Frisian Vikings: masters of amphibious warfare.
We mainly associate Vikings with bloodthirsty, bearded warriors who came out of nowhere with horned helmets in dragon boats to then raid and murder people. Unfortunately, this gives a very incomplete picture of the Vikings, because besides raiding, the Normans were intensively involved in maritime trade within an extensive trade network, they discovered new worlds and were excellent ship builders. From the middle of the eighth century, the Scandinavian fortune seekers sailed around the world where they caused fear for three centuries with their surprise attacks. With their narrow sailing ships and excellent knowledge of both rivers and seas, they reached areas from present-day Afghanistan and Iraq to Canada. No other seafaring nation in Europe covered such distances at that time. In addition, they colonised large parts of Great Britain, France and Iceland. Thanks to their maritime knowledge, the Vikings became masters of amphibious warfare that shows significant similarities with the tactics of modern naval raiders. In this article special attention will be given to the role of the Frisian Vikings… Frisian Vikings? Yes, that is right, as, despite the fact that the Vikings originally came from Scandinavia, the Frisians played such a role during medieval maritime warfare that it is unfair for Dutch marines to have little or no knowledge of this. Therefore, this article mainly concerns the Danish and Frisian Vikings.
This article was written by Gerard Celosse, translated and republished with his permission. Gerard Celosse writes on a breadth of subjects ranging from (warrior) history to foreign geopolitics, all presented through the lens of his experiences as a Dutch Royal Marine, Army Special Forces, and tactical intelligence operator. After his military service, Gerard founded his own company
The people who used to live in Scandinavia are often referred to as Vikings, however this name is not correct for the people from the North. They were actually called Normans or NordmanniI in Latin (the French region of Normandy, the land of the Normans, derives its names from the Vikings). Being a Viking is a profession and is therefore not a nation or ethnicity. It would be the same if in future everyone from Doorn would be called a marine, because marines happened to come from there. The origin of the word Viking comes from the Old Norwegian word Vikingr, which means something along the lines of pirate or sea warrior. The period between the late 8th century and the late 11th century is also known as the Viking era.
The Normans mainly lived as free farmers in an agricultural community in an area that consisted of dozens of small kingdoms that competed with each other. The countries Norway, Sweden and Denmark did not exist at that time, so the Northerners were not familiar with a form of nationalistic unity. However the various Germanic tribes (incl. Frisians) formed an ethnic unity and shared the same martial culture including an associated militant religion in which war gods were worshiped.
The certain freedom that the Normans enjoyed in a war-oriented community encouraged individual initiatives. Especially young men looked for adventure thanks to their freedom and they went out as merchants, explorers or mercenaries. The developments within naval architecture, especially the combination of sailing and rowing, ensured that the Normans could also make overseas merchant trips, which considerably increased their trade network. Where Danish merchants mainly sailed along the West European and English coasts, Swedish merchants left for the Black Sea, crossing what is now the Ukraine and Russia, where they eventually made contact with the Byzantines in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).
Danish and Frisian Vikings
Danes and Frisians were in fact a brother nation that shared versatile historical and cultural ties with each other. As a result, the sea nations also shared a common knowledge in terms of maritime (technological) developments. The people of Scandinavia had always relied on the shipping industry because of the many islands and fjords in their country. After all, transport over water was much faster than transport over land. The Netherlands back then, just like Scandinavia, was also a water-rich country where traffic was traditionally via water. The Frisians therefore had excellent knowledge of the shipping industry, which made an important contribution to long-distance trade, that, to this day, can be found in our maritime economy and the commercial spirit of many Dutch people.
