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Battle of the Standard, 22 August 1139

Battle of the Standard, 22 August 1139

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Battle of the Standard, 22 August 1139

Battle during the Anarchy in which the invading Scots, led by David I, were defeated by the English, led by William, count of Aumale, on Cowton Moor, north of Northallerton.

Battles of the Anglo-Scottish Wars

Crusades: Siege of Acre

The Siege of Acre took place August 28, 1189 to July 12, 1191, during the Third Crusade and saw Crusader forces capture the city. Following the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, efforts were made to launch a new crusade to retake the city. As a first step, Guy of Lusignan commenced a siege of Acre. Unable to take the city quickly, he was later joined by arriving Crusader forces led by Duke Leopold V of Austria, King Richard I of England, and King Philip II Augustus of France. This combined force succeeded in defeating Saladin's relief force and compelled the garrison to surrender.

Battle of the Standard, 22 August 1139 - History

Of the two, Stephen's legacy was more obsure, via his daughter Mary (Marie) and his connection to Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, while Matilda's was direct and obvious, via her son Henry II. After his coronation Matilda continued to act as Regent in Normandy during his absences and Charters were issued in both of their names. For his own part Henry, in addition to all of the lands and titles he already held, managed to gain a foothold in Ireland. How did this happen?

Although I'm going off on a tangent and diverging from the original intent of the blog somewhat, the events of this period represent an important convergence point in the histories of England, Wales, and Ireland, and I think it's a story worth telling.

As mentioned in the blog entry "Stephen and the Welsh", Henry conducted largely successful campaigns in Wales in 1157, 63, and 65, and the Norman presence was fairly well established despite various rumblings and revolts. And what has this to do with Ireland you ask? Well .

Ferns (Fearna) is a small historic town in the north of County Wexford and much of the history of modern Ireland begins here. It was the base of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster, who appealed to Henry II of England for aid after he was ousted from his lands by Tairrdelbach mac Ruaidri Ua Conchobair, the High King of Eire, in 1166. Diarmait fled first to Wales and then followed Henry to Aquitaine to seek his support and consent to recruit soldiers. For Henry, who had first given thought to an invasion of Ireland soon after his coronation*, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. He agreed to help Diarmait reassert control in Leinster and eventually made men, knights, and nobles available for this purpose.

By 1167 Diarmait had obtained the services of Maurice Fitz Gerald and the first Norman knight, Richard Fitz Godbert de Roche, landed in Ireland in that year. In 1168 after several appeals to Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Deheubarth, Diarmait secured the release Fitz Gerald's half-brother Robert Fitz-Stephen from captivity so that he could also take part in the Irish campaign. Fitz-Stephen helped Diarmait organise a mercenary army of Norman and Welsh soldiers. In something of a coup Diarmait also obtained the support of Richard de Clare, the Earl of Pembroke, nicknamed Strongbow*.

In May 1169 the main body of Norman and Welsh forces landed in Wexford near Bannow strand. After a two day siege during which all the ships in the town's harbour were burnt, the defenders sent envoys to Diarmait. A bishop (or maybe two) in the town had persuaded them to surrender. The defenders renewed their allegiance to him and the Siege of Wexford was over.

Not content with this victory Mac Murchada sought vengeance for past ills, assembled an army, and prepared to march towards Dublin. His ambitious plans apparently also included eventually marching on Tara. Over-reaching himself Diarmait lost a battle and had to retreat. Strongbow had not been in the initial invasion force and after appeals from Diarmait, who was facing new threats to his position, he finally arrived in Ireland in August 1170. Within a short time Leinster was settled and Waterford and Dublin were under Diarmait's control. Strongbow’s support came at a price though and in exchange for his loyalty Diarmait offered Richard his daughter Aoife in marriage, to which she agreed, and made him heir to his kingdom.

Of far greater consequence though was the fact that Diarmait had, by his appeals for help, invited the Normans to invade Ireland.

Henry II had kept a watchful eye on these events. He grew concerned that Strongbow and his supporters would become independent from him and perhaps even establish of a rival Norman state in Ireland. In 1171 Henry arrived in Leinster with an army in order to establish his authority. He stayed for six months and declared himself Lord of Ireland. During this time many Irish princes and all of the Normans took oaths of homage to him. In 1177 he named his youngest son, John, Lord of Ireland. The domination of Ireland by the English had begun.

Matilda, The Empress, of course had not lived to see the outcome of her son's ambitions in Ireland but in an interesting footnote she had opposed Henry's original plan. (see notes below)

* Soon after his coronation in 1154 Henry had sent an embassy to Pope Adrian IV led by Bishop Arnold of Lisieux. The group of clerics requested authorisation for Henry to invade Ireland. Some historians suggest that this resulted in the issue of the papal bull Laudabiliter in 1155, although the authenticity of this has been questioned. Henry may have acted under the influence of a plot in which English clerics sought to dominate the Irish church, perhaps he was simply ambitious and greedy for more, or it’s possible that he may have intended to secure Ireland as a lordship for his younger brother William who died soon after the plan was devised. Whatever the case may be, any plans for Ireland that Henry may have had were laid aside at this time.

* To his contemporaries Richard de Clare, Strongbow, was known as Earl of Striguil

* Maurice Fitz Gerald had fought at the Battle of Crug Mawr in 1136 (again see the post Stephen and the Welsh for more information)

* More About Robert Fitz-Stephen:
Robert Fitz-Stephen was the illegitimate son of Stephen, Constable of Cardigan. His mother was Nest ferch Rhys, a Welsh princess of Deheubarth renowned for her beauty. Robert succeeded his father in the office of Custos Campe Aberteifi and first appears in history in 1157. That year Henry II invaded Gwynedd and while the main army faced the forces of Owain east of the River Conwy another force, which included Robert and his half-brother Henry Fitzroy, attacked Anglesey by sea. This force was defeated in battle. Robert was wounded and his half-brother killed.

Robert pops up again when he was captured by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1165. He was released after appeals by Diarmait, King of Leinster, the first in 1167 and again in 1168.

As already mentioned Robert Fitz-Stephen helped organise an army for Diarmait and in May 1169 led the vanguard of Welsh-Norman auxiliaries to Ireland with a force of 30 knights, 60 men-at-arms and 300 archers. Maurice Fitz Gerald landed at the same bay with 10 knights and 60 archers the next day. This force merged with about 500 soldiers commanded by Diarmait. After their victory at the Siege of Wexford, Mac Murchada granted Fitz-Stephen and Fitz Gerald a share in two cantreds, Bargy and Forth. This comprised all the land between Bannow and the town of Wexford.

From the writing of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales or Gerald de Barri):

"Mac Murchard was much delighted and encouraged by the tidings of this new arrival, and calling to mind, with the desire of vengeance, the deep injuries which the people of Dublin had done both to his father and himself, he assembled an army and prepared to march towards Dublin. In the meantime, Fitz-Stephen was building a fort upon a steep rock, commonly called the Karrec, situated about two miles from Wexford, a place strong by nature, but which art made still stronger."

Robert received a further grant for services rendered in 1177 - the kingdom of Cork from Lismore to the sea with the exception of the city of Cork. This one was made by Henry II and shared jointly with Miles de Cogan. However things did not go quite so smoothly this time. The Irish princes disputed the king's right to dispose of the territory, arguing that they had not resisted the king or committed any act that justified the forfeiture of their lands. Consequently, Fitz-Stephen was nearly overwhelmed by a rising in the Kingdom of Desmond in 1182 and experienced great difficulty in maintaining his position. Philip de Barri, the second son of his half-sister Angharad, came to Ireland in 1185 and together with yet another relative, Raymond FitzGerald (Raymond Le Gros), they recovered the lands and reached a compromise agreement. The barons held seven cantreds near Cork while the remaining twenty four were retained by the Irish princes. Fitz-Stephen would eventually cede these territories to Philip de Barri as he had no living male heirs. The date of his death is uncertain.

Oh, what a tangled web this family weaves!
Henry Fitzroy was the illegitimate son of Nest and King Henry I
Rhys ap Gruffydd was the nephew of Robert’s mother Nest
Nest was also the mother of Maurice and Angharad
Robert de Barri was present at the Siege of Wexford. He was the eldest son of Robert’s half-sister Angharad
Miles de Cogan was the son of Robert’s half-sister Gwladys

American soldier Harry Butters killed in the Battle of the Somme

On August 31, 1916, Harry Butters, an American soldier serving in the British army during World War I, is killed by a German shell during the Battle of the Somme, while fighting to secure the town of Guillemont, France.

The son of a prominent San Francisco industrialist, Butters was raised partially in England and schooled there at Beaumont College, a Jesuit academy in Old Windsor. He later attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, before inheriting his father’s fortune upon the latter’s death in 1906 and moving back to California, where he worked briefly for Standard Oil and purchased his own ranch. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Butters rallied to the Allied cause and decided to join the British army. Through his old school connections in England, he received a commission in the Royal Artillery, 24th Division, 107th Brigade in April 1915. In September, Butters traveled to France with his comrades, where he took part in the ill-executed British attack during the Battle of Loos later that month.

“I find myself a soldier among millions of others in the great allied armies fighting for all I believe right and civilized and humane against a power which is evil and threatens the existence of all the rights we prize and the freedom we enjoy,” Butters wrote home on October 5, 1915, describing his experiences on the battlefield at Loos. “It may seem to you that for me this is all quite uncalled for, that it can only mean either the supreme sacrifice for nothing or at best some of the best years of my life wasted but I tell you that I am not only willing to give my life to this enterprise (for that is comparatively easy except when I think of you), but that I firmly believe—if I live through it to spend a useful lifetime with you—that never will I have the opportunity to gain so much honorable advancement for my own soul, or to do so much for the cause of the world’s progress, as I am here daily…I think less of myself than I did, less of the heights of personal success I aspired to climb, and more of the service that each of us must render in payment for the right to live and by virtue of which only we can progress.”

Butters was on the front lines near the Belgian village of Ploegsteert in April 1916 when he met Winston Churchill Churchill was serving as a battalion commander on the Western Front after leaving the British Admiralty in the wake of the disastrous Allied operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula the previous year. Impressed by the young American volunteering in service to England—”I just lied to 𠆎m and said I was British born,” Butters told Churchill, explaining his commission in the Royal Artillery𠅌hurchill invited Butters to dine with him in his bunker, where the two men ate and drank champagne on the evening of April 11. After suffering from shell shock—the newly diagnosed psychological trauma of battle𠅋utters was sent on leave in June. Although Churchill, then back in London, urged Butters to take his time before returning to service, he went back to the Western Front on July 2, one day after the Allies launched the epic Battle of the Somme.

On August 31, 1916, Butters and his unit were at the Somme, firing on Trones Woods, outside Guillemont, when his gun received a direct German hit during a massive barrage he and all the members of his battery were killed. “I don’t exaggerate when I say nearly 100,000 shells dropped that day in an area of about 800 square yards,” wrote Reverend A. Caseby in his diary entry recounting Butters’ death. Butters was buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery at Meulte, a little village south of Albert, France. In accordance with a request he made in late August to a British chaplain, his gravestone reads simply 𠇊n American Citizen.”

10 things you need to know about the battle of Bosworth

The battle of Bosworth, fought on 22 August 1485, was the last significant clash of the Wars of the Roses. The armies of Yorkist king Richard III were defeated by Henry Tudor (later Henry VII), which heralded the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and marked the birth of the Tudor age. Richard III was killed during the brutal battle. But how did Richard III die? Here, Chris Skidmore, author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors, brings you 10 facts about one of the most famous battles in English history

This competition is now closed

Published: August 22, 2020 at 3:30 am

For many, 22 August 1485 remains one of the key dates in British history. Yet what exactly took place in the early hours of the morning (the battle was over by noon) still remains tantalisingly elusive. So, what are the facts?

Many myths surrounding Bosworth remain prevalent – stirred by the imaginings of Shakespeare, whose famous words, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”, placed in the mouth of the defeated Richard III, are occasionally still recounted as part of the narrative description. Despite decades of research into what exactly happened at Bosworth, and where exactly the battle was fought, it seems truth remains inconvenient when it comes to telling a good story.

That shouldn’t stop anyone knowing the basic facts of one of the most famous battles in English history, however. So for anyone interested in knowing as far as possible ‘what happened’, here are 10 key things to bear in mind…

The battle of Bosworth wasn’t actually fought at Bosworth

It only became known as the battle of Bosworth from around 25 years after it was fought. Instead, contemporaries knew it as the battle of ‘Redemore’, meaning place of reeds. Other names for the battle included ‘Brownheath’ and ‘Sandeford’.

The site of where the conflict took place has now been located two miles from the battlefield centre, close to the villages of Dadlington and Stoke Golding. The landscape would have been a marshy plainland (later to be drained), across which ran a Roman road.

It is hard to imagine the scale of battle

Richard III’s army, at around 15,000 men, was approximately three times the size of Henry Tudor’s army at just 5,000 men. Meanwhile the Stanley brothers (Henry Tudor’s step-father, Thomas Lord Stanley, and Sir William Stanley) had around 6,000 men between them. These numbers meant that the battle site would have had to stretch across several miles.

At the same time, Richard had an impressive military arsenal

One account mentions 140 cannon, while the archaeological searches of the battlefield have found more than 30 cannonshot – more than any other discovered on a European medieval battlefield.

Henry Tudor had landed in Wales on 7 August, and had marched more than 200 miles into England

Richard III had been ‘overjoyed’ to hear of his landing, confident that he would defeat the ‘rebel’. So confident was the king that he even delayed leaving his base at Nottingham by a day in order to celebrate a feast day.

A novice when it came to battles, Henry Tudor remained stationed at the back of the field, while his forces were led by the Lancastrian general, John de Vere, the earl of Oxford, who also led Henry’s vanguard

In between the two forces was a marsh, which Oxford managed to navigate around, keeping the marsh on his right, before launching an attack against Richard III’s vanguard, led by the aged John, duke of Norfolk.

It was Oxford’s crushing of Richard’s vanguard that began to turn the battle for Henry: Richard’s troops began to desert him

In particular, his ‘rear guard’ – 7,000 men led by Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland – stood still, and ‘no blows were given or received’, suggesting that Northumberland’s men were kept out of the action. Perhaps they were unable to cross the marsh.

Alternatively, tales of Northumberland’s treachery were rife. Later he was killed by his own supporters for ‘disappointing’ Richard. Whatever the cause, the fact that the rear half of Richard’s army did not engage in battle left the king in real trouble.

On this podcast, historian and politician Chris Skidmore offers his take on pivotal moments such as Richard’s seizing of the throne, his death at Bosworth and the disappearance of the princes in the tower:

Richard was offered a horse to flee the battle, but refused

“God forbid I yield one step”, he is reported to have said. “This day I will die as a king or win”. Richard spotted the standards of Henry Tudor (soon to be Henry VII) and decided to charge towards him with his mounted cavalry, perhaps some 200 men in total, wearing the crown over his helmet.

The battle around the standards was brutal

All accounts attest to Richard’s strength in battle. Even John Rous, who compared Richard to the Antichrist, admitted “if I may say the truth to his credit, though small in body and feeble of limb, he bore himself like a gallant knight and acted with distinction as his own champion until his last breath”.

Richard knocked down Sir John Cheyney, who at six foot eight inches was the tallest soldier of his day, while Henry’s standard-bearer Sir William Brandon was killed. Richard’s own standard-bearer, Sir Percival Thribald, has both his legs cut from underneath him, but still managed to cling to the king’s standard.

It was only when Henry was in ‘immediate danger’ that the Stanleys – or rather Sir William Stanley – came to his aid, crashing into the side of Richard’s men and sweeping them into the marsh

Sir William had nothing to lose if Richard had won – he had already been declared a traitor days previously. His wily elder brother, Thomas Lord Stanley, despite being married to Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, seems to have thought best to stay out of the battle altogether. When Henry was crowned on a nearby hill, one source reported that it was Sir William Stanley, rather than his brother, who placed the crown on Henry’s head.

Thanks to the discovery of Richard’s remains, we now know in detail how Richard must have met his end

One report puts his death down to a Welsh halberdier – the halberd being an axe-like weapon on the end of a six-foot long pole. The king’s helmet seems to have been cut away (there are cut marks on the skull’s jaw suggesting that the helmet’s strap has been cut off) to expose his head.

Several gouge marks in the front of the skull seem to have been caused by a dagger, perhaps in a struggle. Then the two wounds that would have killed Richard include the back part of his skull being sheathed off by what seems to be a halberd if this did not kill him, a sword blade thrust from the base of the skull straight through the brain certainly would have done the job.

On this podcast, following the momentous announcement in 2013 that the body found in a Leicestershire car park was indeed Richard III, we spoke to Leicester archaeologist Lin Foxhall and Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society, to get an inside view on the developments:

Richard was then placed on the back of a horse, trussed up like a hog (his insignia) with his ‘privy parts’ exposed, to be taken to Leicester, where his body was put on public display.

In conclusion, Bosworth remains a battle with an enduring appeal: it is not simply a tale of defeat and victory, but also of treachery and intrigue. But as recent discoveries have shown, the battle’s own history remains very much a living one, with our understanding of where the battle was fought and how exactly Richard III died being completely transformed in recent years. The story of Bosworth, 529 years on, remains very much alive.

Chris Skidmore is the author of Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2013)

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in August 2014

The British Move

After hearing from Dartnell, Chelmsford resolved to move against the Zulus in force. At dawn, Chelmsford led 2,500 men and 4 guns out from Isandlwana to track down the Zulu army. Though badly outnumbered, he was confident that British firepower would adequately compensate for his lack of men. To guard the camp at Isandlwana, Chelmsford left 1,300 men, centered on the 1st Battalion of the 24th Foot, under Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine. In addition, he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Durnford, with his five troops of native cavalry and a rocket battery, to join Pulleine.

On the morning of the 22nd, Chelmsford began vainly searching for the Zulus, unaware that they had slipped around his force and were moving on Isandlwana. Around 10:00 Durnford and his men arrived at the camp. After receiving reports of Zulus to the east, he departed with his command to investigate. At approximately 11:00, a patrol led by Lieutenant Charles Raw discovered the main body of the Zulu army in a small valley. Spotted by the Zulus, Raw's men began a fighting retreat back to Isandlwana. Warned of the Zulus' approach by Durnford, Pulleine began forming his men for battle.


Charles I raised the royal standard in Nottingham on 22 August 1642. It was the moment war was declared between the King and the parliament of the day.

The walk and talk on Sunday, 22 August, will explain, in-depth, Nottingham's role in the civil war.

Guide Cara Simmonds said: "It will give you a different view of the city, the castle and it's importance in history."

The museum assistant and English Civil War re-enactor added that the Raising of the Standard tour would cover costumes, fighting styles and weaponry as well as the battles that happened in Nottingham.

"It's a tour and talk for anyone, but especially those with an interest in Nottingham and its history."

Raising of the Standard

In Henry Dawson's dramatic painting of the historic moment Charles I is seen heroically raising the flag in Nottingham, defying the elements and sending a strong message to his opponents.

However, Nottingham historian Dr Trevor Foulds said the event was almost comedic.

He said: "It was blowing a gale, it was raining, hardly anyone turned up. People were not impressed.

"They set the standard up. The wind was so strong it blew it down. Not a good start to the declaration of war when you're dragging your royal standard out of the mud."

Not only had he made a hash of the raising of the standard but he also had the proclamation of war rewritten.

Dr Foulds said: "The whole situation was seen as a bit of a farce and a total damp squib."

Charles chose Nottingham

Charles chose Nottingham because of its locality, as it was almost equidistant between London and the north.

He had great difficulty in persuading the people of Nottingham to his cause.

"He expected everyone to fall over themselves and do exactly what he wanted," Dr Foulds added.

"He was more than a little surprised when people didn't hand over their gunpowder and arms, or join his army."

Charles' problems in Nottingham should have been an omen for what was to come.

He lost the war and his head when he was executed on 30 January 1649 at Whitehall, London.

The special tour of Nottingham Castle and its caves starts at 2.30pm on Sunday, 22 August 2010. Tickets are £8.00 for adults and £4.50 for concessions. Places are limited on the tour so booking is recommended, 0115 915 3700.

Sopwith Camel F.1 B3834 “Wonga Bonga”

“Wonga Bonga” was a 130hp Clerget 9B powered Sopwith F.1 Camel from a production order for 200 aircraft placed with The Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd in June 1917 (numbers B3751 to B3950). It was delivered to RNAS Manston War Flight on 10 July 1917 in response to the growing air raid panic caused by Gotha bombers and flew several Anti Gotha Patrols over the next two months piloted by RH Day and AF Brandon. The words “Wonga Bonga” (Wonga = Gotha, because of their distinctive engine sound, and Bonga = smasher). After 8 months of service, B3834 was scrapped in February 1918.

War in Afghanistan Begins

• Oct. 7, 2001: Airstrikes by the United States and Great Britain are launched in Afghanistan at Taliban and al Qaeda training camps and targets. “What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted,”ਊl Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden says in a video statement released the same day. “Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed, and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated.”

• Oct. 19-20, 2001: The ground war begins, with special forces striking in Kandahar. In the coming weeks, Britain, Turkey, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, France and Poland all announce they will deploy troops to Afghanistan.

• Nov. 9, 2001: The Afghan Northern Alliance captures Mazar-e-Sharif, a Taliban stronghold. 

Nov. 13, 2001: Kabul falls following airstrikes and ground attacks by the United States and Afghan Northern Alliance.

Dec. 6-17, 2001: The Battle of Tora Bora rages in a cave complex in Eastern Afghanistan’s White Mountains. U.S.-led coalition forces attempt to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but he escapes.

Dec. 7, 2001: Kandahar, the last major stronghold of the Taliban, falls.

• Feb. 21, 2002: A video confirms the execution-style death of Wall Street Journal reporterꃚniel Pearl਋y Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a self-described mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

• June 13, 2002: Hamid Karzai, a favored candidate of the U.S., is elected by a traditional Afghan Loya Jirga council to a two-year term as Afghanistan’s transitional head of state. In 2004, he becomes Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president.

The Allies’ Billion-dollar Secret: The Proximity Fuze of World War II

On the morning of Jan. 5, 1943, four Japanese Aichi D3A dive bombers surprised a U.S. Navy task force operating off Guadalcanal. Though slow and obsolete, the D3A (Allied reporting name “Val”) remained a threat due to its accuracy and durability. One scored a hit on the attached New Zealand light cruiser Achilles before the group broke off its attack. Almost as an afterthought anti-aircraft (AA) gunners aboard the cruiser USS Helena unleashed a cursory barrage on the departing Vals.

Helena’s AA defenses comprised a dozen 5-inch guns plus short-range 20- and 40 mm guns. Two 5-inch salvos downed one of the Vals––without directly hitting it. Instead, at least one of the cruiser’s shells passed close enough to the dive bomber to detonate and fatally damage the aircraft with a blast of shrapnel.

Though it received no public attention at the time, the engagement marked a transformative moment in the history of artillery and aerial warfare—the first time an enemy aircraft was deliberately brought down by a near-miss.

Dr. Merle Tuve / Getty Images

Helena’s 5-inch guns were the first to fire a revolutionary type of projectile in action. The shells incorporated a proximity fuze, or, as it was then deceptively named, a variable time (VT) fuze. The combat success by Helena’s gunners was the desired outcome of a years-long technological, industrial and military endeavor involving scores of researchers and more than 100 factories nationwide. By war’s end an army of workers had assembled and installed more than 22 million innovative fuzes of the type—each containing about 130 miniaturized electronic parts––at a cost of over $1 billion in 1940s dollars (roughly $15 billion today).

The combat effects of the fuzes, whether used in shells fired from AA guns or land-based artillery, were immediate, destructive and demoralizing to enemies. The program remained a closely held secret throughout the war, so Japanese and German recipients of such fire never realized why Allied artillery suddenly became so uncannily accurate and deadly.

World War I had proved an object lesson in the power and effectiveness of aerial warfare. Given such technological leaps, the concept of a proximity fuze was attractive—and deceptively simple. Germany sought to develop such a fuze for artillery and bombs in the early 1930s and persisted in its efforts through World War II, but ultimately concluded it was an impossible idea that would never be practical. Japan also worked to develop a fuze and actually achieved a workable version. But they fielded it too late in the war to be decisive and deployed it exactly once—in a dropped bomb.

British scientists started work on a proximity fuze in the late 1930s and solved enough of the inherent problems to test marginally effective prototypes. Their effort was stymied by cost overruns and the twin challenges of miniaturized components and adaptability for mass production. With the war on their doorstep, they shared their research and began cooperating with the ongoing American fuze project.

Founded in the summer of 1940, the U.S. National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) served as a link between the National Academy of Sciences and the Pentagon. Chairing the committee was eminent MIT-educated electrical engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush, who had proposed formation of the NDRC to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president reportedly approved the concept within minutes.

Fuze production lines opened at several sites. / National Institute of Science & Technology

To solve the branches’ myriad military problems, the NDRC turned to various specialized sections. Section T was tasked with creating a workable proximity fuze for large-caliber artillery. Fortunately, in August 1940 the section came under the able direction of Merle Tuve, an accomplished and innovative physicist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Under Tuve’s astute leadership, a handful of scientists and engineers explored how such a device might be conceived and produced. The project soon progressed beyond the institution’s capacity. A new research and development facility—dubbed the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)—was established under the aegis of Johns Hopkins University. The primary military client for its research was the Navy, which was especially concerned about the vulnerability of its ships to aerial attack—a concern vividly borne out by Japan’s devastating 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The urgency to develop a practical artillery fuze that did not depend on time-to-target calculations or even physical contact with a target was obvious to everyone familiar with the limitations of traditional AA artillery. Gunners of the time conceded that bringing down a small, fast-moving and high-flying aircraft was mostly a matter of luck. Period studies showed that statistically a direct hit might occur in one out of some 1,200 AA projectiles fired. Luck indeed!

Adm. Arleigh Burke, who in 1942–43 commanded a fleet of U.S. destroyers in the Solomon Islands campaign, wrote after the war about the difficulties of defending against Japanese air attacks, especially after dark. “Mechanical time fuzes which we had been using only brought down a plane at night by accident,” he recalled. “[They] were good for harassing enemy aircraft at night, but that was about all.”

In their effort to develop a workable VT fuze, Section T’s scientists, engineers and ordnance experts faced a laundry list of challenges:

To create an optical, magnetic or electronic feedback mechanism that signaled “detonate” to an artillery shell moving at an initial speed of 2,600 feet per second at the moment it neared an enemy aircraft traveling at 300 miles per hour.

To fit a radarlike radio (transmitter and receiver) device into a 5-inch projectile only 20¾ inches long and already packed with 7 pounds of high explosive.

To miniaturize such an electronic device to fit the volume of a pint milk bottle in an era when no one had imagined transistors or integrated circuits.

To develop a battery of sufficient power and durability to operate the fuze and function in temperatures ranging from 100 degrees to minus 50 degrees.

To develop a fuze able to withstand the impact of being fired from a 5-inch gun—a shock of acceleration equal to 20,000 times the force of gravity—as well as the spinning projectile’s centrifugal force of 500 revolutions per second.

To incorporate safety features to enable safe handling and prevent accidental detonation.

To craft a fuze adaptable for use in a range of U.S. and British weapons.

To engineer a design for rapid, high-quality mass production—well into millions of units, with components sourced from a multitude of American factories.

Given such requirements, it is small wonder sophisticated nations gave up the proximity fuze as a technological dream beyond their research and production capabilities. Yet it turned out solutions to the challenges were not beyond the reach of American scientists, engineers, inventors, technicians, ordnance experts and mass-production manufacturers. They actually did it.

Details of the VT fuze / Naval History & Heritage Command

Tuve’s team, which assembled first at Carnegie and then at the new APL in nearby Silver Spring, Md., assessed the options and settled on devising a radarlike radio device. But how to make one small enough? At the time there was no such thing as solid-state electronic circuitry. Radios utilized bulbous glass vacuum tubes. While miniature vacuum tubes were used in hearing aids, they were in no way suitable for use in artillery shells.

Thus the development of miniature glass vacuum tubes that could withstand being shot from a gun became a top priority of physicist James Van Allen (who later discovered the planetary radiation belts that bear his name). That took nearly a year of research, experimentation and field testing using a series of powerful guns and explosives.

Meanwhile, APL researchers were refining the transceiver circuitry originally devised by the British scientists, and the National Carbon Co. was developing a workable power supply. (A pioneer manufacturer of dry cell batteries, National Carbon morphed into Union Carbide and Energizer, among other spin-offs.) Refinements of other electronic components and devices continued through the summer and fall of 1941, as such tech companies as Sylvania and the Radio Corp. of America (RCA) got involved.

The wartime urgency felt by those working on the fuze project was starkly expressed in a series of dictates posted on the laboratory walls by Tuve, Section T’s no-nonsense and highly motivated chief:

I don’t want any damn fool in this laboratory to save money. I only want him to save time.

Shoot at an 80 percent job we can’t afford perfection.

Don’t try for an “A” in a war “D” is necessary and enough, but an “F” is fatal.

The best job in the world is a total failure if it is too late.

Our moral responsibility goes all the way to the final battle use of this unit its failure there is our failure, regardless of who is technically responsible for the causes of failure. It is our job to achieve the end result.

The fuze ultimately developed by Section T and its cooperating organizations employed a miniature radio transmitter and receiver with an amplifier. It included a thyratron trigger, a gas-filled tube that functioned like an electronic switch. It also employed battery-powered safety gear to prevent an accidental detonation. Once the projectile was underway, the transmitter sent out a continuous radio signal that bounced back from the moving target—similar to the way radar operates. The receiver detected the return signal, which increased in intensity the closer the shell approached its target. Once the signal level passed a certain threshold, it activated the thyratron trigger, releasing an electrical charge stored in a capacitor. That charge tripped an electrical detonator that in turn set off the main explosive, which in 5-inch AA shells was ammonium picrate, known to ordnance experts as “Explosive D.”

One of the first tests of the configuration of tiny electronic components and dry cell batteries came on Jan. 29, 1942, when researchers had them installed in 5-inch projectiles and fired from a standard AA gun. Fifty-two percent of the launched fuzes activated successfully. Though falling short of Tuze’s requisite 80 percent, that success rate was good enough that the Navy Bureau of Ordnance instructed the Crosley Corp. of Cincinnati, Ohio, to begin pilot mass production of the fuze. To cloak the significance of the device, the bureau vaguely named it the variable time fuze.

The following month National Carbon developed an improved wet cell battery. The size and shape of a fountain pen, it offered more stability and a longer shelf life by separating out the electrolyte fluid in a glass ampule. The shock of a muzzle blast would break the glass and release the electrolyte, which under the centrifugal force of the rotating projectile would flow out to stacked carbon and zinc plates, thus activating the battery––an ingenious solution. Tuze’s researchers worked tirelessly on ways to refine the fuze. To ensure a kill, it had to detonate the moment the target was within the effective 70-yard blast radius of a standard 5-inch AA projectile.

By the summer of 1942 Tuve and his team were ready to test the VT fuze under simulated combat conditions. On August 12 the newly commissioned light cruiser USS Cleveland, then on its shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake Bay, began a scheduled two-day live-fire evaluation of the new fuze. The targets were three drones—small aircraft under remote radio-control––all of which gunners brought down on the first day with just four bursts of proximity-fuzed AA and despite evasive maneuvering by the controllers. The Navy cancelled the remainder of the test and immediately started Crosley, RCA, Eastman Kodak, General Electric and McQuay-Norris on mass production of the VT fuze using the miniaturized glass vacuum tubes from Sylvania. Production was slow at first—by year’s end the companies were assembling just 500 units per day. By late 1943, however, the rate had risen to about 40,000 units daily, and by war’s end production had reached 70,000 units per day.

Developmental engineers continued to adapt the fuzes for use in varying calibers of American and British AA guns, as well as other naval guns. They also modified fuzes for installation in aerial bombs and field artillery pieces. In practice that meant producing eight different fuzes for the U.S. Navy, 12 for the U.S. Army, four for the Royal Navy and six for the British army. As the proximity fuze proved itself in combat, demand grew. Eventually, some 70 versions of the device were in production, an undertaking that required continual testing, modification and assembly line changes.

The United States and Britain went to great lengths to ensure no examples fell into enemy hands. To that end the device was initially restricted for deployment to naval forces, largely ensuring enemy forces could not retrieve dud shells to examine and copy for use against the Allies.

In 1943 VT-fuzed AA fire was credited with more than half of all Japanese aircraft downed

A Japanese fighter shot down over the Pacific. / Naval History & Heritage Command

Early in 1943 during the Solomon Islands campaign, the proximity fuze made its presence felt when Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey’s task forces came under repeated night attack by torpedo-laden Mitsubishi G4M (Allied reporting name “Betty”) twin-engine bombers. As Samuel Eliot Morison writes in his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, “The attackers did not escape with whole hides smoking fuselages and bright surface bonfires attested the accuracy of anti-aircraft batteries and the efficiency of the super-secret Mark-32 shell fuze, which here had one of its first combat tests.” Morison describes the aftermath of a similar Japanese raid that February, a night attack by a dozen Bettys: “The night flickered with muzzle flashes, tracers, flares, float lights and the flaming pyramids of splashing ‘Bettys.’” Five of the attackers were downed and a convoy saved by “excellent anti-aircraft formation, in conjunction with fire-control radar and the deadly proximity fuze.” That year proximity-fuzed AA fire was credited with more than half of all Japanese aircraft downed by naval gunfire, though only 25 percent of the shells fired had been fitted with VT fuzes.

Use of the new fuze in the Navy’s 5-inch AA guns expanded across the Pacific during the final two years of the war. Some naval historians believe the Japanese resorted to kamikaze attacks by inexperienced airmen in part due to dire losses of seasoned aircrew to American AA fire—not that the kamikazes were immune to VT-fuzed shells. Consider the following account of a 90-minute suicide attack against the U.S. destroyers Hadley and Evans and four landing craft supply ships on May 11, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, as recounted in the wartime Bureau of Naval Personnel bulletin All Hands:

The fighter director tally later revealed that the little group of ships and planes had to oppose a total of 156 enemy planes.…At the end of the first half-hour the Evans had been hit four times by suicide planes, each ablaze from the AA fire. The Hadley had knocked down a dozen enemy planes, and the Evans had accounted for 23 before she had to retire from the fight.…“Indispensable” was the verdict on the role played by VT-fuzed ammunition in this action.

Though proximity fuzes were available for many applications, the embargo on their land use persisted until the summer of 1944 when Germany launched terror bombing attacks against London using V-1 flying bombs. Not aimed at specific targets, the jet-propelled missiles inflicted tens of thousands of civilian casualties and caused widespread damage. Launched from sites across the English Channel and approaching speeds of 400 mph, the pilotless missiles were hard to spot and even harder to hit.

The British scrambled to thwart the “buzz bombs” with cable-dangling barrage balloons, massed AA fire and even daring interceptions by RAF fighter pilots.

Amid the terror campaign Section T began modifying proximity fuzes to target the small, fast V-1s. The special fuzes were installed in British 3.7-inch AA ammunition and U.S. 90 mm AA shells. In mid-July the Allies rushed some 500 of the guns to installations along the channel, where their fire would not endanger RAF fighter planes. During the last four weeks of the 80-day campaign the results were dramatic.

The Allied coastal batteries destroyed 24 percent of all V-1s engaged in the first week, 46 percent in the second week, 67 percent in the third week and a whopping 79 percent in the last week, as noted in The Deadly Fuze, by Ralph Belknap Baldwin, a senior APL physicist and one of the fuze developers.

“The last day in which a large quantity of V-1s were launched against England,” Baldwin recalls, “104 were detected by early warning radar, but only four reached London.”

In ground combat proximity-fuzed shells took a fearful toll on men and machines

A U.S. 155 mm field gun fires VT-fuzed rounds at German forces during the 1944–45 Battle of the Bulge. / Getty Images

The proximity fuze demonstrated its value in two additional deployments during the final stage of the war in Europe.

The late 1944 Allied battle for control of Antwerp highlighted the Belgian port’s key role in supplying the overland advance into Germany. The British 11th Armored Division captured the port on September 4. Over the next five months the Germans countered with round-the-clock launches of some 2,500 V-1 flying bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles aimed at destroying the vital port. When the Germans adjusted the V-1s to fly as low as 1,200 feet (making interception vastly more difficult), APL physicists quickly designed a modified fuze for 3.7 and 90 mm AA shells to counter the threat.

The devices were rushed into production at the Crosley factory, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized a special flight of Lancaster bombers to transport the fuzes from Cincinnati to Antwerp. The move paid off when 48 of the first 75 V-1s facing a single AA battalion in Antwerp were destroyed. With the aerial attacks largely thwarted, the great supply port remained open without interruption for the duration of the war.

On Dec. 16, 1944, Germany launched the Battle of the Bulge, its last major offensive on the Western Front. By then proximity fuzes had been developed and tested for all calibers of U.S. artillery, and large supplies had been shipped to the European Theater of Operations (ETO).

The embargo on the use of land-based proximity-fuzed shells, for both AA and field artillery, was lifted within two days of the initial attacks—which included last-ditch concentrated aerial assaults by the Luftwaffe. The effect on the enemy was immediate and overwhelming. From then until the Allies crossed the Rhine into Germany, proximity-fuzed Allied AA fire brought down more than 1,000 enemy aircraft.

In ground combat proximity-fuzed artillery shells, specially calibrated for airburst detonation 30 to 50 feet above ground, took a fearful toll on men and machines below. Moreover, parallel advances in fire-control radar enabled artillerymen to destroy unseen targets on the reverse slopes of hills and beneath the forest canopy by day or night. A chief ordnance officer in the ETO reported on one German patrol in the Hürtgen Forest hit by a massed artillery barrage the 96 bodies looked as if they’d “gone through a meat grinder.”

As the artillery was high velocity, the targeted German soldiers could not hear shells until they burst overhead. Foxholes provided no protection, and the shrapnel even penetrated log-reinforced bunkers. POW interviews often described enemy soldiers emerging from the barrages in a “dazed” state. They realized they were facing a new kind of artillery but could understand neither how it worked nor how to evade it.

In the wake of the campaign Lt. Gen. George S. Patton wrote to Maj. Gen. Levin H. Campbell Jr., the chief of Army Ordnance, about the devastating effects of proximity-fuzed artillery. “The funny fuze won the Battle of the Bulge for us,” Patton remarked. “I am glad that you all thought of it first.” MH

Michael W. Robbins is a former editor of Military History and MHQ. For further reading he recommends The Deadly Fuze, by Ralph B. Baldwin New Weapons for Air Warfare, edited by Joseph C. Boyce and The Guns at Last Light, by Rick Atkinson.

This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook:

Watch the video: The Battle of the Standard, 22nd August 1138 (June 2022).


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