Swiss Air Combat in World War 2

The revealing story of Switzerland’s military operations to defend its airspace from Axis and Allied aircraft during World War Two

Blotted with deathly-black balkenkreuz wing insignia denoting them as war machines of the German Luftwaffe, droves of bulky Bf-110 twin-engined Messerschmitt fighters, far above the tree-topped mountains and valleys of the Jura Canton, droned menacingly in circles. A flock of more nimble craft whizzed in to engage them; Bf-109E Messerschmitts, except these Bf-109s were emblazoned with an insignia seldom depicted in the annals of modern warfare, another cross painted the white of peace yet over the red of warning; these were Swiss fighters defending their homeland. The blaze of tracer round quickly filled the sky as German hardware was pitted against each other. 

As is well known, the Swiss stayed out of the Second World War. So, what was its airforce doing getting into dogfights with the Nazis, and even later the Allies? This is the little known story of Switzerland’s fight to defend its territory during ‘The War’. 

To Have Peace, One Must Prepare for War

Since the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1815, Switzerland, that diminutive nation bristling with jagged mountain peaks to deter potential enemies, has stood as a salient of peace when war has raged all around. In 1939, hostilities in Europe recommenced as the German Reich set forth once more in its recurrent quest to assert hegemony over its neighbours.

The unbridled military success of the Nazi Third Reich in the early stages of WW2 is well-told of course; nation after nation crumbled under the might of their hammer blows. Hitler and his generals felt that their southern neighbour could maintain their time-honoured neutrality, however, and the Swiss were more than happy to stay out of the epic clash of arms raging around them. 

The dynamic between the two states was a wary one. On one hand, there was an ideological incentive to absorb the Swiss into the burgeoning Nazi empire as it included German speaking people who Hitler described as “a misbegotten branch of our Volk.” Yet Switzerland’s position was optimally balanced; it was sufficiently tough to be conquerable only with some difficulty whilst having insufficient natural resources to make it tempting to try. Also, Switzerland was a valuable wartime trading partner of the Third Reich’s, buying up its plundered gold to fuel the Nazi war-engine.

Switzerland perceived its position akin to that of a hedgehog known to a voracious but well-fed wolf. Its strategic aim was straightforward enough; stay off the German military’s radar whilst maintaining cordial enough relations to keep the supply of natural resources flowing for which it was heavily reliant. For its military, this meant ensuring that it wouldn’t be easy prey if ever the wolf came sniffing around. No matter how passive any country’s army may be, its most fundamental mission is to maintain its territorial integrity, and this the Swiss vigorously carried out for the next six years of war.

Along with all the major European powers, Switzerland established its airforce during WW1. As the storm clouds gathered again in the 1930s the Swiss saw it prudent to develop an effective air-defence force of modern combat planes plus anti air flak units. To that end, modern Morane-Saulnier D‐3800 fighters were procured (a French aircraft built under licence in Switzerland). The latest Messerschmitt Bf-109E was also acquired – an embarrassing sale by the fledgling Nazi Germany in view of later events. By early 1940, the Swiss Luftwaffe was almost 200 aircraft strong including 60-odd Bf-109s and over 30 of the less mechanically sound D-3800s. This against the 3000 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe, it would be David vs Goliath.

Swiss Army anti-air gunners successfully caught a number of trespassing planes in their crosshairs (

The trouble between the two states began with the Battle of France from early May, 1940 and reached boiling point before tensions cooled with the onset of the Battle of Britain three months later. With the German Luftwaffe swarming over France, it no doubt felt to them that Europe was its playpen with little concern for what the Helvetic Cantons to their south might think of their military largesse. German incursions began to occur frequently and 197 Luftwaffe sorties violated Swiss airspace subsequently.

Luftwaffe Vs Luftwaffe

Yet Swiss fighter squadrons zealously defended their airspace. Between the 10th of May 1940 and 17th of June the Swiss shot down 11 German aircraft while suffering the loss of three of their own aircraft in several skirmishes. Intercepting foreign aircraft was initially a real struggle due to their rudimentary command and control assets exposed early on when, for instance, a light bomber crossed into the western Jura sector and almost made it 400 miles (640 km) out at the other side at the eastern sector before being shot down, crashing into Austrian territory.

By June the 1st, Belgium had fallen and the British had scurried back across the ‘moat’ of the Channel to the security of ‘fortress Great Britain’. As the Germans manoeuvred to deliver the coup de grace to France, it brought them closer to Switzerland and in an attempt to test the fortitude and capacity of the Helvetic defences Hitler and Goring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, ratcheted up the pressure.

As the tally of German planes shot down over Switzerland grew, an aggravated Goring decided to bait the Swiss into a showdown. On June the 4th, dozens of fighters and bombers were sent to fly just on the French side of the border to flit in and out of Swiss airspace with the aim of drawing Swiss fighters into engaging them over France. This would give Goring a propaganda instrument against the Swiss as they could be smeared as aggressors. Three German squadrons crossed the border looking for trouble yet none was encountered. In the afternoon, however, almost 30 Bf-110s plus a single bomber took up position just north of a border town in the Neuchatel Canton to goad the Swiss into action. Eight Messerschmitts and Moranes accompanied by an observation plane attacked the Germans, destroying two of them for the loss of one in return. Now, Goring had what he wanted. He angrily proclaimed a ‘violation of international law by Swiss fighter planes’ aggressively attacking German aircraft over France.

The Swiss were teetering on the edge of war as the Krauts turned the screws further. On June the 8th, there were no less than 133 violations into Swiss airspace, mainly over the Porrentruy and Schaffhausen territorial salients that jut into France and Germany respectively. Before noon an unarmed Swiss recce plane was caught unawares and its two aircrew were fatally wounded before the plane crash-landed. That afternoon, the Germans charged over the border with three squadrons of 28 to 32 Bf-110s looking for a fight. They employed the ‘vineyard’ tactic whereby each squadron took up a defensive carousel formation but each at altitude intervals of 2000m. The Swiss rose to the challenge. 10-15 Bf-109s led by no less than three squadron leaders were let loose on the trespassers. As they roared in, fierce and frantic fighting erupted. The Germans had prepared their trap well yet their adversaries, well outnumbered but fighting with their backs against the wall, were drilled to fly their more nimble 109s against the larger, lumbering 110s so as not to be overwhelmed by the swarm of Germans. They held their own. By the fight’s end the Swiss had lost a Bf-109 but downed three German fighters, including one caught by Swiss anti-aircraft flak.

The diplomatic situation was now on a knife edge. Swiss diplomats were struggling to mollify the increasingly incandescent Third Reich leadership. It must be remembered how heavily the Swiss depended on their northern neighbour for material imports. By July the 1st, the Swiss were sent a diplomatic note informing them it would be the last one they would receive in protest over their attacks on German aircraft ‘over French airspace’ and in future ‘other means’ would be used to protect themselves.

Indeed, since June the 8th, Hitler was beginning to eye the Swiss more predatorily. Now at the height of his pride and vanity, the humiliation wrought by the swashbuckling Swiss pilots was enough to make the dictator consider it might we worth dealing with the pesky southerners once and for all. He was especially riled that German military hardware was being used to shoot down the Third Reich’s own planes. Hitler ordered his generals to draw up an invasion plan titled Operation Tannenbaum but, of course, this would never be carried out.

As a result of political pressure from within as much as from without, the Swiss military command buckled. General Guisen, the Swiss Commander-in Chief, ordered his squadrons to stand down. Their border patrols were halted and they were ordered to hold fire in all but self-defence. To further appease the Germans, the Swiss returned all interned planes and pilots – a clear violation of the Geneva Convention that stipulated neutral nations must intern military personnel and hardware of either belligerent’s until the war’s end.

But these diplomatic efforts were prudent. By mid July, Britain’s battle for survival began and as fighting intensified over England, Swiss Germanic relations were put on ice. Hitler, now placated, withdrew his Messerschmitts from the border.

As the war raged on, Switzerland showed little bias to either the Axis or Allies whenever their air units violated its borders. British bomber incursions began in 1940, using Swiss airspace as a safe route to reach the Fatherland, and were high level night-time missions that the Swiss lacked the means to intercept. Allied bomber incursions then dwindled for a few years because the Swiss turned out their lights to make navigation through their airspace too difficult, but by 1943, their numbers surged once the RAF was augmented by the mighty USAF with its vast numbers of heavy bombers. Allied incursions occured either deliberately, due to errors of navigation or when stricken aircraft desperate to land chose to be interred by Swiss authorities over being captured as prisoners of war. 

An American P51 Mustang crash-landed in Switzerland, though likely not due to Swiss gunfire. (

Allied Bombs

By this point, numbers of Swiss anti-air flak units had increased and more combat aircraft had been acquired. But more capable Allied aircraft operating in much larger formations than whatever the Third Reich employed made defending Swiss airspace even more daunting, yet the Swiss continued to guard their airspace, though much more passively given the Allies’ vast numbers and strength. The first Allied aircraft to be shot down were two RAF bombers flying low over Swiss territory in July 1943, caught by Swiss anti-aircraft fire. Later in October, an American bomber was shot down and only three of its crew survived. More than 100 B-17s and B-24s bombers in total were either shot down or, more commonly, forced to land – over a thousand allied aircrew interned for the duration of the war. Another source states six Allied aircraft were shot down by Swiss Air Force fighters and four by anti-aircraft cannons, killing 36 Allied airmen. One notable incident was when American P-51 Mustangs escorting a damaged B-17 bomber crossed into Swiss airspace and were confronted by Swiss Bf-109s. Whether the 109s actually attacked the Americans is not known but the P-51 pilots, perhaps unsure of their nationality, perhaps not, attacked the Swiss aircraft, shooting down one and damaging the other.

