16. Duke William of Normandy Capped Off His Adventurous Life by Becoming King William I of England
William the Bastard finally got his turbulent barons under control by resorting to exemplary brutality, calculated to make clear to all and sundry that he was not somebody to mess with. Salutary punishments including chopping off the hands and feet of rebels. The message was heard loud and clear. His greatest accomplishment came in 1066, when William, a cousin of England’s King Edward the Confessor, claimed the throne after the latter’s death without issue. His claim was contested by Harold Godwinson, who was crowned king by England’s Anglo-Saxon lords. So William gathered an army, secured the pope’s blessing for his cause, and sailed to England in September 1066.
On October 14th, William met and defeated the Anglo-Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings, during which King Harold was killed. After his victory, he conquered England and crowned himself King William I. The consequences were momentous. Centuries of Anglo-Saxon independence came to an end, to be replaced by Norman rule. For generations, England had been oriented towards the Germanic world from whence the Anglo-Saxons came, and after the Viking Era began, to the North Sea and Scandinavia. William and the Normans reoriented England towards France, the Western European mainstream, and the Mediterranean world.
15. The Adventurous French Cavalryman Who Tricked a Prussian Fortress Into Surrender
In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte dealt Prussia a crushing defeat at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. He then ordered a vigorous pursuit of the retreating Prussians and the rounding up of their garrisons. A key worry was that Prussian remnants would link up with and reinforce their Russian allies, who were still under arms and contesting the issue. The once-proud Prussian army, less than two decades removed from its glory days under Frederick the Great, was demoralized. It was against that backdrop that a French cavalry brigade approached the port city of Stettin.
The French were led by an adventurous general named Antoine Lasalle (1775 – 1809). His forces consisted of about 500 hussars and a pair of light field guns. Stettin was a well-fortified port city with a garrison of nearly 10,000 men, protected by 281 cannons. In charge was Prussian General Friedrich von Romberg, a veteran with over 50 years’ experience. Romberg’s career stretched back to the Seven Years’ War, during which he had fought under Frederick the Great. Stettin was well-provisioned by the British Royal Navy, whose supply-laden ships sailed in and out of the port with no hindrance. So Lasalle set out to bluff the garrison into surrendering to his small force.
14. A Ruse That Got 10,000 Men to Surrender to 500
On the afternoon of October 29th, 1806, Antoine Lasalle sent a subordinate under flag of truce to demand Stettin’s surrender, with a promise to treat its garrisons with all the honors of war. The garrison’s commander, Friedrich Von Romberg, refused and vowed to defend the city to the last man. An hour later, the emissary returned, this time with a more ominous message: “If by 8 AM you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery and stormed by 50,000 men. The garrison will be put to the sword, and the town will be plundered for 24 hours“. An alarmed von Romberg consulted with the town leaders, who urged capitulation. The details of the surrender were negotiated and finalized that night.
The following morning, the garrison marched out in perfect order and filed past the French to throw their arms down at their feet in a steadily growing pile. When von Romberg discovered just how tiny a force he had surrendered to, it was too late, and he had little choice but to stick to the negotiated agreement. Lasalle became a national hero, while von Romberg became a laughingstock. The Prussian general was tried by court-martial in 1809. He was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment for surrendering without a fight. He died two months later.
The adventurous life of British archaeologist Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935), particularly during the years 1915 – 1919, is worthy of the Indiana Jones treatment. Indeed, it was the subject of a 1960s hit movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was the fifth illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, a married baronet who left his family for his daughters, Lawrence’s mother. Assuming the mother’s surname, the couple lived together and raised a family as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, without marrying.
The family eventually settled in Oxford, were Thomas Edward, who preferred going by his initials T.E., attended college. Lawrence was a history buff from early on, with a particular fondness for medieval and military architecture. He also loved traveling, so he combined his two interests by spending much of his youth exploring old churches and castles. He traveled to France to study medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles. He submitted a thesis on the subject that earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford University in 1910.
12. Excavating and Exploring in Future Enemy Lands Came in Handy for T.E. Lawrence
After graduating from Oxford, T.E. Lawrence secured a traveling fellowship and went to get some hands-on experience in the field. From 1911 to 1914, he was part of an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements near the Euphrates River. During his free time, he traipsed around the Middle East and got to know the region and its people. The lands in which he worked and traveled were part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure.
Because of that uncertainty Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, also undertook map-making reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories. The resultant maps and experience of the local ground and peoples came in handy during Lawrence’s adventurous WWI years. When that conflict began in 1914, he joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, and was tasked with preparing militarily useful maps of the Middle East. He was sent to Cairo, where his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable to the war effort. Lawrence interviewed Turkish prisoners of war, and agents operating behind enemy lines. He thus became highly knowledgeable of Turkish military positions and strengths.
