The Great Escape

One of the things that fascinated me as a kid – from about fifth grade through high school, at least – was escapes from places like POW camps, concentration camps, and the like.

I’m not sure what fascinated me so much about them; perhaps because they were the ultimate “do-it-yourself” job; putting together the means and resolve to break out of a closely-guarded prison deep in the middle of hostile territory, with little on ones’ side in the way of materials or supplies – nothing, indeed, but the scraps around you and whatever your ingenuity could make of them.

I read many of these stories when I was a kid; Escape from Colditz by P.R. Reid, about the men who resolved to break out of the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle.  More fascinating still, Paul Williams’ The Wooden Horseone of the most improbable sounding ones of all; British prisoners at a camp in German/Polish Silesia built a wooden vaulting horse, which dozens of POWs used for daily exercise.

Scene from the British film version of “The Wooden Horse”. Yes, this happened.

Inside the horse were two men.  The other POWs carried the horse to the exact same spot in the middle of the compound every day, above a concealed trap door under the sandy topsoil.  The men inside dug first down, and then under the wire, every day for eight solid weeks on end – and then were carried, complete with their load of excavated sand, back to the barracks at the end of the shift.  Finally, the three men involved - Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot – completed the tunnel, and made their break.

Another scene from “Wooden Horse”. Not a matter for claustrophobics.

Incredibly, all three made it back to safety; Williams and Codner via Denmark and Sweden, and Philpot to Switzerland.

Perhaps it’s my trait of rooting for underdogs – but I’ve always been fascinated by these stories.

One thing that amazes some people – who know that most of what Hollywood peddles as “history” is utter BS – is that the movie The Great Escape, the early-sixties classic starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen and “based on a true story”, actually is not all that loosely based on a real escape.

And it happened seventy years ago tonight.

And in some ways, the story was more incredible than the movie could have portrayed.

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The Setting Sun

For nearly two years, the Axis had been mostly in retreat – fleeing from distant battlefields as the reach of the Axis’ leaders exceeded their grasp.  But on the morning of March 6th, 1944, the largest Axis offensive since Kursk began, and with it, an attempt to settle one of the many fronts on which the war was being fought.  On what had long been the relatively quiet frontier between Burma and India, the Japanese Army launched what their commander believed would be the decisive battle not just for India, but the entire Pacific War.

It would end with the costliest defeat in Japanese history.

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At the nexus of colonial ambition and military weakness during World War II, sat India.  Guarded jealously, and nervously, by the British, and desired desperately by the Japanese, the fate of India seemed permanently in flux – forever just out of reach of either being conquered or protected by two colonial empires whose focus lay elsewhere.

The 7th Rajput Regiment: over 2.5 million Indians volunteered to serve in the Indian Army in World War II, making it the largest all-volunteer fighting force in history (to that point).

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The Stranded Whale

By the thousands they tumbled off their landing crafts.  Men, trucks, guns – 36,000 battle-hardened Allied troops supported by 3,200 vehicles and all delivered with nary a response from the Wehrmacht.  On the beaches of the fishing town of Anzio on January 22nd, it seemed that the Allied advance in Italy had finally achieved with Operation Shingle the breakthrough they had been searching for.

Instead, Anzio would become emblematic of the entire Italian campaign – poor planning, poor leadership, harsh terrain and heavy casualties over the course of a grueling near 6-month battle.

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By the beginning of 1944, Italy had been knocked out of the war - but the war hadn’t been knocked out of Italy.

S**t on a Shingle: despite what the pillowing smoke might suggest, the initial landings for Operation Shingle were essentially unopposed. 36,000 Allied soldiers landed at Anzio in one day, for the loss of only a little more than 100 men.  It would get much worse starting the next day.

Despite Italy’s formal switch to the Allied side in September of 1943, most the country’s territory remained in German hands.  Allied leadership, in particular U.S. 5th Army Gen. Mark Clark, had assumed that Germany would retreat to northern Italy, relinquishing most of the southern and central regions of the country.  Doing so would shorten German supply lines and allow for a greater concentration of forces.  But for Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of German forces in Italy, doing so would also surrender mountainous, and easily defended, terrain.  A series of defensive fortifications, known collectively as the Gustav or Winter Line, stretching from Naples to Rome, were hastily erected.  The Allied occupation of Italy suddenly became a daunting affair.

Available Allied troops were few and far between.  As men and material were being sent to England in preparation for what would become the Normandy landings, U.S. and British commanders were being asked to attack rugged German positions with numerically equal (or sometimes inferior) forces.  Battles like Monte Cassino swallowed troops by the hundreds of thousands (250,000 on the Allied side alone from January to May of 1944) for little, if any, territorial gain.  The Allies had to find someway behind the German front.

American troops take cover against incoming German artillery. The Allied advance at Anzio, designed to be rapid, proved as slow and costly as the rest of the Italian campaign.

For Winston Churchill, the path behind Gustav and to Rome was via the town of Anzio.  It was not an entirely original concept.  The commander of the Allied armies in Italy, British General Harold Alexander, had proposed sending 5 divisions behind enemy lines, but he could not afford to take men away from Monte Cassino.  Nevertheless, Churchill badgered his generals, going so far as to accuse them of only “drawing pay and eating rations.”  Alexander’s concept was reintroduced and reduced to one division with the hopes that at least the move would draw away German resources.  The British believed success at Anzio could capture Rome and by-pass the entire Gustav Line.  The Americans believed it was a distraction at best; a suicide mission at worst.

If the Allies were confused as to the objective of Operation Shingle, their choice of landing ground didn’t make the mission any easier.  The Pontine Fields were flat, open ground flanked by mountains – easy pickings if the Germans held the high ground.  Worse, up until the 1930s, the Pontine Fields had been the Pontine Marshes.  Mussolini, desperate to show the achievements of fascism, had the marshes drained with a series of pumps in order to farm the land.  The Allies were landing in territory that could be flooded by water and enemy artillery with too few men for the job.  American Gen. John P. Lucas, the man assigned to Anzio, summed up his task grimly: ”They will end up putting me ashore with inadequate forces and get me in a serious jam… Then, who will get the blame?”

Gen. John P. Lucas: the general in charge of Operation Shingle. Lucas never believed in Shingle, knowing he was asked to do with half a force what a full force had not accomplished. Nevertheless, he took all the blame.

Despite the long odds against Shingle working, at first it seemed as though the Allied plan might succeed.

Lucas’ men made it 5 miles in-land on the first day, with little German opposition.   In fact, the timing seemingly couldn’t have been worse for the Germans.  Kesselring wasn’t surprised, he had assumed the Allies would attempt an amphibious invasion to get around his defenses, but he had already dispatched his reserves to the Gustav Line.  For a moment, just a moment, Kesselring prepared to abandon his positions and get north of Rome – a massive retreat.  He couldn’t afford the Allies getting behind his communications and supply lines.  The Allies had gambled and looked like they would win big.

Victory at Cisterna: one of the hardest battles of the Anzio campaign was initially a major defeat. The US 1st & 3rd Ranger Battalions squared off against the Hermann Göring division. Both Battalions were effectively destroyed.

Lucas knew none of this.  Fearful of being overrun, he bottled up his forces on the beachhead and awaited the German counterattack.  By January 29th, with the arrival of two more divisions (so much for the one division plan), Lucas now had 69,000 men ready to start an advance.  Churchill was despondent.  ”I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore,” he said, “but all we got was a stranded whale.”

The lost time had been fatal to the Allies’ efforts.  Now facing them were 71,500 German troops in defensive positions.  The U.S. 3rd Division’s advance out of Anzio at Cisterna was a debacle and showed what any further advance would cost in Allied lives.  The 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions found themselves cut off from the 3rd Division and against the vaulted Hermann Göring Division.  Not content to force the American Rangers to surrender, the German troops marched American POWs directly at the Allied line, shooting or bayoneting prisoners for every shot taken at their German captors.  This terror tactic was devastating effective.  Of the 767 men of the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, 6 survived being killed or captured.

Only 4,500 Axis soldiers, Germans & Italians, were captured during the Battle of Anzio. Most escaped to fight another day.

By start of February, German forces outnumbered Allied troops at Anzio.  While the Anzio front had expanded, Krupp K5 railway guns, known as “Anzio Annie,” lobbed 560 pound artillery shells at the beachhead and German torpedo boats harassed landing craft.  Inch by inch, mile by mile, the Germans were turning the Allies back.  Anzio was increasingly looking like it might become the Gallipoli of the Second World War – itself another Churchill-inspired invasion that failed in the Great War.  By the middle of February, the last Allied defensive line at Anzio was under attack and Gen John P. Lucas, as he had predicted, had been blamed and removed from command.

Like he had so many times before, Adolf Hitler appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Kesselring had been given a largely free hand to make tactical decisions about the Italian front and that trust had paid dividends at Anzio.  But his troops were exhausted.  An offensive on Feb 16th, designed to break the final Allied line, had failed by the thinnest of margins.  20,000 Germans had been killed or wounded thus far, and Kesslering wisely knew he had at least achieved his goal of bottling up the Allies.  Hitler ordered another attack, producing only more casualties for Kesslering’s weakening 14th Army and ruling out future offensive operations.  The result underscored what Anzio had become – a stalemate.

A Italian woman looking for food: the scale of civilian death at Anzio is unknown, but an estimated 153,000 Italian civilians died during the fighting on their soil.

What had started as a one division operation eventually mutated into a 10-division, 150,000 man operation by May of 1944.  Men needed for other fronts, including elsewhere in Italy, found themselves trapped on the tiny Anzio beachhead.  Only after bleeding the German Army on multiple fronts did the Allies finally achieve their breakthrough, capturing Rome on June 4th, 1944.  Even that accomplishment found a way to become tainted, as not only was it overshadowed by the events of June 6th, but the decision to hold, in essence, a victory parade in the Italian capitol instead of pursuing the German 10th Army, would have bloody consequences.  Of the over 300,000 Allied casualties in the Italian campaign, more than half would come after the fall of Rome.

Disaster By Design

As we’ve seen with the catastrophic rollout of Obamacare; when you’re working on a big project, design and architectural decisions made early in the process can have unintended, and maybe massive, impacts later in the process.

Seventy years ago tonight – the night after Christmas – at the Battle of the North Cape, one of those chains of design-cause to real-world effect came to a dismal conclusion in the frozen, stormy North Atlantic.

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When designing military vehicles – whether a Hummvee, an aircraft carrier, a tank or a fighter plane – designers have to balance four, largely mutually-exclusive factors.  The design of any military vehicle is a result of the inevitable compromise made between those factors, at any given level of technology.

Those factors are usually summed up as “Firepower, Armor, Speed and Payload”, but are better described as:

  • Firepower – how much hitting power the vehicle has.  This can refer to the size of a vehicle’s weapons – but also to the amount of ammunition, or the variety of threats it can attack, or the fire control system that helps it hit its target.
  • Survivability – which is beyond mere “armor”.  For example – US Navy aircraft carriers of World War 2 had little actual metal armor, but they invested immensely in damage control and catastrophe-proofing the ship designs – which led to some of them surviving damage that would have sunk any other nation’s designs.
  • Mobility – This can indeed be raw speed.  But it can also mean the ability to keep moving in conditions that would stymie other vehicles of its type.  That’s a major factor in today’s story, as it happens.
  • (A fourth – Payload – sometimes crops up, usually if you’re building a vehicle whose job it is to carry people, supplies or other vehicles – anything from an armored personnel carrier to an aircraft carrier)

Your job is to design a new tank.  You have a weight and size limit – your tank has to fit evenly onto a flatbed rail car, so it can be moved around the country.  In your design you’re going to cram a huge, powerful cannon into it, along with thick, heavy armor.  But that means you’re going to have to put a big engine into it, so that it can actually move.  Within the size restrictions you have, that means building a taller, more capacious vehicle to hold the engine – but tall tanks are easier to see at hit, which affects survivability.  Making it smaller requires either accepting  a slower tank (compromising Mobility), or a smaller gun, or less ammunition for a larger gun (less Firepower), or making it lighter (reducing armor, and thus reducing Survivability).

Naval ships have the same set of compromises.

Global:  In the early 20th century, it could be fairly said the sun never set on the British Empire.  The Empire and Commonwealth – the network for former colonies that had become independent, but remained part of a close-knit economic and defense alliance – stretched from (using current names except as noted for all the below) Canada, the Bahamas, the Falklands and Belize in the west, east to the Home islands, to colonies, to its Mediterranean holdings (Gibraltar, Malta, and of course the vital Suez Canal, in an Egypt that Britain ruled as a puppet proxy), to the protectorates and Commonwealth states that dominated Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the commonwealth nations of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa) and the Middle East (Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and Britain’s then and present ally and client Oman), its keystone possession India (which then also included what became Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Sri Lanka, and  to its’ far eastern colonies in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Fiji, and of course its Commonwealth allies Australia and New Zealand.

And from the 1600s on, the Royal Navy was designed to sail, and fight, anywhere in that massive slice of the world – from the stormy, sub-arctic expanses of the far North Sea and North Atlantic, to the temperate reaches of the Mediterranean, to the dolorous tropics of the Indian Ocean.

And over the years, the Royal Navy arrived at a design formula that institutionalized the order of importance of the four key design factors, based on the mission “fight anywhere in the Empire”.

Mobility came first – in terms of “Seaworthiness”, as opposed to “Speed”.  A British ship had to be able to weather sea conditions ranging from North Atlantic gales to Indian Ocean cyclones.  This meant building ships that were designed and engineered to remain not merely afloat, but controllable in terrible seas.  (Mobility expressed as “range” was less important – Britain’s empire had refueling bases about every 2,000 miles, from Halifax Nova Scotia to the UK to Gibraltar to Suez to Mumbai to Sri Lanka to Singapore to Hong Kong.  British designers assumed those bases would be available.  World War 2 showed it a bad assumption – but we’re jumping ahead, here).

Protection – armor, damage control and catastophe-proofing – as a general rule, came in second.  Firepower came in third; too many, too heavy guns and torpedoes made the ships top-heavy, which made them less stable and harder to handle (and more importantly, handle in a combat-effective way) in heavy seas.

Different nations made the compromise differently.  The Italian navy emphasized speed over range – they fought in the Mediterranean exclusively, and their main goal was to react quickly to contingencies in that ocean.  Its rather placid weather meant “seaworthiness” was less vital.  The US Navy, whose main theater of operations was the Pacific, emphasized long range over pure seaworthiness; their firepower was on paper more modest, although greatly augmented by superior technology like fire control radar.

And the German Navy?   It was designed to operate in the stormy but confined North and Baltic Seas.  Its mission was not to project power around the globe; it was to sink the British Fleet.  Range was more or less irrelevant – most missions were measured in days, not weeks (for surface ships – the submarines, or “U-Boats”, were another matter).   The crux of the design battle was between raw, pure firepower – cannon and torpedoes – and mobility expressed in terms of speed.

With that in mind, the Germans in 1939 commissioned their second most-famous warship (after the Bismarck, of “Sink the Bismarck” fame), the KMS Scharnhorst.

KMS Scharnhorst

Scharnhorst and her sister Gneisenau weren’t really “battleships”; they were “Battle Cruisers”; more speed and less armor (but not much less) than battleships, faster and more heavily armed than cruisers (but not quite as powerful as a battleship), the idea was to be able to kill anything that could catch it, and outrun anything that could kill it.  But it was built to the German design standard; Speed and Firepower trumped raw seaworthiness (although at 32,000 tons, it was still plenty seaworthy).

Floating Tin Cans:  In large ships, like battleships and aircraft carriers, of course, there’s plenty of room to make those compromises.

In smaller ships, it was a much tighter set of compromises.

Destroyers – at least up through the 1960s – were smaller warships designed to escort fleets of larger warships, and to attack much larger warships using (until the missile age) torpedoes.  They have to be fast, to not only keep up with the battleships and aircraft carriers they escorted, but to keep their station in formation with the larger ships as they zigged and zagged in evasive maneuvers.  So a Destroyer would generally be from 1,000 to 2,200 tons (battleships were 26,000 to 80,000 tons, and aircraft carriers were generally from 12,000 to 30,000 tons in World War 2)

To make things more complicated, the various arms control treaties of the 1920s and 1930s – especially the London Naval Treaty, which sought to curb the naval arms race of the era – placed a statutory limit on the size of warships, and the number of tons of warships that could be built in each class.  The limit for most destroyers was 1,500 tons.

So the design challenge for Destroyer builders in the 1930s was, within the treaty tonnage limits, to build an warship that was effective in furthering the nation’s strategic doctrine.

For the British, then, Destroyers were designed within a 1,500 ton limit to be:

  1. Extremely seaworthy, but with relatively short range and modest speed (35 knots, or about 40mph)
  2. Modest armament; 4-5 4.7 inch cannon and 6-8 torpedoes.  More, heavier guns and torpedoes added topweight, which affected stability which was a key factor in seaworthiness, which was the top priority.
  3. Extremely minimal protection; destroyers had no armor.  They had some damage-proofing in design and damage-control.

HMS Hunter. Built in 1936, it was fundamentally similar to nearly every British destroyer build from 1918 to 1943; four 4.7 inch guns, eight torpedoes, 35 knot speed, and very seaworthy. Hunter was sunk at Narvik in 1940.

The Germans, given their mission that was short on range but long on “sinking British ships”, had a different set of compromises.  They enabled these compromises, in part, by ignoring the London Treaty’s limits, and building destroyers that were nearly 1,000 tons heavier than the British ships.  Within that limit, the Germans focused on:

  1. Firepower – in terms of sheer, raw hitting power – was most important.  German destroyers carried mostly five 5-inch guns, and many carried five 6-inch guns, usually found on larger 10,000 light cruisers.  They fired 100 pound shells, to the 40 pound shells fired from the Brits’ 4.7s.
  2. Mobility – in terms of raw speed – was next.  German destroyers clocked from 36-38 knots.  Range was less important – German destroyers rarely expected to be at sea longer than a week, operating from bases like Kiel, Wilhelmshaven, and – after 1940 – occupied Norway, Denmark and France.  Seaworthiness came in well down the list; the heavy gun and torpedo batteries, and the design compromises to enable the high speed, made the ships much less stable than British ships; in bad weather, they’d float, all right – but they’d be rocking back and forth too hard to fire their guns effectively.
  3. Protection, as with all destroyers, was a matter of “not being hit”.  Especially for the Germans – structural strength came in lower on the list of priorities.

The German Z36, short for “Zerstörer 36″, or “Destroyer number 36″. German destroyers were numbered, not named.

Among the nation’s destroyers, a “Tortoise and Hare” comparison works; British destroyers were slower and more lightly armed, but seaworthy enough to not merely survive, but fight, in much worse weather.   The Germans had the edge on speed and firepower.

(The US Navy, by the way, split the difference, more or less.  Our destroyers, until the eve of war, were designed to operate in the vast ranges of the Pacific; an American destroyer could steam three times as far as its Brit counterpart.   They also had only four or five guns – five-inchers firing 60 pound shells.  But those five inch guns were able to shoot at both surface ships and aircraft; this made them a bit heavier than single-purpose anti-ship guns, a technology edge that gave US destroyers an immense advantage in anti-aircraft firepower over those of any other nation on earth at the time, a difference that was absolutely crucial as air power supplanted surface to surface action as the main form of war at sea.  And to pay for the weight that went into fuel and dual-purpose guns, the US destroyers sacrificed some seaworthiness (three sank in a typhoon in 1944) and a little speed and, on the eve of the war, the treaty limits themselves, dumping the 1,500 ton limit and building destroyers of 2,200 and later 3,000 tons).

USS Fletcher. Built after the US belatedly abrogated the London Treaty, the Fletchers were 2,200 tons, and armed almost identically to the earlier 1,500 ton ships. This made them rugged, seaworthy, powerful-enough, with plenty of fuel to tackle the vast Pacific – and able to be updated continuously. Fletcher-class destroyers served into the 1970s in the US Navy, and the last one, the Mexican Cuitlahuac ( formerly USS John Rodgers), remained on active service until 2001 – a phenomenal record for a ship class.

Duel In The Sleet:  In December of 1943, the German high command realized that the war was going badly.  Especially on the Eastern Front, where the debacle at Stalingrad had been followed by a series of gruesome setbacks.

Part of the problem for the Germans was that the Soviet military’s main weakness – its inability to support lengthy operations due to the difficulties in providing supplies to the front and communications among units – was being rapidly fixed by an onslaught of American equipment, especially trucks and radios – in addition to weapons to augment the Soviets’ own production, especially fighter aircraft.

A Bell P-39 Airacobra in Soviet service. A failure in US and RAF service, it was a hit with the Soviets; it was vastly more reliable than mid-war Soviet planes, and it amply suited the tactical situation on the Russian front. Counting raw numbers of kills in Soviet service, the P39 may have been the most successful US fighter design of World War 2.

And these supplies were delivered to the USSR via convoys of merchant ships that crossed the North Atlantic, skirted the north cape of occupied Norway, and docked at the Soviet ports of Archangelsk and Murmansk.   These convoy routes served as among the most dangerous and bloodiest – and most unsung – battlefields of the war; attacked by U-boats and aircraft from occupied Norway, and occasionally heavier German surface ships, they were an incredibly risky, but vitally important, sideshow.

And Germany needed the routes blocked.  With that in mind, in December of 1943, German admiral Karl Dönitz ordered Scharnnorst  and a flotilla of five destroyers to sortie from Altafjord to attack a convoy of twenty merchants plus escorts that were headed for the North Cape.

On the afternoon of December 22, German Rear Admiral Erich Bey sailed Scharnhorst and the destroyers to sea.  At the depths of the arctic winter, the “day” involved 45 minutes of daylight, six hours of twilight – and 17:15 of darkness.  This was an advantage to the British; over the course of the war, they and the US had developed radar fire control that allowed their ships to not only find the enemy, but to control their gunfire and shoot almost as effectively at surface ships (as opposed to aircraft) in the dark as in daylight.  The Germans were lagging badly at this in 1943 (and throughout the war).

Even worse – and unbeknownst to the Germans – the Allies were reading German radio communications in almost real time.  As noted earlier in this series, British, Polish and French researchers had thoroughly broken the German “Enigma” code.   The good news for the British?  They knew the exact route the Germans would take to intercept the convoy.  The bad news?  They didn’t have a lot of time.  The convoy – screened by three British cruisers under Admiral Robert Burnett, would have to fend for themselves for a few hours, while a powerful force under Admiral Bruce Fraser, with the battleship HMS Duke of York and the cruiser Jamaica, and four destroyers (one manned by a Norwegian crew) raced to the scene.

At about 8AM on Christmas Day – still in the dark, and in wretched weather – Scharnhorst was spotted by the British cruiser HMS Belfast, who along with Norfolk and Sheffield had interposed themselves between the convoy and the Germans.

HMS Belfast today. It’s a museum ship in the Thames, just upstream from London Bridge. The only surviving WW2 British cruiser, and the only vessel from the Battle of the North Cape never sunk or scrapped, it’s an amazing visit if you’re a ship geek like me. Yep, I’ve been there.

Aided by radar, Belfast fired first.  A lucky hit destroyed the Scharnhorst’s main radar antenna, leaving the ship partially blind (the backup radar didn’t cover the ship’s forward arc; imagine driving with a blocked windshield, and having to weave back and forth to see forward out your side windows).

Scharnhorst‘s mission was to sink merchantmen, not slug it out with cruisers.  Bey disengaged and spent the rest of the day looking for a way to outflank Burnett’s cruisers.

And it was here that the design decisions, made in the 1920s and 1930s and so laboriously explained above, come roaring into the picture.

The weather, bad to begin with, worsened.  A howling gale whipped up mountainous seas.  Snow obscured the already terrible vision.  Imagine some of the worst weather from Deadliest Catch.  Now, imagine trying to load a cannon, or stabilize a range-finder, or even see a target, in that kind of weather.

The German ships, designed for raw speed in calmer waters, were badly-fitted for seakeeping in terrible weather.  The five German destroyers especially suffered; the top-weight of the heavy guns made them roll terribly, to the point where even if they’d seen a target, they’d have had a hard time loading and firing their cannon at all, much less with accuracy.  And the ships’ structures – structurally lighter to save weight and increase speed – weren’t up to the pounding; the destroyers started taking structural damage from the pounding of the icy waves.  Scharnhorst , being much bigger, was structurally sound – but was also built for higher speed in calmer seas; it was forced to slow down, to slow the rolling and to allow the destroyers to keep up.   Finally, hearing reports of serious damage, Bey ordered the destroyers back to base, and sought to engage the convoy himself.

The British ships, on the other hand, were able to not only to continue to sail, and sail toward the enemy, but to fight when they got there. As they – Fraser’s Duke of York task force – closed in, Bey engaged Burnett again, hitting HMS Norfolk twice with his 11-inch guns, knocking out the British cruiser’s gunnery radar. But the three cruisers were a formidable opponent to the German; and Bey withdrew, still hoping to find the convoy.  Belfast kept Scharnhorst under radar surveillance.

And this allowed Fraser to engage Scharnhorst with gunfire from the Duke of York at 4:17 PM – again, in pitch dark.  Fraser’s guns – the 40,000 ton Duke‘s ten 14-inch guns to Bey’s nine 11-inchers – made it a lopsided battle; the superiority in radar made it even worse, allowing the Brits to lock in Bey’s position long before Scharnhorst’s gunners even got close.  And while the German ship had been designed to be able to outrun any ship that could kill it – Scharnhorst could do 32 knots, Duke of York 28 in ideal conditions – in the atrocious seas the British battleship was able to out-steam the German.  And without destroyer escort to hold off the larger British ship to allow Scharnhorst to escape, it was a massacre.

The British battleship pounded the German, knocking out six of the nine main guns and wrecking half of the boilers; two destroyers (HMS Scorpion and the Norwegian-manned HNoMS Stord), fully combat-effective in the weather due to their seaworthiness, hit the German ship with four torpedoes, stopping it.

His Norwegian Majesty’s Ship, the destroyer Stord. An “S-class” destroyer built as HMS Success in 1942, then handed over to the Norwegians and renamed.  It looks a little more rakish than Hunter (way above), but it’s built to almost the same basic design; four guns, eight torpedo tubes, as the ten-years-older Hunter, and it had similar capabilities (although much better equipped with radar and anti-aircraft guns).  It served the Norwegian navy until 1959.

After that, it was a formality; Belfast and sister cruiser HMS Jamaica closed in and finished Scharnhorst off.  The Brits rescued 36 out of a crew of over 1,900.

It was one of many examples in the war of systems that were on paper looked much better than the opposition came up short when exposed to real-world conditions that weren’t accounted for on paper.

Brazilian Thunderbolts

There was a time when I could say every kid knew who fought who in World War II; Germany, Japan and Italy on one side, the US, UK, USSR and France on the other.

I’m not sure a lot of people today could get the answer right.

But even people who know the larger story of World War 2 miss that it was called a “World” war for a reason, and not just because it was fought all over the world.   It involved a record total of nations; 11 fought with the Axis (from Germany and Japan down to Croatia); there were 46 nations on the Allied side.

And for most of the nations, the war never extended beyond their own borders.  They got into the war for a variety of reasons – political alliances (the entire British Commonwealth), being in the wrong place at the wrong time (Poland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the rest of Europe), or wanting to be recognized in the big leagues (most of South America).

It was probably the latter that brought Brazil into the war on the side of the Allies in 1942.  In exchange for providing air bases on the South Atlantic to patrol against U-boats, the US gave some key preferences to Brazilian iron exports.  This cooperation gradually moved from trade and bases to full military cooperation, and eventually joining in the war effort.  Brazil’s navy – heavily equipped and trained by the US – joined in the Battle of the Atlantic, escorting convoys about the Caribbean and South Atlantic.

And the Brazilian Army assembled an infantry division (copied from the US Army’s organization) and sent it to Italy, where it fought in that nearly-forgotten campaign.

And seventy years ago today, it  commissioned its first fighter squadron for overseas service.

The squadron – in Portuguese, the “First Fighter Group”, or 1º Grupo de Aviação de Caça – spent its first few months defending the Panama Canal Zone, before transitioning to the US to learn to fly the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt. 

An early-model P-47D, in Brazilian colors. The plane – called the “Jug” for its stubby, capacious fuselage design – was famous for its ruggedness and ability to take damage. It excelled as a ground-attack plane in Italy and, especially, in the Allied campaign in western Europe.

They were soon in action in Italy – not terribly far from the “Tuskeegee Airmen”, as luck would have it – and while neither they nor their counterparts in the Brazilian Army contingent were in the thick of the war in Italy, they rang up an impressive record.

A Brazilian “Jug” on the ground in Italy.

The Brazilians’ commanders at the Allied XXII Air Force – responsible for all ground-attack aviation in Italy – accounted for the Brazilians’ accomplishments in their six months in front-line service, and reckoned that the Brazilians, who were about 5% of the planes and flew 5% of the missions, destroyed…:

  • 85% of the ammunition blown up by the XXII’d ATAF
  • Torched 36% of the fuel destroyed
  • Toppled 28% of the bridges destroyed, and 19% of those damaged
  • knocked out 15% of the motor vehicles and 10% of horse-drawn vehicles destroyed in those six months. 

And Brazil wasn’t the only country to send troops to Europe. 

More on that next month.

From Hell

Every time I’ve faced what has passed for adversity in my life – and you’ll see why I say “passed for adversity” in a moment, here – I’ve kept the experiences of five people front and center in my mind.  And then I don’t feel so bad.

They are:

  • Ernest Shackelton - I’ve told his story in this space.  His lesson is perseverence in the face of insurmountable odds.  You owe it to your kids to make sure they read it, wherewhere or another.
  • Eddie Rickenbacker - I’ve written about him.  You think you’ve had to deal with some hurdles in life? 
  • Douglas Bader - No legs?  No problem
  • Marcus Luttrell - Soon to be a major motion picture.  Screw Marvel comics; this guy’s the real hero. 
  • Stanislaw Schmajzner -  To which even those who’ve heard of Shackelton and Rickenbacker say “um, who?”
I’ve got a story for you.

———-

World War 2 is full of incomprehensible numbers.  25 million Russian soldiers and at least 10 million civilians, along with millions more Germans, on the Eastern Front, is an incomprehensible number of human lives; you can not imagine what that many people, eight times the population of Minnesota, are.

And the numbers in the Holocaust are similarly mind-numbing.  Six million Jews.  Perhaps five million others; political prisoners, ethnic victims (the Roma, or “Gypsy”, population in particular), gays, and a wide variety of “Untermensch” (Subhumans) that just got in the way. 

Of course, humans have slaughtered each other ever since the species learned how to try to dominate each other – usually by means that are, at the end of the day, fairly mundane, if horrible on a human scale.  From massacre to induced famine to forced relocation to inhospitable places, humans have gotten rid of inconvenient minorities and troublesome subjects by the box lot, clan, fiefdom and nationality since long before Rome salted Carthage’s earth. 

The Holocaust started no different; Nazis started out killing Jews, gays, gypsies, political prisoners and whomever else got in the way with boots and knives and clubs, in ones and twos in alleys and back rooms, throughout the thirties.  With the onset of war, they graduated to killing them by the village with firearms, and relocating them to ghettoes and labor camps - “Concentration Camps” (Konzentrazionslagern, or KZ in German) to slowly murder them with famine, disease, overwork, cold, barbaric pseudojudicial punishment, and the odd but common sadistic bit of violence.   Places like Buchenwald, Dachau, Theresienstadt, Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and hundreds of smaller camps were places that were not designed to be especially survivable. 

But the Nazis were unique in history in that they turned murder into an industry – with management, a supply chain, quotas, rewards…like Best Buy, only producing death.  Because all the normal means of murdering people by the group just weren’t fast or efficient enough. 

And so early in the war, the Nazis kicked off their Endlösung, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”, like any other big industrial project; planning, prototyping possible solutions, turning around what they’d learned from the prototyping process, and settling on the production system – the Vernichtunslager, or “Extermination Camp” , abbreviated to VZ in German.  These weren’t just places where it was hard to live, or easy to end up dead.  Killing was the whole and sole goal.  . 

The VZs were built in godforsaken parts of occupied Poland, usually far from major populations centers, further still from any hint of western media, much less any borders to which an escapee might flee. 

The VZs were were literally factories whose product was dead Jews and other “Untermenschen”, and whose function was utterly similar to any factory you’d see building MP3 players or humidifiers today. 

Americans have heard of Auschwitz, arguably the biggest of the VZs (and really a complex of labor and concentration camps as well as the extermination camp).   Majdanek, near Lublin, captured nearly intact by the Soviets in the confusion surrounding their advance into central Poland, is the best-preserved VZ.  Treblinka saw a mass escape, of which a few inmates survived the war.  Chelmno and Belzec are barely known to exist at all; few if any inmates ever survived either camp. 

And of course Sobibor, plopped in a pestilential forest by a railroad siding in eastern Poland. 

The tale of the Vernichtungslagern is among the most depressing in human history.  The notion that humans could do…this to other humans, turn human life into a commodity to be scrubbed out with no more thought than pressing vinyl into an Otter Case, has driven more than a few of our less stable species-mates over the edge with grief. 

It’s given me my moments, too.  I read the stories of these camps at a far-too-impressionable age, from a far-too-frank source – the Black Book, published by the B’nai B’rith after the war as a complete, almost evidenciary catalog of Nazi war crimes against the Jews and others.   

And it’d be mawkishly pollyannaish to say that anything about the story could give one hope.

And yet seventy years ago today came a tiny bit of proof that humanity can still win out. 

———-

In May of 1942, VZ Sobibor became operational.  Trainloads of Jews and other Untermensch were delivered, gassed, and cremated.  The camp was run by German and Austrian SS soldiers, with most of the guard work done by Ukrainian SS. They were commanded by SS Oberstürmführer Fritz Stangl.

Neither the Germans nor the Ukrainians wanted to do the dirtiest work, however – untangling the corpses in the gas chamber, sorting through the belongings they’d left behind, cremating the masses of the dead.  These jobs were left to the Sonderkommando, “special commands” – Jews that were kept alive as long as they were useful to do the dirty work.  This work expanded over time to include maintenance work around the camp, serving both the German and Ukrainian guards, and other incidental jobs.  The Germans (or rather a Sonderkommando of Jews) built a pair of sub-camps to house roughly 600 Jews selected to do all of these jobs. 

It was generally only a short reprieve; the food was minimal and awful, the conditions rife with disease, and the punishment for even the most piddling infraction was death – sometimes instant, sometimes protracted and brutal, depending on the sadism at the moment of the guard involved.

Among the Jews selected to work for the Germans in the work camp was Leon Feldhendler, a 33-year old son of a rabbi from Zolkiewka, Poland, who worked in the kitchen, carpentry shop and, occasionally, the Bahnhofkomando, the Jews who herded the other Jews from the railroad platform into line to be selected for either work or, the vast majority of the time, the gas chambers. 

And it’s generally believed that Feldhendler was the first person to not merely conjure up the idea of a mass escape, but to actively start planning it.  He and a few other inmates formed a committee to study ideas to effect a mass escape – including one idea, to poison the guards, which fell apart early and led to the execution of five Jews and very nearly destroyed the entire escape committee.

Among others, Feldhendler was joined by 15 year old Stanislaus Schmajzner, a boy from Pulawy whose experience working with a jeweler’s apprentice got him assigned as a gold and silver worker, making bits of jewelry for the Nazis out of gold stolen from dead Jews; the SS were fond of having gold rings and other gimmick jewelry made for themselves and the various women in their lives.  Schmajzner was a natural scrounger with immense mechanical aptitude, who quickly got himself promoted to the group that did the mechanical maintenance around the camp.

Together, the Jews tried to come up with a plan that was more than marginally better than suicide. 

The problem:  the camp was surrounded by not one but two barbed-wire fences (and a single barbed strand ten feet inside the inner fence, a warning line beyond which anyone stepping would get shot).  Beyond that, there was a broad, 300-yard clearing that had been sown with land mines.

———-

In late September of 1943, there were two major changes at Sobibor.  A rumor began to circulated that the SS was going to shut the camp down (a rumor which was false, as it happens; Heinrich Himmler actually intended to expand the camp, although in point of fact it would have led to much the same result for the Jews at the camp). 

Around the same time, a group of Russian Army prisoners of war – who happened to be Jewish – were sent to Sobibor along with a trainful of Belarussian Jews.  The Russians, useful as a group for hard labor, were kept alive and sent to the Sonderkommando

…where their senior officer, 34-year-old Lieutenant Alexander “Sasha” Petjerski, quickly met Feldhendler. 

The two men struck up a business relationship; Petjerski saw in Feldhelder the knowledge of the camp and guards that his men would need to effect a successful escape.  Feldhendler saw military discipline and training in the Russians.  Together, they engineered an escape plan.

The Germans – and especially the Ukrainian guards – had become complacent, Feldhendler noted.  Bored, they kept to a pretty static routine.  They become casual about searching the various workships where the Sonderkommando worked, and the Ukrainians even became blase about storing their firearms, apparently believing the Jews too cowed to do anything with them.

Over the course of – this is incredible – three weeks, the Russians and the committee put together a plan.  It was based around the planned absence from the camp of several of its key Germans, including Stangl, the commander. 

In addition to fashioning clubs, axes and (for lack of a better term) shivs in the carpentry shop, they’d steal rifles from the Ukrainian barracks and smuggle them back to the camp, along with enough ammunition to start the rebellion going. 

Taking advantage of the guards’ routine, they’d ambush and murder the important German guards as they ran routine errands around the camp – picking up jewelry, or clothing and boots being mended by the various Jewish tradespeople, furniture from the woodshop and so on. 

At the appointed time – afternoon roll call – they’d inform the rest of the Jews (who’d be kept uninformed to avoid security breaches), and rush the gate as the Russians would use the stolen rifles to try to pick off guards in the towers.  The inmates would breach the gate and run for the woods, 300 yards away, through the minefield, and thence disperse and either go into hiding, strike out for Russia, or join partisan groups in the forests and carry on the fight. 

Even with the Russians, and with stolen guns, it was nearly suicide.  The inmates knew this – and figured at worst it’d be better to die on their feet. 

———-

4PM on October 14th came.  The plan went ahead; six or seven of the key Germans were murdered in workshops.  As the inmates gathered for roll call, the Russians opened fire on the guard towers; the inmates rushed the gate under machine gun fire (the Russians had been unable to kill all the guards), and ran across the clearing to the woods.  Of 600 Jews in the camp, maybe 300 made it to the woods; dozens were killed in the minefield, while others, paralyzed by events, stayed put in the camp and were murdered later. 

Of the 300 who made it to the woods, the SS hunted them mercilessly (along with some Polish civilians, many of whom were deeply anti-semitic).  Dozens were caught and killed.  Others died fighting in partisan groups.  All together, around 50 of the Sobibor inmates, including Petjerski, Feldhendler and Schmajzner, survived the war

And they provided the largest coherent group of Extermination Camp survivors of the war.  Many of them lived long, productive lives after the war. 

Not all, unfortunately – Feldhendler was murdered by an anti-semitic gang in Warsaw in 1946.  Most of the survivors went to the US, Canada, Australia and Israel. 

Schmajzner went to Brazil where, in the seventies, he helped in the capture the camp’s old second-in-command, Wagner, who’d also ended up in Sao Paolo.  Wagner’s extradition got tangled up in Brazilian red tape, and he lived two more years.  He committed suicide in 1980, under circumstances that are still controversial in Brazil, and about which Schmajzner never spoke until his death in 1984. 

———-

Most Americans have never heard of Sobibor – but many know of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian soldier who became an Ohio auto workers, and in the eighties was accused of being the sadistic “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp.  Those allegations collapsed under a wave of contracictory witness testimony and prosecutorial  misconduct in the nineties.

But in 2001, new allegations surfaced that Demjanjuk had been one of the guards at Sobibor.  It took until 2009 to have him deported to Germany to stand trial on over 27,000 counts of accessory to murder – but when he arrived, four of the survivors were joint plaintiffs. 

He was convicted, but died last year in German custody, before the appeals process ran out.

———-

The story – like the stories of people who survive for week under rubble after earthquakes, when “the experts” say no life is possible after three days – is one I remember whenever I need perspective on “dire circumstances” and the need, occasionally, to do the impossible. 

It was told, improbably, in a TV movie about thirty years ago.  In an era of lousy TV movies, Escape from Sobibor, with Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer as Feldhendler and Petjerski, is actually a good, accurate recounting of the story.  It’s on Youtube in its entirety, and worth the time to watch if you’re not familiar with the tale.

The Righteous Among Nations

It’s easy to be cynical about humanity. The capacity of humans for crass, base, depraved behavior is splashed before us daily; relating it to other people is one of our booming industries; from TMZ to Mixed Martial Arts to “Protect” Minnesota, it’s made a lot of entrepreneurs fabulously wealthy.

But every once in a while, if you look carefully, you find examples of humanity – of individuals, and small groups of people, and every once in a very rare while significant mass movements – putting our base, depraved nature aside and not just doing the right thing, but doing it in ways that stagger the imagination.

One of those episodes entered its final, fearsomely risky, climactic phase seventy years ago tonight.

———-

When it comes to warfare, Denmark got the short end of the stick. A nation with a small population on a low-lying peninsula that abuts a strategic maritime byway, the nation’s topography is virtually indefensible.

And they knew it. Denmark’s main defense in the years after it split from Norway and Sweden in the early 1900s was a strict, absolute neutrality. Like many European nations – Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands – the Danes figured that eschewing all sides in a conflict would buy them some safety. The theory’s record was spotty at best – especially during World War 2.

Controlled Collapse: Denmark fell to the Blitzkrieg in about two hours, the same day Hitler invaded Norway in 1940. Whatever resistance there was – some units along the German border, the royal guards – lasted about two hours, leaving sixteen Danes dead.

Danish soldiers, before World War II

The government gave in to reality; Denmark had virtually no military, and unlike mountainous Norway, the terrain was nearly worthless for defense.

The Danish government negotiated a controlled surrender, in the hopes of preserving as much of Danish society as possible.

A German light tank on the streets of Copenhagen, 1940.

They had a friendly negotating partner in Hitler. While Germany had only limited strategic interest in Denmark – the only thing of military value was the airbase at Aalborg, on the northern tip of the country, which covered the strategic Skagerrak straits, the western entrace to the Baltic Sea – the Germans had some less concrete interests in Denmark. Danes, according to Nazi racial orthodoxy, were considered every bit as Aryan as Germans. Hitler was interested in preserving Denmark as a showcase of Nazi occupation – what could happen if a country cooperated. King Christian X was allowed to remain on his throne; moreover, the Parliament remained not only in session, but kept most of its powers.

King Christian X, riding through the streets of Copenhagen, in the 1930s.

Denmark’s army was largely demobilized, and its tiny Navy kept in port (but in Danish hands) – but the Parliament refused to turn over its ships and troops to German operational control, refused a German demand to institute the death penalty, and declined to join in a trade and customs union – essentially a Nazified European Union – with the Germans. The Germans even allowed free parliamentary elections as late as 1943 – and the four traditional Danish parties spanked the tiny National Socialist Party of Denmark.

Among all the nations conquered by the Nazis, Denmark was the only one to get away with such impudence.

And one other thing.

North Star of David: Unlike many Central European nations – and Scandinavian ones, for that matter – Jews were highly integrated into Danish civil, commercial and social life.

Danish King Christian X had ascended to the throne in 1910. He’d presided over a turbulent period in Danish history already; the Depression, the aftermath of World War I, the rise of European Communism and the realignment of Denmark from a small global empire into an even smaller European state (including the loss of Norway and the 1916 sale of the “Danish West Indies” to the US, which became the “US Virgin Islands”) had all challenged the Danish monarchy’s stability and even existence. Christian wasn’t an especially popular king by the late 1930s – but the monarchy was slimmed down but secure.

But in 1933, Christian X had been the first European monarch to visit a synagogue. It seems downright mundane to 21st-century Americans – as indeed it should. But it was a major statement. It was made all the more trenchant by the fact that Christian made the visit over the objection of his advisers, and even of Copenhagen’s head rabbi; the Nazis had just come to power in neighboring Germany, and such a visit was thought to send a less-than-accommodating message to Denmark’s powerful neighbors. To which Christian (possibly apocryphally) responded to the rabbi “all the more reason to do it”.

At any rate – under occupation, surrounded by Germans, the Parliament refused to accede to German demands to register, ghettoize and deport Denmark’s Jewish population.

All of these measures were thumbs in Hitler’s eye – but the regime allowed them all. Denmark’s value as a propaganda piece was greater than the insult the tiny nation could offer Germany, who had bigger fish – including the UK and the USSR – to fry by this point.

The Schizophrenic State: So it could be fairly said that the Danish government as a whole “collaborated” with the Nazis. It’s true; in exchange for concessions, the Danish monarchy and parliament – including the major political parties (except the Communists) – played along.

And yet resistance started early.

The day after the surrender, some Danish Army units, who had not yet been contacted and inventoried by the occupiers, stashed extra firearms in secret cashes around the country, for later use by a resistance movement to be named later. And Danish intelligence officers made covert contact with the British embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, the beginnings of an intelligence pipeline that was the conduit for a wealth of information sent to the Allies during the war.

And so a resistance movement began.

The Savage Canary: The Danish resistance started with all sorts of strikes against it.

In most nations that had large, powerful resistance movements during the war, the guerillas had some natural or geological feature to conceal them; Poland’s forests and the urban warren of Warsaw, Byelorussia’s swamps, Norway and Yugoslavia’s mountains all hid and provided bases for huge guerilla movements.

Denmark, though, was tiny, and flat, and dotted with small towns and a few sizeable cities; nature would provide little cover for any resistance movement. Danish guerillas’ only concealment was social. Denmark’s small, highly homogenous society, imbued with the sort of stoic passive-aggression that marks all rural Scandinavians, presented the resistance with a form of social concealment that was riskier than hills or trees – there were plenty of Danes who sympathized with the Nazis – but eventually nurtured one of the craftiest, fiercest resistance movements in Europe.

The resistance was fairly passive, early in the war; strikes against German-controlled and German-leaning businesses, publishing anti-German newspapers and handbills, gathering of information to send to England via Sweden, and smuggling of contraband – escaped POWs, downed Allied airmen and the like – to Sweden. Many Danes were in fact tolerant of the occupiers – given the alternative presented them in every direction.

Some Danish resistance was more brazen. Danish machine shops covertly manufactured weapons and explosives. And Bang and Olufsen – known for much of the last 70 years as producers of ultra-high-end sound and recording systems – according to a source on the subject, spent the war years making clandestine radios for the resistance.

And so Denmark was caught in a dichotomy; a government that collaborated – albeit imperfectly, and with signifcant political resistance on the details – with the Germans, and a resistance movement that, as the war ground on, started making life more difficult for the Nazis.

Decay: In the war’s early years, the Nazis tolerated – more or less – the Danes’ most galling ideological transgression, their protection of the Jews. Denmark was the only German possession where Jews were never required to wear the Star of David.

The Germans were frustrated by the Danish foot-dragging on the Jews – and tried to goad the government into action. Danish Nazis published slanderous anti-Semitic tracts; there were other provocations. And in 1941, arsonists tried to set fire to Copenhagen’s main synagogue.

The arsonists were caught. And then they were prosecuted, and sentenced by the Copenhagen civil authorities – very much against the wishes of the occupiers.

As the war ground on into its fourth year, things finally started going badly for the Germans – and as things started to decay, the accommodation between the Danish government and the German regime began to sour. Several labor stoppages resolved into armed battles between Danes and German occupiers; sabotage of goods and equipment intended for Germany (especially ammunition, boats and ships, and electronics) became more and more common, as did eventually the murder of overt collaborators. This was starting by this point in 1943. We’ll come back to that.

The resistance was growing more effective – German economic output from their Danish conquest was dropping. And more and more overt collaborators were turning up dead – or not turning up at all.

The Nazis – angered by the resistance, stung by the sabotage, and looking ahead to an imminent invasion of Europe from the West – began to lower the boom. On August 28, the Nazis presented the Danish government an ultimatum; impose a curfew, institute a death penalty for sabotage, and be ready to give up the Jews. The following day, the Government resigned in protest. The Germans immediately imposed martial law.

The Good Nazi: George Ferdinand Duckwitz had spent a career as a German shipping executive, working for various cargo and passenger lines. He’d joined the Nazi Party in 1932. As the war approached, the Party brought him into the Foreign Service; in 1939, he was given the shipping attaché position in Copenhagen. He remained there after the 1940 occupation.

Among his social and professional circle in Denmark was Werner Best. Best, an early Nazi, had been one of Heinrich Himmler’s deputies in organizing the Gestapo. He’d lost a political scuffle earlier in the war, and became an occupation administrator, first in France, and then in Copenhagen, where he served as the Reich’s plenipotentiary – key representative – to the then-still-extant Danish court and government. With the resignation of the government and the imposition of martial law, Best became the top Nazi civilian official in Denmark.

On September 11, 1943, in a meeting on commercial issues, Best confided in Duckwitz that the Gestapo, finally free of Danish government interference, was putting the finishing touches on its plans to round up and deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.

Duckwitz, privately horrified, travelled to Berlin to try to forestall or cancel the roundup on economic grounds; Jews occupied many key positions in Danish society, and losing them would put a crimp in Denmark’s economy. He was rebuffed.

Two weeks later, on September 25, Duckwitz flew to Stockholm, ostensibly to discuss access to Swedish waters for German ships with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hanssen. Sweden, nervous about being almost completely surrounded by Germany, its vassal states or allies, had been very tacitly taking in Jewish refugees from Norway, provided they could supply some Swedish connection, however laboriously constructed. But they were in no hurry to agitate their Nazi neighbors.

But in a few days of closed-door meetings, Duckwitz got Hanssen to commit to giving asylum to Jews who made it ashore in Sweden. Then, quietly, he returned to Copenhagen, where he quietly informed Danish Social Democrat party chief Hans Hedtoff of the upcoming roundups.

Hedtoff in turn informed the leaders of Denmark’s Jewish community, including acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior.

And it was seventy years ago this morning – a Saturday – that Denmark’s rabbis, briefed by Melchior, warned their congregations at synagogue to go immediately into hiding and await further instructions.

What those instructions would be, Melchior knew only very abstractly. Everyone was winging it at this point.

Hearing the news, other sympathetic Danes pitched in, grabbing phone books and calling every Jewish-looking name to warn them to go underground.

And so almost overnight, by means that sound like they were borrowed from a Spanky and Our Gang movie the vast majority of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews disappeared into the woods, into hiding places in small coastal towns, and into the charity of thousands of Danes, resistance members and plain concerned citizens, who took the fugitives in and waited for what came next.

It was a half-measure. The Jewish community, and the Resistance, were banking on the fact that the Gestapo in Denmark was very short-handed – but with an entire population of Jews disappearing from view, it couldn’t last.

7,000 people hiding in attics and barns couldn’t stay invisible forever.

The Øresund Express: Several things happened in rapid succession next.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry instructed its offices in Copenhagen to start issuing Swedish passports to Danish Jews. The document would grant them safe passage – if they could get to Copenhagen without being caught.

The Resistance also undertook two massive operations; first, to locate boats to carry refugees (and, equally important, safe routes to coastal towns where the refugees would meet the boats), and a fund-raising operation to raise money to pay the boatmen for the trip. Wealthy Danes ponied up a fairly huge amount under the circumstances – as did many, many others. According to some reports, Christian X also contributed heavily to the effort through a variety of intermediaries, to conceal the money trail.

Finally, in early October, Sweden issued a statement through its foreign ministry, and finally on Swedish state radio, that they would accept Jewish refugees.

All they had to do was get to Sweden.

And so over the course of the next month or so, small parties of Jews, guided by locals and resistance members, made their way from hiding place to hiding place, to the coast, there to board boats to make the short voyage across the Øresund strait – about 2-3 hours’ voyage by fishing boat. Others went across in small sailboats, rowboats, even kayaks.

Still others – especially the old, and families with very young children – were smuggled into rail cars headed for the rail ferries that shuttled trains to Sweden. The Resistance broke into rail cars that’d been sealed after inspection, put the Jews aboard, and re-sealed the cars with forged inspection seals.

Not everyone made it. A few dozen were known to have died when less-seaworthy craft sank en route to Sweden. A few more were captured by German patrol boats – although it was noted that the Germans pressed the search for the Jews without much vigor. Partly it was because intercepting Jews was the least of the crews’ worries; raids by the British Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s maritime strike planes made life brisk and dangerous for German craft in the west Baltic. Beyond that, it’s considered likely that at least some German officers took a pass on getting overly involved with the search out of worries about Germany’s prospects in the war.

Other Jews were picked up as they waited to be evacuated – at least one group was betrayed by a Danish girl who wanted to curry favor for her German soldier boyfriend.

But they were, blessedly, the outliers. By the end of October, 86% of Denmark’s Jews – some 7,000 – had been evacuated to Sweden. Among them were physicist Niels Bohr, who was flown almost immediately via the UK to the US to start work on the Manhattan Project – but not before demanding that the Swedish government announce that Jews were welcome (a decision which had already been made, although Bohr frequently is credited with inspiring the action).

Aftermath: The few hundred Danish Jews that didn’t escape were largely rounded up – although a few did remain in hiding for the rest of the war. Most were shipped to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.

There, the Danish government exerted themselves to try to look out for their welfare – incredibly, getting additional food supplies through to the Danes, via pressure on the Swiss Red Cross. Although many Danes died at Theresienstadt – especially the very old – incredibly, the majority were alive at the end of the war. Denmark’s Jewish community escaped the war with the lowest Jewish death rate in Europe; Yad Vashem records a little over 100 Danish Jews who died in the Holocaust.

(Norway, which started with much smaller population of around 2,000, saved about 3/4 of its Jews, mostly in ones and twos and families. Those who were caught and deported, though, went to Auschwitz, according to the B’nai B’rith’s Black Book. The Black Book reported that none of them were ever seen again).

After the war the Israeli government, in building their Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem solicited the former heads of the Danish resistance for information. The surviving leaders of the Danish Resistance insisted that no single member of the Resistance be credited; it was a team effort.

And so the Israeli government recognized Christian X and the entire Danish Resistance collectively among the Righteous Among The Nations.

And they were joined in 1971 by George Duckwitz, the German bureaucrat and Nazi Party member who quietly sounded the alarm.

I’m not aware if there are other Nazis recognized at Yad Vashem. I’d think it highly unlikely.

The Axis Breaks

By the standards of his twenty-one years of rule, Benito Mussolini’s meeting at the Italian Royal Palace of Caserta was an unusual one.  The head of the Italian government and self-styled Il Duce (The Leader) of Fascism, Mussolini was unaccustomed to being given orders.  But in addition to his other titles, Mussolini was also the Prime Minister and, in theory, although not in practice, subservient to the Italian Monarch Victor Emmanuel III.

With Sicily invaded on July 10th and Rome bombed for the first time on the 19th, Mussolini believed he was to modestly report to the diminutive (both in size and stature) Monarch.  Barely a few sentences into their meeting, Emmanuel III shocked his guest by declaring he was enacting his right to remove Il Duce from power.  A stunned Mussolini emerged from Caserta only to be arrested by the Carabinieri or military police.  The father of Fascism, the man whose ideology inspired countless imitators around the world and indirectly launched the most destructive war in human history was deposed.

Benito the Beneficent: Mussolini in 1923 at the height of his popularity among the democracies

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Not Our Problem

Seventy yeears ago this morning, Commander Lawrence Daspit and his submarine, the USS Tinosa, were stalking their prey.

Tinosa returns from a wartime patrol.

Their target, the 19,000 ton tanker Tonan Maru Number 3, was one of the largest tankers in the Japanese merchant fleet.  

And despite the fact that the war was a year and a half old by this point, Tonan Maru was not only proceeding at 13 knots (about 16 mph) without air or surface escorts, but wasn’t even zig-zagging. 

It was the naval equivalent of having a twelve point buck walk into your bar, order and chug down six Jägermeister shots, and insult your sister at the height of deer season. 

Daspit maneuvered his submarine directly perpendicular to the tanker’s course, so the torpedoes would impact the target squarely, just as the textbooks said.  He fired four Mark XIV torpedoes.  It was a textbook shot; short range, perfect visibility through the periscope, perfect angle on the target.

The torpedos all ran straight – but Daspit only saw two small gouts of water spout up alongside the ship.  Two torpedoes had apparently missed, and the other two misfired; the spouts may have been exploding compressed air flasks aboard the torpedoes.

Tonan Maru turned sharply away from the attack, and started accelerating – which was a slow process with a relatively big ship that wasn’t built for speed.  Daspit fired the remaining two torpedoes from his forward tubes – Tinosa had six facing forward and four more aft.  The angle was not ideal; Tonan Maru was making 13-14 knots, and Tinosa could only move at 8-9 knots underwater, so the torpedoes intersected the tanker’s course at a fairly sharp angle. 

But Daspit’s marksmanship was impeccable – and this was many years before guided torpedoes became common, and the Mark XIV was a straight-running torpedo.  Both torpedoes hit the Tonan Maru, exploding near the tanker’s stern.  Tonan Maru coasted to a stop. 

Daspit maneuvered Tinosa to a point 875 hards to the stopped tanker’s flank.  He lined up another shot.  The torpedo ran straight and true into the tanker’s side…

…and yielded another splash of water from the explosion of the compressed-air tanks.  For the fifth time in seven “fish”, the warhead had failed. 

Frustrated – and, so far, unmolested by Japanese anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, Daspit ordered his torpedomen to painstakingly inspect each Mark XIV torpedo before loading and firing it.  The torpedomen inspected each “fish”, pronounced them in perfect condition (as well they should; maintaining the torpedoes was what they did, all patrol, every patrol, like a Formula One racing crew doting over their cars). The torpedo room then loaded them into the torpedo tubes, spun them up, and fired them, one at a time, directly into the flank of Tonan Maru.

Nine more times. 

None of them exploded.  Daspit’s log noted each firing with the precision of an engineering experiment log – and tartly chronicled the failure of each successive Mark XIV.  Daspit planned to save his final torpedo – a plan that was punctuated when he saw a Japanese destroyer approaching through is periscope.  Tinosa sailed back to Pearl Harbor. 

Daspit barged into the office of Admiral Charles Lockwood, commander of US submarines in the Pacific, with a string of obscenities.  Lockwood understood.

Part of it was that 19,000 ton tankers were a frustrating target to lose. 

More than that?  It wasn’t a new problem. 

———-

It’d been over a year and a half since Pearl Harbor.  With its battle fleet sunk, and four aircraft carriers lost in the previous 18 months (Lexington at Coral Sea; Yorktown at Midway; Wasp and Hornet in the furious fighting in the Solomon Islands), the battle was largely the Submarine Service’s to fight.

And fight they did.  In the first days of the war, US submarines started pressing home attacks against Japanese ships all over the Pacific.

And a curious pattern emerged:  skippers of the “S-Class” submarines – built during World War I, and recommissioned from the reserve as war approached – were getting kills. 

An S-Class Submarine

They were old, and much slower than the newer “Fleet boats” that were the vast bulk of the fleet, and they had a tougher time getting into a firing position.  And they were designed for war in the much-smaller Atlantic, so they only rarely had the range to engage Japanese ships…

…but when they got a shot, the torpedoes – World War I-vintage Mark X “fish” – exploded.  Ships were sunk.

In the meantime, although the newer submarines were pressing home attacks aggressively, there was a distinct lack of results. 

The Navy was non-plussed.  Explanations ranged from the inexperience of the torpedo room crews to poor marksmanship to, occasionally, cowardice; at least a few sub commanders were releived of duty.

But as the war patrols ground on, and the same patterns kept reiterating themselves, Commander of Submarines/Pacific (COMSUBPAC) Admiral Lockwood started thinking the problem was the torpedoes themselves.  The Mark XIV torpedo had been designed by the Naval Torpedo Station (NTS), in Newport, Rhode Island, by a group of engineers that were considered among the world’s experts in the craft of building torpedoes.  The Torpedo Station was subordinate to the Bureau of Ordinance (BU-ORD), the bureaucracy that was in charge of designing and/or approving all of the fleet’s onboard weaponry, from anti-aircraft machine guns to 16-inch battleship guns, as well as the torpedoes carried on submarines, PT boats, destroyers and a few cruisers. 

The Mark XIV was a marvel of technology at the time; its turbine engine made it a much faster “fish” than the earlier Mark X.  Most importantly, it had a magnetic detonator, enabling it to explode beneath the enemy ship.  The explosion would create a huge cavity of gas under the ship, into which the ship would sag, fracturing the keel.  In theory.  (And the theory was a good one; it’s the same way the modern Mark 48 found on today’s submarines attacks surface ships). 

Admiral Lockwood – who, unlike most submarine admirals, had spent his entire career as a submariner – was suspicious of the hardware.  But the NTS was certain the problem was with the crews.  Or the maintenance.  Or something.  Not the bureaucracy.

Lockwood ordered one of his submarines to test-fire a series of torpedoes at some borrowed fishing nets – and found for starters that they were running much, much deeper than set. 

A Mark XIV torpedo on display by the USS Bowfin, which is a World War 2-era museum ship at Pearl Harbor, near the USS Arizona memorial.

Torpedoes of the era could be set to run at different depths – to account for smaller or larger targets with shallower or deeper “drafts” (depth below the surface), or to strike below a battleship’s armor plating, or to take advantage of the magnetic detonators.  The depth sensor  – which operated by sensing the water pressure, and maneuvered the torpedo to the desired depth – had originally been located in the middle of the torpedo – but a technical chanage had pushed it aft, along the slope toward the propellor.  Where the onrushing water filling in behind the speeding torpedo had lower pressure, causing the torpedoes to swim deeper to find the pressure analogous to the depth setting. 

The NTS, afflicted with complacent hubris as much as Depression-era budget cuts, had relocated the sensor – and then skipped the testing process.  The change to the depth control went into combat without testing.

Lockwood’s staff advised the submarines to correct their depth settings.

It didn’t help.   Torpedoes still weren’t exploding.  And the NTS and BU-ORD still blamed the fleet. 

Lockwood’s suspicion turned next to the magnetic detonator itself.  Lockwood’s engineers discovered what German submariners had learned a year before; magnetic detonators operate by sensing the magnetic field around a large metal object like a ship – but that magnetic field changes in different parts of the world, just as does Earth’s magnetic field.  Without accounting for those changes, the detonator would be unreliable.

So Lockwhood ordered his skippers to disconnect the magnetic detonators, and rely on the good old-fashioned contact detonators – basically the same mechanism as the firing pin on a rifle. 

And so 70 years ago today the Tinosa fired 15 torpedoes, with two explosions – both of them from glancing blows at bad angles.  It was the only data point the engineers had; straight 90 degree hits – theoretically perfect hits – would go dud, while glancing blows at oblique angles would explode, sometimes. 

Orders when out to a fleet full of perplexed skippers; take shots at oblique angles.  Avoid straight-on hits.  Those were, of course, harder shots to hit – but the rate of explosions rose. 

Finally, Lockwood ordered a submarine to fire a load of torpedoes into a cliff on the Hawaiian coast.  As expected, only a few of the torpedoes exploded.  Divers recovered – veeery carefully – the dud fish, and the engineers at Pearl Harbor took them apart…

…and found out that the contact detonators – the “firing pin” assemblies for the torpedoes – were twisted out of shape by the impact with the target; the force of the impact with the cliffs, or ships, bent the system’s guide rails before the firing pin could strike the explosive primer.  It was mechanically nearly identical to the assembly on the older Mark X torpedoes…

…which were 15 mph slower than the Mark XIV.  The extra energy caused by all that extra speed released physical forces that were beyond the older assemblies’ design tolerances…

…except when the hit was an off-angle glancing blow.   Like the Tinosa’s two “hail Mary” shots. 

The NTS was non-plussed.  BU-ORD hushed the story up until long after the war.  They had never tested the firing mechanism under real-world conditions with the new, faster torpedoes.

Lockwood’s engineers built new guide rails – machined out of metal salvaged from the propellors of Japanese planes shot down at Pearl Harbor; lighter, stiffer, better able to stand up to the stresses involved in smacking into a steel wall at 45 knots (55 mph). 

And finally – over a year and a half into the war – the US Navy’s submarine service was truly ready for combat. 

The subs sank over half of the Japanese ships lost in the war; they actually accomplished with Japan what the Germans attempted to do with Britain – starved it out.  Japan was utterly dependent on overseas trade for most of its economy, especially oil – and without a merchant marine, there was no way for Japan to get oil, or most other raw materials.  There is a strong case to be made that the submarines did the lion’s share of the work defeating Japan.  And because of the difficulties with the Mark XIV torpedo, they really didn’t get a start on the job until late 1943. 

It came at a cost, of course; 22 US submarines were sunk in action, 20 are still missing in action – they still don’t know what happened to them, although it’s presumed they were lost in action – and 10 were lost in various training or testing accidents. Over 3,000 submariners died, making it the most dangerous job in the Navy.

Nobody knows how many of those subs were lost as they watched their torpedoes bounce ineffectually off the sides of their targets. 

And the Bureau of Ordinance and the Naval Torpedo Station, like most government bureucracies, never really did get called to account.   At least one senior submariner, after the war, moped that it was a shame they couldn’t have spared one atomic bomb for the Naval Torpedo Station.

Cracks in the Armor

Amid the carnage of the massive Kursk offensive, on the morning of July 10th, the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler set out to create a small bridgehead as part of a larger advance on the settlement of Prokhorovka.  The Leibstandarte, once Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguards, were an elite SS unit, often spearheading attacks in the East.  Despite two days of tough fighting, the Leibstandarte made no progress against the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division.

With such elite units gaining no ground, both German and Soviet local commanders believed the solution to breaking the stalemate at Prokhorovka was more armor.  Little could they have known they were setting the stage for one of the largest (if not the largest) tank battle in history.

Armor All: 300/400 German tanks squared off against maybe as many as 870 Soviet tanks in the largest mobile armored battle in history

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Far Beyond Hope

I started reading about the Holocaust way too young. In ninth grade, I tackled the Black Book - the B’nai B’rith’s compendium of Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Europe.  In retrospect, it may have been one of the things that started me thinking that maybe liberalism wasn’t for me; it certainly started me on the road toward being a Second Amendment supporter.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, here.

One of the themes of the book – and of the story of the Holocaust, in retrospect -was that it snuck up on people; that many, even as they saw their rights being gutted and their businesses confiscated and their lives upended, just couldn’t imagine that it’d get worse.   Even as they were being loaded up and sent to ghettoes in Poland, they just figured there’d have to be a rational conclusion to it all.

The history of human tragedy is that the people who see it coming get labeled as crazies, politely inoculated off from society.

The other theme?  The few who saw through the illusion of rationality were capable of nearly superhuman courage.  As the Holocaust spun up to full speed about this time seventy years ago, there were a painfully few people who managed to make it hurt the Nazis just a little.

It was seventy years ago today that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.

The story is well-known to people who know their history – which means most Americans know nothing about it.

Before there were concentration and extermination camps, the Nazis used the traditional Jewish “Ghettos” of Eastern Europe as natural “camps” in which to confine the Jews, Gypsies and the rest of their targets. They systematically deported Jews from all over Poland, Ukraine and Russia – and then all over Europe – to these small enclaves in Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian cities, using them as holding tanks until the camps – the last link in the Final Solution - were ready.

And in early 1942, they were ready.  The Germans started shipping Jews off to Treblinka, the first of the Vernichtungslagern, or Extermination camps.

And in the overcrowded, starving, disease-ridden Warsaw Ghetto – the realization that the end was near provoked a response from some of the inmates; it’d be better to die fighting.

And so a resistance movement,armed with a few stolen handguns and rifles and grenades and some homemade bombs, had formed.  In the previous months, it had managed to disrupt some of the roundups to the camps, throwing the Germans’ plans – as precise as any industrial supply chain management system – into disarray. And on April 19, the Germans’ military response was met with armed resistance.

On the morning of April 19, the Nazis marched into the Ghetto to begin the final liquidation, a brutal process like the one Steven Spielberg captured in the horrific scenes in the “Krakow Ghetto” in Schindler’s List.

It was a scene that’d repeated itself all over Eastern Europe; the SS would forcibly haul the Jews out of the Ghetto and herd them onto boxcars for transportation to one death camp or another.

But this time was different.  As the Germans came through the gate, the were met with gunfire and explosives and molotov cocktails.  They retreated in disorder, with 12 dead.

For the first time, the Germans had come for the Jews, and the Jews beat them back.

It couldn’t last, of course; the Jews’ guns numbered in the dozens, the German troops in the thousands.  They came back again, this time fighting block to block with artillery and flamethrowers.

They killed everything in their path in a fit of retributive blood lust.

The Jews – hopelessly outnumbered and virtually unarmed by military standards – somehow dished out a military setback to the Germans, holding the Germans out of the Ghetto for nearly a month.

It couldn’t last, of course.  The Germans advanced building-to-building, killing nearly everyone as they went – an estimated 56,000 inmates died in the battle or the aftermath.

The Germans trashed the Ghetto as thoroughly as Ground Zero. They shipped the very few they didn’t kill or burn or bury out of hand off to Treblinka (itself to end in another doomed uprising in the near future).

They literally razed the entire Ghetto to the ground.

The Ghetto after the battle.

Serious resistance ended in about a week – which is itself amazing.  I urge you to remember; these were people armed with pistols who started the battle with an average of 6-7 rounds of ammunition; a few rifles with the 5 rounds in their magazines and not much more; accounts vary as to whether the Jews even started the fight with a machine gun (they may have picked a few off of dead Germans).  A few stolen grenades.  Molotov cocktails and a few homemade bombs.  Knives, spears, clubs.

Nothing more.

Pockets of resistance held out much longer, though; the Germans declared the battle over in Mid-may, with the symbolic dynamiting of the Great Synogogue of Warsaw on May 16.

The Great Synogogue of Warsaw in the 1910s.

And so the battle was over.

There were few survivors – but the few thto got away cut wide swathes. Marek Edelman,  last surviving leader, passed away a few months after i wrotw the first version of this piece, back in 2009, after a life spent as an activist for freedom, including a role in the rebirth of a free Poland in 1989.  Rhe handful of survivors and witnesses continue to tell their stories.  But like our own World War Two generation, the Holocaust’s few survivors – and the fewer still who survived the Ghetto - are dying off.

And as they do, we should worry – justifiably – that society is going to forget about what happened; that society might forget the consequences of racism (the real kind), hatred, dminishing the humanity of ones’ enemies (or scapegoats) to try to justify all manner of inhumanities and horrors upon them. And of course, worry that some will take away the wrong lesson, as another loathsome person did fourteen years ago today.

I read the story of the Ghetto and the Uprising when I was in junior high; it probably took many more years for me to really absorb it.  The lessons were these; never let this happen here.  Call out the prejudice that leads to this sort of eliminationist hatred when you see it, and do it without stint or mercy.  Never let society be left at the mercy of the thugs and the autocrats; it’s why we have a First and, if all else fails, a Second Amendment.

Above all, uphold humanity.

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The Hit

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was, by a long stretch, the greatest Japanese leader of World War 2.  A naval genius, the primary planner behind Pearl Harbor, he had an impact far beyond any other Japanese leader on the conduct of the war.

And while the general American public have lionized leaders in the past – Patton, MacArthur, Schwartzkopf, Petraeus – it’s hard for Americans to comprehend what a huge public figure a successful leader could become in a society as militaristic as pre-1945 Japan.  Rarely since the Vikings had there been a society that so revered accomplishment on the battlefield.

And rarely had any society a warrior leader as accomplished as Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Admiral Yamamoto’s PR head shot. It was his plan that conquered the entire Pacific Ocean, from the shores of China and New Guinea all the way to Hawaii’s doorstep at Midway Island.

And the Americans knew it. And seventy years ago today, they carried out an unprecedented action to change that – an action that showed the strengths, weaknesses, and ludicrous foibles of both sides of the war in the Pacific.

———-

The Japanese military was deeply divided before and during World War 2.  ”Interservice rivalry” is, of course, endemic in every nation.

Healthy expressions of esprit de corps are a good thing in the military, of course; what would the Marines be if they didn’t think they were better than the rest of the services?

But in Japan, the problem swerved almost beyond caricature.  The Japanese military was divided between the Army and the Navy, and the Generals and the Admirals operated their services like feudal fiefdoms, to the point where both services were nearly completely redundant to each other.  Not only did the Army and Navy each have their own air forces (with completely separate development, procurement and manufacturing efforts, with all the duplication of effort and waste that attended such redundancy), each duplicated each others branches; the Japanese Army built its own navy (including cargo-carrying submarines), and the Navy’s “Marines” served as a duplicate Army.

And each service had its own culture.

The Japanese Army was steeped in the samurai tradition and “State Shinto”, the militaristic Japanese state religion; it was insular, Japanese-culture-centric, and by western standards a little barbaric.   It became moreso over time; before World War 2, most of the Army served in Korea (a Japanese colony at the time), Manchuria (which Japan had annexed in 1931) and China (which Japan had invaded in 1937); its entire background was in Asian societies that had changed little in hundreds of years.

The Navy, on the other hand, had been heavily influenced by the British, adopting British design standards and working with many British advisors.  While it had its samurai traditions as well, it was much more cosmopolitan than the Army.

The IJN Kongo. The first world-class Japanese battleship, and the oldest Japanese battleship to serve in World War 2, it was actually built in 1912 in Britain (as Japanese engineers observed, building its three sisters in Japan). Leave aside the “pagoda” bridge; the rest of the ship looks exactly like a World War 1-era British battleship.

Young Japanese naval officers went on long training cruises before the 1930s, routinely docking in in Western ports, including San Francisco and Seattle.

Yamamoto knew America; he’d studied at Harvard (1919-21) and as Naval Attache (1925-28).

A young Yamamoto with US Navy Secretary Curtis Wilbur.

Yamamoto’s respect for America varied; he didn’t much care for the Navy’s officer corps, thinking them a bunch of careerist golf-course commandos.

But he had much respect for America’s industry, and its drive to innovate.  And as he rose through the ranks, he urged the Army to show a little restraint about engaging the US in a war he felt Japan could not win in the long run.

The road to Pearl Harbor led through an epic political battle between the Army – especially its radicals who believed that they could sweep aside the soft, effete British, French, Dutch  and American presences in the Pacific – and the Navy, which favored expansion (indeed, needed it to get the resources they’d need to continue expanding, to say nothing of the justification for more Navy).

In 1938, the Army won the political battle, empaneling Hideki Tojo – an Army man – as Prime Minister.  While some worried that that could have resulted in Yamamoto’s ouster or even murder, Tojo kept Yamamoto on as head of the Combined Fleet – the highest operational command in the Navy – and charged him with planning to sweep the enemy from the Pacific.

Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister during most of the war years.

Yamamoto realized that the only way to effect this against the US was to wipe out its Pacific Fleet, buying the Japanese fleet (carrying the army) time to consolidate the advances into a position that the US couldn’t recover.

The rest is history; they nearly did it.  But for the fact that the Navy’s aircraft carriers had left Pearl Harbor for a training exercise, Yamamoto might have won World War 2 in the Pacfic on December 7.   It nearly worked anyway.

And Yamamoto’s stock soared; in a nation that revered martial accomplishment, he became a superstar.

And the US needed to fix that.

———-

In recent years, as information has been released with the end of the Cold War, the story of US intelligence’s great coup in cracking Japanese codes has become less obscure.  Like the British efforts against the Germans, the US code-breaking effort led to our knowing most of what the Japanese were doing in nearly real time; the biggest Japanese successes, like Pearl Harbor, were the ones that relied on absolutely no radio traffic.

And in the spring of 1943, Navy code breakers found out that Admiral Yamamoto would be touring Navy installations in the southwest Pacific.  In particular, the tour – aboard a couple of Japanese bombers that were being used as passenger ferries – would spend a bit of time on the Japanese-held island of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands chain.

Japanese G4M medium bomber. Codenamed “Betty” by the Allies, it was a fast, long-ranged bomber with a heavy bomb or torpedo load. It was a very successful plane during the first two years of the war. By 1943, the Japanese were starting to discover it was vulnerable, and didn’t absorb damage well – to Yamamoto’s chagrin.

Which was about 400 miles away from the nearest US base, on the island of Guadalcanal.

It was the Navy’s job – but 400 miles was beyond the range of any current Navy or Marine fighter planes.  So the Navy “borrowed” the US Army Air Force’s 339′s Fighter Squadron.  The 339th flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning – the longest-ranged fighter in the US arsenal at the time.

The P38 Lighting. Tell me that’s not one cool airplane. I dare you. It had two engines, for added range and reliability – but unlike most two-engined fighter planes of the war years, it was agile enough to mix it up with enemy fighters on more than even terms. The highest-scoring US ace in history, Superior, Wiscinsin’s Richard Bong, flew a P38 for all of his 40 air-to-air kills.

To avoid detection by Japanese radar, the Navy and Army planners drew a route for the 339th that would take it far out to sea at wavetop level and approach the airfield indirectly, from over the mountains; four of the P38s would drive straight for Yamamoto’s plane, while the rest would fly top cover against any escorting fighters; then, with no further need for stealth, they’d fly the 400 miles directly back to Guadalcanal.

And seventy years ago this morning, the mission went ahead.

———-

The mission was a very difficult one in the context of the times; in the days long before GPS or any other electronic navigation aids, the pilots navigated by dead reckoning and timing. Flying very, very low was dangerous, with little visual cue as to actual height and no radio altimeters (which would have tipped the Japanese off anyway); one of the P38s actually brushed the water with its propellors, but averted disaster, recovered and kept flying.

The attack itself went off as planned; as the cover team rocketed up to altitude, the four planes of the killer team saw the two Japanese “Betty” bombers in the landing pattern, with six escorting “Zero” fighters orbiting above.

Two  P38s, flown by Captain Thomas Lanphier and 1st Lt. Rex Barber, engaged the first of the two bombers; Lanpher fired in a slashing attack from the front, while Barber lined up behind the “Betty”, which burst into flame and disappeared, crashing into the jungle.

Artists conception of Barber closing in for the kill

Barber and another pilot, 1st Lt. Besby Holmes, attacked a second bomber which was trying to sneak away at wavetop level; the bomber crashlanded in the ocean.

Capt. Lanphier, Lieutenants Holmes and Barber

The first bomber carried Yamamoto; all aboard, including the Admiral, were killed.  The second plane yielded three survivors, including Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki.

The wreck of Yamamoto’s plane today. A Japanese search party retrieved the bodies from the plane shortly after the raid; Yamamoto’s ashes were returned to Japan on a battleship.

One P38 was apparently shot down by the escorting Zeros, although the plane, flown by 1st Lieutenant Ray Hine, was not seen to get hit or crash, and apparently fell into the sea.   Hine was the only US casualty; the remaining P38s made it back to Guadalcanal, so short of fuel that some of the  planes’ engines sputtered to a stop on rollout after landing.  As he came in on final approach, Lanphier radioed ” “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House” – a huge security breach that risked tipping the Americans’ intelligence hand to their enemies.

But the secret was safe.

The Japanese government, knowing the blow Yamamoto’s death would be, concealed the news from the public for six weeks.  The American press ran it immediately, of course – with the cover story that Yamamoto’s plane had been spotted taking off by Australian “Coastwatchers”, scouts who operated on the small islands in the middle of Japanese territory with radios and binoculars.  They were a key part of the Allied intelligence network (and played a key role in John F. Kennedy’s crew’s survival after the sinking of PT109), but had no involvement; the story was intended to prevent the Japanese from figuring out that their codes were nearly transparent to the Navy’s code breakers.

———-

But the story didn’t end there.  It went on for nearly fifty more years.

Lanphier immediately claimed credit – and popular accounts, starting with a Time Magazine story in 1943, and including the first story I myself read about the raid as an eight year old history geek, credited Lanphier – who was a one-man public relations machine.  Indeed, one of his squadron-mates noted that Lanphier started a manuscript in which he claimed to have gotten the kill himself.

Lanphier at the end of the war. Promoted to Colonel, he’s with his father – also an Army colonel – and mother.

That – and a meeting after the war with one of the Japanese fighter pilots that’d unsuccessfully escorted Yamamoto – irked Barber, who appealed to the Air Force, getting half credit for the kill.  The case between Barber, Lanphier and the Air Force wended its way through channels until 1991, when the US Ninth Circuit refused to hear it; good thing, as the Ninth Circuit would have awarded the kill to Michael Moore.

Major Richard Bong  in the cockpit of his P38. The Superioe native remains the too-scoring fighter pilot in US history.  He had nothing to do with the Yamamoto mission – dour changing photos from an iPhone is a pain.  .

Lanphier died in 1987 after a career in the Idaho Air National Guard; Barber passed away in 2001 after working as an insurance salesman and Little League baseball supporter.

And in 2003, after both men were long gone, an examination of the wreck showed that all of the damage to Yamamoto’s plan came from fire from the rear – Barber’s approach.  At long last, the Air Force gave full credit for the kill to Barber.

Ten Men And The End Of The Nazi Bomb

I first wrote about this episode three years ago; today is the seventieth anniversary of the Ryukan Raid,  in which ten Norwegian commandos with the British “Special Operations Executive” raided a hydroelectric dam that produced most of the world’s supply of “Heavy Water”, a key component of the process the Nazis were using to try to build an atomic bomb.

It was a good piece, so I’m going to re-run it, with a few suitable revisions.

———-

I’ll cop to it; after the 2009 “Nobel Peace Prize” award to a president who, as of the award deadline, had done nothing to warrant it, and has done even less since, my self-esteem-respect as an American of Norwegian anscestry has taken a bit of a beating.

But it’s on days like today – the 70th anniversary of the Norwegian raid on the Vemork heavy-water plant at Ryukan, Norway - that I get a bit of that old Norse møjø back.

You may not have heard the story – largely because most American history teachers are illiterate about history, and partly because the font of all historical knowledge for most of them, Hollywood, transformed the event into an Anglo-American triumph (the atrocious Heroes of Telemark).

Like much of what you learn about “history” from Hollywood, it’s BS.

A little scientific and historical background:  nuclear reactors need something to “moderate” their fission reactions – i.e. to keep them under control.  The United States program used a mixture of Cadmium and Graphite.  The Germans, for reasons best explained by a physicist, chose Deuterium Oxide – aka “Heavy Water” – a compound found in infinitesimally tiny quantities in all water.  All you need to do is refine it out of all the regular water.

And in all of Europe in the early 1940s, there was exactly one facility that could refine bulk lots of Deuterium Oxide in the quantities a nuclear weapons program would need; the Vemork plant near the village of Rjukan, Norway.

Vemork in 1940
Vemork

Vemork sat by a hydroelectric dam – so both  water and the electric power needed to find the Heavy Water were available in immense abundance.

The British had wanted to attack the plant ever since they learned of its significance.  The British “Special Operations Executive” – a wartime organization that sat at the intersection of intelligence and special operations, much like “Special Operations Command” in the US does today, and whose American analogue, the “OSS”, became the anscestor of the CIA and US Special Forces - established an agent inside the plant (Einar Skinnarland) who smuggled out blueprints and paved the way.

Einar Skinnarland
Einar Skinnarland

In October of 1942, an SOE reconnaisance team with four more Norwegian operators (Jens Anton Poulsson, Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haukelid and Claus Helberg), men who’d fled to the UK after the German invasion and undergone commando and intelligence training, were infiltrated into Norway to reconnoiter the area for a followup British commando raid.  The four men were air-dropped into a remote area far from Ryukan, and skied for days through the gathering mountain winter before they could even begin their mission.

A plan came together…

…and then completely unraveled.  The followup British commando raid to attack the plant failed catastrophically, with gliders and tow planes crashing in the snow and all the commandos either dying in the crashes or being caught and executed by the Gestapo, after revealing under torture the target of their raid.  The Germans reinforced Vemork, in case the Brits tried again.

The four-man recon team had to not only survive a mountain winter, but do it with an alerted enemy actively searching for them, and stay on the grid and able to assist the followup mission that had to come.

Later that winter, it fell to them and six more Norwegian commandos to finish the job.

The six reinforcements – Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg, Knut Haukelid, Fredrik Kayser, Kasper Idland, Hans Storhaug and Birger Strømsheim – dropped into Norway, linked up with Poulsson, Kjelstrup, Haugland and Helberg, and carried out the plan.

Bypassing the heavily-guarded bridge that ran 600 feet above the Maan River, the team descended from the plateau above into the river gorge, snuck across the icy stream, up a cable tunnel, and through a window.

Up for a bit of a climb?
Up for a bit of a climb?

They encountered a caretaker – who turned out to be a Norwegian who was happy to help.

The team placed the bombs – which destroyed the entire 1000-pound heavy-water supply – and escaped unscathed.  The Germans dispatched 3,000 troops to try to catch the commandos – but all escaped, with six of them staying in Norway to carry on the battle, and the other five skiing to Sweden to return to the UK to carry on the war.

Most of the team, after the war. Front: Poulsson, commander Leif Tronstad, Rønneberg. (Back) Storhaug, Kayser, Idland, Helberg, Strømsheim.

Being lucky and skillful, they all survived the war.

Being Norwegian, most of them lived long, healthy lives afterwards; all but Idland lived into the 1990′s; Poullson and Knut Haugland in the past few years, Strømsheim just last December.  Haugland was probably best-known to Americans, having participated in Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon Tiki expedition in the late forties. Joachim Rønneberg is still alive.

There are those who say, with some factual backing, that the German nuke program could never have caught up with the US program, even without the Vemork raid.

Perhaps.

Thanks to eleven brave underdogs and their mission, patched together against impossible odds, we never needed to even try to imagine what London and Moscow would look like as craters.

PBS’ Nova did an excellent documentary on the Vemork raid and its larger context, the Nazi nuclear weapons program.  It includes  a useful bio page on the whole group of Vemork raiders.  This site also explains the raid, and the science, in excellent detail.

The BBC also did a documentary – some forty years ago, now – on the subject. Hopefully it’ll stay available for a while:

It’s funny; listening to the guys from the raid (when I heard them on a different documentary from about ten years ago, since removed from Youtube), you’d think you were looking at and listening to old Norwegian guys at a Lutheran church lutefisk dinner in Park Rapids – and then you remember these are guys who sailed across the North Sea, went through British commando school, airdropped into Norway, spent a winter in a forester’s cabin living on reindeer meat and moss, and then carried out the kind of raid that ends up in the history books.

Every American schoolchild should be forced to listen to Rønneberg’s send-off at the end of the third installment of the documentary (around the 7:50 mark):

You have to fight for your freedom. And for peace. It’s not something that you have every day; you have to fight for it every day, to keep it.  It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break.  It’s easy to lose.

Whenever the Nobel committee embarasses Norway, I remember them, and feel much better, mange takk.

———-

Nearly everything I needed to write about today’s anniversary, I wrote three years ago – with one exception.

For most of the past 40-50 years, the conventional wisdom was that the Vemork raid, and the equally-daring followup the next year (in which Norwegian resistance fighters and SOE agents sank a ferry boat carrying the little heavy water that’d been salvaged by the Nazis) merely “bounced the rubble” of the German nuke program; that the bravery, endurance and ingenuity of the ten Norwegians was a great human story, but had little to do with affecting the outcome of the war.  The Nazis were never close to having a bomb, says the revisionist history.

The revisionism needs to be revised, though.

Tim Gawne, who’s spent a considerable amount of time researching ORNL’s archives and the Weinberg papers, recently came across a declassified Nov. 8, 1945 memo from Weinberg and L.W. Nordheim, the first physics director at the Oak Ridge lab (then called Clinton Laboratories), to Compton. Weinberg, who later directed ORNL for 18 years, died in 2006.

“We are writing in order to correct what we believe to be a very prevalent misconception concerning the state of the art as known to the Germans in 1945,” Weinberg and Nordheim wrote in the three-page memo, noting they had read a few of the relevant German documents.

There has been a lot written, of course, regarding Germany’s work on the atomic bomb and various analyses. I’m no scholar on the topic, by any stretch, but the Weinberg/Nordheim memo seems to offer a more generous assessment of Germany’s progress than some other post-war reports and subsequent analyses.

They addressed multiple questions in the memo, including a concluding one, “What bearing does this have on the general question of our ‘secrets’?”

Here’s part of their answer:

“On this we can presume to speak only as individuals.

“The general impression from the German reports is that they were on the right track and that their thinking and developments paralleled ours to a surprising extent. The fact that they did not achieve their chain reaction is primarily due to their lack of sufficient amounts of heavy water.

“In one of the reports a vivid description is given of the German efforts in this respect. The heavy water factories in Norway were designed for a capacity of 3-4 tons a year and were successfully operating during part of 1942 and 1943. This capacity would have been sufficient for the construction of a pile (reactor). However, the production was interrupted by sabotage and finally the main factory was destroyed by a bombing attack. Toward the end of 1944 plans were made to initiate production of heavy water in Germany and to use enriched uranium in order to reduce the material requirements.

In other words, the Germans never came close to having the bomb – in large part because due to the Vemork Raid, they could never get a reactor built.

Pass as Prologue

By February of 1943, the American military was starting to get use to combat.  For a military force that rivaled Portugal in size in the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had to undergo a rapid education in modern military tactics against better trained, sometimes better equipped opponents.  There had been plenty of bloodied noses in this trial-by-fire – Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Guadalcanal, the U-boat attacks of ’41/’42 – but one opponent remained to be engaged: the Wehrmacht.

On February 19th, 1943, American troops received their first education of German military tactics by the regime’s most noted teacher, Gen. Erwin Rommel.  The school was a dusty spot in the Tunisian desert known as Kasserine Pass.

Kasserine Pass was not the first time American troops had come under German fire, but it would become the most notable of the early engagements following the Allied invasion of French North Africa.  Operation Torch in November of 1942 was the largest Allied invasion of the war thus far, placing 107,000 British and American troops in Morocco and Algeria.  Coinciding with the British offensive at El Alamein, the goal had been a grand-scale encirclement of German and Italian forces in Libya and western Egypt.  Instead, Hitler doubled-down on the North African front, committing 250,000 more troops and drawing the Allies into another protracted desert campaign.

American troops in Tunisia: the Allies lost more men in 11 days at Kasserine Pass than in 6 months at Guadalcanal

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Taking It On the Chindits

As conventional forces went, they were an unconventional bunch.

The unit was weighed down by equipment (70 pounds of gear per man), experience (most were second-line reservists) and age (older draftees).  Their leader was forged in the classic mold of the British eccentric, perfect for a forgotten front against a larger opponent filled with combat veterans.  But neither the obstacles or the odds daunted the men of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and 2nd Gurkha Rifles, together better known to history as the Chindits, as the crossed into Japanese-controlled Burma on February 8th, 1943.  Their mission would be part of the beginning of the modern-era of Special Forces.

The Burma that the Chindits marched into was far from friendly territory – even before the Japanese invasion.

Burma had been among the last of the British possessions captured in the colonial era.  The Anglo-Burmese wars of the mid-19th Century sapped the Burmese monarchy and military, leading to fall of the capital Rangoon after the Third Anglo-Burmese war and the absorption of Burma into a province of India in 1886.  The Burmese populace responded with a grueling four-year guerrilla war followed by decades of hostility.

The Rising Sun In Burma: the Japanese were welcomed as liberators but massacres of civilians like at Kalagong village quickly revealed the Japanese as far more brutal colonial masters

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No Respect

One of my favorite lines about resurrecting history is from a movie - Braveheart, I want to say – and goes something like “History is written by those who kill the heroes”.

Much of what we Americans today “know” as received conventional wisdom about World War 2 is the self-serving version that the victor gets to write.  The idea that the Poles were anachronistic bumblers who charged at tanks with cavalry lances was a German propaganda fiction, ladled on top of centuries of ethnic and tribal prejudice. The notion that the French were cowardly “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is more of the same, filtered through American Cold War-era impatience with the frustrating inscrutability of their post-Gaullist foreign policy – and the enduring references to “Maginot Mentality” is a begged historical question, using the conclusion that “France Fell” as evidence that the Maginot Line was in and of itself a dumb idea.

It’s tempting to say the Italians got the same short shrift; it’s almost equally tempting to say their reputation as bumbling Barney Fifes who couldn’t shoot straight and whose tanks had one speed forward and four in reverse would seem to have been amply supported by their record during World War II.  From their misguided adventures in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea today) to their snake-bitten attempt to subdue Greece (drawing the Germans into war on a second front) to their inability to break into France even as the Germans were mauling the bulk of the French army, to the collapse of their North African army (drawing the Germans into war on a fourth front), the Italian war effort seemed often to provide comic relief to those who wrote the history books.

Of course, as Ringer and I have written this series, we’ve found bits and pieces of some inconvenient truths about the Italians; as inept as Mussolini had left the military’s higher leadership, and as poorly as the anemic socialized economy allowed Italy to equip her troops (especially the Army), there were some examples of redoubtable courage, esprit de corps and can-do-ism; the Italian Marines’ special forces attacks that crippled a significant chunk of the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the daring guerrilla war that the Italian remnants fought amidst the ruins of Mussolini’s East African “Empire”…

…and, seventy years ago today, in the midst of the disaster that would doom the German/Italian advance in Russia, one of the most titanic displays of sheer force of will in military history, around and about a forgotten little village in the middle of the endless steppe.

———-

Mussolini, seeking to increase his stock value after having been bailed out by the Germans in Greece and North Africa, committed a force of about 60,000 men in three divisions to support the initial invasion of the USSR in 1941; he shortly quadrupled down, increasing the force to almost 240,000 men in ten regular divisions, plus a German division and brigades of Croatians and Camicia Neri (“Blackshirts”) as a reserve and to fight Russian guerillas.

Priest ministering to Italian troops in Russia

The 8th Army deployed to the German’s southern offensive, holding the flanks of the German’s high-water strike deep into southern Russia.  By the winter of 1942, the Italians, along with Romanian and Hungarian troops, were holding the flanks of the German spearhead as it tried to fight its way out of being stopped cold at Stalingrad.

Mussolini inspects Italian troops from the initial “mobile” contingent. If the trucks don’t look very uniform – they’re not. They were impressed from commercial uses.

The Italians were never intentionally the focal point of the action – or at least the Germans didn’t intend for them to be.  The main goal of the Italians, and the Hungarians on their own flanks, was to make sure nothing snuck behind the Germans to cut them off at Stalingrad.

Although the original Italian deployment was intended to be a “Mobile” force, the 8th Army itself was not only mostly foot-borne and horse-drawn, but it had virtually no tank support. The Italians had to settle for a few captured Russian vehicles, like this T-34.

But on December 16, 1942, two Soviet Armies – the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, a total of some 100,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops – crossed the Don River and attacked the 8th Army, in temperatures that dipped to -40F at night.  A follow-up attack in early January overwhelmed most of the 8th Army, destroying three divisions outright.  The Hungarians on the other flank also gave way, and the Soviet Guards encircled what was left of the 8th Army – which amounted to the “8th Alpini Corps”, composed of three Alpini (mountain) divisions (the Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions), among the elite of the Italian Army – before pressing on toward the town of Rostov, through which the German lines of communications to Stalingrad ran.  The Soviets, with an overwhelming force of tanks, proceeded to capture Rostov, putting 120 miles of Soviet-held territory between safe German lines and Stalingrad…

Troops of Tridentina in the Russian winter.

…and, cut off to the northwest of Stalingrad, the 8th Alpini.   The Italians had two options – surrender, or fight their way to friendly lines.
They opted to fight.  
The Alpini, along with stragglers from the other Italian units and a few German, Hungarian and Croatian troops, began fighting their way across the steppe, through the brutal Russian cold.  The Italians had never been well-equipped with vehicles; so badly-equipped was the Italian Army, most of the trucks from the two “motorized” divisions had been commandeered commercial vehicles with their company logos still on the doors and side panels – and those vehicles were long dead and gone.  A few German tanks led the column, which was led by the Tridentina division, the least-mauled by this point.  The vast mass of those 40,000 men walked.
120 miles.  In 15 days.  Through temperatures that never got above 0F, and frequently dipped down to -40F.
The Russians were at a disadvantage, too; the focus of their effort was on moving into German-held territory, to the West.  But they left behind troops in every village, and every one of these village defenses put up a fight, and the fight to pass through every village ate time, energy and manpower that the Italians didn’t have.   
And yet they carried on.  And as of 70 years ago today, the Alpini and the rest of the survivors were on the brink of safety…
…and the Soviets knew it.  They reinforced the force holding the village of Nikolaevka with a division with 6-10,000 infantry – outnumbered by the Italians, but with supplies of food and ammunition.  
The Tridentino was down to 4,000 effective soldiers.  Julia and Cuneense were in worse shape still, and the rest of the force was mostly stragglers in small groups, none of them an effective or sizeable fighting force.  
Tridentino attacked on the morning of the 26th – and bogged down fighting the superior Russian force; the Italians’ chief of staff died fighting for one Soviet strongpoint. 
The battle – and the fate of the entire Italian force – hung in the balance.  To break through the Soviets meant safety; to fail meant death, either on the battlefield or in captivity.  
As legend has it the commander of the Tridentino, General Luigi Reverberi, jumped on top of one of the last three functioning German tanks, and bellowed “Tridentini Aventi” – Forward Trident.  The exhausted, frozen Tridentini picked themself up and charged one last time.  The example caused the rest of the mass of stragglers to grab their rifles (or whatever weapon they had) and follow into the attack, which turned into a barely-organized melee, more a feeding frenzy, ending with the Soviet division being overwhelmed.  There were no more Soviets between the Alpini and safety.  
Of the 45,000 Alpini that had started the battle on January 13, there were fewer than 6,000 left.  And the remnant of 8th Army that they led was well under 40,000 out of about 150,000 that had been in the lines six weeks earlier.  

The Battle of Brisbane

The 738th American MP Battalion was surrounded.  Unaccustomed to being in the midst of fighting, the scattered remnants of the unit grabbed any weapon they could in a vain attempt to defend a Red Cross Service Station and PX against hundreds of enemy troops.  A handful of shotguns were distributed to go with the MP’s standard issue Smith & Wesson Victory Revolver.  They knew reinforcements weren’t coming – thousands of American & Allied troops were engaged in street-by-street fighting.  The 738th left their defensive positions in the Red Cross building and meant the enemy head on in hand-to-hand fighting on November 26th, 1942.

The battlefield wasn’t in the sands of North Africa, nor the jungles of New Guinea, but the streets of Brisbane, Australia.  And for two nights, the opponents weren’t the Axis powers.  For two nights in 1942, America and Australia went to war.

The Aussie & The Yank

The phrase ”they’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here” has usually been attributed to British attitudes about the influx of American servicemen in World War II.  Yet the same was said by many an Australian as the Yanks came marching in by the thousands.

Over one million American soldiers would pass through Australia from 1942 until the end of the Pacific War, increasing the overall population of the country by 10%.  Nearly overnight, Australian cities on the populous eastern coast found themselves overrun with American servicemen.  Brisbane was among the worst affected.  By the end of 1942, the city of 300,000 now had to provide food and utilities for a population of over 600,000 – the difference all made up in U.S. GI’s.  The sewers and electrical grid couldn’t possibly adapt quickly enough.  For many Aussies, the Yanks brought brownouts, garbage in the streets, and increased crime and prostitution – not protection from the Japanese.

The View From Down Under: Americans saw the Aussies as quaint and the Australian front as a relaxing sideshow

Much like in England, the GIs also brought a considerably higher paycheck than their Allied counterparts, a fact that chaffed relations largely because American servicemen could afford to woo the locals with chocolates and silk stockings – luxuries in wartime.  Over 12,000 Australians married American GIs during the course of the war, but it wasn’t a lifetime of companionship that Australian troops were searching for when they grumbled that the ladies of Brisbane preferred the handsome foreigners who could buy otherwise limited goods at American PXs.  Compounding the Aussie’s frustrations were that the Yanks hadn’t just taken all the girls, but all the booze.  Alcohol shortages were so common that hotels became limited to two one-hour long servings each day – leading to binge drinking among civilians and servicemen of both countries.

Actions on the frontlines hardened attitudes as well.  The brutal Buna-Gona campaign in New Guinea was being waged at the same time with Allied forces counter-attacking well-fortified Japanese defense in the thick New Guinea jungle.  The percentage of casualties at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal 3-to-1 and the brunt of the fighting was being borne by Australian troops.  That fact mattered little to General Douglas MacArthur, who reported on “U.S. victories” at Buna-Gona while setbacks were attributed to the Australians.  Aussies who had fought and bled in hard-won victories returned to Brisbane unable to get a date or a drink while reading that nearly non-existent American forces had won the day.

The American Invasion: Members of the US Navy march in Brisbane

By the end of November, 20 brawls a night between Aussies and Yanks were being broken up, mostly by American MPs.  Not only would the MPs usually believe their fellow Americans, getting them out of trouble, but the MPs quickly developed a reputation as violent and arrogant.  More and more Australians took to mob justice when they felt wronged.  20 Australian civilians jumped a group of American submariners just nights before November 26th, beating them mercilessly.

With this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising that what touched off two nights of intense rioting started with Australian servicemen trying to defend an American from an American MP.

Private James Stein of the U.S. 404th Signal Company had been abusing the limited alcohol policies of Brisbane, and like many soldiers was trying to get to a new bar that would soon be open for one-hour only.  Clearly drunk, Stein found himself in front of an MP demanding to see a leave pass.  The MP’s verbal abuse caused several Australian soldiers that Stein had been talking with to engage the MP, trying to get him to lay off a drunk but not AWOL Stein.  The MP’s response was to lift his baton as if to strike one of the Aussies.  One of the Aussies struck first instead.  A melee ensued as more MPs, Australian and American soldiers ran to the fight outside the American PX.  News of the initial fight spread, starting new brawls.  By 8pm – just an hour after the first fists were thrown – over 5,000 people, civilian and military, were engaged in a series of battles across Brisbane.

Japanese Propaganda: Much like the Nazis in Europe, the Japanese played upon fears of lustful American troops

The fights quickly became more than drunken brawls.  Guns and grenades were passed about on both sides.  Shots were fired by MPs and Aussies.  One correspondent called Brisbane “the most furious battle I ever saw during the war.”  By night’s end, at least one Australian soldier was confirmed dead – shot by an American MP – and dozens more were seriously injured by gunshot, stabbing or clubbing.

The passage of a day did little to calm matters.  500-600 Australian troops surrounded the PX the next night, eager to get revenge.  The MPs were better prepared, armed with machine guns and rifles.  What started as a mob turned into a battle line as both sides took up defensive positions and prepared to assault the other.  Australian MPs sent to break up the crowd took off their armbands and joined instead.  With neither side willing to make a move, elements of the Australian mob moved elsewhere, assaulting Americans around the city.  Unconfirmed reports suggested that several Americans were killed that night, either shot or beaten to death by the Australian mob.

The fighting was almost entirely ignored by the wartime press.  Other than a brief bulletin mentioning an incident that left one dead and six wounded, media both in Australia and the U.S. were censored to prevent news of the incident from spreading.  If the censorship was designed to cool tensions, it backfired.  Brisbane sources spread rumors of absurd levels of violence, including a suggestion that 15 Australian servicemen had been shot by Americans with machine guns – their bodies stacked like cordwood outside a Post Office.  Although that report is almost certainly false, the true number of dead or wounded has never been released.

Few were punished for the fighting.  Units on both sides involved were transferred out of the city.  The MP responsible for killing an Australian was acquitted.  And despite five convictions on the Australian side, only one served any jail time – for a total of six months.  The incident was pushed down the memory hole and forgotten.

Other “battles” would occur in Australia and New Zealand.  A similar fight, named the Battle of Manners Street in Wellington, New Zealand had over 1,000 participants in 1943.  And much like the Battle of Brisbane, the fight was blacked out by the media.

Vichyssoise

The end was but hours away.  A small French force, numbering less than 50,000, took up a last-ditch defense; horribly outnumbered by the 1st & 7th German Armies crashing down upon them.  Even the Italian 4th Army was managing to swallow territory and POWs.  The French government radio broadcasts vainly tried to rally their people to the defense, but such cries fell on deaf ears.  The defeat was total.

Only this wasn’t June of 1940.  Nor was it the fall of the Third Republic.  Rather, the soldiers who fought and died on November 10-12, 1942 did so under the colors of the État Français or French State.  It was among the final chapters – but not quite the last – of the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis.

Defeat in 1940 had cost the French more than their freedom; it cost them their identity.

Hitler’s brutal terms of the June 22nd armistice stripped France of little actual territory – only the long fought over Alsace-Lorraine region changed hands (and even that wasn’t actually annexed).  Most of the northern half of the country, and the Atlantic coastal region, was deemed the “occupied zone”, allowing for German troops to remain stationed against any potential Allied invasion, but be civilly administered by the new French government based out of Vichy.

Petain assumes command.  The Victor of Verdun immediately blamed democracy for the fall of the Third Republic and adopted a quasi-fascist government model

Petain assumes command. The Victor of Verdun immediately blamed democracy for the fall of the Third Republic and adopted a quasi-fascist government model

At the helm was a man hailed as a French national hero.  Marshal Philippe Pétain had rallied French troops amid the slaughter of Verdun in World War I and was widely credited at home as having turned the tide of the war against the Germans.  Pétain’s patriotism and anti-German credentials were seen as beyond question.  It was little wonder then that as Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned (his cabinet refused to support his intention of relocating the government to North Africa and continuing the war), Pétain was tapped to succeed him as PM.  At 84 years of age, Pétain took charge of a nation reeling from a shocking German offensive.  Six days into his government, with still more than half the nation free of German occupation, Pétain chose surrender to resistance.

His choice set the stage for the next 2 1/2 years.

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Desperate Measures

In an era where the United States can send troops and inflict mayhem halfway around the world with, it seems, little visible effort, it’s hard for modern American to realize what a major undertaking simply getting troops across the atlantic, much less halfway around the world, was.

Not just getting them there, mind you, but keeping them supplied with food, ammunition, fuel and everything else a military needed to fight in the field.

And then there was the whole fighting thing.

It was seventy years ago yesterday that the 164th Infantry Regiment landed on Guadalcanal.

“Who?  What?  Where?”

Listen up.

———-

For all the shock and awe that Pearl Harbor was, World War 2 itself didn’t catch America flat-footed.  Much of the nation’s leadership had seen war as more or less inevitable for the better part of a decade.  FDR had started a national buildup to war in the mid-thirties, modernizing and adding to the US Navy starting in about 1934.

And he’d started calling up the National Guard not long after Hitler’s ransacking of Europe.

And so the 164th Infantry Regiment – comprising most of the North Dakota Army National Guard – had been called into federal service 20 months earlier, in February of 1941.

Troops of the 164th Infantry, drilling at Camp Claiborne five months before Pearl Harbor.

By Pearl Harbor, they had been training for ten months, and were among the most combat ready units in the US Army, and were thus selected to make the long trip across the Pacific Ocean with two other National Guard regiments – the 182nd Infantry from the Massachusetts National Guard, and the 132nd Infantry from Illinois – to the island of New Caledonia.  There, the three units were organized into a division, the “Americal Division”, short from “American Caledonian” (later officially called the 23rd Infantry Division) in May of 1942.

 

Over the first six months of the war, Allied planners juggled two disparate goals; find some way to start taking offensive action against the Japanese, and defend Australia.

Achieving the first goal, naturally, was the subject of a massive strategic wrangle; the Army, led in the Pacific by General MacArthur, favored an “island-hopping” campaign through the southwest Pacific up through the Philippines; the Navy (along with the Marines) favored a direct assault through the Central Pacific.  The battle between the two strategies would be the major strategic decision of the war in the Pacific…

…and was rendered moot by the news that the Japanese were building an airstrip on a dismal, malarial island in the Solomon Islands chain, Guadalcanal.  In combination with other airfields in the Solomons, this could support further advances on bases like Fiji, New Caledonia and New Guinea; if each of those fell, the supply lines from the US to Australia would be cut off, rendering Oz useless as a base.  With Darwin already under air attack, the threat to Australia was dire.

Henderson Field. Today, it’s Honiara International Airport, serving the Solomon Islands.

And so the first step in MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign went ahead. On August 7, the First Marine Division – the first division-sized unit in the Pacific ready for combat – landed on Guadalcanal and seize the Lunga Point landing strip from the Japanese engineers who had just completed the field the night before; the Japanese engineers had gotten an extra ration of sake rice wine for getting the job done early.  The Marines quickly took the airfield, renamed it Henderson Field (after a Marine squadron commander killed at Midway Island in June), and landed Marine fighters and dive bombers, who promptly went into action.

Over the next two months , the battle seesawed back and forth; the Marines decimated the first round of Japanese defenders and counterattackers; the Japanese ran reinforcements to the island and, after dealing the US Navy a bloody defeat at the naval Battle of Savo Island in mid-August, bombarded the airfield with several of their cruisers and battleships.  Mired in the malarial, swampy muck, the Marines held their perimeter.

The 164th Infantry, under Colonel Robert Hall, was dispatched from New Caledonia to reinforce the Marines against the fresh Japanese troops.  Seventy years ago today, they landed; two of the regiment’s three battalions took positions on the east side of the perimeter, allowing the Marines to consolidate against the expected attack from the west.  The third battalion, the 3rd/164th, was held in reserve.

Ten days later, on the night of October 24th, the Japanese would launch what would end up being the most serious ground attack on Henderson, attacking the Marines along the Matanikau river, the western anchor of the beachhead.  Their scouts had uncovered a gap in the Marine lines inadvertently left when one of the Marine battalions changed its orientation to the south.  The Japanese, heavily outnumbering the Marines, launched an attack into the gap against one 700 man Marine battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment.  While the attack was badly coordinated, it still drove a wedge into the Marine lines.  The Marines called for reinforcements; the 3rd of the 164th moved into the line as the Japanese attacks peaked.

The 164th had some disadvantages; they were new to combat – indeed, they were the first US Army unit to take offensive action in World War 2; except for the Army garrison in the Philippines, they were the first Army unit to fight at all.  And they were being fed into the line piecemeal, in platoon and company-sized groups (40 to 160 men), to react to various crises on the Marine front as the situation developed.

They had a few advantages, too.  They were the first American unit to carry the M1 “Garand” rifle in action.  The rifle – the first semi-automatic rifle issued in large numbers to combat troops – would go on to be called “the greatest implement of war ever invented” by General Patton later in the war.  Patton was being a little hyperbolic, but the M1 gave each North Dakotan roughly double the firepower of the Marine fighting along side him, who was still carrying the World War 1 vintage M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle, to say nothing of the Japanese infantry with their bolt-action Arisaka rifles (cousins of the Springfield via their mutual design parent, the German G98 Mauser, but firing a much weaker round of ammunition).   And in the desperate, confused action in the dark and in the jungle, when the Japanese closed to ranges too close for the Marines’ artillery to be used, the extra firepower was vital.  And they were from North Dakota, where even today the average eight year old can hit a running squirrel in the head with a .22 in the dark at 75 yards.  [1]

The M1 Garand. The standard American infantry rifle for the rest of the war, it served through Korea, and with some troops in Vietnam, Latin America and reserve units in the the South Korean military until the 1980s.

The North Dakotans held up, meeting and beating the Japanese in the brutal night jungle fighting, and went on to carry the attack to the Japanese, helping drive them from the island (or, as it’s known in the annals of the First Marine Division, The Island).

Troops of the 164th on Guadalcanal.

And the regiment of 2,200 North Dakota tractor drivers and mechanics and teachers and railroad workers and high school kids earned a rare honor.  While the Marines, then as now, have made it a matter of their own esprit de corps to look down on the Army (they usually referred to soldiers as “Doggies”.  But the Marines’ commander, General Vandegrift, paid the 164th a very rare honor after the Battle of the Matanikau:

But that was all a week and a half in the future.  Seventy years ago today, the 164th were just the first US Army unit to take offensive action when they stepped ashore on a malarial cesspool that none of them could have found on a map six months earlier.

164th Infantry troops on Guadalcanal

And when I was a kid growing up in Jamestown thirty-odd years later, most of my classmates couldn’t find it, either.  The town’s National Guard unit at the time, H Company (which had been a part of 2nd Battalion of the 164th) had been an Guadalcanal.  Many of the names on the Roll of Honor above the junior high entrance, listing Jamestown High School graduates who’d died in the wars up to that time, had served in the 164th – and the ones that came back, and were in not a few cases still serving as senior NCOs in the town’s National Guard unit at the time, like most World War 2 veterans, were still years away from talking about their war.

I used to dream of being able to write their story – doing a Steven Ambrose-style reconstruction of the war that that regiment of depression-era kids from the middle of nowhere fought, in a place that could not possibly have been less like North Dakota.  Other priorities intervened, of course; the guys who were in their late sixties when I hatched the idea of doing the history of the 164th are in their eighties and nineties now, the ones that are still with us at all.

Chalk it up among my life’s great regrets.

[1] I made that part up.  Allow a guy a little homer hyperbole, will ya?

For Norge

I’ve always been fascinated by exiles – people who are forced from their homelands for whatever reason.  From the Volgadeutsch of rural North Dakota – Germans who fled to Ukraine and then  to the US, where they fully assimilated but still observe and in some cases mourn their old country (Stalin killed most of the Ukrainian Germans during the war), or the Cubans of Florida, many of whom share a nominal goal of getting their homeland back by one means or another.

And it’s soldiers in exile that fascinate me most.  Poland has supplied many of them; several generations of Polish warriors fought, either to regain their home or to serve foreign rulers who promised, someday, maybe, to do it for them.  Among them were Napoleon’s Polish Legion, an elite cavalry unit that fought all over the continent (and other continents – 600 of them fought in Haiti, most of them dying of one miserable tropical disease or another).  Most of whom would never see their homes again.  And from among these men sprang a song, Mazurek Dabrowskiego that with independence and nationhood became Poland’s national anthem.  The song speaks of the yearning of the exile with raw, painful emotion.

Norwegians aren’t prone to expressing raw, painful emotion, of course.

We – and I can say “we”, since four of my eight great-grandparents, on both sides of my family were born in Norway – are most famous for calm-to-the-point-of-dull accommodation and negotiation, accompanied by a nasty passive-aggression that is more prone to being internalized than acted on.  A Norwegian builds to violence famously slowly – but practices it in a way that people from Russia to Ireland, from Scotland to Algeria, still keep tucked away in a dark corner of their ethnic and national consciousnesses; “Viking” is still a synonym for ruthless, calculated remorselessness that would make a Mafioso gag up his skull; for the old Norsemen, it truly was just business.

———-

It was that sense of dull accomodation, of orderly communitarianism and plaintive idealism, that was conquered in the spring of 1940.  In the two and a half years since the sucker-punch invasion of officially-pacifistic and almost-completely demilitarized Norway, thousands of Norwegians signed up for one form of service or another; tens of thousands served in Norway’s massive Merchant Marine, which provided a huge proportion of the allies’ shipping across the Atlantic.  Many more served in the Army and, even moreso, navies in exile; Norwegian-manned British ships were involved in most of the Royal Navy’s major and minor operations in the Atlantic.

And veterans of Norway’s tiny, obsolescent Air Force escaped across the North Sea, by plane or boat, and thence to Canada – where a group of exiles set up a training airbase at Toronto Island, christened by the locals “Little Norway“.  There, equipped with American-built planes that had been completed just too late to be shipped to Norway as the government frantically tried to re-arm, they learned how to fly modern aircraft, before shipping back across the pond to the UK to form a new squadron, “331 Squadron” of the British Royal Air Force.

The squadron was equipped with the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane, perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful instrument of war ever produced, and issued the RAF fuselage code “FN” – reputed to be, by design or coincidence, the abbreviation of the squadron’s motto, For Norge, “For Norway”.

Spitfires of 331 Squadron at their first base, at Catterick, Scotland

And it was 71 years ago today, at Catterick Scotland, that 331 Squadron became operational.

In the Dieppe Raid of August 1942 – a commando raid that served a shake-down for D-Day – 331 (and its sister squadron, 332 Squadron) shot down 15 German planes for a loss of three, making it the  highest-scoring RAF squadron during the raid.

The squadron spent 1943 doing “sweeps” over Belgium, France and Holland, attacking German ground transport and mixing it up with German fighters that came up to fight.

331 Squadron Spitfires taxing out for a fighter sweep in 1943.

331 was the highest-scoring fighter squadron in the RAF in Europe during 1943.

Captain Svein Heglund, Norway’s top-scoring fighter pilot of World War 2.  The dent in his Spitfire’s propeller spinner was from a part of one of the German aircraft he’d just shot down.  Heglund ended the war with 17 confirmed kills.

The two squadrons of Norwegians were among the mass of aircraft flying top cover over the D-Day invasions, and met and drove off one of the few attempts at a Nazi air raid that day.   Not long after, they relocated to the continent, among the first Allied fighter squadrons to move operations to France and, eventually, the Netherlands.  As the German Luftwaffe faded from the battlefield, the Norweigans spent a good chunk of the rest of the war shooting down German V1 “buzz bomb” cruise missiles.

The two Norwegian squadrons ended the war with 300 confirmed, “probable” or damaged German planes; they lost 131 planes and 71 pilots in combat and accidents.  This, out of squadrons that at full combat strength had 18-24 pilots and planes.

331 Squadron F16 lining up to fly a mission over Libya last year.

The Norwegian Air Force’s two current combat fighter squadrons are still named 331 and 332, in homage to their ancestors who, seven decades ago, fought a lonely, hopeless battle far from home.

The Soldier In Hell

People who’ve never served in the military – and some who do, but aren’t in the infantry – shake their heads and wonder what it takes to find someone who can run toward gunfire, when the natural numan instinct is to run away from it.

But training, and the testosterone that most young men have in great abundance, mixed together with enough esprit de corps or coercion or whatever, can overcome, or at least tame, the instinct of self-preservation enough that armies can and do exactly that; charge toward people who can kill them, and – sometimes – vanquish them.

But beyond that – what does it take to not only see and understand hell, but willingly walk into it?

It was 72 years ago today that Witold Pilecki (pronounced “Pi-LETZ-ki”) undertook perhaps the most daunting intelligence mission in history.

And if you’re American and not Polish, your response may well be “Witold who?”

Sit back for a moment.

———-
If you were to develop a laboratory process to develop a perfect strain of militant patriot, the end result might be a lot like Witold Pilecki.

Pilecki in his Polish cavalry uniform

Born in the Finnish-Russian area near Petrograd, Russia, where his family was forcibly resettled by the Czarist Russians after his grandfather spent seven years in Siberia for participating in a failed uprising against Russian rule in 1863, he grew up steeped in the militant patriotism of the motivated exile.  The family moved to Lithuania when he was a boy – where he joined the Boy Scouts.

For those of you who have watched your kids make Pinewood Derby cars and go camping, that seems pretty innocent.  But in Poland – or among ethnic Poles scattered all over Russian Europe at the time – Scouting in Poland – the “Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego” (Polish Scouting and Guides) or ZHP – was, however, considered an underground paramilitary organization and an instrument of undesirable Polish patriotism.  ZHP fought in the Russo-Polish war as well as as part of the Polish Underground in World War 2.

And that was Pilecki’s introduction to war.  At age 17, as World War 1 devolved into the Russian Civil War, his Boy Scout troop became an irregular combat unit that fought against the Bolsheviks and, when the area was overrun, served as a guerrilla group until Poland’s independence.  He then joined the new, regular Polish Army as a cavalryman, and fought at the Battle of Warsaw, the high-water mark of the Bolshevik advance into Poland. as well as the ensuing pursuit of the Bolsheviks back to Ukraine.

And then he finished high school, at age 20.

Over the next decade and a half, he was a gentleman farmer, a reserve cavalry officer, a husband and father (with two children born in the thirties), and a social worker.

Pilecki during his brief civilian life

When World War 2 started, he was called up and, at age 38, served as a cavalry platoon leader, and a ferocious one; his platoon destroyed seven German tanks, shot down one airplane, and destroyed two more on the ground as they retreated across Poland.  During the war – which lasted barely over a month – he went from leading a platoon of 40 horsemen to the deputy commander of an Infantry division with a paper strength of 12,000 men (although by that point in the war it was more like 4,000).  When Poland surrendered, he and his commander, Jan Włodarkiewicz. slipped away and went to Warsaw to found a resistance group.  The two men built the group into one of the network of underground armies that undertook the resistance against the Nazis.

And it was while serving among the commanders of the Polish underground that the word of a German concentration camp near the Polish town of Oświęcim – “Auschwitz”, in German.

It was believed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill labor camp at the time Pilecki undertook the mission. On September 19, 1940 – 72 years ago today – carrying fake paperwork undre the name “Tomasz Serafiński”, Pilecki deliberately out into the middle of a roundup of Jews, and was hauled off to Auschwitz.  He undertook to form an underground organization to gather information and eventually rebel against the Germans.

Tomasz Serafinski, Auschwitz Prisoner 4859

At the time, Auschwitz was still a labor camp – a terrible enough place, to be sure, but it hadn’t  yet morphed into the Vernichtungslager, or “Extermination Camp”, that it would shortly.

But as it did, Pilecki was there.  He and his organization – the “ZOW” (“Związek Organizacji Wojskowej“, or Union of Military Organizations) gathered information, built a radio transmitter out of smuggled parts and improvised bits and pieces, and reported on the gathering horror as the work camp evolved into a death camp.

It was Pilecki’s intelligence that the final, definitive reports of trains full of Jews being brought to the camp, gassed and burned – transmitted seventy years ago this month, and then smuggled via the Polish Underground (the “Home Army”, or Armija Krajowa, as it had become, the Polish nationalist branch of the resistance) to the Polish Government in Exile, and thence to Winston Churchill and FDR.

Who did shamefully little with it.  We’ll come back to that later in this series.

Remember – this was in the middle of a concentration camp.  The Gestapo eventually caught wind of the guerrilla group forming amid the death camp, with the radio transmitter, and began homing in on Pilecki.  And in April of 1943, he and a couple of comrades overpowered a guard while assigned to a job outside the wire, cut the phone line to buy time to escape, and got away cleanly.  Pilecki linked up with the Armia Krajowa in a few weeks, and went  back to Warsaw.  His war wasn’t nearly over.

He led an AK unit in the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944 (of which much more in a couple of years); after the uprising’s betrayal by the Soviets, he – saved by his military commissions from drumhead execution – went into a German POW camp.

Which was liberated by the Soviets; Pilecki went to Italy and served in the Free Polish Army for the remainder of the war.

And that was when the real war began.  The Polish government in exile sent Pilecki, under another fake ID, to organize anti-Soviet resistance; it’s largely forgotten in the west today, but armed resistance to the Soviets continued in Poland until the early fifties.

It was there, in 1946, that Pilecki’s cover was blown.  He was arrested, tortured by the Soviets’ Polish Communist puppets, and executed after a show trial on May 25, 1948.

Pilecki on the stand at his show trial

A few weeks back – not long after President Obama was making his “Polish Concentration Camp” gaffe – the people of Poland were undertaking a forensic expedition to find Pilecki’s remains; buried in an unmarked grave by the Communists, it’d taken decades of research.

“[Pilecki is] a hero because he volunteered to go to Auschwitz,” says Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.

“He went to find out what was happening and tell the world.”…Since the fall of Communism in Poland, Pilecki has received several posthumous honors from the Polish government.

“But he is even more of a hero to the Jewish people of Poland,” according to Rabbi Schudrich.

Pilecki’s story is, in many ways, a microcosm of the Polish story; Poland was torn over the plight of its Jews; many Poles were virulently anti-semitic and actively collaborated with the Nazis – but the biggest contingent among the Righteous Among The Nations are Poles who risked and frequently lost all to help Jews hide, escape and resist; the nation then suffered years of battle between Stalinists and nationalists and the ensuing decades of Communist rule before finally leading the Soviet world in its own flight to freedom starting thirty years ago.

War Horse

The ground was wet and the air noticeably cool for a late August morning in 1942.  The men of the Italian Savoia Regiment were likely nervous.  In the midst of a Russian counterattack than had driven a wedge between the Italian 8th Army and the German 6th Army in the Ukraine, the Savoia had been thrown as a last-second, stop gap measure.  Facing them were 2,000 men of the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.  With bugles blaring and cries of “Savoia!” and “Caricat” (charge), the Savoia Regment galloped into the record books.

It was the last cavalry charge in military history.*

The regiment was the 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalleggeri (Cavalry Regiment), one of oldest and last actual combat cavalry units in any of the major military powers by World War II.  Founded in 1692, by Gian Piossasco de Rossi, one of the most powerful Italian noble families, the Savoia Cavalleggeri carried forward a number of ancient traditions to the modern battlefield.  The unit’s helmets were emblazoned with black crosses, in commemoration of the Battle of Madonna di Campana in 1706 when the unit captured a French battle flag. Each of the 600 men wore a red necktie in honor of a wounded dispatch rider – from the 1790s.  And last, but not least, the units still carried sabers.  Sabers that were drawn on August 24, 1942.

The Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment in training. One would have found few changes from the units’ drills 250 years earlier

The 3rd Dragoons was but one unit of many among the Italian military presence in Russia.  From early July of 1941, the Italian military had sought to provide assistance to the German invasion of Soviet Russia.  Indeed, the entire Eastern Front became a clarion call to unify the various fascist and nationalist element of Europe that had for decades defined themselves in large part to their opposition to Communism.  Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovakian, Finnish, and various Norwegian and French units would eventually fight on the Eastern Front and Italy would be no different.

Despite Hitler’s misgivings, Mussolini provided two corps-sized units: the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia) and the Italian 8th Army (otherwise known as the Italian Army in Russia).  10 divisions in all would serve in Russia, roughly 290,000 men, largely in a support capacity.  Neither Hitler or the German High Command trusted the Italians, routed on so many other battlefields when bereft of German leadership, to do much more than play a patchwork role on the front line.

An Italian soldier in Russia. Over 54,000 Italians would die as POWs on the Eastern Front alone

A patchwork role was precisely what the 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment played starting on August 23rd, 1942.  As the Axis advance on Stalingrad commenced, the Russians attempted a counter-attack at the River Don.  Focused at the point between the Italian 8th Army and German 6th, the Russian found themselves able to separate the two Axis forces.  No organized force stood in the way of the Russians being able to get back behind the German or Italian line – and thus the Savoia Regiment was quickly dispatched to block any Russian advance at the small village of Isbuschenskij.

As August 23rd gave way to the 24th, the Italians skirmished with elements of the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.  The Savoia was already outnumbered, 2,000 to 600, with all but one squadron on horseback when the regiment’s commander, the aristocratic royalist Colonnello Alessandro Bettoni-Cazzago gave the order to charge.  Bettoni-Cazzago, assuming that the longer he delayed an offense action, the worse the Italian position would be, attacked.  In an age where cavalry divisions were made of steel, not flesh, and fed diesel, not oats, the Italian charge seemed destined to match Lord Cardigan’s ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade” against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.

The Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment rides into battle

The move completely took the Russians by surprise.  One squadron flanked right against the Siberians’ left flank before wheeling around again to press the advantage from behind, hurling hand grenades into the quickly disintegrating enemy line. The another squadron attacked head on and the battle wore down into brutal hand-to-hand fighting, many of the Savoia having dismounted.  Supported by a machine-gun squad, the Italians amazingly took the field, suffering only 40 killed and another 79 wounded (to say nothing of the 100 horses lost).  In return, the 3rd Dragoons killed or captured over 1,000 Russians.

Il Duce visits the Russian Front

Isbuschenskij was a rare Italian triumph on the Eastern Front and was quickly forgotten amid the horror of Stalingrad.  Six months after the last successful cavalry charge in history, the Italians had 150,000 men either killed or captured as the Axis front was smashed by the Soviets.  Italian survivors of the East were hidden by the Rome press, as veterans angrily voiced their contempt for a government that sent them to Russia woefully unprepared for the winter conditions or the enemy they faced.  Like Greece or East Africa, Russia was yet another front that Il Duce had sent Italian sons to fight and die under misleading or under-informed pretenses.  The defeat did not go unnoticed by the Italian monarchy.

Savoia’s commander, Bettoni-Cazzago, was among those royalists who returned from the Russian cold with a heated hatred for the Fascist regime.  Bettoni-Cazzago would eventually join the anti-Mussolini conspirators who would aid King Victor Emmanuel III in disposing of the Mussolini government in the late summer/early fall of 1943.

* Yes, there were horse-mounted units that fought as recently as Afghanistan and South Ossetia in 2008, but Isbuschenskij remains unique as an actual cavalry unit in an organized charge.

Guerrillas in the Midst

By August of 1942, to call Addis Abeba even a distant battlefield in the scope of the Second World War seemed charitable.  The Italian Army had been routed almost 10 months earlier.  Most of the troops that had liberated Abbyisania were en route either to Egypt or the Far East.  The main British ammo depot in Addis Abeba hardly seemed to need guarding under such circumstances – until it erupted in flames, destroying ammunition for the new British Sten machine guns badly needed on other fronts.

The explosion was an act of sabotage – one of many in the unheralded Italian guerrilla war in East Africa.

The East African Campaign wasn’t merely a footnote to the Second World War but a colonial anachronism.  Despite the scale of soldiers involved – 250,000 British, Commonwealth, French, Belgian and Abyssinian troops versus nearly 280,000 Fascist troops, the majority of whom were Eritrean or Somali colonial recruits - the conflict seemed over 19th century Imperial goals than 20th century ideological concerns.  The targets were of minimal strategic importance, the battles fierce but relatively bloodless (10,000 casualties total between all sides), and the leading combatants a collection of eccentrics fighting for the right to plant their flags in desolate locations for the glory of far-flung maps.

Ethiopians paying homage to their conqueror, who demanded they call him the "Great White Father"

East Africa presented greater political victories than strategic ones.  Certainly, the presence of nearly 280,000 Fascist troops to the south of the Suez Canal represented a viable threat to the British Empire.  Between Benito Mussolini’s North & East African “Empires”, Italian divisions vastly outnumbered the British, perhaps as much to the tune of 500,000 to less than 50,000.  But for those quarter of a million Italian and Italian colonial soldiers stationed in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, the outpost might as well have been the moon as they were cut off from supplies and reinforcements.  Such tactical issues were of little concern to Rome who saw the war as an opportunity to occupy surrounding colonies.

In the late summer of 1940, Italian forces captured British possessions in East Africa, including Somaliland, Kenya, and portions of Sudan.  Despite far more pressing concerns, including the Battle of Britain taking place in the English skies, Churchill was furious that Britain had lost such minor colonial outposts and demanded retaliation.  For Mussolini, bogged down in Greece and unsuccessful in North Africa, East Africa represent a triumph of the Blackshirts – even if the battles saw Italian forces suffer ten times the killed and wounded of their opponents.

The formal end to the East African Campaign: Italian Troops "Saluted" into Surrender

The formal end to the East African Campaign: Italian Troops "Saluted" in Surrender By South African Soldiers

The initial Italian victories in East Africa may have included Blackshirt units such as the Camicie Nere battalions and Security Volunteer Militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale), but most of the fighting was being done by black faces.  70% of the East African Italian Army was Askari (native soldiers), many of whom were Eritrean.  In fact, the Eritrean battalions of the “Royal Corps of Colonial Troops” (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali) were likely the best trained and equipped soldiers in East Africa – the equal or superior of white Italian or British troops.

Black or white, the Italian numerical advantage disappeared by the end of 1940 as Allied troops prepared to invade with a force of 250,000 by January 1941.  Part of the invading army included irregular Abyssinian troops under British command.  Named the Gideon Force, the unit may have only numbered 2,000 “patriots” as the British called them, but became extremely feared by Italian soldiers.  Like Lawrence of Arabia a conflict before, Gideon Force cut supply lines, blew up key positions, harassed the enemy and was led by a British eccentric – in this case, Orde Wingate, who would go on to greater fame as the leader of the “Chindits” in Burma.  And like Lawrence’s Arab irregulars in World War I, the Gideon Force, although nominally a British infantry regiment, took few prisoners.  Italian pacification of Abyssinia had been particularly brutal, and Wingate’s “patriots” relished the opportunity to inflict their revenge.

Orde Wingate: the epitome of the East African Campaign - brave, bold and forgotten to history

The invading Allied armies discovered what the Italians had in 1935 – Abyssinia had little infrastructure for a modernized, motorized army to use. Lacking the ability to be resupplied, the Italian Viceroy for East Africa, Prince Amedeo, the Duke of Aosta, fought a rear-guard campaign, holding defensive positions until his units, worn by constant attack and dwindling resources, moved on to the next redoubt.  The strategy worked – sort of.  Addis Abeba fell in early May, almost five years to the day of the Abyssinian defeat and five months after the initial invasion.  While the crown jewel of the Italian Empire had surrendered, the Italian regular army fought on with the last 23,000 troops giving up at the Battle of Gondor in late November.  The Italians had accomplished their only possible objective – draw out the operation and keep British forces away from North Africa.

"We will return"....yeah, you won't...

The fall of the Italian East Africa Empire meant freedom for the Abyssinians and at least a change to a democratic colonial master for others, but left one group in political limbo – the 40,000 Italians who had been convinced by Mussolini to move to Abyssinia.  Some were simply bureaucratic paper-pushers or government-sponsored engineers, but others were a part of Mussolini’s grand ambition to solve Italy’s problem of emigration.  Abyssinia would become India and the Bronx all in one – the economic engine of Italian colonialism and the settling ground for a planned two million Italians immigrants.

For those unlucky enough to believe Rome’s propaganda found a country far different than advertised.  Abyssinia was poor in resources but rich in hostilities.  Rebels loyal to exiled Emperor Haile Selassie controlled perhaps as much as 1/4 of the country’s hinterlands and for the 3,200 farmers who attempted to cultivate the land found it as unforgiving as the gun-wielding partisans.  Nothing grew in Abyssinia except hatred for Italy.

Seeing no future in East Africa, the only hope for Italian civilians was in the past – a return of the fascist regime.  Two Italian guerrilla organizations grew quickly in the wake of the defeat.  One of the groups, Fronte di Resistenza, (Front of Resistance) was a combination military and civilian resistance group operating out of the major cities.  Lacking weapons, the group resorted to sabotage (like the Addis Abeaba ammo depot bombing) and spying on British troop movements.  The other, Figli d’Italia (Sons of Italy), was a Blackshirt-recruited organization that also sort of involved Italian civilians.  Only that the Figli, after finding out how hard it was to kill British troops, preferred shooting Italian civilians they thought were collaborating.

An Italian "flying column." Even as guerrillas, the Italians were dappy dressers

Not all Italian troops embraced these forms of resistance.  Roughly 7,000 Italian soldiers managed to escape capture and conduct a guerrilla war on the African plain for almost two years.  Calling to mind the World War I German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who successfully evaded capture of his East African Army for the entire war, a series of Italian commanders led their small bands of guerrillas, literally called “bande” in Italian, in raiding party attacks from 1941 to 1943.

The most memorable of these holdouts were the ”Tigray” fighters of Lt. Amedeo Guillet in Eritrea.  Guillet had already earned the reputation from the British as the “Devil Commander” for his brazen, bordering on reckless, attack strategies during the British invasion.  Ordered to protect an Italian retreat in early 1941 against an advancing British tank unit, Guillet and his calvary unit charged with swords drawn.  Despite heavy colonial losses, Guillet halted the British advance while riding his horse between enemy tanks.

If Orde Wingate was “Lawrence of Abyssinia”, Guillet was the “Lawrence of Eritrea.”  Guillet remained popular with the Eritrean populace, even with the brutal fascist rule that predated his arrival.  Guillet himself, like many in the Italian military, was not a fascist but a monarchist and loyal to King Victor Emmanuel III.

Guillet not only evaded capture but managed to sneak back to Italy in 1943.  His first request?  To be sent back to Eritrea with gold and weapons to continue the guerrilla war – this despite the total Axis defeat in North & East Africa.  Guillet’s request was denied as days later, Italy would change sides.  For the rest of the war Guillet would perform risky missions in German-held Italy, ironically working with a British commando unit whose previous task had been to try and capture him in Eritrea.

Amedeo Guillet: The Devil Commander

Amedeo Guillet: The Devil Commander

The British might have viewed Guillet and other Italian holdouts as relatively minor irratants, but the guerrillas’ actions caught the attention of Emperor Haile Selassie.  By the summer of 1942, with Rommel at El Alamein and the British forced to send reinforcements to sections of East Africa to quell Italian fighting, Selassie hedged his bets and extended terms to the Italian rebels should the Allies be defeated.  Selassie declared his willingness to accept an Italian Protectorate if the Italians agreed to:

  1. a total amnesty for all the Ethiopians sentenced by Italy
  2. the presence of Ethiopians in all levels of the administration
  3. allow Selassie to maintain under throne under Italian rule
Selassie later denied that he made the offer.  And for good reason.  Shortly after the ammo depot explosion, British authorities decided to round up all Italian civilians and place them in internment camps for the duration of the war (they were actually called “concentration camps” but the name was not yet synonymous with mass genocide).  The sabotages ceased.  By October, the Fronte di Resistenza was no more.
A few guerrillas remained in the field, fighting even after Italy’s surrender and switch to the Allied side.  Colonel Nino Tramonti was the last to give up in October of 1943, a month after his forces were technically attacking their now British allies.  The war in East Africa was finally over and for those few Italian civilians who chose to stay in Abyssinia, they discovered an unlikely protector – Haile Selassie.
Selassie did not force Italians to leave his country.  Only after Selassie was overthrown and murdered by Communist forces in his own military in 1974 did the country embark on a forced emigration policy.  22,000 Italo-Ethiopians were forced to flee – many to a country they had never known.  Today, fewer than 100 of the original Italian settlers who came during the ’30s & ’40s remain in the country.

Ash Wednesday & Salvation

It was a tiny desert coastal town, notable only for its modest railway and relative proximity (a scant 66 miles) to Alexandria.  Even today, El Alamein is small, home to only 7,400 people total.  But on July 1st, 1942, the town whose name in Arabic stands for “two flags” saw 250,000 men under various national flags collide in one of the most important battles of World War II.

For nearly a year-and-a-half, the war in North Africa seemed stuck on a bloody Mobius strip.  With infrastructure at a bare minimum and lines of supply stretching from Axis Tripoli in the West and British Alexandria in the East, the battles in the desert took on a repetitive nature.  One side would score a crushing victory, over-extend their ability to be resupplied or reinforced, and the other side would counter-attack until they too had simply exhausted their gas, ammo and food.  Heat, time and distance gave the desert tremendous power over armies.  The sands of Libya and Egypt soaked up fuel and blood in massive qualities, bits of which are still being discovered today.

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel: The Desert Fox befuddled Britain for 1 1/2 years in Libya. At El Alamein, his signature strategy of outflanking proved impossible

Few mastered the limitations of the desert better than German General Erwin Rommel.  Rommel had arrived in Libya on the heels of an impressive rout of the Italian 10th Army.  Using small amounts of armor striking quickly through the vast desert interior, 36,000 British soldiers under Gen. Richard O’Connor managed to outflank and capture 130,000 Italian troops plus much of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) including the key port of Tobruk.

Rommel didn’t need to emulate O’Connor, having been one of the pioneers of rapid, outflanking armor as part of the German strategy of blitzkrieg (lightning war).  Rommel’s own 7th Panzer had developed the nickname “Ghost Division” in France since even the German High Command often had no idea where Rommel was or where he was heading.  Arrogant, egotistical, and unwilling to follow orders he personally disagreed with (Rommel disobeyed orders for him to kill enemy prisoners, civilians and Jews), Rommel was also a tactical genius.  Protected by his successes and friendship with Joseph Goebbels, “The Desert Fox” was given a free hand in North Africa.

Claude Auchinleck: Halted Rommel twice and was the victor of El Alamein. His reward? Replaced and largely forgotten by history

The British were less graced with military leadership in North Africa.  A revolving door of generals came and left Cairo, each seemingly unable to master the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee for more than a few fleeting moments.  It didn’t have to have been this way.  If not for large portions of the British Army in Egypt being recalled to fight in Greece, Richard O’Connor’s victory over Italian Libya might have been complete.  Instead, despite a numerical advantage over the Afrika Korps in both men (150,000 versus 96,000) and tanks (179 to 70), by the end of June of 1942, the British had retreated to Mersa Matruh – 100 miles inside Egypt and the furthest retreat thus far in the campaign.  The British commanding general was relieved again (this time it was Lt. Gen. Neil Ritchie, for those who cared) and in a desperate move, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, Claude Auchinleck, personally took over operations.

Auchinleck, nicknamed “The Auk” by his men, had taken over command before.  The C-in-C of the Middle Eastern Front since the summer of 1941, Auchinleck had relieved Sir Alan Cunningham in November of ’41, saving the British Army from defeat.  But Auchinleck either couldn’t delegate authority well or had poor resources to draw from (maybe both) and now found himself having direct control over the British 8th Army.  His first decision sent panic across Egypt.

“The Auk” knew Mersa Matruh was not defensible – at least not with the 8th Army in the condition it was in.  To the south was yet another giant open flank of desert, the kind that Rommel had used again and again to defeat British forces.  Lacking natural defenses and perhaps not trusting that his tank commanders could match Rommel’s in open battle, Auchinleck made the risky decision to retreat to the railway junction of El Alamein.

What followed would be known as “Ash Wednesday.”  British Command in Cairo assumed Rommel would be in the heart of the Nile valley in days and began frantically burning anything of military value.  With Alexandria only 66 miles away from the front, Auchinleck made contingency plans to construct bunkers east of the city and flood the Nile to slow the enemy advance.  Even the Axis believed the fall of British Egypt could arrive at any minute.  Benito Mussolini, wishing to create his own “Hitler at the Eiffel Tower” moment, flew to Libya and anxiously awaited his victorious march into Cairo.

Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee: the majority of the Afrika Korps was, in fact, Italian

Auchinleck may have been making back-up plans, but he knew what he was doing.  El Alamein was an unknown dot on a dusty map in Cairo, but in military terms was a modern Thermopylae.  Hedged by the Ruweisat Ridge and the Qattara Depression to the south, Rommel would have to go through the Sahara itself to outflank the 8th Army – a distance and environment too far and too harsh to overcome.  Rommel would have to mount a frontal assault on a relatively small front of 20/30 miles.  The British had foreseen the potential of this area even before the war, building pill boxes and mine-fields in the open terrain.  Rommel would fight a numerically superior force in a brutal, head-to-head battle.  There would be no flanks to turn this time.

The First Battle of El Alamein didn’t start well either for the Axis on July 1st.  The 90th Light Infantry Division, whose mission was to clear the coastal road, wandered off and found themselves pinned against a South African division.  The main lines of attack, led (as always) by Panzer divisions, spent most of the first day under air assault by both British planes and desert storms.  By the time they made their target destination of Deir el Abyad, the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade had already hunkered down with their 25-pound, heavy artillery guns.  Fierce fighting into the night gave the Afrika Korps the ground but at a high price – only 37 tanks remained.

The 8.8cm FlaK gun: the German transformation of an anti-aircraft weapon into an anti-tank gun was key in the early North African Axis successes

While the next two days were a mix of battles without a clear front line, the coastal road necessary for the Axis advance remained in British hands.  Sensing that the offensive was stalling, Rommel pulled back armored units from the desert in an attempt to shore up the 90th Light Infantry’s hard fighting.  It had no effect.

Auchinleck too had a sense of the direction of the fight and sent the New Zealand 2nd Division along with the Indian 5th to outflank and surround the German 90th Light Infantry.  They ran head-long into the Italian Ariete Armored Division.  The Italians foiled the effort to surround the 90th Light Infantry, but at a cost – only 5 of their tanks remained.  By July 3rd, the entire Afrika Korps had at best 26 tanks left.  The dream of bathing in the Nile was dead – for now.

The View at the Time: El Alamein was viewed, at best, as a bloody stalemate. Few understood that Rommel had reached the end of his supply line. The Nile was no longer a goal but the state of mind of the Afrika Korps

In truth, both sides were exhausted.  The British had been on the run for weeks and the Axis had few offensive options left.  The tank and infantry battles ceased.  The battle of supplies started.

Rommel had been receiving 34,000 short tons of supplies a month back in May of 1942.  With naval patrols hitting Italian shipping and British bombers attacking his supply lines, Rommel’s troops were down to 5,000 short tons by the end of June.  Vehicles too were in short supply.  4,000 had made it to Libya and the front in May.  400 made it in June.  In contrast, not only were the British getting new supplies every day, but within a week, two new Indian Brigades and a new Australian Division were now at El Alamein.

Renewed fighting on July 8th reflected the imbalance.  Depleted Panzer groups mostly counter-attacked, trying to stop Australian units from overrunning the center of the line.  Despite heavy Australian tank losses (as much as 50%), within a week of fighting, the Germans had suffered nearly 6,000 casualties and lost Signals Intercept Company 621.  The company, a forward unit charged with picking up British radio signals and other intelligence, had been Rommel’s strategic ace-in-the-hole.  By the middle of July, Rommel had lost most of his tanks and now his ears and eyes on the front.

"Mancò la fortuna, non il valore" (A failure of fortune, not of valour). A Italian marker at the site of the furthest advance of the Axis armies in Egypt

The tide had turned.  But now the coastal road was no longer blocking an Axis advance but a British one as Auchinleck was determined to destroy Rommel once and for all.  In late July, having now twice tried to push the Axis out of the El Alamein region, Auchinleck launched a furious armored assault with Operation Manhood.  Not only were the Germans expecting the offensive, but not for the first time, British forces got lost in the desert.  Anti-tank defenders got separated from their tank units, some brigades stumbled into mine-fields, and in general communication was poor.  Even with having told Berlin that “the situation is critical in the extreme”, Rommel was able to counter the attack, causing 1,000 British and Australian casualties for no gain.  Rommel would not be in Cairo but nor would Auchinleck be in Tripoli anytime soon.

But how had the British been unable to defeat Rommel even after his forces had suffered terrible losses?  Largely it was about coordination.  British units simply hadn’t been trained well enough for joint aerial, infantry and armored action.  But the terrain too hurt the British once the tables had been turned.  Like Thermopylae, the battles were contained on narrow ground and the defenders had plenty of time to prepare.  El Alamein’s natural defenses bled the fight out of the Axis and returned the favor to the British.

The cost of battle: at least 23,000 British & German troops were killed or wounded at El Alamein.  Italian deaths are unknown but considerable

The cost of battle: at least 23,000 British & German troops were killed or wounded at El Alamein. Italian deaths are unknown but considerable

The significance of the First Battle of El Alamein was lost to the British Command in London.  Claude Auchinleck might have stopped Rommel and saved the critical shipping artery of the Suez Canal, but he had done so at a frightening loss of men and material against a smaller force.  Nevermind that thus far Auchinleck had been the only commander of any nation to beat Rommel, “The Auk” was seen as a command liability.  Auchinleck was offered a revised C-in-C command for Persia and Iraq (the Middle Eastern Command was now split in two, with Egypt and Libya a separate office) but turned it down.  He would resurface by 1943 in India in a similar role and was credited, in part, in changing British fortunes in the Indian/Burmese theater of operations.

To replace Auchinleck, British Command chose Gen. William Gott – a corps commander with excellent tank skills.  But Gott never took command.  On route, his plane was attacked and Gott was killed instantly by a Messerschmitt round through the heart.  Instead, a Home Defence Lt. General by the name of Bernard Montgomery was named the new C-in-C of the Middle Eastern Front.

Montgomery would get his own chance at Rommel at El Alamein that fall and the end result would be quite different.

The Thin Reed

If you read enough history, you eventually realize that history, especially the history of warfare, is less a matter of “who makes the best plan”, and more “who comes reacts best to and endless series of unplanned errors, mistakes and unforeseeable twists of fate?”

It was seventy years ago today and tomorrow that one of the most important battles in Western civilization was being decided.  At about this time (after allowing for time zones),  two days of furtive maneuvering about tens of thousands of square miles of ocean led to 90 minutes of frantic back-and-forth air strikes on the morning of June 5, a series of battles that began at dawn and were substantially over by 2PM.  And the results were largely the confluence of a long series of strokes of luck, caprice and erroneous decisions – good and bad.

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the pivotal moment in the Battle of Midway.  The battle has been seen as the turning point in the war in the Pacific – and it’s an accurate perception.  Since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had been running the table; after wiping out the US battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor, they’d taken Hong Kong, Malaysia, Wake Island, Guam, and finally the huge US colony in the Philippines and the equally important British base in Singapore;  they sank a pair of British battleships (HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse) on their way to assist Singapore, and followed up by destroying virtually the entire Dutch fleet, along with most of the supporting British, Australian and American units, in the Battle of The Java Sea, while conquering Indonesia and its immense oil and rubber reserves.   They’d raided as far afield as Sri Lanka and Darwin, Australia.

Then, a month ago, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, they’d won a tactical victory over the US and Australians – sinking the carrier Lexington, and damaging the USS Yorktown badly enough to keep it in dry dock for three months, leaving the US with only two functional carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, in the whole Pacific (and five in the whole world – Wasp and Ranger, both of whom were regarded even then as failed design experiments, were still in the Atlanticm and Saratoga was undergoing maintenance in San Francisco).

Hornet and Enterprise had just returned from the “Doolittle Raid“, launching 16 Army bombers on a pinprick raid on Tokyo and Kyoto, which had no military effect but immense, intense moral impact on Japan, especially its leadership.  If American bombers could reach Tokyo – even via extraordinary means like the Doolittle Raid – then drastic action was needed to shore up the home islands’ defenses.

WIth this in mind – as well as to deny the Americans a key base for patrolling the Central Pacific – the Japanese planned to seize Midway Island, so named because it was halfway between Hawaii and Tokyo.  It would secure much of the vast ocean waste from American reconnaissance, making it easy to conquer Fiji and Samoa and close up the last remaining gap in the Home Islands’ outer ring of defenses.  Most importantly to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the planner of the Pearl Harbor raid and many of the other successes of the previous six months, it would lure the surviving American aircraft carriers – two, he thought, Hornet and Enterprise – out for a fight at 2:1 odds.

IJN Kaga, Japan's first large aircraft carrier. Like the USS Lexington and Saratoga, Kaga was a converted battleship, and in its day was the most powerful aircraft carrier afloat. A veteran of Pearl Harbor and the battles afterward.

The US Navy had, of course, broken the Japanese Navy’s codes, and knew of the operation long enough in advance to order the three months of work on Yorktown to be completed in there days (we covered that here) and to move the three carriers out to a place in the Pacific from where they could try to ambush the Japanese.

Less well-known?  The Japanese, worried about security, had actually ordered a change in code-books, which would take the US Navy some time to re-break.  But the change didn’t go into effect until the beginning of June – enough time for the USN to get all the information it needed.

The Japanese were hampered by their own bureaucracy and doctrine.  They’d had two of their newest carriers – Shokaku and Zuikaku – badly damaged at Coral Sea.  Shokaku was out for three months – and unlike Yorktown, out for three months it stayed.  And Zuikaku‘s air group had been so badly mauled at Coral Sea that it would take a few months to bring in and train up replacements…

…which was also a problem for Yorktown - but its air group was brought up to strength by borrowing squadrons from the USS Saratoga, which was refitting in San Francisco.  Zuikaku could have done much the same – but Japanese doctrine at the time was to keep ships and their air groups together.  It’d cost them.

But beyond doctrinal differences and top-secret technological prowess and the foibles of leaders and nations, the Battle of Midway was decided as much by three ill-timed bits of fortune – good or bad, depending on your point of view – that had relatively little to do with the battle itself.

Oceanfront Real Estate – Now, in those days before satellites and drones and over-the-horizon radar, the biggest problem was finding the enemy.  And that meant hundreds, thousands of hours spent crisscrossing the Pacific in search planes – long-ranged land-based bombers and, especially, “Seaplanes” or “Flying Boats”.  Almost unknown today, flying boats – which could land on water – were the key to patrolling most of the Pacific at the time.

An American PBY "Catalina" flying boat. This clumsy-looking plane was among the most important of all in World War II; it, more than any other, was the "eyes of the fleet" for the US and British navies. A Catalina caught the first whiff of the Japanese fleet at Midway - and many other battles.

One of the reasons the Japanese were able to so precisely pinpoint the US fleet at Pearl Harbor was that they had set up a “flying boat” base at a bare, uninhabited coral atoll and rock called “French Frigate Shoals”, from which their “flying boats” could reconnoiter Pearl Harbor.   Refueled from Japanese submarines who waited in the lagoon, the flying boats gave the Japanese a very up-to-date picture of what was at the base before the attack.

Aerial view of the main island ("Tern Island") of French Frigate Shoals. The airfield happened later in the war. The island is inhabited by birds and researchers.

They then frittered that advantage away by launching a series of pinprick bombing raids from the Shoals, causing the US Navy to send a small squadron of destroyers and a few “Seaplane Tenders” – squat little ships with none of the glamor of the aircraft carrier or dash of the destroyers or cruisers – whose job was to serve as a floating base for US flying boats.

And so when the Japanese submarines returned to the Shoals to set up the base again, they found the harbor full of US ships and aircraft.  They aborted the mission – leaving Yamamoto blind, with no idea what US units were in or near Pearl Harbor and – due to the radio silence he’d ordered – no idea that that part of the plan had gone awry – and worst of all, no scout planes crisscrossing the Central Pacific looking for the American carriers.

The Right And Wrong Places At The Right And Wrong Time - The Japanese had attacked Midway the previous day, and had shredded the defending Army and Marine aircraft.  There had been several rounds of counterattacks – US Army and Marine planes from Midway finding and trying to attack the Japanese carriers, without effect, but more or less fixing the Japanese position for airstrikes launched from the American carriers, which, unknown to the Japanese, were lurking within range.

It’s here that timing intersected with doctrine – or as people in business or politics call it, “policy”.

It was American practice to launch airstrikes as soon as possible and send them on their way; minutes were precious and irrecoverable when a strike or counterstrike ending in a ten-minute air raid was all that separated your fleet from disaster.  The American carriers launched as soon as they could, each carrier’s air groups proceeding toward the best guess they had of where the Japanese fleet lay – with the torpedo bombers flying low, and the dive bombers up high…

…and, due to a math error, flying on the wrong course, getting separated from the torpedo planes below.

A Douglas TBD "Devastator" torpedo bomber. Obsolete, underpowered and almost unarmed, it was further hampered by the fact that US torpedoes, early in the war, had a habit of not blowing up when they hit targets. Of 41 Devastators to attempt attacks at Midway, only four returned to their ships - a 90% casualty rate in ninety minutes.

And so the torpedo bombers went in to attack, unescorted, flying low and slow (so the torpedoes would work), and they got mowed down; every single plane in Hornet’s “Torpedo Squadron Eight” was shot down by the defending Japanese fighters; only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived, floating under a seat cushion.

Ensign George Gay (right), the sole survivor of the 45 pilots, bombardiers and gunners of Torpedo Squadron Eight, from Hornet. Shot down by a Japanese fighter, he floated under a seat cushion, watching the first three carriers get hit and set ablaze. He was picked up by a Catalina the next day. He spent 30 years as a pilot for TWA He passed away in 1994, and had his ashes scattered over the same piece of water where he'd floated, and his squadronmates had died.

The dive bombers, who had started their flight on the wrong course, found nothing…

…but the wake of a Japanese destroyer, three miles below, that had diverted to try to attack an American submarine, and was returning to the fleet at top speed.  The dive bombers followed the destroyer’s course, and arrived over the Japanese fleet…

IJN Arashio. The destroyer had spent the morning trying to depth-charge the submarine USS Nautilus. It failed, and was returning to rejoin the fleet when Lt. Commander McClusky's dive bombers saw its wake from three miles up. Lost and out of ideas and, nearly, fuel, they turned to match Arashio's course - and found the carriers.

…as the torpedo bombers were being slaughtered.  Which, as it happened, had drawn all of the defending Japanese fighters down to nearly ocean level, unable to respond as the dive bombers tipped over and began their attacks almost completely unmolested.

Indecision - The Japanese, on the other hand, had a policy of only sending complete strikes.  The Japanese admiral – Chuichi Nagumo, who commanded the carrier fleet as Yamamoto’s subordinate – had two missions on his plate; bombard Midway (the scheduled invasion was two days away), and sink the carriers (without which the invasion was a moot point).  Each mission required his planes to carry different weapons; his torpedo bombers would carry bombs to attack land targets; his dive bombers would carry armor-piercing bombs to attack ships.

And Nagumo had just changed his mind, switching from attacking Midway to going after the carriers, and ordered his planes to begin the one-hour re-arming process as the American air raid closed in – a Japanese search plane found the American carriers just about the time they were launching their air strikes.

And so the decks of the Japanese carriers were piled high with bombs and torpedoes as the Americans closed in.

The Japanese carriers, all veterans of Pearl Harbor, were a mixed bag; Kaga and Nagumo’s flagship Akagi were old converted battleships (like the American Lexington and Saratoga), big ships with some serious design weaknesses.  But Hiryu and Soryu were newer ships, designed largely according to British design practices, including armored hangars capable of withstanding some damage (unlike the American carriers, whose flight decks were wood and whose hangar decks were largely open).  In theory, the Japanese carriers were tougher propositions for a bomber than were the US ships.

But the Japanese Navy had never really emphasized damage control, or damage prevention – which would plague them for the entire war.  And in any case, having decks piled high with bombs, torpedoes and criss-crossed with hoses full of aviation fuel, and with flight and hangar decks lined with airplanes full of fuel and carrying explosives, would make any damage a dicey proposition.

Artist' rendition of a Douglass "Dauntless" dive bomber pulling out of its dive by a blazing IJN "AkagI".

And so instead of attacking ships buttoned up for action, with explosives stowed under armor and gas lines drained, the US dive bombers attacked ships that were practically rigged to explode.

And when the bombs hit – four on Kaga, three each on Soryu and Akagi.  The hits set off chain-reaction explosions on the fueled and armed planes, which also detonated the stacks of bombs and torpedoes, dooming the three ships.

A Douglass SBD3 "Dauntless" Dive Bomber - the hero of the battle - after landing on Yorktown after bombing Kaga. Note the damage to the rear "elevator" fins.

The battle went on for two more days, officially – but it was all decided seventy years ago today.  Two waves of Japanese counterattacks from Hiryu, the lone surviving carrier, crippled Yorktown, which was sunk the next day by a Japanese submarine.   Follow-ups from Enterprise and Hornet finished off Hiryu that afternoon.

IJN Hiryu, the last carrier afloat, ablaze after being set afire later in the afternoon on June 5. It would be sunk later by a Japanese destoyer.

Four of the six Pearl Harbor carriers, and the elite of the Japanese carrier air force, was wiped out in a matter of hours.  The Japanese Navy would never again carry out an offensive action during the war.  The full weight of America’s industrial might would come to bear in the next year and a half, as the US would commission 24 aircraft carriers to replace the two they’d lost (and the two more they’d lose in the coming year – of which more later).

The lesson?

In war, as in so many areas of life, it’s not so much who has the best plan, the best process or the best equipment so much as the one that can react fastest, and best, to a fluid, confusing and changing situation.