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Over the past few years - more than a few, actually - I've done a fair bit of writing about military history. Unfortunately - or fortunately! - this has been for a very small audience. In the hopes of sparking some interesting discussions, I thought I'd share some of them. Some of them I'm pretty happy with, some are egregiously embarrassing. I intend to post them on a semi regular basis over the next little while until I run out.


1) Horsemen in Europe during the Middle Ages

2) Operation Shingle, January – May 1944

3) Tannenberg, August 1914; An example of operational success through defensive manoeuvre

4) Strategy, Tactics, and the Wehrmacht in World War Two

5) Sinning Private Ryan

6) Exploration of the Atlantic in the 15th Century

7) The Emperor's Greatest Campaign

VIII) A very interesting report

9) Intelligence and victory in battle

10) France at the end of the Hundred Years War

11) When who was King?

12) The Irredeemable Hour - Allied Strategy, Operations, and Tactics in Italy 1943

13) Let our hearts be dark

14) Napoleon's Ulcer

15) Keith Park's command style during the Battle of Britain

16) World War One, Technology, and the Royal Artillery

17) Tactics on the Western Front, 1914-1918

18) Kūpapa, the third force in the New Zealand Wars

19) Technology’s Contribution to the End of Trench Warfare


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Horsemen in Europe during the Middle Ages

The Roman Empire saw disciplined bodies of foot soldiers, working in concert with cavalry, become the dominant military force of their age. During the Middle Ages infantry lost this dominance completely, overshadowed by the horse mounted warrior, and were not to regain it until nearly a millennium later.

The resurgence of infantry started in the 1400s, as demonstrated early at the Battle of Agincourti and the the Swiss pikemen toward the end of that century. This process was complete by the middle of the 19th Century, with cavalry no longer suited to heavy combat, and rather being used for screening, reconnaissance, and exploitation. However, for the1000 years between the Romans and the Swiss, horsemen were the primary strike force of all European armies.

This dominance was brought about by three main factors: social status, mobility, and utility.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the idea of centralised government more or less collapsed. The strong man and the land owner became the primary political power, and lord and master over the country he controlled. Throughout this period there was a drift back towards centralised government, via city states to the countries we can recognise as the ancestors of today’s nations. These rulers of these political entities were invariably nobles -- barons, princes, earls, and at the top of the heap, kingsii.

As the idea of centralised government collapsed with the Romans, so did several other facets of life the common to the Empire. Trade became more and more difficult without the protection of the rule of law, and both the level of applied technology and innovation and the population of Europe fell markedly. The combined result was that there were fewer people, making and selling less, who were therefore able to support fewer craftsmen, artisans, administrators, and others not directly involved in the production of foodstuffs. This of course included professional, or full-time, soldiers.

One of the few groups that had the time to devote to martial pursuits were the rulers of the various political entities scattered around Europe. Being nobles, they developed a code of warfare that reflected and emphasised their nobility. An entire code of conduct evolved, based around the concepts of honour, chivalry, and one-on-one combat. In its ultimate expression it led to elaborately equipped and decorated warriors mounted on similarly equipped war-horses. Conflict was relatively common, so the knights could put their training to good use on a regular basis. During the lean times there were always tournaments where the nobles could polish their honour and prowessiii.

Equipping oneself to be a fully armoured, mounted knight was an expensive undertaking that meant that only the wealthy, or well connectediv, could consider entering it. Since the nobility were the only group with the disposable income to support such purchases, they were the only people to become knights. Increasingly, to become a knight became “… the symbol of social status”v. This became a self-reinforcing with time - a knight had status, and displayed it with his weapons, armour, and mount; status was a desirable thing, so men strove to become knights; once they became knights, and as their wealth permitted, they spent more on their equipment, and so on. Society went along with this, and viewed knights in a similar way that we view sports heroes today - especially those from highly-paid, contact sports such as rugby or league.

Even though there were many nobles scattered throughout Europe, the total number of available knights was still fairly low -- England never had more than 6000 at a timevi. The number who would actually respond to a feudal summons was lower still. In the twelfth century about the maximum that could be expected anywhere in Europe was 1000vii. Furthermore, soldiers of any description were generally only available for short periods that fit in with the agricultural seasons, and the onset of winter. Most years this meant that only 40 days' service or so were required under feudal obligations.

Since such a short time was available, and transport systems were rudimentary at best, it made sense that the troops were able to move quickly to assembly, and thence on to the campaign at hand. The nobles were all mounted on their own horses, and their retinues of grooms, squires, retainers, etc. (the knights ”lance”) were similarly mounted. The common foot-soldiers and specialist archers were both lightly enough equipped to be able to keep pace. In any case, for a foot-soldier, the distances and speeds involved were not great. For example, in 1265 Prince Edward covered thirty-four miles between Worcester and Kenilworth in twelve or thirteen hours to surprise Simon the Younger in his encampment outside the castle wallsviii. At the time this was considered a very fast march. For a lightly equipped foot-soldier two-to-three miles an hour would be easy work. For a fully armoured knight, such sprint-speeds on foot would be unthinkable, let alone the daily grind of covering mile after mile while on campaignix. For such troops, having a horse under them was vital.

The final reason horsemen gained a dominance in warfare during the Middle Ages was because they were effective. In general knights, and their descendants the heavy cavalry, were used as a heavily armoured, fast moving phalanx. They would ride knee to knee on a fairly narrow but deep block, and literally crash into to enemy following a charge. Each horse and rider weighed around half a ton, stood ten-to-twelve feet tall, and on good ground could travel at speeds of around 250 metres per minute. The noise alone must have been horrific for the defenders: several hundred horses galloping toward them with their hooves beating the ground, and bearing men clad in steel, with the armour plates banging and crashing together and against any weapons and equipment. Add to that the spectacle of the approach of men on horse back, waving a sword or bearing a lance, with pennants and flags streaming. Its no wonder that few wanted to become infantry, and the peasants and lower classes forced into it by their lords, usually with little or no training, fled rather than facing down a charge. To get some feel for what it must have been like stand at the end of the first straight at a horse race, and watch the field gallop toward you, trying to imagine the riders are not tiny jockeys but well built soldiers wearing armour, and trying to kill you.

Attacks by massed groupings of mounted knights against the enemies main line were the fairly common during the major battles of the Middle Ages. To take some well known examples; during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William launched at least three charges with his knights; at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 Simon de Montfort formed his 160 knights into a solid wedge and charged into the centre of Prince Edwards line; at Agincourt in 1415 the French attacked with several groups each five or six hundred strong; and in 1476 Charles launched the full force of his Burgundian heavy cavalry against the Swiss infantry at Grandson. Cavalry charges were not always successful, but the spectacle and the social importance of the men who made them ensured that they remained a key part of warfare in the Middle Ages.

In summary, the horse-mounted warrior was able to achieve dominance during the middle ages for three reasons. He was a member of the ruling elite, and therefore had social status, which was used to reinforce his own importance as a horse mounted warrior. Secondly, he was mobile in a time when travelling several hundred miles was a major undertaking. And finally, he was effective in battle.

Disciplined bodies of infantry were the key to ending the dominance of the horsemen. Once the Swiss showed the way in 1475 other armies followed suit, and gradually their role was changed from being the primary strike force to providing support for the infantry. Cavalry continued to be part of all major armies into to 1920s, and part of some into the 1940s. However the arrival of the internal combustion engine sounded the final death knell of the horse in its residual roles of screening, reconnaissance and exploitation.


i It could be said that the English won the Battle of Agincourt with their longbowmen - the predecessors of the modern artillerymen - rather than with the infantry. However, without Henry V’s dismounted men-at-arms Agincourt would have been a short battle.

ii This paragraph, and the one following, draws heavily on Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, in particular Chapter14; From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy, p265

iii Brooke, Europe, p. 103

iv Occasionally men were able to improve their rank in society through service to a king or great lord. Brooke, Europe, p. 105

v Brooke, Europe, p. 131

vi To give some perspective, this is about the same size as the Regular NZ Army.

vii Brooke, Europe., p. 101

viii Barr Smith, To The Last Cartridge, p. 7

ix Henry V’s traverse across Northern France of October 1415, in the days immediately before Agincourt, covered 270 miles in 16 days of marching - roughly seventeen miles per day. Allmand, Society at War, p. 82


  1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, Vintage, 1998,

  2. Robert Barr Smith, To The Last Cartridge, London: Robinson Publishing, 1996

  3. Christopher Brooke, Europe in the Central Middle Ages 962-1154, London: Longman Group Limited, 1975

  4. C T Allmand, Society at War: The Experience of England and France during the Hundred Years War, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1973

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Operation Shingle, January – May 1944

We hoped to land a wild cat that would tear out the bowels of the Boche. Instead we have stranded a vast whale with its tail flopping about in the water.

Winston Churchill, 19441

Campaign Outline

Operation Shingle was conceived as a way to exploit Allied command of the sea to outflank the German army in central Italy. Originally planned to coincide with a successful breakthrough of the Gustav Line at Cassino by the main Allied Armies, the objective changed when these attacks foundered. When launched in January 1944, Shingle was intended to be the lever to force the Germans out of their strong positions and facilitate the fall of Rome, rather than enhance an existing breakthrough.

The Allied VI Corps landed at Anzio, just south of Rome, on January 22nd 1944 with two infantry divisions plus a mixed bag of US rangers and paratroopers (landing amphibiously) and British Commandos, amounting to roughly another nine battalions. Surprise was complete, and the landings went off without a hitch. Once ashore General Lucas, commander of VI Corps, carefully consolidated his beachhead until the end of the month. By then Lucas had all his forces2 ashore and felt strong enough to attack towards the Alban Hills in order to cut the German lines of supply to Cassino.

However Field-Marshall Kesselring, commander of the German forces in Italy, had used the intervening week to swiftly reposition forces from within Italy and across Europe.3 In all, elements from some ten divisions were in place in time to meet, and then defeat, Lucas’ attack. With the Allied attack stalled, Kesselring went over to the attack to try and eliminate the beachhead. These counter-attacks continued throughout February.4 Due to Lucas’ cautious build-up these attacks too were ultimately unsuccessful.

Anzio map 1.jpg

Map 1: Allied Strategy in Italy, January 1944. It is clear from the map just how isolated the Anzio Beachhead should become if the main front were not broken.

With both sides exhausted the Anzio beachhead remained quiet through March, April, and most of May. Finally, in conjunction with a successful breakthrough at Cassino, a greatly reinforced VI Corps broke out of their confined beachhead and captured Rome on June 4th – 133 days after the initial landings and two days before Operation Overlord.

Logistics Planning for Operation Shingle

Planning for Shingle began in a low-key way November5 when General Clark, commander of 5th US Army, ordered his staff to begin identifying likely places for amphibious invasions. The intent was to have options available to use the Allied command of the sea to outflank strong German defences. This initial planning took the form of map reconnaissance, and COPP (Combined Operations Pilotage Parties)6 reconnaissance of the coastlines at night from folbots.7

The purpose of these offshore beach reconnaissance and observation missions by the COPP parties was twofold. Firstly, they identified enemy positions and strengths. They also investigated the beaches and their approaches, checking gradients, sand densities, and taking water soundings. All this information is vital during the early stages of an amphibious landing in order to ensure that the ships can identify the correct beaches from identified landmarks, that landing craft will be able to make it to the beach, and that their cargoes – especially vehicles - will be able to move off the beaches.

Off the beaches both north and south of Anzio, sand bars were detected a short distance offshore. There was some concern that these would ground the landing craft during their run-in, and so leave the troops stranded some distance offshore. Follow-up patrols confirmed the existence of these bars, but indicated that the water was deep enough to not cause any problems.


Figure 1: Beach Reconnaissance Sounding Graph. Recorded by a COPP patrol on the night of 31st December 1943, the offshore sandbar at Anzio – Nettuno can be clearly seen at 60-70 yards offshore in this and other similar sounding graphs.

Beyond the initial reconnaissance and planning there was doubt whether Shingle would ever be launched, and it was an “on-again, off-again” operation through late 1943. There were two areas of concern:

  1. would the offensive at Cassino be able to break through to the beachhead, and

  2. would there be enough shipping, in particular enough of the large Landing Ships, Tank (L.Ss.T.).8

These ships were vital for mounting the attack, and for supplying it afterwards, but many of them were due to sail for England and the build up to Overlord.9 The first attacks on the Gustav Line had been an abject failure, leaving little hope of a quick junction with any forces landed at Anzio, and since there was sufficient shipping for only a single assault division, the forces landed would be insufficient to look after themselves for an extended period.

As a result Clark cancelled Shingle in mid-December 1943. However, a few days later Winston Churchill heard of the cancellation. Always concerned to maintain the Mediterranean as an active theatre of operations, he used his considerable powers of persuasion to secure enough shipping to mount the operation, and to do so with two, rather than just one, assault divisions. He also managed to delay the departure of the L.Ss.T. long enough to ensure maintenance of the beachhead for at least 28 days. This became the basis of planning, and for planning purposes it was assumed that the main front would have advanced to VI Corps within that time.

The logistic plan prepared by 5th Army for VI Corps identified four general phases of supply for the landing force10:

  1. Preparatory Phase: in which all administrative planning and preparation would be conducted. This included assembling the men and supplies that would be required. This phase was under command of the Peninsular Base Section for U.S. Troops, and FLAMBO11 for British troops. This phase was to be completed when the assault convoys were loaded, and at sea.

  2. Initial Assault Phase: Supply was to be over the beaches. The Task Force Commander (Gen Lucas) held responsibility, and this was discharged by the beach groups, in control of the beaches and at Anzio port. This phase was scheduled to continue “as long as required.” All assault formations would carry sufficient supplies of all natures to keep themselves going for ten days.

  3. Continuing Maintenance Phase A: Supply was to continue to arrive over the beaches, and would be transferred to inland dumps. The Task Force Commander remained responsible, for receiving stocking and issuing supplies in the beachhead, while Peninsular Base Section at Naples was loading and dispatching convoys.

  4. Continuing Maintenance Phase B: Once a link up with 5th Army had occurred, supply would revert to a conventional overland basis and sea borne supply would cease. 5th Army would then become responsible for all administration. 5th Army held responsibility for announcing when the link up had occurred and the supply source would change.

These phases roughly followed what was expected to be the developing tactical situation, and it continued to be anticipated that 5th Army would be able to advance from the main front at Cassino quickly enough to link-up with VI Corps at Anzio within 10-28 days.

The plan specified that all assault formations would carry sufficient supplies of all natures to be self-sufficient for the first 10 days ashore. This included food, fuel, and ammunition. Having the assault troops self-sufficient in this way freed up the limited shipping available to bring in reinforcements, and supplies to build up reserves, and also to buffer against any unexpected break in the Navy’s ability to unload supplies. Given that the operation was to be mounted in the middle of winter over fairly exposed beaches, this was more than likely to occur, even without interference from the Germans.

After the first ten days VI Corps would be re-supplied by a shuttle service provided by 14 L.Ss.T and 1500 2½-ton trucks from the 6723rd Truck Group (Prov.). The convoy of L.Ss.T. would arrive at Anzio, and unload the 500 trucks held on board. These trucks would disperse to their respective dumps, and 500 trucks from the beachhead carrying salvage12 would load back on board the ships. The convoy would then promptly return to Naples, where it would discharge the 500 trucks picked up at Anzio, and load the third lot of 500 trucks waiting pre-loaded at the docks. In this way there would be:

  1. 500 trucks unloading supplies at Anzio, then back loading salvage,

  2. 500 trucks on board the L.Ss.T., either moving up to Anzio with supplies, or returning to Naples with salvage, and

  3. 500 trucks in Naples getting rid of the salvage, then re-loading ready for their next trip up to Anzio.13

The round trip would take three days, and this system seemed to ensure good utilisation of the limited number of L.Ss.T. available, as well as minimising the time taken to unload the L.Ss.T. at Anzio. A similar procedure had been trialled by the US 7th Fleet in the South West Pacific with success. However, when Winston Churchill, Admiral Cunningham14 and General Bedell Smith15 heard of it during a conference on Operation Shingle held at Marrakech, Morocco in early January they “completely disapproved” of and prohibited.16 Why such senior personnel felt the need to get involved in such a low level Q issue is a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, despite the prohibition, staff at 5th Army HQ included it in their plans anyway.

In addition to the L.S.T. shuttles running every three days, a small convoy of four or five regular merchant shipping would arrive at Anzio every 10 days. These ships would carry supplies too large or bulky for the L.S.T. service.

Provision was made for emergency aerial resupply to forces cut off by the enemy. However this was on a small scale, and capacity existed for no more than a battalions worth, and then only for a few days.

Casualties were to be dealt with by the normal land based army medical services, and evacuation to Naples was to be handled by one of the two hospital ships allocated to this operation. These two ships would operate their own daily shuttle service, with one always on station off Anzio, while the other was taking its load of wounded to the rear.

In order to get the logistic lifeline for VI Corps on a solid footing early, an engineer battalion was tasked with clearing and opening the port as soon as possible. However, since it was anticipated that the Germans would thoroughly demolish Anzio before they left, the opening of the port there was seen as a hoped for bonus, rather than a necessity. Plans were made and equipment provided – such as pontoons and bulldozers – to enable the US and British landing beaches to handle all requirements for resupply for an indefinite period.

The plan for Operation Shingle was solid and comprehensive, taking note of the facilities that would exist in the beachhead and planning to make use of them, allowing for flexibility, and utilising the resources that were available to good effect. However, it had a number of weaknesses. The shortage of landing craft has already been discussed, and even though enough had been found to mount the invasion, the continued support of the beachhead still gave cause for concern, even though it was out of the hands of the planners involved.

The second weakness of the plan was the requirement to support two nationalities in the confined beachhead. Given the small size of the assault forces it would have made sense to restrict to being either an all-US operation, or all-UK forces. Mixing the nationalities would increase the complexities of supply within the beachhead by doubling all forms of logistic support required at Anzio, from ammunition to replacement parts and manpower. That this was done at all must be laid at the feet of Churchill. In late December, after resurrecting Shingle, Churchill noted that since the Mediterranean Theatre would be under British command17 it would be unfair for such a ‘risky operation’ to be mounted solely by US forces. Also he was concerned lest Rome, the first Axis capital likely to fall to the Allies, should be done without British participation.18 As a result, the landing would be a joint Anglo-American operation.

Logistics Execution during Operation Shingle

The execution of the logistics plan for Shingle got off to an excellent start on the D-Day when the port at Anzio was captured virtually intact. The booby traps and obstacles were cleared by the afternoon, and the first L.S.T. began to unload there soon after. The provision in the plan to get the port working quickly paid early dividends. The gradient of the British beach north of Anzio was found to be too shallow to allow the easy unloading of amphibious craft, and sandbars off shore hampered their approach – contrary to the COPP reports. This beach was soon shut down and all British traffic was routed through the port instead.


Figure 2: Unloading at Anzio’s docks began D-Day afternoon when the engineers cleared the harbour. L.Ss.T. were able to nose directly into the docks.

Then a few days later the port paid off again when a winter storm struck on D+4 and wrecked the pontoons and other facilities that had been installed at the US beach south of Anzio. For a period of 24 hours nothing could unload over the beach except ten L.Ss.T. at Anzio.19 Admiral Lowry, the amphibious taskforce commander, wrote:

Had not the port of Anzio been operated at three or four times its expected capacity for LSTs, the loss of pontoon causeways would have doomed the beachhead.20

The innovative use of the pre-loaded truck shuttles worked well, though it had an amusing postscript in March when Churchill was told that 25,000 vehicles had been landed at Anzio. He became quite incensed at the thought of that many vehicles and their drivers sitting around idle in the confined beachhead. What he wasn’t told was that most of them had unloaded their stores, and then been promptly reloaded onto an L.S.T. and taken away again.21

One of the prime effects of the truck shuttles was to dramatically reduce the time taken to unload each L.S.T. Since the trucks only had to drive off the turn around time was reduced from around a day to just one hour, and this minimised the exposure of the L.Ss.T. to danger while near Anzio.


Figure 3: An LST beaches near Anzio. Part of the shuttle, made up of 1500 trucks, which kept VI Corps supplied can be seen on its deck. Note the way the shells are loaded loosely on the trucks to reduce the amount of salvage requiring disposal.

Once the German counterattacks began, and with the failure of the attacks against Cassino, it became obvious that Anzio would have to hold out for some months. As a result, some of the L.Ss.T. due to be sent back to England were held in the Mediterranean indefinitely to guarantee supply of the beachhead. Also, the unexpected fierceness of the fighting created a need to reinforce VI Corps, and to pull out units shattered in the fighting there. Eventually there would be six US and British divisions in VI Corps, and the plan created for the initial two-division assault was flexible enough to keep them supplied for over four months, rather than the four weeks initially allowed for, in what became a very extended Continuing Maintenance Phase a.

Protection of the exposed support and supply facilities in the crowded beachhead became a priority once the Germans moved up significant amounts of artillery. Dispersed dumps, revetting exposed facilities such as the field hospital, and extensive use of smoke screens ensured that, while losses occurred, they were kept to a minimum. Luftwaffe air attacks on the port area and ships off shore were dealt with by creating a very strong AA defence scheme.22

Some use was made of the emergency aerial resupply contingency during the counterattacks in February when a battalion was cut off in an area known as “the Wadis”. Unfortunately, due to the small area held by the battalion most of the airdropped supplies found their way into German hands.23


Operation Shingle was hampered from the outset by a lack of L.Ss.T. The demands of global war, and in particular of Operation Overlord - the forthcoming centrepiece of Anglo-American strategy in Europe – meant that there would never be enough for a secondary theatre, as the Mediterranean became from late-1943. The initial effects of this shortage were the on-again, off-again nature of the entire operation, and the final political decision to do something before the L.Ss.T were withdrawn. The final effect was that the assault as mounted was too small for the tasks that VI Corps was given.24

The logistics plan and execution, given the constraints within which they had to work, was very sound – although it was great good fortune which placed an undamaged port at Anzio in Lucas’ hands. But as Molony puts it in his official history, “operations were never hamstrung by administrative failure or difficulties.” 25 However, as D’Este notes:

There was nothing wrong with the basic conception of Shingle. In fact, if the operation had been carried out with a sufficiently large force, Kesselring might well have been forced to abandon the Cassino front in favor of a stand along the Gothic Line. The main flaw of Shingle was its logistical restrictions, which severely reduced its scope to a size far to small to achieve its basic aim of cutting the German lines of communication with Cassino.26



1 There are several variations on this quote. The one above is from Hastings, M. (1984). Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy, 1944. (1985). London: Pan Books Ltd.

2 1st(Br) and 3rd (US) Inf Divs, the Commandos, Rangers and Paras in the initial landings, plus 1st (US) Armd Div and 45th (US) Inf Div as well as miscellaneous corps troops.

3 The Germans were puzzled – and very relieved – that Lucas took so long to move out of his initial beachhead. After the war General Hauser asked “Why didn’t the enemy, in a daring quick dash to the Alban Hills [the Colli Laziali], push through to Valmonte and cut the supply road to the south flank of the Tenth Army?” Quoted in Morison, S.E. (1954). History of United States Navy operations in World War II, volume IX: Sicily – Salerno – Anzio, January 1943 ~ June 1944. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

4 It was in response to these attacks that Operation Dickens, the attack on Monte Cassino by The New Zealand Corps, was mounted in an effort to draw pressure off the Anzio beachhead. The respective roles of the main front at Cassino and the beachhead at Anzio as “main effort” and “feint” swapped several times throughout this campaign. Bailey, B. (2000). Operation Dickens, the third battle for Cassino: an analysis of defeat. Massey University.

5 Morison, Sicily – Salerno – Anzio. p. 318.

6 COPP was an acronym to disguise the real name for these parties: Beach Reconnaissance and Assault Parties. Recruited mainly, but not exclusively, from the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers (and including some Americans), these two man patrols would reconnoitre the physical state of the beaches including such things as offshore depth soundings, beach gradients, sand firmness for trafficability, beach exits, and the state of the defences on and near the beaches.

7 Collapsible two-man canoes launched from patrol boats a mile or so off shore. Anonymous, (1944). Outline Plan OPERATION “SHINGLE”. Headquarters Fifth Army.

8 The Landing Ship Tank, or L.S.T., was a key part of all Allied amphibious operations around the world during the later part of World War II. These ships displaced approximately 2,150 tons, and had a forward draught of just 3 feet, which along with their forward ramp and clamshell doors made them suitable for landing vehicles and stores directly onto beaches. L.Ss.T. supplying Anzio carried approximately fifty 2½-ton trucks each. See: Morison, S.E. (1947). History of United States Navy operations in World War II, volume II: Operations in North African waters, October 1942 ~ June 1943. Boston: Little, Brown and Company p.266-271 for the capabilities of the L.S.T., and the other major amphibious vessels; the L.C.T. and the L.C.I.

9 The L.Ss.T. needed to be sent to England months early to allow time for modifications to the ships for the different tidal conditions in the English Channel, for the crews to train in these new conditions, and to practice with the Operation Overlord assault troops. Furthermore, much of the shipping available in the Mediterranean was required just to support the forces on the main front in Italy, and to assist with the build up of ground forces there, and of the strategic bomber forces scheduled to move into the airfields around Foggia. These demands left little spare capacity for amphibious operations. Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio. p.322-326.

10 Outline Plan OPERATION “SHINGLE”. Annex No. III, G-4 Annex To Outline Plan SHINGLE, Headquarters Fifth Army

11 FLAMBO was the telegraphic code name for the Administrative Echelon of Allied Forces HQ, and quickly became the general name by which that HQ was known. Molony C.J.C (1973). History of the Second World War: The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume V, the campaign in Sicily 1943 and the campaign in Italy3rd September 1943 to 31st March 1744. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. p.398

12 Salvage: rubbish and broken equipment of no use in the beachhead.

13 Outline Plan OPERATION “SHINGLE”. Headquarters Fifth Army. Amendment No. 2 to Annex No. III p. 2, and Appendix #2 (Corrected) to Annex No. III.

14 Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean

15 Chief-of-Staff to Allied Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Theatre

16 Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio. p.327-328.

17 There was considerable re-shuffling in the Allied high command in late 1943- early 1944 in order to get the designated commanders for Operation Overlord out of the Mediterranean and back to England. General Alexander took of from Eisenhower as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Theatre

18 D’Este, C. (1991). Fatal decision, Anzio and the battle for Rome. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. p.95-96.

19 Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio. p.348-350.

20 Adm. Lowry. Supplementary Action Report 17 May 1944. p.10.

21 Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio. p.367.

22 Pemberton, A.L. (1950). The development of artillery tactics and equipment. London: The War Office. p.196

23 D’Este. p.283.

24 Morison, Sicily-Salerno-Anzio. P.336 “… That was the fundamental weakness of Operation Shingle. Either it was a job for a full army, or it was no job at all; to attempt it with only two divisions was to send a boy on a man’s errand…”

25 Molony. p.427.

26 D’Este. p. 401.

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Tannenberg, August 1914

An example of operational success through defensive manoeuvre

Only one idea is justified: if one is too weak to attack the whole, then one attacks a part.

Count Alfred von Schlieffen1



World War One began with commanders on all sides preparing to execute grandiose plans of offensive manoeuvre and encirclement which aimed to quickly and decisively win the war for them.2 All of them promptly and bloodily failed – the French in the Battle of the Frontiers, Austria-Hungary with their abortive invasion of Serbia, the Germans when the fabled Schlieffen Plan unravelled, and the Russians with their invasion of East Prussia. However, in East Prussia the German Army achieved something that would prove highly elusive during the war; a decisive victory achieved through manoeuvre which achieved practically all of its goals.3 This showed that – in the right circumstances – defensive manoeuvre could achieve decisive success. This essay will explain and assess the Battle of Tannenberg, fought towards the end of August 1914, looking at the aims sought by each side, the course of the battle, and it’s relevance to the course of World War One.

On the outbreak of the war, Russia mobilised its first wave of armies with unexpected swiftness and invaded East Prussia in pursuit of several aims. The first was to fulfil its treaty obligations by attacking to lift some of the pressure off France. Secondly it wanted to secure East Prussia, and finally it sought to shield the mobilisation of its remaining armies.4 The plan the Russians developed was basically sound. One army under Rennenkampf would attack due west paralleling the Baltic coast, while a second army under Samsonov would attack due north from Warsaw. The combined pressure of these two armies advancing from two directions would, it was anticipated, prevent the much smaller German force under Prittwitz from making an effective stand against either. Blocking Rennenkampf would allow Samsonov to cut the Germans off by advancing north to the coast, while blocking Samsonov would likewise allow Rennenkampf to advance west through Konigsberg and on to the Vistula.5

Meanwhile Prittwitz was attempting to secure German aims. The German high command viewed the execution of the Schlieffen Plan against France as the key to the early stages of the war, and everything else was subordinated to that end.6 Therefore, Prittwitz was expected to conduct an economy of force operation while the main event played out in France and the Low Countries.7 Nevertheless, Prittwitz sought to keep his force in being, and hold East Prussia as best he could.

The first major engagement between the Russians and Germans occurred at Gumbinnen on 20th August. Both sides found the high casualties they experienced there a chastening experience. Following the battle Rennenkampf slowed his advance in order, so he believed, to allow the Germans to withdraw into Konigsberg where they could be besieged.8 German radio intercepts picked up this information, which was confirmed by aerial reconnaissance. Simultaneously, Samsonov’s army was located approaching a position which threatened Prittwitz’s rear. Shaken by the losses and failure of some of his units at Gumbinnen, and overwhelmed by a seeming torrent of near real-time information – the first time any commander in his position had had to cope with this – Prittwitz hoped to save his army by abandoning most of East Prussia by retiring to the Vistula River. With the Battle of the Frontiers all but won and the advance into France proceeding well, von Moltke had little time for Prittwitz’s apparent panic and promptly replaced him, creating the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.9 In addition to new commanders, von Moltke withdrew several corps from France and dispatched them to East Prussia too.10

Prittwitz’s chief of staff, Max Hoffmann, was able to view the situation more dispassionately than his boss had been, and sensed an opportunity. With Rennenkampf set on a slow and deliberate advance, it seemed that it might be safe to concentrate against Samsonov in the south, defeat him in detail, then immediately move back to the east against Rennenkampf.11

On arrival Hindenburg and Ludendorff immediately approved Hoffmann’s plan, setting themselves the mission of destroying Samsonov’s army as it advanced through the broken terrain straddling the border of Poland and East Prussia. Consequently by the 26th the bulk of the German forces had concentrated to the west, north, and east of Samsonov’s army, leaving only a light screen ahead of Rennenkampf.12 Samsonov had allowed his army to become strung out as it advanced along multiple routes through the forests and swamps, and between the lakes on his axis of advance. Furthermore, blind as he was to Hindenburg’s moves, Samsonov diverted his advance to the northwest, with both flanks open and moving ever further away from Rennenkampf.13

The following day the Hindenberg attacked. With one German corps driving deep into his left flank and another threatening his right, Samsonov requested assistance from Rennenkampf, but it was already too late and the situation rapidly became dire. By the evening of the 28th three of Samsonov’s corps were surrounded and their escape blocked by lakes, while his other two corps had been heavily bloodied and were in full retreat. By the end of the month it was all over – Samsonov’s army had suffered some 75% casualties, totalling over 170,000 killed, wounded or captured. Samsonov didn’t wait to see the final outcome. With his army disintegrating, on the 29th he walked into the woods and killed himself.14 German casualties were less than one-tenth of those suffered by the Russians.15

Tannenberg was decisive for German for several reasons. Developed over several centuries, German tactical and operational doctrine emphasised aggression, distributed action and commanders working independently to support of a common plan.16 This allowed the four German corps arrayed around the edges of Samsonov to successfully envelop and destroy his army. Furthermore, East Prussia had often been the scene of manoeuvres and planning exercises during the pre-war period, and the opportunities offered by the broken country on the border were well known.17

Supporting the Germans doctrinal approach to battle was the rail system which sped their physical approach at the strategic and operational level. I Corps was able to disengage from the left flank facing Rennenkampf, entrain and travel over 300km via rail, then concentrate on the right facing Samsonov northwest of Mlawa in a matter of days. Similarly, the reinforcements from France were able to move across Europe to East Prussia in less than two weeks. Although Rennenkampf was separated from Samsonov by a much shorter geographical distance, he was unable to move across the intervening distance quickly enough to come to his aid.18

German intelligence about Russian actions and intentions was far superior to that of the Russians. The German army was able to make use of the new tools provided by aerial reconnaissance and radio intercepts, as well as more traditional cavalry, to achieve and maintain a clear picture of Russian movements. While this may in part of contributed to Prittwitz’s breakdown, it was nevertheless fundamental in providing the confidence required to denude the front facing Rennenkampf and concentrate against Samsonov. Russia’s comparative intelligence failure led directly to Rennenkampf’s slow and steady advance after his sanguinary experience at Gumbinnen, even long after the majority of the German forces before him had departed, and Samsonov’s headlong advance into Hindenburg’s ambush.19

The movements of the two Russian armies also became uncoordinated. The plan to threaten the Germans from two directions could only work if either was able to assist when the Germans concentrated against the other. Given the terrain in East Prussia, the poor communications between Rennenkampf, Samsonov, and their higher headquarters, this soon became unlikely. When Rennenkampf deliberately slowed his advance and Samsonov headed northwest instead of north it became impossible.20

Thus on the German side there was the combination of superior intelligence, swift strategic and operational movement, plus an aggressive and flexible tactical doctrine. This was set against the Russian operational plan which relied on close cooperation that could not be achieved. The interplay of these opposing factors led directly to the crushing victory at Tannenberg.

At the operational level the Germans under Hindenburg and Ludendorff were highly successful. The Battle of Tannenberg, fought within a month of the outbreak of World War One, was one of its few battles in which one side achieved all their aims; East Prussia was secure and would soon be cleared of Russians in a follow-up operation against Rennenkampf, Samsonov’s army had been destroyed, and the German army had established a moral ascendancy over the Russian army which it would maintain throughout the war in the east. However the operations in East Prussia, of which Tannenberg was a signal part, failed as an economy of force operation. The success at Tannenberg was achieved before the forces withdrawn from the fighting in France arrived, yet arguably it was the lack of those forces which finally and fatally unhinged the Schlieffen Plan along the Marne.21

Conversely, the Russian failed to secure East Prussia, but their overall failure here was not as bad as it first appeared. Despite losing the bulk of Samsonov’s army, the mobilisation of the remaining Russian forces proceeded unhindered. Even Samsonov’s army would rise again, once again taking its place in the line within a few months.22 Perhaps most importantly, although of little comfort at the time, Russia had fulfilled its obligation to the French and Samsonov’s sacrifice drew off forces from the battle in France at a crucial time. Tannenberg was the first example of Russia’s loyalty to the French and British, an example that would be fulsomely – if perhaps not very wisely - repeated again and again over the following years.23

In addition to being one of the reasons the Schlieffen Plan failed before it could defeat the French, the Battle of Tannenberg was crucial for the outcome of the war in the East. Along with other early battles in August and September 1914 it established a pecking order of military competence; Germany first, Russia second, and Austria-Hungary third. This hierarchy was a reliable predictor of the outcome of battles for the remainder of the war, affecting the strategy and approach used by the three nations.24

For the wider German military the effect of the battle was twofold. It cemented the idea that decisive operational victories were possible, albeit only by ignoring the unique factors which had enabled it, and this idea drove German strategic thought throughout the remainder of the war; achieve operational success, and strategic success should follow.25 The hollowness of this approach would be finally laid bare on the Western Front between March and April 1918. Secondly, it propelled Hindenburg and Ludendorff into the public consciousness on the home front, giving them hero status, and commencing their meteoric rise to the very top.26 Coming so soon after an invasion of German territory, complete with shocking tales of Russian terror spread by Prussian refugees fanning out across Germany,27 Hindenburg’s victory helped cement Bergfrieden, the willing solidarity between the people, political parties and the army, which did so much to sustain German military power during the first years of the war.28

Germany’s victory at Tannenberg was an impressive example of operational manoeuvre, but in many respects it was a blind alley. Thrashing the Russians in the wilderness of East Prussia was gratifying, but the failure to achieve victory on the Western Front decided the outcome of the war.





Asprey, Robert B., The German High Command at war: Hindenburg and Ludendorff conduct World War I, Warner Books, London, 1991

Citino, Robert M., The German way of war, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2005

Falls, Cyril, The Great War, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1959

Golovine, Nicholas N., The Russian Campaign of 1914, the beginning of the war and operations in East Prussia, Hugh Rees Ltd, London, 1933

Kahn, David, The codebreakers, the story of secret writing, Scribner, New York, 1996

Keegan, John, The First World War, Hutchinson, London, 1988

Millett, Allan R., and Murray, Williamson, Military Effectiveness, volume 1, the First World War, new edition, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010 (1988)

Showalter, Dennis E., Even generals wet their pants, the first three weeks in East Prussia, August 1914, War & Society. Vol. 2, Issue 2, (Oct., 1984), pp. 61-86

Showalter, Dennis E., Tannenberg: Clash of empires, 1914, Archon, Connecticut, 1991

Strachan, Hew, The First World War, Simon & Schuster, London, 2003

Watson, Alexander, Ring of steel, Germany and Austria-Hungary at war, 1914-1918, Penguin, 2015 (2014)

West Point Military Academy, Campaign Atlas to the Great War, Battle of Tannenberg, http://www.usma.edu/history/SiteAssets/SitePages/World%20War%20I/WWOne26.jpg, accessed 22 Aug 2016



1 Citino, Robert M., The German way of war, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2005, p.207

2 Strachan, Hew, The First World War, Simon & Schuster, London, 2003, p.41-48

3 Jones, ‘Imperial Russia’s forces at war’, in Millett, Allan R., and Murray, Williamson, Military Effectiveness, volume 1, the First World War, new edition, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010 (1988), p.335, 337

4 Golovine, Nicholas N., The Russian Campaign of 1914, the beginning of the war and operations in East Prussia, Hugh Rees Ltd, London, 1933, p.45-48

5 Herwig, The First World War; Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918, p.63-65

6 Citino, The German way of war, p.196-200

7 Keegan, John, The First World War, Hutchinson, London, 1988, p.153

8 Showalter, Dennis E., Tannenberg: Clash of empires, 1914, Archon, Connecticut, 1991, p.207

9 Showalter, Dennis E., Even generals wet their pants, the first three weeks in East Prussia, August 1914, War & Society. Vol. 2, Issue 2, (Oct., 1984), p.72-78

10 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.293-296

11 Citino, The German way of war, p228-229

12 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.213-214, 221

13 Keegan, The First World War, p.157

14 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.309

15 Asprey, Robert B., The German High Command at war: Hindenburg and Ludendorff conduct World War I, Warner Books, London, 1991, p.79-80

16 Citino, The German way of war, p.306-309

17 Asprey, The German High Command at War, p.73-74

18 Citino, The German way of war, p.225

19 Kahn, David, The codebreakers, the story of secret writing, Scribner, New York, 1996, p.626-627. Showalter, Even generals wet their pants, p.79-80.

20 Strachan, The First World War, p.132-3

21 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.294

22 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.323

23 Falls, Cyril, The Great War, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1959, Book Four, p.288-289

24 Falls, The Great War, Book Two, p.118-9. Strachan, The First World War, p.133

25 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.336-345

26 Showalter, Tannenberg, p.330-1, 334-5

27 Watson, Alexander, Ring of steel, Germany and Austria-Hungary at war, 1914-1918, Penguin, 2015 (2014), p.160-175

28 Watson, Ring of Steel, p.179-181

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Strategy, Tactics, and the Wehrmacht in World War Two

Military strategy is the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force or the threat of force. It is the art of winning wars and is concerned with determining how the military forces of a nation should be employed. i

Tactics is “… the use of all means available to a commander throughout the battle, including the approach to battle, the arranging of forces, the integration of various units and weapons, and actions during battle.” (Bellamy, 1990, p. 7)

German national strategy during the 1930’s and 40’s is somewhat difficult to decipher. Hitler’s stated intent was for lebensraum, to be gained at the expense of the Slavic peoples to the east, but how much would have been enough? It is hard to know with any certainty what the limits were, or indeed if there were any limits to Hitler’s ambition. However, it seems fair to say that the aim certainly wasn’t to be left contemplating the ruins of Berlin as the Reich was occupied and dismembered by her enemies. That this did happen was the result of failings of the Armed forces.

Throughout the Second World War the Wehrmacht was a force to be reckoned with, and even well into 1945 it was capable of fighting and winning tactical battles. However, best chance for Germany to win the war was with superior strategy before its main opponents had a chance to mobilise against her.

Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW)

The German Armed Forces, or Wehrmacht, was composed of the three main services, and commanded and controlled by a General Staff; the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (see fig. 1 for organisation of German High Command). Each service had a Commander in Chief, who reported to OKW. The Chief of OKW reported directly to Hitler as the Supreme Commander. Each of the Services was responsible for developing their forces and equipment, with OKW providing direction and planning for major campaigns.

Even though the extent of Germanys political aims were vague, before the war it was the duty of OKW “…to be planning to fight and win a war” (Thompson, 1991, p. 298). ii The OKW was rightly concerned not to get itself into another two-front war, and knowing that it was eventually going to be moving into the Slavic countries, planned to first quickly defeat the countries to its west in order to be secure when it moved east. Prior to the outbreak of war the OKW was very successful in its application of the threat of force, allowing Germany to take control of several bordering areas and countries between 1936 and1939 (see Fig. 2 for pre-war expansion). Between September 1939 and May 1941 Germany was able to continue to gain control of entire nations, though now it was through the use of force rather than merely its threat.iii Until the end of 1942 Germany was able to gain territory at an impressive rate, and by late 1942 Germany was the master of a European empire stretching from the Pyrenees to the Volga, the Arctic Circle to the shores of North Africa (see Fig. 3 for maximum extent of Third Reich in October 1942). However, after 1941 Germany never again defeated a country.

Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM)

Once Hitler renounced the Treaty of Versailles in 1935 the Kriegsmarine, along with the Luftwaffe and the Heer, began rebuilding openly. Prior to this it had been severely constrained by the limits of the Treaty – it being rather more difficult to hide a battleship than an aircraft or a tank. Raeder, C-in-C OKM, wanted a navy capable of striking at the arteries of trade that probable enemies (Britain and France) relied so heavily upon. However, he was also keen on big ships, and started work on seven new battleships and heavy cruisers in 1935. He also gained approval for “Plan Z” – the programme to build another 33 major warships and 133 submarines, for completion by 1948.iv

On 23rd May 1939, just before open war broke out, Hitler discussed a strategy to defeat Britain with his Commanders-in-Chief:

If Holland and Belgium are successfully occupied and if France is also defeated, the fundamental conditions for a successful war against England will have been secured. England can then be blockaded from Western France at close quarters by the Air Force, while the Navy with its U-boats can extend the range of the blockade ... The moment England’s supply routes are severed, she will be forced to capitulate. (quoted in Wilmot, 1952, p. 21) v

War had been expected no earlier than the mid-1940s, so when war broke out in September 1939 the German surface fleet was still well under-strength. The prior focus on surface ships meant the U-boat fleet that started the war was only 59 strong, and just 30 were suitable for long-range Atlantic sorties.vi

Admiral Dönitz, Flag Officer, U-Boats, had estimated that a fleet of 300 U-Boats would be required to bring effective pressure on Britain. vii Clearly a major building programme for new submarines would be required to make good the shortfall, but it would be some time before these boats, and the crews to man them, would be ready for operations.

In the meantime, the surface units would be used as commerce raiders. These ships met with limited success, at the cost of several damaged or sunk. After the loss of the Bismark in May 1941 the large units were seldom risked again – the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismark and Germanys largest battleship, spent most of the war hiding in Norwegian Fiords.

When the Luftwaffe had failed to defeat the RAF in late 1940, it was left to the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine to blockade Britain. After the fall of France multi-U-boat wolfpacks, known to the Germans as Rudeltaktik, were initiated. The first successful interception of a convoy by a wolfpack took place in early September when five U-boats attacked convoy SC-2 inbound from Sydney, sinking five ships. From that point on, the escorts were under ever more pressure as large wolfpacks harried convoys. Some of these battles were epics, like the saga of ONS-5 between 24 April and 6 May 1943. This convoy was set upon by up to 55 U-boats from several wolfpacks over 12 days of running battle. viii Wolfpacks were often directed onto target convoys by wide-ranging Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights working together in joint operations.

This campaign continued unabated till the end of the war. Dönitz’s U-boats achieved much success through the years 1940 – 1943, and came very close to defeating Britain in April 1941 when 700,000 tons of shipping were sent to the bottom. Ultimately, however, Dönitz did not have enough U-boats early enough to achieve outright success. ix By the time his fleet was sufficiently large to start causing real damage in 1941, the Royal Navy had properly organised convoys, and by September the US Navy was playing an active role in the Battle of the Atlantic – three months before they declared war. The greatest successes for the U-boats were in 1942/43, but by then of course the US was fully in the war, and was bringing her immense industrial muscle to bear, replacing ships far faster than Dönitz could sink them. Worse, from May 1943 the Allies were able to supply continuous air cover across the Atlantic. That month marked the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic. Though the U-boats fought on to the end of the war, they were never again to seriously threaten Britain’s lifelines.

Ultimately, the Kriegsmarine found that it had prepared poorly – it didn't have enough U-boats to blockade Britain, not enough minor warships to undertake Operation Seelöwe, and nowhere near enough major warships to contest control of the Atlantic with the Royal Navy. Concentrating on any one of these strategies could have meant the defeat of Britain in 1940/41, and the U-boats or minor warships were possibly within Germany's means. However, OKM spent too much of its resources in the pre-war period on major warships which contributed little when war came.

Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL)

When Germany formally renounced the Treaty of Versailles, it followed years of secret planning and preparation. In March 1935 the British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, was surprised to be told at a conference with Hitler that the Luftwaffe had already achieved parity with the RAF.

Due to event’s during the 1930’sx the Luftwaffe found itself in 1939 equipped, organised, and trained for short, sharp wars on the mainland of Europe, in which it would act in close cooperation with the German Army. xi

During the early campaigns this close-support air force was a key component of German success. During the campaign in Poland victory was not so much due to the Panzers – available in limited numbers, and mostly scattered evenly amongst the invading armies – but to the Luftwaffe. Within a couple of days the Luftwaffe had destroyed the Polish Air Force, and proceeded to hamper mobilisation and movement of the Polish Army, leaving it unable to fight effectively.

During Operation Weserübung – the invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940 – the Luftwaffe again carried the day; moving forces, restricting the Royal Navy, and re-supplying ground units, and its “role as a close-support weapon assisting the army … seemed entirely vindicated” (Deighton, 1993, p. 365). OKW had mounted a successful joint forces operation, xii but it had cost the OKM a large part of the surface fleet, either damaged or sunk. xiii

The Luftwaffe’s success thus far was based on three factors – good planes, good pilots, and good tactics. Most of the frontline aircraft used were the equal or better of anything used by the other nations involved in the war, while the pilots had been well trained, with most of them having been on operations in Spain. In addition to the combat experience gained in Spain, the Luftwaffe also learnt much about handling formations in the air. Leaders like Adolf Galland and Werner Mölders cut their teeth during the Civil War, and took back to Germany many of the tactics and formations that remain in use today. xiv During the Battle of France in May and June, fighter squadrons were pushed forward to keep pace with the advances, leapfrogging the ground crews and equipment forward by air. xv In this way continuous support for the ground forces was achieved.

With France defeated, the OKW turned its eyes on its last remaining active opponent – Great Britain. Up until July 1940, the OKW had made no preparations at all for an invasion of England. Suddenly, with the fall of France and the refusal of Great Britain to come to terms with Germany, an invasion seemed to be the only way to bring Britain to heel before a scheduled invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941.xvi Due to the Kriegsmarine's failure to prepare for amphibious warfare and heavy losses in Norway, absolute control of the air over the English Channel was seen as a pre-requisite for a successful invasion, codenamed Operation Seelöwe. xvii

This campaign could have been the crowning glory for Göring, but when faced with a determined and capable enemy, the shortcomings of the Luftwaffe’s overall strategy became apparent. In France these had started to show, and the Luftwaffe was unable to gain air-superiority over Dunkirk. The shortcomings can be summed up as a lack of flexibility, a lack of first class fighters, and insufficient replacement capability.

During the Battle of Britain, while the RAF fighter squadrons were expertly controlled from the ground according to cues from the Chain-Home Radar line, the Luftwaffe pilots were forced to stick to rigid plans made before each raid.

The Bf-109E was the only fighter in the Luftwaffe inventory capable of competing with the RAFs Spitfire and Hurricane. This immediately reduced the number of fighters available for the forthcoming battle. Furthermore, the limited range of the Bf-109 meant that it was unable to escort the bombers very far over England, nor was it able to loiter or dogfight for long once there.

Losses for both sides during August and September 1940 were high, but Germany faced two particular handicaps. Firstly, she hadn’t mobilised fully for war and was less able to make good the airframe losses in this battle of attrition. xviii Indeed, by late August Britain was out-producing Germany to a marked degree. xix Incredibly, at the height of the battle, Hitler ordered a cut in aircraft production. xx Since the battle was fought mostly over England, any aircraft shot down inevitably meant the entire loss of the aircraft and its crew. By contrast, the RAF was able to recover many damaged planes, and either repair them or use the parts. RAF pilots who bailed out were often back flying with their squadrons within 24hours. xxi The Luftwaffe “…had not enough first-class fighters, not the technical equipment to use them to best advantage, nor the production to replace heavy losses.” (Wilmot, 1952, p. 55)

Unable to defeat the RAF, and with the weather in the English Channel worsening, Seelöwe was postponed then cancelled. xxii The Luftwaffe would go on to other successful and spectacular campaigns in the Balkans and especially Crete, and continue to provide some measure of close air support almost to the end of the war, but its failure to plan before the war to defeat Great Britain meant that the burden of winning the war would fall on the Heer.

Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)

As with the other services, OKH started rearming in secret before 1935, and accelerated their plans once Hitler came to power. Limited in total size by the Treaty, in the 1920s OKH explored how to make best use of their limited army. Out of this came the concept of motorised troops, and with Guderian’s input from 1922 this developed into a motorised all-arms team including engineers, artillery, and of course tanks. xxiii

While working on the development of these motorised formations, Guderian came to the conclusion that “… when tanks were incorporated in mechanised formations with infantry, artillery and engineers in correct proportion, when several of these formations were available, and when they were used together for concentrated blows, they might determine the course of campaigns” (Guderian, 1952, p. 24 cited by Harris in Guderian, 1937, p. 10). The significance of this insight was that relatively small forces could be used for decisive effect.

Indeed, combined with good leadership, equipment and training, this approach proved very successful in conquering Poland then France. Just how small these forces could be and still achieve a decisive effect can be seen by noting that in Poland there were only six Panzer divisions, xxiv while the force had grown only slightly to 10 for the invasion of France. xxv

Once it became clear that Britain would not be defeated quickly planning began for an invasion of Russia, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. xxvi The overall plan now was to defeat Russia, then reconfigure the armed forces to give more emphasis to the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, to provide the tools required to defeat Britain.

However, the strategic planning for Barbarossa was hobbled by a serious lack of intelligence on the Soviet army, and a certain amount of hubris on the part of OKH. In the months before the invasion there were a series of studies, war games, and plans prepared and discussed. Out of it came two broad approaches; OKW, supported by Hitler, favoured strong attacks along the Baltic coast and into the Ukraine, while Halder, Chief of Staff at OKH, favoured a strong central thrust aimed directly at Moscow. OKW recognised the value of gaining access to Ukrainian resources, and the advantage of securing a link with Finland. Halder’s plan sought to destroy the Soviet Army, and wasn’t overly concerned with the economic reasons for the invasion. The most surprising aspect of this round of planning is how late it started – Hitler had made it clear well before the outbreak of war that eventually Nazi Germany would eventually attack to the east, yet serious planning only began in mid-1940. Worse, Hitler failed to impose his will upon OKH, so the eventual plan used for Operation Barbarossa was a compromise, and the overall strategy wasn't clear or consistent among the senior commanders. xxvii

Part of the preparation for the invasion of Russia involved doubling the number of panzer divisions to 20. These divisions, along with the motorised infantry divisions, were formed into four Panzer Groups; one in the south aimed at the Ukraine, two in the centre aimed for Moscow via Smolensk, and the fourth in the north aimed at Leningrad.

These four panzer groups, and the walking infantry following along behind them, achieved some stunning victories in the summer and autumn of 1941, just as they had in Poland, Scandinavia, France and the Balkans. This time, however, there was a difference; the Soviet Union didn’t collapse, instead withdrawing and mobilising. And as the advance continued, the panzers out-stripped the slower infantry formations. Most of the great encirclements were less successful than they appeared because the unsupported panzers were unable to properly close them. This allowed significant Soviet forces to filter out before the German infantry caught up to reduce the pockets. xxviii Also, valuable time was lost subduing the pockets when they wouldn’t surrender quickly.

By November the Germans had advanced 1000km, and stood at the gates of Moscow. But, with their supply lines over-extended, and what men and equipment remained exhausted from the six months continuous campaigning, they were unable to make a successful final push to take Moscow. And when this final effort failed, the Russians were able to open their first great counter attack, pushing back the German armies and relieving the pressure on Moscow. With this counter offensive the German army had lost the strategic initiative and would never regain it.

In 1942 the Germans mounted another great summer offensive, though this time it was operational rather than strategic. Once more, they were able to take large tracts of land and repeatedly beat the Soviet Army in the field. This offensive, known as Fall Blau, finished along the banks of the Volga River and in the Caucasus mountains. It was followed by another Russian winter offensive, and the stunning defeat of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At the end of this offensive von Manstein, Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Don, was able to turn the tables through the use of superior mobility, economy of effort, and leadership, halting the Russians along the River Donetz and inflicting heavy losses. xxix Nothing could hide the fact that the USSR now had the strategic initiative, and Manstein’s achievement was merely a tactical victory that would not change the course of the war.

From this point on the Germans were essentially fighting a defensive battle. The failure of the OKH strategy in Russia, following the failure of OKL and OKM, meant that Germany would never be in a position to win the war. Germany fought hard, and it was to take another two and a half years before it's ultimate defeat. In the meantime it continued to display tactical excellence at such places as Gazala in North Africa, Monte Cassino in Italy, Arnhem in Western Europe, and Hube’s Pocket on the Eastern Front. Right up until the last months of the war the German army was able to inflict reverses on the Allied armies, for example in the Harz Mountains the advance of 1st US Army was halted for 10 days just a few weeks before the end of the war. xxx


After a string of impressive victories, using threatened or actual force, Hitler found himself in the same position as Napoleon 130 years earlier; waging a costly and failing invasion of Russia while facing a belligerent Britain possessed of naval superiority and active on a secondary front. Like Napoleon, the strategic failure of Germany to defeat the UK and the USSR, despite repeated tactical victories over them both would ultimately lead to defeat.

The tactical doctrine used by the Wehrmacht, and in particular the Heer, was well ahead of anyone else when in debuted in 1939 - 1940. xxxi When combined with the leadership and training possessed by the Wehrmacht it made for an unbeatable combination during the first years of the war, and a formidable opponent for the rest of it. Despite their generally superior tactics the Wehrmacht ultimately lost World War II due to flawed strategies for dealing with Britain and the Soviet Union. Truly it can be said that in World War II the Wehrmacht excelled at tactics but failed at strategy.


* Lit. “living room”, or territory required for the nation to grow.



Figure 1: The German Supreme Command, Summer 1940



Figure 2: Non-Violent German Expansion, 1936 - 1939



Figure 3: Greatest Extent of Third Reich, October 1942


Notes and References

Maps and Drawings:

Map showing non-violent German expansion from website of United States Military Academy, West Point, Department of History. http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/dhistorymaps/MapsHome.htm

Map showing maximum size of Third Reich from website of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/


ii Thompson is here specifically referring to the Soviet Staff planning to fight NATO, but the duty of all General Staffs in peace is to plan to fight and win forthcoming conflicts against likely enemies.

iii Countries successfully invaded: 1939: Poland. 1940: Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, France. 1941: Yugoslavia, Greece. Several other countries joined Germany by choice (Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Finland), basically joining what appeared to be the winning team while the going was good. Italy also allied with Germany in 1940, but remained independent.

iv In the event none of the “Plan Z” surface units were completed. Some of the new classes were laid down, but after Poland was invaded no further work was done.

v Hitler’s speech was presented in evidence at the Nuremburg Trial (Document L70)

vi On 3rd September 1939 the Kriegsmarine consisted of the following warships: 2 Battleships (Scharnhorst Class); 3 Armoured Cruisers (Deutschland + 2 Admiral Scheer Class); 2 Heavy Cruisers (Admiral Hipper Class); 6 Light Cruisers; 22 Destroyers; 20 Torpedo Boats/Light destroyers; 59 U-boats   

Grand Admiral Raeder noted in his dairy on that day "Today the war against France and England broke out, the war which, according to the Führer's previous assertions, we had no need to expect before 1944. As far as the Navy is concerned, obviously it is in no way very adequately equipped for the great struggle with Britain...even at full strength, they can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly..."

vii Wilmot, C. (1952) The struggle for Europe. (1954). London: Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd. p. 25

viii This section draws extensively from material found at http://uboat.net/, uboat.net – The U-boat War 1939-45, private website

ix A very coarse comparison was carried out by the author of the costs of building the seven largest warships (Bismark, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee) with that of building the U-boat fleet.

The results indicate that at the start of the war Germany could have had 230-240 more U-boats if the resources used for the major surface units had instead been used exclusively on U-boats. Had this been the case, Germany would have started the war with 2 Heavy Cruisers; 6 Light Cruisers; 22 Destroyers; 20 Torpedo Boats/Light destroyers; and 300 U-boats. This would have been enough to successfully mount Operation Weserübung, and would have given Dönitz the fleet of U-boats he estimated was required to strangle England economically. More over, this U-boat fleet would have been hitting Britain hard in 1941 when she was extremely stretched fighting the Battles of Norway / France / Britain, and these losses would have come at a time when the US was less able or inclined to help.

The following table shows the results of the cost comparison.

U-boatTons of merchant shipping sunk / ton of U-boat built15.15U-boatTons sunk / U-boat crew member289.98U-boatReich Marks spent / ton of merchant shipping sunk350.75SurfaceTons of merchant shipping sunk / ton surface units built1.14SurfaceTons sunk / surface unit crew23.60SurfaceReich Marks spent / ton of merchant shipping sunk3,553.02Number of extra U-boats that could have been built with same resources249Number of extra U-boats that could have been manned with surface crews230Tonnage sunk with this many extra U-boats3,310,954EXTRA tonnage sunk with this many extra U-boats (instead of surface units) 3,052,301% increase in tonnage sunk21.13extra cost of building subs instead surface( Reich Marks)242,000,000% increase in cost4.78The extra tonnage sunk represents approximately 300 merchant ships. Overall, U-boats were roughly an order of magnitude more efficient at sinking merchant shipping than major surface units.

Information used for the above calculations was mainly from the material gathered at the following websites:

http://www.kriegsmarine.net/, The Kriegsmarine, private website.

http://www.german-navy.de/marine.htm, German Naval History, private website.

http://uboat.net/, uboat.net – The U-boat War 1939-45, private website

Of course, a lot of this analysis is being ‘wise after the event.’ However, a similar situation had occurred 25 years earlier when Germany had tried to starve Britain during World War One, so the lessons were available.

x Deighton, L. (1993). Blood, tears and folly. (1995). London: Random House. p. 336-347, discusses the effect of the Luftwaffe involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and the demise of the ‘Urals Bomber’ project.

xi ibid. p. 346

xii Hooker, R.D., & Coglianese, C. (1993). Operation Weserübung and the origins of joint warfare. Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 1993 for a potted history of this operation from a manoeuvrist perspective.

xiii By the end of Operation Weserübung OKM had just three cruisers and four destroyers fit for sea duty. These warship losses, and the lack of any amphibious capability, were to have a marked impact on the later planning for the Operation Seelöwe, the invasion of England.

xiv Deighton p. 333-334

xv ibid. p. 367

xvi Wilmot p. 26

xvii Deighton p. 370; Wilmot p. 30-33

xviii Wilmot p. 56 shows declining serviceability of Luftwaffe fighter strength between August and October 1940.

xix Deighton p. 371, 380, 384, 411; Wilmot p. 56. Note that Wilmot’s figures for 1940 are much lower than Deighton gives, but still show Britain significantly out-producing Germany.

xx Deighton p. 384

xxi Deighton p. 368 relates the story of Sub-Lt Hogg shot down on 27th May 1940 and travelling back to base by train.

xxii Wilmot p. 54

xxiii Guderian, H. (1937). Achtung – panzer! (1999). London: Cassell & Co. Ltd. p. 9, editor’s introduction.

xxiv Von Mellenthin, E.W. (1955). Panzer battles. (1977) London: Futura Publications Ltd. p.4 - 5 states that the German forces which invaded Poland consisted of 44 divisions, of which six were panzer (4 battalions of tanks) and four light (one battalion of tanks). The establishment of the light divisions proved unsatisfactory, and before the invasion of France they were converted to full panzer divisions.

xxv Von Mellenthin p. 14 – 15 gives details of the invasion plan, and the numbers of divisions. The increase came from the reorganisation of the light divisions following the Polish campaign.

xxvi Fugate, B.I. (1984). Operation barbarossa. Novato, CA: Presidio Press. p. 61 “ … By July 21, 1940, the German army was committed to finding a military solution for the growing series of problems posed by the Soviet Union.”

xxvii Fugate. p. 90 - 93 talks of "a gulf of understanding" between OKW - including Hitler - and OKH.

xxviii Fugate p. 163 – 182 discusses the difficulties Army Group Centre experienced maintaining the Yelnia salient from late July until early September 1941.

xxix British Army Field Manual. (1996). Volume 1, the fundamentals. Economy of effort. pp. 286 – 300.

xxx Keegan. p. 323

xxxi Keegan. p. 329 – 330.The doctrine used has gone on to be the basis of many Western armies current doctrines.



Bellamy, C. (1990). The evolution of modern land warfare. London: Routledge.

Bolger B.P. (1993). Maneuver Warfare Reconsidered. In R.D. Hooker (ed.), Maneuver warfare: an anthology. (pp. 19 – 41) Novato, CA: Presidio Press

British Army Field Manual. (1996). Volume 1, the fundamentals. Offensive action. (pp. 188 – 196). Co-operation. (pp. 224 – 241). Economy of effort. (pp. 286 – 300). Flexibility. (pp. 329 – 339). Administration. (pp. 359 – 366).

Deighton, L. (1993). Blood, tears and folly. (1995). London: Random House.

Fugate, B.I. (1984). Operation barbarossa. Novato, CA: Presidio Press.

Guderian, H. (1937). Achtung – panzer! (1999). London: Cassell & Co. Ltd. Edited by P. Harris.

Guderian, H. (1952). Panzer leader. (1990). London: Arrow.

Hastings, M. (1984). Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy, 1944. (1985). London: Pan Books Ltd.

Hooker, R.D., & Coglianese, C. (1993). Operation Weserübung and the origins of joint warfare. Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 1993, 100 – 111.

Keegan, J. (1982). Six armies in Normandy. (1994). London: Penguin Books.

Thompson, J. (1991). Lifeblood of war, logistics in armed conflict. London: Brassey’s.

Tsouras, G. (Ed.). (1995) Fighting in hell. London: Greenhill Books

Von Mellenthin, E.W. (1955). Panzer battles. (1977) London: Futura Publications Ltd.

Wilmot, C. (1952) The struggle for Europe. (1954). London: Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd.



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Sinning Private Ryan


Saving Private Ryan, from 1998, is a well received and well regarded war movie depicting the events on Omaha Beach on D-Day, and subsequently following the actions of a group of rangers a they strive to rescue Mrs Ryan's sole surviving son.1 Although a fictional story, Spielberg has described Saving Private Ryan as a 'memorial' to the men who fought in Normandy.2 One way of analysing this film as an historical work is to critically assess it against shortcomings in the way historical events are generally depicted on the big screen, the so called six filmic sins. These six sins have been summarised by Hughes-Warrington thusly;

1) their routine packaging of history as upbeat comedy or romance; 2) their focus on the actions of individuals to the exclusion of wider contexts; 3) their focus on emotional dimensions of phenomena at the expense of their intellectual dimensions; 4) their conflation of historical meaning with property ('props'); 5) their avoidance of multiple points of view and inconclusive or contradictory explanations of phenomena; and 6) their purportedly poor information load.3

These sins provide a framework that will be used to unpack and assess Saving Private Ryan as an historical work.

The first sin is the packaging of history as romance or comedy, of which Ryan is definitely guilty. Indeed Hughes Warrington specifically calls out the film as an example of this kind of packaging.4 The romance here is the way in which Captain Miller diligently and courageously carries out his assigned mission, despite his doubts, and of course Miller ultimately dies bravely to save Ryan, and complete his mission, and defeat the Germans. Ironically Miller's self-sacrifice is shown to be pointless, with the cavalry - represented by an aptly named Mustang aircraft – riding to the rescue just in the nick of time.5

Ryan does package history as the story of individuals, largely because it is the a story of two individuals, Miller and Ryan, and how their lives affected each other. During the much lauded first half-hour sequence on Omaha beach Miller's excellence as a combat leader is affirmed against the backdrop of the landings at Omaha, in an mini-narrative arc which closely matches the actual course of events on that beach on D-Day. Initially – in the landing craft and before the bullets start flying - Miller appears calm despite the mental anguish signified through the shaking hand motif. He has a plan, and reassures his men by reminding them of what they have to do once the craft lands. But when the ramp falls and he is suddenly presented with shocking violence and senseless death Miller is literally struck deaf and dumb.6 Gradually he regains his bearings, but most of his efforts are initially fruitless. He tries to save a man by dragging him into cover only to find it is a legless corpse. Miller orders the men to continue moving across the beach, knowing that to move is to invite death. He argues futilely with an engineer about the destruction of the obstacles. He attempts to communicate with the ships offshore until the radioman is killed and the radio destroyed. Then, after 15 minutes of unmitigated failure and bloodshed, Miller regains his composure and control of the situation, and develops a plan that ultimately leads the US forces to success. It is significant that after Miller orders his men to “get in this war” no more US soldiers die on Spielberg's Omaha, a narrative element that is surely no coincidence. Miller is back in charge, he is creative and innovative and on top of the situation. This narrative arc with its narrow focus on Miller closely mirrors the actual course of events on D-Day - initial confidence, followed by mass casualties and apparent failure, some suggestion that the landings at Omaha had failed and should be abandoned, then the development of new plans by the men on the spot leading to eventual – though far from bloodless – success.7

After the beach landings Saving Private Ryan shifts gears and focuses on the fictional, and in many respects implausible, story of Miller's squad and the mission to save Ryan. At this point Spielberg sacrifices the history of the campaign in the service of the story he wants to tell. The film is set against the backdrop of the early stages of the Normandy campaign, but the film narrative really has nothing to say about the campaign. The only time the wider course of events comes up - Miller's conversation with Ted Danson's character Captain Hamill - the result is a jarring and gratuitous dose of unrealistic historical analysis by two men who would have no idea of what was going on beyond what they could see with their own eyes, and at a time when the controversies about whether Montgomery was 'overrated' hadn't yet surfaced.

Saving Private Ryan certainly does highlights emotional dimensions of phenomena at the expense of their intellectual dimensions: definitely. The landing scene is awash with emotional manipulation, from the fear and vomiting of the men on the landing craft as it approaches the shore, until finally the camera lingers over the body of S Ryan at the water's edge, surrounded by dead fish.8 In between we are fed a steady stream of senseless violent deaths, artfully used to convey the utter fear and confusion experienced by the men who came ashore that men. The viewer is made to feel part of that miserable, random experience through the artful use of shaky handheld cameras positioned low to the ground, and splatters of water and blood allowed to linger on the camera lens.9 The mounting confusion as plans fail, and men die painful deaths, or move in slow motion due to their waterlogged uniforms is presented very much as 'you are there', and the emotions the viewer experiences seem like the same ones the men on Omaha would have experienced also. This feeling of sharing the experience is validated by the reports of combat veterans being overwhelmed by the visual onslaught.10 It is the extreme emotional response that these first 25 minutes of the film invokes that most viewers remember long after the film is over, and which resonated so strongly with combat veterans.11

Later in the film we are treated to the manipulation of our emotions towards the Miller, the translator-typist, and the only German we really get to know - 'Steamboat Willie'. After his bravura performance on the beach, Miller's character develops into an almost perfect warrior-monk, at ease with his men and their banter, but not partaking in it, revealing details about himself only at a critical moment to reinforce his authority, and always acting as the consummate military professional.12 Here is a man we like, and want to be like, or at least the kind of man we'd want to lead us in battle. His death at the end of the film is therefore all the more poignant, even as it provides the setting of Miller's appeal for Ryan – and by extension the audience – to “earn this” sacrifice.13

Upham, the typist-translator on the other hand, is a man we don't like, even if we understand him. He seems too cerebral to be a soldier, and has difficulty fitting in with Miller's combat hardened troops. Reservations about are confirmed when he proves unable to save the Mellish due to his own fears, then feebly attempts to redeem himself by shooting an unarmed prisoner.14

The only German character we get to know, 'Steamboat Willie' is initially a figure of pity as he begs for his life after the battle at the radar station. Towards the end of the film he is transformed into a figure of loathing when he cold-bloodedly stabs Mellish, the Jewish character Upham failed to save, to death in an extended scene which is almost sexual.15 These three characters are develop in ways which generate quite different emotional responses from the audience.

To a degree Spielberg is guilty of 'false historicity', of elevating the look of Normandy in 1944 over the importance of the ideas, beliefs and actions of American soldiers. It is clear that a lot of time and effort was spent on the 'look' of Saving Private Ryan, but whether that was at the expense of the ideas, beliefs, and actions of historical agents is open to debate. Certainly the 'look' of the mission to save Ryan that Miller and his men undertake is accurate in it's details – the bombed radar station, the armoured glider that ironically crashed and killed all the occupants because of the armour, the flooded fields, and so on. All those things are real and occurred. The uniforms too are correct, right down to the insignia and the mixing up of units in the aftermath of the confusion on Omaha Beach and the landings of the airborne units of which Ryan was a member. However, it strains credulity that anyone who landed at Omaha would make their way west and north through 40 or 50 kilometres of enemy territory, particularly since there was already a surfeit of American troops in the area from the much closer landings at Utah Beach. Furthermore Owen has convincingly argued that the appeal of Captain Miller is in large part because he echoes the gender and racial attitudes from our own time more than he does that of a white male from the 1940s, and thus acts to defuse critiques of the past of which he is nominally a part.16

Spielberg also avoids presenting multiple points of view, and omits inconclusive or contradictory phenomena. There is no German view, no female view, no civilian view, and no British or Canadian view. There is also, paradoxically, a rather narrow American view.

The only forces depicted in any detail are elite forces – Miller's Rangers and Ryan's paratroopers. These units made up but a small fraction of the American army in Normandy. The two major battles are either desperate and bloody – Omaha - or heavily outnumbered – Ramelle. While these two action sequences which bookend the film are imbued with a high degree of truthiness, in that no one can plausibly say that actions of that nature did not occur, they are certainly not representative of the typical actions in the first days of the Normandy Campaign. The opening scenes on Omaha isn't even representative of D-Day. Certainly there were heavy casualties and mass confusion on Omaha, but only for two to three hours in the early morning. US forces cracked the German defences there by mid-morning, and the afternoon was mostly spent consolidating the beachhead. On the the other four landing beaches the fighting was over quicker, with Utah beach - the American beach closest to where Ryan would have landed, and therefore the most likely source of any rescue mission - suffering the fewest casualties and encountering the least resistance of any on D-Day. None of the Allied soldiers landing on 6th June had an objectively easy day, but the horror experienced by Miller and his men was an extreme experienced by only a very few, and only for a short period.

Saving Private Ryan does have a poor factual or academic information load. The causes and courses of D-Day, and the early parts of the Normandy campaign, are simply not explored. Instead the viewer is dumped directly into the maelstrom of Omaha, and the story evolves from there. But Saving Private Ryan does have a high emotional information load. The experience of 'being there' on Omaha, along with the fear and adrenaline of being in combat generally, is bought to the viewer in a visceral, effective, and extremely memorable way. Well regarded books on Normandy, such as those by Beevor, Hastings, Ryan, or D'Este will tell you more about why the battle was fought, how it was organised, or who the principal actors were.17 But none of those authors can convey in detail how the battle was conducted at the lowest levels, or what it was like to be a participant, with the immediacy and impact that Spielberg has achieved.

So overall Saving Private Ryan is guilty, to a greater or lesser degree, of committing sins in all six categories. By analysing the film in this way we can see the ways in which Spielberg has bent history in the service of his story and in order to manipulate our emotions through the power of his story telling. However, we can now also see the particular value that well executed examples of this form have over more traditional forms of history; the factual information load might be low, but the emotional information load can be tremendously high.



Balkoski, Jospeh, Omaha Beach, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, 2004

Basinger, Jeanine, The World War II combat film: anatomy of a genre, Wesleyan University Press, 2003

Binns, Daniel and Ryder, Paul, Re-viewing D-Day: the cinematography of the Normandy landings from the Signal Corps to Saving Private Ryan, Media, War & Conflict, vol.8, no.1, 2015, p.86-99

Crampton, Andrew and Power, Marcus, Frames of reference on the geopolitical stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War intertext, Geopolitics, vol.10 2005, p.244-265

Ehrenhaus, Peter, Why we fought: Holocaust memory in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol.18, no.3, September 2001, p.321-337

Hennig, Carsten, 'D-Day in Hollywood motion pictures; a brief history of changing perceptions of war' in Buckley, John (ed.) The Normandy campaign, sixty years on, Routledge, London, 2006, p.213-223

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, History goes to the movies, studying history on film, Routledge, London, 2007

Paris, Michael, 'Reconstructing D-Day, 6 June 1944 and British documentary films' in Buckley, John (ed.) The Normandy campaign, sixty years on, Routledge, London, 2006, p.201-212

Owen, A. Susan, Memory, war, and American identity: Saving Private Ryan as Cinematic Jeremiad, Critical Studies in Media Communications, Vol.19, No.3, September 2002, p.249-282

Savoie, John, Sniping, psalming, saving: American soldier, biblical warrior, and the mysteries of salvation in Saving Private Ryan, War, Literature & the Arts, vol.26 2014, p.1-10

Spielberg, Steven (director), Saving Private Ryan, Paramont Pictures, 1998.

"Saving Private Ryan." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

"Saving Private Ryan (1998)." Rotten Tomatoes. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.

"Saving Private Ryan (1998)." Metacritic. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.



1 For example, Saving Private Ryan is currently (Feb 2016) rated as 89% across 38 'top critics' at rottentomatoes.com, and 90% across 34 critics at metacritic.com. Spielberg's film also won five Academy Awards in 1999, along with numerous other awards around the world, and was the highest grossing US domestic film in 1998, "Saving Private Ryan." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2016.

2 Steven Spielberg, ‘Interview: Saving Private Ryan’, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 24 July 1998. Quoted in Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, History goes to the movies, studying history on film, Routledge, London, 2007, p.80

3 Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, History goes to the movies, studying history on film, Routledge, London, 2007, p.9

4 Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, History goes to the movies, studying history on film, Routledge, London, 2007, p.18

5 Savoie, John, Sniping, psalming, saving: American soldier, biblical warrior, and the mysteries of salvation in Saving Private Ryan, War, Literature & the Arts, vol.26 2014, p.6

6 Basinger, Jeanine, The World War II combat film: anatomy of a genre, Wesleyan University Press, 2003, p.254

7 Balkoski, Jospeh, Omaha Beach, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, 2004, p.190

8 Crampton, Andrew and Power, Marcus, Frames of reference on the geopolitical stage: Saving Private Ryan and the Second World War/Second Gulf War intertext, Geopolitics, vol.10 2005, p.249-251

9 Binns, Daniel and Ryder, Paul, Re-viewing D-Day: the cinematography of the Normandy landings from the Signal Corps to Saving Private Ryan, Media, War & Conflict, vol.8, no.1, 2015, p.95-96

10 Paris, Michael, 'Reconstructing D-Day, 6 June 1944 and British documentary films' in Buckley, John (ed.) The Normandy campaign, sixty years on, Routledge, London, 2006, p.201

11 Binns, Daniel and Ryder, Paul, Re-viewing D-Day: the cinematography of the Normandy landings from the Signal Corps to Saving Private Ryan, Media, War & Conflict, vol.8, no.1, 2015, p.94

12 Owen, A. Susan, Memory, war, and American identity: Saving Private Ryan as Cinematic Jeremiad, Critical Studies in Media Communications, Vol.19, No.3, September 2002, p.266

13 Hennig, Carsten, 'D-Day in Hollywood motion pictures; a brief history of changing perceptions of war' in Buckley, John (ed.) The Normandy campaign, sixty years on, Routledge, London, 2006, p.219

14 Ehrenhaus, Peter, Why we fought: Holocaust memory in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol.18, no.3, September 2001, p.328

15 Owen, A. Susan, Memory, war, and American identity: Saving Private Ryan as Cinematic Jeremiad, Critical Studies in Media Communications, Vol.19, No.3, September 2002, p.271. Ehrenhaus, Peter, Why we fought: Holocaust memory in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol.18, no.3, September 2001, p.326-328

16 Owen, A. Susan, Memory, war, and American identity: Saving Private Ryan as Cinematic Jeremiad, Critical Studies in Media Communications, Vol.19, No.3, September 2002, p.272

17 Beevor, Anthony, D-Day: the battle for Normandy, Penguin, London, 2010. Hastings, Max, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, Vintage, London, 2006. Ryan, Cornelius, The longest day, Simon and Schuster, 1994. D'Este, Carlo, Decision in Normandy, Konecky & Konecky, 2000.

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9 hours ago, JonS said:

Towards the end of the film he is transformed into a figure of loathing when he cold-bloodedly stabs Mellish, the Jewish character Upham failed to save, to death in an extended scene which is almost sexual.15

Just wanted to point out that Willie isn't the one who kills Mellish. See here: http://www.sproe.com/s/steamboat-comparison.html

As a former PhD candidate in the Humanities, I'm not surprised by scholars not only misreading the text, but consciously ignoring it to push their arguments. I once told a prof after a presentation her premise that a fictional 19th century Russian character being a hussar meant he was serving in the Guards was factually incorrect. She thanked me, and went on to present the exact same paper at an international conference. I bet she's already published a whole book out of it.

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Heh. I did wonder if that would be the first article to prompt a response.

Thanks for the info. Of course, it doesn't change anything. Whether Steamboat Willie and Stabby McKniferson are the same or different characters is very tangential to the point regarding the German character(s) being only superficially and emotively fleshed out. I suspect the Hussars/Guards link is similarly tangential.

But, you know: you do you ;)

Thanks again the info :)

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Tannenberg is a fascinating battle, featuring rampant incompetence on all sides - at least initially. It has everything from occupation to liberation to SIGINT to encirclement to aerial recon. Rapid movement and counter movement, super dense fog of war, and a bold leap in the dark ultimately deciding the final outcome. In a number of ways it marked the cusp between the old and the new in warfare.

And yes; everything is connected. Although we naturally compartment the Eastern Front from the Western Front from the Italian Front from Gallipoli from Sinai from Mesopotamia from Bulgaria - they were all connected. Another example is the Somme, in 1916, which was deliberately timed to coincide with an attack by the Italians and another by the Russians. The idea was to stretch the Central Powers so far they broke somewhere. A good plan, but because they depended on each other it really handicapped Haig's freedom of maneuver.

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5 hours ago, JonS said:

Tannenberg is a fascinating battle...

It is. S&T published a subscription game on it in early 1978 that I found a delight to play. It is of only moderate complexity, meaning that it omits a host of the factors you mention, but it does give a good sense of the larger strategic/operational movements involved.


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I fear you may have thought I was taking a jab at you; the jab was at the authors of the articles you cited in your footnote. The factual mistake may not affect your argument, but is that true for their arguments as well? Moreover, anyone who hasn't watched the film closely may well come to believe their false version, given the authority of academic publication.

On 06/09/2017 at 7:38 PM, JonS said:

I suspect the Hussars/Guards link is similarly tangential.

Actually, it formed the very basis of the prof's new reading of a certain literary text. Her unfounded assumption that one character was serving in the Guards allowed her to claim that another character related to him represented the Russian Crown. Without the hussar=Guards equation, her reading simply falls apart.

And yes, I have checked her publications and she has since published the paper in a book by a most prestigious academic publisher. Which means that not only did she, a world-class academic, knowingly publish false information, but also that the peer-review process and her editor in the very least never questioned her hussar=Guards equation. It also means that there is now this authoritative false knowledge out there which will be cited by others and grow into more false knowledge.

Sorry to take your thread OT - I feel strongly about this since I believe contemporary fake news/alternate facts/relative truths have their origin in Deconstruction, and how many humanities scholars took advantage of it to slither into positions with $$$$$$ salaries.

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In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue

Motivations for European exploration of the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th Century

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
He used the stars to find his way.

A compass also helped him know
How to find the way to go.

Ninety sailors were on board;
Some men worked while others snored.

Then the workers went to sleep;
And others watched the ocean deep.

Day after day they looked for land;
They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.

October 12 their dream came true,
You never saw a happier crew!

“Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried;
His heart was filled with joyful pride.

But “India” the land was not;
It was the Bahamas, and it was hot.

The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

This simple piece of doggerel of unknown provenance which used to aide children’s memory tells the story of Christopher Columbus' historic first voyage in outline. It also enumerates the major technologies used by Columbus, as well as his major motivations. These motivations were shared in whole or in part by all the European explorers who sailed out into the Atlantic during the course of the 15th Century. The surge of exploration in that century, of which Columbus remains the best known exponent, started with short voyages that traveled barely out of sight, and culminated in the discovery of the Americas by Columbus and a direct sea route to India by Vasco da Gama. These discoveries would in turn result in European domination of the globe during the following centuries.  This essay will examine the range of motivations which drove this exploration, and assess the place of economics within that range.

Oceanic exploration of the Atlantic in the 15th Century occurred in five broad, overlapping phases, centred on different locations and at different times. First came the primarily Portuguese discovery and rediscovery of the island groups of Cape Verde, the Maderias, and the Azores during the early 1400s.  Beginning at roughly the same time was the gradual exploration down the west coast of Africa, again sponsored mainly by the Portuguese. These efforts took most of the century, extending slightly beyond the equator by the end of the 1470s. Next were some tentative voyages across the North Atlantic searching for the mythical island of Brasil, and ultimately discovering North America in the 1460s, carried out mainly by English explorers. Ultimately North America would become a great prize, but in the fifteenth century it was a disappointment. The fourth phase consisted of Columbus’ voyages at the behest of the Spanish King across the central Atlantic in the 1490s searching for a direct route to China but instead finding the Bahamas and Caribbean. Finally in the late 1490s came more Portuguese voyages, this time deep into the South Atlantic to leapfrog past the coastal exploration, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1496 and then da Gama’s voyage to Calicut in 1498.

The reasons for the early voyages down the West African coast were articulated by Prince Henry of Portugal as he first sent ships and men forth on these explorations in 1434.  Gomes Eannes de Azurara, Henry’s chronicler, recorded them thus:

“... a wish to know the land that lay beyond the isles of Canary and that Cape called Bojador … was the first reason. …

The second reason was that ... many kinds of merchandise might be brought to this realm, … and also the products of this realm might be taken there, which traffic would bring great profit …

The third reason was that, … the power of the Moors in that land of Africa was very much greater … every wise man is obliged by natural prudence to wish for a knowledge of the power of his enemy …

The fourth reason was because ... he sought to know if there were in those parts any Christian princes, ... that they would aid him against those enemies of the faith.

The fifth reason was his great desire to make increase in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and to bring to him all the souls that should be saved ...”

Henry's first and second reasons were primarily commercial – finding new lands filled with new resources and markets for Portuguese exports. The third and fourth reasons were of a crusading nature. The Reconquista was still under way, and the Moors remained a perpetual threat to Portugal and Aragon-Castile. Discovering the extent of Moorish power in Africa and finding potential allies made sense. The fifth reason was primarily religious, albeit tied up with the Crusading worldview and the chivalric task of spreading Christianity.

A sixth reason, which neither Henry nor Azurara directly refer to, was the quest for renown. Although renown was bound up in the way of life of knights, nobles and the Crusades, the search for fame in the Atlantic would draw many explorers who were neither knights nor nobles.

The two crusading motives that Henry gives – establishing the extent of Moorish power and seeking allies - are most clearly seen in the exploration and colonisation of the Eastern Atlantic island grounds and especially in the exploration of the West African coast. It was here that Islamic rulers would be found, and here that they could potentially be fought and defeated, as long as allies could be found. Diogo Gomes, a Portuguese explorer active in the middle of the century, was able to form at least one alliance in the predominantly Muslim bulge of Africa, as well as return with information about the interior. However, generally the search for Christian kingdoms – and especially the fabled kingdom of Prestor John – was a futile effort.

For the other phases of Atlantic exploration – across the north, centre, and deep in the south – these Crusading motivations were irrelevant. These voyages set out seeking Asia and therefore expected to bypass the Muslim lands completely, and it was already known from the reports of overland explorers and traders that China was not a Christian land.

Gomes was also successful in meeting the religious objective of converting at least some of the peoples of Africa to Christianity. This was convenient for both him and Portugal, since the people he converted were the same ones he formed an alliance with, an alliance which would have been theologically awkward without that conversion. Otherwise, however, the spread of Christianity into Africa would have to wait for later centuries and the explosion of missionaries seeking to spread the good word into the dark continent. The voyages across the northern Atlantic and into the deep south were similarly unproductive, religiously. However Columbus’ voyages to the Bahamas, and especially the men who followed him, were spectacularly successful at converting the natives of Central and South America, even if it were often at the tip of a sword.

Henry’s scientific and commercial reasons, coupled with the unstated search for fame and renown, seem to have been consistently popular motivations during all phases of Atlantic exploration. That was certainly amongst the reasons that Gadifer de La Salle left France for the Canaries in 1402. This knight of the French court had made a successful name and a lot of respect over many years, but had secured only modest wealth. At the start of the 15th Century he risked all that had in an attempt to leverage his skill at arms into his own estate in the islands. While dressed in the rhetoric of a crusading and missionary endeavour, there seems little doubt that it was ever intended as a financial undertaking. Amongst other evidence, Gadifer promptly abandoned his crusade and lost his missionary zeal as soon as it became clear that he had lost his entire financial stake in the expedition to a poorly chosen and thoroughly untrustworthy partner.

At the other end of the century Columbus gained a commission from the King of Spain to find land – ideally India – as well as gold and spices. It is clear from the terms of his commission that Columbus was looking for personal fame and fortune, although not necessarily in that order. Proving his theory about a western route to Asia was important as a means of establishing Columbus’ renown, but the central point of his theory was to establish a fast route to the riches of the East that negated the need for overland travel and wasn’t already controlled by the Portuguese. To ensure his lasting fame – and fortune – Columbus would be made Admiral and Governor of all islands that he found, thus elevating him out of the middle class into which he was born and into the nobility. Ironically it wasn’t the titles granted that had led to Columbus’ lasting fame, but rather the simple fact of being remembered as the first to discover the Americas, a testament to a certain talent for self-promotion.

While Columbus' 10-per-cent cut of profits doesn't at first sight appear great, it should be remembered that earlier expeditions from the African coast had returned with modest cargos and still achieved fantastic profits. Similarly, cargos from China and Asia – Columbus’ goal - were known to be highly valuable and profitable, even more so since overland trade had been cut off by the expansion of Muslim power. 10% of a very large number is still a large number.

These searches for fame and fortune which bookmarked either end of the century can be matched by similar behaviour in the middle of the 1400s, during the Portuguese voyages down the West African coast. Diogo Gomes was one of the men sent south, and made clear the financial imperative in his memoirs recorded by the German chronicler Martin Belhaim. Gomes related that Prince Henry wanted to find the source of African gold 'in order to trade with them and so maintain the gentlemen of his household.'

Throughout the 15th Century Atlantic voyages of exploration the one constant was the search for fame and and especially fortune. Other motivations – most commonly of a missionary or crusading flavour – were prominently announced and recorded for public consumption, and at various times and in various places held a greater of lesser importance, but economic motives were always to the fore although usually dressed in the rhetoric of crusading and spreading the word of god. Chivalry and the noble way of life  informed the narrative which the explorers and their sponsors told each other, but it did not provide the key motivation for leaving port. It is no coincidence that spice and gold are explicitly mentioned in the poem commemorating Columbus’ most famous voyage, while mention of Crusading, Muslims, or conversion of heathens to Christianity are all noticeably absent.



Briggs, Charles F., The Body Broken, Medieval Europe 1300-1520. Routledge, 2011

Parry, J.H., The Age of Reconnaissance, Mentor, 1963

Keen, M, ‘Gadifer de la Salle: A late medieval knight errant', in Harper-Bill, C., and Harvey, R. (eds.), The Ideals and Practice of Medieval Knighthood. Woodbridge, 1988

Phillips, J.R.S., The Medieval Expansion of Europe. Oxford, 1988

Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps. London, 1991

Kline, N., Maps of Medieval Thought. Woodbridge, 2001

Fernandez-Armesto, F., 'Exploration and Discovery', in Allmand, C. (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. VII, c.1415 - c.1500. Cambridge, 1998.

Columbus, C., Extracts from Journal, 1492. http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/columbus1.asp

de Gama, V., Round Africa to India, 1497-1498 CE http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1497degama.asp

de Azurara, Gomes Eannes, translated by Beazley, C.R., and Prestage, E., The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, Vol. I. Oxford, 1896 (downloaded from www.gutenberg.com on 07 May 2014)

Privileges and Prerogatives Granted by Their Catholic Majesties to Christopher Columbus, 1492 (accessed at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/15th_century/colum.asp on 11 May 2014)

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Edited by JonS
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Serious answer: Piri Reis drew his map 20 years after Columbus' voyage, and explicitly calls out Columbus as one of the sources.

Serious answer: I'm not interested in kettlerian alien space bat "theories" about history.

Edited by JonS
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Nor me, hence the format of my original question.  But do you think it is plausible that the various transatlantic ventures of the 15th Century were inspired by the rediscovery of older texts/maps/artefacts?  You refer to the legendary island of Brazil, could you expand more on that?  Whose legend was this, what was its probable source?

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Interesting and eclectic selection of topics @JonS


In a very specific sense my answer to @Sgt.Squarehead question is yes to "older texts". Columbus was a man of his times, the Renaissance, when the scientific and mathematical literature of the Greek and Roman tradition started to disseminate throughout Western Europe beyond the vaults of monastic orders, which very often in turn acquired formerly lost pieces by way of its curation through the ages by Muslim and Jewish scholars based on the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.

The Spanish entry for Christopher Columbus - https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cristóbal_Colón - has a very good discussion on this specific topic:





El proyecto

Mapa atribuido a Toscanelli.

Es difícil estimar en qué momento nació el proyecto de Cristóbal Colón de llegar a Cipango —el moderno Japón— y a las tierras del Gran Kan navegando hacia occidente, pero puede fecharse después de su matrimonio y antes de 1481.4190

Probablemente tuvo conocimientos de los informes del matemático y médico florentino Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli9192 sobre la posibilidad de llegar a las Indias por el oeste,93 redactados a instancias del rey Alfonso V de Portugal, interesado en el asunto.9495

Sea como fuere, Colón tuvo acceso a una carta de Toscanelli que iba acompañada de un mapa en que se trazaba el trayecto a seguir al oriente asiático, incluidas todas las islas que se suponían debían estar en el trayecto.96 Este mapa y las noticias de Toscanelli estaban basados principalmente en los viajes de Marco Polo. Señalaba este último que entre el extremo occidental de Europa y Asia la distancia no era excesiva, estimando en torno a 6500 leguas marinas el espacio entre Lisboa y Quinsay, y desde la legendaria Antillia al Cipango solo 2500 millas, lo que facilitaba la navegación.95 Se conocen dos cartas dirigidas por Toscanelli a Colón recogidas por el padre Bartolomé de las Casas en su Historia de las Indias,93 sin embargo también existe polémica sobre la autenticidad de las mismas.9798

Los libros que se conservan de la biblioteca de Colón aportan luz sobre lo que influyó en sus ideas, por su costumbre de subrayar los libros y se deduce que los más subrayados serían los más leídos. Entre los que tienen más anotaciones están el Tractatus de Imago Mundi de Pierre d'Ailly, la Historia Rerum ubique Gestarum de Eneas Silvio Piccolomini y especialmente Los viajes de Marco Polo, que le dieron la idea de cómo era el oriente que soñaba encontrar.

Colón se basaba en que la Tierra tenía una circunferencia de 29 000 km, según la «medición» de Posidonio y la medida del grado terrestre de Ailly, sin considerar que este hablaba de millas árabes y no italianas,7 que son más cortas,99 de modo que cifraba esa circunferencia en menos de las tres cuartas partes de la real, que por otro lado era la aceptada científicamente desde tiempos de Eratóstenes. Como resultado de lo anterior, según Colón, entre las Islas Canarias y Cipango debía haber unas 2400 millas náuticas,99 cuando, en realidad, hay 10 700.


which translated into English by yours truly reads:



The Project

It is hard to determine when Columbus' project to reach "Cipango" - or Japan in modern terms - and the lands of the Grand Khan started, but it can be bracketed between his marriage and before 1481.

Probably [Columbus] had knowledge of the reports of the Florentine mathematician and physician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli about the possibility or reaching the East Indies travelling towards the West, which were composed under the patronage of King Alfonso V of Portugal, who had an interest in the matter.

In any case, Columbus had access to a letter by Toscanelli which had a map enclosed tracing the route to follow to Eastern Asia, including all the islands which were supposedly on the way. This map, and Toscanelli's report were mainly based on the account of Marco Polo's travels. [This letter also contained] an estimate that the distance between Europe and Asia was not excessive, about 6,500 nautical leagues [Spanish nautical leagues were the equivalent of 3.18 contemporary Nm] and from the fabled Antillia to Cipango/Japan just 2,500. It is also known that Toscanelli wrote two letters to Columbus, as witnessed by Father Bartolomé de las Casas in his Historia de las Indias, but their authenticity is controversial.

The books conserved from Columbus personal library clarify what inspired his ideas, as he customarily underlined his books, and so it is deduced that those more heavily annotated were also those read with attention and several times. One of the most annotated pieces is the Tractatus Imago Mundi of  Pierre d'Ailly, Eneas Silvio Piccolomini 's Historia Rerum ubique Gestarum, and above every other book, Marco Polo's Travels, which is considered to have provided the main inspiration for [Columbus] endeavours.

Columbus based his planning in the supposition that Earth's circumference was about 29,000 kms, as measured by Posidonius and the measurements on degrees by Ailly. This calculation was based on the mis-interpretation of the term mile, as the texts referred to Arab[as probably converted from Roman miles by some Arab-speaking scholar sometime between the 10th and 15th century] and not Italian miles, which were shorter. In effect, Columbus estimate was short by a 75% of the actual figure, which was the one scientifically accepted in educated circles since the times of Erastothenes.  In effect, according to Columbus between the Canary Islands and Japan there should be a distance of about 2,400 Nm [note that what the text notes as Columbus' estimate is actually Toscanelli's], when the actual distance is 10,700 Nm.


So no mysterious hermetic or atlantean - as invented by Von Daniken 1970s acolytes, see We Are Not The First and other books of the same ilk  - knowledge preserved by warrior monks - but actually wishful thinking (Marco Polo's Travels) riding on the back of unsound mathematical calculations (those  of Posidonius) which had been preserved verbatim for over 1500 years, and dumb luck. See the path of the first of Columbus travels


Columbus pretty much sailed (left Palos in Huelva in 3 August 1492) on the wake of the easterlies that push the hurricanes along the Caribbean archipelagos island chains right into Florida... and came back on the westerlies.... following pretty much the same route that Spanish galleons hauling bullion out of Mexico and Peru followed for the next 250 years. Columbus wanted to set sail much earlier... probably finding himself right in the middle of hurricane season. He was actually lucky that the trading families his ships were confiscated from by order of the King and Queen of Spain, retaliated by blackballing him. That prevented Columbus from gathering supplies as quickly as he wanted. Also, the whole notion of the travel sounded crazy to most captains and sailors in the area, delaying the trip for two months as no sailors or senior experienced seamen were coming forward to man the ships...



Edited by BletchleyGeek
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