The Frisians, however, owed it to the location of their country that they played an even bigger role in overseas long-distance trade than the Danes. Because of their central location between the French Empire and Norman territory, the Frisians had a dominant position within Northwest European trade. They traded intensively with both the Christian Franks in the south and with the pagans from the north. The Frisians even had trade colonies deep into Scandinavia at major ports such as Ribe (South-West Denmark) and Hedeby (Sweden). The Frisian Dorestad (currently Wijk bij Duurstede) was considered one of the most important and successful port cities in Western Europe. Because of its strategic location, where two trade routes intersected across water, Dorestad was more than once the subject of battles between the pagan Frisians and the Franks, in which Dorestad finally fell into the hands of the Franks in 719.
Maritime traffic, however, also attracted piracy, just as land trade attracted highway robbery. These pirates were mainly active in the waters of Scandinavia, the Baltic area and the North Sea. As trade along the Frisian coastal areas intensified and the value of merchandise increased, pirate gangs increasingly used the Frisian Islands as a sort of Forward Operating Base. The islands also formed a safe-haven for pirates. This was mainly due to the fact that there were no maritime forces in early medieval Europe that were capable of transporting large armies across water. The tactical occupation of islands also contributed to the fact that pirate gangs were eventually able to safely develop into true Viking armies.
Just like the Danes and other Scandinavians, the Frisians has their own types of ships that needed to be agile. They had to be able to sail on the open sea, but also sail the shallow (inland) waters by rowing to reach the merchant cities that were located deep inland. The Frisian shipbuilders also had to take the influences of the tides into account (especially in the Wadden Sea area) when designing the ships. After all, a large number of farmers lived along the coast on artificial hills called terps (the word terp is a Frisian variant of “thorp”; dorp, the Dutch word for village) from Belgium to West Denmark. However, most terps did not have a jetty where merchant ships could berth. Because the farmers, in cooperation with merchants, still wanted to sell their crops and trade was mainly maritime, they needed ships with which they could manoeuvre smoothly when the tide was low. In addition, the ships also had to be able to land on beaches for loading and unloading because of the lack of jetties. Once ashore, it had to be easy to push the ships back into the sea so the weight of the ship could not be too heavy. Bit by bit, a certain amphibious knowledge began to emerge here, on which the Vikings based a large part of their tactics and procedures. That this maritime knowledge of war did not end with the Vikings is clear from the fact that current amphibious behaviour is largely based on the same science.
So, the Frisians and Danes dominated, thanks to their advantage in terms of shipping technology and geographical location, maritime trade in and around the North and Baltic Sea. Another important factor to why the Normans decided to go on Vikingr, was the various trade networks that were obtained through maritime merchants. Because they sold their goods in various remote areas in and around the North Sea, the merchants gained insight into the political and military situation of certain regions. In military terms we could talk about obtaining a situation awareness and understanding. When merchants returned home they most likely told great stories about their overseas adventures and about the prosperity they had discovered at various locations, just as we like to share our holiday adventures (including holiday pictures) with our family and friends. The information with which the merchants returned must have come to the notice of many warlords, namely the stories about riches that were in the possession of Christian shrines such as monasteries and churches. So, it is likely that various warlords started to use these merchants as a routine ‘maritime’ intelligence service that was sent out with Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIRs). For example, PITs could have included the exact location of the monasteries: what the defence was like, whether there were ramparts, the number of soldiers present and the state of their armour, the morale of the troops, from which direction the ships could approach without being seen and on which beach they could land without running into rocks. Amphibious landings were rarely carried out at night because of the risk that rocks would not be noticed in time. In order to minimise the risk of being discovered during the landing in daylight, the Vikings dressed as merchants for ‘amphibious’ reconnaissance purposes so they could explore the landing sites. Once the coast was clear, the sails could be taken down at the agreed sign (to reduce the silhouette) and the sea warriors could start their landing process by rowing.
From trading to raiding.
On 8 June 793, Lindisfarne, the most important and very wealthy church in Northumbria, located on a tidal island off the north-east coast of Great Britain, was raided and destroyed by a group of Vikings. In the years before, the nearby monastery must have been inevitably popular with merchants and craftsmen who went there to meet the needs of the large number of monks that lived there. The gold with silver chalices and crucifixes that were set up in the church, where priests in silk garments read from books adorned with precious stones, will not have escaped the attention of many merchants. What surprised the pagan merchants the most was that all these treasures were not guarded, much to the pleasure of the Viking chiefs who became aware of this.
The pagan attack on Lindisfarne had a big impact on Christian society and can be compared to the 9/11 attack. Despite the fact that both the Americans and the early medieval monks felt vulnerable to attacks from outside, the Americans might have trusted God, but they did not make him responsible for their defence policy. However, early medieval Christians did. By placing the defence in the hands of God, numerous shrines remained unguarded throughout Europe. There was not a Christian who dared to raid a church, only the Normans did not do business with their God. No wonder that the Vikings found these to be attractive targets. The dramatic event at Lindisfarm was the start of the Viking era. Because early medieval Great Britain was divided into several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, it lacked a collective defence strategy of which the Vikings could take full advantage. Shortly after the drama in Lindisfarne, other areas were also raided, such as Wessex, Ireland and Scotland. Many Europeans believed that the day of judgement had arrived.
The first attacks started as small “hijack” operations, organised by warlords who had the means to lead an expedition. Confrontation with military units was avoided as much as possible, so good information regarding position was crucial. Thanks to the raids, various chiefs accumulated more and more wealth and glory, allowing them to exercise more and more power at home. So they could hire more warriors, build more ships and purchase better equipment for new expeditions.
The Viking warriors
Encouraged by the stories about the wealth and glory that could be gathered, many young adventurers joined the expedition. Another reason why young men opted for a Viking career was a favourable climate change that significantly increased the growth of the population in Scandinavia. The Norwegian population grew faster than the country could accommodate and because of the abundant harvests and the protein-rich (fish) food, a well-fed, large and strong nation arose, which must have made a big impression on the rest of the world. Forced by the population pressure in their own country and the prospect of wealth and glory, the Normans went on Vikingr.
Because several rival clans lived in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, a true warrior culture had developed. In a world where children were not addicted to their smartphones and raised as little princes, they were trained from a young age in mixed combat; the art of fighting, both alone and in formation, with or without weapons. Eventually they formed the future defence of their clan. Their days consisted of fighting, climbing and clambering. In addition, they also had to work on the land and learned how to harvest and hunt. This came in handy when the Normans colonised large areas where there was nothing yet established.
As previously mentioned above, there was a certain freedom in which the Normans and Frisians could live their lives. In small tribes or
Just like modern marines, the Vikings also relied on single man drills but also on each other, this created a true band of brothers….in arms!
The way of life must have had an impact on command and control within various composite Viking units, they did not receive any specific orders from army commanders under the command of kings, instead they determined assignments themselves and how these were to be executed was largely for them to decide. Their Germanic descendants, the Prussian warriors, called this the ‘auftragstatik’. This way of commanding is reflected in the performance of the current armed forces where the lower executive level has great responsibility: the NCOs and troop commanders. Just like the commander of a Viking expedition, who had to perform his assignment without communication, this also applies to a lesser extent to sergeants and lieutenants in modern military operations.
Despite their ferocious reputation, the Vikings were not invincible supermen. Their weapons were no better than those of the Franks or the Anglo Saxons, nor did they use superior tactics on the battlefield. It was their mobility and deployment methodology that made the Vikings so successful. As a result, they retained the initiative more than once. With their ships they were able to show up when and where it suited them, they could land on coasts or opt for riverine-operations. If the local forces were waiting for them, they could simply turn around and try their luck elsewhere. What distinguishes marines and paratroopers from regular infantry units is also mainly their deployment method and the surprise element. Once ashore they are in fact just infantrymen again, with the main difference that they, just like the Vikings, have to be self-supporting for longer periods and that requires a tough disciplined warrior.
The first small-scale raiding operations of the Vikings probably have the greatest similarities with (maritime) special operations that are carried out in enemy territory. Both parties prefer to reach their target secretly to avoid a troop in contact situation. In order to guarantee the surprise element, the Vikings also needed ships that could quickly land on beaches so they did not have to depend on ports that were guarded. Once arrived in the vicinity of the target, the Vikings received the final “ground truth” information so they could slightly adjust their plan of attack if needed. Then they quickly struck and gathered as much loot as they could, to finally leave for the ships as quickly as possible, before reinforcements arrived.
Because the expeditions were small-scale in the beginning and the Vikings used so-called hit-and-run tactics, the first generation of Vikings was not heavily armed. In addition, they did not have a defence budget to purchase solid equipment. The armour mainly consisted of a wooden shield and spear. Only the very rich warlords could afford expensive armour. The total price of the sword, armour and helmet was roughly equivalent to an average mortgage. Axes were also popular because they were multifunctional, they could serve as a tool as well as a weapon. The dane-axe was a popular axe: the blade of this axe was attached to a long handle that could be used to hack on the opponent’s shield wall from a distance to create an opening in the defence, followed by a round of spears. The shield was a very important part of the armour. Especially when attacking with axes or swords, the side of the body became unprotected when setting up the strike. Therefore, the shield offered protection to prevent the opponent from stabbing his spear or sword into the unprotected flank.
Battles were mainly fought with spears, axes and shields. Helmets were rarely worn and helmets with horns did not exist at all.
When groups of Vikings were surprised by the opponent, they were able to form a defensive linear formation: the shield wall, in which each warrior stood in line while his shield overlapped that of his neighbor. In warfare, the defending party is usually at a disadvantage because it loses its momentum. Warriors who mainly rely on their mobility will not easily choose this formation. They will rather try to avoid the battle by fleeing. This does not sound very heroic, but for small, lightly-armed units, this is the only way to survive. Another disadvantage of the shield wall formation was that raiders did not wear protective body armor. The only protection they had was a round shield that could easily be shattered by just a few good blows (still applies with some standard issue stuff..). The shield also did not cover everything. Especially the shins were exposed to the opponent’s spears. If you tried to cover these with your shield, your head would be exposed to a blow with an axe. Those that definitely fought in shield wall (
As the raids increased in frequency, different rulers started to prepare themselves better for possible invasion. As a result, the Vikings were forced to fight more and more often. This also changed their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). In order to be able to cope with a well-trained defence army, the Norwegian warlords started to form mutual alliances to go on expeditions together. In other words, what had started at level 1: training young individual warriors on the home front, eventually changed to level 2: group performance. When the first group of warriors returned from their overseas mission with their great stories and rich spoils, they must surely have impressed those who stayed at home and the various girls. This had a priming effect on more potential warriors, so performance gradually developed to that of levels 3 and 4; from troop to company level. Because of the alliance formations and the riches that flowed in through the raids, Viking coalitions eventually grew to regiment level, the most famous was the large pagan army.
The large pagan army
The Viking period can be divided into two subperiods. 789-840, which mainly involved raids whereby a large area that was attacked was also quickly abandoned again. And then the period from 840, where the Vikings worked in a more structured manner and even started colonising overseas territories. After years of stability, a civil war broke out in the Frankish empire in the year 840, at the expense of an organised defence strategy that had protected the Franks for years against Viking attacks, from which England had suffered greatly. Now it was the turn of the Franks. In 845, the Vikings even besieged Paris with a fleet of thousands of men on board, after which they were paid off with a huge sum that they would eventually invest in a new invasion. Because of these types of complex and large-scale operations, the Vikings gained more and more experience in carrying out large-scale attacks. They now even dared to attack fortified towns and to engage in battle with large enemy armies. In 865, armed with sufficient level 6 (regiment) knowledge, a Viking army led by Ivar the Boneless and Ubba, the latter possibly of Frisian origin, started the largest invasion on English territory since the invasion of the Roman legions in the year 43.
The army consisted of a coalition of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish Normans. But it is also highly likely that, because of the Danes, there were Frisians amongst the Vikings as well. After all, he Frisians were already known as pirates in the late seventh or early eighth century, who were regularly spotted around the British islands. Old writings also mention a ‘pagan army of Danes and Frisians’ who had landed (855) on the British island of Sheppey. There are even stories that a great army arose in Frisia. Large parts of Frisia were captured around 850 and occupied by the Danes. After the Frisians were dominated by the Franks, a large number of Frisian buccaneers chose to join their Danish brothers.
As mentioned before, the buccaneers used various islands as a hiding place. The Island of Walcheren became a very important island for the Danes and Frisians. Frisian Vikings may even have been called the Scaldini, which means something like: people from the river Schelde. On Walcheren, the buccaneers were out of reach of the Frankish armies who lacked maritime knowledge and resources to purge and occupy the island. Walcheren thus served as a FOB where they were able to wait for a favourable wind that would blow the formed units towards the Anglo-Saxon island.
After the successful amphibious invasion of mainland England, the Vikings gained several victories over Anglo-Saxon principalities for years and conquered more and more territory. In 871 the “Large Summer Army” also arrived directly from Scandinavia, which considerably strengthened the army already present. Eventually it was the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great, who managed to stop the Normans. Alfred’s success against the expanding Vikings is mainly due to his organisational skills. He organised a standing army and introduced a kind of conscription so that units could prepare for battles. He also organised a maritime force so he became just as mobile as his opponents. Alfred is therefore also called the founder of the British Navy. After several battles, a compromise was finally reached between the two parties and the Danes were assigned their own territory where their own laws applied, this area was called Danelaw.
Much historical and archaeological research has been done over the centuries in relation to the Scandinavian Vikings; from their diet to their shipbuilding. Much has been written about Vikings, by poets, academics and historians, but very little by military or warfare experts. And this is unfortunate because servicemen, military specialists and (elite) special forces have specific insight into what Viking essentially means. The maritime knowledge of the medieval Frisians may have laid the foundation on which Michiel de Ruyter (coincidentally from Walcheren) was able to carry out his raids on
It is interesting to bring the Viking era to attention because it has significant similarities with modern (maritime) special operations. The reasons why the Vikings were so effective in military science were because they mainly acted out of eccentric motivation; they had the will to win. In addition, they must have had excellent leaders; leaders only obtained their position when they excelled in warfare, not because of a school certificate. After all, only good leaders could get enough volunteers to go on Vikingr. The Vikings were constantly looking for unorthodox ways to outwit a stronger, regular opponent. The training, toughness and team spirit of their men played an essential role in this. ‘Speed, aggression and surprise’ are the characteristics that both operators today and Vikings of the past aspire(d) to. Let us therefore be proud of our maritime North Sea fighters.
Discovered writings from the old Byzantine capital Constantinople (now Istanbul) make mention of the ‘Russian’. The Russian were the Vikings that came from present-day Sweden. The ferocious Normans sailed with their ships not only to Western Europe, but also eastwards via the Gulf of Finland and then to the south via rivers such as the Don and the Dnjepr to reach the shores of the Black Sea. During these expeditions several Viking clans founded settlements along the rivers, which formed the basis of what is now Russia and the Ukraine. Byzantine scientists described the Vikings as large men with red and blond hair who were mainly armed with axes. The writings also mention that these men wore all sorts of strange signs on their bodies which could possibly mean that the Vikings were tattooed (this would be the first similarity with modern day marines). The Viking mercenaries who fought for the Byzantines were called Varangian. Because of their knowledge in terms of amphibious raids, a large number of Varangian were added to Byzantine maritime expeditions as marines. There is even a mention that the Varangian fought against the Islamic armies of the Arabs in Syria in 955.
Vikingen – Noormannen in de Lage Landen: Luit van der Tuuk
Noormannen: de Vikingsaga 793-1241: John Haywood
The Vikings: A History: Robert Ferguson
A well researched and written article by Gerard.
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