-Bocage from the north and south simultaneously, as the 1st Company of Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 and tanks from Panzer-Lehr entered the battle. By 1300 the leading battle-group of the 22nd Armored Brigade (spearhead of the 7th Armored Division and Operation Perch) had ceased to exist. 27 tanks, three self-propelled guns, 14 armored half-tracks, and two 6pdr anti-tank guns had been destroyed. Worse, nearly the entire battle-group command personnel, isolated on Hill 213 by Wittmann’s initial assault, became prisoners of war, including Lt Col Viscount Cranley. Though the British held the village for another day, Operation Perch had been stopped by this strong and bloody rap on the nose. By noon the following day (June 14) the division commander ordered the 7th Armored Division to retreat back to its starting positions to the east.

Wittmanns action has been described as “one of the most amazing engagements in the history of armored warfare”, and “one of the most devastating single-handed actions of the war”. But it was also foolhardy, and not the proper role of a company commander, whose place was at the head of his command; not dashing into the midst of an enemy formation “like a brash subaltern looking to get mentioned in dispatches”. It was a reckless bravery that would cost him his life two months later, when he was killed in action. However, for his action at Villers-Bocage Wittmann was promoted to Hauptsturmführer (Captain) and awarded Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

1449815.jpg Michael Wittmann


As the summer continued on, the Allie’s weight of men, material and firepower took its toll on the German formations in Normandy.  Naval gunfire from Allied cruisers and battleships off the coast combined with unrelenting air attacks to wear down the fighting strength of even such battle-hardened formations as the Waffen-SS. On 14 June, a British naval barrage hit the division command post of Hitlerjugend in Venoix. The division’s dynamic commander Fritz Witt was killed instantly. The division and his former comrades in LSSAH mourned his loss. He was replaced by the 33-year-old Kurt “Panzer” Meyer.


A determined-looking young SS trooper, Normandy 1944

Reinforcements arrived from the Eastern Front in the form of the II SS Panzer Corps consisting of the 9th SS Hohenstaufen and 10th SS Frundsberg divisions and the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 102, sent to spearhead a counter-offensive to destroy the Allied beachhead. However, the two divisions were fed piecemeal into the battle to stop Allied attacks and the Germans were unable to gain the initiative.

On July 25th the Americans launched Operation Cobra, a massive offensive against the left flank of the German line south of the Cotentin Peninsula. Timed just a week after the start of Operation Goodwood , which tied down the best German formations around Caen, Omar Bradley’s Twelfth United States Army Group (supported by intensive carpet bombing of German formations in their path) blew through the German lines. Shortly after the start of the offensive, General George S. Patton, Jr was brought out of semi-retirement and given command of the newly activated Third Army. Arrayed on the far right (west) of the American line, Patton’s army broke through the opposing German forces and, turning west, swept into Brittany.


Moving with incredible dash and elan, Patton’s formations hooked around the German forces in Normandy, creating a massive encirclement. The German formations trapped in what came to be called the Falaise pocket included the 1 SS Leibstandarte, 10 SS Frundsberg, 12 SS Hitlerjugend and the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen.

To open an escape corridor, the II SS Panzer Korps (now composed of divisions 2 SS Das Reich and the 9 SS Hohenstaufen), now commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich, veteran commander of Hohenstaufen, were ordered to attack the vital Hill 262 from the outside in order to keep the gap open. Here they fought a desperate and costly engagement against the Polish 1st Armored Division. But though repelled, time was bought for large numbers of German forces to escape the pocket; though many formations had to abandon all their equipment in order to do so, walking out of the encirclement with nothing but what they could carry.


(In George Patton the Allies finally had a senior commander as skilled in modern mobile warfare as the best German commanders. Patton was something of an anomaly: an old soldier [the oldest general in the American Army] filled with outdated, romantic notions of war; yet who fully embraced and helped develop the most modern concepts of mechanized, combined arms warfare. Patton understood better than any of his contemporaries the devastating nature of American tactical air power, and how it had changed the rules of warfare. His orders to his division commanders to drive deep and fast through German lines, ignoring potential threats to their flanks, was in recognition of the reality that aerial reconnaissance and ground attack would secure their flanks from any major threat as they advanced. From the day he took over Third Army and began his dash across France to the German border, the German commanders had a foe to whom they had no answer, and the fortunes of the Third Reich in the West were numbered.)

During the retreat from the Falaise death-trap Obersturmbannführer Max Wünsche, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment, attempted to ex-filtrate from the pocket on foot, along with two other officers. Wounded in the leg, the intrepid Wünsche did not make it: he was captured by British troops. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war in camp 165 at Caithness, Scotland, a special camp for high-ranking German officers. His loss was a sore one: Wünsche was among the best of Germany’s young combat leaders. Only 30 years old, he was one of that class of “young Turk” officers that had grown within the Waffen during the early years of the war, rising rapidly to higher command based on their abilities as combat leaders. In the desperate battles to come, his presence would be sorely missed.

1597486.jpgA remarkable photo of Max Wünsche (riding motorcycle), transporting a wounded subordinate, Rudolf von Ribbentrop (sidecar) to an aid-station near near Norrey-en-Bessin in summer, 1944. In no other organization would a regimental commander personally convey a comrade to a medical station; such was the informality and hands-on ethos within the Waffen SS.

With the German Army in full retreat from Normandy, two more Waffen-SS formations entered the battle in France: SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 49 and the SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 51. Both had been formed in June 1944 from staff and students at the SS-Junkerschule. These Brigades were tasked to hold crossings over the Seine River, allowing the broken army to retreat. Eventually they were forced back and then withdrew, the surviving troops being incorporated into the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen division.

1449838.jpg Captured Waffen SS soldier



  1. For his responsibility in the Ardenne Abbey massacre Myer was convicted and sentenced to death on 28 December 1945 by an Allied tribunal. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 14 January 1946; but he was released after serving only nine years.
  2. Forty, George, The Desert Rats at War.
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The 30 Years War had raged for ten years, and for the Protestant cause it had been a string of disasters. Then a new champion took-up the sword to defend the faith against the Catholic armies of the Empire: Gustavus Adolphus, the “Lion of the North”!  In his first battle against the ever-victorious army of Catholic League General Tilly, the Swedish king would prove his name and cement his renown as one of history’s “Great Captains” of war.


In 1628, the Hapsburg dream of a united Catholic Germany, ruled from Vienna, seemed nearly realized. Ten years into what would become known as the Thirty Years War, Catholic-Imperialist forces had crushed all opposition from Bohemia to Denmark. The Protestant Electors of the Rhine principalities had been humbled, the Czechs brought back into the Catholic fold, and the Danes defeated and humiliated. By 1630, the Imperial armies of Tilly and Wallenstein were camped along the Baltic shores, with Germany seemingly pacified behind them.

Only Protestant Sweden, across the icy waters, remained defiant.

When King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden crossed the Baltic and landed in Germany with a mere 13,000 men, the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II sneered, “So, we have another little enemy!”

However, the “Lion of the North” was an enemy of no little ability.

Scion of the warrior Vasa dynasty, Gustav II Adolf was the most brilliant offshoot of a family tree known to produce soldiers and statesmen of exception. Coming to the throne in 1611 at the age of 16, he inherited three wars from his father: against Denmark (the Kalmar War), Russia, and against Poland. The first was concluded by treaty in 1613; and the second ended in 1617 with the Treaty of Stolbovo, which excluded Russia from the Baltic Sea. The Polish war dragged on till 1629, ending with the Truce of Altmark, which transferred the large province Livonia to Sweden.

1580309.jpg Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden

These conflicts early in his life not only greatly enhanced the territory and power of the Swedish Empire, which now controlled the eastern Baltic; but honed Gustavus’ native abilities as a commander. In Poland he faced a very good commander in his own right, the great Hetman of the Polish Commonwealth, Stanislaw Koniecpolski. Much of the talent he showed later for rapid and unexpected maneuver may have been learned fighting against this Polish hero, whose operational hallmark this was. Gustavus also no doubt used the Polish war to develop his tactical theories and to train his small, professional Army into a finely tuned machine.

In June of 1630 Gustavus landed in Pomerania, where Sweden already had a base at Stralsund. The Swedish expeditionary force was financed, in large part, by French money: the far-sighted Cardinal Richelieu preferring a continuation of the religious war in Germany to a united Hapsburg Germany on France’s doorstep. Gustavus was also aided by the Emperor’s dismissal of Wallenstein earlier that year, after that great Imperial commander’s failure to capture Stralsund. While the bulk of Wallenstein’s army joined Tilly’s, many thousands of veteran mercenaries abandoned Imperial service in disgust, and instead joined the Swedish king.

Gustavus set about methodically taking one north-German fortress and town after another. Many surrendered upon a mere show of force, as the northern Germans, largely Protestants, were inclined to support any Protestant champion.


Even so, at the start of the following year the Swedes were still too weak to offer battle against Tilly’s superior army. Negotiations for a strengthening alliance with the Protestant states of central Germany seemed to be going nowhere, as the timid princes were unwilling to brave the wrath of Tilly’s Imperial army. Then Protestant Magdeburg was captured and sacked by Tilly’s army on the 20th of May 1631, in an act of barbarity so savage it shocked the sensibilities of Catholic and Protestant alike. Of the 30,000 citizens, only 5,000 survived the orgy of rapine and murder by the Imperial army. For the subsequent fourteen days, burned and mangled bodies were carried down the Elbe River, which became choked with the dead. The Imperial cavalry commander, the Graf zu Pappenheim, wrote:

It is certain that no more terrible work and divine punishment has been seen since the destruction of Jerusalem. All of our soldiers became rich. God was with us.

When Tilly moved into Saxony, pillaging far and wide to feed his ravaging host the Elector was finally moved to throw his lot in with the Swedes. Gustavas marched on Leipzig, which Tilly’s army had just captured along with enormous booty. His 23,000 Swedes were now reinforced with 18,000 Saxon troops, creating a united force of some 41,000.

The Swedish lion now offered Tilly battle a few miles northwest of Leipzig, on the plain of Breitenfeld.

1580310.jpg Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly  


Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, the seventy-two-year-old Walloon general commanding the Imperial army, had learned his trade in the Low Countries under the famed Duke of Parma. He was an accomplished commander, and had defeated every enemy who’d dared face him in battle. Though outnumbered in the coming battle, experience had shown that his 35,000 professionals were the equal of any number the Protestants could raise against them.

As veteran as their commander, Tilly’s Imperial army had campaigned for 10 years from the Bohemian Alps to the Baltic. Trained in the Spanish model, the heart of this force was the Imperial tercios: massed blocks of pike-and-musket armed troops. Like moving fortresses these ponderous squares varied between 3,000 and 1,500 men each, drawn-up in up to 30 ranks. Tilly had seventeen tercios deployed at Breitenfeld, in all about 25,000 trained and experienced infantry. By reputation these were the best foot in the world.


(Above) Imperial/Spanish tercio, detail from contemporary illustration. (Below) Breakdown of pike vs “shot” Spanish_Tercio_Formation

By contrast, Gustavus’ reforms of the Swedish infantry had created a much different tactical force. Disdaining the ponderous tactics of the tercio, and building upon the work of Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus’ foot were organized into smaller, more flexible regiments and Brigades, the latter of 1,500 men. Unlike the Imperial tercio, the Swedes deployed in only 4-5 ranks deep; each brigade formed in a cross-shaped formation of pike and supporting musketeers. In battle, these brigades formed-up in two lines, with the brigades of the second line supporting the gaps between each brigade in the first. The Swedish system allowed the units to maneuver more rapidly on the field, without crowding each other, and to deliver a much higher rate of fire against the enemy.

