Category Archives: military

When Knights Avoided Battle

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle p. 60:

Siege and counter-siege, raid and counter-raid: such was the normal method of medieval warfare. Skilled commanders moved their troops like pieces on a chessboard, taking individual castles and knights as part of a developing strategy. Attrition and retaliation were the name of the game; direct confrontation was to be avoided at all costs. No matter how daring a general might be, he would almost never commit to battle because of the enormous risk involved. In the noise and confusion of a battle everything could be lost in a few short hours. As a consequence, they were rare events: in the spring of 1264, there had been no battle in England for almost half a century.

Montfort, a renowned warrior well into his mid-fifties, had never fought in one. And yet it was battle that Montfort now sought. In recent weeks his range of options had diminished rapidly. After his retreat to London they had never seemed so limited or so bleak. Dover Castle, his only other significant asset, was now threatened by the arrival in the south of the royal army; once it fell, Montfort would be trapped. In strategic terms it was almost checkmate, but the earl was not a man readily to concede defeat. On 6 May, like a cornered animal, he came out fighting, marching his forces out of London in search of his enemies.

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Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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African Warlord vs. Arab Slavers, 1871

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3170:

Mirambo was a handsome, powerful man who spoke in a quiet voice and was known for his generosity. He greeted visitors with a firm handshake and looked them directly in the eyes, inspiring confidence and a feeling of camaraderie. As a boy Mirambo had worked as a porter in the Arab caravans, and had adopted their manner of dress. The turban, cloth coat, and slippers he wore in his home gave him a cosmopolitan air.

The scimitar snug in the scabbard dangling from Mirambo’s waist was also Arab and hinted at the more ruthless side of the charismatic young leader’s personality. His date of birth was hard to pinpoint, but he was born the son of the Unyayembe region’s mightiest king, sometime in the days shortly after the Arabs opened the first Bagamoyo-to-Ujiji slave route in 1825. The Arabs had slowly stripped power from his father, stealing his lands and cutting him off from the ivory trade that ensured his wealth and kingdom. When his father passed on and Mirambo assumed the throne, the Arabs refused to recognize him as the premier African ruler of the region. Instead, they backed a puppet of their choosing named Mkasiwa.

To make matters worse, Mkasiwa was so emboldened by the recognition that he considered Mirambo to be a far-flung vassal. This made Mirambo furious. He didn’t immediately wage war on the Arabs, but expanded his kingdom among his own people, capturing village after village. He was a military genius and warred incessantly, excelling at the predawn surprise attack on an opponent’s weakest flank. His army of teenaged conscripts—married and older men were considered less aggressive and so were discouraged from fighting—would open fire with their single-shot muskets, then switch to spears as they overran villages in relentless waves. Once a village was conquered Mirambo celebrated the victory by looting the huts and splitting the booty with his army. The goats, chickens, women, and cloth were a reward for a job well done, and a fine enticement to wage war the next time Mirambo was in a warlike mood.

After the booty was split, Mirambo would round up the residents of the village and behead the village chief with his scimitar. Then he would anoint a favored and loyal warrior as the replacement. If, over the course of time, the new man failed to follow Mirambo’s directives to the letter, or attempted to rebel and form his own kingdom, a lesson was quickly taught. Mirambo would travel to the village and gather the citizens together. Then the warrior would be forced to kneel, and the scimitar would flash again. A new puppet would be installed, one who was more clear that Mirambo would tolerate no usurpation of his power. With this combination of battle, booty, and beheading, Mirambo rebuilt his father’s kingdom. The growth of his power slowly squeezed the lands surrounding Tabora, until the only corridor the Arabs controlled was the trade route between Tabora and Ujiji.

By the summer of 1871, just as Stanley arrived in Tabora, Mirambo’s strength was greater than ever—and still ascendant. Tabora was in a state of wartime preparedness as tension between Mirambo and the Arabs ratcheted upward. Both parties knew full well that the last African chieftain who’d confronted the Arabs, a man named Mnywa Sere, had been beheaded six years earlier. And with a lifetime of inequity to avenge, it made no difference to Mirambo that he was outnumbered three to one. The time had come to wage war. Mirambo began by harboring runaway slaves. It was a passive move, a taunt that got the attention of the Arabs. The second act of war, however, attacked the Arabs where it hurt them most: trade. Mirambo blocked the route from Tabora to Ujiji. Caravans trying to run the blockade would be plundered and murdered. Immediately, the Arabs called a council of war and made plans to attack. Fifteen days, they predicted, was all the time they would need to crush the infidel.

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Three Arab Enclaves in East Africa

From Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard (Broadway Books, 2003), Kindle loc. ~3151:

Stanley finally reached Tabora almost three months to the day after departing from Bagamoyo. The sprawling village on the savannah, with its large houses and lavish gardens occupied by the wealthiest Arab residents, was one of three primary Arab enclaves in East Africa. The first was Zanzibar. The second was Tabora. The third was Ujiji. All had large Arab populations, harems, thousands of slaves, and existed solely for the purpose of exporting raw materials—mostly slaves and ivory—from Africa, while importing not just cloth and beads, but also coffee, tea, sugar, soap, and curry powder. Luxuries like butter were de rigeur for Tabora’s residents.

Of the three enclaves, Tabora was the crown jewel. Set among dun-colored hills in the heart of the East African countryside, refreshed by clear streams and pockets of forest, surrounded by fruit orchards and well-tended fields of wheat, onions, and cucumbers, it possessed a beauty and abundance of resources that made it the African equivalent of an oasis. Many Arabs came to Tabora to trade, then liked it so much they lived out their lives there. The only real drawback to life in Tabora was the enormous population of poisonous snakes—more varieties of serpents could be found in and around Tabora than anywhere else in the region.

Technically, it was Sultan Barghash in Zanzibar who ruled Tabora. He had sent a man named Said bin Salim to act as governor. But bin Salim was an ineffective leader who clashed repeatedly with local traders. Even the commander of Tabora’s three-thousand-man militia ignored bin Salim and deployed troops at his whim. As long as there was no war, however, the issue of troop mobilization was moot. Tabora was its tranquil self, a sanctuary of trade and sensual delights in a sea of dead grass and thirst.

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Jeep Carriers vs. Japanese Fleet

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 157-159:

The position in which the escort carriers found themselves was entirely unique in the Pacific War. Never before, even in the early days of unequal struggle, had American naval forces been surprised and brought to action by a major enemy fleet capable of greatly superior speed and fire power. Unwarned, the CVE’s were caught within range of enemy guns, steaming on an almost head-on course toward a fleet that was apparently capable of destroying them in a few minutes. No comfort was derived from the assumption that units of the Japanese force were able to make a speed of thirty knots, while the jeep carriers were not able at that time to push much beyond seventeen knots.

Of all the types of fighting ships in the huge Pacific fleet the CVE’s or “jeep carriers” would doubtless have been the last deliberately chosen to fight the heaviest surface battle of the war. They were thin-skinned merchantmen with flight decks, those of the Kaiser class, produced in great numbers in an emergency and never intended to stand off battleships. They were limited in fire power, lacking in the protective features of larger ships, and they did not even have the speed that is the last defense of the weak. Their complement of planes, the only effective defense they had, was definitely limited, and they could not launch and recover them with the ease of the big CVs.

Ground support work was the specialty of the air squadrons of the CVE’s, and many of their pilots had never before engaged a surface fighting ship or an enemy plane. The bomb and torpedo allowances of the escort carriers were tailored to fit the special requirements of ground support missions in which they were engaged. Attack upon major Japanese warships was definitely not among the missions contemplated. The carriers were limited to an allowance of nine to twelve torpedoes to the ship and a bomb supply that had been greatly reduced by intensive operations.

Seven days of close support flying had brought on symptoms of nervous fatigue among the pilots that were familiar to flight surgeons — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and bungled landings. Personnel in the ships’ air departments, who had been putting in an average of seventeen hours a day for the past week, were also feeling the strain. Two of the jeep carriers, one of them damaged by a bomb, were detached on the 24th. The remaining sixteen were organized in a Southern Group, a Middle Group, and a Northern Group, all three under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas L. Sprague, whose flag was in the Sangamon and who also commanded Carrier Division 22 and the Southern Group of which it was a part.

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Sinking the Zuikaku and Zuiho

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 141-143:

Comdr. T. H. Winters, target co-ordinator for the strike, led the group northward, passed over the crippled ships without pausing, then pushed ahead with his wingman to locate the main body of undamaged ships. Winters found the Zuikaku, the light carrier Zuiho, one of the battleships, a cruiser, and three destroyers, all apparently undamaged, steaming northward at twenty knots. He reported his discovery to Mitscher, who ordered him to “sink the carriers,” the undamaged ones.

After checking the speed and course of the targets, Winters ordered the Lexington and Langley groups to combine on the two carriers. This time there was a light film of cumulus clouds over the targets, of which the bombers took advantage in making their approach. Gaudily colored antiaircraft fire rose from the ships, together with white bursts of phosphorus with long tentacles, and a new shell that sent whirling spring-like brass wires into the air. One of the Essex planes flamed and went down under the barrage, while several others took hits.

Twelve Lexington bombers armed with half-ton armor-piercing bombs dived on the Zuikaku and planted several hits along her flight deck. These were followed shortly by nine Essex Helldivers similarly armed, which claimed additional hits on the large carrier. The results of the torpedo plane attack on the same ship were variously reported, though it seems probable that a few hits were scored. Large fires were started on the light carrier Zuiho by bombing attacks.

Winters directed the planes from Davison’s carriers to delay their dives until he went down to investigate the results of the first attacks. Once under the cloud cover he found the Zuikaku burning, smoking heavily, almost dead in the water, and listing twenty degrees to port. While she seemed about done for, the light carrier Zuiho had extinguished her fires and was floating normally. Winters climbed back “upstairs,” with shrapnel damage to his plane, and directed the Franklin, Enterprise, and San Jacinto planes, which had been awaiting their turn aloft, to attack the light carrier. The attack of these groups started up the fires on the Zuiho again, but as the planes left for their base she was still headed north under her own steam.

Waiting for a new strike group to arrive over the targets, Winters made a ten mile circle around the new cripples, during which he sighted a battleship and two cruisers between ten and twenty miles south of the main body headed north. He informed Mitscher of the contact and returned to the scene of the last air strike.

Winters arrived over the main enemy group just in time to witness the death throes of the Zuikaku. Mitscher’s pilots had settled some long-standing scores with their strikes of the 25th, for the Zuikaku had earned an impressive name in the Pacific. She was the last survivor of the six Japanese carriers which attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. During the three years that followed she drew blood from our airmen at Coral Sea, in two Solomons actions, Stewart Island and Santa Cruz, and again in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. She had a hand in the sinking of two of our finest carriers. The last of Japan’s prewar first-line carriers and the last ship of CarDiv One, pride of the Imperial Fleet, the Zuikaku had run through her luck. At about 1430 Winters watched her roll over slowly to starboard and sink without any explosion. She was flying “a battle flag of tremendous size, perhaps fifty feet square,” he said.

Thirty minutes later the first elements of the fourth strike of the day, a small one this time consisting of a series of minor attacks, arrived under the co-ordinating direction of Comdr. Malcolm T. Wordell. At about 1500 several half-ton bombs and two torpedoes finished off the crippled Zuiho, thus evening the score for the old Hornet, which the Zuiho had assisted in sinking in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Japanese destroyers maneuvered to recover survivors of the two carriers. There were now three carriers down and one to go — the cripple left far to the south and deserted by her screening vessels.

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Japan’s Great Naval Victory, 1944

From The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, by C. Vann Woodward (Skyhorse, 2007), Kindle pp. 18-20:

The Japanese propaganda between October 12 and 18 [1944] has been called “a campaign of mendacity unprecedented since Napoleon proclaimed the destruction of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.” It would, in fact, provide the basis for a fascinating study of national psychology, for it seems to have involved a whole people in the toils of self-deception. The fears with which they had long lived — the penetration of our Pacific Fleet into what the Japanese themselves described as the “Essential Sea Area” — had now materialized, and their reaction can only be described as the pathology of fear. Japanese authorities announced that in the course of an action lasting six days the Imperial Navy had destroyed “60 per cent of America’s effective naval strength,” sunk “over 500,000 tons,” and sent “an estimated 26,000 American seamen to their deaths.” Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet was claimed to be so badly shot up that it had “ceased to be an organized striking force,” while Vice Admiral Mitscher’s task force had been “completely wiped out.” The Emperor himself was directly involved in these fabrications. A special session of the Japanese cabinet met to draw up a report to the Emperor “advising him on the glorious victory,” and the Emperor received the cabinet delegation with an imperial rescript of commendation, assuring the world that “the army and naval forces acting in close co-operation have intercepted the enemy fleet and after valiant fighting have greatly damaged it.” On October 15 imperial headquarters announced a total of fifty-three American vessels sunk or damaged, sixteen of which were said to be carriers.

Any exploration of the causes of the enemy’s conduct in this regard is beyond the limits of this narrative. The extent to which the Japanese naval command was infected by the epidemic of self-deception, however, has an important bearing on the momentous strategic decisions of the next few days. Certainly the Imperial Navy’s two chief official spokesmen, Captains Kurihara and Matsushima, were implicated. It is not improbable, as Admiral Halsey and others have suggested, that the enemy was misled by the extravagant claims of his own pilots returning from their strikes against the Third Fleet. Captured documents reveal a general tendency toward consistency of exaggerations not so much by the Japanese propaganda machine as by local commanders on the spot. It is possible that Admiral Toyoda, while not taken in by extreme claims, might have concluded that the often-predicted thing had occurred — that land-based planes had so impaired the strength of our carrier force that the Imperial Fleet now had an opportunity for an all-out surface action in which it might enjoy some greater degree of parity.

Whatever the reasoning of the high command, there occurred on the 15th an abortive sortie of Japanese naval forces, which indicates something of the navy’s reaction. At midnight of October 14-15, Vice Admiral Shima’s Fifth Fleet, consisting of two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers, sortied from the Inland Sea. According to the testimony of Comdr. Kokichi Mori, a member of Shima’s staff, taken after the war, the admiral left the Inland Sea “to find a remnant of American force and center attack on weak points. We expected that there must be quite a number of damaged vessels.” Enemy search planes located two of the four task groups composing our forces, and the reports of what they saw were evidently sufficient to sober the headiest expectations. At any rate, the enemy ships hastily withdrew on the afternoon of the 16th before they were brought under attack.

The inflation of Japanese propaganda claims continued, however, and reached new heights after this episode. By the 19th, the day before the target date for Leyte, imperial headquarters had raised the score of ships sunk or damaged to fifty-seven, of which nineteen were said to be carriers. The Formosa “victory” was said to be “as great as the blow dealt the Czarist Russian fleet in the battle of the Japan Sea forty years ago.” On the 21st the naval spokesman Kurihara told the press that it was a victory which “far surpasses Pearl Harbor or the action off the coast of Malaya.” It is not improbable that two days later, when the entire Imperial Fleet made its last historic sortie, visions of Japanese naval triumphs of the past were still obscuring the realities of the present.

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