11. An Archaeologist Who Discovered an Untapped Adventurous Streak Within
T.E. Lawrence was sent to Arabia in 1916. There, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the ruler of Mecca and the surrounding region, had raised an Arab revolt against his Ottoman Turk overlords. Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and to make use of their aspirations for independence in order to further the British war effort. His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he was transformed from T.E. Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force that operated behind Turkish lines in hit and run attacks. The raiders blew up vital rail lines, demolished bridges, and destroyed enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, found within himself a hitherto undiscovered adventurous streak, and a knack for guerrilla warfare. Between setting an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, and bribing their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, he kept the rebellion going.
10. T.E. Lawrence Survived Capture and Torture, to Escape and Lead His Guerrillas to Victory
The Turks captured T.E. Lawrence in November 1917, while the adventurous archaeologist, disguised in Arab garb, was spying out one of their positions. His captors flogged, tortured, and sodomized him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychological wounds that never healed. It did not stop Lawrence from returning to the revolt, however. With his assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks, tied down a significant part of their military strength behind the lines in security operations, and helped bring about final Turkish defeat. However, the victorious Entente betrayed the Arabs, and reneged on their promises to grant them independence.
Instead, Britain and France divided up most of the Middle East amongst themselves. Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. They flew off the bookshelves, became international bestsellers, and transformed an already famous Lawrence into a bona fide legend. He tried to escape the public glare by enlisting under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the Royal Air Force, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, planning an early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.
9. The Italian Frogmen Who Struck Into the Heart of a British Port
Italy’s WWII military is often derided – usually for good reason. However, one group of Italian fighting men earned the respect of friend and foe alike: Italy’s naval special forces. They were gathered into the Decima Flottiglia MAS, or “10th Assault Vehicle Flotilla”, Italy’s surface and underwater commandos. Decima Flottiglia took part in numerous daring raids during the war. During the war, the adventurous unit participated in over a dozen operations, sank or damaged five warships totaling over 72,000 tons, plus 20 merchant ships totaling over 130,000 tons.
Their exploits included the use of speedboats to sink a British heavy cruiser, the use of frogmen to attack ships anchored in Gibraltar, and the use of manned torpedoes to raid Alexandria harbor. The last was the Italian naval commandos’ most successful feat of arms. It began on December 3rd, 1941, when an Italian submarine left La Spezia, Italy, carrying three manned torpedoes. It stopped at the island of Leros in the Aegean to pick up three two-man crews for the torpedoes, then headed to Alexandria, Egypt.
8, Italian Naval Commandos Went After One of WWII’s Most Heavily Defended Harbors
Alexandria harbor was the British Royal Navy’s Mediterranean headquarters and main base. That made it one of WWII’s most heavily protected sites. In 1941, Italy’s naval commandos transformed it into the site of one of the war’s most daring attacks, which was carried out with great skill and courage. The Decima Flottiglia’s manned torpedoes were 22-feet-long, battery-powered, and could do 2.5 miles per hour. They had a range of 10 miles, a submersible depth of about 100 feet, and a detachable 660-pound explosive charge.
On December 19th, 1941, an Italian submarine got to within a mile and a half of Alexandria’s harbor, and launched three manned torpedoes. From aerial reconnaissance and agents in Alexandria, the Italians had an accurate picture of the harbor’s defenses. They included shore artillery and machinegun emplacements, minefields, net barriers, and intense patrolling on the water as well as ashore. The sole entrance was sealed with an antisubmarine net, that was only removed to allow authorized vessels to enter or exit the harbor.
7. Italy’s Frogmen Gave the British Royal Navy a Black Eye
The Italian raiders of the Decima Flottigla lurked underwater near the entrance to Alexander harbor, and waited for the right moment. They snuck in when the barrier nets were temporarily removed to allow three British destroyers to enter. Quietly, the frogmen followed the destroyers in. Steering their manned torpedoes, the crews separated to their assigned targets. They were the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, and an aircraft carrier that turned out not to be present. So the crew assigned to attack the carrier went after the tanker Sagona, instead.
The raiders evaded the harbor’s extensive protections, and carefully maneuvered their vessels above or below torpedo nets. They dove beneath their targets’ ships, removed the warheads from their torpedoes, affixed them to the bottom of the hulls, set timers for the explosives to go off at 6 AM, and withdrew. One crew was spotted and captured as soon as they surfaced inside the harbor, but the other two crews swam ashore and made it into Alexandria. They were captured by Egyptian police within a few days. The explosives went off on time, and both battleships suffered extensive damage that kept them out of action for a year. The tanker Sagona was destroyed, and a destroyer refueling from it at the time suffered significant damage.
Few people in history have led an existence as adventurous as that of Phanes of Halicarnassus (flourished 6th century BC). A Greek mercenary general of great renown, Phanes rose high in service to Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC). However, he turned on his employers, and during a war between Egypt and Persia, switched sides. He abandoned the Egyptians, joined the army of Persia’s King Cambyses II, and played an instrumental role in the defeat of his former employers and paymasters.
The conflict between a then-declining Ancient Egypt and a rising Persian Empire was reportedly instigated by a disgruntled Egyptian doctor in the Persian court. He was angry at Pharaoh Amasis for selecting him, out of all of Egypt’s physicians, to get dragged away from his family and sent to Persia when Cambyses wrote Amasis asking for an eye doctor. So the doctor got his payback by devising a scheme, that began with his advising the Persian king to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter.
The disgruntled Egyptian doctor knew that a request from King Cambyses for the hand of Pharaoh Amasis’ daughter would put the Egyptian ruler in a bind. The pharaoh could accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses. Amasis did not want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, particularly because he knew that Cambyses intended her for a mere concubine, not a wife. However, he was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So he fudged, and sent the daughter of a former pharaoh, and falsely claimed that she was his.
That backfired. Soon as she reached Persia, the former princess told Cambyses that Amasis had tried to fob him off with somebody else’s daughter. That greatly upset Cambyses – who was itching for an excuse to conquer Egypt, anyhow. So he declared war and prepared to invade Amasis’ kingdom. As Amasis gathered his forces and prepared Egypt’s defenses, he managed to offend Phanes. The disgruntled Greek general decided to switch sides, and set out to join the Persians and their king. Getting there turned out to be more adventurous than he had thought it would be.
Pharaoh Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes before he reached Persia’s King Cambyses. However, after an adventurous flight that included an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, Phanes reached the Persians. Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt. Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded Phanes’ advice, and the Arabs gladly granted him and his armies safe conduct through their territory.
By then, Amasis had died. He was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III. Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. He then had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he quaffed down and made his subordinates drink as well. Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. The Persians defeated Psamtik, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
The life of a pirate is more adventurous than most, but even amongst pirates, few have led a career as adventurous as that of Edward Teach. Better known as Blackbeard (circa 1680 – 1718), he is probably the best-known pirate of all time. Blackbeard’s early life is shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he started his seafaring career as a privateer – private citizens issued letters of marque by their sovereigns, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping.
In 1716, Blackbeard joined the crew of Benjamin Hornigold, who mentored Blackbeard and taught him the ropes of piracy. The protégé showed himself capable and rose rapidly to become the older pirate’s first mate. Soon, he rose even further, and became second in command, entrusted with his own sloop to operate in conjunction with Hornigold’s main ship. Before long, Hornigold’s fleet had grown to four ships. Operating out of the Bahamas, the pirates fell upon and terrorized the sea lanes.
2. Centuries Before Modern Advertising, Edward Teach Knew How to Build and Maintain a Brand
Blackbeard’s collaboration with Hornigold lasted until late 1717 when Hornigold retired from piracy. By then, Blackbeard had established his reputation as a fearsome pirate in his own right. In no small because Blackbeard paid great attention to establishing and maintaining his brand. He went out of his way to ensure that his appearance was both noticeable and terrifying to his opponents. His greatest defining feature, and the source of the name by which he became famous or infamous, was a thick and long black beard. Blackbeard was in the habit of plaiting his beard into braids, and decorating each braid with colorful ribbons.
His already ferocious appearance was made even more intimidating by the plethora of weapons he carried around. Blackbeard slung six pistols across his chest, thrust a variety of knives and daggers into his belt and boots, and wielded a wicked looking cutlass. To top it off, he attached slow burning matches to his beard, which sputtered and emitted clouds of thick smoke, and made him appear even more demonic. It was a psychologically effective display, and many ships surrendered as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious, crazy looking, and smoke spewing pirate.
1. Edward Teach’s End Was Worthy of His Adventurous Life
Blackbeard continued his piratical career after his mentor Benjamin Hornigold retired from piracy in 1717. Soon thereafter, he seized a French ship, which he remodeled. Equipped with 40 cannons, Blackbeard renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge, and made her his flagship. He then formed a pirate alliance, and used it to commit his most notorious act: a successful blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. He held the city hostage, and wreaked havoc on the seaborne trade and commerce upon which its economy depended until he was paid a ransom. Blackbeard accepted a royal pardon in 1718. However, earning an honest living did not agree with him, so he reneged on the pardon and went back to piracy.
As a result, Virginia’s governor ordered an expedition, led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy, to hunt Blackbeard down. Maynard, commanding two sloops, tracked the infamous pirate and found him on November 22nd, 1718, at anchor on the inner side of Ocracoke Island, off North Carolina. Most of Blackbeard’s men were ashore, so he found himself severely outnumbered when Lieutenant Maynard’s expedition hove into view. Nonetheless, the notorious pirate refused to surrender and met an end worthy of his adventurous life. Blackbeard put up a ferocious before he finally went down on the deck of his ship after taking five bullets and over twenty sword cuts.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading