Past Talks : April 2022

“Exceptional Raids – Changing the Courses of War” by Wing Commander (Ret’d) Tony Davies

This evening’s talk had a very different slant to it from the predominantly aviation based narratives to which we have become accustomed. Wg Cdr Tony Davies is a familiar figure at our Talk Evenings and he is not in the least embarrassed that he wore a sky blue uniform and flew Vulcans, rather than a navy blue uniform and flying Vixens.

However, prior to joining the RAF Tony studied for a degree in Medieval History and that interest has remained with him. For our delectation tonight, Tony has shared an interest he developed in how significant battles have been won over the last 2,000 years, which changed the course of the war being fought.

Just one battle could grab our interest for a whole evening, however, in the short time available Tony squeezed in seven notable conflicts, beginning with:

The Battle of Alesia This battle took place in Gaul, now France in 52BC. The ‘politics’ leading up to the battle are complex and numerous, involving several Gallic tribal groups that Julius Caesar wanted to constrain and contain once and for all. In readiness for the battle, the Gallic leader Vercingetorix put all of his troops on a hilltop, with all their best weapons on show to unnerve the Romans.

Roman soldiers were consistently well trained and very loyal. Their loyalty was rewarded with Roman citizenship after 25 years service, and in each different country the soldiers were always of foreign nationality, thereby eliminating the risk of soldiers having divided loyalty over the people they were fighting.

Caesar was a clever man. Vercingetorix expected the Romans to struggle up the hill to do battle, but Caesar did the opposite. He surrounded the hill at its base and created fortifications, so laying siege to Vercingetorix and his followers. No food, hence no battle as such. Caesar simply starved out his enemy.

Battle of Adrianople Time has now moved forward to 378AD and we are still with the Romans, this time in the Eastern Roman Empire, around Turkey. The Barbarians had come to the region having been following the Silk Route after China had denied them entry. As ever, there were several skirmishes with the Romans, eventually resulting in the Roman leader, Valens, deciding to resolve the problem with a full battle. Valens was confident that he would readily overwhelm the Barbarians, due to his apparent numerical superiority. Unknown to Valens was the fact that the Barbarian Cavalry was just a few days distant. Instead of winning the battle, Valens and the Roman Army came second – they lost, quite spectacularly. Valens’ intelligence gathering was defective and inadequate, and it lost him the battle. He was not the first, nor the last to do so for this reason.

An interesting feature of the Barbarian weaponry was that their spears were single-use only and could not be thrown back by the enemy. Having been thrown, the spear tips broke off when they hit something, leaving just a blunt shaft.

Battle of Hastings Nearer to home, and the date: 1066. William, the Duke of Normandy firmly believed that Britain should be his, by right. He therefore did his homework and resolved to take an army across the English Channel to claim his right. The Bayeux Tapestry, all 70 metres of it, portrays the events as they happened. King Harold Godwinson had only just come to the throne of England, following the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold was aware of the prospect of an invasion from France and took an army to the south coast. Unfortunately, he soon had to rush north to face and beat two separate invading Viking armies, which depleted his resources substantially. With perfect timing William set forth from France and landed near Hastings. By the time Harold marched south again to meet William on the beaches, Harold and his army was not at its best. We know the outcome. Up until that time, Britain was a fragmented land. William quickly changed all that as he dominated the country and made it into a whole, united nation.

William had done his homework.

Anglo-American War 1812-1814 was the time when Britain lost its American colonies following the usual political shenanigans. This did not go well at home, so Britain decided to win them back via 11 separate battles and a blockade at sea by the rather large Royal Navy fleet of warships. As ever, it was a long, protracted, hard fought war, resulting in a large number of forts being built by both sides, in particular along the edges of the lakes now forming the border with Canada. In the process the British set fire to the White House and were generally a beastly nuisance in trying to regain ‘their’ territories. Tony enlightened us with a great many anecdotes emanating from this war, one of which rather summed up the whole sorry episode – the Battle of New Orleans. The date, 1815. The idea: land British troops by sea to take New Orleans by storm. A detail that Major General Sir Edward Pakenham had not fully taken on-board was that the march from the landing place to the objective was a long march; a very, very long march across marshland. That was not the worst part. The worst part was that the war had ended a month beforehand!

Not just inadequate intelligence, but also inadequate communications.

Maastricht and Aachen These two cities are very close together, Maastricht being in Holland and Aachen In Germany. Also nearby is the Belgian city of Liege and together they form a ‘triple-point’ and the centre of enormous histories – much of it war torn. It is where in WW2 the Battle of the Bulge took place; Maastricht became the first Dutch city to be relieved; and Aachen became the first German city to fall. Charlemagne, who lived around 800AD is known for his role in unifying large parts of Europe and he chose Aachen (Aix-le-Chappelle in his day) as his capital. Also, it is where all subsequent German kings were crowned.

Moral: if you are looking for a fight, the region has previous ‘form’.

Dambusters Raid Operation Chastise took place in May 1943 when 617 Sqn successfully attacked dams in the German Ruhr valley. Before WW2 started the British Air Ministry had identified the German industrial complexes in the Ruhr valley as being strategically important targets. What made this raid so very different was the sheer novelty, audacity, bravery, skill and engineering achievement that combined to make it a success. The aircraft flew in moonlight, at precisely 60ft above the water, on a precise course, to deliver the very special bombs exactly on target. Tony showed us a photograph of a man standing shoulder high alongside one of the cylindrical bombs laying on its side.

The leader of the operation, Guy Gibson wrote two words in his logbook “Awarded VC”.

Pearl Harbour The intention of this attack by Japan was to destroy the US naval power at the very outset of war. Eight battleships were sunk by 351 carrier based Japanese aircraft. It was a shock.

Prior to the war, the Japanese Commander-in Chief, Admiral Yamamoto, had spent a year at Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA and from that experience, he advised against going to war with the USA, but was overruled.

Subsequent breaking of the difficult cypher codes (known as ‘Purple’) used by Japan, helped the USA defeat Japan in three major sea battles and later to shoot down and kill Adm Yamamoto after a very long interception flight by 16 P-38 Lightning fighters.

Have we learned any lessons from history? It has not stopped wars, but ingenuity has resolved many battles.

Thank you Tony Davies for a very different look at how the courses of war have been changed.