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.


On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought we’d remember an amazing event in the history of American enterprise.

It was seventy years ago today that the most important repair job in American history began.

The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown had begun its life six years earlier, as one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “economic stimuli” as the administration prepared for what they saw – correctly, this time – as an inevitable war with Japan.

The carrier was an important ship; America’s previous carriers were had been two converted battlecruisers (the Lexington and Saratoga) and an unsuccessful, too-small USS Ranger (*). The Yorktown served as the lead ship of a class of two other carriers, the Hornet and Enterprise, that themselves served as the prototypes for the 24 wartime Essex class – by far the biggest class of aircraft carriers in history, and one of the most successful classes of warships ever, which served in front-line service into the seventies, and as training and reserve ships until the nineties.

But that was all in the future.

Yorktown had spent the first months of the war escorting convoys and raiding isolated Japanese garrisons when intelligence discovered a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Port Moresby, an isolated and malarial outpost on the eastern end of New Guinea of little economic or demographic influence…

…except that it had enough flat ground to build a big enough airport to put northern Australia, and all maritime traffic in the area, under threat of Japanese air attack.

The two American carriers, Lexington and Yorktown, sank one small Japanese carrier, and drove off the invasion fleet.  In return, the Japanese sank the Lexington, and after the Yorkdown’s captain dodged eight near misses from Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, the Yorktown was hit by a single Japanese bomb that killed or injured 66 men.

The engineers on board figured it’d take three months in a shipyard to repair the damage.

The battle – almost unknown to Americans today – was crucial; it was a tactical defeat for the Americans, who lost a carrier, a tanker and a destroyer, with Yorktown badly damaged.  But it marked the high-water line for Japanese expansion.  The six month wave of success had ended.  That was a strategic win for the US – the first of the war.

But Naval Intelligence indicated the Japanese didn’t know that yet; signs pointed to an attempt to invade Midway Island, by way of staging for a potential invasion or neutralization of Hawaii.  And if Midway fell, and Hawaii was jeopardized, that “strategic victory” would mean little.

And the US had almost nothing to respond with; six months after Pearl Harbor, there were no seaworthy battleships in the Pacific; worse, we were down to two functional aircraft carriers, Enterprise and Hornet had just returned from the Doolittle Raid, and Saratoga was in a long refit in San Francisco.

That was it.

So the commander of the US Pacific Fleet took a desperate gamble; he sent Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor, and mobilized the entire base’s civilian and military workforce to do the unthinkable; get Yorktown ready for battle in three days, rather than three months.

Yorktown in drydock at Pearl Harbor This is where the repair work was done.

And so for the next 72 hours, a horde of sailors and dockyard workers swarmed over the ship; they repaired the massive structural damage from the bomb, and the leaking from the fuel tanks whose walls had been shredded by shrapnel from the near-misses, causing Yorktown to trail an oil slick all the way home from the battle of the Coral Sea.

And it worked.  Right on schedule, after three days of frenzied, 24-hour-a-day work, Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor, escorted by a small gaggle of cruisers and destroyers, to join Hornet and Enterprise on a fast voyage to the central Pacific…

…whose destination we’ll talk about in a couple of days here.

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The “Gibraltar of the East”

Broken and burnt, its nearly 14,000 inhabitants starving and weary of 6-months of near constant aerial and coastal bombardment, the final holdout of American and Filipino resistance to the Japanese invasion of Philippines succumb.  The island of Corregidor, affectionately known to American troops as “The Rock”, and triumphed as the “Gibraltar of the East,” had finally fallen on May 6th, 1942.

The last redoubt for the "Battling Bastards of Bataan." As their saying went, "no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam."

What ended in an American defeat had been a Japanese embarrassment for months.  Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, commander of the 14th Imperial Army, had been tasked to deliver the Philippines (and the critical port of Manila Harbor) in a brisk two months.  Instead, Homma found himself dragged into a slow war of attrition against nearly 80,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula and unable to use Manila Harbor as the gun batteries of Corregidor’s Fort Mills swept the surrounding bay.  For months, Japanese propaganda repeatedly claimed that Bataan and Corregidor were about to fall followed by weeks of silence.  Despite Japanese forces pushing aside Allied forces on all fronts, Bataan and Corregidor remained a strategic thorn in side of Japan’s military planners.  Without Manila Harbor, supplying troops invading the raw material rich areas like Malaysia and Indonesia would become even more difficult and could bring the Japanese advance to a halt.

Resistance may have inspired Americans back home and frustrated Tokyo, but the defense of Bataan and Corregidor had been badly botched.  Despite his accomplished military resume (including being Army Chief of Staff, Field Marshal of the Philippine Army & Commander of US Forces in the Far East), Gen. Douglas MacArthur refused to follow the army’s War Plan Orange 3 strategy of retreating into Bataan and holding up with enough supplies until reinforcements arrived.

Yes, the Japanese used flamethrower on American bunker positions too. Here we see Japanese troops fighting against American positions on the Orion-Bagac Line on Bataan

Instead, MacArthur wanted to meet the enemy on the beaches – a near strategic impossibility on an archipelago.  Coupled with a failure to defend the airbase on Clark Field on December 8th, resulting in the loss of American air support, supplies for the defense of the Philippines were scattered across the islands when the first Japanese troops came ashore.  Despite a numerical parity with the Japanese (nearly 80,000 versus 75,000 Imperial troops), the lack of even basic supplies on Bataan put American forces at a significant disadvantage.  By April 9th,  the Japanese had breached the Orion-Bagac Line, among the last lines of defense in the US strategy of Bataan, and Major General Edward P. King agreed to surrender the 75,000 US and Filipino troops who remained.  MacArthur and his superiors had seen the writing on the wall even earlier, transferring MacArthur to Corregidor in March and then Australia.  MacArthur declared “I shall return.”  10,000 Filipinos and 650 American POWs didn’t as they were shot, stabbed and starved in the Bataan Death March.

American and Filipino POWs from Bataan. 60,000 Filipino troops were among those who suffered on the infamous "Bataan Death March"

Bataan had fallen but Corregidor had not.  The tiny 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide island posed a political dilemma both in Tokyo and Washington. The battle for control of Philippines was most assuredly over, but 14,000 soldiers and civilians continued to block Manila Bay – seemingly unreachable by both Japanese bombers and American reinforcements.  Protected by the vast underground bunker and tunnel system on Malinta Hill, armed with an independent water pump and vast (if shrinking) supplies, and stocked with numerous anti-aircraft guns and naval batteries, Corregidor was earning the “Gibraltar” description.

The Island's main defense. Corregidor had 45 gun batteries stationed over the island, but most were from WWI

The Japanese had already discovered that Corregidor would be a tough nut to crack.  Early in the invasion, on December 29th, 91 Japanese bombers, the whole of the local Japanese bomber air force, hit the island with nearly 50 tons of explosives.  The bombs did little; the American AA guns did more – shooting down 7 planes.  The attacks continued until Jan 6th, with Japanese planes dropping their payloads at higher and higher altitudes to escape AA fire.  Unwilling to suffer further losses, the air fleet was moved to Thailand and General Homma refocused his attention on Bataan.

Tunnel vision: the sight for most American soldiers on Corregidor during the siege

Corregidor wasn’t regularly targeted again until February as Japanese artillery was able to set up positions close enough to hit the island.  By then, life on the island had settled into a dreary routine. When the men were not building fortifications or going about their daily chores, they had little to do.  Rations had been cut in half at start of January and an island that was built to house only 6,000 was overwhelmed with civilians and political refugees, including Philippine President Quezon who gave his second inaugural address amid an air raid while sheltered in the Malinta tunnel system.

 Mac's staff car.  The general himself had long since left

Mac's staff car. The general himself had long since left

The fall of Bataan brought the full weight of the Japanese Army back on Corregidor.  By now, troops were down to 30 ounces of food a day with drinking water rarely getting distributed.  And with the arrival of the 22nd Air Brigade, the Japanese air attack had returned with vigor.  An estimated 365 tons of bombs were dropped on Corregidor and in one day alone, May 4th, 1942, 16,000 shells hit as well.  Worse for those trapped on the island was the realization, post Bataan, that their only options were death or brutal imprisonment.  There would be no rescue operation, no American Fleet arriving to save the day.  The longer they held out, the greater they aided the overall war effort, but at the likely expense of Japanese retribution.

The last act on Corregidor began on May 5th as 790 Japanese soldiers invaded.  Pushed by strong currents between Bataan and the island, landing proved difficult, especially under American fire.  Quickly bogging down, the initial invasion fared better than the 785 reinforcements who landed in the wrong location opposite the 4th Marines.  Most of this invasion force was killed, with the survivors escaping along the island’s edge to join the main invasion force.  Together, they pushed forward and captured one of the main battery stations.  A desperate US counterattack with 500 Marines failed as another 800 Japanese troops arrived, along with several tanks.  With Japanese troops just yards away from the Malinta tunnel complex, housing civilians and 1,000 injured troops, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright radioed Washington with a simple message: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”   By 1:30pm on May 6th, the last of American and Filipino forces had surrendered.

The last American holdouts pose for Japanese propaganda

Survivors were marched in downtown Manila as trophies of war.  The “lucky” made it to Japan as slave laborers.  Gen. Wainwright eventually returned home a hero despite his concern that his status as the highest-ranking American POW would have made him a military and social pariah.  Wainwright would receive the Medal of Honor for his defense of Bataan and Corregidor.  The only voice of dissident?  Gen. MacArthur – despite having won a Medal of Honor for the same defense.

Wainwright and MacArthur’s opponent also had his reputation defined by Bataan and Corregidor.  General Masaharu Homma was relieved of command after his failure to quickly defeat the Americans and retired from military service.  Homma resurfaced after the war as accountable for the Bataan Death March and was found guilty.  On April 3rd, 1946, almost four years to the date of the surrender of Bataan, Homma was executed by a firing squad of Americans and Filipinos.

Black Panthers

Although I’ve been waiting on the anniversary for almost a year, it almost passed by me without enough time to write about it; Sunday was the seventieth anniversary of the forming of the 761st Tank Battalion of the US Army.

As divided as racial politics in America are today, they were of course much worse in 1942, at the very nadir of the Depression-era Jim Crow south.  The US military was intensely segregated – there were those who didn’t even want to go that far, believing that blacks didn’t have the intelligence to train or the courage to fight (notwithstanding the long combat record of black troops in the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars).

Almost worse?  As a “compromise”, the chief of Army personnel matters, General Robert E. Lee (no, I’m not making that up) decided that black units should be formed, mostly for labor and support duties – and those units should be led by white officers from the deep south, since they had the most experience dealing with African-Americans.

Not everyone agreed, of course; reformers believed that blacks should have the same right to fight for this country as any other citizen.  One of their supporters was General Leslie McNair – an officer who had many sweeping impacts on the US Army during the war, most not nearly as positive (we looked at the first of them last year).  McNair and his reformers had a powerful supporter – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  And the First Lady exerted her considerable political force on the Army, which grudgingly agreed to start forming combat units.

Including the 761st Tank Battalion.

The unit was formed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.

We’ll come back to them in a bit.

Hell’s Project Kickoff

History is full of examples of the sort of evil that makes most people with living souls need to find a baby to look at to rouse their spirits.

Of course, evil on the dime-lot level surrounds us; everything from premeditated murder to child-abduction to terrorists blowing up innocent people to further political goals – when any person says “my ends justify my means”, and the “means” include depriving another of their liberty or their life, it’s evil.

There are greater, more spectacular evils; people crashing planes into buildings full of people, or blowing up buildings, or spree killings, or…the list is depressingly long.

Of course, most people know, or eventually learn, the great pinnacles of evil; when nations harness their governments’ entire political system and means to power to deprive people of their liberty, their property, their sanity and their lives.  The title “Greatest Murderer in History” has several contenders; Lenin and Stalin killed anywhere from 40-60 million, maybe more, between them.   Mao was probably not far off that pace.  Both operated over decades, of course; there were a few great surges in killing (the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Great Leap Forward, several surges in purging), but all three of the great Communists plied their bloody trade over the course of a miserable generation or two.  And they – and the other great mass-murderers, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Robespierre, the Ottomans in Armenia and a grim list of others – as a rule did their killing the old-fashioned way; by various flavors of pseudo-judicial murder, with firing squads or destruction of food stocks or guillotines or pistols to the back of the head; with machine guns next to ditches; with mustard gas from the air; with government-induced mass-starvation.

All very slow, brutal and inefficient.

The fact is, killing people is difficult.  People want to stay alive.  They fight, hard, to stay that way.  And while people under dictatorships learn to be docile in order to survive (especially in the absence of any other hope), they will occasionally rise up and throw monkey-wrenches in the works.  And try as you may to indoctrinate your own followers to perform evil on your behalf, there will be some that will retain some innate good; they will interfere, or at least not participate in your plans with the enthusiasm needed to get the job done.

Any good engineer knows that, when you want an efficient process – an assembly line, a decision-making process, a nuclear power plant, the code for a Nintendo game, anything – you need to factor out as many variables as possible; to strip out the moving parts.

Germans are, stereotypically, great engineers.  They build things.  And when an engineer builds a complicated thing – a BMW or a camera or a system to eliminate a race of people – they’ll start with a prototype or two, to test out the theories and work out the bugs before going into mass production.

And so, with teutonic thoroughness, did the Germans.

In the eighteen months since they’d conquered Poland, the Germans had been testing out methods for killing people – Gypsies, gays, the mentally ill, dissidents and, of course, Jews.  They’d been through the “traditional” methods; roving units of SS troops tried go from village to village trying to herd Jews to mass graves and machine-gun them; it was slow, manpower-intensive, and left too many loose ends (including a few survivors – a precious few of whom, unbeknownst to the Germans, would survive the war to testify against their would-be murderers).  They settled on poison gas, of various varieties.

And like any good manufacturer, the Germans knew that the technical solution was only part of the job; the rest is logistics – in this case, the task of identifying, assembling and transporting all of those Jews.

The Germans, working with the sort of meticulousness we’d recognize in any good process engineer today, factored out the moving parts, and arrived at the solution for an industrial killing system; a series of centralized camps.

And to tie together all the pieces of this immense project, it was seventy years ago today that the Nazis held a conference at a villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.

The villa in Wannsee where the conference was held 70 years ago today.

At the conference, the senior leadership of the various bureaucracies in Nazi Germany were gotten up to speed, with the job at hand, given a mission statement and were directed to start planning.

The “Wannsee Conference” was the project kickoff meeting from Hell.

The goal of the conference – to take the “learnings” from eighteen months of “rehearsals” in the fields of Poland, and experiments at Chelmno and Treblinka, and start the actual execution of what the Germans called the “Endlösung”, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

Adolf Eichmann's census of Jews. This list reflected the number of Jews already murdered. He was proud to note that Estonia was already "Judenfrei" - free of Jews.

The meeting was attended by a who’s who of Nazi leadership, and for an assembly focused on one of the greatest single acts of evil in human history, the proceedings were remarkably banal.  From the Wikipedia entry on the subject – which, for Wkipedia, is pretty useful and concise:

Heydrich spoke for nearly an hour. Then followed about thirty minutes of questions and comments, followed by some less formal conversation.[33] Luther from the Foreign Office urged caution in Scandinavia, “Nordic” countries where public opinion was not hostile to the small Jewish populations and would react badly to unpleasant scenes. Hofmann and Stuckart pointed out the legalistic and administrative difficulties over mixed marriages, arguing for compulsory dissolution of marriages to prevent legal disputes and for the wider use of sterilisation as an alternative to deportation. Neumann from the Four Year Plan argued for the exemption of Jews who were working in industries vital to the war effort and for whom no replacements are available. Heydrich (keen not to offend Neumann’s boss Hermann Göring) assured him that these Jews would not be “evacuated”.[34] There were questions about the mischlings [mixed-race people of quarter-to-half Jewish anscestry] and those in mixed marriages: the details of these complex questions were put off until a later meeting.[35]

Finally Bühler of the General Government in occupied Poland [the German term for the administration of Poland] stated that:

“the General Government would welcome it if the final solution of this problem could be begun in the General Government, since on the one hand transportation does not play such a large role here nor would problems of labor supply hamper this action. Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger and on the other hand he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings.”[36]

The meeting itself was of little note in the schedules of the men involved – it lasted less than two hours, one of many such meetings on the schedules of busy bureaucrats in a nation at war.  No great decisions were made; the decision was in fact Hitler’s, and had been made years earlier.  There was no “go/no-go” moment; the leadership, Hitler and Göring, Himmler and the rest, were already fully on board.   There was no question of stopping the “Final Solution” – which was, in a sense, already well underway.  The idea of killing Jews was well-enough known. but fairly oblique at the meeting; the actual killing was an internal matter for the SS.

In a sense, the meeting was a set-up; Heydrich’s way of making sure the civilian and petty-military leadership of the entire German bureaucracy was linked to the Solution, as accomplices.  In a larger sense, it was to get the German bureaucracy’s buy-in to the idea of finding and deporting 11 million Jews from around the occupied world (Eichmann still planned on getting his hands on Jews in England and Ireland) to extermination camps in Poland.

Not a whole lot different than kicking of the adoption of an Oracle database, if you leave out the subject matter.

Which is, really, the point; evil is boring and banal.  If evil came strutting onto the stage in a red cape with horns sticking out of its head and blood soaking its beard, it’d be easy to pick out and deal with.

Real evil walks among us, wearing a suit or a petty uniform or a Mao jacket, and speaks the same language you do.

And evil has meetings.  Probably catered.

Sea To Blazing Sea

One of the major lures of America has always been its isolation.

For centuries, people tired of the constant bickering and warring between Europe’s myriad princes and petty nobles were drawn to America, snug behind its two immense ocean ramparts.

And for over a century and a half, the idea of seriously attacking America verged on science fiction.

Oh, it happened; British troops sacked Washington DC in 1812 – but that was when Canada was a serious military base for the British.

British troops burning Washington DC in 1812. Some liberals claim this was the Tea Party.

But as Canada receded into relatively pacific independence and various other powers’ attempts to turn Mexico and the Caribbean into bases succumbed to America’s enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (and, mostly, tropical diseases), America’s position as a great, isolated, isolationist power gradually coalesced.

Not that other powers didn’t want to take a run at it.

Germany in particular was fascinated with cracking America’s invincibility  Back in 1899, a German naval captain, Adolf Golzen, drew up a plan to blockade New York and Long Island and, as a coup de grace, land German infantry on Long Island to create a bridgehead.  These troops would consolidate a foothold on the then-sparsely-populated island, while raiding into Manhattan.  It seems far-fetched, and it was, although not perhaps for the reasons you’d think; the force the Germans planned to land may have outnumbered the entire regular US military at the time.

During World War I, the Germans pondered building Zeppelins that could bomb New York – but those plans were shelved at the end of the war.

Hitler pulled them out of the file cabinet when he started planning his war.  New York in particular obsessed him; seeing it as a major Jewish population center, he dreamed of pounding New York into rubble.

He sent the German aircraft industry onto a long quest to build a bomber that could carry a ton of bombs to New York and return – and had his planners develop lists of targets for them to hit once they were built.

The Messerschmidt 264 "Amerika", designed to be able to reach targets in America as well as prowl the Atlantic to find targets for the U-boats. Oddly - for a nation known for great cars and engineering - the Germans never developed an aircraft engine capable of reliable long-range performance. .

To his last days, as the Russians poured into Germany, his scientists worked on fanciful guided missile and long-range jets capable of bombing the city.

But as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Germans had a much more practical means of attacking the US.  The fall of France had given their U-boats – Unterseeboote, or submarines – bases only 2,000 miles from the US coast.

And the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Dönitz, saw the opportunity.

But at the beginning of 1942, he had only five boats available that could easily reach the east coast of the United States.  Obsessed with choking off Britain, Hitler had ordered the construction of hundreds of smaller “Type VII” U-Boats, capable of about thirty days of cruising, enough to patrol to the mid-Atlantic without much support.

German Type VII (top) and Type IX U-boats. Note that the Type IX was about twenty feet shorter than the typical American submarine of World War II, which were designed for the even longer ranges of the Pacific Ocean.

