28 September 1975: A Spaghetti House hostage crisis grips the nation
Late on 28 September 1975, the nine staff members at the Spaghetti House restaurant in Knightsbridge were counting up the week’s takings. The total came to around £13,000 – not a bad haul, by the standards of the time. It was then that the gunmen struck.
Three armed men burst into the restaurant, jabbing guns into the faces of the terrified restaurant employees. As the invaders led their captives down towards the basement, one staff member managed to get away. But the others – all Italians – were shoved into a tiny storeroom, crammed with tins of food. There, for the next five days, most of them remained – hostages.
At first, the police and the press assumed that the raid must be some sort of political stunt. The gunmen – a Nigerian student and two West Indian friends – claimed to be representing the Black Liberation Army, and demanded to be flown out of the country to Jamaica. In reality, however, it was simply an ordinary armed robbery, which had gone dangerously wrong.
For the next five days, the Spaghetti House was the centre of national press attention, with the police camped outside like a besieging army. Careful not to do anything that would inflame the kidnappers, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark, allowed them a radio, some coffee and cigarettes in return for two hostages. His approach paid off: at last, on 3 October, the kidnappers cracked.
“The hostages are coming out,” their leader radioed the police just before four that morning, as the exhausted captives staggered out of the building. Needless to say, the would-be robbers were all sentenced to long stretches in prison.
19 September 1356: English forces triumph at Poitiers
The battle of Poitiers has gone down in history as one of England’s greatest victories over France, and the day when the English heir to the throne captured the French king.
For weeks Edward III’s 26-year-old son – also Edward, and known as the Black Prince – had been conducting a scorched-earth terror campaign north of Aquitaine. By the time the Black Prince reached Tours, he had been cornered by a much larger army under the French king John II, and after peace talks broke down, battle was joined in earnest.
English longbowmen create havoc among enemy ranks in this 14th-century depiction of the battle of Poitiers. The clash would trigger an unlikely love affair between French king John II and England. (Bridgeman Art Library)
For the French, what happened that day in September was a disaster. Their crossbowmen could not possibly compete with the English longbowmen, whose arrows rained down in a storm of death. Not only were large numbers of French nobles slaughtered, but in the chaos, John himself was surrounded and taken prisoner. The remarkable thing, though, is what happened next.
That night, even as his men lay dying, John was taken to the Black Prince’s red silken tent, where he was treated with great honour.
Conveyed to England, John was kept in the Tower of London, where he was permitted to keep pets and horses, as well as an astrologer and even his own musical troupe.
Eventually, after his countrymen had paid a gigantic ransom of 3 million crowns, John was allowed to return home. But the French king had enjoyed his time in London so much that, eight years later, with France in virtual anarchy, he decided to pack in being a king, and retired to… England.
14 September 1812: Napoleon’s grand entrance into Moscow turns to ash and ruins
It should have been one of the greatest moments of Napoleon’s life. On 14 September 1812, a week after his crushing victory at the battle of Borodino, the French dictator rode towards the gates of Moscow, ready to take the city’s surrender. But there was nobody there: no dignitaries, no nobles, nobody.
The first French troops to enter the city sent back strange reports. The place was empty, save for peasants and foreign residents. And then, on the first night of the French occupation, came the first reports of fire in the Kitay-gorod bazaar.
Even as Napoleon rode into the Kremlin, the fire spread. Some French – and even Russian – officers suggested it had been started deliberately as part of a campaign of Russian resistance, by arsonists equipped with flammable materials.
Flames engulf the Kremlin in Christian Johann Oldendorp’s 19th-century engraving of the burning of Moscow. Napoleon – who had come to claim the city’s surrender – could only watch in despair as it burned before him. (Getty)
“The existence of inflammable fuses, all made in the same fashion and placed in different public and private buildings, is a fact of which I, as well as many others, had personal evidence,” wrote one of Napoleon’s generals. “I saw these fuses on the spot and many were taken to the emperor.”
By the 16th, with the city ablaze and smoke rising over the Kremlin, Napoleon was persuaded to move to the Petrovsky Palace, over the Moscow river. Thousands were killed. And with so many buildings being made of wood, the fire was simply unstoppable. Churches, shops, warehouses, offices – all went up in smoke.
By the time Napoleon returned to the Kremlin, he was the master of a city in ruins. His dream had – quite literally – turned to ashes. A few weeks later, with no sign of a Russian surrender, he ordered his army to begin the long march west.
25 September 480 BC: Greece defeats Persia, once and for all
Daylight on 25 September 480 BC. As the Persian fleet sailed into the straits of Salamis, they heard the sound of their Greek opponents singing their battle hymn: “O sons of the Greeks, go, / Liberate your country, liberate / Your children, your women, the seats of your fathers’ gods, / And the tombs of your forebears: now is the struggle for all things.”
The battle of Salamis, fought between the invading fleet of the Persian ruler Xerxes and his allied Greek adversaries, has gone down as one of the most famous naval engagements in history. For Xerxes, this was the moment when he would crush Greek resistance and cement his control of the enemy mainland. But as the Persian ships sailed into the narrow straits, they were doing precisely what the Athenian general, Themistocles, wanted.
Greek warships clash with their Persian foes in Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s 1868 depiction of the battle of Salamis, which has widely been hailed as a turning point in world history. (AKG)
What followed was chaos. At first the Greek ships appeared to retreat from the Persians, as if afraid. In reality, however, the Persians’ overwhelming numbers worked against them. As one Persian line crashed inevitably into the next, some of their captains began to panic, and eventually morale cracked completely. Watching from his throne on Mount Egaleo, Xerxes looked on in impotent fury as his fleet fell back in disarray, the Greeks surging forward and singing in triumph. As the historian Herodotus recorded, many of the Persians could not swim, so the seas foamed with the bodies of drowning men.
Salamis is commonly seen as the turning point in the Persian Wars. Indeed, for generations of writers, it was a decisive moment in world history: the moment when the free cities of the Greeks definitely escaped the Persian yoke. This is probably an exaggeration. But had events in September 480 turned out otherwise, it is tempting to wonder how different our world might be.
Comment – Professor Paul Cartledge:
In late September 480 BC the ancient Greek world was on a razor’s edge: in the west the Greeks of Sicily were under threat from an imminent invasion by the Carthaginians of north Africa (modern Tunisia). In the Aegean heartland a small handful of Greeks, led by Sparta and Athens, were daring to defy an actual invasion by a huge Persian-led amphibious force.
Thermopylae had been defended but lost. Salamis – a tiny islet in Athens’ possession, not far from Athens itself – was the scene of a life-and-death naval battle. It was a battle not just for Greek independence, but for Greek civilisation. This was a civilisation of democracy, theatre, philosophy, science and history – and of piety towards the many gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon.
It was a combination of Athenian-led Greek bravery and skill, together with Persian miscalculation, that saw the loyalist Greek side win its famous victory. Persian emperor Xerxes turned tail and fled. Athenian playwright Aeschylus later celebrated with his tragic drama, The Persians.
But the war was not yet won: that happened the following year, thanks mainly to the massive land battle of Plataea, in Boeotia, which saw an alliance of Greek city states – including Sparta and Athens – destroy the remnants of the Persian army.
Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge. His books include Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2011)
Other notable September anniversaries
3 September 863
In Paphlagonia, in the north of present-day Turkey, the Byzantine emperor’s uncle Petronas smashes a raiding Arab army under the emir Umar al-Aqta.
30 September 1791
At the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, 35-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below) conducts the first performance of his new opera The Magic Flute.
15 September 1847
After a week of fierce fighting, Mexican troops surrender to their American besiegers at the National Palace in Mexico City.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine