A lightning raid that captured Prussia’s capital city embarrassed Frederick the Great and made cavalry leader Andreas Hadik a man to ‘watch out for’

On December 25, 1745, the Treaty of Dresden was signed between Prussia’s King Frederick II and Austria’s Empress Maria Theresa, ending the Second Silesian War (1744-1745). This pact granted Frederick most of Silesia, as Prussia had seized the province from Austria in 1740. Nevertheless, the peace between Hohenzollern Prussia and Hapsburg Austria was destined to last only eleven years, for Vienna remained steadfast in its refusal to give up a province as rich as Silesia.

Fostered by the untiring efforts of Maria Theresa’s chancellor, Wenzel Anton Reichsgraf von Kaunitz-Reitberg, an alliance initially of Austria and France (joined by Russia in December 1756 and Sweden soon after) was cemented by mid-1756, aiming to overwhelm Prussia and reverse the results of 1745. This coalition planned to strike in 1757.

Aware of his peril, Frederick struck first, before his enemies were fully prepared, invading neutral Saxony. At the Battle of Lobositz in northern Bohemia on October 1, 1756, the first engagement of the Seven Years’ War, Frederick defeated a roughly equal force of Austrians under Field Marshal Maximilian Ulysses Reichsgraf von Browne. Browne’s withdrawal left Frederick free to overrun and control the Electorate of Saxony, and capture its seventeen-thousand-man army and eighty cannons at Pirna and enlist them in Prussian service.

Unfortunately for Frederick, his lighting conquest of Saxony did not materially diminish the power of his adversaries. They used the winter of 1756 to complete their military mobilization.

For the Prussian king, the prescription for war was simple: kurz und vives (“short and lively”) battles that would produce quick and decisive results. Frederick demanded that his army take the fight to the enemy. He was fond of saying “the entire strength of our troops lies in the attack.” At first he allowed himself to be persuaded by his chief lieutenants, Field Marshal Kurt Christoph von Schwerin and Lieutenant General Hans Karl von Winterfeldt, to start the 1757 campaign with a thrust into Austrian Bohemia, not to seek battle but to destroy the enemy’s supply sources there. They hoped that this scheme would deprive the Hapsburg forces of the means to conduct major operations for the rest of the year.

The king soon expanded on his subordinates’ recommendations. With the French and Russians slow to gather their might, Frederick hoped to use the time available—about six weeks—to invade Austria with 115,000 men and drive Maria Theresa out of the war. Envisioned as a strategy that would win the conflict, the plan set in motion a series of battles that brought Prussia to the brink of defeat.

On May 6, 1757, just east of Prague, Frederick threw sixty thousand Prussians against an Austrian army under Prince Charles of Lorraine that outnumbered him by ten thousand. The whitecoats were defeated after a desperate fight. Although the Prussians lost sixteen thousand killed and wounded, including Marshal Schwerin, their opponents lost ten thousand killed or wounded, including Marshal Browne, and another nine thousand taken prisoner.

As the king tried to reduce the city of Prague and its garrison, another Austrian army, under Field Marshal Leopold Josef Maria Graf von Daun, threatened the Prussian’s lines of communications with Saxony. Leaving twenty-six thousand troops to screen Prague, Frederick took thirty-four thousand men after Daun. The two forces met at Kolin, thirty miles east of the city, on June 18. Assaulting an enemy ridgeline held by roughly fifty thousand Hapsburg soldiers, the Prussians’ uncoordinated advance was bending the Austrian right flank when their own left broke. Catastrophe resulted: The Prussians fled the field, leaving fourteen thousand dead and wounded, and losing 43 cannons. Daun lost nine thousand men.

After losing at Kolin, Frederick’s situation grew grim. He abandoned Bohemia, retreating to Saxony. Russia began invading East Prussia with two armies totaling eighty thousand men under General Count Wilhelm von Fremor and Field Marshal Count Stefan Apraksin; the thirty thousand-man Prussian corps of Marshal Hans von Lehwaldt was the only force opposing them. Sweden was preparing to take Pomerania with an expeditionary force of seventeen thousand men, while in northern Bohemia Daun was organizing his seventy thousand men for a march on Saxony.

In Hanover, Marshal Louis comte d’Estrées, leading about eighty thousand soldiers, had beaten Frederick’s sole European ally at the Battle of Hastenbeck on July 26. His hapless opponent, Britain’s William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (a younger son of King George II), commanded roughly thirty-six thousand ill-trained Hanoverian/Protestant Germans in what was called the Convention Army.

That same month Marshal Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, combined his twenty-four thousand Frenchmen with sixty thousand German and Austrian troops of the Reichsarmee under Austrian Field Marshal Prince Joseph Maria Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. Their objective was to pass through Franconia and take back Saxony.

Prussia, with a population of only four million, found itself facing an array of antagonists with a combined population of fifty-three million (twenty million in both France and Russia, thirteen million in Austria). The Hohenzollern kingdom had started the struggle with two hundred thousand superbly trained fighting men. By the end of autumn 1757, many of them were dead, wounded, or captured. These losses could not be made good, and morale among the survivors was slipping. Frederick summed up his position at that time by exclaiming, “Look at me as a battered wall breached by the misfortunes of two years.”

Between August and early October, the “Soldier King” had reduced the progress of his enemies into Prussia to a snail’s pace by making prodigious marches himself (170 miles in the first two weeks of September alone) and threatening to attack. Mutual suspicion also limited the coalition partners. Austria was wary of French ambitions in Germany, while neither France nor Austria trusted the Russians to follow through on promised support.

Furthermore, the parties did not want to destroy Prussia but simply to reduce its strength and prestige. Anything else would upset Europe’s balance of power. Nevertheless, the Franco-Imperial army was probing Saxony’s border, while Daun’s battalions looked for a chance to surge into Silesia from Bohemia. To the east, Marshal Apraksin’s victory at the Battle of Gross-Jägersdorf on August 30 opened Russia’s road to Königsberg. Only a lack of supplies—and some mutinying troops—kept Apraksin from exploiting his success.

The peril Prussia faced in late 1757 reflected geographic reality. In the heart of Europe, Prussia and Brandenburg had no natural barriers. The open northern plains of Brandenburg, Saxony, and Silesia, divided only by the Elbe and Oder rivers, afforded no protection. Nor did the country possess vast steppes, which might have allowed Frederick’s armies to trade space for time. From the northeast, the Netze and Warthe rivers formed convenient approaches from western Poland. The Russians would use these basins throughout the war for approaching Berlin. Once across the Oder, only fifty miles of flat country, good for marching, separated them from the capital.

Prussia had no barrier at all to prevent an aggressor from advancing from the south. A raiding force could reach Berlin in ten hours from the most northern point in Saxony. From Wittenberg, in the west, an enemy army could be in the capital, only eighty-five miles away, in six days.

Additionally, Berlin could not be defended without a garrison of twenty thousand men, for it had few fixed defenses. Naturally, the Austrians were well acquainted with the shortcomings Prussia faced in defending its heartland.

As the contending armies maneuvered, first toward one another and then away, Vienna was demanding action. In response, Prince Charles of Lorraine, chief of the Austrian forces in Bohemia, sent a letter dated September 15, 1757, to Lieutenant General Andreas Hadik, commander of light forces attached to Austrian Field Marshal Friedrich Ernst Graf Marschall’s six-thousand-man corps stationed at Bautzen, east of Dresden. Charles wanted to know Hadik’s opinion as to the feasibility of a small force foraying into Brandenburg.

Hadik replied on the 17th that such an operation would be beneficial and incur little risk to the raiders since only ill-trained militia guarded Brandenburg. The king of Prussia, with his army, was to the west in Saxony. Further, Hadik expected little resistance because losing the Battle of Gross-Jägersdorf had panicked the Prussians. Charles approved the scheme on the 21st and named Hadik to lead the expedition, with Berlin the main target.

Born on October 16, 1710, Andreas Hadik came from a family of Hungarian gentry of Slovak ancestry. Over the years, male Hadiks had tended to enter either the Austrian Empire’s church or military. Choosing the latter field, Andreas joined a hussar regiment in 1730 and within ten years was made captain. During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), he rose in rank to major, then colonel, and finally brigadier general.

Distinguishing himself against Prussia as a cavalry commander at the Battle of Lobositz a year earlier, Hadik had been promoted to lieutenant general. He repeated his outstanding performance as a combat leader at Kolin, participating in the cavalry charge that won the battle for Austria.

Hadik spoke German and French as well as Hungarian. He spent his leisure time reading and editing mathematical works based on ancient Greek and Latin sources. Not a rich man although of the lesser nobility, he was a loving and devoted husband, and doting father to six children. As a trained cavalry commander, he had the required dash, expertise, and nature to act independently and make quick decisions. During the War of Austrian Succession, he had led his hussars in successful raids against Prussian targets along the Polish border.

The force embarking on the Berlin raid, along with units providing supporting and diversionary roles, consisted of fifty-one hundred men and twenty-one hundred horses. The best men (eleven hundred) were culled from the Baranyay, Hadik, and Carlstadter Hussar cavalry regiments, along with a thousand German dragoons from the Birkenfeld and Savoyen regiments. Some twenty-one hundred Croat light troops and nine hundred regular German infantry made up the foot soldier support, along with six cannons.

While Hadik headed for Berlin, fourteen hundred infantry and 470 cavalry under Major General Kleefeld would guard his left from any interference from the Prussians under Prince Moritz of Anhalt-Dessau, who was charged with protecting Brandenburg.

Though minor in scope, the Austrians thought Hadik’s raid had potential as a psychological and military coup. Speaking to the French ambassador in early October, Austrian Chancellor Kaunitz declared, “We trust that this diversion, although only short-lived, will occasion considerable disorder to the civil and military economy of the King of Prussia, and, by forcing him to detach troops from Saxony to go to the help of his capital, will forward considerably our ambition of liberating that land.”

To succeed, the raiders needed detailed planning, speed, secrecy, and knowledge of the terrain. Hadik laid down strict conduct guidelines. He warned that Prussian civilians should not be harmed and that wanton destruction of private property would be severely punished. While in enemy country, soldiers were to pay for food. His troops would travel light: no tents or useless baggage. An advance guard of mounted hussars and Croat infantry would lead, while the main body followed a few hours behind, horsemen traveling on the roads and the infantry moving through the woods. Hadik demanded that his horse soldiers never wait to receive an attack and that his foot soldiers always seek to turn the enemy’s flanks and press the advance.

Hadik needed to reach Berlin quickly and withdraw from harm’s way with equal speed. The mounted hussars and Croat infantry he commanded were perfectly suited for the task.

The first hussars, no better than roving bandits, originated in Serbia in the fourteenth century. (In fact, the Serbian word for bandit is gusar, the root of the Hungarian term huszár.) In the next century, the Hungarian monarchy enlisted them as light cavalry to counter raiding Turkish horsemen with light weapons and fast steeds. In 1688, the Austrian army recruited the first hussar regiments that were uniformed, paid, and placed within the army establishment as regular cavalry units.

Hadik’s infantry consisted of Croats or Grenzers—troops raised on the empire’s military frontiers (Grenze) in the Balkans. They were irregulars, but in the mid-1740s Austria recruited regiments of Croat infantry and cavalry, placing them on the official army lists. Serving as light troops, the infantry used a short sword and musket, while the cavalry employed saber and short musket. They excelled at klein Krieg (small war, including punitive expeditions), where their marksmanship and agility of movement, especially in rough terrain, made them a dangerous foe.

Whereas most regular infantry soldiers of the period fought in solid-block formations, the light infantry tactics of the Croats allowed them to spread out, usually on the flanks of the main line. They would keep five to fifteen feet apart. Each soldier had the option of taking cover in any protective ground available, then shooting at will.

Maintaining open order made the Croats a harder target to hit and allowed them to move forward or retreat quickly, even in rough country. They often used flanking tactics. They could also fight in formed ranks, but hit-and-run harassing attacks were their forte.

The hussars, like their Croat infantry comrades, were adept at open order fighting or attacking in loose formation with saber and pistol. In battle, the hussars were known for rapidly retreating and then quickly rallying and returning to the fight.

In 1758 Frederick the Great said his most formidable enemy had been “the Croats, commonly called the Pandours, who are a hardy, brave people, faithful to their sovereign, and indefatigable.” He added that he was more on his guard against them than any other troops because of their speed.

Hussars had gained Frederick’s respect during his 1744 Bohemian campaign. That foray ended in disaster and retreat, not because of any battles fought but thanks to the constant raids Croats and hussars made to disrupt his supplies and lines of communication. The king’s worries about hussars were about to increase.

In 1757 Hadik’s raid was aimed at the Prussian capital, but he had a list of specific targets he hoped to destroy: the ammunition foundry on the Spree River at Alt-Schadow; textile mills at the Lagerhaus; flour mills, artillery depots, and timber yards along the Spree; and Berlin’s arsenal of cannons. He also had a list of prominent Prussians (bankers, nobles, and government ministers) who would make good hostages.

Before setting off, Hadik detached 1,160 Baranyay Hussars under Colonel Ferdinand Franz von Ujházy to protect his left flank along the Elbe. This left him with thirty-four hundred men when he started his raid on October 11. Taking a path that led through the Spreewald (an area of lakes and sandy woods),the Austrians reached the Brandenburg border two days later. On October 14, he sent out diversionary forces to the left and right to confuse the enemy as to his intentions while he took his main column north northwest, straight toward Berlin.

On the 15th, while the raiders were near Buchholz, Hadik sent a detachment to the foundry at Alt-Schadow. They destroyed more than twenty thousand round shot, howitzer shells, and mortar bombs. On the 16th, Hadik and his troops approached Berlin on the main highways leading to the city from the southwest and the east, having covered 110 miles in six days. They had met few of the enemy during their march and suffered no losses from combat or desertion.

Moving toward the city’s Silesian Gate, Hadik marshaled his men in battle array, putting the main body in two ranks in open ground and placing light forces in rougher terrain on the flanks.

Lieutenant General Friedrich Wilhelm von Rochow, Berlin’s military governor, realizing that the enemy was nearing the city, sent six companies of his four-thousand-man garrison (five infantry battalions) to block the Silesian Gate and its excise wall by erecting a barricade and raising the drawbridge. At the same time, he sent the Prussian queen toward Potsdam and safety, escorted by three of his available battalions. Meanwhile Hadik, who always seemed to exhibit “a mild and genial demeanor—combined with a ruthless energy,” sent the governor a demand: Surrender Berlin immediately and give the invaders half a million silver thalers. After waiting in vain for a reply for over an hour, Hadik launched his attack.

Two small German battalions of infantry with two cannons provided covering fire on the Silesian Gate, the customs and excise wall, and its bridge while the attacking force, made up of two Croat grenadier companies and 150 volunteers, rushed the drawbridge. Behind the assaulting infantry, Hadik formed his hussars and German regular cavalry in two supporting lines.

The round shot from the six-pounder guns broke the drawbridge chain at the excise wall, causing it to fall. The grenadiers charged over the bridge and into the city with bayonets ready. Off to the right, Austrian musket and cannon fire had cleared the enemy from the Silesian Gate, allowing Hadik to lead three hundred hussars, four hundred German cavalry, and seven hundred Croat infantry directly into Berlin.

Re-forming his men in a small field, Hadik prepared to meet a counterattack by two understrength infantry battalions of the Lange Regiment that came streaming out of the Cottus Gate directly in front of the Austrians. As the Prussians came nearer, Hadik threw his German and hussar cavalry at them in a wild saber charge. At the same time, Croat infantry delivered a withering fire into the flank of the advancing Prussians. According to Hadik’s report the Prussians “were all shot dead, cut down or made prisoners…The three to five hundred men standing in reserve behind the Cottus Gate now took to their heels; they were overhauled by our cavalry, and, apart from a few who managed to escape, they were all captured or cut down.”

During this fight, the 4th Battalion of the 7th Garrison Regiment was destroyed and elements of the 9th Garrison Regiment were badly mauled. In less than two hours, fighting ceased. Frederick the Great’s capital had been captured, and only twenty-eight raiders had been killed. The number of wounded attackers was not recorded.

Shortly after the fighting ended, Rochow informed his foe that all Prussian troops had left Berlin. This was good news to Hadik, but bad tidings soon reached him. Prince Moritz had crossed the Elbe River at Torgau with eight thousand men and was force-marching them to Berlin. Further, it was rumored that Frederick was also moving from Leipzig to trap the raiders.

