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Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (I).   Leave a comment

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above: a street in Warsaw. The Germans destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

The approach of the Red Army to Warsaw at the end of July had encouraged the anti-Communist ‘Armia Krajowa’, the Polish Home Army, to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944, under their Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chrusciel. As a consequence of this decision, for more than the full two months of August and September 1944, Warsaw suffered an appalling martyrdom as the SS moved in to destroy the Polish insurgents with every kind of inhumane warfare. The result was a desperate and tragic struggle by the Warsaw Poles, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April 1943 had been for the Polish Jews. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in just sixty-three days, which was nonetheless a remarkable length of time for resistance when it is considered that only fourteen per cent of the Home Army were even armed when it began, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles. Warsaw became a city reduced to ruins, where even the ruins were blasted by German guns and aircraft: the dead lay entombed in the ruins and the wounded lay untended on roads or suffered their last agonies in gloomy cellars. Those fighting from the sewers were finished off by gas grenades flung on them by German troops.

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The Poles, understandably, had wanted to wrest control of their capital and the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed to have no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So, while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically at the Soviets, something that Stalin understood only too well. Appeals for Soviet aid fell on deaf ears, giving the impression at first of glacial indifference and latterly of unbending hostility. The Soviet policy seemed to soften somewhat in mid-September, but by that time the underground army had been throttled. Meanwhile, of lesser note but no less tragic, the rising in Slovakia petered out, though on this occasion Soviet troops fought as best they could to bring direct military aid to the insurgents: the gamble did not come off, however, as Koniev failed to break through to rebel-held territory and Soviet units were left to fight gruelling battles in the Carpathians until late November 1944.

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Laurence Rees’ recent book Behind Closed Doors (2008), drawing on material only available since the opening of the Kremlin archives, provides a detailed account of the Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Mikolajczyk and other representatives of the Polish government in exile in London on the one side and Stalin and Molotov on the other. Given the entrenched positions of each of the parties and the massive disparity in real power, the meeting held on 3rd August was destined to be a failure. What was most remarkable, however, was the manner in which Mikolajczyk misjudged the situation. He knew that, as he talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, the fate of millions in Warsaw rested on the result. But despite the urgency of the situation there, the Uprising was the fourth point on his agenda, following a series of points referring back to the Soviet invasion of 1941. Even then, it was dealt with within the context of the exiled Poles’ desire to carry out elections in Poland based on universal suffrage. However, at the end of this all this verbiage, Mikolajczyk finally came directly to the most pressing point: I now have to ask you to order help to be given to our units fighting in Warsaw.  Stalin replied that he would ‘give the necessary orders’, by which he meant that he alone would decide what was required, and he then remarked that he had noticed the absence in Mikolajczyk’s remarks of any reference to the Lublin Poles, the Committee of National Liberation, with whom the Soviets had already concluded an agreement. Mikolajczyk gave a lengthy and emotional response to this, including the plea that:

The four main Polish political parties which are represented in this government (the London Poles) and have for five years carried on the struggle against Germany should have a say in the matter.

Stalin dismissed this view, saying that he had agreed to meet the London Poles, at Churchill’s request, in order to discuss a ‘union’ with the Lublin Poles. Mikolajczyk then made the extraordinary request that he be allowed ‘to go to Warsaw’. Stalin had to remind him that ‘the Germans are there’. The two men then reiterated their respective positions. Stalin wanted the London Poles to deal with the Lublin Poles, and Mikolajczyk restated that, though he would co-operate with the Lublin Poles, they represented a very small section of Polish opinion. While the two ‘sides’ may have been talking to each other, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Stalin spoke increasingly more directly, openly revealing his scorn for the Polish Home Army:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are often short of rifles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government had ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this – their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.

He added, ominously, that ‘the Poles quarrel among themselves’ and that this was something that, in the future, the Soviets would not allow to continue. Of course, there was no real comparison to be made between the representatives of the Polish government in exile and the group that the Soviets had set up in Lublin. But Stalin became so intransigent on the question of the recognition of the Lublin Poles that the minute-taker felt compelled to write: There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile… The meeting ended just before midnight. Mikolajczyk was partly to blame for his own humiliation at Stalin’s hands, simply because instead of focusing the agenda on the one practical measure that needed at that moment, support for the Warsaw Uprising, he tried to pretend that he was dealing with an equal and to discuss matters which the Soviet leadership did not want to discuss. In sharp contrast to Stalin’s reticence to help the Poles, Churchill reacted quickly to the plight of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Their fight in the streets and parks of the city was precisely the sort of romantic endeavour that appealed to him. On 4th August, the day after Stalin’s meeting with the Polish delegation in Moscow, Churchill sent a cable to the Soviet leader which read:

At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping, subject to the weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-western corner of the city where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions.  This may be of help to your operations. 

Heroes and Villains:

Tadeusz Roman was one of the Polish RAF pilots who tried to help the insurgents in Warsaw. Twenty-five years old, he had served time in a Soviet prison after being caught trying to flee from eastern Poland. After the armistice of 1941, he had made his way west and joined RAF Bomber Command. Now based at Brindisi in southern Italy as part of the Polish Flight, it was not just a matter of honour to help the insurrection. His brother was in the underground army, and Tadeusz thought, mistakenly as it happened, that he was in Warsaw, but, in any case, all the Polish pilots volunteered to take part in the long flight, one of the most dangerous of the war, taking between ten and eleven hours. Starting on 4th August, flights left both Bari and Brindisi, with the airmen of the Polish Flight initially dominating the operation. Between then and the end of September more than two hundred flights were made, dropping a total of more than a hundred tons of supplies. Around eighty Polish airmen lost their lives in the operation, together with more than a hundred other Allied flyers, many of them South African. The dangers confronting the bombers were not just from the air defences around Warsaw but from the lengthy and tortuous route over German-occupied territory on the way to the Polish capital and back. Tadeusz’s own luck ran out on 28 August, just after he and his comrades had dropped their supplies over Warsaw. Flying low, at two thousand feet, anti-aircraft fire smashed into one of their engines. Over Krakow, they were hit again, but they managed to coax the plane back to Italy, where they crash-landed on the airport’s perimeter. The other three planes that accompanied him on that night’s mission never returned.

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Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk had left Moscow and returned to London. At his last meeting with Stalin, in the Kremlin on the evening of 9 August, he told the Soviet leader that his talks with the Lublin Poles had convinced him that they would eventually reach an agreement. But when he asked Stalin again for ‘immediate assistance’ for Warsaw, he was met with obfuscation: It would be different if our armies were approaching Warsaw, Stalin told him, but unfortunately, this is not the case. He went on to explain that a vigorous counter-attack by the Germans had forced the Red Army to delay their move on the Polish capital. He was sorry for your men who started the battle in Warsaw prematurely. The discussion then moved on to examine the practicalities of an airdrop, about which Stalin was sceptical, but he nevertheless again promised to help the Home Army in Warsaw. However, towards the end of the meeting, when the Polish PM asked if Stalin would tell us something to comfort the Polish hearts at this difficult time, Stalin replied that Mikolajczyk that he was attaching too much importance to words: One should distrust words. Deeds are more important than words. Just four days later the TASS news agency announced that, since the London Poles had not notified the Soviets in advance about the uprising, all responsibility for what was happening in the city lay with them. On the night of 15 August, the American Ambassador had a meeting at the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials, after which he sent a cable back to the USA, reporting:

The Soviet Government’s refusal (to help the uprising) is not based on operational difficulties, nor on a denial of the conflict, but on ruthless political calculations.

Clearly, as far as ‘deeds’ were concerned, Stalin failed the Poles in Warsaw. But it is still possible that when he had met Mikolajczyk on 9 August, he had not definitely made up his mind. He had, as yet, given no reply to the Western Allies about his position on the uprising. One possible interpretation is that between the meeting and the TASS statement on the 13th, he changed his mind. On 9th he was inclined to help, but by 13th he had decided that he wouldn’t. Although he had already demonstrated that his determination to disband the Home Army, in these days he knew he faced battles ahead with the Western Allies over the composition of any future Polish administration. He had no reason to expect at this point that the Allies would eventually go along with his wishes and recognize a modified version of his puppet government, and may have calculated in early August that, if he was to be successful in getting the London Poles to agree to be subsumed by the Lublin Poles, he would need to offer some kind of assistance to the Warsaw Uprising. Laurence Rees has concluded that Stalin was always inclined to act as he did and refuse to help the Poles in Warsaw, a refusal which fitted a pattern of behaviour in which the Soviet leader had demonstrated time and again his distrust of the Poles and his desire to see the Home Army ‘neutralised’.

In any event, by 13 August, Stalin had made up his mind and, during the rest of August, the crucial period of the rising, the Soviets gave no assistance, not even with dropping air supplies. Although it is arguable whether the Red Army would have reached Warsaw in August, they faced a counter-attack from the Germans on the 2nd on the front line east of the city, they could have made the air bridge more successful if they had wanted to. In fact, a statement from the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the US’ Moscow Ambassador on 18 August made their policy quite clear:

The Soviet government cannot, of course, object to British or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, since this is an American and British affair. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft, after dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, landing on Soviet Territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw. 

Finally, on 22nd, Stalin himself reiterated this message in the clearest, most strident and insulting terms possible. He described the Home Army as a ‘bunch of criminals’, and stated that the Soviets would refuse to help the Western Allies with the airlift. Churchill tried to enlist Roosevelt’s support in sending a combative reply, only to be told by the American President on 26 August that he did not consider that it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to UJ (‘Uncle Joe’ or Stalin). Hugh Lunghi, a member of the British military mission to Moscow, went with the chief of staff of the mission to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to try to get the Soviets to help with the air supplies:

I must have gone there with him almost daily for the first two weeks, and afterwards it became sort of hopeless. We realised they were not going to allow either us or the Americans to land on Soviet territory. And this seemed to us to be the most terrible betrayal, not only of the Poles, but of the Allies. And again, another example of Stalin cutting off his nose to spite his own face, because it meant the Germans would put down this uprising more easily and then the remaining Germans would be available to oppose the Soviet Army. So it seemed quite crazy to us, but also terrible. We were fuming. We were absolutely furious in the military mission.

In reality, however, Stalin had calculated that if he stood back and did nothing, the Home Army would almost certainly be annihilated. And that was what was then happening inside Warsaw. During August, German SS soldiers, supported by various collaborators – including Cossacks from the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps – conducted a brutal house to house war in the Polish capital. The most notorious SS unit in Warsaw was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. Although he himself had gained a PhD in political science in the 1920s, he presided over a gang of ill-disciplined and bloodthirsty soldiers, most of whom were convicted criminals released from captivity. They were already notorious for their mistreatment of civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Matthias Schenk, an eighteen-year-old Belgian conscripted into the German Army, served as a demolition engineer in Warsaw alongside Dirlewanger’s Sturmbrigade. In 2008, he was still haunted by what he saw:

Once we went towards a house (which served as a school) with 350 children. We went upstairs and the children came down – children of nine to thirteen years old. They held up their hands … “Nicht Partisan!” … and they stood on the steps. And the SS started to shoot. And then the commander said: “No ammunition – use the butt of the gun!” And the blood spilled down the stairs.

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This was by no means an isolated crime, for the Axis units in the city committed a whole series of atrocities. Many of those witnessed by Matthias Schenk seem purely sadistic, like the point-blank shooting of a little girl and the blowing-up of a thirteen-year-old disabled boy by placing hand grenades in his pocket. Every day in Warsaw, women and children were slaughtered by the occupiers out of their warped sense of ‘fun’. When a hospital held by the Home Army was stormed by the Dirlewanger brigade, Schenk saw, in the aftermath, Polish nurses being sexually assaulted by the SS:

They tore the clothes off these women and jumped on top of them, held them down by means of force … then they were raped … Then Dirlewanger drove them through the (German) crowd, which cajoled and applauded them to the gallows.

