A Hanging in 18th Century London

With more than 200 criminal offences on the Statute Book carrying the death penalty public hanging was a regular occurrence in 18th century England providing an opportunity for a great social gathering and considerable revelry with food sold, alcohol readily available, and even fairground attractions.

Notice of execution was posted well in advance to allow people to arrange excursions with multiple hangings and the execution of Highwaymen, the folk heroes of their day particularly popular with more than 200,000 people attending the hanging of the notorious Jack Shepherd.

Indeed, such was the love of the English people for an execution that it often left foreign visitors bemused. Here a Frenchman in London on business describes the process:

Criminals are not executed immediately after their trial, as they are abroad, but are given several days to prepare for death. During that time they may ask for anything that they require either for the soul or for the body. The chaplain of the prison (for there is one) does not leave them, and offers every consolation in his power. The day before the execution those who desire it may receive the sacrament, provided the chaplain thinks that they have sincerely repented and are worthy of it.

On the day of execution the condemned prisoners, wearing a sort of white linen shirt over their clothes and a cap on their heads, are tied two together and placed on carts with their backs to the horses’ tails. These carts are guarded and surrounded by constables and other police officers on horseback, each armed with a sort of pike. In this way part of the town is crossed, and Tyburn, which is a good half-mile from the last suburb, is reached, and here stands the gibbet.

One often sees criminals going to their death perfectly unconcerned, others so impenitent that they fill themselves full of liquor and mock at those who are repentant. When all the prisoners arrive at their destination they are to mount on a very wide cart made expressly for the purpose, a cord is passed round their necks and the end fastened to the gibbet, which is not very high.

The chaplain who accompanies the condemned men is also on the cart; he makes pray and sings a few verses of the Psalms. Relatives are permitted to mount the cart and take farewell. When the time is up – that is to about a quarter of an hour – the chaplain and relations get off the cart, the executioner covers the eyes and faces of the prisoners with their caps lashes the horses that draw the cart, which slips from under the condemned men’s feet, and in this way they remain all hanging together. You often see friends and relations tugging at the hanging men’s feet so that they should die quicker and not suffer.

The bodies and clothes of the dead belong to the executioner; relatives must, if they wish for them, buy them from him, and unclaimed bodies are sold to surgeons to be dissected. You see most amusing scenes between the people who do not like the bodies to be cut and the messengers the surgeons have sent for bodies; blows are given and returned before they can be got away, and sometimes in the turmoil the bodies are quickly removed and buried.

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

Erwin Rommel Part II: The Poison Chalice

Field-Marshal Rommel’s reputation for daring was undeniable but his ability as a Commander had been brought into question more than once. He had after all, never commanded large formations and had not served on the cauldron of the Eastern Front. He had also in the end failed to deliver victory in North Africa. Some suggested he’d had it easy and had been promoted beyond his capability. Yet he was to most Germans the ‘Desert Fox’ and their greatest living General and he returned to the country a national hero.

The fluid nature of the Desert War had provided opportunities for glory absent on other fronts and his exploits, a welcome distraction from the grim reality of the prolonged struggle to come, were propaganda gold.

As also was his oft-repeated maxim ‘war without hate’ and the apparent humanity with which he waged it. It had made him the ‘acceptable face of the Third Reich’ something that Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry sought to exploit to the maximum.

As such the need to protect his reputation was paramount, so much so that when with defeat looming he flew to Hitler’s Headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair to plead with him to withdraw the Afrika Korps to mainland Italy before it was too late, it was decided to withdraw him instead.

The Desert Fox he might be but he still wasn’t entirely trusted by the German High Command many of whom thought him rash, unpredictable and promoted ahead of those better qualified. He was also thought unsound by some within the Nazi hierarchy who aware that he he had never been a member of the party also resented his personal relationship with the Fuhrer.

Upon his return he was briefly considered for the role of Commander-in-Chief of the Army but this was dismissed on the grounds he was a maverick and he was soon to find himself spending more time with his family than he might otherwise have expected.

He was then a hero without a role and there appeared little urgency on the part of his superiors to find him one.

Even so, the newsreels were rarely absent – the Desert Fox at home, the Desert Fox with the Fuhrer, the Desert Fox as Uncle Rommel with Magda Goebbels and her adorable children.

On 23 July 1943, he was appointed to command the army in Greece but was replaced just two days later, and in August was appointed Commander-in Chief in Italy but Hitler not liking his proposals for its defence soon replaced him with the Luftwaffe General Albert Kesselring, a long term critic of Rommel’s who also had the Fuhrer’s ear.

It was a deeply frustrating time and he complained bitterly to friends that he was being sidelined, that he was not being kept abreast of the military situation, and only learned of events from the newspapers.

In October 1943, he was visited at his home in Herlingen by his old friend Karl Strolin, the Mayor of Stuttgart, who informed him of the conditions in the Concentration Camps and the mass-killings of Jews. Like many others he refused to believe that such rumours could be true but with time on his hands it left him with much to ponder – were such unspeakable atrocities truly being committed in the name of the German Army? Could the Fuhrer possibly be aware of such things, perhaps even condone them?

With the war turning against Germany in the East and Allied intervention in the West imminent Rommel’s absence from command was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

This changed early in 1944, when he was given responsibility for overseeing the coastal fortifications of Western France, the place where any Allied Invasion Armada would be expected to land.

Portrayed as the first line of defence of the Third Reich and known as the Atlantic Wall, he soon discoverer it was no such thing.

Shocked by the neglect he found he threw himself into his new role with all the vigour and enthusiasm to be expected of Germany’s greatest General, though it was remarked by those who knew him well that he was a changed man. Not that the public would have guessed from the newsreels that relayed his frequent tours of inspection as the Desert Fox brimming with confidence and carrying his trademark Field Marshals baton became a familiar sight on German cinema screens.

Propaganda aside there was in truth much work to be done as he mined the beaches, ordered the construction of artillery emplacements, anti-tank traps, hundreds of concrete pill-boxes, and built concealed underwater obstacles.

But the Allies had gone to great lengths to mislead the German High Command into the location of the planned invasion convincing them that it would be the Pas-de-Calais, the shortest route across the Channel from England which was where much of the reconstruction work was concentrated – they would in fact come ashore further south, at Normandy.

Rommel was also at loggerheads with his immediate superior Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt over how best any defence should be conducted.

He believed that the invasion must be resisted at the point of contact on the beaches before the Allies could gain a foothold, and that the Panzer Divisions should be brought forward and prepared for an immediate counter-attack.

Von Rundstedt disagreed ordering the German Armour held in reserve for a defence in-depth.

At the same time as Rommel contemplated how best to resist the expected invasion when it came others were already seeking to end the war with the Western Powers by other means.

That there were those within the Officer Corps unhappy with Hitler’s conduct of the war was no secret, that some were seeking to remove him from power certainly was.

But who could be trusted and who could not was difficult and dangerous to ascertain, who might refuse to participate in the plot but also not betray them even more so.

Rommel’s personal relationship with Hitler made his support uncertain, but then he was also known to have had his differences with the Fuhrer.

Slowly he would be drawn into the plot but would not countenance Hitler’ murder. He must be brought before a Court of Law and stand trial for his crimes just like any other man. It was a clear indication of his political naivety.

He was to be disavowed of any such notion when he was subjected to one of the Fuhrer’s increasingly familiar paranoid, table-thumping tirades that saw him physically removed from his presence.

It wasn’t the first time that following a disagreement he had been ordered to leave but on previous occasions he had been invited back – not on this occasion.

Even now, Rommel was inclined to excuse the Fuhrer’s behaviour on the grounds that he was a man under great stress but in private with his confidence in Hitler already shaken by his sacrifice of the Afrika Korps and later the Sixth Army at Stalingrad he began to believe he was at the end of his tether, that he might even be losing his mind.

In private meetings he sounded out others regarding Hitler’s removal including Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt who despite his personal disdain for the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ remained uncommitted and refused to hear the details of any plot.

But then all German Officers had sworn an oath under God to serve not the State or the Constitution but the person of Adolf Hitler. It was an oath not easily broken moreover it was a treasonable act to do so and punishable by death.

The ‘July Plotters’, particularly those of the Kreisau Circle were mostly serving Officers of the old Prussian Aristocracy and retired or sidelined Senior Officers of the Wehrmacht and as an outsider Rommel was entirely trusted but he was the one man who all felt the people might willingly follow should Hitler be assassinated. Even so, any role for him in a post-Nazi regime remained vague.

In the meantime, he had a war to fight.

On 6 June 1944, the Allies came ashore at Normandy. In the days preceding the weather had been so inclement that the Germans had ruled out any immediate prospect of invasion and Rommel had returned home to be with his wife on her birthday. He returned at once only to find that the Atlantic Wall had proven unequal to the task and with the exception of hard fighting at Omaha Beach the Allies had met only token resistance and by nightfall with the beachheads secured 155,000 men with armoured support were already moving inland. They would be quickly reinforced.

Rommel again argued for the implementation of his plan to strike the Allies hard whilst they remained vulnerable. In a final heated exchange with Hitler at Margival in France on 17 June, the Fuhrer relented a little and released three Panzer Divisions to his command but without the total freedom to use them as he wished. It was in any case, too late.

The war in the West soon bogged down into a close-quarter infantry struggle that would not have been unfamiliar to veterans of the Great War just as Field Marshal von Rundstedt had predicted it would.

This was not the war of manoeuvre in which the Desert Fox excelled and denied the opportunity to use his Panzer’s as he wished due both to Allied air superiority and Hitler’s constant interference he became increasingly despondent. In such a struggle overwhelming Allied manpower and resources must inevitably prevail. He thought the war lost and more than once wrote to the Fuhrer declaring the army close to disintegration and pleading with him to bring the war in the West to an end – he received no reply.

On the evening of 17 July, not far from the ironically named town of St Foy de Montgomerie, Rommel’s staff car was strafed from the air by a marauding Spitfire and forced from the road; thrown from the car he sustained a fractured skull and shrapnel wounds to his body and face. In truth, he was lucky to be alive and after spending sometime in hospital he was sent home to recuperate.

Three days later on a visit to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair Headquarters in East Prussia, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase containing a bomb beneath the desk where Hitler was standing.

In such a windowless and confined space the impact of the explosion should have been devastating, that it wasn’t sealed the conspirator’s fate.

Although some were killed and others badly injured by a quirk of fate Hitler emerged badly shaken, his clothes torn, but otherwise unscathed. Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer had failed and over the following days those responsible would be hunted arrested and killed.

Rommel was not at first suspected of being involved in the plot but would soon be implicated by others among them General Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel who in custody repeatedly mumbled his name whilst delirious following a failed suicide attempt and Carl Goerdeler, the man nominated to replace Hitler as Chancellor who had drawn up a list of possible President’s of the new regime one of whom was Erwin Rommel.

It was Martin Bormann, the so-called ‘Brown Eminence’ who as Hitler’s personal secretary jealously guarded access to the Fuhrer who first brought Rommel’s involvement to his attention.

On scant evidence, Hitler was at first disinclined to believe him but with little support for Rommel from other quarters in particular Joseph Goebbels the man who had done more than any other to create the legend of the Desert Fox but had now abandoned him in fear of also becoming a victim of Bormann’s malicious intent, he was eventually persuaded.

Even so, he refused to believe that Rommel had been actively involved in the attempt to assassinate him but was willing to accept that he had been aware of the plot and had nothing to prevent it, and as such he was as guilty as those who had carried it out.

Recuperating at home with his family Rommel was unaware that he was already being tried in absentia by the Court of Military Honour (upon which sat both Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein) established to determine the guilt of serving Officers in the plot and whether or not they should face justice in the Peoples Court.

The prospect of the legendary Desert Fox being brought before the Peoples Court and its vituperative Chief Justice Roland Freisler was not only unpalatable to the Regime and the German High Command but the damage it might do to public morale was difficult to gauge. It needed to be avoided if at all possible.

On 14 October, as his house in Herlingen was being surrounded by a unit of SS a car drew up occupied by General Wilhelm Burgdorf and General Ernst Maisel along with a wreath a message of condolence attached signed, Adolf Hitler.

Burgdorf and Meisel, both of whom had been harsh critics of Rommel in the past, curtly but respectfully informed him that his complicity in the July Plot had already been proved and that he would face trial in the Peoples Court.

The Fuhrer however, cognisant of his devoted service to the Third Reich was willing to allow the Field Marshal the option available to an Officer and a gentleman, that is, to take his own life.

Rommel’s first instinct, as one might expect from a man whose career had been made from taking the fight to the enemy was to defend himself against his accusers. But it wasn’t that simple.

Were he convicted, as was certain then his family would be considered no less guilty than he and would suffer accordingly. Their property would be confiscated and they would face likely detention in a Concentration Camp.

Also, his staff guilty by association would be executed alongside him.

If he were to commit suicide and pre-empt the need for a trial then he would be accorded a State Funeral with full military honours. His rank, status, reputation, and pension would be assured, the safety of his family guaranteed on the word of the Fuhrer.

Regardless of the desire to clear his name the choice were obvious.

His son Manfred, then serving in an anti-aircraft battery (his father had earlier refused his request to enrol in the Waffen SS) described events:

At about twelve o’clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number plate stopped in front of our garden gate.

The only men in the house apart from my father, were his aide Captain Aldinger , a badly wounded war veteran, and myself.

Two generals, Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender, alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father’s permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room.

“So they are not going to arrest him,” I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. “Come outside with me,” he said in a tight voice. We went into my room.

“I have just had to tell your mother that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour. To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard but the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.

In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family. They will also leave my staff alone.”

“Do you believe it?” I interrupted. “Yes,” he replied. “I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.”
I tried again.

“Can’t we defend ourselves? He cut me off short.

“There’s no point,” he said.

“It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we’ve practically no ammunition.”

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, official statements declared, had died from complications resulting from injuries sustained whilst on active service.

His State Funeral which followed soon after, the centre-piece of which was a wreath sent by the Fuhrer, was filmed for propaganda purposes.

It was to be his final contribution to the regime he had served so loyally but latterly come to despair of and even hate.

Winston Churchill, the man who had so often been at the sharp end of the Desert Fox’s cunning was to pay his own and sincerely held tribute:

A splendid military gambler his ardour and daring inflicted grievous disasters upon us but he deserves the salute which I made him in the House of Commons in January 1942, when I said of him “we have a very daring and skillful opponent against us , and may I say across the havoc of war, a great General.”

He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant.

For this he paid the forfeit of his life.

Erwin Rommel Part One: The Desert Fox

By January 1942, the war in the Western Desert was not going well for the Allies, so much so that the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, chastened by failure, felt compelled to address the House of Commons thus:

We have a very skilful and daring opponent against us, and may I say across the havoc of war, a very great General – what else matters than beating him?

It is unusual for an enemy to be praised in the midst of conflict but then Erwin Rommel was to be that rarity in war, a hero to both sides – but why?

As a soldier of audacity and daring he would fight as he put it a ‘war without hate’ who in a conflict of unparalleled brutality toward combatant and civilian alike that soon descended into one of murder and genocide victory on the battlefield remained his one and only priority.

Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel was born in the town of Heidenheim in southern Germany on 15 November 1891, the son of a schoolteacher who though he had served in the army, which was compulsory) was not a military man; but in a Germany, which had only existed as a unified nation since 1871 and remained very much an extension of Prussia, a place that Voltaire had described as an army with a state, the military enjoyed an elevated status and so becoming a soldier was considered a good career move.

In 1909, aged 18, he enlisted in the 124th Infantry Regiment soon after enrolling For Officer Cadet Training School in Danzig.

Commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in January 1912, the young Rommel was excited to be a soldier and like many others greeted the declaration of war in August 1914 with enthusiasm. Here was the opportunity to put what he had learned into action, and of course it would all be over by Christmas.

The early months of the war on the Western Front were ones of mobility and manoeuvre where the opportunity to display initiative remained and Rommel, a Platoon Commander, took full advantage undertaking a series of daring flanking attacks which penetrating far beyond the enemy front-line brought him considerable success.

He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for his courage and belligerence in seeking out and attacking the enemy, something that would soon become his standard modus operandi often bewildering both enemy and ally alike.

In September 1914, the German plan to bring France quickly to heel was thwarted on the Marne and the Western Front quickly descended into stagnant trench warfare and Rommel, much to his relief, was transferred East where joining the Alpenkorps he continued to impress his superiors in the campaign against Rumania but it was to be in Italy on the Isonzo Front that he was to make his name.

On 24 October 1917, a combined German/Austro-Hungarian Force launched a massive assault on the Italian 2nd Army in and around the small town of Caporetto.

The Italians who had been relentlessly attacking the Austro-Hungarian positions on the River Isonzo for more than two years were taken completely by surprise, and though the flanks of their army held firm against the Austrians the centre of the line where the Germans spearheaded the attack simply collapsed.

Utilising recently developed infiltration tactics that saw specially trained Storm-trooper Units armed with grenades and flame throwers advance ahead of the main army the confusion they sowed was absolute and huge gaps in the line soon appeared as Italian resistance merely melted away.

Even without these new tactics the mere sight of Germans on the horizon was often enough to cause the Italians to panic, desert their posts, and surrender in droves. This was warfare to Rommel’s liking and as the Italian centre crumbled he took full advantage.

In a little over two days of fighting near Mount Matajur his company of just 150 men captured more than 9,000 Italians and 81 guns for the loss of just 6 men killed and 30 wounded; again, when he assaulted the town of Langarone he took a further 10,000 Italians prisoners with barely a shot being fired.

But such was the speed of the German advance (15 miles on the first day alone) they soon outstripped their lines of supply and communication and were further hampered by the vast amounts of materiel and prisoners taken, more 275,000 men in just a few weeks.

Reinforced by 11 French and British Divisions hastily despatched from the Western Front (some 100,000 men) the Italians after a long and humiliating retreat finally regrouped and established a new line on the River Piave, a mere 15 miles north of Venice.

The assault at Caporetto would eventually peter out but regardless of its failure, it had after all appeared likely at one point to knock Italy out of the war, Rommel, by now an ambitious career soldier was delighted with his personal contribution as also were his superiors who awarded him the Pour le Merite for his actions at Manjur.

He was also promoted to Captain, and transferred to the General Staff.

But his experiences at Caporetto left him with a life-long disdain for Italian soldiery, their willingness to surrender without a fight and then openly fraternise with their captors without any apparent sense of shame left him bewildered, even embarrassed.

In the Desert War to come his barely disguised contempt for the Italians who were now his ally would have serious consequences as he became over-reliant on the scant manpower and resources of the Afrika Korps.

Rommel, who had earlier married 17 year old Lucia Maria Mollin whilst on leave in Danzig despite having already fathered a child by another woman remained in the much reduced German Army at the end of the war where he shared in common with many of his fellow Officers bemusement that a conflict in which he had experienced only victory had ended in such abject defeat and a surrender that had seen Germany plunged into chaos and revolution.

By October 1920, he was in Stuttgart where as a Company Commander he helped quell civil unrest acting with moderation where others had been noted for their brutality. It was not work to his liking, he had never been interested in politics, and where some relished the opportunity to crush the ‘Reds’ he baulked somewhat at inflicting violence on his fellow Germans.

Promoted to Major, in 1929 he was appointed an instructor at the Military Academy in Dresden where with more time on his hands he wrote ‘Infantry Tactics’, the story of his experiences in the Great War and of the lessons learned with his strong advocacy of the offensive, of infiltration, of rapid deployment and swift and decisive action bringing him to the attention of another ex front-line soldier Adolf Hitler, who was impressed and possessed his own much-thumbed copy.

The admiration was mutual and Rommel was to display an almost child-like devotion to the person of the Fuhrer often writing in the most glowing terms to his wife Lucie of the man who had been sent by Providence to rescue Germany from the abyss:

He (Hitler) has been called by God to lead the German people up to the sun. He radiates a magnetic, hypnotic power.

When in January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor he wrote:

What a stroke of luck for Germany.

And in November 1938, following a failed assassination attempt:

It has only strengthened his will. It is a joy to see. The idea that it could have succeeded doesn’t bare thinking about.

Promoted to Colonel, Rommel was serving as Head of the Military Academy at Wiener when in October 1938, at Hitler’s personal request he was appointed to command the Fuhrer’s Escort Battalion.

To be charged with the protection of the Fuhrer, the man who had re-occupied the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, annexed the Sudentenland, had not just restored but expanded Germany’s pre-war borders, and would soon occupy Czechoslovakia, achievements that some were saying surpassed even those of Bismarck, was a very great honour indeed – now he was able to observe the great man close up.

But being responsible for the personal safety of the Fuhrer was to prove an impediment to ambition when in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Deeply frustrated by his inability to participate in the campaign he was determined not to miss out on the looming conflict in the West and he used his relationship with Hitler to lobby hard for the command of a Panzer Division.

He had no experience of armoured warfare and had never commanded beyond Battalion level and many of his colleagues were angered by his manipulation of the Fuhrer to secure a command over those who were better qualified to do so, particularly when he declined the opportunity to lead an Infantry Division.

His loyalty to the Fuhrer was to be rewarded however, and in February 1940 he was given command of the 7th Armoured Division.

The now General Erwin Rommel, whose last task had been to organise the victory parade through the streets of Warsaw now had command of an army, and a formidable army it was: 218 tanks, 2 Regiments of Infantry, a Motorcycle Battalion, a Battalion of Engineers, and an anti-Tank Regiment.

But could he lead it effectively?

On 10 May 1940, the German Army invaded the Low Countries but as the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force advanced into Belgium to meet the perceived threat the main thrust of the German attack, circumventing the Maginot Line defences, came through the heavily forested Ardennes Region of Eastern France.

Believing the Ardennes to be impassable to mechanised transport the French had subordinated it to a secondary front and left it weakly defended and so meeting little resistance the Armoured Divisions under the overall command of General Heinz Guderian made rapid progress and in the vanguard of the attack was Erwin Rommel and 7th Panzer.

Racing ahead at such breakneck speed that they were soon across the River Meuse and advancing on Sedan it was often difficult for his superiors to determine exactly where Rommel was and the 7th Panzer soon earned the nickname the Ghost Division – it was not necessarily a compliment.

Meeting little resistance on 17 May he took 10,000 prisoners for the loss of just 36 men – it was Caporetto all over again.

But Rommel worried his superiors as much as he impressed his subordinates. They believed his determination to maintain the momentum and not wait for infantry support left him vulnerable and that without proper reconnaissance he could be heading into a trap. Indeed, his haste could have contributed to Hitler’s notorious Halt Order of 24th May that provided the invaluable breathing space the British needed to evacuate its Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Rommel wasn’t permitted to resume his advance until 5 June and the implementation of Case Red, the second phase of the conquest of France.

Although resistance on the ground stiffened any fears of greater resolve amongst the French High Command were soon dispelled as the Panzers continued much as before cutting a swathe through the French countryside and often advancing as much as 50 miles a day.

By 10 June, 7th Panzer had reached the coast at Dieppe from where Rommel was ordered to advance of Cherbourg which surrendered just three days before the Armistice was signed on 22 June.

Yet again Rommel had enjoyed a good war and Hitler’s favourite General had proved himself worthy of the faith placed in him but not without criticism – it was said he was impatient, often more reckless than daring, did not always see the bigger picture, and had an ad hoc attitude to orders.

Some also considered his evident self-confidence to be little more than arrogance and often ill-founded and there would always be an element of mistrust even amongst those who were his admirers but his cavalier spirit would prove propaganda gold.

On 10 June 1940, to the cheers and wild enthusiasm of the thousands of his black shirted supporters gathered in the Square below Benito Mussolini, II Duce, declared war on Britain and France from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome:

People of Italy! To arms, show your spirit, your courage, your valour!

Italy had so far remained neutral in the conflict but believing Germany victory to be imminent he declared that he only needed a thousand Italian dead to be able to sit at the conference table and reap the spoils of war.

With much of central and western Europe already under German occupation Mussolini now eyed conquests of his own, namely the expansion of Italy’s Mediterranean and North African Empire.

Following the capitulation of France and with Britain apparently destined to do the same Mussolini hastily reinforced the Italian garrisons in Libya and Abyssinia in preparation for a two-pronged assault on British controlled Egypt.

The Italian Army in Abyssinia would soon become bogged down in an East African campaign that would result in its defeat and eventual surrender in April 1941, but regardless of events elsewhere the invasion of Egypt would go ahead.

On 9 September, 250,000 Italian troops in three great columns set off across Cyrenaica for Egypt making rapid progress as the 36,000 men of the British Western Desert Force confronting them had little choice but to beat a hasty retreat.

Despite huge numerical superiority the Italian Commander General Rodolfo Graziani, an ardent fascist who had earned the name ‘Butcher’ for his brutal suppression of rebellion in Libya doubted that his ill-equipped, half-trained, poorly motivated army could succeed and had already delayed the advance a number of weeks Yet unopposed in just four days they reached Sidi Barrani, 60 miles inside Egypt but still some 400 miles short of Cairo.

Here with his line of communications stretched and vulnerable to attack from the air he called a halt and ordered the building of numerous fortified camps where he waited allowing the British time to regroup and re-think their strategy.

In November 1940, under the command of General Richard O’Connor they counter-attacked.

The Italian camps had been built too far apart to offer each other any support and in the desert terrain it was easy for the British armour to go around and attack them from the rear.

This they did with startling success as what had been intended as little more than a reconnaissance in force with limited objectives turned into a full-scale offensive as out- manoeuvred and overrun the fortifications fell one-by-one with great rapidity and often little resistance in what resembled more mopping up operations than pitched battles.

By February 1941, with the Italians in full retreat the British had re- taken Sidi Barrani, Tobruk, Beda Fomme, Benghazi, and were advancing on Tripoli.

The Italian Tenth Army had been smashed in just three months of fighting with 5,700 troops killed and 133,298 taken prisoner along with 420 tanks and 845 guns.

At the cost of fewer than 2,000 casualties it seemed as if O’Connor was on the verge of chasing the Italians from North Africa altogether but Prime Minister Winston Churchill believing the war in the desert as good was won called off the offensive withdrawing troops and mechanised units for his planned campaign in Greece – a great triumph had become an opportunity lost.

Mussolini’s dream of Mare Nostrum, a great Italian Empire dominating the Mediterranean and a military victory to compare with any of his ally Adolf Hitler’s had been shattered and as he hastily reinforced what remained of the Tenth Army he pleaded with the Fuhrer to come to his support.

Hitler, who was unwilling to see his ally humiliated did indeed ride to his rescue and who was better equipped to fight a desert campaign than the master of mobile warfare, his favourite General, Erwin Rommel.

Rommel arrived in Tripoli on 12 February 1941, to take charge of the recently formed Panzer Armee Afrika, or Afrika Korps. He had not been the choice of the German High Command but Hitler’s alone, yet even with the Fuhrer’s endorsement it was intended that his freedom of action should be restricted and so he was made subordinate to Italian command, a decision which also went some way to restoring II Duce’s wounded pride.

But it was to prove less of an impediment than first thought in large part because he simply chose to ignore it.

Rommel’s Afrika Korps was by no means a large army, just two Divisions, some 45,000 men and 120 tanks, but then it was only intended that they should shore up the Italian Tenth Army and remain on the defensive.

There was little prospect of Rommel doing either and impatient as ever he was already planning for the campaign ahead ordering his tanks even as they were being unloaded onto the dockside to drive repeatedly around the block to deceive the prying eyes of British spies whilst instructing his Chief Engineer to build dozens of fake canvass tanks to fool aerial reconnaissance.

His Afrika Korps were already taking up position in the front-line even before their equipment had been fully disembarked and as ordered they made as much noise and kicked up as much dust as possible – British Intelligence reported large German formations heading east.

On 24 March, Rommel advanced into the Cyrenaican Desert totally wrong-footing the British who had not been expecting a major offensive for many months and stripped of three of their best Divisions for operations in Greece they were ill-equipped and even less prepared to meet one.

El-Agheila, Bardia, and Benghazi all quickly fell as mesmerised by the speed of the advance the British response was little less than shambolic. Desperately scrambling to avoid being surrounded and cut-off they abandoned not only vast quantities of supplies but any number of Senior Officers who were taken prisoner among them the now famous General O’Connor captured on 6 April by a Reconnaissance Group, or as German propaganda were to later claim, a Canteen Unit.

By the 11 April, when the British at last stabilised their line just beyond the Egyptian border only the port of Tobruk still held out.

A deep water port of strategic significance, Tobruk’s defences were formidable and its Australian garrison was able to repulse Rommel’s repeated attempts to storm it.

Although deeply frustrated by his failure to capture Tobruk, which nonetheless remained under siege, Rommel had achieved a victory beyond even his own expectations. In a little over three weeks he had recaptured all of the ground previously lost by the Italian Tenth Army.

It was a stunning success and the British were suitably stunned.

But Tobruk, now more than a hundred miles behind German lines and able to be re-supplied by sea posed a threat to Axis lines of communication that could not be ignored, neither could the so-called Desert Rats be dislodged, so Rommel had to commit much of his army to its continued investment which left him vulnerable elsewhere. Or, at least, it should have done.

The British Commander-in-Chief Middle East General Archibald Wavell certainly thought so and on 15 May launched Operation Brevity, a limited offensive designed to capture the strategically important Halfiya, soon to be renamed Hellfire, Pass.

After some initial success German counter-attacks soon recaptured all the ground lost and the offensive was cancelled after just one day.

Under pressure from the Government in London, Wavell was to try again.

Operation Battleaxe which began on 15 June was much more ambitious in its scope than its predecessor intended as it was to eject all Axis Forces from Eastern Cyrenaica thereby clearing a path to Tobruk and the relief of its garrison.

Believing they had numerical superiority, Churchill, if not Wavell, was confident of success but forewarned of the offensive Rommel had deployed his armour in advance.

Not for the last time a British campaign in the Western Desert was to be blighted by poor communication and coordination and this time it would be early failures that would undermine later success.

In response to the offensive Rommel adopted what would soon become a familiar tactic, as the British advanced his Panzer Mark IV’s would engage out of range their lightly armed Matilda and Crusader tanks which would race to close the distance. As they did so the Panzers retreated exposing the British armour to the full weight of his 88mm guns and heavy artillery whilst armoured cars and motorised Divisions moved to outflank the British position.

It was a tactic that Rommel used again and again and to great effect.

British and Allied troops often under fire it seemed from all directions and hampered by poor quality radios that were often barely audible if they worked at all, were often thrown into a state of confusion not knowing whether to advance, retreat, or simply remain where they were.

The fear of being out-flanked and surrounded was a constant and often led to unnecessary evacuation, premature flight, and the wasteful abandonment of equipment.

After three days of fighting Operation Battleaxe was called off having achieved none of its objectives, and it had been a costly failure. The British had lost over a thousand men and 96 tanks more than half of those deployed all of which were left abandoned where they lay.

The Germans, who lost only 12 tanks, retrieved those that could be repaired from the battlefield.

It was an example of the sloppiness that came to dominate British operations during the Desert War.
Churchill was bitterly disappointed by the failure of Operation Battleaxe, not only was it yet another morale sapping defeat but many of the tanks lost had been despatched from a Britain still under threat of invasion that they could ill-afford to lose.

General Wavell was fired as a result, and replaced with General Sir Claude Auchinleck.

The soon to be Desert Fox had twice been tested and had twice prevailed – but at least Tobruk still held out.

Following the fiasco of Operation Battleaxe there was a lull in the fighting as both sides reorganised for the coming campaign. Rommel flushed with success was eager to proceed with the capture of Tobruk but it was the British for whom re-supply was easier who struck first.

In August, Auchinleck appointed Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham to command the recently re-designated Eighth Army and prepare for a major offensive.

Operation Crusader which began on 18 November 1941 was intended to relieve Tobruk whilst also engaging and destroying the Axis armour.

It was felt that Rommel would commit his forces recklessly to maintain his stranglehold on Tobruk and so as the British engaged Axis forces elsewhere on the front and sought to outflank their defensive positions on the Egyptian border, 7th Armoured Division would clear a path and advance on the port.

Rommel took the bait and fought with his usual verve and determination but an operation that was intended to take full advantage of the element of surprise was once again bungled and soon became a confused and protracted struggle.

As the 7th Armoured Division closed in on Tobruk, Rommel attacked in force near Sidi Rezegh in what would be four days of the fiercest fighting seen anywhere during the Desert Campaign.

Making expert use of their 88mm guns the Afrika Korps took a terrible toll of the 22nd Armoured Brigade reducing it to the point where it ceased to be an effective fighting force yet despite being denuded of their armoured support the New Zealand Division and the 5th South African Brigade held their ground with the latter having to be quite literally overrun before its stubborn resistance was finally broken.

Yet again a British offensive appeared to have stalled and Cunningham displaying signs of losing his nerve repeatedly requested to be allowed to withdraw back to Egypt.

Auchinleck, despairing of his lack of resolve replaced him with Major-General Neil Ritchie.

Flushed with his success at Sidi Razegh, and perhaps again not seeing the bigger picture, Rommel now seized the opportunity to attack the British defences before Egypt in what became known as the ‘Dash for the Wire.’

Ritchie allowed the Axis forces to pass subjecting them to artillery bombardment and constant attack by the Desert Air Force whilst severing their lines of communication and supply. Frustrated by the delaying tactics, short of ammunition, and forced to abandon precious tanks for a lack of fuel Rommel had little choice but to order a general withdrawal.

The Desert Fox had over-reached himself and his reckless pursuit of outright victory resulted in the relief of Tobruk on 27 November and a retreat all the way back to his starting point at El-Agheila the previous March.

But despite his losses it had been an orderly withdrawal and his army remained intact.

Operation Crusader had succeeded where it had appeared destined to fail so it was a victory of sorts, and the relief of Tobruk was joyously received, but the Desert Campaign remained far from over.

On 21 January 1942, Rommel briefly counter-attacked recapturing Benghazi but there he halted.

Both Axis and Allied forces were exhausted and depleted of supplies but they both intended to resume the offensive as soon as possible – it was Rommel who struck first.

On 26 May, he assaulted the British positions in and around the town of Gazala in a diversionary attack whilst he mobilised the bulk of his army to turn the enemy’s left flank. The British response was confused and hesitant as they counter-attacked in some places whilst withdrawing in others allowing the ever elusive Rommel the opportunity to isolate British formations and destroy them piecemeal.

With no armoured reserve there were times when a British counter-attack appeared about to derail the German offensive but Rommel would not be deflected from his course of action and a lack of coordination and strategic purpose would see them come to nothing.

On 28 May, Rommel had to temporarily halt the offensive due to a shortage of oil and had to await re-supply but the British proved incapable of seizing back the initiative. Two days later he resumed the offensive and was soon besieging the fortress of Bir Hacheim on the far-left of the Allied line whilst sending forces to probe north in the direction of Tobruk.

The British fearing encirclement began to hastily withdraw.

Bir Hacheim was defended by Free French Forces many of them Foreign Legion and Colonial Troops from Equatorial Africa.

Out-numbered almost ten-to-one the French were expected to surrender but in fact held out for over a week not finally abandoning their positions until 10 June.

The stout defence at Bir Hacheim had provided invaluable breathing space to Auchinleck who had replaced Ritchie and taken personal command. He now retreated 100 miles to the Railway Halt at El Alamein, a withdrawal he was able to make in some semblance of good order.

On 21 June, Tobruk which had previously withstood a nine month siege and had become a symbol of British resistance during the dark days of the Blitz and military failure elsewhere fell in just 24 hours.

Although it had remained well-garrisoned its defences had been neglected and fallen into disrepair and there had also been some confusion as to whether the port should continue to be defended at all, but a humiliating capitulation had certainly not been the intention.

Despite some units managing to escape into the desert during the night some 36,000 prisoners were taken amongst them a third of South Africa’s entire army along with stores aplenty.

Despondency overwhelmed the Allied camp and Churchill who was in Washington for a meeting with President Roosevelt received the news with disbelief, and plunged into despair had to be comforted by the President as he bemoaned the incompetence of his Commanders and the fighting spirit of his troops – these were not the men of 1914.

The capture of Tobruk was the crowning moment of Rommel’s military career and the machinery of Joseph Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry whirred with excitement.

Stating that the capture of Tobruk was his personal gift to the Fuhrer the Desert Fox was flown to Germany where attending a ceremony in Berlin he was promoted and awarded his Field Marshal’s baton by Hitler in person as the cameras rolled and the images flashed around the world.

The legend of the Desert Fox was cemented in the popular imagination by his capture of Tobruk but it wasn’t just his success in time-and-again denying the odds to thwart and defeat a superior enemy but the manner in which he conducted the campaign so removed as it was from the brutality of the Eastern Front.

Atrocities if there were any were few and prisoners generally well-treated. Indeed, Rommel insisted they should receive the same rations as he and often visited their places of internment to check on conditions. He also refused to implement Hitler’s notorious Commando Order which demanded that they be shot if captured and similarly he would not execute captured Jewish soldiers or hand them over to the SS.

He would adhere to his dictum of ‘war without hate’ and too many who fought in the Desert Campaign it was the last honourable war, if indeed there can be such a thing.

It was not just his speed of thought and deed such as adapting the 88mm anti-aircraft gun for use against enemy armour making it the most feared weapon of the Desert War and deploying his mobile forces in such a way as to constantly confuse and confound an always superior opponent, his, some would say, inflated military genius, but his common decency that made him a hero to both sides something which German propaganda was eager to exploit and did so unremittingly and to great success – he was the acceptable face of the Third Reich.

His victories were also a welcome distraction from the increasingly intensive bombing of German cities, the grim reality of the Eastern Front, and a growing awareness that this was to be a prolonged struggle seemingly without end.

Churchill suspected that an admiration for Rommel had infected his own army which no longer had the sufficient will to resist him. It was not a groundless fear.

By the end of June the Axis positions were just 66 miles from Alexandria and Rommel, so often criticised for spending too much time at the front and treating every battle as if it was being fought in his own backyard now had a strategic vision of his own. If he could breakthrough at El Alamein then surely the Suez Canal would be taken, Egypt would fall, the oil fields of the Middle-East would be laid bare, and he could advance to link up with German forces in the Caucasus.

But it was not a vision shared by the Fuhrer who still saw the Desert Campaign as primarily a holding operation and he would not divert forces from the Eastern Front to the Afrika Korps despite often vague and unfulfilled promises to do so.

El Alamein stood at the apex of a bottleneck with the sea to a north and the Quattara Depression, a vast area of sand dunes and salt marshes impassable to motorised transport, to the south. It meant that the British defences could not be outflanked and that for Rommel to succeed he would have to force a way through.

Nonetheless, Mussolini believing victory imminent flew to Tripoli, his best uniform packed, determined to share the moment and no doubt claim the credit.

In the meantime, General Auchinleck issued a directive to his Senior Commanders stating that Rommel was neither a superman nor invincible, should not be thought of as such, and that this should be relayed to the men as soon as possible.

Rommel’s victory at Gazala had sent shock-waves through British Headquarters in Cairo where in an atmosphere of panic and fearing the Desert Fox’s imminent arrival confidential documents were burned and preparations made for a hasty withdrawal.

The narrowness of the front Auchinleck believed provided hi m with the opportunity to dictate the course of the battle by creating defensive boxes that would funnel the Axis armour into confined spaces where it could be destroyed.

He declared that he would halt Rommel at Alamein and even turn the tide of the campaign but it was not a view widely shared.

Rommel began his offensive on 1 July.

Yet again he was outnumbered almost 2 to 1 in both men and armour yet sensing the British were at breaking point he remained confident of victory but the terrain was not in his favour. Under clear blue skies and in open desert his columns were particularly vulnerable to attack from the Desert Air Force which despite frantic efforts to kick up dust and make smoke bombed and strafed incessantly taking a terrible toll.

Despite repeated attempts to cut the coast road, to isolate and destroy British positions, and tempt them by a series of feints to leave their defences, he could make little headway and having fought his army to the point of exhaustion was forced to withdraw.

Here was yet another opportunity for a British Commander to seize the initiative and claim a decisive victory but when the counter-attack came it once more foundered on poor coordination and muddled thinking.

Even so, the Rommel myth had been dented and Egypt saved.

Auchinleck’s victory at what would become known as the First Battle of El Alamein did not sufficiently restore his reputation enough to secure his job and in August he was replaced as Commander-in-Chief by General Sir Harold Alexander whilst the recently promoted Lieutenant-General William Gott was appointed to command Eighth Army. When Gott was killed in a plane crash a few days later General Bernard Law Montgomery was hastily summoned to replace him.

Montgomery, or Monty as he was soon to become known, had been a Battalion Commander on the Western Front in the Great War and had played a prominent role during the retreat to Dunkirk in May, 1940.

A prickly character who was often in dispute with his superiors he was nonetheless the consummate professional who may have lacked his German opponents daring but none of his self-confidence and firmly believed that given sufficient manpower and resources he could defeat Rommel, and he wasn’t shy in saying so:

Give me a fortnight and I can resist the German attack. Give me three weeks and I can defeat the Bosch. Give me a month and I will chase him out of Africa.

Indeed, such was his self-belief that even the often despondent Churchill was impressed.

He did not fear the Desert Fox he said, but he did respect him enough to have his photograph hanging in his trailer.

But he would not be rushed and nothing would be left to chance.

First he would restore the morale of the Eighth Army and retrain its soldiers for the fight to come; and with his distinctive high-pitched, cut-glass accent and trademark headwear he was to prove no less inspirational to his troops than Rommel was to his Afrika Korps.

Rommel, eager to test this new British Commander determined to turn the Allied left flank and then push onto the Suez Canal but informed of his intentions from Ultra decrypts Montgomery withdrew five miles and took up position on the more defensible Alam Halfa Ridge.

Here troops dug-in, mines were laid and he had his tanks buried up to their turrets in sand to be used as artillery only. This would be a defensive battle and Montgomery had ordered that there would be no withdrawal, and he remained no less determined that there would be no advance.

Rommel attacked on 30 August and maintained the offensive for a week but Montgomery would not be drawn and unable to dislodge the British and force a breakthrough he had little option but to withdraw to the Cauldron, a defensive position behind a dense minefield.

Despite his failure at Alam Halfa, Rommel remained confident that he had the measure of his opponent who had shown himself no less timid and cautious than his predecessors but for the first time in private he expressed doubts that he could ever achieve outright victory.

Montgomery was immediately put under pressure from both Churchill and Alexander to exploit his victory but refused to be diverted from preparations for his own planned offensive.

Leading a polyglot force of British, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Free French, Polish, and Greek troops he understood well the limitations of a Citizen Army, those who had not been raised in an atmosphere of militarism or educated to belief in notions of racial superiority and a fanatical devotion to one man; nonetheless he believed that well-trained, adequately resourced, properly led, and made aware of the cause for which they were fighting they could still prevail.

Prior to the battle Monty addressed the troops:

The battle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive battles of history, it will be the turning point of the war. The eyes of the whole world will be upon us anxiously watching which way the battle will swing? We can give them their answer at once – it will swing our way.

Montgomery had prepared well and had built up his forces enough to obtain a clear supremacy in manpower, armour, and in the air. He had 195,000 men under his command, 1,029 tanks, and a Desert Air Force recently reinforced by an additional 4 Squadrons of American Mitchell Bombers.

Rommel could call upon 105,000 men (55,000 of whom were Italian) and 547 tanks (fewer than half of which were Panzers) along with Luftwaffe support. Outnumbered though they may have been they were well dug-in behind reams of barbed wire and more than 500,000 land mines.

At 21.40 on 23 October 1942, 882 guns opened up on the Axis forward positions with a roar that shook the ground and lit up the dark desert sky.

Under the cover of a thunderous bombardment Operation Lightfoot began as thousands of Sappers moved forward in the gloom to clear a path through the minefields for the armour to follow.

As the greatest land battle of the Western Desert Campaign began Rommel was far away at home recuperating from exhaustion and a bout of ill-health.

On 24 October, whilst on an inspection of the front-line General Georg Stumme, in temporary charge of the Afrika Korps dropped dead of an apparent heart attack, when Rommel returned the following day he was furious with Stumme’s replacement General von Thoma for not having already ordered a counter-attack.

Quickly assessing the situation Rommel found that his Italian Divisions had been particularly badly mauled and his armour severely reduced by aerial bombardment. He could not therefore order a general offensive across the line but he would attack where he could.

A lack of fuel would ensure that his aggressive response would meet with only limited success but the British offensive would stall nonetheless.

In London Churchill despaired:

Do I even possess a General who can win a battle?

Montgomery certainly believed so and was determined that the fighting should not descend into a stalemate even so maintaining the momentum was proving difficult, but the odds remained firmly in his favour.

When on 28 October, two Panzer Divisions with infantry support attacked the centre and left of the Allied line they clashed with British armour resuming the offensive and a struggle ensued, that saw the Germans repulsed with heavy losses.

It was fighting that Rommel could ill-afford – he wrote to his wife:

For the first time in my life I did not know what to do.

With inevitable defeat looming Rommel contacted German Headquarters requesting permission to withdraw. The response he received left him bewildered – he was to remain where he was and fight to the last man. In disbelief, he asked for the order to be repeated. It was, and it had come direct from the Fuhrer.

The order made no military sense whatsoever yet for two days he dithered at great cost to his army as the fighting intensified before unwilling to sacrifice the Afrika Korps, and with just 35 tanks remaining, on 4 November he ordered a general retreat.

His faith in the Fuhrer had been severely shaken.

As the Afrika Korps retreated it commandeered much of the mechanised transport of its Italian allies literally kicking from the vehicles those who tried to hitch a lift.

Although their performance had improved under his command and some units had fought very well indeed their earlier humiliations were not easily forgotten either by themselves or by the Commander of the Afrika Korps who remained largely scornful of the Italian element of his army and their overall contribution.

Armed with inferior equipment, poorly led, and often denied fuel and supplies demoralisation was rife and remained a constant whether garnered by success or failure.

Yet these troops, who had borne much of the brunt of the attack at El Alamein, would be the ones now sacrificed – of the 35,000 Axis prisoners taken almost all were Italian.

Indeed, the disciplined withdrawal of the Afrika Korps contrasted sharply with the shambles of their ally and many Italian soldiers were to complain bitterly of the lack of leadership from their own Officers many of whom simply abandoned them as their retreat descended into chaos.

Assisted by poor weather which grounded much of the Allied Air Force, a series of well directed delaying actions, and Montgomery’s own caution the Afrika Korps was able to extricate itself intact avoiding the rout that had seemed inevitable, but the retreat was to be a long and painful one.

Informed by Alexander that the Afrika Korps was beaten and Rommel was in full-flight Churchill ordered that Church bells be rung throughout Britain. After three years of desperate struggle for the first and only time in the war a British Army had comprehensively defeated a German one on the field of battle.

On 10 November, Churchill addressed the House of Commons:

General Montgomery has gained a glorious and decisive victory . . . Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Two days earlier, as part of the American led Operation Torch, Allied troops landed in Vichy French held Morocco and Algeria and already pursued by the British in the East Rommel was now threatened by the Americans advancing from the West.

The end appeared to be in sight but the Allied advance was sluggish and poorly co-ordinated and despite a retreat of more than 2,000 miles and the hasty abandonment of Tripoli, Rommel was still able to win the race to Tunisia and thwart the Allied attempt to sever his line of retreat – and he wasn’t finished yet.

On 19 February 1943, he turned on his pursuers halting the United States II Corps at the Battle of Sidi-Zou-Bid before luring them into the Kassarine Pass where adopting the tactics that had worked so effectively against the British earlier in the campaign he drew the American armour onto his 88mm guns and destroyed it. Only a hasty and undignified retreat prevented a rout.

It was a harsh lesson in desert warfare for the tactically inept still raw and not yet battle-hardened Americans but one they quickly learned.

But without the resources to fully exploit his victory it also served as a lesson for Rommel too, that much like Napoleon Bonaparte more than a hundred years before no amount of battlefield genius can overcome overwhelming odds in a sustained campaign.

On 6 March, he turned his attention on the British but there were few tricks left in his locker that Montgomery wasn’t aware of and with the British remaining on the defensive the two day Battle of Medenine was yet another attritional struggle fought to no good purpose which the increasingly beleaguered Desert Fox could no longer afford.

In truth, Rommel knew that the Desert War was lost and repeatedly pleaded with Hitler to withdraw the Afrika Korps to mainland Italy before it was too late.

Ironically, it was only now on the cusp of defeat that Hitler began to take the conflict in North Africa seriously and begin to send the reinforcements that earlier in the campaign might have proved decisive for he now saw an opportunity to turn Tunisia into a fortress that would bog down the Americans in a long and bloody siege that would both sap their enthusiasm for the fight and prevent them from intervening elsewhere.

But Rommel would have no further role to play in the Fuhrer’s latest strategic master-plan and was ordered home on 9 March to be replaced by his subordinate General Hans-Jurgen von Arnim.

The Desert Fox would be spared the humiliation of defeat.

The fighting in Tunisia was to continue for a further two months but it unable to adequately supply such a large force across a Mediterranean swarming with Allied plane, surface vessels, and submarines it had become in effect little more than a giant self-imposed internment camp.

The formal surrender of all Axis Forces in North Africa was accepted on 12 May, 1943. In total, some 275,000 prisoners were taken of which 130,000 were German along with all their tanks, artillery, and war materiel.

It was a defeat greater in scale than that suffered by the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and Hitler’s decision to reinforce rather than withdraw his army in North Africa was one of the great strategic blunders of the war.

But the fact that Rommel was not present at the denouement only enhanced his reputation viewed as it was through the prism of his successors defeat.

Harris’s List: Prostitutes and Pimps of Old London Town

By the latter half of the eighteenth century London was the commercial and financial centre of the world, a city teeming with more than a million souls which lay at the heart of a burgeoning Empire. It was the place to be seen and to make one’s fame and fortune; but it was also Hogarth’s London, a cauldron of death and disease, of crumbling buildings and drunken licentiousness, a den of thievery and hucksterism. It was the London of Gin Lane and the Harlot’s Progress, of Mary Hackett, soon to be Moll Hackabout, the innocent country girl debauched by drink who sold her body contracted syphilis and was dead at 24.

But if money was its religion then sex provided its sin, and if the former could be hard to come by the latter was always readily available.

Men seeking sexual satisfaction outside of the marriage bed was nothing new and the world’s oldest profession provided the means to do so and perhaps as many as 25% of women in the city sold their bodies at one time or another to make ends meet, and there were at least 10,000 plying their trade at any one time.

Harris’s List, published between 1757 and 1795 was a Directory of supposedly ‘respectable prostitutes’ then, working in Covent Garden and the streets thereabout.

Covent Garden was the pleasure dome of London and a beehive to the wealthy young men of the city, and those of greater vintage but no less ambition, and its reputation for hedonism spread far and wide.

Giacomo Casanova, who knew a thing or two about such things, wrote of Covent Garden that it provided – a wonderful debauch.

James Boswell, the noted biographer of Dr Johnson, was impressed by the variety of entertainment on offer and indeed its value for money – from the splendid Madame at 50 guineas a night to the civil nymph who could be had for a pint of wine and a shilling.

A Directory of London’s prostitutes was not a new phenomenon – taking advantage of the demise of the Commonwealth and the return of dynastic politics in the figure of King Charles II, the so-called Merry Monarch, in 1660 The Wandering Whore was published but despite the fact it declared itself to be a warning not an incitement – the Exquisite Whore and the Pimping Hectors were to be avoided – the hostility of previously puritanical London saw it last only five editions.

Another forerunner of Harris’s List was ‘Kind Women, and Others of the Linen Lifting Tribe.’

Published in 1691, it was less reticent than its predecessor and described in detail those who were for sale:

Mary Holland is tall, graceful, and comely; shy of her favours but open to persuasion for a fee of around ten pounds.

This was indeed expensive and beyond the means of most and so the magazine went on to say that her sister Elizabeth was indifferent to money and a good supper and two shillings would suffice.

Harris’s List was to adopt a similar tone and format providing more than a simple directory of names but also helpful descriptions of the prostitutes themselves – how they looked, their personal merits, their specialities, and their price.

The List could be quite provocative in its prose and would prove pornographic in its use with a much-thumbed copy greatly sought after by those unable to enjoy the delicacies on offer but desirous of a similarly pleasurable effect:

The charms of Miss Conway of 50 Sloane Square were described thus:

She has so many enchanting graces, that they are quite irresistible. It is impossible to withstand the artillery of her eyes, as the winged lighting of her hair, her lips, her everything, are so transporting, charming, as to fill every beholder with rapture.

The 1788 entry for Mrs Dodd of 6 Hind Court, Fleet Street adopted a different approach:

Reared on two pillars of alabaster, the symmetry of its parts, its borders enriched with wavering tendris, its ruby portals, and the tufted grove that crowns the summit of the mount, all join to invite the guest to enter.

The same year Miss Davenport’s entry read:

Her teeth are remarkably fine, she is tall, and so well proportioned when you examine her full naked figure, which she will permit you to do.

Miss Chicamp of 2 York Street:

One of the finest fattest figures, as fully finished for fun and frolic as fertile fortune ever formed.

All sexual persuasions were catered for in Covent Garden and it was said that if a woman seemed unusually tall and wore too much makeup then the likelihood was they were a man, not that male prostitutes ever appeared in the List for sex between men remained the sin that dare not speak its name. It was not so for women, even if the later Victorians would refuse to formally acknowledge the existence of lesbianism it remained in the public imagination to be a higher form of love, and so it was in Harrison’s List:

Miss Wilson of Cavendish Square:

As a female bed-fellow can give more real joys for a woman than ever she experienced with the male part of the sex.

Anne Redshawe:

She will always provide a discreet service for those ‘women of the highest keeping.’

Harris’s List would often boast of Covent Garden’s high profile clients among them the leading Whig politician Charles James Fox, the author Horace Walpole, and nobility such as Augustus I of Hanover; and it would wax lyrical about such encounters as for example with this 1764 entry for the supposed visit to Miss Wilmot of King George III’s brother Edward, Duke of York:

He gazed upon her for a while with eyes of transport and fondness, and gave her a world of kisses, at the close of which in a pretended struggle, she contrived matters so artfully that the bed-clothes have fallen off her naked beauties lay exposed at full-length. The snowy orbs on her breasts by their frequent rising and falling by beat Cupid’s alarm drum to storm instantly, in case an immediate surrender should be refused. The coral-lipped mouth of love seemed with kind movements to invite, nay to provoke and attack, while her sighs, and eyes half-closed, denoted that no farther resistance was intended. What followed may be better imagined then described.

They did of course frequent the salons and parlours of women who considered themselves courtesans in the French model who sold more than sex satisfying the lustful nature of both mind and body.

Some would marry their clients, for example Harriet Powell wed the Earl of Seaforth whilst Kitty Fisher who married Sir John Norris was a favourite model of the Court painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and became somewhat of a celebrity.

Fetishes were also catered for:

The Miss Bryan and Smith Sisters, 7 Windmill Street:

Miss Bryan is tall and thin, her complexion is dark, her sister Miss Smith is plump and fair; the ladies have seen their thirtieth but are still agreeable pieces for the winter season to those not over nice about delicacy both being illiterate and dedicated to swearing; it is said they are both dexterous in the use of the birch and rod; the price of these lecherous girls varies very much, but half a guinea is always acceptable.

But not all entries were complimentary indicating that some had been shy of paying for the emollient words of a favourable biography:

Miss Berry was almost rotten and her breath cadaverous.

Miss Jenny Kirkbeard had a violent attachment to drinking.

Miss Dean exhibited great indifference whilst entertaining her client cracking nuts as he acted his joys.

The List also provided insight into the racial and religious diversity of the city.

Miss Wilkinson, 27 Litchfield Street:

The land of Jamaica is the native soil of this wanton Cyprian female, though she cannot boast a complexion delicately fair, yet it must be acknowledged her features are very pleasing.

Miss Lawrie, 6 Church Street

The religion of the Jews will not permit them to eat pork, or feast with Christians; how strictly this lady may adhere to these particulars in her articles of her faith we cannot positively tell; but this we can say for truth – she has not the least objection to Christian consipiscence, and will open her Synagogue of love even on the Sabbath.

The authors of Harris’ List remain somewhat vague and would become even more so over the almost forty years of its existence as the need to remain secret from the prying eyes of the moral guardians of society who, though fewer in number than later generations, were no less outraged.

Even in a city where corruption was endemic and infected the highest echelons of the social and political elite there was no immunity from prosecution.

The List itself is believed to have originated with John Harrison, a well-known and wealthy Covent Garden pimp who worked from the Shakespeare’s Head Tavern where he kept a detailed list of his prostitutes and their clients. These records he shared with a failed writer and Grub Street hack John Derrick who used them to produce Harris’s List.

It was published anonymously however, to avoid falling victim to the next surge of moral condemnation that was always just around the corner, and the clampdown that would inevitably follow.

Despite this little effort was made to restrict its distribution and it was openly sold by street vendors and in the taverns and shops in Covent Garden and along The Strand.

But then Harris’s List wasn’t intended for the common man and few of London’s many prostitutes ever appeared in it, the many ‘street whores’ forced to sell their bodies for a penny not a shilling or a pound merely to feed their families and make ends meet. Common men and women having sex was simply what happened and was best ignored. It was the corruption of wealth and decent society that concerned people.

The Proclamation Society was formed in the summer of 1787, following King George III’s call for the Encouragement  of Piety, Virtue, and the Punishment of Vice, Profuseness, and Immorality.

Such a formal proclamation had been long sought after by moral campaigners such as William Wilberforce to provide impetus to their determination to root out the sin and moral corruption in high places. It would later develop into a movement to improve the morals of the people in general. In this it would fail simply driving it further underground and in fact more pornography was sold and distributed in London during the Victorian era than at any time previous.

One of the first victims of the new moral broom sweeping London clean of vice was Harris’s List which following the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of a number of those found to be associated with its production ceased to be published.

The last edition came out in 1795 following a period of harassment that had seen the quality of writing diminish and its sales decline from its peak circulation of 8,000 four years earlier.

Further Extracts:

Miss Godfrey, 22 Upper Newman Street:

If parts can conquer great and small, sure, Miss Godfrey, must needs do all.

This lady is a kind of boatswain in her way, and when she speaks every word is uttered with a thunderous and vociferous tone. She is a fine lively little girl, about twenty-two, very fond of dancing, has dark hair and eyes, well shaped, and an exceedingly good bed-fellow, will take brandy with anyone, or drink and swear. This lady would be an extraordinary companion for an Officer in the army, for she would save him the effort of giving the word of command.

Miss Wells, 35 Newman Street:

Virtue is the surest guide.

She is a young genteel girl of the Welsh breed, and one of which she is not a little proud, and thinks she has the blood of the Tudors in her veins. She is as wild as a goat, of sandy colours, her features are small, and she is a light little piece.

Miss Waterson, 36 Well Street:

She lives elegant and is a great economist, is tall and genteel, about twenty-four years of age, rather dark complexioned, a little pitted with the smallpox, her price is one pound but will not refuse half-a-guinea.

Mrs Macartney, Great Titchfield Street:

There is nothing gives me so much pride than such amusement with a youth! To whip! To whip! His bold backside when he tells lies instead of truth.

Here a very genteel figure unites with a beautiful countenance, heightened with a lovely fair complexion, and very expressive blue eyes; this lady is about twenty-five years, appears conscious of her own consequence, charms and attractions, and often gives herself airs that were better left aside, for pride and haughtiness in the finest woman cannot fail to be disagreeable.

Mrs Harvey:

When drunk would often toss her sparkling bumper, and was not a little clever in the art of friction.

Mrs Russell:

Was particularly attractive to the young who are fond of beholding that mouth of the devil from whence all corruption issueth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Revolutionary Calendar

Revolutions are rarely as they first appear but merely the (often) violent overthrow of one regime and its replacement by another with the hopes and aspirations of those who took to the streets, waved the flags, carried the placards, and chanted the slogans speedily trampled underfoot by a new authority no less brutal in its determination to eliminate that which is contrary to the interests of those they now represent than had been the regime it replaced.

But what is a revolution if it is not the spinning of the wheel and in late eighteenth century France it turned again and again from moderation to co-operation, to intolerance, intransigence, and finally terror.

But if the essential nature of power remains the same then at least the trappings that adorn and lend it legitimacy can be changed utterly and what could be more transformative than the alteration of time itself, and the people’s perception and understanding of it.

The new calendar for the new age, like the new religion and the new morality, was designed to sweep away all vestiges of the Ancien Regime and is most closely associated with the mathematician and agronomist Gilbert Romme, who headed the Commission established to create it, and the flamboyant somewhat grandly named Philippe Francois Nazaire Fabre d’Eglantine, the failed playwright and recent convert to revolution who, along with the assistance of the ex-Royal gardener, would  provide the months with their new titles.

The creation of the new calendar, though it was dismissed by some as an irrelevance at a time of war and counter-revolution, was taken seriously and engaged many of the finest minds of the time including the astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the geographer Alexander Pingre, and the chemist Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau amongst others.

These men of science and philosophy dug deep into ancient history, studied the motion of the planets, and worked hard at the arithmetic whilst remaining within the framework of the Enlightenment and paying due respect to the legacy of the Roman Republic they so admired.

Their conclusion – time was to be decimalised:

A minute would now be 86.4 seconds, there were to be one hundred minutes to the hour, ten hours to the day, and thirty days to the month divided into three ten day weeks. There would still be twelve months to a year which now began the day the Autumnal Equinox occurred in Paris, the Revolution was always about Paris.

Any adjustments required, such as a leap year or to maintain regulatory would be made with reference to this decimal equation. Where the adjustment could not be made the day would simply disappear.

The names of the month were to be changed and would reflect the prevailing climate and what this meant for the agricultural cycle. Likewise, each day had a title. For example: 12 Vendemaire was Immortelle, or Strawflower; 15 Pluviose, Vache, or Cow; 11 Prairial, Fraise, or Strawberry; 19 Messidor, Cerisse, or Cherry.

And the days of the week were numbered in Latin from 1-Primordi to 10-Decadi.

However, unlike industry farming is not subject to the tyranny of the clock but rather when the sun rises and when it sets. Changing time, or at least the notional understanding of it, does not necessarily reflect reality or mean a great deal to the horny-handed son of the soil.

The new Calendar was presented to the Jacobin controlled National Convention by Gilbert Romme on 23 September 1793, and formally accepted the following month.  It had originally been intended to commemorate the fall of the Bastille and the Revolution of July 1789 but it was decided that to do so would be to acknowledge the previous regime and the fact that for three years they had sought an accommodation with it. So instead it was backdated to begin in September of 1792 following the fall of the Monarchy and the establishment of the Republic.

The Revolutionary Calendar had become the Republican Calendar.

Fabre d’Eglantine was to promote its virtues to both the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety.

France now had a new framework to live by, hourly, day-by-day, month-by-month but the calendars distributed were largely ignored and the clocks manufactured to reflect the new time remained unsold.

The British, who were then at war with France and would be except for a short break for the next fifteen years, found the Calendar a useful propaganda tool poking fun at the utopian fantasies of the revolution and satirising the months as –  Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Happy, Croppy, and Poppy. And that no amount of cheery names and pictures of pretty girls could disguise the hatred, division, and bloodshed that was Revolutionary France.

The French Revolution is often said to have ended with Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of 18 Brumaire, or 19 November 1799, but it wasn’t until 1 January 1806, almost two years after he had crowned himself Emperor, that he formally abolished the Republican Calendar.

Long before the Calendar they had created and sold to the French people ceased to be its two main protagonists had fallen victim to the Revolution they had so enthusiastically embraced.

On 5 April 1794, or 16 Germinal of the Year II, Fabre d’Eglantine was executed on the orders of the Committee of Public Safety for the crimes of corruption and malfeasance.

Having tried to blame everyone else for his predicament he was to bitterly complain of the injustice of it all so much so that on his way to the scaffold Danton who was also to be executed suggested that he cease carping about it and accept his fate.

On 17 June 1795, or 29 Prairial of the Year III, Gilbert Romme committed suicide on the steps of the Courthouse where he had just been sentence to death by stabbing himself repeatedly with a small knife he had concealed on his person.

Both men had died in the shadow of that other great symbol of the French Revolution – the Guillotine.

Vendemaire (Month of Grapes) 22 September – 21 October

Brumaire (Month of Mist) 22 October – 20 November

Frimaire (Month of Frost) 21 November -20 December

Nivose (Month of Snows) 21 December – 19 January

Pluviose (Month of Rains) 20 January – 18 February

Ventose (Month of Rains) 19 February -20 March

Germinal (Month of Germination) 21 March – 19 April

Floreal (Month of Flowers) 20 April – 19 May

Prairial (Month of Meadows) 20 April – 19 May

Messidor (Month of Harvest) 19 June – 18 July

Thermidor (Month of Heat) 19 July – 17 August

Fructidor (Month of Fruit) 18 August – 16 September

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitler as a Young Artist

 

Even as a child Adolf Hitler had an exalted opinion of himself, a self-regard that was both nurtured and encouraged by his adoring mother, Klara. His father, Alois, an ill-tempered man, was not so amenable to his son’s whims and had already determined that he should follow him into the Civil Service, or to be more precise become a Customs Officer like himself. But young Adolf wanted to be an artist, and not any old artist, but a great artist. As a result relations were strained and attempts by Alois to beat some sense into his son only made matters worse.

Although his grief was genuine enough his father’s death in January 1903 also came as a great relief for he could now pursue his ambition unrestrained; and it wasn’t as if he was without talent, his ability to draw had already earned praise and with practice, and a little imagination, he might have earned passage into the ranks of the artistic milieu he so desperately sought to be a part of, not that this alone would ever have been enough.

But then dedication wasn’t required – for a genius need not partake of hard work.

Supported by his mother who had been left financially secure by her recently deceased husband in 1906, Adolf went to live in Linz where he lived like the artistic gentleman of leisure he thought he was spending his time in idle musings, attending concerts, and visiting the opera where he made the acquaintance of the aspiring musician, August Kubizek.

Kubizek was to write of the time he spent in the company of the future Fuhrer in his 1955 book ‘The Young Hitler I Knew’ and the portrait he drew was a complicated one of neuroses,ambition, and an emerging megalomania – Hitler was a difficult young man to get along with, someone who even as a youth approached every problem with ‘a deadly earnestness.’

He was to describe Hitler’s personality as ‘violent and high strung’ but nonetheless it was a friendship he would never relinquish even in light of events.

Despite concern for his mother’s health which had taken a turn for the worse Adolf withdrew what remained of the inheritance left to him by his father and in the summer of 1907 went to live in Vienna where he applied for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts.

In October he was shocked to be told he had failed the entrance exam and demanded to know why?

The Academy informed him in no uncertain terms that he lacked talent as a painter but did have some technical ability which might be better suited to a career in architecture.

Much like the opera he so enjoyed, Hitler considered architecture to be art on a grand scale which suited well his mindset but even so the rejection was difficult to bear. Nonetheless, there was little time to dwell on the matter as his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health forced him to return home.

Surgery the previous January had failed to prevent the spread of breast cancer and despite the best efforts of Eduoard Bloch, the family’s Jewish doctor, Klara’s condition only worsened. Informed that his mother would not recover Hitler descended into depression.

Dr Bloch was to remark that upon receiving the news Hitler was ‘the saddest man I had ever seen.’

Adolf remained with his mother during her final months cooking for her, doing the household chores, and tending to her every need but her demise was only a matter of time.

On 21 December 1907, Klara Hitler died.

Adolf was distraught and Dr Bloch was to say that he had never seen anyone so overcome with grief. Later, when he visited Dr Bloch to pay the medical bill he told him – I shall be grateful too you forever – he was later to prove as good as his word.

Following his mother’s death he had no desire to remain in Linz and so in February 1908, he returned to Vienna, the city he considered the centre of European culture, to pursue once more his desire to be an artist.

Not long after his arrival he was reunited with August Kubizek whom he had asked to join him and clearly delighted greeted at the station with a handshake and a kiss.

In October he tried for a second time to enrol in the Academy of Fine Art but was denied permission even to sit the entrance exam and disappointment soon became a bitter resentment towards the Jewish Professors of the Academy he believed had thwarted his artistic ambitions.

Life had turned sour and his sense of victimisation was only made worse when Kubizek gained entry to the Vienna Conservatory. That November Kubizek returned to the apartment they shared to find that Hitler had moved out leaving no forwarding address.

Hitler’s life now proceeded on a downward spiral.

The money he had received as his inheritance had run out and by December 1909, he was eating at soup kitchens and living in a homeless shelter.

He would spend the cold days in libraries where he assiduously imbibed Nordic, Aryan, and anti-Semitic literature. On more clement days he would walk the streets sketching buildings and street scenes but it all felt very hollow and he had come to hate the city he had once so admired but had so brutally rejected him – a mongrel city, the capital of a mongrel Empire.

Ostensibly reliant upon hand-outs he did make a little money as a day labourer shovelling snow and carrying bags for commuters at the railway station but it rarely lasted more than a few hours; physical labour and working for another was abhorrent to him – but he could still draw.

He was persuaded by Reinhold Harmisch, a fellow resident at the Poor House where he was now living, to sketch the famous landmarks of Vienna which he would then hawk around the city on his behalf.

Hitler agreed, but they soon fell out and in August 1910, believing he was being swindled Hitler testified against Harmisch in a court case that saw him jailed.

In 1938, following the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler would order Harmisch’s murder.

Hitler did better selling his own drawings, which now included copies of postcards he offered to tourists, and paintings he sold through an acquaintance, Joseph Neumann, a Jew, who used his connections to sell them to mostly Jewish shopkeepers.

To avoid conscription into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he had come to despise in May 1913, he fled to Munich in Germany where he continued to sell his drawings though his life was barely any better than it had been in Vienna, even if he may have considered the air more pure.

His life remained aimless his day-to-day existence a drudge, so when war was declared on 1 August 1914, it came almost as a relief, now he would have a purpose.

He wrote in Mein Kampf:

“For me, as for every German, there now began the greatest and most unforgettable time of my earthly existence. Compared to the events of this gigantic struggle, everything past receded into shallow hollowness.”

Soon after mingling with the enthusiastic crowds in Munich Town Square he enlisted in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.

His career as an artist was at an end, that of a politician yet to begin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting Attila and His Huns

By the Fifth Century the once mighty Roman Empire was in irreversible decline. Hounded and harassed by nomadic tribes such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths hailing from the East they would soon face an even greater enemy, a race of warrior tribesmen from the plains of modern Hungary, the Huns, and their fearsome leader, Attila – the Scourge of God.

The Roman historian Ammanianus Marcelinus described them:

attila2-main-x

Though they do just bear the likeness of men, of a very ugly type, they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire or use any kind of relish in the preparation of their food, instead they feed upon the roots they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal.

When attacked, they will sometimes engage in regular battle going into the fight in order of columns and filling the air with varied and discordant cries. More often however they fight in no regular order of battle, but by being extremely swift and sudden in their movements, they disperse, and then rapidly come together again in loose array, spread havoc over vast plains, and flying over the rampart, they pillage the camp of their enemy almost before he has become aware of their approach.

When in close combat they fight with swords without regard for their own safety, and while their enemy is intent upon parrying the thrust of the swords, they throw a net over him and so entangle his limbs.

attila-invades-rome-port-x

In 451, Attila led his hordes into the heart of Western Europe but was defeated by Rome and its Ostrogoth Allies at the Battle of Chalons, now considered one of the great turning points of history.

But for Attila it was merely a setback and he would return the following year to rampage across Italy looting and pillaging at will. Yet he turned back at the Gates of Rome when the city appeared to be at his mercy. Why, remains a mystery.

A man of fierce demeanour who struck terror into the hearts of those brought before him, Attila was someone whom it was wise not to offend.

attila-feast-x

Priscus, an envoy of the Byzantine Empire was invited to dine with the Scourge of God.

This is his account:

We waited for the time of the invitation, and then all of us, the envoys from the Western Romans as well, presented ourselves in the doorway facing Attila.

In accordance with national custom we were given a cup for us to make our libations before we took our seats. When that had been done we went to the chairs where we would sit to have dinner. All the seats were ranged down either side of the room, up against the walls. In the middle Attila was sitting on a couch with a second couch behind him. Behind that a few steps led up to his bed, which for decorative purposes was covered in ornate drapes made of fine linen, like those which Greeks and Romans prepare for marriage ceremonies.

The more distinguished guests were on Attila’s right and the second rank on his left where we were along with Berichos, a man of some renown among the Scythians who was sitting in front of us.

To the right of Attila’s couch was Onegesios, and opposite him were two of the king’s sons on chairs. The eldest son was sitting on Attila’s own couch, right on the very edge, with his eyes fixed on the ground in fear of his father.

When all were sitting properly in order, a cupbearer came to offer Attila an ivy-wood bowl of wine, which he took and drank a toast to the man first in order of precedence. The man thus honoured rose to his feet but it was not right for him to sit down again until Attila had drank some or all of the wine and had handed the goblet back to the attendant. The guests, taking their own cups, then honoured him in the same way, sipping the wine after making the toast.

One attendant went round to each man in strict order after Attila’s personal cup-bearer had gone out.

When the second guest and then all the others in their turn had been honoured, Attila greeted us in like fashion in our order of seating.

A lavish meal, served on silver trenchers, was prepared for us and the others, but Attila just had some meat on a wooden platter, for this was one aspect of his self-discipline.

For instance, gold or silver cups were presented to the other diners, but his own goblet was made of wood. His clothes, too, were simple, and no trouble was taken except to have them clean. The sword that hung by his side, the clasps of his barbarian shoes and the bridle of his horse were all free from gold, precious stones or other valuable decorations.

As twilight came on torches were lit, and two barbarians entered before Attila to sing some songs they had composed, telling of his victories and his valour in war.

The guests paid close attention to them, and some were delighted with the songs, others excited at being reminded of the wars, but others broke down and wept if their bodies were weakened by age and their warrior spirits forced to remain inactive.

After the songs, a Scythian entered, a crazy fellow who told a lot of strange and completely false stories, not a word of them true which made everyone laugh. Following him the moor, Zerkon, totally disorganized in appearance in clothes, voice and words who by mixing up the languages of the Italians with those of the Huns and Goths, he fascinated everyone and made them break out into uncontrollable laughter. All that is except Attila, he remained impassive, without any change of expression, and neither by word or gesture did he seem to share in the merriment except that when his youngest son, Ernas, came in and stood by him, he drew the boy towards him and looked at him with gentle eyes.

I was surprised that he paid no attention to his other sons, and only had time for this one. But the barbarian at my side, who understood Italian and what I had said about the boy, warned me not to speak up, and said that the seers had told Attila that his family would be banished but would be restored by this son.

After spending most of the night at the party, we left, having no wish to pursue the drinking any further.

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Mussolini’s Declaration of War: An Ignoble Gesture

On 10 June 1940, speaking from the balcony of the Palazzo Venetia in Rome before a large and enthusiastic crowd of his black-shirted supporters Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, declared war on Britain and France.

He had wisely chosen to remain neutral in the conflict but believing that German victory was imminent and he would be denied his share of the spoils he wanted a thousand Italian dead to ensure a place at the Conference Table:

Soldiers, sailors, and aviators! Black-shirts of the revolution and of the Fascist Legions! Men and women of Italy, of the Empire, and of the kingdom of Albania! Pay heed!

An hour appointed by destiny has struck in the heavens of our fatherland.

To cries of War! War!

The declaration of war has already been delivered to the ambassadors of Great Britain and France. We go to battle against the plutocratic and reactionary democracies of the west who at every moment have hindered the advance and have often endangered the very existence of the Italian people.

Recent historical events can be summarized in the following phrases: promises, threats, blackmail, and finally to crown the edifice, the ignoble siege by the fifty-two states of the League of Nations. Our conscience is absolutely tranquil.

mussolini-war-crowd-x

The entire world is witness that Fascist Italy has done all that is humanly possible to avoid the torment which is throwing Europe into turmoil; but all was in vain. It would have sufficed to revise the treaties to bring them up to date with the changing needs of the life of nations and not consider them untouchable for eternity; it would have sufficed not to have begun the stupid policy of guarantees, which has shown itself particularly lethal for those who accepted them; it would have sufficed not to reject the proposal for peace that the Fuhrer made on 6 October of last year having finished the campaign in Poland.

But now all of that belongs to the past.

If now today we have decided to face the risks and the sacrifices of a war it is because the honour, the interests, and the future impose an iron necessity. If a great people are truly such it must consider sacred its own duties and does not evade the supreme trials which determine the course of history.

We take up arms to resolve the problem of our land frontier, the problem of our maritime frontiers; we want to break the territorial chains which suffocate us in our own sea; since a people of forty-five million is not truly free if it does not have free access to the ocean.

This gigantic struggle is nothing other than a phase in the logical development of our revolution; it is the struggle of peoples that are poor but rich in workers against the exploiters who hold on ferociously to the monopoly off all the riches and all the gold of the earth; it is the struggle of the fertile and young people against the sterile people moving to the sunset; it is the struggle between two centuries and two ideas.

Now that the die is cast, I solemnly declare that Italy does not intend to drag into the conflict other peoples bordering her on land or on sea. Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey.

Egypt take note of these my words for it depends on them and only on them whether or not they will be rigorously confirmed.

Italians!

In a memorable meeting which took place in Berlin, I said that according to the laws of Fascist morality, when one has a friend, one marches with him to the end.

Cries of Duce! Duce! Duce!

This we have done with Germany, with its people, with its marvelous armed forces.

On this eve of great events we direct our thoughts to the majesty of the King and Emperor who as always has understood the soul of the fatherland. And we salute with our voices the Fuhrer, the head of our great ally Germany.

Proletarian and Fascist Italy stands up strong, and proud, and united as never before, one order both obligatory and categorical already spreads and fires hearts from the Alps to the Indian Ocean – Victory!

And we will win in and bring peace with justice to Italy, to Europe, and to the world.

People of Italy!

Rush to arms and show your spirit, your courage, your valour!