Swedish Brigade Formation

In numbers and quality of infantry the Imperial forces had the advantage, particularly in quality. Tilly deployed about 25,000 veteran infantry to the Gustavus’ 15,000 Swedish veterans. Though Gustavus’ Swedish Brigades were trained to high level of excellence, the 9,000 Saxon allied infantry were poor quality militia, armed and trained in outdated pike tactics and with few muskets. Tilly had little to fear from these.


17th century pikeman, set to receive a charge

In the 17th century infantry were the solid core of an army, with the great blocks of pike-and-shot lumbered across the battlefield like human fortresses. But cavalry were the decisive arm in battle, maneuvering on the flanks and in the gaps: the hammer to the tercio’s anvil. Cavalry were a large and effective part of both armies at Breitenfeld.

IMG_172917th century musketeer

There were of three types of horse during this age in Western Europe: cuirassiers, harquebusiers, and light horse.

The first of these, the cuirassiers, were the supreme heavy cavalry of the day. These were horsemen equipped in three-quarter plate armor (including a cuirass that was proof against firearms) and armed with sword and pistol. They were trained to charge the enemy, the first two ranks discharging their pistols at close quarters before drawing their swords and galloping into the enemy’s ranks. Sweden, poor in resources and lacking large horses, fielded only one regiment of these in the war. The Imperials, on the other hand, had the services of many thousands of such cuirassiers, commanded by Pappenheim, who due to the color of their armor were sometimes referred to as the “Black Cuirassiers”.


The second type, the harquebusiers, were a hybrid “medium cavalry”, the archetype for the dragoons of the following century. Though equipped and trained with a harquebus to skirmish with the enemy, mounted or dismounted, they were also quite capable of charging with sword, and many regiments equipped their troopers with a cuirass and helmet.


Finally, there were the light cavalry. The Imperial army had a number of Croat and Hungarian light horse. These were skilled scouts and foragers (the Croats in particular earning a fearsome reputation as plunderers), and in battle could harass the enemy’s flanks or ruthlessly pursue a broken foe. Their counterpart in the Swedish forces was provided by Finns, commanded by the capable Gustav Horn. These were excellent scouts and foragers, and even more feared in battle than the Croats. These were known as Hakkapeliitta, there name based on their battle cry: hakkaa päälle (“Cut them down!”).


Swedish cavalry

In pure numbers Tilly’s Imperial cavalry were outnumbered by their Protestant opponents: 9,000 to Gustavus’ 13,000. But the allied cavalry were more lightly equipped, and none were as heavily armed (and armored) as Pappenheim’s feared Black Cuirassiers. Worse for the Swedish king, 5,000 of Gustavus horsemen were Protestant German contingents of doubtful quality.

In Poland, a land of superb cavalry, Gustavus had resorted to the Huguenot practice (from the French Wars of Religion in the previous century), of detailing small units of musketeers to support the cavalry with fire. These “commanded shot” gave the otherwise over-matched Swedish horse a fighting chance at breaking the charge of better mounted and equipped Polish cavalry, particularly the famed “Winged Hussars”. This practice continued in Gustavus’ German campaigns, and would play a key part in the coming battle.

Only in number and quality of guns was the Imperial army at a disadvantage. Tilly’s were larger but less mobile than those of the Swedes. Once placed these overly-heavy guns were difficult to move, and so usually stayed in one place throughout the battle. The Swedes and their Saxon allies had as many heavy guns, but Gustavus, a great proponent of artillery, had reformed that arm; standardizing the calibers in use and lightening the guns themselves.  The Swedish guns were thus easier to maneuver and faster to load. Additionally, each of the Swedish Brigades had their own integral light artillery, in the form of six light 3 pounder “regimental guns” per Brigade. These were easy to manhandle in battle, and could sustain a relatively rapid rate of fire. Finally, Gustavus had cross-trained his cavalry and infantry as gunners so that in a pinch they could man guns whose crews were slain, or turn captured enemy guns against their previous owners.

ReggunSwedish regimental 3lb gun  


The morning of September 17, 1631 dawned bright and hot. Tilly drew up his 35,000 strong Imperial army along some two miles of frontage. He deployed these in two lines, with a small cavalry reserve. In the Spanish custom, he posted the bulk of his cavalry on both wings, covering the flanks of his stolid tercios in the center. The heavy Imperial guns were spread evenly across the front. A gentle slope favored his dispositions, and the day would begin with the sun at his back and in the eyes of his Protestant foes.

The Imperial forces were resplendent in the imperial colors of red and yellow, in what passed for uniforms, beneath buff coats and steel cuirasses.


The Imperial left was commanded by the renown Pappenheim,  at the head of seven full cuirassier regiments.  On the opposite flank, facing the Saxons, the Count Egon von Fürstenberg commanded another five cuirassier regiments, supported by a regiment of dragoons and one of Croat light horse. Fürstenberg also had a large number of heavy guns supporting his wing, destined to play a critical part in the struggle.

By contrast, Gustavus allied army must have presented a much meaner appearance than their Imperial foes. After months of sleeping in plowed fields, the Swedes in tattered blue and brown homespun presented a rustic site compared to splendidly-accoutered Imperialists across the field.

Pike_and_shot_modelSwedish musketeers and pikemen in a  life-sized diorama at Swedish Armeemuseum, Stockholm

Gustavus drew up the seven brigades of Swedish foot in two lines, backed by a reserve of Finnish horse. His Saxon allies he placed on his left. The Swedish Brigades were deployed a chessboard fashion, the three brigades of the second line covering gaps equal to their frontage between the four brigades of the first line. Across their front were  twelve heavy guns in one grand battery (this aside from the 42 light regimental guns integral to the infantry Brigades). The “grand battery” was commanded by young Lennart Torstensson, a gifted artillery prodigy who, one day, would prove his own worth as an army commander. The infantry of the center were commanded by Maximilian Teuffel, a German soldier in Swedish service.

On the Swedish right were 4,100 horse supported by 1,200 “commanded” musketeers, the wing commanded by the veteran Johan Banér. The Swedish left comprised 2,300 cavalry supported by 800 musketeers and commanded by Gustavus’ second-in-command, Horn.


Beyond Horn’s cavalry wing and facing Fürstenberg was the Saxon army, under the nominal command of their Elector, John George, assisted by a professional German soldier-of-fortune, Hans Georg von Arnim. The Saxons deployed their blocks of pikemen into a wedge formation, supported on either wing by massive wedges of cavalry. Such a formation can only be of use in the offense, and it is evident that Gustavus, who planned to let the Imperial army break itself against the superior Swedish firepower, was not on the same page as his ally. As events would show, this would prove very nearly disastrous for the Protestant allies in the battle soon to unfold.


The battle began with the Imperial screen of Croat light horse attempting to interfere with the Swedish deployment. They were thwarted when Banner unleashed the shaggy Finnish Hakkapeliitta upon them. The Finns gave the Croats the kind of savaging they were used to dealing out, and the Croats scattered back to their own lines. No doubt satisfied with themselves, the Finns fell back through the gaps in the Brigades and rejoined the reserve.

The battle then settled down into an artillery duel, over the next two hours, each side attempting to silence the other’s guns.  The Swedes’ better trained crews fired three-to-five times faster than their opponents and soon got the upper-hand. In response, Tilly ordered his cavalry on both wing to attack. [1]


On the Imperial left the fiery Pappenheim led some 5,000 of his Black Cuirassiers in a furious charge on the Swedish right-wing horse under Banér. Expecting to crush the lighter Swedish horse (even whose “heavy” regiments had little more than a simple cuirass worn over a buff coat), Pappenheim’s squadrons received an unexpectedly stout reception: disciplined volleys by the Swedish “commanded” musketeers supporting the Swedish horse. These salvos was followed-up by short, sharp charges by Banér’s squadrons. This “one-two” punch through Pappenheim’s riders back on their haunches. Attempts to swing wide and outflank the Swedish line were met by squadrons and companies of the second Swedish line, who, drilled to meet just such a move, coolly wheeling out to meet and greet the Imperialists in similar fashion.

Seven times that afternoon Pappenheim, the scarred veteran of countless charges, reordered his squadrons and flung them once again against the ill-mounted, contemptible Swedish horse and the impudent musketeers operating between their squadrons. Each time these latter darted out, deployed, and discharged a deadly hail of lead into his massed squadrons. Into the resulting confusion, the Swedish horsemen again-and-again counter-charged,  then falling back in disciplined fashion to reform. Pappenheim’s dwindling regiments recoiled each time frustrated and bloodied.

1536652_493087044144146_269198103_n Imperial cuirassiers, discharging pistols into the faces of their enemies

Meanwhile, on the Imperial right, Fürstenberg’s cuirassiers enjoyed a very different outcome against Gustavus’ Saxon allies. Supported by heavy cannonade the Imperial cavalry charged the inexperienced and poorly led Saxons that formed the left of the allied line. Deployed for attack and not defense, the Saxons were ill-prepared to receive this assault, which proved too much for the ill-trained militiamen.Despite their officers best efforts to steady them, they dropped their weapons and fled the field in utter rout! With the blades and pistols of Fürstenberg’s riders in their backs, the 18,000 strong Saxon army quitted the field in mass.

At a stroke, Gustavus was deprived of forty-five percent of his army, and his left-wing laid bare. The veteran Tilly saw his opportunity, and now ordered his infantry to advance to their right at the oblique, in an effort to take advantage of the situation and outflank the Swedes.

Fortunately for the Protestant cause, Fürstenberg needed time to reorder his squadrons; while the infantry of the Imperial center also took time to respond: like an elephant the tercio had great mass but little spring. As they ponderously advanced into the void left by the Saxon rout, Gustavus’ intrepid second-in-command, Gustav Horn, had the time needed to order a response.

Coolly and quickly Horn ordered the Swedish second line of foot and horse (which included General John Hepburn’s crack Green Brigade of doughty Scotsmen) at right angle to their main line, facing and covering the exposed left. As Tilly’s infantry came around the flank into the ground deserted by the now routed Saxons, and began to wheel to their left, they were brought under fire by regimental light guns and some of the heavy guns of Torstennson’s main battery. Worse for Tilly, their redeployment was further slowed when Horn counter-attacked Fürstenberg’s horsemen, who’d attempted an ineffectual spoiler attack against Horn’s redeploying reserves but were instead thrown back into their own advancing tercios, causing disorder and delay.


At 6 pm the battle reached its climax on the Swedish right. Following the repulse of Pappenheim’s seventh assault, Gustavus took personal command of the squadrons on his right. Aware of the rout of the Saxons and the crises on his other flank, it was time to put-paid to Pappenheim and free his right from interference. Putting himself at the head of the savage Finnish Hakkapeliitta of his reservehe led a counter-attack in mass against Pappenheim’s recoiling Imperials before they could reform. Repulse turned to rout, and the famed Black Cuirassiers were stampeded from the field, a portion of Banér’s squadrons in close pursuit. They did not stop running till they reached Halle, fifteen miles to the northwest.

The oblique advance of Tilly’s infantry to their right had left the Imperialist artillery batteries, which were stationary and unable to maneuver with the infantry, all but deserted where their front line had once been. With both his Hakkapeliitta and the remaining squadrons from Banér right-wing in hand, Gustavus swept across his own front to overrun Tilly’s guns, scattering the small body of Imperial reserve cavalry that attempted to interfere. Simultaneously, the unoccupied infantry of the Swedish center began wheeling forward to their left, as the whole battle shifted 90 degrees.

HakkapeliittaThe cross-training of every Swedish soldier as gunner now paid dividends, as the Swedish horsemen dismounted and turned Tilly’s guns against the left flank of the tercios. Here they delivered a withering enfilade fire against their erstwhile owners. Torstennson’s main battery, no longer occupied with counter-battery fire against the Imperialist guns,wheeled 90 degrees and joined in smashing the tightly packed ranks of the Imperial infantry.

Even the best of soldiers can only endure so much. As casualties mounted, the ever-shrinking ranks of the Imperialist soldiers began to look to their rear. At that moment, Gustavus delivered the coup-de-grace, attacking simultaneously with cavalry and foot from his right wing and center; just as Horn led a charge of his left-wing cavalry around the right flank of the tercios. Facing envelopment, and the threat of having all retreat cut off, the Imperial army broke.


The Swedish cavalry were not inclined to mercy, and in close pursuit rode down the fleeing masses, inflicting with cold steel “Magdeburg quarter”. Only growing darkness and the presence of a deep wood to the rear of the battle put an end to the pursuit and gave the surviving Imperialist soldiers a place of succor.

Tilly, thrice wounded during the fighting and unconscious, was carried from the field by a small escort.

The battlefield was a charnel house, with perhaps as many as 12,000 Imperial dead or dying on the field. 7,000 had grounded arms and surrendered, most of which (being mercenaries) took service with the victor. Of the allied Swedish-Saxon army, some 5,000 were casualties, the majority of which were Saxon (by some accounts, the Swedes loss a mere 200 men).

Capturing the Imperial camp intact, the victors found it well-victualed, a victory feast prepared in advance and awaiting on Tilly’s richly appointed table. Gustavus and his officers dinned in Tilly’s own pavilion, while his army celebrated this titanic victory feasting and drinking from Imperial stores.


When news of Breitenfeld reached Vienna, the Imperial court was “thunder-struck”. This was the first battle victory by Protestant forces since the 30 Years War had begun in 1618. Throughout the Protestant world there was rejoicing with a fervor that knew no bounds. At last a champion had appeared, in the form of the “Lion of the North”, and a hopeless cause had been restored.

In Halle, Tilly could rally a mere 600 foot. Pappenheim joined him, with just 1,400 horse remaining under the Imperial banner. Worse news soon followed, as word came that Gustavus’ forces had overrun Merseburg, and after a brief skirmish forced the surrender of another 3,000 Imperial troops. The battle was a disaster for the Catholic cause, and overnight the Imperial army that had brought Germany to its knees ceased to exist.

Breitenfeld was that rare thing: a decisive battle. It utterly changed the tide of a war that had seemed all but over, following 13 uninterrupted years of Catholic-Imperial victory. The 30 Years War would drag on for another 17 years, claiming the lives of both Gustavus and Tilly (and, ultimately, Tilly’s successor, Wallenstein) and countless others, soldiers and civilians alike. But Breitenfeld accomplished the succor of the Protestant movement in Germany; and it was never again close to extinction, as it had been before the battle.

The battle accomplished one other thing as well, and this perhaps not to the benefit of the German people. It prevented an early unification of Germany under Hapsburg rule. It would take another two-and-a-half centuries and the genius of Otto Von Bismarck to achieve that goal.

Militarily, Gustavus ushered in the era of linear formations and firepower as the decisive factor in battle. His infantry, fighting in lines of fewer ranks and greater frontage, allowed less men to cover more ground, and to deliver a greater volume fire to greater effect. Though the pike would continue in use among infantry till the early 18th century, the ratio of pike-to-shot would continue to shift towards firearms; till the invention of the bayonet allowed every infantryman to be both pikeman and musketeer.

In the artilleryman’s art Gustavus was both visionary and revolutionary. He was the first to make good use of light, mobile field guns in battle. In the future all European powers would experiment with and develop this arm. Eventually it would lead to mobile “horse gun” batteries, and more and greater field artillery in every army. Before Gustavus artillerymen were military contractors, hired by generals and princes for each campaign. After Gustavus, they were all military professionals, a branch of every nation’s armed forces.

Breitenfeld solidified Gustavus Adolphus’ reputation as a commander. Though he lost his life a mere fourteen months later at Lützen , he would forever be rated, by such experts on the subject as Napoleon and Clausewitz, as one of history’s greatest commanders.

(For more on Gustavus Adolphus and other leaders mentioned in this piece, see my article,  “The 25 Greatest Commanders of the Renaissance“.)



  1. Some scholars of the battle say Pappenheim’s assaults on the Swedish right were impetuous and launched either without Tilly’s sanction or at least prematurely. That Tilly meant to wait on the defensive till reinforcements joined him. Scholars to this day puzzle over what Tilly planned; but as neither Tilly nor his lieutenants penned an account of the battle, we can only speculate. Some have suggested the old Walloon soldier planned an audacious double envelopment maneuver; using his qualitatively superior cavalry to break both wings of his enemy’s forces; while their center was pinned in place by the mass of his infantry, and with the artillery of both sides still pounding away at each other. This may well be the case: Pappenheim’s massive heavy cavalry attack initially on the Swedish right-wing cavalry is reminiscent of Hannibal’s opening gambit at the Battle of Cannae. There, the Carthaginian heavy cavalry led by Maharbal thundered against the Roman left wing horse; shattering them and sending them fleeing from the field. But Gustavus was no Varro (the ill-fated Roman commander at that ancient debacle); and he had an effective counter to Pappenheim’s impetuous assaults.


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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“We saw it! The hussars let loose their horses: God, what power! They ran through the smoke and the sound was like that of a thousand blacksmiths beating with a thousand hammers. Jezus Maria! The lances bent forward like stalks of rye driven by a great storm, bent on glory! They crash into the Swedish reiters…Overwhelming them! They sliced without effort through the whole army…”

This breathless account of a 17th century battle from Potop (“The Deluge”), by Henry Sienkievich captures well the furious charge of the famed Polish “Winged Hussars”. For roughly a century (1576-1683) they were the premiere cavalry in Europe, if not the world. In battle-after-battle, their crushing charge dealt the coup-de-grace to every enemy they faced. While suffering the occasional (even crushing) defeat, their century-long record of success is unsurpassed in the annals of cavalry warfare.

The towarzysz (“comrades”) of the Polish Husaria were armored lancers, their primary weapon the very long (and light) kopia. This differed from the standard lance of the Medieval knights in that it was hollow, thus allowing greater length without commensurate weight. Many writers have opined as to the reason for the great length of the 18-21 foot kopia, suggesting that it was to give the lancer greater reach in order to defeat the pike-armed infantry formations of the day. But its use in such an action is only apparent in one battle of the many the Husaria engaged in, and accounts differ as to whether or not on that occasion the enemy square was broken by flank or frontal attack.

1386388.jpgAs backup weapon, the Hussar carried a variety of weapons: saber, long sword, mace and even war-hammer (nadziak). Pistols, musketoons, and even composite bows could be carried as well.

The most famous piece of a Hussar’s equipment was his wings.

These varied over the heyday of the Husaria, from mere wings painted on or hanging from the Hussars shield, to two large “skoklosters“, hooped wooden frames onto which eagle feathers were attached. These latter were mounted on the Hussars back, or the back of his saddle.

1386395.jpgThe purpose of the wings is controversial. Some writers suggested that the wings made a frightening noise when the Hussar was at a gallop. This is almost certainly apocryphal: modern reenactor Rik Fox of the Los Angles-Based Suligowski’s Regiment Husaria reenactment group assures me that no such sound is apparent; or would be heard above the din of battle, in any case. Others have put forth the theory that the fluttering wings frightened enemy horses unaccustomed to the sight, causing enemy cavalry charging against the Hussars to balk. This is more plausible: the fluttering lance pennants and feathers might indeed “spook” an enemy horse unaccustomed to the sight. It has also been suggested that the wing-frames may have acted to deflect Tartar lassos or enemy sabre cuts.

All that we know for sure is that they lent the Hussars a unique and spectacular appearance.

Though for a time the strongest state in Eastern Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was beset by a plethora of enemies. Though its Hussars could tip the scales and win battles, these were a relatively small, elite force; never exceeding 3,000 armored lancers. Despite such battlefield successes as they enjoyed, the far-flung kingdom was beset on all sides by aggressive neighbors. Ultimately Poland was for time overrun and on the verge of collapse (“The “Deluge“, 1648-1667).

But Poland reemerged, and in 1683 under its heroic king, Jan Sobieski, the Hussars enjoyed their most celebrated success, riding forth to save Europe one last time from the advancing tide of Islam!


John Sobieski


Since its emergence in the early 7th century, the warriors of Islam had been battering at the gates of “Christendom”. The early surge of Muslim invasion overran much of the Christian Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire, taking Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. Crossing into Spain, the Muslim Moors destroyed the Visigoth Kingdom, establishing first an Emirate and later a break-away Caliphate, centered on Cordoba.

This first onrush of the Muslim tide was stopped in the east at the Anatolian mountains by successive Byzantine soldier-Emperors. In the west, Muslim conquest was stopped by the Frankish hero, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”), deep in France at the Battle of Tours (732 AD).

After fighting off Christian Europe’s attempt to regain the lost territories of Syria and Palestine (the “Holy Land”) during the period known as the “Crusades“, Islam was once again on the march into Europe. From the 14th century onward, under the Ottoman Sultans of Turkey, the borders of Islam had advanced steadily into Eastern Europe.

An outgrowth of a militant “Ghazi” state on the frontiers of the fading Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Sultanate was the dominant Muslim power in the world from the 15th century onward. Its Sultans, adopting for themselves the titles of “Defender of the Faithful” and “Sword of Islam”, saw their mission as one of pushing the frontiers of Islam deep into the Christian lands of Europe.

The Turks captured Constantinople, the decaying capital of ancient Byzantium, in 1453. In the following decades, the Turks battled their way into Serbia, Wallachia, and Bosnia. In 1526 their Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent,  conquered the Kingdom of Hungry following the (for the Christians) disastrous Battle of Mohács.

1386406.jpgIn 1529, Suleiman pushed into the heart of Europe, attempting to capture Vienna, capital of the Hapsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. This first Siege of Vienna ended in failure for the Turks, temporarily halting their advance. The central Balkans thereafter became the frontier between Christian and Muslim for the next century-and-a-half in a desultory war of raid and counter raid.

Then, in 1683, the Turks were back, again laying siege to the Hapsburg capital, Vienna.

Europe may have looked ripe for conquest to the Sultans and their viziers in Constantinople (later Istanbul). The Protestant Reformation had given rise to the Wars of Religion in France and the devastating 30 Years War in Germany (which killed an estimated 25%-40% of the population). Though the Peace of Westphalia had brought active hostilities to a close, the Protestant and Catholic states were still deeply divided.

Europe was not only divided along religious lines, but along national lines as well. Poland wasn’t the only nation beset by troublesome neighbors. The Hapsburg rulers of Austria were under pressure from the expansionist policies of the French “Sun King“, Louis XIV. This brilliant and aggressive monarch was fast making France the greatest power in Europe, pushing the borders of France into Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland at the expense of the Empire. This threat from France had Hapsburg Austria fixated on their western borders.

Against this backdrop, the Turks prepared for a renewed thrust into central Europe. Careful preparation over many years, building up supply depots, repairing roads, and the massing of troops came to fruition in 1683. A massive Turkish army (estimated by various sources as between 150,000 and 300,000 strong), led by the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, marched north from Adrianople on April 2, 1683. Their goal: the capture of the Hapsburg capital.

1386408.jpgBy mid-July, the Turks were before the city. The second siege of Vienna began.

From July 14 through mid-September the Turks bombarded the city with 300 guns. Though the garrison was small (only some 2,000 troops, augmented by civilian militia) and the defenses incomplete, the city stubbornly refused to surrender. Much of the battle was conducted underground, where Turkish miners, tunneling under the defenses and attempting to plant explosives, were met by Austrian counter-mines. Fierce struggles took place below and above the fortifications, with the defenders slowly losing ground.

1466195.jpg The Turks swarm forward into a breach in the defenses, while Austrian defenders stand firmly against them!

By September the city was in desperate straits, and its fall imminent. For the Turks the long-sought goal of capturing Vienna and using it as a spring-board for expansion into the heart of Europe seemed within their grasp.

Fortunately for Vienna and Christian Europe, the Muslim tide was about to break upon a Polish rock!

In early September, a relief force was coming to the city’s aid. This coalition army consisted of 47,000 German troops from Austria and the Holy Roman Empire led by Charles Duke of Lorraine; and a Polish army of some 37,000 led by King Jan Sobieski, the cream of which was the 3,000 strong Husaria.

1386412.jpgOn September 10, the coalition army made its way through the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), the series of forested hills ringing Vienna to the south and west. Their destination was the Kahlenberg ridge overlooking the Vienna plain, where lay the Turkish camp. It was incredibly rough going, the terrain cut by ravines and valleys, vineyards and stone walls. Slowly, the allied contingents pushed through, the sound of the Turkish guns bombarding Vienna growing ever closer. Fortunately for the allies and for the city the Turks did little to oppose their advance; as Kara Mustafa concentrated on capturing the city before the relief force could arrive. This failure to oppose the allies in the difficult terrain of the Wienerwald was to prove a fatal error.

On the morning of September 12, the allies had obtained their goal, and were poised to attack onto the plain. Still, there were villages, hills, and orchards between them and their target, the Turkish army. It would take most of the day to push through into the relatively flat plains where the Polish cavalry could charge with effect.

Kara Mustafa could no longer ignore the coming relief force. Leaving troops to continue the assault on the city, he deployed the bulk of his army in line facing the allies advancing from the Kahlenberg ridge.

1386576.jpgAll day long the allies slogged forward through the broken terrain. Lorraine and his sub-commanders found themselves fighting countless minor skirmishes over every farmhouse and vineyard, as the allied forces inched forward.

On the allied right, Sobieski and the Poles were the last to arrive in position, having the furthest to travel and very tough terrain to traverse. Finally, at 1 pm the Poles were in position atop the Kahlenberg. The advance was led by infantry as they pushed through broken terrain, clearing away Turkish skirmishers and brushing off periodic attacks. At 2 pm, the Polish Royal Army came in-line with the rest of the struggling allies. A great cheer rose from the Imperial troops, greeting the Poles’ arrival.

The allied lines advanced. By 4 pm the Hussars had reached the flat ground necessary for a successful charge. Now they moved to the front, through the intervals in the infantry line. Their feathered wings and bright lance pennants fluttering in the breeze, they were by all accounts a splendid and impressive sight.

First a few companies were detailed to probe the enemy’s center, where they succeeded in disordering the Turkish first line. As the Poles withdrew, the Ottoman commander on the Turkish left must have thought the Poles were now vulnerable to counter-attack and ordered the Ottoman cavalry on that wing to attack Sobieski’s horsemen.

1386423.jpgAs their rearmost squadrons cleared a last line of vineyards, the Hussars began a charge in mass. With the cry of “Jezus Maria ratuj“, the password of the day on their lips, and with their king at their head, the Hussars advanced at a canter. The Imperial infantry to their left paused in their own attack to take in the awe-inspiring sight. At 50 paces, with the order “Zlozcie kopie” (“lower lances!”) the Hussars broke into full gallop, their lances lowering like “stalks of rye in the wind”. Into the oncoming Turkish cavalry, Sipahis and akinci alike, they tore!

A witness to the charge wrote:

“No sooner does a Hussar lower his lance than a Turk is impaled on its spike; disordering and terrifying the foe. That blow cannot be avoided or deflected…Oft transfixing two persons at a time. Others flee in eager haste… Like flies in a frenzy!”

1386417.jpgScattering the Turkish cavalry Sobieski now ordered the Hussars to charge home against the center of the Ottoman camp. At 6 pm, in coordination with the Imperial forces under Charles, Sobieski led the largest cavalry charges in history: some 20,000 German and Polish riders. At their head, the Polish king leading the way, were the 3,000 strong Hussars.

1608538.jpg1608537.jpgWith a deafening crash and shattering of lances they smashed home into the Janissary infantry defending the camp. The Turkish line recoiled, and after receiving still another charge from the far-right squadrons of Polish horse, crumbled. Soon the entire Turkish line was fleeing headlong in a disorderly mob from the pursuing Hussars. They left behind on the plain some 8,000-15,000 dead, with another 5,000 captured.


Three hours after it had begun, the battle was over. The Turks were in full flight, and the allies entered Vienna in triumph. Afterwards Sobieski paraphrased Julius Caesar, saying “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit” (“I came, I saw, God conquered”).

September 12, 1683 was the day that saved Europe. The siege was over, Vienna succored. In celebration, the bakers of Vienna made tiny pastries shaped like the crescents on Turkish banners. Their fellow bakers all over Europe soon copied: thus the croissant was born. The Turkish drive into central Europe was turned back in defeat, and in the coming years the Imperial forces, led by the brilliant Prince Eugene of Savoy would drive the Turks out of Hungary entirely.

1608460.jpgThe laurels that autumn day in 1683 belonged to Jan Sobieski and the Polish “Winged Hussars”. This was their last hurrah, a glorious final charge that helped to save the West from Muslim domination. But advances in fire-arms and artillery, as well as the expense of maintaining them would soon make the Hussars obsolete.

As writers of the day noted, the Hussar was a specialist, good for only one thing: to charge spectacularly in battle and break the enemy. They were no good at the sundry other common-place duties necessary for cavalry on campaign. Their place would be taken by cheaper, more versatile dragoons and light cavalry. But as one military observer of the day noted:

“Like the heavy artillery, most of the time they are but a burden on the baggage train. But like the heavy artillery, when put to the use for which they are designed, nothing is better! Good for only one day of battle? Yes, but what a day of decision!”


For a more hyperbolic view of the Winged Hussars, go to Badass of the Week’s take:

“…it’s time that the Polish cavalry – and particularly the Winged Hussars – get appropriately recognized as one of the most eye-skeweringly hardcore associations of asskickers ever assembled. These daring, brave, unabashedly-feathered badasses crushed throats up and down Europe for two centuries, annihilating battle-tested armies three times their size with nothing more than a huge-ass lance, an awesome set of ultra-cool wings, and a gym bag full of iron-plated armor ballsacks.”

1386420For an excellent biography of the heroic Jan Sobieski, read Miltiades Varvounis Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe

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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1563826 (1).jpg

Sparta’s greatest moment came in 480 BC, when a brave king led 300 volunteers to a narrow pass in the north of Greece, to buy time with their lives while their countrymen prepared for war!


In all of human history no nation has been more devoted to warfare than Sparta. Under the constitution established by the legendary Spartan lawgiver, Lycourgos, all Spartan males were trained to one purpose, to become the best soldiers in the world. While subjugated serfs (“helots”) worked their land, every Spartan male had but one profession: the practice of arms.

The origin of this unique society begins sometime around 1000 B.C., when a handful of Dorian-Greek villages in the valley of the Eurotas River in the southern region of the Peloponnese called Laconia (or Lacedaemon) joined to form a single city-state (“polis”) called Sparta. In time, Sparta became the leading Dorian city in Greece.

Laconia occupies the broad and beautiful Eurotas valley. Surrounded by land-hungry neighbors, the Spartans had to fight to keep hold of this fair land. In time, they came to dominate the territories surrounding Laconia, expanding their dominion to the north and west. By the 7th century B.C., Sparta had developed into the unique political entity entirely devoted to the arts of war.

1563860.jpg Sparta today, nestled in the Eurotas Valley, with Mount Taygetos looming above on the right; and the ruins of ancient Sparta in the foreground.1400515.jpg

The Spartan constitution of Lycourgos, called the “Great Rhetra”, was more than just a set of laws or penal codes. It encompassed all aspects of the Spartan life. The Great Rhetra not only established the various branches of the Spartan government, and the enumerated the powers of each; it informed the Spartans how to conduct their lives. In many ways it occupied a place similar in their culture as the Torah does for the Jews: part holy book, part book of law.

These laws dictated the education of boys and girls. They told the Spartans the proper way to speak (in short, pithy, sarcastic sentences, the style of which came to be called “Laconic”); how they must wear their beards (without mustaches) and how to wear their hair (long, it being said that long hair made a handsome man handsomer; and made an ugly man look fierce).

1400580.jpgLycourgos the Lawgiver, in modern Sparta

The Rhetra was designed to produce, by 20 years of age, a Spartan citizen ready to take his place in this unique, warrior society. The history of Sparta is an experiment in utopia; a “perfect” society comprised of supermen and women.

Throughout his life a Spartan was tested to see if he had “the right stuff” to be considered one of these elite supermen. The first test of a Spartan citizen came at the child’s birth, when the newborn was inspected by the Ephors.  If it were found to have any deformities the child was not permitted to live: only perfect specimens were fit to become Spartans. A baby found wanting was taken to a spur of Mount Taygetos, and cast into a gorge. (In recent years scholars debated the fate of these infants and the practice of infanticide. It has been proposed that such infants were merely left on the mountainside, with the possibility of adoption by passing shepherds or peasant families. However, the fact is that infant skeletons dated to this period have been found in a gorge below Mt. Taygetos.)

At the age of seven Spartan boys were taken from their mother’s softening influence and enrolled in the Spartan military education system, called the Agoge (“the rearing”). For the next thirteen years, the boys were systematically trained to be Spartans. Only royal princes in direct line to inherit one of the two Spartan thrones were exempt from the Agoge. The boys were under the direction of an official called the Paidonomos (literally, the “Boy-Herder”), whose job it was to oversee their training. This education focused on discipline, endurance, and on inuring the boys to all forms of privation and suffering. They were taught wrestling and weapons-handling, to throw javelin and discus, racing and leaping. Trained from boyhood, the Spartans won more laurels in the ancient Olympic games than citizens of any other Greek city-state.

1400537.jpgSpartan boys slept outdoors all year around by the banks of the Eurotas, reeds cut from beside the river their only bed. Each boy was issued a single woolen cloak at the start of each year, to keep them warm or covered in all weather. For food they were expected to forage in the countryside, stealing what they couldn’t hunt: a valuable skill for soldiers on campaign in foreign lands. However, while successfully stealing food was rewarded, a boy who was caught in the act was whipped: only failure was unforgivable in Sparta.

The boys also learned music and dance, which had military applications; and it was said that the Spartans were the most musical people in Greece. Spartans perfected the so-called “Pyrrhic Dance“, the armed dance of the Greek warrior. Performed in tight formation, this dance taught the Spartans foot work and how to operate in close-order with other warriors, as a single unit; invaluable in phalanx warfare.

1400538.jpgThe Pyrrhic Dance, the armored war dance used to train Greek warriors in footwork

Along with the girls, Spartan boys performed complicated corral dances during the frequent religious festivals (the Spartans were a notoriously pious people), and for these even the maidens danced nude. Like all Greeks the Spartans had no nudity taboo, and these dances gave boys and girls both the means to perfect their physical forms, and the forum in which to display them.

By the time a boy graduated from this harsh training at 20 years old, he was ready to take his place amongst the toughest and most disciplined fighting force the world has ever known.

However, before he could call himself a Spartan, he had to overcome one more hurdle: acceptance into a military mess (“sussition”). These military messes were more than a dining facility. They were both barracks and mess-hall, in the modern military sense. But they were actually more a cross between the modern college fraternity and the Victorian Age’s Gentleman’s Clubs. In fact, it is thought that they developed from the more ancient Greek institution of the phratry, or “Brotherhood”,  in Latin translated as “Fraternity”.

A Spartan youth who failed to gain acceptance into a sussition could never become a full-fledged Spartan.

Once graduated from the Agoge, and accepted into a military mess, a young Spartan took his place as a hoplite (a heavy infantry “man-at-arms”) in the ranks of the Spartan army. However, he would have to wait another decade before gaining the full rights of a Spartan citizen.

It was not until he reached the age of 30 that a Spartan male was finally counted among the ranks of theSpartiate, the fully enfranchised Spartan warriors called “the Equals”. Now he could take his place in the in the assembly of the people, the Apella; voting “yay” or “nay” to new laws proposed by the Gerousia, the Spartan “Senate”. These Spartiates were an elite few, never more than 5,000 at Sparta’s greatest period of prosperity. In the 5th century BC, the “Spartiates” and younger Spartan warriors took the field in regimental-sized units. By the 4th century, however, shortages in Spartan manpower forced the Spartiates to only take the field as officers among allied or subject regiments, or in small numbers to “stiffen” allied forces.

The Spartan Army (stratos) was the finest fighting force in the Greek world for three hundred years. It was composed of all adult Spartan males, organized into platoons (Enomotia), companies (Lochoi), and regiments (Mora). The numbers and organization for the Spartan army varied over the centuries of Spartan greatness. But at the dawn of the 5th century, Sparta was at the height of its military power, with an army of nearly 5,000 Spartiate hoplites, and as many allied perioikoi (non-Spartan Laconian allies) hoplites.

1400583.jpgIn their companies and battalions, the Spartan hoplites formed a dense, compact battle formation called a phalanx. The phalanx was drawn up in files of 6 to 12 men deep. Each man stood close enough to his neighbors to overlap shields, presenting their enemies with an unassailable front of brazen shields and thrusting spears.

One of Sparta’s two kings always commanded the Spartan army on campaign; though on occasion smaller expeditions could be commanded by one of the senior officers commanding the moras, the polemarchs.


Sparta’s finest hour came in the early 5th century B.C., when Persia, the greatest empire that the Ancient World had yet produced, launched two separate invasions of Greece and Europe.

1412178.jpgThe Persian Empire had been founded by Cyrus (Kūrosh) the Great in the 6th Century B.C. Under Cyrus and his successors, this empire had devoured all the other states of the Middle East. By the dawn of the 5th century, the Persian Empire covered an expanse of land that stretched from Libya in the west, to India in the east. Its northern borders rested on the edge of the vast Eurasian steppes; its southern on the Indian Ocean. In the west, the Persian Empire bordered on the Aegean Sea; across which it eyed the turbulent, independent city-states of Greece with suspicion and disdain.

1412181.jpgIn 546 B.C., the Cyrus the Great had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) into his empire. But in 500-499 B.C., these Greek cities of Ionia had rebelled against Persian rule. In this the rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city” Athens, along with the small city of Eretria on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived.

But Persian memory was long.

In 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary task force under Datis and Artaphernes to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but was likely around 50,000 men. It was transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. The force was then landed at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens.

In the midst of this dire threat, the Spartans received a request from Athens for aid. But at that moment the Spartans were in the midst of one of their many annual religious festivals; and would be delayed till its completion, many days later.

So with only the 10,000 hoplites of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians on their own at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon demonstrated for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian Army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.


Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor Xerxes launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.

1412185.jpgTo this end Xerxes massed an army of immense size, drawn from the farthest regions of his vast empire. It included not only Persians, Medes, and Elamites, the “first races” of the Perisan Empire; but contingents levied from the far-flung corners of the empire and from beyond its fringes. Scythians from the steppes of what is now the Ukraine marched in line with warriors from far southern Ethiopia. Contingents from distant Bactria (Afghanistan) served with Ionian Greeks from the Asian coast. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived through and wrote shortly after the Persian Wars (as the Greeks came to call them), claimed that the Persian host numbered at over one-million fighting men. However, most modern scholars believe the number to be between a quarter to a half as much as Herodotus assumed. Even so, it was an army so large that it is reputed to have drunk whole rivers dry as it passed!

Across the approximately one mile wide Hellespont (modern Dardanelles) a pontoon bridge was erected. Made of several hundred biremes and triremes lashed together and supported by several hundred tons of flax and papyrus cable, it supported a packed-earth road over which the Persian horde marched, dry-footed, from Asia into Europe. This was a major engineering accomplishment, dwarfing Caesar’s famous bridge over the Rhine; the likes of which would not be seen till modern times.

1412203.jpgThe Thracians and Macedonians submitted to the Persians without a fight, giving tokens of “earth and water”: symbols of obeisance to the Great King’s authority. The way was clear for Xerxes to march into Greece unmolested.

The Greeks took council at Corinth, to decide how best to meet this deadly threat. After much debate, it was decided to dispatch an expeditionary force to Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates”), a spot along the coast where the mountains come down to the sea, creating a narrow passage. At the same time, a coalition fleet would protect that force’s seaward flank by taking position to the east, at Cape Artemisium, from where they could block the progress of Xerxes’ fleet south, or into the Malian Gulf to support and supply the Persian army at Thermopylae.

1412159.jpg The battlefield, looking from in front of the Phocian Wall toward the narrow West Gate. The ancient shoreline has been restored, where the highway runs today

Though Thermopylae was not the only way the Persians could enter central Greece, it was the only practical way. The vast Persian host was far too large to feed itself on what it could carry, drag along, or steal from the surrounding country as it passed. It relied on the fleet to carry or transport from Asia enough stores to supply it as it marched south into Greece. Therefore, the army must hug the coast, maintaining close contact with the equally vast armada Xerxes had levied from his subject-states throughout the eastern Mediterranean; and the coast road ran past Thermopylae.


It was decided at Corinth that the Spartans would lead in this war to save Greece from Persian domination. Therefore, the commander of the expedition to Thermopylae would be one of the two Spartan Kings.

The ephors and kings took council, and consulted with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. ThePythiareturned a disturbing prophecy: either Sparta, or a Spartan king, must perish! For Athens, the Oracle’s prophecy was even more terrifying: “Flee, doomed men, to the ends of the earth!” However, upon “further review”, the Oracle modified the prophecy, adding that Athens would find salvation in her “wooden walls”. The meaning of the latter was taken by some leading Athenians, particularly her statesman Themistocles, as meaning that Athens’ fleet, made of wood, would provide the wall of salvation between her and the Persians.

1412207.jpgIdyllic Delphi, site of the oracle of Apollo. It was here that the Greeks came to learn their future from the Pythia, the priestess of the god. 

At last it was decided that King Leonidas, of the senior branch of the monarchy, the Agiadae, would lead a picked band of 300 Spartiates to Thermopylae to spearhead and command a relatively small Greek advance guard of some 7,000 hoplites from various other cities. Each of Leonidas’ 300 was chosen for two attributes: first, that they were men of proven valor; and second, that they all had living sons to take their place, should they fall. These were not the lean, muscled young men portrayed on-screen. Considering that a Spartan was not allowed to marry till he was 30 years old, and that “living sons” would likely mean grown or nearly grown young men, then these picked 300 Spartans were men in their 40s and 50s. Leonidas, born in the 540s, was himself a vigorous man in his 60s at the time of Thermopylae!

Late in the summer of 490 B.C., Leonidas and the 300 marched north to the pass, taking their station at the head of the allied force.

SONY DSCStatue of Leonidas at Thermopylae. While no contemporary statue of the brave king exists, this modern one conveys an impression true to what we know of this, Sparta’s most famous ruler.

Religious festivals and the coming Olympic Games kept the Greek states from immediately mobilizing their strength. It can also be speculated that in every Greek polis there were men in positions of influence who were pessimistic regarding resistance; and were simply hedging their bets, unwilling to commit too much of their manpower resources to trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable. Therefore few troops from other cities came to join the Spartans at Thermopylae. In all, some 7,000 Greek hoplites and skirmishers would comprise the defenders at the Hot Gates.

Though they comprised only 300 out of that force of 7,000, the Spartans and their king took command over the whole. One of the allied commanders, a Phocian, questioned the Spartan’s right to leadership when their contribution to the coalition was so small. Leonidas asked, “How many soldiers did you bring, friend?”

The Phocian replied, “We came with 1,000”.

Leonidas then asked him what he did for a living under normal circumstances. The Phocian, replied, “I am a potter”.

Leonidas turned to another Phocian standing beside his command. “What do you do, friend”? I am a farmer, this one answered.

Leonidas asked each of the Phocians standing nearby, and each gave a similar answer to the first: they each had a “civilian” occupation.

The Spartan king finally gestured towards his men, busy oiling their armor and sharpening their weapons.

“Well”, Leonidas pointed out, “I bring 300 soldiers”.[1] Every Spartan was a soldier, a professional, every day of the year, in war or peace.


The Persian hordes arrived  in late summer, and camped on the plain of the Spercheios River, at the northern end of the Thermopylae pass. Xerxes had his tent set up on a hilltop with a view of the Hot Gates. From there he could sit his high throne and observe his warriors as they advanced to destroy the defenders. Looking down, he saw what he thought, in the distance, were women sitting on stones, combing their hair. Standing beside Darius was a Spartan traitor: their exiled former king, Demaratus.

1412285.jpg“Those are no Amazons”, warned Demaratus; “they are the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), your majesty: My own people, the bravest warriors in the world. They wear their hair long by law. For in Sparta long hair is considered to make a handsome man look even handsomer, and an ugly one look fierce!

“They comb their hair before going into battle. For the Spartans go into battle as joyfully as other men go to a feast.”

Xerxes sent a herald forth to demand that the Spartans surrender. He warned the Greeks that resistance was futile; that the Great King’s army was so vast, “their arrows would blot out the sun”.

Dienekes, a Spartan officer who would later be esteemed by the Spartans as the most valiant man to fight in the battle to come, quipped back to the Persian herald, “All the better. Then we shall fight in the shade!”

The herald, astonished at this insolence, demanded one last time that the Spartans lay down their arms.

Now Leonidas responded: “Molon Labe!”

This taunt, in Greek, meant “Come and take them!”


The pass of Thermopylae was divided by three so-called “gates”. The narrowest section of the pass, where Mount Kallidromos pressed closest to the sea was the “West Gate”. This was the entrance through which the Persians must pass to get at the Spartans.

1412315.jpgBeyond the “West Gate” the pass opened up to a plain wide enough for fifty men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It was here, in front of a ruined wall built in the past by the local Phocian people, that Leonidas planned to fight his battle.

East of the Phocian Wall was the Middle Gate, and a mound which would later play a part in the battles final chapter. Past these was the East Gate, terminus of the pass of the Thermopylae.

That afternoon, the Great King watched from his high throne as his first division, the Medes, funneled through the narrow West Gate.

1412316.jpgThe second people of the Empire, this division of the army gave pride-of-place only to Xerxes own Imperial Guard, the Immortals. The Medes entered in their battle splendor, stepping proudly in their long flowing embroidered robes and trousers, cuirasses of bronze scale girding their bodies, shields of wicker and bows and short spears competing their panoply. Supporting the Medes in this initial assault were the Cissians, another proud people of the empire, differing from the Medes only in that they wore turbans instead of the bullet shaped, Assyrian-style helmets of the Medes.

These two divisions together numbers 20,000 troops. But Xerxes was to discover that though he had untold number of troops, he had few men!

On the plain in front of the Phocian Wall, the Spartan phalanx stood waiting. Though the usual battle depth of their phalanx was 12 ranks deep, there was room in the narrow pass for 300 men to form-up 50 shields across, and 6 ranks deep. Other Greek allies likely formed behind the Spartans, lending weight of depth to their phalanx.

Leonidas allowed the Medes to enter through the narrows, between cliff and sea. But once their vanguard began deploying in front of the phalanx, the Greeks advanced with locked-shields, closing rapidly with the Medes before their arrows could have much effect.

1412317.jpgHowever brave, the Medes’ lighter shields and shorter spears were no match for the great bronze-covered aspis and long thrusting spears of the Spartans. While the armor and shields of the hoplites would turn or blunt their enemy’s blows, Greek spears pierced both wicker shields and scale cuirass of the easterners. Never before had these men of the empire faced a foe so heavily armed, nor so trained in close-quarter combat. All of their experience was against foes who fought like themselves: at a distance with barrage of arrow or javelin; only using the spear as a last resort, or to close and finish an enemy weakened by their arrow storm. By contrast, the Greek hoplites relied on othismos, the push of shields, driving their enemy back and breaking their formation.[2]

But the Greek style of war proved its superiority that day, again confirming the verdict of Marathon: that the Greek method of war was by far the deadlier. It was one which distilled warfare down to its essence, to close with the enemy and butcher him where he stood!

1412318.jpgThe Spartans showed on that day what a life-time’s training in arms could do for a warrior. Though the battle raged all throughout that morning and into the afternoon, the Spartans never fatigued, nor their courage flag. Several times Leonidas gave the command to fall back, and the Spartans would feign flight, as though finally panicked into fleeing. The Medes and Cissians would break ranks and give chase, falling for the ruse; only to have the Spartans turn about upon them, reforming instantly their bristling phalanx of spears and locked-shields. The carnage would then be especially terrible for the surprised and disordered Medes.

Seeing his first efforts come to naught, Xerxes recalled the bloodied Medes late in the day. To Hydarnes, commander of his elite Immortals, he now gave the command to clear the pass of these pesky Spartans, bringing back only a few survivors to be displayed in cages, as one does captured lions, throughout Asia!

Instead, to the Great King’s shock and horror, the Immortals received the same rough handling the Medes had been dealt earlier. Three times Xerxes leapt up from his throne in terror for the fate of his soldiers, as they fell in droves beneath the Spartan’s spears. Others were driven back upon the ranks behind them, pushing these in turn back towards the narrowest section of the pass, where the sheer press caused many to fall into the sea and perish.

1412320.jpgThe sun set that first day at Thermopylae with the Spartans still in possession of the pass and the Persian host shaken and demoralized.

While the Spartans and other Greeks had been giving the Persian land forces a very rough handling, the Greek fleet had been equally successful in blocking Xerxes fleet at Cape Artemisium. In the first day of what would be a three-day naval engagement, concurrent with the fighting at Thermopylae, the much larger Persian fleet (composed of contingents from the maritime peoples of the empire, particularly the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Ionian Greeks) was repulsed, losing 30 ships captured or sunk. Held fast at Artemisium, they were unable to reach Xerxes camp with much needed supplies, nor to threaten the seaward flank of the Greek army holding the Hot Gates.

The second day at Thermopylae went much like the first, with division-after-division of the Persian host entering the pass. All met the same fate as those who’d come before.

1563930.jpgThe Spartans were “spelled” from time-to-time by the other Greek contingents. Many had by this time succumbed to wounds or fatigue, and not a Spartan still alive was free of wounds. But they held the pass, and for every one that fell twenty of their foemen died first.

That evening, Xerxes despaired of ever budging the Greek defenders from the Hot Gates. There was fear among his officers that if he continued to order them to what seemed certain suicide against the fearsome defenders of the pass, he risked mutiny; especially among soldiers of the disaffected subject nations. Supplies must have been quickly dwindling, with so many mouths to feed, and with the supply ships unable to breakthrough at Artemisium.

At that darkest moment, a Greek goatherd entered the Persian camp with information to sell. This traitor, named Ephialtes of Trachis, was a “local” who knew the surrounding hills. He offered (for a price) to show the Great King’s troops a way around Thermopylae, by a hidden trail through the hills which would bring the Persians behind the Spartan position.

1412326.jpgThat evening Hydarnes and the remaining Immortals followed the traitor along this narrow goat path. Up and over the girding mountains beside the Hot Gates, till dawn found them descending again toward the sea. But now they were to the east of the pass, behind the defenders and threatening their line of retreat.

Unlike Xerxes, Leonidas was aware of the threat this path posed to his position in the pass. He had posted a force of Phocians in the hills along this track, to guard against such an eventuality. However, seeing the mass of Immortals descending toward their position, the Phocians loss heart and withdrew into the hills, allowing Hydarnes’ force to continue on.

1412162.jpg From the 1962 film, “300 Spartans”: Hydarnes and the traitor Ephialtes lead the Immortals through the mountains behind the Spartan position in the pass.

Word of Hydarnes’ movement reached Leonidas at his station in the pass. The Immortals were still in the hills, winding their way down, and the retreat south not yet blocked. Realizing that the defense of Thermopylae was no longer tenable, Leonidas dismissed the other Greek contingents, sending them home. Greece would need them alive to fight another day.

For the Spartans, there could be no retreat.

Their pride and reputation would not allow it. Further, they had been ordered to hold the pass at all costs, till reinforced or dead. As no reinforcements had arrived, Leonidas and the survivors of the original 300 were prepared to obey their orders and die defending the Hot Gates. Every Spartan spent his life in search of one thing more than any other: Kalos Thenatos, the “Beautiful Death” in battle. Here was the perfect time, the perfect place to leave an immortal name!

It should also be remembered that Leonidas was himself aware of the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy: that either Sparta or a Spartan king must die! To save Sparta, he was prepared to sacrifice himself as had kings of old; to propitiate the gods with his own royal blood.

In any case, a rearguard must delay the Persians, and not allow the Persian cavalry a close pursuit.

With the retreating Greeks Leonidas sent a message to his wife, Gorgo. Much younger than himself, he bade his wife marry a good man, and bear many good Spartan children.

With the Spartans rearguard remained two other Greek contingents: those of the city of Thebes, and that of another Boeotian town, the Thespians. The Thebans were suspected of harboring pro-Persian sentiments (joining the Persians was referred to as “Medizing”), while the Thespians begged to be allowed to stand with the Spartans to the end. All would subsequently give their lives that day to buy time for their comrades to escape.

Leonidas bid all remaining to eat a good breakfast that morning; for, he told them, by evening they would all be dining in Hades!

At mid-morning, Xerxes ordered a frontal attack on the pass. Leonidas, knowing that Hydarnes and the Immortals would soon be coming up from behind them, ordered the Greeks forward to meet them and find death bravely.

1412332Herodotus says that here, during these final hours, the carnage was at its worst and the dead beyond counting. The dispirited Persian soldiers were driven forward with whips by their officers, while the Spartans fought with the reckless courage of men who know death awaits and have resigned themselves to taking as many of their foes with them as possible.

Spears were sundered, swords broken, shields shattered, till the Spartans had nothing left to fight with but rocks picked-up from the ground; or like wild beasts, their teeth and nails! Yet still they fought on.

At some point, fighting in the foremost rank, Leonidas fell. A great struggle began over his body. Four times it switched hands. Like a scene out of “The Iliad”, the Greeks and Persians battled for the body of the Spartan king. The Spartans finally recovered their king, just as Hydarnes’ force appeared in their rear.

1412168 Two views of the hill where the Spartans made their final stand. Above, the hillock viewed from near the ancient shoreline. Below, looking from “last stand hill” toward the battle plain and the West Gate in the distance. The road seen at the lower right is approximately where the ancient shoreline ran. 1412171.jpgDrawing off to a small hillock (known unofficially as “last stand hill”) the Spartans and the other surviving Greeks formed a circle, around the body of Leonidas. There they stood their ground, as the Persians pelted them from all sides with missiles; till not a man remained alive.[3]



The Persians had forced the pass, and Greece lay before them. But at the Hot Gates they had paid a ghastly price for the real estate they had captured.

No source lists the number of Persian dead. But it is not likely that less than 20,000 Persian troops fell there (and the number may have been even higher). Among the dead were two sons and two brothers of Xerxes himself. Worst, the entire Persian army was demoralized. They had met the Greeks in a place where numbers counted for little, where only courage and skill at arms meant victory. In this they had clearly been bested. There was little doubt in the minds of every man in the Great King’s host that had not the traitor shown them a way around the pass, retreat or death would have been their only options.

In Sparta, the news from Thermopylae was greeted with no outward sadness. Mourning robes were nowhere in evidence, nor was their wailing and lamentations. The Spartans who had died were martyrs to Greek freedom, and were honored above all men as heroes of Sparta.

Thermopylae was, in many respects, the Spartan Alamo. It became a source of intense pride, and a rallying cry for every Greek. Free men had stood their ground, and proven superior fighters to mere “slaves” of the Great King. By giving Greece the pride and will to resist what had seemed an unstoppable enemy, Thermopylae saved Greece. By extension, it saved Western Civilization!

Later at Thermopylae, atop the hill where the 300 had made their last stand, the Spartans erected a memorial tablet. They commissioned the lyric poet, Simonides of Ceos, to inscribe these words:

“Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here obedient to their laws we lie.”


The Persian invasion would end the following year. The Persian fleet was first destroyed in the naval victory off Salamis against the combined fleets of the Greek states. His supply line compromised, Xerxes was forced to withdraw with more than half of his army. The remaining portion of the Persian forces, under Xerxes’ brother-in-law Mardonius, would be destroyed the following year at Plataea by a Spartan-led coalition force. There the full Spartan phalanx would withstand a devastating arrow storm, followed by a charge of Persia’s finest armored cavalry, led by Mardonius himself. The Persians were utterly routed, with Mardonius slain in the fighting!

1412338.jpgThermopylae and Plataea demonstrated the superiority of the Greek warriors over all others. The Spartans in particular gained a reputation for invincibility and unshakable courage, which would last for two generations. Only against other Greeks would the Spartans meet opponents worthy of their arms and which would challenge their hard-won status as the greatest fighting men in the world.

A word about Leonidas, the “lion at the Hot Gates”.

He was not the greatest Spartan king. Before Thermopylae, he wouldn’t have rated amongst the top five. But he is the only one that most people today can name. Like William Barret Travis, who commanded the Texan defenders at the Alamo, the manner of his death reversed a life spent in relative obscurity, and made his name immortal.



1. A suspiciously similar story is attributed to the Spartan king Agesiilaus, nearly a century later. See Bradford, E. Thermopylae: the Battle for the West, De Capo Press, 1980, P.66

2. For a detailed discussion of ancient Greek warfare, see Phalanx vs Legion.

3. There is an alternative story, told in Diodorus (Book 11) and in Plutarch’s polemic “On the malice of Herodotus”, that the Spartans perished in a suicidal attack on the Persian camp that last night. The story is that knowing their end was near, Leonidas led a surprise night attack on Xerxes camp, with the ultimate purpose of killing the Great King in his tent. According to this version, the Spartans did much damage in the resulting confusion. But, with daybreak, the Persians realized how small were their numbers, and fell upon them with bow and javelin. This story, while possible, is highly implausible.

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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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the fifth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

But who was Arthur? Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.

(Read Part Four here; or start series from the beginning!)


Vortigern had nurtured the Saxon wolf, from mere pup to full grown lupine menace. Like Fenris of Norse legend, the beast could be chained no longer. Hengist and his Saxon foederatii turned upon Vortigern and the Britons, devouring their host.

1392223.jpg The brawny Horsa and the wily Hengist

The precise year of the Saxon mutiny is unknown. It is unlikely to have occurred earlier than 449, and certainly no later than 455[1]. Nor do we know the number of Saxon warriors involved in the insurrection. An estimate based upon the number of Saxon ships that according to the sources joined Hengist in Briton prior to the mutiny render a number not less than 1,000 warriors, and not more than 3,000 (a high and unlikely estimate).

1392202.jpgFurthermore, in his time as the High King Vortigern’s chief captain, Hengist may have plotted with and been able to win over those descendants of Saxon foederates settled in Britain by the Romans in the 4th century. Archaeology has revealed that Saxon settlements may have dotted the eastern fringe of Britain along the so-called Saxon Shore. These settlers might have risen at Hengist’s signal and joined their ethnic cousins in pillaging their Celtic neighbors.

However many or few, Hengist’s foederates constituted the only standing body of “professional” troops in the heart of Britain, aside from Vortigern’s own household troops (bucellarii or teulu), who would have numbered a few hundred at best. Little stood between them and the nearly undefended civilized heartland of Roman Britain. Saxon warbands fanned-out throughout the countryside and spread fire and bloody destruction throughout the prosperous southeastern and central portion of Britain. Farms and manor houses were pillaged and burned, towns were sacked and likewise put to the torch. Men were slaughtered, women raped and murdered or, along with children, enslaved. These pagan Saxons had nothing but contempt for Christian places of worship: churches were robbed, their priest’s butchered, their alters desecrated.


Gildas, writing nearly a century later, states that the Saxon violence:

“…devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, and did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean.

During this time many thousands of wealthier Romano-British and their retainers fled the country in despair, crossing the Channel to find sanctuary in Armorica (modern Brittany) in Northwestern Gaul, which bears their name to this day. This was not a process of months but of years. Throughout the century, Brittany remained an alternative refuge for Romano-Britons. In their haste to escape the murderous Saxons, many buried coins and other valuables to lighten their burdens and in hopes of one day returning to their estates, when they could be recovered. Archaeology has recovered hundreds of such coin hoards, mute testament to the effects of the Saxon Terror.


What role did Vortigern, the ageing High King, play in these events? Was he a helpless bystander, deserted by his Saxon mercenaries who now too orders only from their own leaders? Or was he Hengest and Horsa’s puppet ruler, either a willing collaborator or their hostage? The narrative provides no clear answers. But his final chapter in the unfolding tragedy was yet to come.


Events in Britain did not occur in a vacuum. Britain had been part of the Roman world for four centuries. It would continue to trade with the Roman Mediterranean, importing (among other things) pottery till into the 6th century. As we have already seen (Part Two) in the previous decade the Britons had appealed to the Roman general Flavius Aetius, the Magister Militum in Gaul, for aid. Aetius served the weak and ultimately paranoid emperor Valentinian III. But for two decades Aetius had been the real power in the Western Roman Empire. Much of his efforts had gone to stabilizing Roman authority in Gaul, which by the late 440s had produced positive if not yet conclusive results.

1392227.jpgFlavius Aetius surrounded by his barbarian bodyguards (bucellarii)

Thus the promise (or threat?) of Roman intervention, and reestablishment of authority in Britain, was a very real possibility throughout the first half of the 5th century. But in 451, on the eve of Saxon Terror, any chance of Roman aid to Britain evaporated, as Aetius and the Western Roman Empire had to deal with a deadly threat to Gaul and to the very existence of the Roman Empire in the West: Attila the Hun!

The Huns had long been the bogeyman hovering just beyond the Roman world. Their push into the plains of the Ukraine in the 4th century had shattered the Gothic kingdom of Ermanaric and pushed the Visigoths into the Roman Empire with disastrous results for the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople. The Huns had steadily moved further and further westward in the late 4th century and first decades of the 5th, pushing before them like a gust front the Germanic peoples of eastern Europe. Aside from the Visigoths, the Vandals, Alans, and Seubi had pushed into and settled parts of the Western Empire. Others, like the Ostrogoths and Gepids had been absorbed into the expanding Hunnic Empire as subject peoples.

The Huns were the barbarian that all other barbarians feared!

By the first quarter of the 5th century the Huns had settled in mass within the devastated and largely depopulated former Roman province of Pannonia. Straddling the Danube, the heartland of the new Hunnic territories included the plains of what would come to be known as “Hungary”: perfect grazing land for a nomadic steppe people.

Once they had become accustomed to each other, Huns were often found serving as mercenaries within Roman armies. Aetius in particular had long used Hunnic warriors in his own household regiment (bucellarii). In his tenure as Magister Militum of the Western Empire it is very likely Aetius introduced the widespread use of Hunnic-style horse archery to the Roman Army (spreading to the Eastern Roman Army as well). To insure his position of primacy against rival generals in the Western Empire he needed a steady and available supply of these hearty, ferocious warriors.

Upon becoming king of the Huns in 434, Attila began a policy of alternatively extorting and raiding the Eastern Roman Empire. In the 440’s, the Huns devastated the Roman Balkans, defeating Roman forces on several occasions and ultimately extorting a large annual tribute in gold in return for withdrawing beyond the Danube. In 451, Attila turned is attention to the Western Empire, and invaded Gaul with a large army (the exact size is speculative, but between 30,000 and 50,000 men would seem a fair estimate). This invasion would culminate in Attila’s defeat at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (also called the Battle of Chalons).

With Aetius’ forces tied up in the defense of Gaul, and the Roman presence in Gaul seemingly on the verge of extinction in any case, the question arises: could not the anything-if-not-opportunistic Hengist have been emboldened to mutiny by Aetius’ distraction with Attila’s invasion, and with this the removal of any threat of Roman intervention in Britain? We can never know, of course. But the possible link between these two events is intriguing.

As stated earlier, this was a period of Romano-British diaspora, with many thousands of Britons leaving the island to find refuge in Armorica/Brittany. There they became neighbors with clans of Alani tribesmen, an Eastern European horse people settled in Armorica by Aetius. This was to prove a serendipitous convergence of events that would pay dividends in the years ahead during time of Arthur.

The Alans were a Massagetae people, perhaps related to the Sarmatians. They were excellent horseman, noted for their skill with lance, bow, and javelin. There is no record of conflict between these and the émigré Britons. What seems likely is that the two got on well together, supporting and eventually amalgamating into one “Breton” people by the Middle Ages. The Medieval Bretons were noted horseman, and their use of traditional steppe warfare tactics, such as feigned withdrawal to lure an enemy into disastrous pursuit.


Like the Sarmatians long settled in the north of Britain, the Alans in Brittany had a tradition of heavy shock cavalry: the one decisive weapon against which the Saxons had no defense. Now, in Brittany, a generation of Roman Britons (who like all Celts had a cavalry tradition of their own) would grow to manhood exchanging knowledge with their new neighbors; as well as inheriting a blood vendetta against the Saxon invaders of their homeland.


At this point in the narrative the British tradition (as chronicled in the Historia Brittonum by the 9th century Welsh monk Nennius, elaborating upon Gildas; and in the fanciful Historia Regum Britanniae penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century) parts company with the near-contemporary (to Nennius) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), penned by Saxon monks in 9th century Wessex.

Let us start with the British version of events first.

In the British tradition, Vortigern’s son Vortimer (in Welsh, Gwerthefyr), now takes center stage, taking up his aging father’s mantle to lead the British counter-attack against their erstwhile allies. It should be recalled that Vortimer’s mother was Vortigern’s first (?) wife, possibly a daughter of Constantine III, Imperial pretender (and perhaps the last Comes Britanniarum, or “Count of Britain”), or even of another late-Roman emperor from Britain, Magnus Maximus. She had been repudiated in favor of “the pagan woman”, Rowena, daughter of Hengist (see Part Two). Vortimer may have broken with his father over his mother’s mistreatment. It is not unlikely that he now led a cabal within the Council of Britain that set aside his father’s over-lordship, deposing the old man (who may well have been a virtual prisoner of the Saxons by this time, if not a quisling puppet-ruler) and taking vigorous command of the British counter-attack.

1392235.jpgReturning to the British version, Nennius speaks of three battles across the Kentish landscape. First at the river Darent/Derwent; the second at Epsford/Aylesford (dated 455 in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), where both Horsa and another son of Vortigern’s, Catigern are slain; and lastly at Rutupiæ (Richborough), “near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea” (Ebbsfleet, the channel between the mainland and Thanet Island?), where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships. In this final fight, Vortimer was badly wounded, perhaps mortally.

In the British tradition, the Saxons were thus driven from the island, albeit temporarily.

By contrast, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (again, written by English monks in the 9th century) makes no reference to British victories, nor to Vortimer, son of Vortigern, leading the British war effort. In the ASC entry for the year 455, the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford (a river crossing of the Medway), and that Horsa died there. That afterwards Hengist took control of the kingdom (implying that Horsa had been the King before his death), along with his son Esc/Oisc .

In 457 Hengist and Esc/Oisc again fight the “Brettas” at Crecganford (Crayford?) on the river Darent, “and there slew four thousand men“, and driving the Britons back to London. In 465 Hengist and Esc/Oisc once again fight the “Welsh” in the Battle of Wippedesfleot (Ebbsfleet), the channel separating the Saxon stronghold of Thanet from the mainland. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist, the Saxon leader and his son Esc are recorded as having fought “the Welsh” (Britons), having taken “immense booty” and the Welsh having “fled from the English like fire“.


1392238.jpgReturning to Nennius and the British version of events: following the expulsion of the Saxons after Wippedesfleot /Ebbsfleet, young Vortimer dies of wounds received in the fighting. (Geoffrey of Monmouth dramatically has Vortigern’s Saxon bride, Rowena, poison the young prince!) Vortigern (at Rowena’s urging) sends emissaries to Hengist, requesting a peace-conference. In truth, Vortigern’s position was weak, blamed by all for his disastrous Saxon policy, which had brought such death and destruction upon the land. He had everything to fear from his British subjects and rivals. If he was to hold onto power, he needed his Saxon Praetorians more than ever!

The Saxons agree, and a feast is organized with leaders from both sides attending (at Stonehenge, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth). The wily Hengist instructed his thegns (aristocratic warriors) to come armed with their seax-knives hidden on their persons (normal practice in Germanic society was for all weapons to be left in a vestibule-chamber before attending feast: alcoholic beverage consumption and edged weapons being poor companions).

At the feast, each Saxon was seated beside a Briton. As the evening drew on, with many toasts to renewed friendship and peace, the Saxons were careful to imbibe but sparingly. At some point, Hengist raised his drinking cup in a final toast. This was the signal: as the British officers drank deep to peace, the Saxons pulled out their daggers and fell upon the Britons beside them, slaughtering all.

1392240.jpgThe “Night of the Long Knives” (this is the earliest recorded usage of this term) resulted in the decapitation of the British leadership. Only Vortigern was spared, the horrified and befuddled old man being bound and taken captive. In return for his life, he granted Hengist all the southeastern portion of Britain, the lands that came to be called Essex, Sussex, Middlesex.


So, here we are left with two versions that diverge greatly on the details. The Saxon version of events presents an 18 year progression of victories by the Saxons from 455 to 473, advancing ever westward. The British version is one of a relatively short campaign of hard-fought battles; of victories won, but ultimately thrown away by Vortigern’s foolishness and Saxon treachery.

How to reconcile the two?

First, we look at where they agree.

Both the Saxon and British versions agree on the battles, their names and/or locations. That there were three battles in Kent following the Saxon mutiny thus seems to rest on solid ground[2]. But who won these battles, and over what time-period?

The Saxon version has the virtue of simplicity of narrative. We know that the Saxons ultimately retained control of Kent: that much is certain. The Saxon version neatly supports the ultimate outcome.

What argues for the British version (or at least the bare elements of it) is the geographic progression of the battles: with the final one taking place where the Saxons first landed, on the eastern-most tip of Kent. Clearly, the Saxons are losing ground after each battle. This would seem to bring into question the ASC (Saxon) version of an ever-victorious Saxon march.

We can never know the truth of the matter, but a working theory that reconciles the two versions can be constructed:

Vortigern, perhaps too old to lead his army in person, or no longer trusted by his own people, cedes or loses control of the war to his son and successor, Vortimer. In 454, late in the year, Vortimer leads the British forces into Kent. The battles are fought at river fords, which the numerically inferior Saxons defend. Fiercely contested, the casualties are high on both sides, with the defending Saxons having the advantage, killing more of their enemies and thus able to claim victory. But they are forced to fall back after each as their own numbers dwindle. Finally, defending their original base at Thanet, the Saxons oppose the Britons at Wippedesfleot/Ebbsfleet. Perhaps Vortimer’s army crosses the channel at low tide. Driven out of their base, the Saxons take to their ships. This is a tactic used centuries later by the Danes under similar circumstances, and it seems reasonable that Hengist would have cut his losses and reverted to pirate.

1392257All this takes place in the campaign season of 455, extending perhaps into 456; not over ten years as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle maintains (though a later Saxon victory in 473 is surely plausible, in light of events to come). Shortly thereafter, Vortimer dies of wounds received in the hard fighting. The British militia disperses to their homes or garrisons. The following spring, having licked his wounds and gathered new recruits on the continent, Hengist returns, landing again at his original base at the Island of Thanet.

The “Night of the Long Knives” can be dismissed as pure invention. Had such an event actually occurred, it surely would have been remembered in the Saxon tradition. Such treacheries were celebrated in Northern sagas and applauded as cunning stratagems by clever leaders: the Scandinavian and Germanic sagas are filled with just such episodes. Would not Hengist or his successors (the future kings of Kent) have ensured that court bards recorded and retold the event in song and saga? Clearly, this is the Welsh monk’s attempt to reconcile his claims of British military victories with the ultimate Saxon triumph that followed.

What is far more likely is that events outside of Kent overtook Vortigern and the Britons, shifting the focus away from Hengist and Kent. The Saxons returned to a Kent depopulated by the tide of war, and over the next two decades had only to defend their new home against sporadic attempts by the distracted Britons to push them out.

Vortigern has directed British affairs for 3 decades. His Saxon policy, never popular, has proven disastrous for the country. His heroic son and successor was dead, along with many of Vortigern’s household troops, killed in the previous year’s fighting.

Now, a hated rival and old nemesis returned to challenge the old man’s withered authority.



  1. There is a school of thought that the arrival of the Saxons can be placed decades earlier than either Bede or the ASC indicate, sometime in the 420s. This would allow for a much earlier mutiny of the Saxon foederatii, and with it an earlier Ambrosius and Arthur. This theory has the advantage of not needing to hypothesize two Ambrosius’, father-and-son. Its greatest weakness is of course its variance with all the known sources.
  2. Scholarly arguments attempting to place the battles elsewhere are mostly specious or beg credulity.

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.


For some a terrific read on these events, try David Pillings novel:


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Still sore from the night before, Germany has had one too many pints. It is sucking up to Russia, deciding it doesn’t want to pay for the drinks that France insists it owes. They then drunkenly shout out that Austria is its brother, man, and Italy is their long time best friend.

Sauced now and belligerent, Germany is glaring angrily about the bar. Italy is already marching around, challenging everyone to step outside. America had left the bar some time ago and no one was sure where it’d gone.

With nothing better to do, Germany challenges Soviet Russia to an arm wrestling match at the Spanish table, while Japan was in the back room whacking China with a pool cue.

Arm-wrestling over, Germany goes to the bar again and orders another pint and one for Austria. Glancing over to Czechoslovakia, Germany says, “Hey, nice shirt. I want it”.

Before Czechoslovakia can jump from the bar stool and take a swing, Britain walks over and stands between the two, saying, “Can’t we just get along? Come on, now, Czechoslovakia, just the shirt, that’s all.”

Humiliated, Czechoslovakia hands over the shirt and Britain walks back to the corner table with France saying, “See? Peace in our time.”

At the other end of the pub, Italy has finally found someone to fight: it kicks Ethiopia in the goolies as they walk in. Germany, raises their pint glass in salute to Italy.

Then they look at Russia who’s wandered back in after checking on Japan in the back room and both look over at Poland who’s been sitting by themselves at a small table….. right next to Germany. England and France stare at Germany and England wags their finger at Germany. Germany gives them an “aw shucks” grin and then turns and knocks Poland’s beer off the table.

Poland stands up to confront Germany beckoning for England and France to come over and help. Russia then taps Poland on the shoulder and when they turn around Germany grabs the chair and smashes it over Poland’s head. Russia then rushes in and begins kicking Poland repeatedly as they lay writhing on the floor.

Germany turns to England and France and makes a “come on then” gesture, but England and France slink back to their table and continue to utter threats in low voices. Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium who popped in for a quick one after work all look worried and finish their drinks in a hurry and yell for the bill.

Finland who’s been sitting in a corner quietly notices Russia is distracted going through the unconscious Poland’s pockets, and quickly sneaks up behind them and smashes a vodka bottle over their head.

Russia gets up, shakes their head, grabs Finland by one arm and tosses them against the wall, knocking them completely out. Russia then goes back to their table in the far corner and sits down to sulk. Japan notices this and slinks out back to see if China has woken up yet.

England grabs the phone and calls Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India and tells them to get down here right quick and oh could one of them pop around to the United States and tell them to grab their baseball bat and come over. Then England walks over and stands by France confronting Germany, Italy and their mates now standing in the middle of the room.

Everyone else quickly pays their bill and heads for the door.

Germany crosses the room, rolls up its sleeves and with four punches knocks Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium out cold. Germany then grabs all their wallets and tosses them on a table to sort through later.

France is upset that its little cousin Belgium has been taken out and rushes to get at Germany. Italy has finally finished going through Ethiopia’s pockets sees France on the move, sticks out its leg and trips them. When France gets up Germany picks up an entire table and smashes it over their head. France is knocked out for several hours and when they finally wake up they’re slightly schizophrenic and crawl off into a corner to argue with themselves.

Outnumbered and alone England barricades itself behind the bar and begins tossing empty pint glasses at Germany, hoping the kids show up soon.

Germany and Italy begin sorting out the other tables and strut around the bar. In a corner booth Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania seeing what just happened, stand up and declare that Germany and Italy are their new best mates and buy them a round.

Across the street the United States is getting concerned about all the noise and broken windows and wants to go over and take a look, but the missus tells them to sit down and finish their dinner.

Shortly after dinner, United States hears a noise in the backyard and investigates just in time to see Japan smashing its tiki themed patio set in retaliation for suggesting they had too much to drink. United States is very upset at this and heads down to bar. Japan also eggs The Netherlands’ house and moons Australia as it heads back to pick on China some more.

Italy, while the Germans have their backs turned, decides to pick a fight with the Balkans Football Club which has been sitting in the corner. The BFC is a lot tougher then they look and offers Italy a few good smacks to the face. Italy quickly runs behind Germany and peeks out from behind their legs. Germany turns around with a “WTF!”

After sorting out the BFC with some help from its new bestest bud Romania and Hungary, Germany looks around the shambles of the room. England is yelling threats at them from behind the bar and Canada is behind them passing a fresh supply of empty bottles to toss.

Then another cry for help from Italy – they’ve decided to rifle the pockets of Egypt who passed out earlier in the children’s sandbox in the corner, but England sicked Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on them and they’re all smacking Italy about the kneecaps. Germany sighs and wonders where it can get some better allies.

As Germany makes its way to the sandbox, it makes eye contact with a stretching, knuckle cracking Japan, who gives a knowing nod. Japan puffs its chest and makes its way through the ocean of spilled beer to the United States, who’s standing there flat-footed, laughing hysterically, one hand slapping its knee. But USA looks up just in time to see Japan mid-swing with a big section of broken table. USA reels backwards into Germany, which is not amused and promises to get USA once it’s taken care of the sandbox. Japan, in the meantime, turns around and wails on poor Netherlands, cowering on the floor.

The Philippines meanwhile walks out the door, vowing to return. At the end of the bar, India, trying hard to mind its own business gets splashed with beer and starts to get up.

After dealing with the sandbox, Germany walks over to Russia hand outstretched in greeting. Russia takes it and get rewarded with Germany’s boot to the nads, and Finland, Hungary, Italy and Romania all pile on. Bloodied and dazed Russia backs off into the storeroom.

To distract Germany, England whispers something to Canada, who sneaks across the room and tries to smash a beer bottle on Germany’s head. The bottle fails to break and Germany turns around, grins and punches Canada in the nose. Holding their bloody nose Canada retreats, but keeps a supply of empty pint glasses flowing to Britain. Australia and New Zealand get an urgent call from their wives to come home because Japan is lurking in the garden, and they dash out. South Africa still pissed at England for making them take on both Italy and Germany and continues to sulk in the kid’s sandbox.

Germany goes looking for Russia in the storeroom to punch it some more, and notices the attractive walk-in freezer with hanging loops of sausage and schnitzel, not realizing Russia is hiding inside waiting with a frozen haunch of ham….. Germany otherwise occupied, Britain kicks sand in Italy’s face. With things getting a bit too quiet in the main bar, Britain and Canada start throwing pickled eggs at Germany’s back.

Germany and Russia, encouraged by their new buddies Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Ukraine, have started a serious game of Russian Roulette in the freezer, so Germany fails to hear Italy’s pitiful screams for help.

Italy, having decided that beating up on Ethiopia was training enough to punch at their own weight level, decided to take on Britain, but runs away after getting sodomized by their giant British boot.

Meanwhile, our friendly bartender Switzerland is still sitting there, watching this all unfold, dishtowel in one hand, drink in the other, ducking the occasional flying bottle/chairleg/billiard ball. Our other friendly bartender Sweden is still sitting there, watching, order pad in one hand, weapons licenses for sale in the other and selling brass knuckles to both sides.

USA, Canada and England now working together, pile-drive Italy and knock them unconscious. Then, South Africa, New Zealand and Poland (who left to get a new set of trousers and just got back) all join together and rain blows and kicks and elbows on Germany until it can’t help but beg for mercy. Even Brazil from down the street jumps in as does France who appears to be fine again. Italy and Germany decide that enough’s enough and cry for surrender, with the bar now completely and utterly ruined.

Japan is still poking USA in the back. With a little help from some engineers patronizing the bar, USA heaves the piano over the second floor railing and it lands with deafening noise squarely on Japans head. From underneath a tiny white flag rises from rubble.

(See the companion piece, IF WORLD WAR I WERE A BAR FIGHT)

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