These appalling actions were part of a systematic Nazi plan to crush the uprising with brutality. Under the overall command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had previously supervised the shooting of Jews and partisans in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans targeted civilians as well as members of the Home Army. By 8 August, in one district of the city alone, the Germans had killed at least forty thousand civilians. The overall atmosphere of the German action against the Poles was captured by the SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who later stated that he had told Hitler at the time of the rising that:

From the historical point of view the action of the Poles is a blessing … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years … will have ceased to exist. By the same token… the Poles themselves will cease to be a problem, for our children and for all who follow us. 

Himmler’s use of language is significant. It is reminiscent of the ‘justification’ he gave to senior Nazis for the extermination of Jewish children. They had to be killed along with their parents, he said, because otherwise, they would only cause problems for future German generations. He had previously told SS officers that there was no point in killing Jewish men and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. On 2 September, German troops and their auxiliaries stormed a makeshift hospital treating wounded Home Army fighters. At first, the soldiers took valuables from the wounded, such as gold crosses and watches, but those that followed, many of whom were drunk, raped the women. Twenty-year-old Danuta Galkowa, hiding on a stretcher in the basement, under a blanket, heard the horror being enacted all around her:

It was for them entertainment. They were excited by the fact that the people were yelling. … I was in despair, I was afraid only of rape, because I wouldn’t be able to live through that. 

The wounded men of the Home Army who were present in the cellar could do nothing to protect the women. They had serious stomach wounds, broken legs and arms, and could not move. The horror lasted from eight in the morning until dark, when the troops finally left, setting fire to the hospital as they went. Danuta tried to escape, dragging the wounded Home Army officer who had protected her on the stretcher. She pulled him to the entrance, where the Nazis were shooting those trying to escape. A German auxiliary turned his gun on Danuta but it jammed, and in the smoke, darkness and chaos she managed to get away, over the bodies of those who had been murdered in the courtyard, together with the wounded fighter. Eventually, this man who had saved her life became her husband.

Conflict Among Allies:

The summer and early autumn of 1944 were, therefore, a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy. Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns
had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be.
In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the
Red Army eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

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On 20 August, Malinovskii’s 2nd Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat
in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on August 23rd a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more
than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

While these battles and the battle for Warsaw raged on, Winston Churchill met with General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the free Polish Army, at Polish military headquarters in northern Italy. In the context of the controversy over the future of Poland, this meeting, on 26 August, was one of the most revealing of the war. Churchill began by congratulating Anders on the performance of the Polish II Corps during the campaign in Italy. He also enquired about the ‘mood’ of the soldiers, given what they are going through at the moment. Anders replied that, while the spirit of his men was ‘excellent’, their great concern is for the future of Poland, and at the moment, the current situation in Warsaw. Churchill said that he and President Roosevelt had asked Stalin to help those fighting in Warsaw, but their request had met with a negative response. Churchill assured him that while they were not ready for joint action over Warsaw, the Allies were doing everything they could to provide aid via the air route. After some argument over the future of Poland’s eastern borders with the Soviet Union, Churchill promised that…

… since Great Britain entered this war to defend your independence, then I can assure you that we will never abandon you.

These words were similar to those he had used at the previous meeting of the two men in Cairo, immediately after the Tehran Conference. Anders himself had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanska prison during the earlier partition of Poland in 1939, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false. Once again, Anders voiced his serious concerns about Soviet intentions based on current as well as past experience, including the massacre at Katyn:

As they enter Poland, the Soviets arrest and deport our women and children deep into Russia as they did in 1939; they disarm the soldiers of our Home Army, they shoot dead our officers and arrest our civil administration, destroying those who fought the Germans continuously since 1939 and fight them still. We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks. All of us prefer to perish fighting than to live on our knees.

According to the minutes recorded by camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill was ‘very moved’ by Anders’ words and added to his earlier declaration:

I know that the Germans and Russians are destroying all of your best elements, especially intellectual spheres. … But you must trust – we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.

Anders, not surprisingly, was somewhat suspicious of Churchill’s words. He was right to be, not because Churchill was being disingenuous, but because Anders knew he was no longer in a position to make such a promise, considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million was already marching into his country. He reminded the British PM that the Soviet Union would be immensely strong after the war; he was sceptical of Churchill’s view that Britain and the United States would be able to restrain the USSR after the war through their superior supplies of planes, tanks and guns. Churchill was not promising that the Western Allies would be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union if Stalin refused to guarantee Poland’s independence, but his reply implied the possibility of military action, something that he had explicitly ruled out earlier in the year.

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

By the beginning of September, the entire German defensive system was on the point of collapse. At that point, Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. Bulgaria, Axis ally of Germany but at heart pro-Russian and Slavophile, received Soviet armies without a shot being fired and duly declared war on Germany on 8 September. Hitler still fed on hopes that the entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria might well speed an Anglo-Soviet collision, as the Red Army made for the Dardanelles – whereupon German troops in Army Group E might act as a ‘kind of police’ (with British approval) to hold the line against Bolshevism. There was certainly Anglo-Soviet rivalry in the Balkans, involving both Yugoslavia and Greece, but nothing to precipitate outright conflict.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. Then, on 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at State Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. This lay only two hundred and fifty metres from German positions, and General Bór-Komorowski, the Home Army commander, knew that a few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would prevent anyone from getting out alive. He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders had nothing more to lose. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a surprise German attack, the entire force, along with five hundred civilians, including the wounded and a hundred German prisoners, went down the manhole. As Bór-Komorowski wrote:

Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared … Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about one and a half miles in length. … There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung around their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

By this time, and in contrast with Warsaw’s impending fate, the Allied forces had succeeded in liberating Paris, though not without cost in terms of both men and machinery. The Americans had poured forward through gaps in the German defences which had been created by the carpet bombing of Brittany at the end of July. Collins’ VII Corps took Avranches and allowed US forces to attack westwards into the Breton hinterland and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us. 

Better communications and better inter-personal relations might have led to an even greater victory at ‘the Falaise Gap’, the mouth of an area eighteen miles wide by ten miles deep known as the Falaise-Argentan pocket, than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone. That had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. The next day, Kluge ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at the Army Headquarters that it would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around fifty thousand casualties, while the Allies lost twenty-nine thousand at the Falaise. Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle and later described the scene it as…

… unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas … It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

With Allied fighter-bombers flying three thousand sorties a day, the twenty thousand German soldiers who did escape, the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable Panzer Armies including Group Eberbach, did so with their 88mm guns intact. After the war, Bradley and Montgomery blamed each other for the over-caution at Falaise, but Kluge’s defeat there led to his replacement by Field Marshal Model on 17 August and enabled the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris, which had risen on 23 August. Out of the thirty-nine divisions which took part in the Normandy landings, just one was French, 2e Division Blandée (Armoured) under General Leclerc. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and entered Paris first on 25th, as part of the US Fifth Army, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle. He had set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he had left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime, Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany.  While the French Resistance, the résistants and maquisards, under a separate command from the Free French forces were hampering German armoured retaliation, de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.

In Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the humane and historic decision not to set fire to the city. Hitler had demanded of him that Paris must be destroyed from the top to the bottom, that he should not leave a single church or monument standing. The German High Command earmarked seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for destruction. But Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions and continued to ignore Hitler’s enquiries as to whether Paris was burning. The Germans did not, therefore, fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were simultaneously fighting in Warsaw, bringing about the utter destruction of the Polish capital and two hundred thousand of its people. Instead, Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once the Allied forces arrived. He told the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the terms that he had no wish to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris. In all, the French lost only seventy-six soldiers in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, six hundred of whom were non-combatants. De Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow the French troops to be the first to into the capital, and the Supreme Commander duly gave the order to Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August.

In any case, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective rather than a purely political one. Eisenhower could spare the French 2e Division from the far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, fought by British, American and Canadian forces against crack German units. Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as a pen and ink job on the map. The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that afternoon by Choltitz and Leclerc, there was no mention of either Great Britain or the United States; the Germans surrendered the city to the French alone. De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hotel de Ville in which he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, … eternal France. The Allied contribution was summed up in a single phrase. Putting the ‘Liberation’ in context, however, the historian of the Occupation, Ian Ousby, later wrote:

Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.

On the morning of 26 August, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone. Since he did not wish to steal de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower himself did not enter the capital until the following day, five days after he had given the order for the 2e Division to take it.

The Challenge of Leadership:

For his part, although Stalin had decided by the middle of August that the Soviet forces would not support the Home Army in Warsaw, his policy towards the uprising was still not entirely transparent. On 18 September the Soviet authorities overturned their earlier decision and allowed one flight of American bombers en route to Warsaw to refuel on Soviet territory. Also, in the two weeks from 14-28 September, the Soviets themselves dropped supplies on Warsaw. However, since these drops did not involve the use of parachutes, much of the fifty tons of aid provided was destroyed on landing. They were conducted mainly for propaganda purposes so that Stalin could counter the growing outcry of world opinion about Soviet inaction in the face of the destruction of Warsaw, enabling him to demonstrate his public support to the Home Army without offering any effective assistance. Halina Szopinska, a twenty-four-year-old fighter with the Home Army in Warsaw, later testified as to how the airdrops had been a sham:

They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute and when it fell down it would just break into powder. … They would drop guns without a parachute – ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.

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Posted August 22, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Black Country, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Canada, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Egypt, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Flanders, France, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, liberal democracy, Marxism, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, North Africa, Paris, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Serbia, Socialist, tyranny, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Warsaw Uprising, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Who was Hereward? Outlaw Legends and the Myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’.   4 comments

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Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

The comic-strip, super-hero and ‘super-villain’ version of the events of the Norman Conquest is an important part of British mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. The legendary story begins with the Norman’s tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. The Saxons and Danes had captured York, pulling down the castle and seizing all the treasure in it. According to a contemporary chronicle, they killed hundreds of Normans and took many of them to their ships. William’s vengeance was swift and merciless, as recorded in his own words:

I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravaging lion. I ordered that all their homes, tools, goods and corn be burnt. Large herds of cattle and pack-animals were butchered wherever found. I took revenge on many of the English by making them die cruelly of hunger.

The narrative continues with the Norman’s ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and It ends with the conquest of Wales two hundred years later. But history is usually written by the victors, and it is all too easily to underestimate the precarious hold which William and his few thousand men held over the combined Danish and Saxon insurgents during the first five years of their rule. It was their accompanying land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, which enabled them to impose control, though this too was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward in East Anglia.

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A King’s Thegn was one of the nobles who served King Edward the Confessor, carrying out his orders and seeing to it that others obeyed the King. Had it not been for the Conquest, Hereward would have become a King’s Thegn after his father Asketil’s death. One of his uncles was Abbot Brand of Peterborough, and all five uncles were all sons of a rich merchant, Toki of Lincoln. In 1063, Abbot Osketil of Crowland had begun the building of a new Abbey Church, for which he needed to raise plenty of money. One way of doing so was to rent out the Abbey lands to local lords who would pay an annual sum to the monastery, and one of those who agreed to do so was a young man of eighteen named Hereward Askeltison. As the son of a wealthy local Thegn in the service of King Edward, the Abbot thought that he would be a reliable tenant. Hereward agreed to rent a farm at Rippingale near Bourne in Lincolnshire for an annual rent to be agreed with the Abbot at the beginning of each year. At the end of the first year, Hereward and the Abbot quarrelled over the rent. The Abbot also complained to his father, who mentioned the matter to the King. Hereward had already upset many of the local people of South Lincolnshire, causing disturbances and earning himself a reputation as a trouble-maker.

