Friday, 20 December 2013

Murder on Christmas Day!

For anyone seeking an antidote for all that tiresome 'Peace and good will to all men' over the next week look no further. Here is the cheerful Medieval tale of the murder of the Byzantine Emperor Leo V, who was struck down in church on Christmas morning 820 AD. Few crimes have been committed with less regard for the niceties of Christian tradition than this one.

It is an oft repeated lesson of history that those who usurp the royal power often show the way to those who would usurp them in turn. With the overthrow of a dynasty somehow a spell is broken and the crime of regicide loses its awful gravity. So it was with Leo V, who through skulduggery at the Battle of Versinicia in 813, had engineered the downfall of emperor Michael I and thereafter ushered in the second era of iconoclasm.

Michael I and Leo V - Madrid Skylitzes
The Byzantine chroniclers would have us believe that the events to come were all mapped out long before. Christian though they may have been, the Byzantine writers still liked to look to the touchstone of the pagan past for inspiration. The pages of Plutarch and Livy are filled with purported prophecies foretelling the rise and fall of great men, all of them doubtless safely composed with the benefit of hindsight. In the Byzantine sources, who sought to emulate the style of these ancient writers, in the place of the Pythia or Sibyl we find the holy man. The utterings of these ascetic hermits, we are given to believe, often foretold events to come. It is a contrivance easily enough reconciled with Christianity, for after all, were there not prophets in the Old Testament too?

A story is told by the anonymous continuator of the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor of how, many years earlier, back in the reign of Nicephorus I, three men accompanied the would-be rebel Bardanes Turkos to seek the advice of just such a hermit as he plotted his revolt. The hermit is said to have advised Bardanes against his rebellion but prophesised that his three companions; Leo, Michael and Thomas would all attain the purple, although Thomas, he warned, would never sit upon the throne. Bardanes’ revolt against Nicephorus failed and he was blinded and stripped of his property just as the old hermit had predicted.

If Leo gave any credence to this prophesy, if indeed such a prophesy there was, then it did not prevent him from elevating the two men who had accompanied him that day to high office under his rule. Michael, known as the Stammerer, was appointed Count of the Excubitors; commander of the imperial bodyguard and one of the most senior military positions within the empire. More than one former incumbent of this position had risen to claim the throne in the past. Thomas, known as the Slav, was appointed to Leo’s former command of the elite regiment of the Foederati.

Michael, not content with his station, soon began plotting to seize the throne for himself but proved to be loose tongued and incautious in company and drunkenly declared his intentions in the hearing of those who would report his words back to the emperor. On Christmas Eve 820,  Michael was arrested and charged with plotting against his friend the emperor. He confessed all. Placed under guard in chains, Michael was left to await a truly terrible fate. He was to be executed by being thrown into the furnace beneath the baths of Zeuxippos the next day. It was the empress Theodosia, we are told, who fatefully interceded for Michael, imploring Leo not to taint his rule with such a savage act on the sacred feast of Christmas day. Leo too was troubled by the judgement he had passed upon his former friend and spent a sleepless night. He agreed to put off the execution until after the Christmas festivities. It would prove a fatal delay. During the night, Michael’s supporters put a conspiracy into action. Under the pretext of the prisoner wishing to confess his sins, a priest was sent for from the city. The servant sent to bring the priest summoned a number of conspirators who, disguised as monks, made their way into the Daphne palace complex and entered the chapel of St Stephen, where the emperor would celebrate a dawn mass.

As the emperor arrived for morning prayers the conspirators drew swords from under their habits and set upon him. In the confusion the priest was struck down instead of the emperor, who grabbed a large cross from the alter and wielded it desperately against his attackers. It was to no avail however and a mighty blow severed Leo’s arm, with his hand still gripping the cross. Falling to the floor, the emperor was beheaded.
Michael II receiving a delegation from the Bulgars - Madrid Skylitzes

Michael was carried from his prison cell and then sat upon the throne to receive oaths of loyalty with the fetters still upon his legs. Not until mid day was he released from his chains in order to make his way to St Sophia where a scandalised but compliant Patriarch placed the crown of empire upon his head.

When news of Michael’s usurpation reached the ears of Thomas the Slav, he gave no heed to any doom-mongering predictions of his ultimate failure that he may have received in the past and immediately raised the standard of revolt in the eastern provinces of the empire. It is difficult to separate the truth of Thomas’ motives from the propaganda put about by himself and his enemies. It seems probable however that Thomas sought to be all things to all people in order to gain for himself the widest possible base of support.

At times Thomas is said to have claimed to be the murdered emperor Constantine VI back from the dead, although surely he would have been too well known a figure in his own right to pull this subterfuge off with any but the most credulous of peasants and it is likely to be a later fabrication. In the east he presented himself as the avenger of the murdered Leo and the champion of the poor and oppressed. In the west, where anti-iconoclast opinion prevailed, his supporters hinted that he would be sympathetic to the cause of the restoration of the icons. Despite the fact that Thomas’ base of Amorion in the Anatolian heartland of the empire was the home town of Michael, supporters flocked to his side. Thomas was by all accounts a charismatic leader and soon almost every Anatolian theme, as Byzantine military provinces were known, had thrown their lot in with the rebel.
 Thomas the Slav in Syria - Madrid Skylitzes
In 821 Thomas marched into Syria at the head of his considerable forces in a show of strength calculated to impress. Here too, the chameleon-like Thomas presented himself to best effect to gain the friendship of the Caliph Al-Mamun. His emissary to the Caliph was sent with extravagant promises to make. Allowing for propaganda intended to blacken his name as a traitor to the empire, Thomas is variously credited with signing away frontier provinces or perhaps even undertaking to en-fief the entire empire to the Caliphate in exchange for an alliance which would safeguard his rear whilst he turned his forces against Constantinople. The Caliph accepted with alacrity and provided Thomas with a substantial contribution to his war chest. The rebel was even permitted to celebrate his coronation as Emperor of the Romans in the city of Antioch. Al Ma’mun would have been advised to remain sceptical of the bargain. Thomas, after all, was not the first Byzantine rebel commander to promise much and deliver nothing. Leo III had struck a similar bargain a century before. At any rate Thomas’ friendly overtures were well timed for the Caliph had his hands full already with the rebellion of Barbak. 
More on Babak's revolt here

With peace secured and having defeated a loyalist army from the Armeniakon Theme, Thomas turned his vast polyglot army which may have been as large as 80,000 men, against Constantinople. The fleets stationed along the eastern shore of the Marmara also declared for Thomas and so he was able to ferry his troops across the straits and lay siege to the land walls at Blacharnae. The defences here proved too strong for the attackers however and the massive catapults stationed on the towers wrecked destruction on every engine of war that Thomas was able to send against them. Just as it had seemed that the resolve of the defenders was weakening and the emperor Michael had appeared upon the walls in person to deliver a heartfelt plea for peace to the besiegers, lulling them into a false sense of security, a sortie launched from the gates fell upon the disorganised rebels and inflicted much slaughter upon them. At sea too Thomas’ forces were bested by the loyalist fleet and many of his ships were destroyed by Greek Fire. The siege dragged on through 822 and the besiegers endured a second miserable winter outside the walls before in the following spring came the fatal blow. From out of the west, falling like a hammer blow upon the rebel’s rear, came the army of Ormortag, son of Krum, who had been unable to resist the lure of easy plunder and come to Michael’s assistance. The Bulgar attack shattered Thomas’ army which withdrew westwards with the emperor’s forces hot on their trail; Michael himself at their head.
Thomas placed his final hopes of victory in the favourite Byzantine tactic of feigned flight, calculated to draw the imperial forces on in disorganised pursuit before turning upon them. In the event however the morale of Thomas’ army was in tatters. Pretended rout swiftly turned to the real thing as the rebels lost all heart and as Thomas fled for his life, his remaining forces surrendered in their droves. Run to ground in the Thracian city of Arcadiopolis, Thomas and his remaining followers held out through the summer as provisions ran short and at last, in October, all loyalty was exhausted. Handed over to the emperor by his treacherous companions in exchange for clemency, Thomas was flung at Michael’s feet whilst the emperor placed a purple booted foot upon his neck and pronounced a terrible sentence of death. Thomas’ hands and feet were cut off and he was then impaled outside the city. If only he had heeded the words of the hermit.

Thomas besieges Constantinople - Madrid Skylitzes
Michael had survived the great challenge to his reign but his remaining years brought little glory as freebooting Arab raiders fell upon imperial territory in the Mediterranean. In 825 Crete was overrun by invaders who had originally fled Andalusia following an unsuccessful rebellion. Having been ousted from Alexandria, these rebels-turned-pirates seized control of the island, founding the settlement of Candia, today known as Heraklion, and thereafter would use it as base to harass Byzantine shipping and launch raids against the coastal settlements of the empire. An expedition sent to the relieve the island ended in dismal failure and the pirates would long remain a thorn in the side of the empire.

Two years later worse was to follow when a disgraced admiral in Sicily by the name of Euphemius provoked the wrath of the governor by eloping with a nun. The penalty for his offence was rhinocopia and rather than be deprived of his nose, Euphemius launched a revolt against imperial power. When his plans began to unravel, Euphemius escaped to North Africa and plotted with the Emir of Kairouan to conquer the island between them. Euphemius would then rule Sicily as the Emir’s vassal. The rebellious admiral then returned to Sicily backed by an Arab invasion force of ten thousand men. Euphemius, dressing himself in imperial regalia and styling himself emperor, came to a sticky end as his forces advanced on Syracuse. Arriving to accept the surrender of the town of Castrogiovanni, Euphemius was approached by a welcoming committee of two young men of the town, who prostrated themselves before him. As he bent his head to bestow a sovereign’s kiss upon the brow of one of the men, Euphemius was summarily beheaded by the other, reflecting perhaps in his last moments on the irony of his fate. The course that he had taken to avoid the loss of his nose had led in the end to the loss of his head. Another usurper had been dispatched but the damage was done. The Arab invaders were not so easily removed and with a firm foothold established in Sicily they would continue to gain ground on the island over the ensuing half century until they made it their own.

 Michael died from dysentery in 829. He was succeeded by his son Theophilus who had ruled alongside him as his co-emperor from the age of seventeen. At twenty six, Theophilus promised to be a vigorous young ruler. He is remembered for many things, not least for being the last of the iconoclast emperors. He is remembered both for his love of justice and his love of pomp and ostentation. Like many an absolute ruler he could be capricious or merciful as the mood took him.

Theophilus condemns the assassins - Madrid Skylitzes

Upon his accession Theophilus gave a stark and unmistakable demonstration of his commitment to the rule of law. Summoning the great and the good to appear before him in the great vaulted audience hall of the Magnaura, Theophilus declared that he wished to reward those who had loyally supported his father. He called forth those who had participated in the murder of Leo nine years before and proudly the men stepped forward, eagerly expecting the new emperor  to bestow gifts and honours upon them. Instead Theophilus called upon the Eparch of the city, responsible for maintaining law and order, to have the men seized and declaring:

‘Go to it Eparch! You have authority from God and from our own serenity to pass judgement on these persons and to reward them according to their deeds: not only for having stained their hands with human blood, but also because they slew the lord’s anointed within the sanctuary.’

It was a remarkable act. From the unlikeliest of quarters; the hands of the son of the man who had usurped him, Leo V had received his justice. For Theophilus perhaps, it was an act without which he could not feel that his accession to the throne was legitimate, tainted as it was by the heinous crime of Leo’s murder. Having seen justice done, he could set about ruling his empire with his hands washed clean.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice – The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

This week we generally remember the events of 7th December 1941 when aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy fell upon the US naval base at Pearl Harbour and the Second World War went global.

10th December 1941
It remains one of the most audacious military operations of all time and was followed up by attacks the following day on the British possessions of Malaya and Hong Kong and on the American held island of Guam. Having dealt their tremendous blow to the US Pacific fleet, the Japanese actions of 8th December were launched with a confidence in their success which may have been owed in great measure to a critical British intelligence blunder of over a year before. A heavy price was paid two  days later on 10th December with the loss of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse.
On 11th November 1940 the Blue Funnel steamer SS Automedon had been steaming towards Singapore, 250 miles off the western tip of Sumatra when she was intercepted by the German surface raider Atlantis. This most successful German armed merchantman of the war had been terrorising allied shipping in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Under her swashbuckling captain Bernhard Rogge (pictured below) the ship was a master of disguise, concealing her six inch guns beneath false canvas deck structures and side flaps, altering her silhouette with false masts and funnels and sailing under Soviet, Japanese, British, Dutch and Norwegian colours.

By the time she crossed the path of the Automedon, Atlantis had accounted for a dozen allied merchantmen in the past six months, sinking nine and capturing three as well as laying a minefield off of Cape Agulhas. The Automedon however was a prize of a different magnitude. Having raked Automedon with gunfire and left her a listing wreck with six of her crew dead, the crew of the Atlantis boarded the stricken ship.

On board they discovered bags full of secret mail, decoding tables and classified naval documents and the greatest prize of all was found inside a green bag marked ‘highly confidential – to be destroyed'. It was nothing less than a copy of the Chiefs of Staff Far Eastern Appraisal, intended for the eyes of the new Commander in Chief for the Far East ,Sir Robert Brooke Popham. This document which listed air, naval and troop strengths in the region also carried a gloomy assessment of the British position in the Far East, the vulnerability of Singapore, the inadequacy of its defences, the lack of available warships which could be sent to defend it, given the present state of war with Germany and the frank dismissal of the chances of any attempts to relieve or retake the colony in the event of its capture by the Japanese.
It was  intelligence dynamite and Rogge could hardly believe that such a sensitive document had been sent by such an insecure means. Popham would never see the document, instead within a month it was on the desk of the Japanese naval attachĂ© in Berlin. The rest as they say is history.

SS Automedon
On 4th December 1941 the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sailed into Singapore harbour, their mission to deter Japanese ambitions in the region. Far from deterred, the Japanese had made their preparations in the knowledge that these ships represented the full extent of the British commitment to the protection of their far eastern colonies and that they were depending on reinforcement by the US Pacific fleet in the event of war. In July 1941 Japanese forces had moved to extend their occupation of Vichy French Indochina, securing key naval and air bases, fully aware from the captured appraisal that such a move would not precipitate any military action against them by the British.
The bulk of the Japanese carrier force was available for the fateful attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December, with the attack having been planned on the understanding that no substantial British fleet would be sent to the Pacific theatre. On the following day Japanese aircraft began to bomb Hong Kong and troops began landing at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya.
HMS Prince of Wales
In the early hours of Tuesday 9th December 1941 Force Z comprising the new battleship Prince of Wales, the veteran battle cruiser Repulse which had seen action in WW1 and the destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and Vampire sailed from Singapore in order to attack the Japanese transports supplying the landings at Kota Bharu and perhaps seeking an encounter with the battleship Kongo, which was known to be in the area.
The Prince of Wales, serving as the flag ship of Force Z commander Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips, had been commissioned for less than a year but had already born witness to one British naval disaster. In May 1941 she had fought in the engagement with the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait which led to the sinking of HMS Hood. Having survived this encounter, Prince of Wales had transported Churchill to his meeting with Roosevelt in Newfoundland in August before being redeployed to the Pacific.
Steaming north 250 miles off the Malayan coast Force Z was spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. Fatefully the carrier HMS Indomitable which had been intended to join Force Z in the Pacific had been damaged by running aground on her maiden voyage and thus the British force was proceeding without air cover. Phillips had a dismissive attitude towards the threat posed towards capital ships at sea by aircraft and had refused offers of air cover from Australian and New Zealand Air Force units stationed in Malaya. It was a view shared by many senior naval officers and one which would be substantially revised within the next 24 hours. Nevertheless Phillips (pictured right) appreciated that he had lost the element of surprise and decided to reverse his course and steam back to Singapore. During the night in poor conditions a Japanese bomber strike sent out against force Z instead attacked their own cruiser Chokai which was at the time just five miles to the north of the British ships.
At midnight a false report came through of new Japanese landings at Kuantan, midway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Phillips took the fateful decision to sail towards Kuantan, where at dawn on 10th December, sixty miles from the Malayan coast, Force Z was once more spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

G3M 'Nell' torpedo bomber
The fate of Prince of Wales and Repulse was sealed. From airfields established in former French Indo-China waves of G3M ‘Nell’ bombers were sent to engage the British ships. The first wave mistook the destroyer Tenedos for a capital ship and wasted their bombs in an unsuccessful attack upon her. Successive waves of Nells then came upon the main force. The first wave of eight aircraft carried 500lb bombs which they dropped on Repulse, with only one hit which penetrated to the hanger deck but did no significant damage. This first wave were seen off with AA fire but another seventeen Nell bombers approached carrying torpedoes; splitting into two formations and attacking both ships at once. Prince of Wales was hit by two torpedoes on the stern and aft port quarter which inflicted crippling damage and flooding and caused her to slow and list.
At this point Repulse, relatively undamaged, radioed for air cover but the squadron of Australian Brewster Buffalo fighters that were scrambled would arrive too late to save the battleships. Another wave of 26 Japanese bombers, G4M ‘Bettys’ now closed in and split to attack both ships once more. Prince of Wales was hit by four torpedoes on the starboard side which destroyed her remaining good propeller shaft and caused further catastrophic flooding.

HMS Repulse
Twenty Bettys along with the surviving G3M bombers from the very first wave now concentrated on Repulse which manoeuvred frantically to avoid their torpedo and bomb attacks but was unable to evade attacks coming simultaneously from port and starboard. Four torpedo strikes did fatal damage and the order was given to abandon ship. Just eleven minutes after the first torpedo hit, Repulse sank. A final attack by eight aircraft carrying 1000lb bombs scored a single hit on Prince of Wales, bringing her to a halt. As the destroyer Express came alongside to assist, Phillips persisted in doomed attempts to save the ship and ordered them away. The order to abandon ship came 35 minutes after the final fatal bomb attack and Prince of Wales capsized and sank eight minutes later.
Admiral Phillips and Captain Leech of the Prince of Wales went down with the ship along with 325 of her crew. Captain Tennant of the Repulse was rescued but 513 men went down with the stricken cruiser. 2081 survivors were taken off or rescued from the water by the destroyers. Just two minutes after the Prince of Wales sank the air cover arrived, too late to do anything but chase off the remaining bombers. Japanese losses amounted to just four aircraft, with seventeen men killed. Phillips has been widely condemned for his failure to call for air support at any point during the attack.
Brewster Buffalo aircraft of the Australian 453 Squadron were called in too late
Singapore fell on February 15th 1942. Many of those who had survived the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse were killed during the evacuation or taken prisoner. See links below for a personal account from one survivor.
The raider Atlantis was sunk by HMS Devonshire in October 1942. Her commander Bernhard Rogge survived the war having received the knights cross for his efforts as well as being presented with a ceremonial samurai sword by the Japanese for his actions in the capture of the Automedon. This extremely rare honour for a foreigner is telling as to the significance of the ship’s capture to the success of future Japanese plans.

The raider Atlantis
Footage of the sinking
Discussion of the significance of the capture of Automedon

Force Z in detail

More naval warfare posts from Slings and Arrows