Much more gravely for the Swiss, the Allies bombed Switzerland repeatedly. The most serious incident to occur was when 50 B-24 Liberators misidentified Schaffhausen as their German target that was actually 146 miles (235 km) to the north. They dropped sixty tons of bombs on the town. Although an air raid alarm sounded, it had been set off so many times prior without any attack that complacency had set in and the locals failed to take cover. A total of 40 people were killed and about 270 injured. Other cities hit during the war included Geneva, Basel, Zurich and the historic town of Stein am Rhein. Officially speaking, these were all tragic accidents and that Swiss diplomats complained loudly over and received grovelling apologies from the Allied high command in response. Alternative narratives suggest that at least some of these bombings were quite deliberate in order to punish the Swiss for attacking Allied aircraft and to send a warning to halt their economic and industrial co-operation with the Axis powers. It was known, for example, that Switzerland were allowing trains to transport war matériel between Germany and Italy. 

The aftermath of the Allied bombing of Schaffhausen where some 400 bombs were dropped (

Allies bombed Swiss towns on a total of 70 occasions, killing 84 civilians. In the end, the Americans paid the Swiss over $18 million in compensation for these ‘accidents’.

So, the war was not a peaceful period for the Swiss even if they were ‘at peace’. They demonstrated to the world that their placid stance to war was not one borne of meekness. Perhaps one day they will have to show their resolve to protect themselves again.


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Hiroo Onoda’s Final Orders, 1974

The tale of the Japanese soldier’s WW2 tour of duty that did not end in 1945, instead went on for an epic 20 years longer. Find out why Lieutenant Onoda refused to surrender and how he was finally coaxed out of hiding.

It was a surreal moment for book store owner Yoshimi Taniguchi; it was 1974 and fate had led him to a tent on a Filipino island – he had entered a time warp of sorts. Reprising his role as Major Taniguchi from three decades earlier he waited to rendezvous with a man who’d gained a sort of mythical status in their Japanese homeland. 

That man was named Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda. At the prearranged time Onoda emerged from the jungle carefully camouflaged, still vigilant against an enemy who had long since disappeared. The two men saluted then Tanigushi read out an order: ‘In accordance with the Imperial command units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease all combat activity and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer.’ Onoda then handed over his still perfectly working rifle, ammunition, grenades and katana sword.

His commanding officer had finally fulfilled a promise he made back in 1944: ‘Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you’. Almost three decades late, Onoda’s mission was finally over and his life could now restart.

Onoda finally surrenders after 30 years at war (

Onoda’s story is perhaps one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever of the virtues of fealty and devotion to duty, ingrained in Japan’s Samurai culture and inherited by Japan’s armed forces in the Second World War. During that war, Allied and Japanese forces were pitted against each other across a vast archipelago of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant Onoda had been trained as an intelligence officer and in 1944 he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines and was ordered to do all he could to hamper enemy operations there. He vividly remembered his commander’s words “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him”.

So, once the war ended in 1945 Onoda and his small squad of three became ‘holdouts’, ignoring leaflets dropped in 1946 informing them the war was over and to surrender because they suspected a cheap trick by the Americans.

Onoda and his companions carried out guerrilla activities and engaged in several shootouts with the police whilst living in the jungle. One of the four surrendered in 1950, another was killed in a shootout in 1954 and the last soldier under Onoda’s command was shot in another gun battle in 1972.

Eventually a Japanese man, named Norio Suzuki, who was travelling around the world, looking for ‘Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order’ coaxed him out of hiding to surrender. He received a hero’s welcome once he returned home yet left a bitter legacy in the Philippines due to him and his squad killing 30 people during their campaign. Onoda would go on to open a ranch and survival school in Brazil. He died in Tokyo in 2014.

The Last Cavalry Charge in History, 1942

Amidst the mechanisation of the Eastern Front in WW2, Italy’s much maligned military reputation received a shot in the arm when the Italian Savoia Cavalleria cavalry regiment daringly charged Soviet infantrymen.

It was August 1942 and the tide of WW2 was just beginning to turn in favour of the Allies after the surging, seemingly unstoppable Axis ‘Operation Barbarossa’ petered out.

Now the Soviets turned the tables with an offensive of their own. The Italian 2nd Infantry Division manned a sector on the Don River and when the Soviets launched an assault on their positions, the Italians couldn’t fend them off; after two days they were routed and needed help fast.

High command ordered the Savoia Cavalleria cavalry regiment to the rescue. This unit, still mounted on horseback from a bygone age, was about to perform one of the most extraordinary acts of the war. On the 23rd it moved to occupy a position, stopping short 1000m (1100yrds) and unaware that two thousand Soviet infantry were already there. Early the next day a troop moved in to recce the position and made contact with the enemy, who, now aware of the cavalrymen’s presence, opened heavy fire.

Realising they were in a tight spot and faced annihilation if they didn’t attack immediately regimental commander Colonel Alessandro ordered his men into a do-or-die charge. The situation was desperate yet the cavalrymen had one ace up their sleeve.

A winding gorge nearby came out on the Soviet’s flank and 2nd Squadron quickly launched themselves down the gorge. Pouring out at the other end they fell upon the alarmed Soviets, sabres thrashing wildly and hand grenades flying among their ranks. Corporal Lolli, unable to draw, as his sabre was stuck in its sheath, charged holding high a hand grenade; Trumpeter Carenzi, having to handle both trumpet and pistol, unintentionally shot his own horse in the head. Some horses, even though riddled by bullets, would keep galloping for hundreds of metres, squirting blood at every beat, suddenly collapsing only a while after their actual death.

The cavalrymen fell upon the alarmed Soviets, sabres thrashing wildly and hand grenades flying among their ranks. (

After having crossed just about half of the Soviet line the strength of the squadron was already reduced by half, and the commander himself was grounded. Realising 2nd Squadron was getting shredded to pieces, Allesandro ordered his 3rd Squadron into the fray. This they did and, with their blood up, they eschewed the gorge’s cover and charged headlong forwards.

For the loss of 32 soldiers and 100 slain horses, the Savoia Cavalleria Regiment managed to kill and capture hundreds of Soviets and bought time for the routed 2nd Division to seek safety. German liaison troops looking on were full of admiration for what the cavalry had just achieved. Addressing Allesandro, they said: “Colonel, these kinds of things, we cannot do them anymore”.

The Italians had just performed the last ever major cavalry charge in history.

HMS Curacoa Tragedy, 1942

The story of the light cruiser that was sliced in half by the colossal Queen Mary transatlantic liner.

It was late 1942 and the Battle of the Atlantic – the struggle to ferry millions of tonnes of equipment, war materials and men through a deadly gauntlet of U-Boat submarines – was in full flow.

When 10,000 men of the US 29th Division were needed across the Atlantic it was the RMS Queen Mary (QM) that was chosen for the task – a huge ship but also the fastest passenger liner of its age, holding the record for fastest Atlantic crossing from 1946 to 1952.

If that ship were to be torpedoed and sunk, the loss of all those men would be an absolute catastrophe, so the Queen Mary’s orders were to sail full speed ahead and in a ‘Zig-Zag’ formation to make it extremely hard for any submarine to sink her. This wasn’t just an operating procedure, naval regulations forbade her to slow down under any circumstances.

On the 2nd of October, she rendezvoused with an escort, HMS Curacoa, off the Irish coast and there a calamitous misunderstanding occurred. Each captain had different interpretations of ‘The Rule of the Road’, believing his ship had the right of way.

As the QM continued to zig-zag her officer of the watch saw that she and the Curacoa were getting too close for comfort and took evasive action. Yet the QM’s captain then intervened; disastrously he told his officer to: “Carry on with the zig-zag. These chaps are used to escorting; they will keep out of your way and won’t interfere with you.

QM started to turn starboard; Curacoa’s captain saw what was happening but by then it was too late; QM struck Curacoa amidships at full speed and sliced the cruiser in two ‘like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch (15.2cm) armoured plating’.

The fatal moment of impact (

The rear end sank almost immediately, but the rest of the ship stayed on the surface a few minutes longer. 

To imagine the mood on the QM’s bridge in the minutes after; the captain’s dismay and taut figures at station.

Acting under orders not to stop due to the risk of U-boat attacks, QM steamed onward with a damaged bow. She radioed the other warships of her escort and reported the collision.

101 survivors, including the captain, were eventually picked up yet 239 officers and men went down with their ship.

The Business Plot, 1933

A credibly true conspiracy story: The aim was to take over Washington DC in a military coup; there was just one man standing in their way. Read how one veteran US Marine General stood up to the political forces that lurk in the shadows even today.

It was November the 24th, 1934 and retired General Smedley Butler sat before a closed session of the Congressional Special Committee on Un-American Activities in New York.

This man had served in numerous military operations around the world, including WW1. With two Medals of Honour to his name, he was America’s most decorated soldier and his reputation was above reproach. However news outlets, such as the New York Times, dismissed his story as a “giant hoax” the moment it came out.

Prefacing his remarks by saying “I have one interest in all of this, and that is to try to do my best to see that a democracy is maintained in this country.” Butler then gave an incredible testimony that Gerald C. MacGuire attempted to recruit him to lead a coup, promising him an army of 500,000 men for a march on Washington, DC, and financial backing.

The pretext for the coup would be that the president’s health was failing. Butler said the plotters felt his good reputation and popularity were vital in attracting support amongst the general public and saw him as easier to manipulate than others.

Given a successful coup, Butler said that the plan was for him to have held near-absolute power in the newly created position of ‘Secretary of General Affairs’, while Roosevelt would have assumed a figurehead role.

General Smedley Butler was to lead a fascist coup of the USA if ‘hidden interests’ had their way (

Those implicated in the plot by Butler all denied any involvement. MacGuire was the only figure identified by Butler who testified before the committee.

Others Butler accused were not called to appear to testify because the “committee has had no evidence before it that would in the slightest degree warrant calling before it such men”.

While historians have questioned whether or not a coup was actually close to execution, most agree that some sort of plot was contemplated and discussed. 


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Napoleon’s ‘Battle’ with Bunnies, 1807

Of all of Bonaparte’s illustrious battles perhaps the one he wanted to forget as quickly as possible was not his worst ever defeat, but his most embarrassing one, when Napoleon fled from a horde of rabbits.

History tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte’s worst ever defeat occurred at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, yet perhaps his most humiliating one was eight years earlier. It was the summer of 1807 and Napoleon Bonaparte was in high spirits as he sauntered across a meadow accompanied by beaters and gun-bearers.

He was at the zenith of his powers having subdued, and made peace with, France’s two arch enemies, Prussia and Russia by signing the Treaties of Tilsit. Now was the time to relax and bask in his glory and so a rabbit shoot and outdoor luncheon were arranged with France’s top brass invited. Around the meadow a ring of rabbit cages had been laid out and hundreds, perhaps up to 3000 rabbits, were released. The hunt was on.

But something strange happened; instead of bounding away, the horde of fluffy ears charged at Napoleon. He and his men laughed it up at first but the onslaught continued and they swarmed over the man and began to climb up his leg.

France’s all-conquering general was no match for an army of bunnies. (

Napoleon tried shooing them with his riding crop; his men grabbed sticks and tried chasing them away; This was quickly degenerating into a demeaning farce for a great emperor such as himself, and so Napoleon retreated to his coach. But the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party to surround the imperial coach, some even leaping into the carriage.

The attack ceased only as the coach rolled away. The man who was dominating Europe was no match for an army of bunnies.

The Battle of Nibley Green – England’s Last Private Battle

The little known story of the two English nobles who fought the last ever private battle on English soil.

Throughout the long, often tumultuous history of Great Britain much of it has passed the rural folk of one quiet corner of it.

In the year 1470, a traveller might have set out from London and headed west. Days of travel first by riverboat along the Thames, then on horseback along ancient forest byways would’ve finally brought them to a halt at the banks of the River Severn Estuary, a mighty river miles wide at this point. On the far side lived the Welsh, of which the Severn had served as a bulwark against ages past. The Welsh had long been a warlike people until their kingdoms were subdued in the 13th Century.

Moving up the Severn Vale the traveller would’ve entered the ancient County of Gloucestershire, and along the riverbank they would’ve seen to their right a rising escarpment, some seven miles distant, of the Cotswold Hills; a rolling hill range of limestone. At the foot of these hills, a dramatic episode of English history played out but passed into medieval lore largely unnoticed.

The Background

It was in the year 1470 that a feud between two noble families that had festered for generations climaxed into a short, bloody showdown one chilly spring morning.

In 1417 a powerful nobleman with the family name Berkeley, and who held a Barony of the same name, passed down his estates to a male heir, his nephew, instead of his daughter. That daughter, a ruthless lady named Elizabeth Berkeley, vigorously disputed the decision and her descendants would do everything they could to get the estates back, all the way down in 1470, to her great-grandson Thomas Talbot. That nephew was James Berkeley and in 1470 his son, named William Berkeley, held the Barony.

The King’s Loose Hold on the Reign

This little known violent episode of English history might not have happened had the English kingdom not been going through a bout of intense political upheaval.

Just the year before, the War of the Roses had begun to warm up again after Edward IV vanquished the incumbent King Henry VI in the Battle of Towton 1461. By the end of 1470, the tables turned so much however that Edward was forced to flee the kingdom. This gives the reader an idea of how weak and distracted the government was. This allowed a noble feud to escalate to the extent two noblemen would stake everything they had; their lands, estates… and lives, in a clash of arms.

The Baron Berkeley

The Berkeley family coat of arms (

The New Year had just passed in a bustling settlement named Berkeley, a town later famous as the place Mr Edward Jenner would pioneer the Vaccination.

This night, with the sun long since set, smoke rose from openings in the thatched roofs of hovels into the pristine blackness of a night, free of the orange tinge that permeates the night time today. Hulls of small river craft creaked against their moorings on the town’s tidal river and everywhere was quiet and blanketed in crisp ice.

Overlooking Berkeley stood its sturdy castle — Berkeley Castle. It had been built to hold the Welsh at bay, thus it was a stout fortification but elegant and angular also. It was already over 300 years old and the site King Edward II was murdered almost 150 years prior. At this late hour the lord of the manor, William Berkeley, 2nd Baron Berkeley, sat, sated considerably after the feasting and celebrating during the winter festivities.

He was an able lord of the land at 43 years old, married for a second time (obtaining a divorce from his first wife after just a year), and had held his Barony for six years.

Everyone else had retired to their bed chambers at this dark hour and the Baron sat alone with just the crackling of the fire to break the meditative silence. He drained his goblet of wine and his lips pursed as his thoughts turned to the object of his contempt; that was the Talbot family, currently embodied in an impudent young man named Thomas Talbot.

The Talbots had been a thorn in his family’s side all his life and William had come to despise them deeply. Berkeley thought of young Talbot, virtually squatting in his residence in Wotton and holding a Viscountcy fit for a man, not an impetuous whelp as he. Of course, it was right that the lands and castle of Thomas Berkeley, 5th Baron Berkeley, had passed to his nephew, William’s father James Berkeley, instead of the man’s only child, Elizabeth Berkeley, in the 4th year of King Henry V’s reign, thought William. In taking up their inheritance however William’s parents had endured as much trouble as Elizabeth, then her daughter, in turn, Margaret Beauchamp, could cause.

They’d treated his family absolutely disgracefully. Elizabeth had married the Earl of Warwick, and his family was powerful enough to bar his parents from possessing Berkeley castle for years until Elizabeth died in her 30s. It didn’t end there either; Margaret married into a fire-eating family named the Talbots who were also formidable adversaries.

William’s nostrils flared in remembrance. Margaret stooped to a deeper low when she had William’s very own mother, Lady Isabel Mowbray, arrested and imprisoned at Gloucester where she would expire later that year, alone in a dingy cold cell, he imagined. That had been back when William was 25 years old. Despite the passing years and the fact the Talbots were fortunately not imbued with longevity, the boy Talbot was as hellbent on wrenching back Berkeley’s fine castle as his great-grandmother Elizabeth had been. But as the Baron’s midriff had expanded and hairline receded over the years, his attitude towards the Viscount had hardened in turn. Their vendetta had been allowed to become so all-consuming their mutual hatred even extended to their respective tenants and servants, who frequently quarrelled and fought in the local taverns.

For three years now the hotheaded Talbot let it be known that he would gladly meet William on the field of battle to decide the issue. Yet Berkeley was not an adversary to be taken lightly, as time would tell.

The Viscount Lisle

The Lisle Viscountcy coat of arms (

The gateman could see his lord, Thomas Talbot, 2nd Viscount Lisle, was in high spirits as he trotted his horse into the courtyard of his manor in Wotton-Under-Edge on a cold, grey afternoon.

War had visited this town before when it burned down in the English civil war of the 13th Century. Now, Wotton quietly prospered and a number of buildings that still stand today, including its church; the Ancient Ram Inn; and Katherine Lady Berkeley School stood then and had for over a hundred years.

Talbot’s cheeks were full of colour and his eyes sparkled with youthful exuberance. He’d just returned from hunting in the King’s wood down the hill. With the hubbub of a Cistercian Abbey within earshot the Viscount had been chasing game through the woodland with a new companion of his, Thomas Holt. It wasn’t all fun and games, however, for when the small hunting party took food and ale at the abbey canteen, talk turned to serious matters.

Holt was the Keeper of the Berkeley Castle and, as a servant of the Baron, a disgruntled man; he felt unappreciated and unrewarded for his years of service. His head was turned by the Viscount and together they’d hatched a sneaky plan to murder the Baron and take possession of the castle. And the Viscount would reward Holt very handsomely, that was made clear. Yet, more help among Baron William’s other servants would be needed, so the two Thomases agreed that Holt would approach the castle porter, Maurice King, for help. Talbot returned to his manor feeling more confident than ever. Soon, he mused, he could finally flaunt mettle worthy of the Talbot name and the Lisle Viscountcy.

The Viscount was 21 in 1470. Married to a wife expecting their firstborn come the Summer. He was known for his fiery belligerence which his dear grandmother had channelled against the imposters seated in his birthright; the castle down by the great river.

Talbot’s anger bubbled below the surface every time he thought of this. But then Talbot had been destined to be someone’s arch-enemy, such was the warlike lineage he was born from.

Thomas’s Grandfather was John Talbot. Called the ‘English Achilles’ and the ‘Terror of the French’, he was England’s greatest general in the Hundred Years War and lavishly praised in the plays of Shakespeare. He was also a tough, cruel, and quarrelsome man, so the Talbots were the perfect family for Elizabeth Berkeley to marry into and continue the fight for her inheritance. John’s son, of the same name, was also warlike and was enthusiastic about pursuing his mother’s claims for the Berkeley estates. Yet in 1453, when Thomas Talbot was still a toddler, John Talbot, both grandfather and father, fell gloriously in the last battle of the Hundred Years War — the Battle of Castillon. When his wounded and unhorsed father begged him to quit the field and save himself, John Jr. refused, preferring death to dishonour; a scene immortalized in Henry VI.

One can assume then that the young Thomas Talbot, imbued with his paternal warrior instincts and loathing for William Berkeley, felt destined to confront the man in combat in order to quench his family honour.

Talbot had certainly let Berkeley know he was more than man enough to topple him. If the Baron were a man of honour, Talbot mused, he would have accepted one of Talbot’s many challenges to meet on the field of battle, but Berkeley was too old and paunchy to take on Talbot, a true warrior like his father and grandfather. Talbot felt a match for any knight in the land and he smirked at the thought.

A Call to Arms

Berkeley Castle, now a thriving site of English heritage (

It is hard to write too lucid an account of what exactly happened and when for obvious reasons, but as the weeks passed and the cold of winter still clung on, February came around and Talbot’s scheme involving Thomas Holt turned sour.

Holt had approached the Keeper of Berkeley Castle, Maurice King, to persuade him to switch sides. The man had listened carefully to Holt’s offer then promptly reported Holt’s treachery to his lord. This brought matters to a head. Clearly, Talbot would stop at nothing to take Berkeley’s estates and the Baron could envision this struggle going on forever if he didn’t act decisively.

They say be careful what you wish for, the Baron was going to give young Talbot the fight he wanted, yet he had to make sure he was in the stronger position when the two sides finally met. For that, he was going to call in some favours.

Talbot is said to have been furious when he found out his plot was exposed and his plan in ruins. In his fury, he issued yet another challenge to Berkeley to meet on the field of battle which was readily accepted this time. Berkeley told Talbot to meet him on ground halfway between their respective headquarters, just the next day at a village clearing called Nibley Green.

Giving Talbot just one day to raise an army clearly made it hard to gather more than just the tenants and servants of Talbot’s immediate environs. Berkeley, on the other hand, managed to raise a considerably larger force and from much further afield, including a strong contingent of miners from his lands in the Forest of Dean on the other side of the River Severn and troops sent up by his sister in-law’s family from Bristol, 20 miles (33km) south. Reading between the lines it’s hard to believe Berkeley hadn’t given these companies of troops some advance warning he would be in need of them soon for them all to arrive at Berkeley in time, particularly those hailing from Bristol.

So it was on the 20th of March an army of 1000 spearmen and archers coalesced at Berkeley Castle. They then made a short march through Michaelwood towards Nibley Green, trampling the bluebell carpet underfoot as birds’ sang their dawn chorus through the woodland.

Trying to imagine Talbot’s state of mind as he rose early that morning is muse-worthy. In an era of religion and high mortality rates, the fear of death was much lower and it’s fair to assume Talbot, with his illustrious lineage of war leaders, did not fear death in battle. This feud, which had fixated four generations of his family now, had been fuelled mostly by his family and Talbot had issued a number of challenges to his adversary which had not been taken up and I imagine this had nurtured a sense of complacent bravado, now severely rocked.

How confident was he now as he and Holt led his poor excuse for an army of just 300–400 hastily gathered armed peasants up over to Nibley village to meet his foe? Did he know he was outnumbered? I expect Talbot had at least an inkling the odds in the coming battle were not good. Perhaps he intended to call out Berkeley for a personal duel where the odds would stand in his favour, or felt that whatever else a ‘Talbot battle charge’ could carry the day against the superior forces arrayed against him.

The Battle of Nibley Green

The accounts of the short but bloody fight are sketchy; the main source on the battle being written a good seventy years after. Locals gathered under the banners of both lords and their family and friends would’ve spectated, praying their sons, husbands, and fathers would survive unscathed or better still return victorious. Youngsters climbed trees for a good vantage point. Their shouts of support would’ve been heard from the edge of the green by the two opposing forces and it is from these witnesses an account of the battle was collated.

It was early morning and Talbot arrived from the west and halted atop Shankley Hill, a steep rise above the green, probably waiting for the opportunity to make a charge down upon his opponents. On the eastern side the Baron kept most of his force hidden in the woods, with just some men visible to lure Talbot into advancing forward.

Perhaps Talbot suspected a trap because a standoff lasted some hours, the Viscount reluctant to come down from his strong position on the hill.

Eventually, however, Talbot accepted the challenge to advance upon his enemy below.

It was at this moment Baron Berkeley’s true strength was revealed. He ordered his archers to step out of the trees.

As Talbot’s force closed in quickly, the order came for them to loose off volleys of arrows again and again, maybe not exactly a cloud so dense to blot out the sun, but one imagines, leaving a litter of bodies behind the dwindling company of peasants with a better-armed band of men, perhaps mounted, and the young lord very much at the front.

During the Hundred Years War, English longbow archers gained a formidable reputation as perhaps the deadliest troops on the continent. They were strong men armed with longbows the length of a tall man and were able to loose off arrows capable of piercing the thickest plate armour. Their fallen enemies would then be finished off with the thrusts of a dagger.

As Talbot closed the distance with Baron Berkeley a Forest of Dean archer named ‘Black Will’ stepped forward, drew his bow back, and fired an arrow which pierced Talbot’s left temple through his open visor.

With blood squirting from the wound to the rhythm of his dying heart, Talbot fell and there was nothing else to keep Talbot’s force on the field. They turned tail and melted away, perhaps before they had even reached Berkeley’s ranks. 150 men are said to have fallen that day. The young lord was customarily finished off where he fell and Holt died about an hour after Talbot, executed in cold blood.

As Talbot’s men stumbled back to their relieved families waiting nearby, Berkeley marched on to Talbot’s Manor home at Wotton-Under-Edge to sack it. Who knows if Talbot’s wife, Margaret Herbert, the daughter of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, was roughly handled during the plunder but it was a very traumatic day in any case. She miscarried her child shortly after. Thus, Thomas Talbot’s family line was extinguished. The destruction of Berkeley’s enemy was complete.

And so, the great Lisle-Berkeley family feud was finished. William Berkeley must’ve been immensely satisfied. One can imagine the joyous feast he held; the braggadocio and back-patting going on late into the night.

The moment Talbot’s left temple is pierced by an arrow fired by ‘Black Will’ (


The Lisle Viscountcy would be inherited 13 years later by Edward Grey — the husband of Elizabeth Talbot, Thomas’s sister.

As for William Berkeley, his status in the kingdom went from strength to strength; William was created Viscount Berkeley in 1481, a Privy Counsellor in ’82, became Earl of Nottingham a year later, then assumed the life office of Earl Marshal and Great Marshal of England in ’86. Finally, he was made Marquess of Berkeley in 1488. He passed away 22 years after the battle in 1492.

It is interesting to note that William also never sired an heir, male or female, and so his Barony was passed on to his king. His brother, Maurice Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley should’ve inherited the Barony but William disinherited his brother for bringing shame to the family for marrying a woman of common stock. This, even though Maurice’s in-laws had actually reinforced William with the men from Bristol. That’s gratitude!

The Barony was returned to the Berkeley family in 1553 and the Berkeleys are the only English family still in existence that can trace their ancestors from father to son back to Saxon times. Berkeley Castle has now been the Berkeley family residence for a whopping 850 years.

The Battle of Nibley Green was the last ever private battle in English history. It was remembered throughout Gloucestershire well into the 17th Century although little known farther afield.

It stands out for its portrayal of the nobility at their basest; not in pursuit of lofty ambitions but for greed and rampant pride.


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Battle of Nibley GreenWikipedia article (and links included)

Battle of Nibley GreenYoutube documentary, created by Robin Burton

Battle of North NibleyNorth Nibley website account of the battle (including Extracts from ‘Gloucestershire’s Forgotten Battle, Nibley Green 1470’ by Peter Fleming and Michael Wood), by D. Palmer

Berkeley CastleOfficial website

Nibley Green, Battle

The Battle of Nibley GreenMyThornbury account of the battle, as told by Professor Peter Fleming of the University of the West of England (UWE)

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