Hereward the Exile:

King Edward gave the young man five days in which to leave the Kingdom or face worse penalties. Thus Hereward was already a disgraced ‘outlaw’ before the Conquest, forced into exile by his own father and king. It was said that he escaped to Northumbria, as far away from Winchester, then still Edward’s capital, as he could get. Whichever route he took, at some point he boarded a ship to Flanders and was shipwrecked on the coast of Guines, between Boulogne and Calais. In order to earn a living, he began a career as a mercenary soldier. After winning a duel with a Breton knight, he married a noble lady from St. Omer, Turfrida. At this time, an early form of Tournament was becoming popular in France and Flanders, in which groups of men, sometimes on foot and increasingly on horseback, fought each other in front of large crowds. Hereward fought at Poitiers and Bruges, winning a reputation as a tough and skilled competitor. This was how he met and fell in love with Turfrida.

Hearing that Lietberg, Bishop and Count of Cambrai needed soldiers, Hereward joined his army and became one of the twelve knights who formed his bodyguard. He took part in small wars in the area between lords such as Baldwin II of Hainault, a grandson of the Count of Flanders, and Arnulf the Viscount of Picquigny. Hereward was noticed by Baldwin II’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert was planning a campaign on behalf of his father, Count Baldwin V, who had decided to capture the area then called Scaldemariland, comprising the islands at the mouth of the River Scheldt. He took forty ships with an army under his personal command, with Hereward as commander of the mercenary soldiers. Hereward also had to train the younger, newly knighted men. Fierce fighting followed the attack and at the first the islanders resisted so stubbornly that Robert had to fall back and call for reinforcements.

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The islanders boasted later that they had captured their enemy’s battle standard or ‘Colours’, which was considered a great achievement. The Count’s son then launched a stronger attack against the islands because the whole area had risen up against him. He was attacked from all sides, from the islands and from the sea. The invaders on the island of Walcheren, attacking its defences, and Hereward, in what became his trademark in war, suggested setting fire to the enemy wagons. He led a force of three hundred men ahead of the main army and they killed many hundreds of men. He then took a great the high ground with a force of a thousand knights and six hundred foot-soldiers, following this by attacking the enemy in the rear, killing the rearguard. That was too much for the islanders who sued for peace, being forced to pay double what the Count had originally demanded in tribute. Hereward and his men were allowed to keep all the plunder they had seized during the fighting. He used part of his share to buy two fine horses, calling his favourite one ‘Swallow’.

Return to England:

Just as his success was being celebrated, Count Baldwin V died and was succeeded by his elder son, also called Baldwin, much to the displeasure of the younger brother, Robert the Frisian. That brought an end to Robert’s Scaldermariland campaign, and of Hereward’s role as a mercenary commander, but his successes had made him quite rich by that time. This was when he heard that England had been conquered by the Normans and, leaving his wife in the care of his two cousins, Siward the Red and Siward the Blond, he decided to return to England to find out what had become of his family. Once there, he found out that both his father, Asketil, and his grandfather Toki had been killed in the fighting, in addition to his younger brother, Toli, so he decided to join those Saxons known by the Normans as ‘Wildmen of the Woods’ who were resisting the invasion. Although the English had at first been prepared to accept William’s rule, they had become increasingly rebellious due to the behaviour of the ‘robber’ barons and their knights. There had been widespread looting and the lands of the thanes who had been killed in the three battles of 1066 had been simply handed over to the Norman barons without any compensation to their Saxon holders. Those left in charge of the kingdom when William returned to Normandy after his coronation as King did nothing to control their men.

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The rebels had taken refuge in woods, marshes and river valleys and Hereward, who had been born in South Lincolnshire, now returned to the area he knew best, the Fens. He first visited his uncle, Brand the Monk, who had succeeded Leofric as Abbot of Peterborough. The Abbot had returned ‘sick at heart’ from the Battle of Hastings and died of his wounds. Brand had angered King William by paying homage to the boy Prince of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling (the Saxon heir latterly recognised by Edward the Confessor), who was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot following Harold’s death and before William reached London and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. William made him pay a fine of forty marks for this, a huge sum of money in those days, perhaps equivalent to a thousand pounds in today’s money. Hereward had held some of his lands as protector of Peterborough and now renewed his promise to protect the Abbey. But he also found that all his lands, together with those of his father and grandfather, stretching across more than seven shires, had been expropriated. His own lands had been given to a Breton knight called Ogier and several great Norman lords had shared out his family lands, including Bishop Remigius of Dorchester, who had moved his ‘seat’ to Lincoln, where he was building a new Cathedral on land that had once belonged to Hereward’s grandfather, Toki. Others who had helped themselves to his family’s land included Ivo Taillebois, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey and a Flanders knight, brother-in-law of de Warenne, Frederick Oosterzele-Scheldewineke, whom Hereward waylaid and killed in Flanders, signalling a start to his rebellion.

The Norman land-grab – Domesday evidence:

The rebellion in East Anglia and Northumbria took place against the backcloth of the Norman land-grab as evidenced in the Domesday Survey of 1086. In Suffolk, Coppinger’s 1905 book chronicling the manorial records helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, including those that belonged to Hereward’s kinsmen before the Conquest. We find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall in the west of the county had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith, the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, the father of Edith. Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded Malet’s faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was, in fact, the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert later became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

William de Goulafriere, who had also accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy, also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings. The nearby large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, a Saxon freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William de Goulafriere, as sub-tenant to Robert Malet. There were one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for forty hogs, of which there were twenty, together with six ‘beasts’ (oxen), forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles. William de Goulafriere also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six by Domesday. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings. Winston, an outlying manor of Debenham appears, like the other, larger neighbouring Malet estates, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne.

Like Stigand, Abbot Thurstan was a Saxon, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him to establish his hideout in the Fens. From this base, Hereward began harassing the Normans, killing and robbing them, so that King William himself was forced to offer him a truce after the outlaw thane had almost captured and killed another of his tenants-in-chief, William de Warenne. Hereward then decided to return to Flanders for Turfrida, to bring her back to England with him and also to recruit some of the mercenaries who had fought with him in Scaldemariland. While there he received messages from Abbot Thurstan telling him that his uncle, Brand, was dead and that the sons of Swein Esthrison, King of Denmark, had arrived in the Fens with a raiding army and might be persuaded to support a rising against the Normans. He was also told that King William had appointed a ‘strict French Abbot’ as Abbot of Peterborough, Thurold of Malmesbury, who was on his way to the abbey with an army of Normans from Stamford in Lincolnshire. William was said to have chosen him for his warlike disposition with the clear intention of setting him on Hereward.

Hereward’s ‘Attack’ on Peterborough:

Hereward quickly mustered his men and returned to England, arranging a meeting with the Danes at which he talked them into helping him to upset the Conqueror’s plan by seizing all the treasures of Peterborough to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Normans. Assembling his combined forces of English, Danish and former mercenaries, Hereward advanced to take control of Peterborough, crossing the Fens in large, flat-bottomed boats, using the Wellstream near Outwell, and seeking to gain entry by way of the Bolhythe Gate south of the Abbey. At first, they were resisted by the townsfolk and the monks, who had heard that Hereward and his band of outlaws, including Danes, intended to rob the monastery of its treasures, rather than saving them from the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at Peterborough, records how…

… in the morning all the outlaws came with many boats and attacked the monastery. The monks fought to keep them out.

They therefore failed to gain entry, but when his men set fire to the gate and the buildings outside the walls, he and his men, including the Danes, were able to break in. Once inside, they set about collecting everything movable of value they could lay their hands on. They tried to remove the Great Crucifix, laden with gold and precious stones, hanging at the entrance to the High Altar, but they could only take the crown from the head of Christ’s figure. Elsewhere they were more successful, taking eleven decorated boxes containing the relics of saints, encrusted with gold, silver and precious stones, twelve jewelled crosses and many other objects of gold and silver, books with jewelled covers, and the huge altar hanging, also embroidered in precious metals and jewels. They stripped the abbey of most of its precious possessions, including an ancient ‘relic’, the arm of St Oswald. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the outlaws then burnt down the monastery:

Then the rebels set fire to it, and burnt down all the monks’ houses except one, and the whole town… they took so much gold and so many treasures – money, clothes and books – that no one could add them up. They said they did it out of support for the monastery.

They left the area around the monastery, devastated by fire, on hearing that Abbot Thurold and his men were on their way from Stamford. Several senior monks went with them, and none were harmed. Despite the fire, no serious damage was done, and Thurold was able to resume church services within a week of his arrival. However, the Danes held on to the greater portion of the ‘booty’ and refused to assist in further resistance to the Normans. King Swein ordered them to return to Denmark, leaving Hereward and his men to face King William’s wrath. On the journey home, however, they ran into a storm which wrecked most of their ships with the loss of both men and treasure. Hereward and his men returned to their refuge at Ely and held out for several months against all the efforts of the Norman barons, aided by Abbot Thurold, to dislodge them. Hereward’s forces continued to harry the Normans at every opportunity, eve, on one occasion, surrounding Thurold and a company of men, only releasing them on payment of hundreds of pounds ransom, equivalent to thousands in today’s money.

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Ely – Iconic Isle & Impregnable English Stronghold:

At Ely, Hereward became a magnet for rebel Englishmen and Danes, since he himself was of Danish descent. Following his initial disappointment with the Danes who helped him to ‘sack’ Peterborough, he made all those who joined him swear on the tomb of Etheldreda (see the picture below from the Cathedral nave) that they would stick together against the Normans. The Abbey, sixteen miles north of Cambridge, had been founded as a monastery in 673 by St Etheldreda. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, part of it was still standing in King Edward’s reign, though the present building was begun in 1083, after the events described here. Many of Hereward’s supporters who gathered there were his relatives from Lincolnshire, but he was also joined by another Dane, called Thorkell of Harringworth, who had lost his lands in Northamptonshire. Others included the rich landowner Siward of Maldon in Essex, Rahere ‘the Heron’ from Wroxham on the Bure in the Norfolk Broads, Brother Siward of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Reginald, Hereward’s standard-bearer. They carried out a series of raids against the Normans, pillaging far and wide and sometimes suffering heavy losses themselves. They reassured many people that all was not yet lost. For a time, William did nothing, leaving the task of dealing with Hereward to the local barons such as William de Warenne from Castle Acre, William Malet from Eye in Suffolk and Richard fitzGilbert from Clare. But following the rising in the North in 1069 in support of Edgar Aetheling, the last Saxon heir to the thrones of Wessex and England, the Conqueror changed his mind.

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Many of the commoners followed their thanes, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Two of the last surviving Saxon Earls from King Edward’s time, the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, soon lost all faith in the new Norman king. They feared that as part of his revenge for the rising, which caused William to burn and destroy large tracts of Yorkshire and Durham, they too would be imprisoned. They escaped from their ‘house arrest’ at the King’s court and hid out for six months in the woods and fields, evading recapture. Hoping to find a ship to flee to Flanders, they arrived at Ely, accompanied by other Saxon nobles and their household troops. These included Bishop Athelwine of Durham and two of Edwin and Morcar’s relatives, Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry. They all met up in the Fens near Wisbech and persuaded Hereward to allow them to spend the winter at Ely. They had returned south after the rising when Prince Eadgar and Maerleswein, the English sheriff of Lincolnshire and their supporters, had sought refuge with King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, who had married Eadgar’s sister, Margaret of Wessex, following the family’s flight from the Norman court and their shipwreck at the mouth of the Forth.

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So the remnant of the rebellion against William was now gathered in one place and William could not resist the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But it was not going to be easy to deal with them since Ely was an island surrounded by the Fens and almost impregnable. The rivers and the deep, almost bottomless meres combined with the marshes surrounding the Isle made it a tremendous obstacle to any army, especially one like the Norman army, whose strength was in its heavy cavalry. Any attempt at the waterborne assault could be easily repelled. The available ways onto the Isle from Earith, Soham or Downham were well known, difficult and easily defended. The rebel defenders had built ramparts of peat surmounted by strong fences from which javelins and other missiles could be launched. King William also realised that a large fighting force within these defences, well stocked with food and water, could hold out almost indefinitely and, commanded by Hereward, a soldier of proven ability, a headlong ground attack was unlikely to succeed without heavy losses.

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William’s Attempts to Lay Siege to the Isle:

Hence, the King decided to mobilise both ground and naval forces on a large scale. The chronicles of the time record how he set his ships to blockade the Isle from the ‘seaward’ or northern side and set a siege on the landward side. The various accounts of the attack are confused, but what took place is clear enough. King William gathered his élite troops and commanders together at the castle in Cambridge and planned an assault which meant crossing the fen at its narrowest point by strengthening the existing causeway. This was a very old track called the Mare’s Way, running from Willingham to an Iron Age earthwork called Belsar’s Hill. There he quickly set up camp, building a palisade along the rampart of the old fort. He then forced all the local people to provide him with materials with which he continued to reinforce the causeway, building a bridge which would enable his army to cross the Old West River onto the Isle.

William also set up an advance post at ‘Devil’s Dyke’, near Reach, and some of his men attempted to cross the West River below where it was joined by the River Cam. In the meantime, Hereward carried out scouting forays, building up stocks of food and weapons, killing or wounding any parties of Normans found away from their base. He fortified the weak spots on the dykes with walls of peat and easily repulsed the Normans, counter-attacking at Reach. He led a small raiding party of seven men against the outpost and killed all the guards there, except for one Richard, son of Osbert, who was the last man standing, while none of the seven attackers was killed. Richard later reported on the action to the King’s War Council, and of how Hereward had gone on to burn down the nearby village of Burwell before retreating as reinforcements were brought up. William moved his troops to a point on the West River not far from the modern hamlet of Aldreth, some way to the east, where the fen was narrower than elsewhere. There he set about building a floating structure loosely described as a bridge supported by sheepskins filled with air, which may have been sabotaged by its local peasant builders. There was a suggestion that the bags were partly filled with sand so that they would gradually sink.

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As soon as it appeared to be ready, and before the defenders could react, a large number of knights and men-at-arms rushed onto the bridge, eager to be the first on the Isle with its promise of rich plunder. The whole construction was so unstable that it collapsed, throwing all the men on it into the river and the surrounding swamp so that they all, save one, drowned. Some hundreds, at least, perished, and William retreated in despair to the former royal manor of Brampton, near Huntingdon, while Hereward, entertaining the sole survivor of the disaster, Deda the knight. He was well looked after and invited to dine in the refectory of Ely monastery, along with Abbot Thurstan, his monks and the various noblemen supporting Hereward. They feasted at great wooden trestle tables in the hall with their arms and armour stacked against the walls, ready for use in action. Their shields hung on the walls behind their seats, marking their places. Deda was therefore allowed to believe that the defenders were well supplied with food from the abbey lands, including its famous eels, as well as fresh water from its wells, and wine from its vineyards. He was then set free so that he could report all this to King William. Deda did exactly that at a meeting of the King’s council, in which he told William all about the Isle of Ely:

Around it are great meres and fens, like a strong wall. In this isle there are many tame cattle, and huge numbers of wild animals; stags, roes, foats and hares… But what am I to say of the kinds of fishes and fowls, both those that fly and those that swim? … I have seen a hundred – no, even three hundred – taken at once – sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.

Deda’s information almost persuaded William to give up his attack on Ely. But Ivo Taillebois, in a dramatic speech, persuaded the king that he would never live down such an ignominious retreat. This argument won the day, and work began on a new portable bridge guarded by two tall wooden siege towers. These were mounted on huge platforms on wheels and could be used to fire missiles at the opposite bank of the river to drive back the defenders. Hereward, however, had had Deda followed, enabling him to locate the king’s camp at Brampton. Hereward hid his horse Swallow nearby, disguised himself as a seller of pots and oil lamps and infiltrated the camp. He listened carefully to all that was said about the king’s plans, including one to employ a witch to curse the Islanders using a giant eel from the swamp to cast her spells. But then he was identified as the ‘notorious’ outlaw by one of the King’s men and was forced to make a dramatic escape into the marshes where he found his horse and rode back to Ely via Sutton and Witchford, leaving one Norman dead and several others wounded back at the camp.

Meanwhile, the king’s orders were being quickly carried out. He commandeered all the available boats from Cottingham and the surrounding areas so that more men and materials and men could be brought in over the flooded landscape. Great tree trunks were laid down and covered with sticks and stones to form a platform over the marsh on which the siege towers could be erected, and catapults for hurling stones were placed on the towers. But Hereward’s men had disguised themselves as labourers and mingled with the Saxon workmen. When they threw off their disguises to reveal their armour and weapons, their enemies were thrown into confusion and they were able to set fire reeds and willows of the fen as well as to the piles of wood around the siege towers, calling upon God, in English, to come to their aid. The whole structure and towers caught fire and the Normans fled in terror from the roaring flames and choking smoke. The fire spread across the fens for half a kilometre into the swamp of reeds, whipped up by the wind, with the peat below the water level also burning. The soldiers fled headlong into this in order to escape the raging flames, the noise of the crackling willows and the billowing smoke driving them mad with fear. The peat fires would have been almost impossible to extinguish, travelling underground and even underwater and erupting in explosions of steam clouds. Men trying to cross the swamp fell waist deep into burning peat. Hereward and his men, familiar with the perils of the marsh, pursued the fleeing Normans, killing many trapped by the flames, then retreating once more to the Isle.

King William Raises the Stakes:

King William, enraged by his defeat and horror-stricken with his losses, sought his immediate revenge by seizing all the lands of the abbey of Ely, distributed over a wide area, that he could lay his hands on and distributing them among his barons. News of this was carefully leaked to Abbot Thurstan and his monks, who began to have second thoughts about continuing to resist in case they lost everything. William also let it be known that Earl Morcar and other thanes would be treated leniently if they surrendered, but mercilessly if they continued their resistance. Earl Edwin decided to leave his brother and make his way to Scotland to join the Wessex resistance there. On the way, he was betrayed by three of his own men to a squadron of Norman knights. Caught in the open between a river and the sea, he was slaughtered. His betrayers took his head to King William, expecting a reward, but were themselves executed.

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Abbot Thurstan then contacted the King and offered to reveal how he could gain safe passage onto the Isle from another direction. William accepted his offer and made his way across Avering Mere by boat to a spot near the village of Little Thetford, a short distance from the town of Ely, where the river was placid and easily crossed. William took the Abbot’s advice, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His army had to take a winding march through the marshes to the mere, along a path revealed to the King by the monks. The men lost sight of each other in the eerie silence of the marsh and sometimes found themselves walking over the bodies of men and horses that had perished in the fire in the swamp. They also had to cross the many tributaries and streams running through the fens, wading through deep waters almost up to the level of their helmets and all the time harassed by attacks from the Fenlanders. King William commandeered all available flat-bottomed fenland boats, ancestors of the modern punt, to transport horses and catapults as well as materials to build yet another bridge. He had given up the idea of crossing near Aldreth because of the fires still raging in the marshes there.

The Final Norman Attack along Akeman Street:

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Eventually, William reached the area which Thurstan had described to him, near Little Thetford, bringing up the boats carrying the catapults and setting them up on the river bank. From there he began to bombard the defenders. At first, this caused the unstable ground to shake, threatening the attackers with drowning. But the Conqueror’s ‘engineers’ constructed a pontoon bridge over a number of the flat-bottomed boats lashed together and covered in willow branches, reeds and rushes. His bombardment had succeeded in softening up the Resistance and he was able to lead his men across the rapidly improvised pontoon bridge onto the Isle, driving back the remaining defenders with his horsemen. He then swept forward in a ‘pincer’ movement, one wing advancing directly towards Ely along the old Roman road, Akeman Street, while the other swept round through Witchford, where he accepted the surrender of Morcar and the nobles. However, they had left this too late and Morcar, Siward Barn and Bishop Aethelwine were imprisoned. The bishop died shortly afterwards, Morcar remained a prisoner for life and Siward Barn was only released after William’s death. He went int exile in Constantinople where he was said to have joined the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The other leaders of the Resistance were severely dealt with; some were blinded, others lost hands or feet. The ordinary rank and file were released unharmed.

Hereward had been absent from Ely during the final Norman attack, leading another raiding party with his closest allies. On returning from this, he found that Morcar and the other nobles had surrendered and the King was already at Witchford. In his rage and despair, he threatened to burn down the town but was persuaded by Alwin, son of Sheriff Ordgar, that it was too late to recover the Isle and the Abbey. He and his allies then escaped through the Fens to take refuge in the Bruneswald, the great forest along the Fen edge in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. There, for some months, he carried on his guerrilla campaign against the Norman King. Nothing very definite is known about his ultimate fate. There are two conflicting narratives, one of which was that he was captured by William’s forces of the seven shires in the Bruneswald, only for him to escape in the company of his gaoler, Robert of Harpole, who then persuaded the King to pardon him in exchange for him entering his king’s service. In that narrative, Hereward agreed and was given back some of his lands. He then lived out his life in retirement and was buried at Crowland next to his first wife, Turfrida, who had become a nun there. However, this narrative rests on two false clues. According to the Domesday Book, there was another thane named Hereward, the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, who held lands in Warwickshire in the service of the Bishop of Worcester and the Count of Mortain. Later chroniclers confused this Hereward with the Fenland outlaw. In addition, a later English rebel, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1075 for taking part in a revolt against King William, was also buried at Crowland. So some details of this narrative may be based on cases of mistaken identity.

The alternative narrative, written up in the twelfth century by the poet Geoffrey Gaimar also claims that Hereward was reconciled with William and went with him to the war in Maine where he made another fortune out of booty captured in the war. On his way home, he was ambushed by two dozen Norman knights seeking revenge against him, and died fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds, killing about half of his assailants. Here, the poet is probably giving his hero a hero’s death within the literary conventions of the time. Peter Rex has argued that the most likely ‘denouement’ is that, after seeing out the winter of 1071 in the Bruneswald, Hereward decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain in England, so that he and his close allies and men slipped away by sea to the Continent. Once there, he probably became a mercenary once more, and either died in battle or lived to return to England in the reign of William Rufus, perhaps living quietly in Norfolk into old age and being buried in Crowland. The evidence for this comes from two East Anglian families, at Terrington near Kings Lynn and Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, who both claim descent from him.

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The Primary Sources – The Abbey, the Man & the Myth:

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers. The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard fitzGibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk, referred to above, consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriere (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with de Goulafriere, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he no doubt inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gradually, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings, but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance, and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was a mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Secondary Sources:

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Published by the Ely Society, 2012.

The cover picture was supplied by Grantanbrycg, the Cambridge branch of

Regia Angolorum, http://www.regia.org

 

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

Posted June 3, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Calais, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Compromise, Conquest, Dark Ages, East Anglia, Education, English Language, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Flanders, Footpaths, France, guerilla warfare, History, Integration, Linguistics, Medieval, Memorial, Mercia, Midlands, Monarchy, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Norfolk, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Reconciliation, Saxons, Scotland, Suffolk, terror, tyranny, West Midlands

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