Intent on leaving as fast as possible in the face of the gathering threat, Hadik kept his troops—to their disgust—out of the city to prevent them from plundering. (Some looting must have occurred; in 1760 the Prussian government dispersed a hundred thousand thalers to certain Berlin citizens who had private property taken or destroyed during the raid. This was in addition to the one million thalers given to the city to compensate for the ransom paid to the Austrians.) Hadik sent Captain Baron von Walterkirchen to demand a new levy of six hundred thousand thalers, the increase due to the Prussian resistance, with the additional money as a reward for his disappointed men.

The city council members, still ignorant of how small an enemy force was among them, agreed to a lesser sum. (By constantly moving his units, Hadik made it appear he had many more troops than he did. Berliners estimated his army numbered fifteen thousand.) Within eight hours, the Austrian leader had two hundred thousand silver thalers, another fifteen thousand to distribute among his men, and other valuable prizes. For example, he later presented two dozen pairs of ladies’ gloves, stamped with the city’s coat of arms, to Empress Maria Theresa.

At 10 P.M. on the 16th, the raiders left Berlin, with fourteen commandeered carriages and teams loaded with the coin extorted from the city leaders. Hadik and a rear guard of three hundred Croats were the last to depart. Prince Moritz’s Prussians arrived in Berlin the next evening.

Choosing an easterly route, the marching column headed for the Spree River, traveling thirty miles on October 17. The next day, after another twenty miles, they crossed the river at Beeskow. Hadik dispatched several raiding parties. The most successful extorted thirty thousand silver thalers from Frankfurt-am-Oder.

By the 18th, some Prussian pursuers had found the retreating raiders. Prussian cavalry, getting past the rear guard, made several unsuccessful lunges at the Austrian wagon train. Twenty of Hadik’s men were lost in one of these encounters. The Austrians faced sniper fire and threats of enemy assault, not only during daylight hours but also well after sunset. Each day of the retreat a bugle blast would sound the alarm, sometimes more than once a day. The rear guard hussars would then form a line across the main road while the Croat infantry spread through the woods, taking cover but ready to fire on approaching enemies. Frequently the two sides would exchange small-arms fire at long range; occasionally, small parties of opposing infantry or cavalry would engage in close combat.

The raiders found safety at Marschall’s encampment at Hoyerswerda, over 130 miles south of Berlin, on October 23. They’d marched an average of thirty-two miles a day; Hadik’s cavalry rode more than fifty miles a day. The Prussians quit the chase just short of the Austrian camp.

The Hadik raid had been a success. Prussia was shown to be a hollow shell, easily penetrated by enterprising enemy forces. The fact that the Prussian capital was so exposed lifted Austrian morale. Gloom pervaded Berlin. Vienna firmly rejected any suggestion of negotiating peace with Prussia.

The raid proved once more the utility of the light troops employed by the Hapsburgs. It forced Frederick to expend men and money he couldn’t afford to spare to counter the hussar threat. He soon started recruiting light troops of his own.

Frederick’s attempt to create units like the Croats and hussars fell short. His Freikorps was not as disciplined, competent, or reliable as the enemy it was raised to fight. In addition, the depredations those troops committed against their Prussian brethren did not equal the damage they inflicted on the enemy.

Hadik’s success encouraged the Saxons and other Germans absorbed in the Prussian ranks to defect. Desertions swelled after the raid, many joining the newly reconstituted Saxon army allied with Austria.

Finally, the capture of Berlin revealed that the city was not central to the Prussian war effort. Even before the raid, Frederick had determined that any threat to his capital would trigger moving the government and its administrative apparatus to the more secure city of Magdeburg, to the west.

Prussia’s directing force was the king and his army. To defeat Frederick, his enemies would need to overcome the army. This the coalition failed to do, attacking hesitantly and individually. Frederick defeated each in turn, starting with a crushing victory over French and Imperial forces at Rossbach on November 5, 1757.

That victory restored Frederick’s military reputation—and his self-confidence. He never forgot the Berlin raid, however. Throughout the Seven Years’ War, Frederick’s final admonition to his generals would be “…and watch out for Hadik.”

 

Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here