Category: History

The Battle of Manzikert: “The Disaster”

For hundreds of years the Byzantine army held back the various waves of Muslim and Steppe invaders because of an effective and efficient defense in depth throughout the empire. The first layer was a superior intelligence system, managed from the “Office of Barbarians” that tracked the movements of tribes on the Steppes, and the activities of the sultans. It gave sufficient warning for Byzantine diplomats to bribe a rival tribe or sultan into war against the impending invader. The next layer was the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which could be reinforced or let fall as needed, but gave time for the next two layers: The first was a series of well stocked, manned and provisioned border fortresses, which could hold out for years if necessary. The next and most important were the troops of the “themes” or provinces, comprised of free peasants who served in times of crisis in exchange for land. Finally, the thematic troops were backed up by the semi-autonomous regional tagmata, or professional armies. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.

The system was amazingly flexible and effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In the early 11th century, when the threat of invasion seemed remote, the emperors wanted to recover lost land, and began reorganizing it to better suit offensive operations. Unfortunately, they undermined the critical foundation, the self sufficient thematic peasants, whom made amazing soldiers, chiefly because they, being free, were well equipped, and they had skin in the game defending their own lands. However, that came at a cost because they weren’t productive if they were deployed. The emperors gradually mobilized them less and less, but took increasing portions of their goods, not to pay for more tagmata, which potentially posed a threat to their reign, but to pay for mercenaries loyal directly to emperor (and that didn’t have to return for the harvest). Finally, in their attempt to expand the empire, they directly annexed in a bloody and destructive war, Armenia – the bulwark against the east and north east. The tenacity in which the Armenians fought the steppe invaders was turned against the Byzantines, and it would result in the virtual destruction of the country and the first Armenian diaspora. More importantly, it meant no Armenian buffer.

In the mid eleventh century, the Byzantines were victorious and modestly expanded the empire, but it did not mattter. In 1070, the Seljuk Turks took advantage of the Armenian situation and crashed through the weakened area, and overran the border fortresses devoid of thematic troops. The next year, Emperor Romanos himself led the army against the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan, and on 26 August, was decisively defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey. The hardcore of the Byzantine Army was destroyed, including all of the tagmata, the households of all the major nobles, and the famed Varangian Guard, the intensely loyal viking mercenaries whom died to a man defending the emperor. Emperor Romanos was captured, and within six years most of Eastern and Central Anatolia would fall.

The Battle of Manzikert would be known as “The Disaster” for the next 500 years. More immediately, 13 years later in 1094, the Byzantines, still reeling from the complete loss of the professional core of its army, would ask the Pope for help against the Turks, leading to the First Crusade.

Operation Countenance: The Invasion of Iran

The phrase, “The Great Game” usually describes the Anglo-Russian rivalry that played out across Central Asia, especially Afghanistan, in the 19th century, but has its roots in an earlier (and eventually overshadowed) rivalry between the two Great Powers in Persia, modern Iran. For hundreds of years, the Iranian people and shahs were used for both good and ill in the diplomatic, economic, and military maneuvering of the British and Russian Empires. In the late 19th century, Iran began asserting its own political independence by establishing ties to the new German Empire. In 1925, a new Shah came to power, Reza Shah Pahlavi, and began a massive modernization program funded by the nationalization of the Anglo-Iran Oil Company (Today we know them as BP), and much foreign assistance, particularly German and Italian.

Reza Shah declared neutrality at the outset of the Second World War, but both Great Britain and the Soviet Union suspected that German advisors in the economy and to the Shah had outsized influence over Iranian foreign policy. After the German Invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was desperate for Lend Lease supplies and FDR was more than willing to provide them, but the convoy routes through the Arctic Circle were especially dangerous. The old Anglo-Russian trade routes through Iran, especially the railroad from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea known as the “Persian Corridor”, were a perfect compliment.

By the summer of 1941, the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and northern Indian Ocean were no longer considered war zones, and could be freely transited by American ships. The British had just secured Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Eritrea from the Italians, cleared Iraq of Fascists, and threw out the Vichy French from Syria, which released several Indian divisions for duty elsewhere. The Soviets additionally wanted an excuse to seize Iran as the next Socialist republic, and secure the oil fields around the Caspian Sea. Britain also saw a pro German Iran as a destabilizing influence to eastern India, and neutral Turkey. When British diplomats delivered an ultimatum to the Shah on 17 August 1941 to expel all Germans from Iran, it didn’t matter what he said: Iran was going to be invaded.

On 24 August, British and Indian troops crossed into Iran from Diyala and Basra in Iraq, in a surprise attack which quickly defeated the Iranian Army that Shah Reza spent a decade and half modernizing with great difficulty. And his new roads expedited the invaders movement in the country. The next day, three Soviet armies did the same from the Transcaucasus and Turkmenistan. In just four days, Soviet and British troops met at Qazvin, just north east of Tehran, and the Shah sued for peace.

The first Americans to facilitate the Persian Corridor arrived a few days later (In 1941, British and Soviet troops were needed for fighting. By 1943, 30,000 Americans were serving in Iran maintaining the Persian Corridor). The first convoys and train loads of American supplies to the Soviet Union would commence in just a week. 30% of all Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union would transit through Iran.

The Battle of Yarmouk

The Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire had been archrivals for nearly four hundred years: ever since the Eastern Roman Empire split from the Western, and the Sassanids replaced the Parthians in the third century. In the early seventh century, the two old rivals fought a twenty year increasingly expensive and destructive war for control of the Near East and Egypt that in the end resulted in little change to the status quo, and left both empires exhausted. While both empires hammered on each other, the prophet Mohammad preached Islam in the deserts of Arabia, and just after his death, the Rashidun Caliphate was poised to expand beyond the Arabian Peninsula.

In 634, the Muslim Arabs exploded into the Levant (modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria), and quickly overran the Byzantine Christian lands. To the credit of both the Sassanids and the Byzantines, they recognized the threat that the Rashidun Caliphate represented. Byzantine Emperor Heraclius secured an alliance with the Persians, but the damage they did to each other was extensive and complete. Nonetheless, Heraclius concentrated his diverse armies into an overwhelming mailed fist, and in May 636 sought to crush the invading Muslims.

Khalid ibn al-Walid, the supremely competent, dedicated, and faithful Muslim battle commander, was outnumbered at least four to one, and fell back to the Yarmouk River, where if he was defeated, could easily seek refuge in the stronghold of Najd. Heraclius, whose army was wracked with logistics difficulties (the Byzantines never concentrated their armies for exactly this reason; although the bureaucracy was extensive, the effectiveness of the old Roman supply system was long gone), and bickering factions (ditto: the Slavs, Armenians, and Christian Arabs couldn’t get along), felt compelled to fight the Muslims on the ground of their choosing.

The battle began with Muslim warriors challenging various Byzantine commanders to single duels, but after losing several of his best soldiers, Heraclius attacked. For five days, the Byzantines pounded the Muslim lines, but the attacks were uncoordinated, and breakthroughs were never exploited because of the emperor’s cumbersome, complicated, and lethargic command system (one could say it was “Byzantine”… Ba Dum Tiss!). Furthermore, because of the feuding, Heraclius never committed his reserve to the fight: his cataphracts, the most powerful armored mounted force in the world, and hundreds of years ahead of the mounted knights of the West, whom sat watching the battle for most of six days. Conversely, Khalid’s mobile guard, comprised of the best warriors of Islam, consistently and routinely appeared at troubled spots on the line, stabilized it, and quickly moved off to another threatened area to repeat.

Nevertheless, Heraclius’ almost secured victory twice: On the third day, his army broke through the Muslim right which fell back to its camp. But there the defeated warriors were met by their camp followers. The enraged wives and servants used tent poles to beat the warriors back into the line. Not wishing to face the wrath of their women, the ashamed warriors counterattacked. With no follow up, the overextended Byzantines fell back. And again on the fourth day, when Byzantine horse archers (a direct result of experience fighting the Persians) dominated the Muslim Left. The fourth day of the battle would be forever remembered by Muslims as, “The Day of Lost Eyes” due to the uncanny accuracy of the Byzantines. The lack of follow through, and darkness, saved the Muslims.

On the fifth day, Heraclius, whose disorganized army by this point had thousands of casualties and low morale, asked for a truce. Khalid, sensing weakness declined. The next day, Khalid concentrated all of his cavalry in a decisive flank attack, and before his infantry broke, smashed the Byzantine Left in an unexpected charge.

Khalid ibn al-Walid’s stunning victory at the Battle of Yarmouk cemented Muslim control of the Levant for the next 450 years, and was the first Muslim conquest outside of Arabia. It would not be the last.

The Battle of Long Tan

SEATO was the South East Asian equivalent of NATO, and in 1966, several countries contributed troops to halt the Communist expansion into South Vietnam, including South Korea, Thailand, The Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia.

The 1st Australian Task Force was assigned the Phuoc Tuy province on Vietnam’s southern coast. They built a base at Nui Dat between April and June, and in July began securing the population and conducting offensive operations against the local Viet Cong.

Nui Dat was decidedly inconvenient for the Communists; it had to be destroyed. Nui Dat sat astride a major communist supply route and base area, and was dangerously close to the population centers (Something the Americans wouldn’t do for another two years). Additionally, Gen Giap, North Vietnam’s military commander, wanted to inflict a quick defeat on the Australians and force them out of the war. So he ordered the entire 275th VC Main Force Regt down from the Iron Triangle to overrun the pesky base.

The plan was the time honored tactic that worked so well against the French: lure a company (coy) off of the base into an ambush, ambush the inevitable relief column, destroy them both, and then overrun the weakened base. The first part worked perfectly.

On the night of 16/17 Aug 1966, the VC bombarded the base, and B coy, 6th Bn/ 6th Royal Australian Regt gave chase. On 18 Aug, D coy took over and walked into a large ambush on the Long Tan Rubber Plantation.

However, the Australians knew exactly what they were getting into. Their signals intelligence had tracked the 275th into the sector. The odds were daunting, but the Aussies fell back on their unique talent for not giving a fuck. At Long Tan, the 108 men of D Coy 6/6 RAR, were assaulted on all sides by the entire 275 VC Main Force Regt, a local VC Bn, and a regular North Vietnamese Army Bn that Giap threw in like a cherry on top of the sundae. The attackers numbered nearly 2500 men, 20:1 odds is a sure victory in any commander’s mind.

But the Aussies dug in and were supported by copious amounts of American and New Zealand artillery which massacred the attackers. Nonetheless, quantity has a quality all its own and by the afternoon, the diggers were hard pressed and low on ammunition. Fortunately, two Royal Aus Air Force Huey’s piloted by men with Outback sized gonads, braved brutal ground fire to resupply the company just in time to defeat a full regimental assault. (For context, imagine if vegemite fueled Texans won at the Alamo.) By nightfall just as D coy was firing it’s last rounds, the expected relief column of APCs and tanks fought through their ambushes, and like the good cavalrymen they were, arrived in the nick of time. The battered D coy fell back to a landing zone with the column for the night. They had 18 killed and 28 wounded, and despite the casualties they inflicted, thought they had lost the battle.

But in a typically Australian “Fuck it” moment, the D Coy commander, Maj Harry Smith, decided to return to the plantation to recover the dead bodies of his men. To his surprise, they didn’t find live VC but dead ones: the Communists were gone. The relief column forced the Communists to withdraw just as they were about to launch their inevitably successful final assault. An NVA report later stated that the 275th was combat ineffective for months and had to be reconstituted. More importantly, the local VC Bn was destroyed and the NVA Bn had to take over the defense of the district.

Like the Battle of Tet 18 mos later, the destruction of the local VC and subsequent NVA takeover of the area made securing the population much easier. (Despite speaking the same language, the North Vietnamese were as foreign to the area as the Australians.) Unlike many American units, the Australians would have a much easier time securing their province in the ensuing years.

U-38 Sinks the Longtaker

After Denmark surrendered to Germany in 1940, Great Britain invaded Iceland, a Danish protectorate, to prevent its use by Germany in the Battle of the Atlantic. When The US approved the Lend-Lease Act, one of the leased bases was Iceland and the US 6th Marines garrisoned the island (which freed the British garrison to fight).

On 17 Aug 1941, the unescorted Longtaker, a Panamanian flagged steam merchant was enroute to Reykjavik to resupply the garrison with food and timber. Panama, though also technically neutral, was an American protectorate due to the Canal Exclusion Zone in all but name. The Longtaker was spotted by U-38, and sunk with torpedoes. The Longtaker sank in under a minute, and six of the 25 crewmen survived, but three more would die before they were picked up by a US destroyer 20 days later.

The Longtaker Incident was the first US ship sunk in the Atlantic, and the first of a series of encounters that directly led to FDR relaxing the US Navy’s ROE. Within a month, a state of undeclared war existed between the US Navy and the German Kriegsmarine around the world, months before Pearl Harbor.

The Fall of Trebizond and the End of Rome

In 753 BCE the semi-mythical twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded Rome on the site where they were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf as orphans. A thousand years later in the 4th century CE, the unwieldy Roman Empire was split into its eastern and western halves. The Western Roman Empire would fall to the Barbarian invasions of the next century. While the eastern half, or Byzantine Empire because it was centered on the city of Byzantium, which was renamed to Constantinople after the eastern half’s first emperor, Constantine, would last until 1204.

Orthodox Constantinople was captured by Catholic crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 due to the various political machinations of Venice, the Byzantines, and Crusaders. The Byzantine Emperor was deposed and a Latin Crusader state was established. This fractured the Byzantine Empire into a series of successor states (similar to the fall of Alexander the Great’s empire), most notably the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond.

Immediately, all vowed to restore the Byzantine Empire and declared war on the Latin State of Constantinople. Nicaea reconquered the city in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but the power of the Empire was broken forever.

The New Byzantine Empire was unable to withstand the Ottoman Turks and most of the successor states were subsumed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Constantinople itself fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.

Mehmed II then turned his attention to the last remaining Byzantine successor state, the Empire of Trebizond, in the mountainous northeast of Anatolia. On 15 August, 1461, David Megas Komnenos, the last Byzantine emperor surrendered the city of Trebizond (modern Trabzon, Turkey), to the besieging Turks.

With the fall of Trebizond, 2,214 years of Roman history came to an end.

Anders’ Army

The Soviets captured or deported nearly 325,000 Soldiers and civilians after the dual German/Soviet invasion of Poland in Sep 1939 (and murdered another 100,000). But by August 1941, Stalin was desperate for soldiers to repel the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In conjunction with the nascent Polish Govt-in-exile in London, Stalin agreed to establish a “Polish Army of the East”. Stalin signed the order on 13 August 1941, and the Gen Wladyslaw Anders, a former cavalry brigade commander in 1939, was chosen for the army’s commander. The gulags and prisons across Siberia were combed for Poles still healthy enough to train and fight. By the end of 1941, Ander’s had 25,000 soldiers and 1000 officers training deep in Siberia, and were supported by about 60,000 “camp followers” (for lack of a better term).

Anders was the senior surviving Polish officer captured by the Soviets in 1939. On 14 Aug 1941, the day after the order was signed, Anders was released from the NKVD’s dreaded Lubyanka Prison, one of only a handful of human beings in history that ever walked back out of Lubyanka after being sentenced there.

Operation Dervish: the First Arctic Convoy

On 21 August 1941, Operation Dervish was launched from Hvalfjoror, Iceland, when five British and one Dutch merchantmen left the harbor to convoy to Archangelsk, Soviet Union, far above the Arctic Circle. As it was the first such convoy into unknown waters, it was heavily escorted lest a German success against the convoy be seen as the Allies balking in their commitment to help the Soviet Union who was doing the lion’s share of the fighting against Germany. Dervish was escorted by three destroyers, three minesweepers, and three anti-submarine trawlers, with a heavy cruiser and three destroyers on patrol in the Norwegian Sea to deal with German raiders if needed.

The Dervish convoy was unlike any other convoy so far in the war. The bitter cold, icebergs, and unpredictable storms made the ten day journey treacherous. Combatting ice buildup on the ships was a constant chore, and the perils of not doing so were quickly felt when on the third day, ice formed from normal sea spray grew so heavy and thick on one trawler that it nearly capsized. The entire convoy made it safely to Archangelsk on 31 August without German interference. (The Germans had no air reconnaissance in Norway at the time. That changed quickly once word got out.)

The Soviet reception (or lack thereof) at the port threatened to derail the whole operation. No stevedores were available so the sailors unloaded the ships themselves, only to face the wrath of the local Soviet bureaucracy for faults both unintentional and imagined (Such as placing the crated Hurricane fighters in the wrong warehouse). Events came to a head when sailors were arrested and beaten for not having the proper identity papers. But fortunately, a high ranking Soviet official from Moscow arrived and released the battered detainees, before there was further bloodshed.

The successful Dervish convoy proofed the Arctic route, and established common procedures for both the Allies and Soviets. Further Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union were given the “PQ” designation (the tragic PQ-17 being the most famous), and those returning QP. The Dervish ships themselves would be “QP-1”, and PQ-1 would leave Iceland later in September. 25% of all Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union went via the Arctic convoys.

Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 Extension

At Roosevelt’s request, Congress voted on 12 August 1941, to extend the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 beyond 12 mos. It passed by one vote.

The first draft class of October 1940 threatened to desert and spray painted “OHIO” (Over the Hill In October) across their barracks, but few did. The extension affected about 70,000 draftees by the time of Pearl Harbor. The vast majority of these men would form the NCO corps of the US Army in 1942. The US Army would most likely not have been able to conduct effective offensive operations in 1942 without the extension.

The Ottoman Fleet of Selim II

de Valette’s and the Knights of the Order of St John’s victory at the Siege of Malta essentially put a cork in the central Mediterranean and prevented Ottoman expansion westward. The elderly Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent, convinced by the Siege that only he could lead his armies victoriously, lashed out at Protestant Hungary but died of dysentery during the campaign. In 1566, he was succeeded by his son Selim II.

Selim was not the same man as his father whom was the greatest of the Ottoman sultans. He had much more interest in leisurely pursuits such as wine and the pleasures of the flesh. After concluding peace with Hungary and a disastrous campaign against the Tsardom of Russia, Selim, aware that he was being compared to his father, decided to seize an easier target closer to home, the Venetian island of Cyprus, the source of his favorite vintage.

In response, the newly elected St Pius V, (one of the Catholicism’s greatest Popes) called for a crusade and a league of nations to oppose the Turk’s invasion of Christian Cyprus. On 7 Mar 1571, the Holy League was formed of most Catholic states on the Mediterranean (except France which habitually opposed Hapsburg Spain and Austria, despite the consequences). However, before a force could be assembled to relieve the besieged Cyprus, the Venetians defending the port of Nicosia capitulated on 1 August 1791.

With the fall of Cyprus, Selim was no longer drunk on wine but on the sweet taste of victory. He vowed to crush Venice for Islam. But first he had to blockade the merchant city and to do that he needed to control the Adriatic. On 13 August 1571, 230 galleys under his grand admiral Ali Pasha with the prized possession of the Ottoman Empire, The Banner of the Caliphs, arrived at a bustling trade port at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth: