Monday 28 November 2011

Shome mishtake shurely?

It's not often the Economist gets something wrong, but on the cover of its Nov 18 edition, it says: 'Nuclear Iran, anxious Israel'.   Surely that should be: 'Nuclear Israel, anxious Iran'?

*You can follow me now on Twitter @john_withington.

* Authoritative new newsletter on air defence from eminent defence consultant (and my son) Thomas Withington just out.   If you want to subscribe or comment, contact Thomas at

You can also follow Thomas on Twitter at #ChainHomeHigh. 

Friday 25 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 9 - Surrender at Yorktown 1781

By the summer of 1781, the British were confident of winning the American War of Independence.   George Washington’s rebel army was in a state of mutiny, and it was only thanks to his French allies, that he had been able to keep hostilities going.    Now the French were saying they would be pulling out at the end of the year.

The British had two armies, one in the north and one in the south.    The southern force under Lord Cornwallis had been given the job of fortifying a base for the Royal Navy at Yorktown in Virginia.

By accident or design, the rebels had led the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to believe that they were going to attack the northern army in New York.   Instead, on September 28, they moved 16,000 men to Virginia, trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown.

For three weeks, the British commander held out, but by then with sickness reducing his effective strength to just over 3,000, and enemy artillery flattening his defences, Cornwallis surrendered, and four months later the House of Commons voted to abandon the war.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 8 - the Siege of Cartagena de Indias

The Spaniards often call it ‘the Defeat of the British Armada’.    In 1741, during the wonderfully-named ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’, the British dispatched the biggest force they had ever sent to the West Indies – 10,000 men and more than 20 ships - to join the fleet already out there under Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon.

The objective was to capture Spain’s fortress of Cartagena de Indias in modern-day Colombia, but right from the start, things went wrong.    The army commander, Lord Cathcart, and 600 of his men died from sickness on the way out.   

Then once the force arrived, a feud broke out between Cathcart’s replacement, the inexperienced Sir Thomas Wentworth, and Vernon, while the Spanish defences were cleverly organised by Admiral Blas de Lezo, nicknamed ‘half-man’, who had lost an arm, a leg and an eye in the service of his country.

A number of British assaults failed, while sickness continued to take a terrible toll.   When only 1,700 of the 10,000 who left Britain were still fit for duty, the assault was called off, and the country’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, was forced to resign.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 7 - The Second Battle of the Medway

In 1667, England was in the middle of an austerity programme.    Tax receipts had been hammered by two major disasters, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666.   One government cut involved laying up the Royal Navy’s great ships, and paying off most of their crews.

Unfortunately, there was a war with the Dutch going on at the time, and at the beginning of June, their commander, Admiral De Ruyter, detached a task force from his fleet with the mission of attacking the pride of the navy  in the Medway.

The English had sunk ships in the river, and stretched a chain across it, and they had guns ashore to stop the progress of the enemy, but unfortunately there was a shortage of gunners, supplies had been pilfered, and the Dutch came on regardless.

 They set three warships alight, and captured and took away two others, including the 82-gun Royal Charles – the pride of the navy, the ship that had brought Charles II back from exile.    It was, considered the diarist John Evelyn, ‘a dishonour never to be wiped off’, and was perhaps Britain’s greatest ever naval humiliation.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 6 - the Battle of Castillon 1453

The Hundred Years War had been going on since 1337.   It is often described as a conflict between England and France, but that is not quite true.    In fact, the English kings ruled a lot of France when the war began, including Aquitaine in the south, and Ponthieu in the north, and many ‘Frenchmen’ served in ‘English’ armies.

By 1453, the French king Charles VII had virtually driven the English out, but many people in Aquitaine wanted them back, and so an army under England’s best general, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury – the ‘English Achilles’, went out to try to exploit their discontent.

On July 16, he set off to relieve the town of Castillon to which the French were laying siege.   He came upon a small French force and routed them.  Then a messenger from Castillon told him they had seen clouds of dust coming from the main French camp.

Thinking the enemy were beating a hasty retreat, Talbot launched an attack even though many of his troops had not yet arrived.    In fact, only the camp followers had been leaving, and French artillery cut down the English mercilessly, inflicting a decisive defeat and virtually ending the war.

*There’s much more on Castillon in my BFBS interview:-

The Aberdeen Press and Journal published a piece on Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters on November 16, and the Tamworth Herald on November 17.

Monday 21 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 5 - the Battle of Hastings 1066

In that hilarious book, 1066 and All That, 1066 was selected as one of the only two ‘memorable’ dates in English history.    And rightly so.   The Battle of Hastings marked one of its cleanest breaks with an entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class removed to be replaced by Normans imported by William the Conqueror.

And yet the battle itself was a close-run thing.    The army of the English king Harold was exhausted and depleted, having had to race up north to defeat another claimant to the throne, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and then race back south again.

Even so, the Norman cavalry could at first make little impact on the Saxon shield-wall, and when William was knocked off his horse, a rumour swept through his army that he was dead, and some leading commanders called for a retreat.

William had to win the battle, while a draw would have been good enough for the English, so there followed a race against time to gain a decisive victory before dusk brought an end to the fighting.    For the full story, see Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, the History Press.

*Review of my last book – A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 18 November 2011

Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters 4 - the Anglo-Saxon Conquest

Germanic raiders who became known collectively as ‘Saxons’ had been attacking England since the 3rd century, but after the Romans left at the beginning of the 5th century, one of the Britons’ leaders, named Vortigern, had the bright idea of hiring Saxons as mercenaries to fight the Picts and Scots who had been raiding northern England.

So in 449, the brothers Hengest and Horsa arrived in Kent.   They were very successful against the Picts and Scots, but when the Britons tried to defy their increasing demands for land, the Saxons fought and heavily defeated their employers, perhaps at Aylesford in Kent in 455.

Two years later, the Britons suffered an even more decisive defeat, perhaps at Crayford.   They are said to have lost 4,000 killed, while the survivors ‘fled to London in great terror’.  

In the late fifth or early sixth century, the Britons had a series of successes, perhaps under King Arthur, but the year 577 saw another crushing defeat at Dyrham, near Bath, where three British kings were killed, and by 600 most of what had been Roman Britain was in Saxon hands.

*This is an interview with me on British Forces Broadcasting about my new book – Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Britain's worst military disasters 3 - Mons Graupius AD 83 or 84

We tend to think of the Roman conquest of Britain as extending only as far as Hadrian’s Wall, but, in fact, in AD 83 or 84 (historians cannot agree on the date), a Roman army won a stunning victory perhaps as far north as Aberdeenshire.

Having subdued Wales and the north of England, the Roman governor Agricola had advanced up through Scotland, but found it difficult to bring the Caledonian tribes to battle, Eventually, though, about 30,000 of them confronted him at ‘Mons Graupius’ which many modern-day historians believe to be in the Bennachie range, north-west of Aberdeen.

The Caledonian vanguard was on the plain, with the rear stretching up Mons Graupius.    Agricola held his legionaries in reserve, and sent in his ‘barbarian’ auxiliaries to close with the enemy.    Roman armies were at their most effective in this close, hand-to-hand combat, and they broke through the Caledonians and started to advance up the hill.

The tribesmen fought bravely, but when Agricola sent in his cavalry, they were routed, and the Roman historian Tacitus put their losses at 10,000 against just 360 for the Romans.  It was too late in the campaigning season, though, for Agricola to advance any further, and his troops withdrew to forts further south.  Never again would the Romans penetrate this far north.  

*Article about Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters in the Bath Chronicle.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

British military disasters 2 - the defeat of Boudicca AD 60 or 61

Less than 20 years after they won the Battle of the Medway, the Romans had managed to provoke a large-scale British revolt by their arrogance.    After their ally, the East Anglian king Prasutagus died, they seized all his property, and when his family protested, they raped his daughters and flogged his widow, Boudicca.

She rose in revolt, attracting the support of other tribes the Romans had upset, and burned down Colchester, London and St Albans.    Then she headed north to try to destroy the army led by the Roman governor Suetonius.

Somewhere along Watling Street, now the A5, probably in the West Midlands, she came upon them.   The Romans numbered around 10,000, while Boudicca’s host was estimated by some at nearly a quarter of a million, though many of these were women and children who had tagged along to see the enemy defeated.

Suetoninus, though, chose his ground very carefully, packing his men into a narrow gorge protected on either side by forest.  First they hurled their javelins at the Britons advancing uphill, then they pushed forward in their famous v-shaped wedge and routed the enemy, killing them in their thousands.   Boudicca took poison, and the revolt collapsed.

Monday 14 November 2011

British Military Disasters 1- the Battle of the Medway AD43

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be blogging about the military disasters featured in my new book – Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters (The History Press).

According to some estimates, 40,000 Roman legionaries and auxiliaries were confronted by 80,000 Ancient Britons as they tried to cross the Medway in AD43.    If those figures are right, this would be the second biggest battle ever fought in Britain.

The Britons were taken by surprise when a detachment of auxiliaries managed to swim across the river and start attacking their horses.    Taking advantage of the chaos this caused, a force of legionaries under the future emperor Vespasian crossed on the opposite flank.

Even so, the British resisted doggedly and the battle went into a second day, something highly unusual for those times, and perhaps testimony to the large number of men involved.   On day two, the Romans used boats and a pontoon bridge to reinforce their bridgehead, but in a determined counter-attack the British captured a number of officers and for a time looked as though they might win.

Eventually, though, the Romans’ superior organisation won the day, and soon after the Roman emperor Claudius came over to take the surrender of 11 British kings, laying the foundations for nearly 400 years of Roman rule.

Saturday 5 November 2011

My new book

My new book, Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disaster: from the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore, is just out.   Not surprisingly everyone in Britain seems to know about our great victories – Crecy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Trafalgar, Waterloo, El Alamein, etc, but when you have fought as many wars as the British, it’s not surprising that there’ve also been plenty of disasters. 

The book looks at famous ones, such as Hastings, and Yorktown, which sealed the loss of the American colonies, but it also tells the story of the forgotten defeats – like Castillon, the last battle of the 100 Years War.

Some, like the first Battle of the Medway, had far-reaching consequences, paving the way for the Roman conquest.    Others, like the second Battle of the Medway sixteen hundred years later, had little long-term impact, but was still regarded as ‘a dishonour never to be wiped off’.

There are stories of defeats by Afghans, Americans and Zulus, who had all been dismissed back home as no match for our boys, and of brilliant retreats that prevented even worse disasters as at Gallipoli and Dunkirk.

Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters ISBN: 9780752461977 is published by the History Press, and is offered for sale on their website