Wednesday, October 18, 2017
On the morning of September 1, 1898, Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the Queen’s 4th Hussars rode out with four squadrons of the 21st Lancers to scout the approaches to Omdurman, a Sudanese village on the west bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum, epicenter of a revolt that had rocked the very foundations of the British Empire. An Anglo-Egyptian army under Maj. Gen. Sir Herbert Kitchener was a few miles behind the cavalry screen. Kitchener’s object was to reconquer the Sudan, restore order, and forestall any encroachments from opportunistic European rivals.
The British horsemen cautiously advanced over the sun-baked plain, the eye-numbing sandy desolation relieved by a few thorn bushes, scrub, and patches of grass. Churchill and the lancers ascended a low ridge to scan the horizon. Officers raised their field glasses and were rewarded with a sweeping panorama. Omdurman itself was in sight, and Churchill recalled later that “to the left the river, steel gray in the morning light, forked into two channels, and on a tongue of land between them the gleam of a white building showed among the trees.”
The white building was part of Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge to form Africa’s greatest river. Nearby, there seemed to be a long, dark smear that the British assumed was a zareba, a thorn bush barrier that commonly served as a prickly fortification in the treeless land. Some of the enemy, whom the British called Dervishes, could be seen lurking behind the barrier, confirming the officers’ first assumption.
The lancers advanced, supported by Egyptian cavalry, the Camel Corps, and some horse artillery. Dervish horsemen came forward to meet them but were sent packing by dismounted troopers firing Lee-Medford carbines at 800 yards. The lancers halted and waited for the enemy to make the next move.
About 11 am, the distant zareba suddenly sprang into malevolent life. It was made of men, not thorns—thousands of them, so thick that they made an undulating black wave. Churchill was awed by the sight. The roiling mass, he said, was “four miles from end to end and, as it seemed, in five great divisions, this mighty army advanced swiftly. Above them waved hundreds of banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousands of hostile spear points, spread a sparkling cloud.”
The young lieutenant rushed back to alert Kitchener to the enemy’s latest moves. Filled with a growing sense of urgency, Churchill galloped up the hillside to get his bearings. Once on the crest he could plainly see the Dervish army’s dark masses in stark relief against the brown, sandy plain. Turning around, he could also view the Anglo-Egyptian army, some 24,000 men, drawn up with their backs to the Nile. The two armies, separated by the hill’s looming slopes, could not yet see each other, but an enormous clash seemed inevitable. Churchill drank in the mesmerizing spectacle—an irresistible wall of Dervishes about to collide with an immovable force of British and Egyptian soldiers.
His sense of duty breaking the spell, Churchill pulled the reins of his horse and galloped down the hill in search of Kitchener. He briefly dismounted, in part to collect his thoughts and calm his rising excitement. The lieutenant had seen action before, in India, but this was going to be a major battle, and his pulse quickened at the idea. The action shaping up at Omdurman might well decide the fate of a continent and the destiny of a people.
In the late 19th century, Egypt was a nominal province of the decaying Turkish Ottoman Empire. Because of Egypt’s growing debts, the ruling Khedive Ismail was forced to sell his shares of the Suez Canal to Great Britain in 1876. The Suez was Britain’s lifeline to India and its empire in the Far East. Once Great Britain had a foothold on the Nile, it became unavoidably involved in the Sudan.
Egyptian rule in the Sudan was characterized by brutality and corruption. Taxes were so high that parents were regularly forced to sell their children into slavery, and government officials ruled by the whip. The Sudan was ripe for revolt. All it needed was a charismatic leader to galvanize the people and channel their hatred and resentment into political action.
In late June 1881, such a leader arose when a mystic named Muhammad Ahmad announced that he was the Mahdi, or the “Expected One,” a kind of Islamic messiah. The Egyptians were more than just oppressors, he said; they were also heretics whose railroads, telegraphs, and other modern inventions were leading Muslims away from the true path. The Mahdi’s vision was a medieval one in which the Turks, Egyptians, and infidel Europeans would all be irresistibly swept away, enabling the Sudan to return to its former glories.
Thousands of disaffected Sudanese flocked to the Mahdi’s banner, and soon the Sudan was in full revolt. The Mahdists managed to defeat several Egyptian forces that were sent against them. A 7,000-man Egyptian army under a British Army colonel named William Hicks was massacred almost to the last man in late 1883. With each defeat, the Mahdi gained prestige, followers, and modern captured rifles.
The Mahdi threatened Egypt itself, but British Prime Minister William Gladstone refused to be drawn into the spreading conflict. Instead, Khartoum and the remaining Egyptian garrisons were to be evacuated, abandoning all of the Sudan to the Mahdist rebels. General Charles George Gordon, an Army engineer, was sent to the Sudan to supervise the evacuation. In retrospect, Gordon was a poor choice for such a delicate mission. Eccentric and charismatic, he was a devout Christian who felt that he was an instrument of God. Once in Khartoum, he decided to disobey orders and stay in the Sudan. He hoped by doing so to pressure the British government to send more troops, but Gladstone refused to play into the general’s hands. In April 1884, Gordon and his remaining forces were besieged inside Khartoum. The siege dragged on for nine months.
After a public outcry, Gladstone relented. But when the advance party of a British relief expedition finally reached Khartoum in January 1885, they found that the city had fallen two days earlier. The city had been sacked, its men ruthlessly butchered, the women raped and sold into slavery. Gordon had been fatally speared and his severed head presented to the Mahdi as a trophy.
Gordon’s death produced a predictable uproar in Great Britain. Overnight, the eccentric engineer became a national martyr, seemingly sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Queen Victoria herself was appalled, noting firmly in her diary that “the government alone is to blame.” Unshaken by the torrent of public protest, Gladstone withdrew all British troops from the Sudan.
The Mahdi did not live long to celebrate his triumph, dying of typhus three months after taking Khartoum. Just before he died, the Mahdi chose Abdullah al-Taaishi, a member of the warrior Baggara tribe, as his hand-picked successor. Abdullah was now the khalifa, or deputy of Allah. The khalifa continued the Mahdi’s hard-fisted religious totalitarianism. The few tribes that resisted were ruthlessly exterminated. Villages were depopulated and famine stalked the land. Many Sudanese believed that they had exchanged Egyptian tyranny for another kind of oppression, one even more ruthless because it was clothed in the sanctity of religion.
In the meantime, Egypt became a British colony in all but name. Sir Evelyn Baring was appointed the khedive’s chief adviser on economic, military, and political affairs. The Egyptian Army was re-formed and trained under the supervision of British officers. The memory of Gordon’s demise remained fresh in the minds of the British public. In 1896, the new prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, decided that the time was ripe to return to the Sudan. In this, he was motivated more by international politics and imperialism than by any thoughts of personal revenge.
The French were in equatorial Africa, pushing east. If the British dreamed of a “Cape to Cairo” domain that stretched the length of the continent from north to south, the French envisioned a similar west-to-east “Atlantic to Red Sea” empire. Success of the French vision would mean control of the sources of the Nile—and whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt. The Sudan had to be reconquered to forestall Gallic territorial ambitions.
General Herbert Horatio Kitchener was appointed sirdar, or commander, of the joint Anglo-Egyptian forces. Standing over six feet tall, with a bristling handlebar mustache, Kitchener seemed the very embodiment of John Bull. He was cold, methodical, and seemingly emotionless, a man who used the army as an instrument of his will. As a soldier, he was far from brilliant, but he excelled in logistical planning—always a must in Africa‘s inhospitable countryside.
As Kitchener pored over his maps, a plan began to form in his mind. The Nile was his lifeline, yet shipping supplies upriver was a laborious, time-consuming process. The river was punctuated by six cataracts, stretches of rocky rapids that were difficult to cross. The Nile also added mileage as it curved west, its meandering ribbon of water impossible to fortify at all twists and turns.
Kitchener decided to build a railway straight across the arid Nubian Desert, a shortcut that would eliminate 900 miles of the river’s curve between Wadi Halfa and Abu Hamad, north of Berber. The railroad would be 400 miles in length, including a stretch of pre-existing line that hugged the Nile. The real challenge would be the 230-mile shortcut through the desert, a desiccated region infamous for not having water of any kind.
Most experts considered the desert portion of the railway impossible to build. But Royal Engineer Edouard Girouard, an experienced Canadian railway builder, was more than willing to try. It was a gargantuan task, made worse by a harsh climate and lazy, incompetent, and dishonest subordinates. Despite an outbreak of cholera and a bad case of sunstroke suffered by Girouard himself, work continued throughout the summer, with temperatures reaching 116 degrees in the shade. When a massive rainstorm washed away 12 miles of track, 5,000 men worked day and night for a week to repair the break.
By the time Abu Hamad had been captured on August 7, 1897, the Sudan Military Railway was roughly halfway though the Nubian Desert. The ever-impatient Kitchener wanted the remaining 120 miles to Abu Hamad completed quickly, and Girouard pressed on. Up to three miles of track was laid each day. While the railroad was being built, Kitchener marched south by stages. There were several small-scale battles with the Mahdists, all resulting in defeat for the khalifa’s forces. The months dragged on, but slowly the Anglo-Egyptian army closed in on Khartoum. The railway shortcut was finally completed when it reached Atbara on July 3, 1898. Girouard had achieved the impossible. By August 31, Kitchener was only 18 miles from Khartoum.
The general had little time to savor his progress—the khalifa still had to be defeated. It was feared that the khalifa would retreat into the desert vastness, away from the railroad and the vital Nile supply line. On reflection, however, Kitchener was sure that the Mahdists would make a stand at Omdurman. To Europeans, Omdurman was a primitive collection of shoddy mud huts clinging to the western banks of the Nile, but to the Dervishes it was almost a second Mecca. Omdurman was the khalifa’s capital and the site of the Mahdi’s elaborate tomb. If the khalifa gave it up without a fight, he would lose face, and his position as God’s chosen deputy would be severely compromised.
Now, as Churchill galloped up to his commander in chief, the stage was set for a final reckoning at Omdurman. Saluting, Churchill announced that he was a messenger from the 21st Lancers. He reported that the Dervish forces were on the move, marching rapidly in Kitchener’s direction. “How long do you think I have?” Kitchener asked. “You have got at least an hour,” Churchill replied, “probably an hour and a half, sir, even if they come at their present rate.”
Kitchener’s gunboats were drawing closer to Omdurman, pushing their way past the khalifa’s riverside forts. Once past the forts, the gunboats opened fire with their 40-pounder cannons. They were accompanied by British howitzers that had been placed on the eastern bank. The shells rained down on Omdurman, each explosion marked by gouts of flame that rose through great clouds of dust and flying fragments of stone. The Mahdi’s tomb was hit several times, leaving great gaping holes in the white dome. Inexplicably, the khalifa halted his forces for the night.
As the sun sank beneath the horizon, the Anglo-Egyptian army retired to its camp along the Nile. Sudanese scouts were sent out to give early warning of a night attack. That evening, the khalifa presided over an acrimonious council of war. His son Osman Sheikh al-Din wanted to attack at daybreak, immediately after morning prayers. He counseled, “Let us not be like mice or foxes sneaking into our holes by day and peeping out at night.” Ibrahim al-Khalil favored a stealthy night assault—the very thing Kitchener feared the most. If the zareba was breached at night, rifles and artillery would be useless in the pitch-black darkness. Perhaps British discipline would still triumph, but Kitchener’s army was sure to suffer heavy casualties in the confused and bloody melee.
The khalifa decided to attack in broad daylight. From the Sudanese point of view, it was a decision of almost criminal stupidity. Kitchener’s fortified camp was well positioned to meet a Dervish attack. It was semicircular in shape, about 1,200 yards wide at its widest point. The south end of the perimeter was protected by a line of mimosa thorn bushes, and the northern end featured a double line of trenches.
Major General William Gatacre’s British division occupied the zareba portion of the defenses, comprising such famed regiments as the Grenadier Guards, the Rifles, Lincolns, Warwicks, and Cameron Highlanders. Gatacre was known as a hard-driving general whose men had nicknamed him “Back-Acher.” The Egyptian troops under Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald Hunter occupied the trenches facing west and north. Hunter was a veteran of the failed Gordon relief expedition and knew his Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers well. Colonel Hector MacDonald, one of Hunter’s subordinates, had come up from the ranks and personally trained his brigade to a peak of efficiency.
Kitchener’s army had 46 artillery pieces and a battery of Maxim machine guns. The disciplined fire of British troops was almost as good as an artillery barrage. Each British Tommy was armed with an eight-shot Lee-Medford rifle and 100 rounds of hollow-point “dum-dum” ammunition, bullets that caused massive internal injuries wherever they struck.
Buglers sounded reveille at 3:40 am on September 2. British troops gathered behind the zareba and were told to lie down until the battle started. Friendly Sudanese and Egyptian troops swarmed into the trenches, making sure their single-shot Martini-Henry rifles were in working order. A few native huts in the rear served as protection for the sick and wounded, and the army’s menagerie of camels, horses, mules, and donkeys were picketed close by.
The 21st Lancers, on point, moved out of the zareba at about 5 am and headed toward the looming mass of the mountain, Jebel Surgham. Churchill accompanied them, mounted on a sturdy gray pony. He had a bad shoulder, so he decided that wielding a saber was out of the question. Instead, he would rely on a Mauser pistol he had purchased in London. The young officer loved the 10-shot weapon, which he called a “ripper.”
Perched on the slopes of Jebel Surgham, Churchill and the lancers had a ringside seat to the Battle of Omdurman’s opening moves. The Dervish army began to slowly climb the slopes, their advance described by one embedded reporter as “a moving, undulating plain of men.” The khalifa’s 52,000-man army stretched for some five miles, a frightening yet mesmerizing pageant of motion, color, and sound. Most followers of the khalifa wore the rough jibba, a woolen tunic that sported black patches as signs of humility before Allah. Human nature being what it is, many Dervishes had gotten their wives to sew on additional swatches of yellow, blue, and red.
There were several major divisions within the Mahdist army. Osman Azrak and Osman Sheikh al-Din would lead the attack under the latter’s dark-green battle flag. Sheikh al-Din, the khalifa’s son, had the most riflemen in his division, warriors using captured Remington and Martini-Henry rifles. Sheikh al-Din would be supported on the right by Ibrahim Al-Khalil’s elite troops under a white banner covered with quotes from the Koran. Under a red flag, Khalifa Sherif—not to be confused with the Mahdist leader—and his 2,000 Danagla tribesmen were positioned on the right.
The khalifa himself stayed in the rear with a large reserve of around 20,000 men, sheltering behind Jebel Surgham’s rocky mass. Surrounded by a bodyguard, the Dervish leader had a great black flag carried before him. The sable banner was huge, about two yards square, and covered with texts from the Koran and the Mahdi’s sayings. It was attached to a large bamboo pole about 20 feet long, and wherever it went it was acclaimed as a talisman of victory.
The Dervish plan was simple: The first waves would crash against the infidels’ zareba. The khalifa’s black flag division would be held in reserve, together with Ali Wad Helu’s 5,000 Degheim and Kenana tribesmen. If the first waves were successful, the reserves would come forward to complete the victory. If not, the khalifa would have enough intact forces to attempt a second round of attacks.
Thousands of spear points twinkled and gleamed in the sun, swords were brandished with fervor, and war drums beat a throbbing tattoo. Mounted warriors sported helmets and chain-mail armor that seemed a throwback to medieval times. Shouts in Arabic of “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Messenger!” and “Mahdi!” sounded from thousands of throats, a swelling chorus that seemed to cause the very earth to tremble. The shouts grew louder when the tribesmen saw the infidels’ zareba in the distance. The Dervishes started forward at the run, banners flying, while emirs on horseback urged them on.
About 50 yards from the zareba, two shells exploded, the bursts gouging holes in the gravel and red sand. The shells were from Mahdist artillery, but the guns were so poorly served that they fell short. The Anglo-Egyptian artillery replied, but with a far more deadly accuracy. On the right, Ibrahim al-Khalil and his men pressed forward, spilling over the ridge that marked Jebel Sergham’s eastern boundary. Guns from the 32nd Field Battery opened up at 2,800 yards, a rain of shells that produced terrible carnage. As many as 20 shells hit the advancing black mass in the first minute, throwing up dirty blossoms of flame and red dust with each detonation.
Men were decapitated, eviscerated, torn limb from limb; yet others came forward with incredible courage and resolution. Al-Khalil was blown from the saddle, tumbling in the dirt when his horse’s head was nearly severed by a shell fragment. Mounting a fresh horse, he led his men forward—but by this time they were within range of the Maxim machine guns and the Lee-Medford rifles. The machine guns opened up, chattering a steady hail of death, and the Grenadier Guards stood up and poured a steady fire on the enemy’s shredded ranks. Ibrahim al-Khalil was shot in the head and chest, and the bloodied survivors reluctantly fell back.
Sheikh Osman al-Din’s attack in the center was equally disastrous. British shells tore bloody gaps in the ranks and tossed men like rag dolls into the air, yet the Dervishes refused to give up the fight. A carpet of spent cartridge shells gathered around each British soldier, and rifles grew so hot that they had to be replaced by weapons from the reserve.
The Dervishes fared no better on the left. The Sudanese regiments had little love for their Mahdist countrymen, and some probably wanted revenge for the khalifa’s depredations. The Sudanese opened up at 800 yards, great gouts of smoke, flame, and lead spouting from their Martini-Henrys. Dervish leaders pressed forward, but human flesh and blood could not stand against this hurricane of lead and metal.
The first phase of the Battle of Omdurman was over. The plain between the Keriri Hills and Jebel Surgham was carpeted with thousands of Mahdist bodies. The wounded crawled among the dead, many of them leaving a bloody trail of missing arms, legs, or feet. “Cease fire!” Kitchener shouted, then ordered the army to turn south and head straight for Omdurman. The general was afraid the khalifa might make a stand in the city, and the thought of house-to-house fighting was daunting.
As a first step, Kitchener ordered Colonel Rowland Martin and his 21st Lancers to reconnoiter the city and cut off the retreat of any fleeing Dervishes. Martin was happy to comply; the regiment was itching for action. The lancers advanced at a walk, then spied a line of Dervishes about a half mile away. The Dervishes—only about a 100 or so skirmishers—started to fire on the British horsemen. Martin ordered a “right wheel into line,” which a bugler spat out in musical notes. The 320 troopers turned about smartly, readying themselves for the regiment’s first full-blown charge and the last formal cavalry charge in British history.
The lancers charged with fine style, lances leveled and swords drawn. But when they reached their objective they were shocked to find that the ground fell away five feet to expose a khor—a dry watercourse—filled with 3,000 warriors 10 to 12 ranks deep. The 21st was committed—there was nothing left to do but increase the pace and hope for the best. The subsequent impact was terrible, as horses plunged headlong into the enemy mass. Around 30 troopers were unhorsed as they crashed into the packed ranks, and perhaps as many as 200 Dervishes were laid low, trampled and stunned. But the Mahdists recovered quickly—this was the kind of warfare they understood.
Each lancer found himself engulfed in a sea of enemies who thrust spears and slashed swords with wild abandon. Troopers were pulled from their mounts, surrounded and hacked to pieces. Bridles were cut, stirrup leather slashed, and horses were hamstrung in an attempt to bring them down.
Churchill was one of the lucky ones, partly because he was on the far right, where the mass of Dervishes was thinner, and also because he was wielding a pistol. Even so, he barely escaped with his life. Finding himself closely surrounded by several dozen Dervishes, Churchill emptied his Mauser as they pressed closer to finish him. One assailant, swinging a curved sword, got so near the pistol he bumped into it. Churchill wheeled away at the last moment and galloped to safety.
The surviving lancers managed to get out of the khor and paused to re-form. The melee had lasted only two minutes, but in that short span of time 22 men had been killed and another 50 wounded. Some 119 horses had been slaughtered. The 21st Lancers had covered themselves in glory, but at a high price in blood. Once he recovered from the euphoria of battle, Churchill noted “horses spouting blood, men bleeding from terrible wounds, fish-hook spears stuck right through them, men gasping, crying, expiring.” One nearby lieutenant had been wounded in the shoulder and leg, his hand almost severed by a sword strike, and a sergeant’s face “was cut to pieces … the whole of his nose, cheeks and lips flapped red bubbles.”
The battle was not yet over. Kitchener mistakenly believed the Mahdist army was broken. The Dervishes had suffered grievously, but most of the Khalifa’s black flag division and Ali Wad Helu’s corps were still intact. Colonel Hector MacDonald’s 1st Egyptian Brigade, a rear guard composed of Sudanese and Egyptians, was dangerously exposed. If the khalifa could pounce on MacDonald, he might annihilate the Scotsman before other units could come to his aid. Kitchener’s whole army could be taken in flank and rear while still on the march and rolled up.
Unaware of the danger, Kitchener was irritated. “Can’t he see we’re marching on Omdurman?” the general complained. “Tell him to follow on.” Obeying, General Hunter relayed a message to MacDonald to withdraw. But just about the time he received the message, MacDonald became aware of the danger. “I’ll nae do it,” he said firmly in his Scots brogue. If he withdrew, his men would be slaughtered. When the khalifa’s black flag division came forward at the run, they were met by disciplined volleys from the British troops. As before, modern firepower trumped medieval courage, and the attack faltered and broke off.
Just then, Ali Wad Helu’s warriors swept in from the north, threatening to hit MacDonald’s troops in flank. The Scotsman coolly appraised the situation and swung the 11th Sudanese Battalion to meet the new threat. MacDonald’s brigade was now in an L shape, firing so rapidly that many men didn’t even aim. The Dervish horde, wilting under heavy fire, started to lap around the 11th’s flank, seeking to exploit a space they saw between the 11th and 9th Battalions. The 2nd Egyptian Battalion plugged the gap on the run, firing into their opponents at point-blank range. The attack failed. Watching in the rear, the khalifa accepted defeat and fled to distant Kordofan, leaving behind his great black flag as a trophy for the victors.
The skill and bravery of the Sudanese and Egyptian troops had saved Kitchener from disaster. Well-deserved praise was also lavished on MacDonald’s men. MacDonald himself gained the affectionate sobriquet, “Fighting Mac.” Winston Churchill added another notch to his budding legend.
Rarely had a major victory been won at such a small cost. The Anglo-Egyptian army’s casualties were 47 dead and 340 wounded. By contrast, the Mahdist army lost almost 10,000 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured. The khalifa was eventually tracked down a year later and killed in battle. However indirectly, Gordon had been avenged.
Omdurman By John Meredith
Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders 1879 - 1900 By Mike Snook
Kitchener: "Road to Omdurman" AND "Savior of the Realm" By John Pollock
Thursday, October 12, 2017
In the winter of 1942-1943, the Allies had every reason to believe that they were on the verge of total victory in North Africa. It had started in November 1942, when German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s much-vaunted Panzerarmee Afrika was decisively defeated by the British Eighth Army at the Second Battle of El Alamein. Rommel’s setback was not merely a defeat but a full-scale rout, and surviving German and Italian units were forced into a headlong retreat through the burning deserts of northern Libya. Rommel seemingly was trapped between American forces advancing to block his retreat and British forces in hot pursuit to his rear.
The Axis disaster at El Alamein coincided with Operation Torch, three coordinated Allied landings in French North Africa at Casablanca, in Morocco, and at Oran and Algiers, in Algeria. Operation Torch, approved after a series of sometimes acrimonious discussions between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was designed to open a second front to augment the valiant Russian efforts against Nazi Germany in the East. Owing to French sensibilities, the landings were mainly an American effort.
The Americans came ashore on November 8 waving the Stars and Stripes and were immediately met with fierce resistance from French colonial troops loyal to the collaborationist Vichy government back home. At Oran, British naval cutters Walney and Hartland were sunk by French fire, costing the Allies an additional 445 unnecessary casualties before the political situation was sorted out. At Algiers, a five-day delay in the proceedings was finally resolved, and Vichy commander Jean Darlan reluctantly agreed to end colonial resistance to the Allied landings.
The need for continued cooperation from Darlan was eliminated—along with Darlan—when the admiral was assassinated on Christmas Eve by a Free French intelligence operative. The way was clear for a concerted drive on the grievously wounded Panzerarmee. For even the gifted Rommel, the end seemed near. In two years of unremitting desert warfare, he had performed wonders, earning him the respect and admiration of friends and foes alike. Allied air and naval forces often reduced his supplies to a trickle, and he was usually outnumbered by his British foes. German Führer Adolf Hitler, preoccupied with his ongoing Russian campaign, failed to appreciate the strategic significance of North Africa. Many of Rommel’s fellow officers were old-school aristocrats bred in the Prussian tradition, and to them he was little more than a middle-class upstart.
In spite of all these difficulties, Rommel had won a number of brilliant victories and came within an ace of capturing the Suez Canal, key to the entire Middle East and Great Britain’s lifeline to India and East Asia. Rommel led from the front; he was a masterful tactician and strategist imbued with an offensive spirit that swiftly exploited enemy weaknesses. Rommel had become larger than life, a man christened with the enduring legacy “the Desert Fox.” Even his enemies gave him grudging admiration.
In the fall and winter of 1942-1943 the fox seemed at bay, surrounded by a host of Allied hounds. Panzerarmee Afrika was a broken reed, a mere shadow of its former self. About half of Rommel’s command had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and 450 tanks and 1,000 guns were taken or destroyed. Rommel himself was exhausted and increasingly prone to periods of ill health. He was plagued by headaches, and to make matters worse, he came down with a painful bout of nasal diphtheria.
Yet Allied hopes of total victory turned out to be premature. The Torch landings, besides giving the green American troops an exaggerated idea of their own prowess, had finally aroused Hitler from his lethargy on North African affairs. Enraged, he occupied southern France and began to pour reinforcements into Tunisia. German and Italian troops were easily ferried into Tunisia from Sicily, only one night’s voyage distant. General des Panzertruppen Hans-Jurgen von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army was the main element in the eleventh-hour surge of Axis troops.
By January 1943, Rommel had retreated some 1,400 miles across the spine of northern Africa, and his men’s morale was as low as their casualties had been high. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Eighth Army took Tripoli—Rommel’s main supply base—on January 23, but the triumph was short-lived. The Allied pursuit was literally bogging down, with heavy winter rains turning Tunisia’s yellowish soil into a sea of primordial muck. Rommel retained hopes of linking up with von Arnim’s forces and effecting an orderly withdrawal of all German forces from North Africa. But to do so, he believed that it was necessary to inflict a stinging defeat on the newly arrived Americans before they could complete a fatal encirclement with the British Army along the old French fortification line at Mareth on the Libya-Tunisia border.
His counterpart, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was supreme commander in the Mediterranean Theater, a job that demanded tact as well as diplomatic skills. Eisenhower performed both tasks admirably, but he was too often handicapped by political considerations in the early stages of the campaign. In early February he had to drop everything to attend the famous Casablanca Conference and consult with Roosevelt and Churchill on Allied plans. He finally left the conference on February 12 and immediately took a tour of the Tunisian front.
Meanwhile, Rommel received word that he was to be recalled to Germany for rest and recuperation. There was to be a reorganization of his forces; Panzerarmee Afrika would be designated the German-Italian Panzer Army and placed under the command of Italian General Giovanni Messe. But the Desert Fox did not want to leave Africa on such a sour note. Rommel wanted to redeem himself and restore his reputation, tarnished after El Alamein and what to him was an ignominious retreat.
Rommel was a keen observer and a strategic opportunist. He saw weaknesses in the American forces, whose troops were green and largely untested. Rommel began to think in terms of an offensive, using the Fifth Panzer Army and, he hoped, a rested and re-equipped Panzerarmee Afrika. If Rommel could smash through the inexperienced American line, he could rush through Kasserine Pass and take Tebessa, a major Allied supply hub. There was also a possibility that Rommel could sweep north and take the remaining Allied forces—now facing von Arnim’s Fifth Panzer Army—in the flank and rear.
If and when his plan was approved, Rommel knew that he would not have to worry about Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing in his rear. The old French fortifications at the Mareth Line would hold Montgomery in check—at least for a time. Rommel planned to man the Mareth Line with his infantry, reserving his more mobile armored forces for the proposed attack. The American II Corps would be Rommel’s primary target. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, a man full of bravado and macho posturing. He had a habit of tough-guy talking that alienated subordinates and sometimes made his orders unclear.
Rommel argued for an immediate offensive, and at first it seemed like a tough sell. On paper, German operations in Africa were controlled by the Italian Comando Supremo, although Rommel generally had a free hand. Now the Desert Fox had to deal with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who had been appointed Oberbefehlshaber Sud (Commander in Chief, South), an area that encompassed the whole Mediterranean. Meeting with Kesselring and von Arnim at a Luftwaffe airbase at Rhennouch, midway between Tunis and Mareth, Rommel presented his plan. It was a frosty meeting. Rommel and von Arnim knew each other well, but in their case, familiarity did not breed affection.
As the well-born son of a Prussian general, von Arnim resented Rommel’s parvenu status and heroic image, which he considered overdone. Kesselring did not like Rommel any more than von Arnim did, but he was inclined to give Rommel one last chance. Rommel’s plan was approved, although scaled down. Instead of one major offensive thrust through the mountains, there would be two separate attacks. Von Arnim would launch an offensive codenamed Operation Frühlingswind (Spring Wind), while Rommel would attack to the south of von Arnim under the designation Morgenluft (Morning Air).
Tunisia, a fist of land thrusting out into the Mediterranean Sea, is a region of arid plains and formidable mountain ranges. The Western Dorsal and Eastern Dorsal are two offshoots of the Atlas Mountains that run roughly parallel to the coast, 70 miles inland. These two rocky “backbones” are all but impassable, save for a number of passes that cut through their rugged slopes. Allied units had already advanced through the Western Dorsal and established a front line that touched the western edge of the Eastern Dorsal. The northern part of the line was held by the British First Army under Lt. Gen. Sir Kenneth A.N. Anderson. Americans felt uncomfortable around Anderson, considering him a prototypical dour Scotsman.
Like most British officers, he liked to closely supervise the tactical plans of subordinates, which to American sensibilities felt too much like uninvited interference. Anderson’s main focus was the northern segment near the coast, where he felt the decisive showdown with the Germans ultimately would take place. The center of the Allied line was held by Free French troops of the XIX Corps d’Armee. They were largely colonial troops of varying quality, poorly equipped until the Americans gradually gave them more up-to-date weapons. The officers were almost stereotypes of Gallic pride, always eager to show their courage and quick to take offense at perceived slights to French honor.
But it was the southern end of the Allied line that gave Eisenhower the most worry. As soon as he was able to break away from the Casablanca Conference, he traveled to make an inspection of the II Corps. Eisenhower was appalled; in some respects, things were even worse than he had imagined.
The problems started at the top. Fredendall had established his headquarters an incredible 80 miles to the rear of the front line in a nearly inaccessible ravine. He seemed obsessed with air attack, and he had a swarm of 200 engineers busily digging a network of underground bunkers for himself and his staff. As Eisenhower remarked later, “It was the only time during the war that I ever saw a higher headquarters so concerned over its own safety that it dug itself underground shelters.” Not wanting to embarrass Fredendall, Eisenhower had merely cautioned his corps commander not to stay too close to his command post, adding the less-than-inspiring observation that “Generals are expendable just as is any other item in an army.” Fredendall did not take the hint.
Eisenhower also visited the oasis village of Sidi Bou Zid, near the western entrance of the Faid Pass that sliced through the Eastern Dorsal. Axis forces were on the other side of the mountain chain, and who knew what their plans might be? If they decided to mount an offensive, Eisenhower saw only too clearly that the American forces were ill prepared to resist. The troops were green, which could not be helped, but they were also lackadaisical. Defensive minefields had yet to be put down, although Americans had been in the area for at least a couple of days. There were always excuses and assurances that such tasks would be done tomorrow.
Some troops had not even bothered to dig foxholes in the desert terrain. Eisenhower pointed out with disgust that the Germans always dug minefields, placed machine guns, and had reserve troops standing by, but the Americans seemed content to throw their backpacks on the ground, stack their rifles and grenade belts in an untidy heap, and head off to the nearest village tavern for some unearned rest and relaxation. A recent circular letter from Eisenhower to his subordinate commanders, cautioning them “to impress upon our junior officers the deadly seriousness of the job,” had gone unheeded.
Although Eisenhower did not know yet where the Germans would launch a major attack, he knew in his bones that one was coming soon. Confirmation of a sort had come from his chief intelligence officer, British Brig. Gen. Eric Mockler-Ferryman, who had assured Eisenhower that the Germans were planning to attack the British and French positions on the northern flank of the Allied line. American Brig. Gen. Paul Robinett, whose Combat Command B (CCB) of the 1st Armored Division was temporarily attached to the British sector, had vigorously disputed this claim, telling Eisenhower that his own tanks had penetrated all the way across the Eastern Dorsal without running into a single advanced enemy position.
Robinett had tried to warn Anderson as well, but the Scotsman had airily dismissed his warnings. Eisenhower was inclined to believe Robinett, and he ordered Fredendall to gather his scattered armored units into a mobile reserve ready to confront any German attempt to break though the mountain passes. Eisenhower’s reasoning was sound, but already too late. It was the evening of February 13, and for the Americans casually guarding the southern line, time had run out.
The first part of the German offensive—Operation Frühlingswind—began in the early morning hours of February 14. The 10th Panzer Division smashed through the Faid Pass, using a blinding sandstorm as perfect cover. At the same time, the veteran 21st Panzer Division raced through the mountains to the south of Sidi Bou Zid, then turned north, intending to link up with the 10th Panzers. The Nazis’ initial targets were a pair of hills, known locally as djebels, that guarded the road from Faid to Sebeitla. After encircling these Allied-held outposts, von Arnim’s troops would capture Sidi Bou Zid itself.
The two hills in question, Djebel Lessouda and Djebel Ksaira, flanked Sidi Bou Zid and seemed like good defensive positions—on paper. Fredendall had placed infantry units on the tops of each hill, intending them to slow the German advance until American armor could deal with them. Unfortunately, there were too few men on the hills, and they were too far away from each other to provide mutual support. The hilltop infantry was reduced to helpless observers of an American debacle swiftly unfolding on the plains far below.
Colonel Thomas D. Drake of the 165th Infantry Regiment, 34th Division, was situated on Djebel Ksaira, watching the spectacle below with growing frustration. Drake phoned the command post at Sidi Bou Zid, warning them that some American artillery was already showing signs of panic. The commanders in the rear refused to believe it, insisting that the men were only shifting positions.“Shifting positions, hell,” Drake responded. “I know panic when I see it.”
Nearby, the Americans on Djebel Lessouda were also powerless to intervene in any meaningful way. A strong southwesterly wind had smothered all sounds of the German buildup the previous night, and Major Norman Parson’s patrolling G Company had run headlong into the lead elements of the 86th Panzer Grenadiers and 7th Panzer Regiment that morning, getting themselves knocked out of commission and losing all radio communications with Djebel Lessouda.
Once the sandstorm lifted, Lessouda’s commander, Lt. Col. John Waters, could plainly see what he estimated to be at least 60 German tanks and numerous other vehicles. Waters was the son-in-law of Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, who had not yet become famous as one of America’s best military leaders. Waters earlier had cautioned his men after their easy victory over the French during the Torch landings: “We did very well against the scrub team. Next week we hit the Germans. When we make a showing against them, you may congratulate yourselves.” His words would prove to be prescient.
American armor moved forward to confront the growing threat. Colonel Louis V. Hightower’s force—two companies of tanks and about a dozen tank destroyers—rumbled out of Sidi Bou Zid to attack the 10th Panzer head-on. Hightower and his inexperienced crews were brave but badly outnumbered and were facing a well-prepared enemy. German 88mm artillery scored hit after hit, turning American armor into flaming coffins one by one. The M-4 Sherman tanks used by the Americans, which for some reason they had nicknamed “Honey,” were given a more mocking, if accurate, nickname by the Germans—“Ronson,” after the cigarette lighter, because they burst into flames so readily.
Hightower’s force was facing Mark VI Tiger tanks, new and powerful additions to the German arsenal that had a firing range twice as long as the American tanks. The combination of German artillery shells and long-range tank fire proved too much for Hightower’s men, who tried in vain to conduct a fighting retreat in the face of heavy odds. Hightower’s own tank was knocked out, but not before he had destroyed four panzers.
Hightower and his crew managed to escape the burning hulk and sneak away from the battlefield amid the smoke and dust. (“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Hightower said reasonably.) They were the lucky ones—only seven of Hightower’s 51 tanks survived the defeat, however. The other 44 American tanks were lost, and Sidi Bou Zid had to be abandoned. American Brig. Gen. Raymond A. McQuillin, commanding Combat Command A (CCA) within Sidi Bou Zid, fell back to a new position seven miles southwest of the town, while German Colonel Hans Georg Hildebrandt took possession of the stronghold.
Before long, 21st Panzer linked up with 10th Panzer, and they moved quickly to consolidate their gains. The 2,500 American infantrymen on the two hills were now cut off, literally islands of resistance in a German sea. Drake still stubbornly held Djebel Ksaira and Waters held Djebel Lessouda, but chances of a successful breakout were diminishing by the hour. Meanwhile, back at his headquarters, Fredendall refused to allow Waters and Drake to escape while there was still time.
Fredendall’s stubbornness was compounded by faulty assumptions and bad intelligence. British General Anderson, Fredendall’s superior, was convinced that the German drive on Sidi Bou Zid was merely a diversionary attack for a larger blow farther north. Allied intelligence also insisted that there was only one Panzer division in the south. As a result, only one tank battalion—Lt. Col. James Alger’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Armored Regiment—was sent to deal with the Germans and rescue the Americans trapped on the two hills.
Alger’s equipment was good—mainly M-4 Sherman tanks—but his tactics were poor, and his men were brave but inexperienced. They did not realize they were going to face not one but two Panzer divisions. The result was an almost textbook example of what not to do in desert armored warfare. Alger’s counterattack began on February 15. The 58 Shermans came forward at a high rate of speed, which meant that huge dust clouds marked their passage. So much dust was kicked up that crews were blinded, and the thick plumes made them easy to spot and target. The American tanks rolled forward in a rough V-shaped formation, with tank destroyers on the flanks. It was like an old-style cavalry charge, but the Germans were about to bring the Americans into the 20th century.
German artillery hidden amid olive groves opened fire, and German tanks attacked Alger’s flanks.
Before long the Americans were trapped, engaging veteran Mark IV Tigers at point-blank range. Only four American tanks managed to escape the debacle. The entire battalion was wiped out, with 55 tanks lost and some 300 men dead, wounded, or captured, including Alger, who was taken prisoner. Divisional commander Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward was left literally in the dark about the attack’s outcome. So much smoke and dust were kicked up in the battle that he could only report to Fredendall, “We might have walloped them, or they might have walloped us.” It was soon clear who had done the walloping.
Realizing at last that rescue was impossible, Fredendall gave belated permission for the two trapped hilltop forces to try to break out on their own. Drake led his men down the slopes of Djebel Ksaira under the cover of darkness, but he soon encountered German tanks, which surrounded him and his 600 men in a large cactus patch. Drake tried to bluff his way out, shouting “Go to hell!” when the Germans demanded surrender, but it was no use. He and his men were soon made prisoners.
Waters and many of his command were also taken prisoner, with perhaps one-third—about 300—out of the original 900 getting back to Allied lines. The whole Allied line was in jeopardy, and the Germans seemed on the brink of a major victory. There was nothing left to do but fall back to the next line of defense—the Western Dorsal chain, some 50 miles away. With luck, the Western Dorsal passes—particularly the vital Kasserine Pass—could be held and the German offensive stopped.
The retreat to the Western Dorsals proved to be a nightmare. The battered II Corps had been badly defeated, and with that defeat came a crisis of confidence. Fredendall, who had pulled back to the town of Kouif, complained to Eisenhower: “At present time, 1st Armored [is] in a bad state of disorganization. Ward appears tired out, worried and has informed me that to bring new tanks in would be the same as turning them over to the Germans. Under the circumstances [I] do not think he should continue in command. Need someone with two fists immediately.” Eisenhower had no intention of removing Ward, but he did send a trusted lieutenant, Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon, to advise Fredendall “during the unusual conditions of the present battle.”
The roads leading west were jammed with fleeing American vehicles, providing easy targets for rampaging German Stuka dive-bombers swooping down from the sky like avenging furies. Eisenhower, who had left before the battle to return to his headquarters at Constantine, Algeria, began shuttling reinforcements to Ward and McQuillin at Sbeitla, an old Roman crossroads 13 miles northwest of Sidi Bou Zid. “Our soldiers are learning rapidly,” Eisenhower reported to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. “I assure you that the troops that come out of this campaign are going to be battlewise and tactically efficient.” Moreover, said Ike, the men were “now mad and ready to fight. All our people, from the very highest to the very lowest, have learned that this is not a child’s game and are ready and eager to get down to business.” It was the best face he could put on the looming disaster.
In the meantime, Rommel’s Operation Morgenluft had swung into action south of von Arnim’s so-far-successful Frühlingswind. Rommel met with little resistance, and the field marshal was delighted when the Allied airfield at Thelepte was captured with 50 tons of much-needed fuel and lubricants on the morning of the 17th. But the offensively minded Rommel was disturbed by the fact that von Arnim had not fully exploited his successes at Sidi Bou Zid. Von Arnim argued that he could not advance too far because the supply and fuel situation was iffy at best. Rommel was unconvinced.
Rommel wanted to assemble all available Axis forces for a major thrust through Kasserine Pass. Once though the pass, he could take the major Allied supply depot at Tebessa then push on to the Tunisian coast at Annaba (Bone). With any luck, this northwestern thrust would get him behind Anderson’s British First Army, which could be trapped and annihilated at the Germans’ leisure.
Rommel’s bold plan depended on immediate action, but his superiors had to approve it first. At least a day was wasted while Kesselring and the Italian high command mulled it over. In the end, the proposal was given the green light under the code name Sturmflut (Hurricane), but it was a somewhat vague, watered-down version of the field marshal’s initial proposal. Under Sturmflut the Axis forces were to push through Kasserine Pass, then start heading in the direction of Le Kef. Compared with Rommel’s original plan, this was a shallow, halfhearted envelopment of Allied forces—but something was better than nothing. All Rommel knew for sure was that he had the green light, and he acted accordingly. The battle for Kasserine Pass was about to begin.
Fredendall’s urgent task was to defend the Western Dorsal barrier against Axis attack—but where was Rommel going to strike? Kasserine was not the only pass that cut through the mountains, so he spread his forces thin to cover all possibilities. Some British and French units came down to help, but the Allied defenses were still weak. Kasserine was initially defended by Colonel Anderson Moore’s 19th Combat Engineer Regiment, a unit whose main duties were construction, not fighting. Fredendall summoned Colonel Alexander Stark of the 26th Infantry and told him to hold the pass. “I want you to go to Kasserine right away,” Fredendall said, “and pull a Stonewall Jackson.” It was typical of Fredendall when issuing orders to make colorful quips, phrases that contained little real substance. Stark arrived at Kasserine Pass on February 19, just as the Germans were beginning their attack in hopes of a breakthrough.
Kasserine Pass was (and still is) a rocky defile that narrowed to about 1,500 yards. Once past that bottleneck, Kasserine’s western entrance broadened to a wide basin that split into two roads. One road led west to Tebessa and the vital Allied supply base, while the other trailed north to the town of Thala. The Americans had artillery positions in place at both roads, ready to concentrate fire when the enemy emerged from the narrow Kasserine bottleneck.
February 19 was miserable for all the combatants. A cold wind chilled soldiers to the bone, and drenching rains added to the discomfort. The Germans tried to slip though American positions under the cover of a thick enveloping fog, but their unavoidably noisy movements were detected. American artillery, tank destroyer, and small-arms fire soon sent them packing. The German attack on Kasserine was led by General Karl Bulowius, who seemed to hold such contempt for the Americans that he kept ordering direct assaults. About 3:30 pm, Bulowius sent the Germans forward once again, this time backed by Italian tanks. They ran into American minefields placed there earlier by the long-suffering engineers and were stopped dead in their tracks.
Bulowius, still confident, waited for the coming of night. The Germans would infiltrate American defenses under cover of darkness, slipping through the hills and ridges that formed Kasserine’s shoulders. These phantom raiders were partly successful, unnerving green units already shaken by the heavy fighting. On the Tebessa road, one company of engineers broke and ran, and a group of German infiltrators in stolen uniforms captured 100 Americans. Panic became contagious, and the situation was so fluid that some officers did not know what was going on. American soldiers, individually and in small groups, abandoned their positions and sought safety in the rear. Even some forward artillery observers abandoned their posts, shouting, “The place is too hot!” American infantry reinforcements and British tanks arrived during the night and stabilized the situation.
Saturday, February 20, dawned cold and wet, but the Germans had still not achieved the desired breakthrough. Rommel had arrived, and was not happy with what he saw. Time is everything in war, and Rommel knew that he did not have much left to achieve victory. Montgomery’s Eighth Army was still far to the east, but was fast approaching the Mareth Line. “Those fellows are all too slow,” he complained to aides when he found the 10th Panzer Division resting comfortably near Sbietla. When division commander Brig. Gen. Fritz von Broich explained awkwardly that he was waiting for an infantry battalion to attack first, Rommel exploded. “Go and fetch the motor cycle battalion yourself, and lead it into action too,” he ordered. He was tired of listening to lame excuses from his less-daring subordinates.
Rommel’s presence had a positive effect, and for a time it seemed as if the heady days of 1941-1942 were back again. The Germans employed a relatively new weapon, Nebelwerfer, multiple-rocket launchers, which the Americans quickly dubbed “Screaming Meemies” because of the terrifying sounds they made in flight. The 10th Panzer Division finally moved through the pass in force, only to be met by a handful of British Valentine and Crusader tanks and American tank destroyers positioned in roadblocks. The British and Americans fought valiantly, but the issue was never in doubt. The Allied armor, outnumbered and outgunned, was destroyed in detail. Twenty-two American tanks and 30 half-tracks littered the valley floor.
The Germans were through the main part of Kasserine Pass and seemingly on the point of a major breakthrough. Once on the western side of the pass, Rommel faced two roads—one going southwest toward the Tebessa supply center, the other going north to Thala and then on to the town of Le Kef. Le Kef was the nominal objective of Sturmflut, but Rommel was lukewarm about enveloping the British First Army. In the end, the field marshal sent forces down both routes. Kampfgruppe DAK (Deutsches Afrika Korps) went up the road toward Tebessa, while the 10th Panzer traveled north toward Thala and Le Kef. By now, more and more Allied units were being redeployed and coming into the battle, stiffening resistance. Colonel Paul Robinett’s Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division gave the Germans a rough time on Tebessa road. Accurate tank and artillery fire stalled the Axis drive, and American infantry pushed the Germans back and actually recaptured some equipment that had been lost earlier. Even Rommel admitted that the enemy had counterattacked “very skillfully.”
German forces driving down the northern road enjoyed greater success against the Allied forces defending Thala. British Brig. Gen. Charles Dunphie’s 26th Armoured Brigade fought hard but their equipment could not match German tanks. British Crusader and Valentine tanks were outranged and outgunned, and their armor was thinner. Soon the desert landscape was littered with knocked-out British armor, their flaming hulls sending thick black coils of smoke into the sky. Dunphie pulled back to a ridge threee miles south of Thala, having lost 38 tanks, 28 guns, and 571 men captured. British defenses had crumbled, and the road to Thala was open.
Axis forces might have been victorious, but they were not unscathed. German and Italian personnel losses had been relatively light, although some individual Italian units had been decimated. The main problem was a crippling shortage of fuel and ammunition. More and more Allied units were coming into the fight, some from as far away as Morocco, and Axis advances—once so promising—had slowed to a crawl or been stopped in their tracks. On February 21, American Brig. Gen. LeRoy “Red” Irwin arrived at Thala with three artillery battalions and two cannon companies—a total of 48 guns in all. Despite having made a grueling four-day, 800-mile forced march from western Algeria, Irwin’s men immediately moved into place to support the exhausted British.
The next morning, the 10th Panzer was met with a thunderous Allied artillery barrage. Von Broich, having already endured a dressing down by his field marshal, a nerve-wracking attack at the front of his motorcycle battalion, and a brutal hand-to-hand melee with stiff-backed British defenders, called off the advance. After reading an intercepted message from the British commander declaring that “there is to no further withdrawal under any excuse,” Rommel realized that the Allies intended to stop him where they stood, or die trying. Down to his last 250-300 kilometers’ worth of fuel, Rommel conceded the obvious. He called off all further offensive actions and withdrew to the east. The Desert Fox’s last gamble had failed.
In their first extended combat of the war, the Americans had sustained losses of 6,600 killed, wounded, or captured—more than 20 percent of their entire personnel. In a sense, however, the U.S. Army was the real winner at Kasserine Pass. The North African campaign was a painful but necessary testing ground for American forces, enabling them to gain experience and fine-tune weapons and tactics.
Incompetent or mediocre commanders such as Fredendall were weeded out and replaced. In their place, more competent and aggressive commanders such as George S. Patton were groomed for larger things. American training on the whole was sound, but armored theory had to be rethought and reforms introduced. Rommel had shaken the Americans out of their cocksure complacency, hardening them for a long, drawn-out struggle. Thanks to the hard lessons so painfully learned at Kasserine Pass, American forces would be better prepared when they mounted their next major invasion—on the coast of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
Kasserine Pass By Martin Blumenson
Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory By Vincent O'Hara
Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, from Operation Torch to Kasserine Pass to Victory in Tunisia By Orr Kelly
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
For Europe, there was great news from Malta in August 1565. The Ottoman Turks had lifted their siege and made for home. The attempt to capture Malta was the boldest move by the Turks since they had overrun the island of Rhodes in 1522 and moved permanently into the eastern Mediterranean. Although they had failed to gain a foothold in the central Mediterranean at Malta, their threat was bound to rise again. In order to meet it, the Mediterranean European countries would need to unite. But could they?
The question was valid. The great European powers of the Mediterranean—namely the Kingdom of Naples, Spain, the Catholic papacy at Rome, and the Italian mercantile states of Venice and Genoa—were acting as they had for centuries, that is, distrustful and jealous of one another. They were disunited in dealing with their common enemies, which since the mid-15th century was really a single enemy, the Ottoman Turks.
Indeed, they were locked in the usual self-interest quandary, and they had little reason to trust one another. Spain was the military dynamo of Europe, long involved in Italian politics through its claims on Naples, and possessor of a New World empire. Genoa and Venice had been trade rivals for centuries, and Venice, although losing its Aegean and Adriatic Seas territory to the Ottomans in the previous century, was nonetheless paying a huge yearly tribute to the sultan in order to maintain its profitable trade with Islam. The papacy was fractious, too, with a say in everybody’s politics. Nevertheless, fiery old Pope Pius V was determined to unite all concerned against the Turks.
He had his work cut out for him. Talk of an alliance meant a commitment of troops and fighting ships. Yet the various powers were stingy with both, even though they all had a stake in standing up to Turkish might. The Pope finally took the initiative by forcing everyone’s hand. He put his considerable influence forward in declaring that he meant to fight the Turks, and the powers of the Mediterranean had better join in the formation of a Holy League.
Then, whether by espionage or freak accident, in September 1569 an explosion and fire in the great Arsenal Shipyard of Venice prompted the end of Turkish hesitation to confront formidable Venice. The great Sultan Suleiman had died in 1566, and the counselors behind his second son, the new sultan and profligate Selim II, knew that to hold power and keep a stable empire, this weak leader would need military successes. The Turks’ military goal became invasion of the central Mediterranean; Venice, particularly, was in the way.
The Pope’s will and events on Cyprus in 1570 convinced Christians that the time had come to unite in common cause. That year Turks began to move on Cyprus, a territory of Venice. By September Lala Mustafa, land commander at Cyprus, ruthlessly took the capital of Nicosia and, after terms had been granted, permitted the massacre of its 20,000 inhabitants. Venetian procrastination, brought on by Turkish deceptions of peace, came to an end, and Venice joined the Holy League near the end of May, promising a hundred galleys. It was none too soon.
The matter of an overall leader became a sticking point among the League members—the papacy, Spain, and Venice. No great noble of the League could overcome the rivalry of the others. So an outsider was needed, somebody who was above self-interest and could be an inspiring leader. Don Juan of Austria was the man.
He was young but tested as a military leader. Born in 1547, he had been named Geronimo and brought up in Spain at the order of his natural father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also Charles I of Spain). His half-brother was Philip II, the legitimate son of Charles and heir to their father’s Spanish possessions. In 1567, Don Juan, aged 20, became Philip’s ”General of the Sea,” having recently commanded 33 galleys in action against the corsairs of North Africa. More importantly, Don Juan put down the Morisco rebellion in Spain in 1570.
Behind the scenes, Don Juan was considered a figurehead, while older heads would devise the League’s battle plan against the Turks. It was not, however, in Don Juan’s nature to stand by—his elders just did not realize it. Don Juan had long dreamed of leading a high stakes confrontation against a determined enemy. Like many young firebrands, Don Juan saw himself as the Christian soldier facing a just fight, with the fate of southern Europe in the balance.
While the League was gathering ships and men, Selim’s commanders were organizing a great Turkish armada at Lepanto, the fortified port on the Gulf of Patras off the Adriatic. Their present strategy was to keep the Europeans separate. The sultan’s favorite admiral was the young and charismatic Piali (or Ali) Pasha, commander of the Cyprus invasion in the summer of 1570. He was ordered to harass the Venetian possessions—the islands of Zante, Cephalonia, and, particularly, Crete—in an effort to keep the Venetian Adriatic galley fleet extended and unable to regroup, thus rendering them unable to assist the League.
In addition to its own navy, the Turks had the fealty of Muslim and renegade pirate seamen or corsairs of the Greek peninsula and the North African coastline. These had been organized early in the century by an Albanian-Greek, the dreaded Barbarossa, who warred with the Italian sea powers and Spain until his death in 1546. His lieutenant and successor was the Greek corsair Admiral Dragut, the “Drawn Sword of Islam,” who had been the scourge of southern Europe before he was killed by a freak bullet ricochet during the siege of Malta. Leadership was now in the hands of a renegade Italian known as Uluj Ali, or Ochiali, a name meaning “Scabbyheaded,” given due to a bout with ringworm in his youth.
Ochiali had his eye on a higher position in an Ottoman world where an ambitious man could go a long way. He therefore joined Ali Pasha in harassing the Venetian fleet. From strongholds at Algiers and Tunis, the corsairs raided France and Spain, creating a feeling of vulnerability in southern Europe. The Turks were confident that their window of opportunity was at hand.
In March 1571 the League agreed to rendezvous in Messina on the east prominence of Sicily. Each ally had its quota of ships and men to assemble there during the summer. Sailing from Barcelona on his command galley (called a capitana), the Real, with a Spanish fleet of 35 ships, Don Juan moved down the west coast of Italy toward Messina. Along the way he grilled Philip’s former naval commander, now retired, Don Garcia of Toledo, on naval tactics. He also met enthusiastic crowds. Diplomats of Genoa, Venice, and the papacy saw him as “a young prince, and so desirous of glory … he will think more of gaining glory than of saving his galleys … [Still he is] anxious to find the enemy.”
At Messina by August 23, Don Juan surveyed his developing fleet. His Spanish galleys were new and well armed with heavy cannon, though disturbingly undermanned. Already present when he arrived was a combined squadron of 45 ships under papal leadership and commanded by the affable veteran Marcantonio Colonna, who had commanded the proto-League fleet that attempted to relieve Cyprus in 1570. With him as his lieutenant was his son Prospero. The gathering at Messina included 40 of the total galleys promised by Venice, which were lighter and more maneuverable. At the time these were sparring with the Turks under the leadership of the septuagenarian war dog, Sebastiano Veniero, governor of Corfu and Crete. Finally, Veniero received the orders from the Venetian Senate to pull back for Messina and join the League fleet.
With Colonna were three galleys of the intrepid Knights of Malta, by far the most experienced in naval warfare, which was their stock-in-trade. More than a Christian counterpart to the Muslim corsairs, the Knights Hospitalers of St. John had been Europe’s ever vigilant force, warring against Turkish interests since the Crusades. Throughout the 15th century the Turks had been repeatedly foiled by the Knights, who held the strategic island of Rhodes and guarded the eastern Mediterranean with a powerful fleet of war galleys and the latest gunpowder and fortification technology.
The Knights, greatly outnumbered as they usually were, conditionally surrendered Rhodes in 1522, and then relocated westward across the Mediterranean to Malta, a strategic island bottleneck between Italy and Africa, the key to the western Mediterranean. This they successfully defended in 1565. Don Juan had a veteran Hospitaler, Don Juan Vasquez Coronado, as his ship captain. Among the several Knights who served as papal galley commanders was Mathurin Romegas, whose galley-raiding exploits against the Turks were legendary.
Other components of the assembled League armada were a half-dozen galleys each from Savoy and Tuscany and a seasoned squadron from Sicily. In addition, Spain had hired 24 Genoese galleys commanded by the shrewd Genoese admiral and businessman Gian Andrea Doria. He was the great-nephew of the legendary Andrea Doria, naval hero of the first half of the century. Now Doria, having lost several recent sea encounters, constantly advised caution in the matter of committing galleys to battle, especially his own. This was because galley raiding was foremost a commercial enterprise, while pitched warfare could be dangerously unprofitable. Finally, at the beginning of September, 60 galleys pulled back from Cyprus, headed by Agostino Barbarigo with old Veniero.
Turkish galleys were basically copied from those of Venice. The Turks had even copied the Arsenal in their galley-building facility on the Galata shore of the Golden Horn. Built by Venetian and Genoese renegade shipwrights and often captained by freebooting Venetians, Genoese, and Greeks, the Turks followed a bias within the philosophy of Islam against mechanism and technology. As a result, the Ottoman Empire paid for western naval and gunpowder technology. Along with the ships, cannon were forged by renegade European founders. The Turkish penchant for wanting things done quickly sometimes resulted in mediocre galley construction, using unseasoned wood, for example. Muslim galleys were often made with shallower drafts than their Venetian progenitors, making them more maneuverable.
There were smaller ships on both sides as well. The corsairs used galliots, smaller than the usual galleys, but with a similar shallow draft. These were very good for the sort of shallow-water raids for which the corsairs were well known. The corsairs and Turks used the galliots to quickly surrounding an enemy ship then board from all quarters. Galleys on both sides also used low-profile skiffs, shallops, or long boats trailing behind. When galleys were in close combat, these smaller trailing vessels were meant to surprise an enemy galley from the flank or rear. There was also the European fregata, a pinnace with sail and oars, used for scouting and ferrying men and messages within the fleet.
The Venetians had the biggest ships of all. Along with the lighter shallow-draft war galleys, the Venetians brought to Messina six galleasses, each towed by two galleys. These were distinct hybrid ships, not “great galleys,” the 270-ton galleys used for trading, as was sometimes speculated. The galleass was considered a “hybrid” stamp because it had the characteristics of the high-sided, cannon-rich fighting galleon, but also used oars. Below the galleass’s main deck was the principal gun deck; below that was the oar deck (seven slaves to an oar instead of the usual three to five). The galleass had an enormous hull with an elongated oval shape for heavy cannon placement and, like a galleon, three large masts of sail.
Galleasses were meant to be ordnance platforms with proportionately more cannon arrayed on the gun decks. More so than galleons, they anticipated the massive man-of-war fighting ships of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Their function was to carry some 30 full-size guns: five light pieces at the bow and stern of the main deck with the remainder of heavy pieces essentially ringing the bow, stern, starboard, and port sides of the gun deck. The six Venetian galleasses at Messina were innovations and carried more than 40 guns. Some 30-pounder cannon were stationed on the main deck with 50-pounders on the gun deck below. The Venetians hoped that such firepower would inflict severe damage on the lighter-gunned galleys of the Turks.
While the League fleet was gathering in Messina, all manner of European volunteers had poured in. Because some were raw recruits, Don Juan ordered basic training and weapon drills. The chief weapon used by European infantry since the late 15th century was the matchlock firearm known as the arquebus. As it proved its effectiveness, the arquebus became the predominant infantry weapon, while the crossbow and older longbow faded from general military use in the early 16th century. Naval arquebus tactics developed earlier in the century included not only the use of single shot, but also the use of buckshot to more efficiently sweep an enemy deck before boarding. Don Juan considered the number of arquebusiers for each galley—a complement of at least 100 soldiers.
Because Venetian manpower was low, he asked that they accept Spanish and other Italian infantrymen to fill out their ranks. The basic tally of infantry was 20,000 Spanish, 5,000 Venetians, 2,000 papal levies, and about 3,000 European volunteers—a total of 30,000 infantrymen.
Now assembled, the League pondered its next move—to fight or not? The Venetians, with Cyprus and their trading empire in the balance, were joined by the papal commanders in voting for an open fight. But others, including Doria and the more cautious of Philip II’s advisers, tried to procrastinate. Don Juan, however, asserted his authority and further attempts at dissuading the enterprise were overruled—the die was cast. In a final counsel of war, Don Juan, ready to risk all, spoke with optimism: “I take it for certain that the Turks, swollen with their victories, will wish to take on our fleet, and God—I have the pious presentiment—will give us victory.”
On September 14, an early storm blew over the fleet—a bad omen for some who doubted of the wisdom of sailing so late in the season. It was an old Mediterranean nautical rule to postpone voyaging with the coming of the stormy autumn weather. All sailors had heard reports of fleets wrecked in freak Mediterranean storms. Nevertheless, on the 18th the League fleet set sail eastward, as Don Juan said, “to seek them [the Turks] out.”
There was division in the Ottoman camp as well. Ali was for fighting and the certain glory that would come from destroying the Christian fleet and laying bare the whole of Mediterranean Europe. Older, cooler heads wanted to think things out. Hamet, the commander of the Turkish naval base at Negropont, cautioned that no matter how militarily uncooperative the Europeans had been in the past, they would unite for such a critical confrontation. In fleet command of the Turkish left, Ochiali always considered the risk/reward factors, but also cautioned restraint. He had brought 25 galleys from Tripoli and meant to return with them. Mahomet Scirocco, commander of the Egyptian fleet that would form the Turkish right, thought it best to nestle under the fortifications of Lepanto and let the League come to them. Lepanto was protected by two fortresses on opposing sides of the narrowing headlands at the east end of the Gulf of Patras.
The troop commander of the fleet was Pertev Pasha, and he was emphatic that the infantrymen given him for the battle did not inspire his confidence, remembering as he did the decimation of his troops at Malta. Hassan, arbarossa’s son, played to Ali’s low opinion of the League, declaring that their history of disorganization would again be their undoing.
Spies tried to keep each side apprised of general ship movements, but neither fleet was sure of the other’s specific location. The League had crossed the Ionian Sea to Venetian Corfu by September 27, making 240 miles in 10 days, a notable feat. On the way, Don Juan had sent out Hospitaler Gil d’Andrade with four of the fastest galleys to scout the Turkish position. They discovered devastation from a recent Turkish raid on Corfu and news of raids against the island of Zante. Were the Turks just raiding and wintering at Lepanto or warming up to meet the League?
As September ended, both sides were still unsure of the other’s strength. The League was led to believe the Turks had only 160 galleys. A corsair captain, Kara Hodja, had painted a longboat black (a ruse borrowed from the Knights for raiding at night) and actually floated among the League fleet at anchor near Gomeniza to get an accurate count. His total was 50 short; he took galleasses for nothing more than show.
The suspense continued to build and the weather was fitful, reminding League veterans how easily nature could defeat them without the presence of Islam. But the weather was also effectively screening their advance. The League continued to crawl southward down the west coast of Greece toward the Gulf of Patras. Again Don Juan called for some scouting and sent Don Juan Cardona and 10 galleys of the Sicilian squadron to find the Turkish fleet. That day brought the arrival of a brigantine from Crete with news of the outcome of the siege of Famagusta, a fortress city on Cyprus. Although terms were decided, Lala Mustafa had treacherously seized the city, then mutilated and flayed alive the Venetian senator and city commander Marcantonio Bragadino.
The League believed the Muslim fleet would approach them with their characteristic crescent-shaped battle formation (symbolic of Islam’s crescent moon flag). Such a formation could break a single line and indeed had undone the Europeans at Preveza in 1538. Muslim fleets used the ends of the crescent—the cusps—to engulf an opponent, so Don Garcia had suggested the League form three separate lines with space between to maneuver. This was accepted. The galleasses would be positioned a half-mile in front of the main fleet formation, two before each of the three lines, so as to fire into the passing Muslim ships heading for the main League line. Some 30 galleys would be held as a reserve behind the fleet. Thus, the Christian formation was cruciform.
Doria, seeing that the fight was inevitable, now came forward at the 11th hour with inspired tactical suggestions. Because the galley prow with its raised spur required the bow gunners to shoot at a high and ineffective trajectory, he suggested removing them to give point-blank accuracy to the cannon. Don Juan agreed. There were also far more arquebusiers than needed on the galleys. Doria suggested that because the galleasses were too high waisted for enemy boarding, massed arquebusiers should be placed on the galleasses’ decks to deliver volleys in coordination with the massed cannon. Don Juan again agreed and ordered 500 arquebusiers to the main deck of each of the galleasses.
The weather on October 6 was unsettled and the foes remained apart. Although Doria and a few others had once again remonstrated on the matter of coming to battle with the Turks, Don Juan cut them short: “Gentlemen, the time for counsel has passed; the time for fighting has come.” Before dawn on Sunday, October 7, he weighed anchor and moved due east through the Curzolaris Islands to deploy in the Gulf. Once there, the lines began to spread according to the battle array. No more than 100 paces were allowed between each ship so that no enemy vessel could slip between them. A watch phrase from the morning sermon was repeated as the time drew near: “No heaven for cowards.” Don Juan moved through the fleet in a fregata encouraging and exhorting, “My children, we are here to conquer or die. In death or in victory, you will win immortality.”
Dawn broke and the fleets came within sight of each other. The Turkish fleet was out of the haven of Lepanto and with the wind behind it, on its way to meet the League. The fleet comprised about 274 ships (some estimates are as high as 300): 215 galleys (as high as 235, probably including larger galliots) and regular galliots at the cusps of the long crescent formation. The right cusp neared the shallows of the Albanian coast while the left skirted the Morea (Peloponnesus) coast. At the center of the line rode Ali Pasha’s capitana, the Sultana, with 96 large galleys. Perhaps 25 to 30 of these with perhaps 10 galliots were just behind the front line as a reserve. On Ali’s right was Mahomet Scirocco with 56 galleys and perhaps 20 or so galliots. On the left was Ochiali with 63 galleys and over 30 galliots. This was significantly more enemy ships than the League commanders had surmised. Further, the Turks also had upward of 50,000 fighting men.
Ochiali had told Ali that the League was still in Messina. This misinformation, plus his cautions against outright battle, put him on ill terms with his commander. Ochiali did give Ali some important advice that went unheeded. Seeing the complex League formation, the corsair leader advised drawing back as a feigned retreat to lure the League into the narrowing Gulf, thus disrupting their formation. But Ali Pasha was too prideful, scorning any show of retreat as shaming the sultan.
At the League center with 64 galleys was Don Juan and the principal commanders: Veniero in the Venetian capitana to the left of Real and Colonna in command of the papacy at right. The generically heavier galleys in weight and firepower were of the lantern class, so named for the stern lantern display to mark a prime ship-of-the-line. These lantern-class galleys were for stability and served as a fulcrum in squadron maneuvering. About 25 lantern galleys were with the League: 10 concentrated with Don Juan (mostly to his right); one positioned at each end of the wings, three more at left, and four more at right on the wings. The left wing comprised 54 lighter and more maneuverable Venetian galleys with Barbarigo in command. Thus, the Christian left pitted the more flexible Venetians against the more maneuverable northern Muslim cusp; the Christian right had heavier firepower for dealing with the more populated corsair southern cusp.
On the League left closest to shore—at the point of greatest danger—was the lantern galley commanded by Marcantonio Quirini, who the previous month had outwitted the Turkish attempt to land on Crete and ran their blockade at Cyprus. On the right wing, Doria was in general command, but the principal combat commander was Hector Spinola on the capitana of Genoa. With him were about
50 Genoese, Venetian, papal, Neapolitan, some Spanish, and Savoyard galleys. Cardona and 10 galleys as a vanguard were to join him, but he stayed near the right flank of center to support the main fight there.
In the meantime, each galleass was towed by two galleys to the positions in front of the three lines. Those before the Venetian line were commanded by Bragadino’s kinsmen, the brothers Ambrosio and Antonio, who meant to avenge his foul death. In the rear was the most experienced admiral, the Spanish Marquis Santa Cruz, Alvaro de Bazan, who would assess the battle and send galleys to the points of greatest danger. Farther to the rear were some well-gunned galleons protecting the supply ships and acting as a boundary to catch any possible breakout of Turkish ships toward Italy.
The Muslim armada came on with a shrill of cymbals, pipes, drums, and a guttural yodel (ululations) meant to unnerve their enemies. The clangor was punctuated by random arquebus shots. Stretched some 1,000 yards shorter than the Turk’s line, the League galleys and galleasses anchored ahead remained silent. They were not to attack until the order was given. Don Juan meant to get within point-blank range, firing only when close enough “to be sprayed by Muslim blood.” Meanwhile, League crews were finishing preparations that included spreading grease at points on the deck where the enemy would attempt boarding.
They were also checking a new innovation. The League’s galleys and galleasses sported the first checkered-design rope boarding nets (called ratlines) attached to the rigging both port and starboard that were meant to repel boarders. Crews were doing something extraordinary as well—unchaining all the Christian indentured and criminal galley slaves, handing them short swords and promising them freedom.
The all-important oarsmen who provided instant motive power were a strange mix of humanity, mostly galley slaves. They were captured enemy soldiers and sailors, sentenced criminals, debtors, and the poor. Free oarsmen were paid volunteers and were also drafted in times of need. For the Turks, it was a much easier equation to solve: They simply raided the islands and ports of the eastern and central Mediterranean, it not being unusual to carry off all of the inhabitants of a town to slavery. They also used volunteers. The slaves were chained naked three or five to an oar bench and lived in human waste for weeks at a time until making port, when all would be filed off for a short prison stay while the ship was washed down.
Suddenly, the wind fell away for the Turks, turned, and filled the League’s sails. Although four of the six galleasses reached anchor position, the two meant for Doria’s line were still laboring behind the main fleet as the wind came up, moving the fleet farther away from them. Then Don Juan raised the League flag—a giant crucified Christ. A great shout went up as all other League ships raised their flags and pennants. Don Juan ordered the Chevalier Coronado to steer for the Sultana, as the Sultana was already steering for the Real. Commanders usually stayed to the rear during the battle, but the test of combat was too strong an urge to keep these two apart. Don Juan fired a challenging shot from his big bow cannon so that Ali Pasha would know Don Juan awaited him. Some 14,000 Christian galley slaves in the Turkish fleet bent to their oars. It was near high noon.
Because of the crescent shape of the Muslim line, Ali Pasha was not the first to discover the galleasses anchored like portable bastions before his fleet. The Turkish commander saw more than seven of his galleys sunk almost immediately as they crossed the galleasses’ line of fire. Massive broadsides erupted from either side of these ships, splintering Turkish hulls, and the sharp and unison crack of hundreds of arquebuses mowed down dozens of Muslim soldiers massed on the decks. The galleasses also harassed and damaged Turkish galleys that managed to pass them. Soon enough the Muslim ships were disrupted from their crescent formation by both the galleasses and their attempt to adapt to the League’s three-line formation.
The first fighting was at the League flanks, where the detached cusps of the Muslims outnumbered League ships. Scirocco’s shoreward line of shallow-draft Egyptian galliots worked inshore to turn the Venetian wing. Quirini at the end of that wing desperately staved off most, but not all, of these ships. With a timely reinforcement of 10 galleys from the ever-vigilant Santa Cruz to check the encirclement, Quirini, with his heavy galley as a pivot for the other galleys of the line, swept counterclockwise like a swinging gate to drive several galliots and galleys into the shore. Eight Egyptian galleys challenged Barbarigo’s Venetian capitana as the struggle for encirclement pitched back and forth. Barbarigo was mortally wounded by an arrow in the eye.
When the Muslim center reached face-recognition distance, the League center bow guns lit up the line with point-blank salvoes into the Turkish galleys. The League gunners were so practiced at gunnery that three of their shots were answered by only one from the enemy. Moreover, encumbered with their ram-prows, the Muslim shots usually sailed in high trajectories over their targets. Closer now, 75-year-old Veniero on his poop deck and wearing carpet slippers for comfort, made the first small arms shot from his ship, using a wheel lock blunderbuss. He fired at the Turkish bow gunners, then his men grappled with Pertev Pasha’s galley which was trying to follow the Sultana.
Then the commanders’ galleys came together, Ali Pasha’s ram chewing into Don Juan’s bow, thrusting it up into the Turk’s rigging. As in sea fights for centuries, crewmen along the decks of both vessels flung out grappling hooks to pull the two ships together. Arquebus volleys and showers of arrows were exchanged across the two decks. Turk infantry ran forward to board the Real but were blocked by the boarding nets. Simultaneously, 400 arquebusiers of the elite Sardinian regiment rushed onto the Sultana and were met by an equal number of Turkish infantry intent on flinging them back. Under a hail of arrows, the Sardinians’ initial push forced the Turks to their masthead, but they were parried back to the gunwales. The Sardinian attack and the counterattack of the Turks were played out a second time on the bloody decks of the Sultana. Finally, the Sardinians gave a third great lunge backed by Real’s armed galley slaves.
They pushed the Turks back to Ali Pasha’s poop deck, where the commander stood defiantly shooting arrows as fast as he could string them. From somewhere amid the constant crack of League arquebuses, a shot pierced his head. As he went down, a crazed Christian galley slave leaped forward and struck off his head. Jamming it down on a short pike, he took it back to the Real where it was hoisted up the mast.
The soldiers and crew of Sultana saw it and quickly lost heart. Don Juan’s soldiers overran and looted the defeated galley. Among their prizes was the great green Turkish pennant with the name of Allah written in gold 28,900 times, supposedly a relic of Mecca that had never been captured in battle. The clash between commanders had lasted about an hour and a half. It was then 2 pm, and the battle at the center, with the added support of the League’s two center galleasses coming around, had been won by Don Juan. There were still the flank battles to settle, but the main concentration of Muslim heavy galleys had been at center and many were captured.
On the League left, six Venetian galleys had been sunk, but several of Scirocco’s galleys were sinking from the pounding being administered with merciless pleasure to the Turkish rear by the galleasses of the Bragadino brothers, who had come around to broadside the enemy. Then the League was suddenly given a gift. Some of the European galley slaves in Scirocco’s fleet had managed an uprising by passing smuggled files among them.
As their chains dropped away, the slaves rushed the main decks and attacked from behind. Scirocco was killed in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, his body falling overboard. He was quickly recognized, hauled out, and his head joined that of his commander hoisted up for all to see. Jarred by the slave attack and the death of their commander, the Muslim right folded, many ships going aground or purposely grounding so the crews could escape.
The battle on the League right was another story. As the fleets began to engage, Doria, like his old adversary Ochiali now before him, was more interested in maneuvering than fighting; his galley would emerge unscratched. Ochiali kept the galliots at the south end of the Muslim crescent reaching to encircle the League right. As he continued to extend his longer line, Doria tried to keep up, but soon he was overextending the distance between the center and right by 1,000 yards. Don Juan sent a message by a fregata ordering him to close up. But Ochiali’s bait had worked; he had all the room he needed to do what he intended. His intention, however, was not to take on the League center.
Having seen the outcome at the center, Ochiali, with typical corsair pragmatism, looked to the best advantage. Changing the course of the battle was untenable with the large League center still intact. The corsairs always attacked with the odds in their favor—or cut and ran to fight another day. But the sultan had ordered that no corsair commander should return home; instead, they were to proceed to Constantinople after the battle on pain of death. Ochiali could hardly go there empty-handed. He needed a prize to escape suspicions of not doing his utmost. In this he had conspired with half a dozen of his fastest galley captains to aid him. Clearly he was abandoning the rest of the Muslim left. He intended to use the gap between the League center and its right to swing around behind the Christian fleet for a surer purpose—to find a prize, take it, and make for safety.
Meanwhile, the League galleys on the right engaged the ships Ochiali had abandoned on the Muslim left. The Genoese capitana was carrying Alexander Farnese, Don Juan’s half-nephew, boyhood friend, and future general who had brought with him 202 comrade followers and 150 Italian soldiers. He enthusiastically led his men onto a corsair galley and quickly took it. Also on the right was the Spanish galley Marquesa with the regiment of the Marquis de Moncada, who was overall infantry commander. Among its companies was that of Captain Diego de Urbino with a young corporal named Miguel Cervantes, later author of Don Quixote. Although Cervantes had been sick below decks before the battle, he rose when the Turks came in sight. He volunteered for the dangerous duty of leading 12 soldiers in a long boat assault to board and surprise the enemy Muslim galley. He was wounded three times during the attack.
Other aid arrived to support the League right. The two tardy galleasses in the rear had come up and were delivering salvoes into the backsides of the corsairs grappling with the League right wing. Cordona’s 10 galleys joined the right and moved in to trap some 16 Muslim ships trying to turn out and escape along the Morea coast. But the price was high. Cordona’s ship alone had 450 of its 500 soldiers killed or wounded. The full complements of two of his galleys, the San Giovanni and the Piamontesa, would die to a man. To his relief came Don Juan himself, and soon the Muslim left broke. As on the Muslim right, some galleys beached on the coast so crews and soldiers could escape.
Ochiali had to move quickly to avoid the fate of his fellow commanders. He found what he wanted—a perfect trophy—the Maltese capitana that had come up from the reserve to aid the fight on the right wing. It was captained by one of the Order’s priors, Pietro Giustiniani, a personal enemy.
Aboard with the prior were 30 Knights and 60 brother servants-at-arms. Ochiali attacked with seven galleys, surrounded the Maltese galley, and swarmed onto her deck. When it was over, Giustiniani remained alive, propped against the mast with five arrows in his body and two other Knights so severely wounded as to seem dead. Around them were their dead comrades surrounded by over 300 dead and dying corsairs; the Knights’ reputation was well founded. Ochiali took the galley in tow, but found the alert Santa Cruz had sent a reserve galley, the Guzmana, with Captain Ojeda to dispute the souvenir. Ochiali had the ship’s ensign, which was good enough, so he cut the towline and retreated with 13 galleys and some galliots, around 30 vessels total.
It was now 4pm—the sun was already red and sinking in a sea of wreckage with many more Muslim (over 25,000) than Christian dead (over 7,000, the Venetians suffering about 4,800). Ochiali had lost half his Algerian galleys but pounced on the lagging Venetian galley Bua to take back as the added physical proof of his loyalty. He was now dodging and weaving his way to Lepanto and then on to Constantinople to ingratiate himself and win a Turkish admiralty as the only important Muslim leader to survive.
More than 30 Muslim galleys and many of the galliots had been sunk. As many as 180 Muslim galleys—some ready for scuttling—had been captured. What was left of Turkish supply and reserve ships escaped with about 10,000 Muslim survivors. About 10,000 Muslims were taken prisoner, trading swords for chains to pull European oars, while about 12,000 Christian galley slaves were set free. Only 12 League galleys had been sunk, and though many had been damaged the battle was a resounding Christian victory. League firepower in cannon and arquebusier infantry had provided a great tactical advantage. Arquebus volley fire helped repel the typical Muslim infantry tactic of massed attack. Arquebusier close formations had effectively boarded enemy vessels. As a result, the Muslims lost nearly four times as many men killed—certainly partially to drowning. It was no piece of European propaganda but simple fact that in 1572 Ochiali, the new commander of the Ottoman fleet, ordered 20,000 arquebuses for his bowmen.
Sultan Selim was so enraged by the loss of so many ships and men that Sokolli, the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, needed all the tact he could muster to control the sultan’s threat to massacre every Christian in the empire. (There were at least 40,000 in Constantinople alone.) While Europe celebrated, Turkish officialdom succumbed to the fear that a League fleet would sail through the Bosporus and arrive at Constantinople’s door next spring. This plan was backed by Don Juan, but rejected by other League members. The Turks employed every human resource in the Ottoman Empire needed to rebuild the annihilated navy, if that was possible.
Yet, the old European rivalries and self-interests were back in play almost as soon as the battle was won. Even before the clash, greedy Venice was negotiating through the French with Constantinople for a peace, which was finally signed in 1573.
The regeneration of the Turkish navy of 1572 was actually only a mirage. It was surprising that the Turks floated a fleet of 150 galleys in the eastern Mediterranean in the spring of 1572, but it was a bogus fleet, a deception meant to save face and discourage the League’s frail unity. Such defeat-repair psychology was typical of the Ottomans. Given 16th-century naval technology, a full, even lighter-framed galley fleet could not have been battle ready in some five or six months’ time. Remaining conspicuously offshore, the sham Ottoman fleet was composed of unfinished ships of the smaller Algerine type made of green wood, carrying a minimum of inferior-cast cannon, and manned by skeleton crews and few soldiers. It spent the summer dodging a much-reduced League fleet. This was the devastating proof of the success of Lepanto on Ottoman ships and manpower.
As late as 1574, the still inadequate Turkish fleet would not commit to a substantial battle but paraded past safe ports to fling a rather safe challenge. The Turks stayed clear of naval confrontation with Venice for some 70 years. The victory at Lepanto had done its job, keeping the Turks from the western Mediterranean.
Taking one last command in the Mediterranean with the recapture of Tunis in 1573, Don Juan was thereafter a political pawn. A watchdog of Spanish interests in the rebellious Netherlands, he would die there unexpectedly of typhoid fever in 1578, only 31 years old. But his life and the victory at Lepanto were joined in epic history. Some 30 years after Lepanto, Cervantes, perhaps recalling that Don Juan had visited him as he convalesced on the Marquesa after the battle, summed up this decisive battle when his often incisive Don Quixote noted a perfect turn of phrase: “The best day’s work in centuries.”
Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World By Roger Crowley
Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto By Niccolo Copponi