There were fewer of the larger, longer-legged Type IX boats – a few dozen, in early 1941 – and many of them were busy prowling the South Atlantic and even as far afield as the Indian Ocean to raid British commerce.  Of the entire German U-Boat fleet, only five Type IX boats (U-123, U-130, U-66, U-109, and U-125) were available when Germany declared war on the US..

The U-505, on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, was a Type IXc boat that spent its 11 war patrols in the South Atlantic and Caribbean - but also patrolled off the US East Coast, sinking a few ships. One of few U-boats to survive the war, it was captured by US forces in 1944; we'll come back to that in a couple of years. And if you've ever taken a tour of the cramped, claustrophobic U-Boat, do try to imagine what it was like riding the thing for 80-days at a shot -a typical patrol for a Type IX boat.

The Admiral called it Operation Paukenschlag - “Drumbeat”.

Dönitz gave Drumbeat a big patrol area – from the Chesapeake Bay up to the Saint Lawrence – and told them to focus on on bigger ships. over 10,000 tons.

And so in late December of 1941, the five boats sallied forth.

It may seem incredible in retrospect, for those who remember the fleets that the US and Britain sent forth later in the war – the thousands and thousands of ships that carpeted the English Channel on D-Day, the thousands of warships and thousands more support and supply ships that carried the war across the Pacific – but the US east coast was very sparsely defended in early 1942.  To watch the entire US coast, the Coast Guard had a few dozen aircraft, mostly obsolete, and three operational cutters, along with a polyglot collection of WWI-vintage patrol boats, converted yachts and wooden “sub-chasers”.  The Army Air Force had a few dozen bombers based on the East Coast.  And on any given day, the Navy would have two destroyers, and the AAF a couple of short-ranged B-25 bombers, on duty to guard the entire Eastern Seaboard.

So short was the US of aircraft to watch for U-boats on the East Coast, the Army Air Force was forced to enlist civilian aviation enthusiasts. So was formed the "Civil Air Patrol". Today, they focus on finding wayward hunters and snowmobilers; seventy years ago, they scoured the ocean for U-boats. A U-boat couldn't tell the difference between a private plane and a patrolling bomber loaded with depth charges - so they'd submerge, greatly shortening their range and hampering their search for targets. And occasionally the CAP would radio a target to the Air Force, which could take more aggressive action. Ro so went the theory; while coordination improved with time, inter-service rivalry and focus on other areas of the war hindered such coordination.

Naturally, inter-service rivalry being what it was, these units could not communicate with each other, much less coordinate their efforts.

It was 70 years ago today, about 75 miles off the coast of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – directly east of the spot where the Wright Brothers had made their first flight a little over 38 years earlier – that U66, commanded by Korvettenkapitän Richard Zapp, stalked the American tanker Allan Jackson,  a 7,000 toni tanker loaded with 72,000 barrels of oil and bound for New York.  (We’ll encounter the U66 again in a couple of years).

The SS Allan Jackson.

Zapp hit the tanker with two torpedoes and slipped away.  13 of the ship’s crew of 35 were picked up the next day by an American destroyer.

Zapp returns from patrol, atop the conning tower of the U66. The boat would be sunk in one of the most bizarre incidents of the war (well get to that in 2014). But although over 3/4 of U-boat crewman would die during the war, Zapp survived the war.

In and of itself, the sinking of the Jackson was a minor event – one of thousands of ships sunk by U-boats during the war.

But the episode was the first in what became an epic – and largely unreported – bloodbath along the East Coast, and one of the greatest examples of bureaucratic incompetence in the history of this country.

A freighter, down by the stern off the US coast, viewed from the conning tower of the U-boat that had just torpedoed it.

The British – who, remember, were reading Germany’s U-boat communications in very nearly real-time by this point, thanks to their code-breaking operation that we talked about six months ago - had warned the Roosevelt Administration at the highest levels that Paukenschlag was underway, and to expect U-boat attacks.

Over the course of 1942, a total of forty U-boats carried out missions along the US coast, sinking ships with wild abandon, almost unopposed by any US forces.  Between January and June, they sank 400 ships, totaling 2,000,000 tons (not counting their cargos), killing a total of 5,000 of their crew and passengers.  The pickings for those six months were so  easy, they went down in German U-boat lore as the “Happy Hunting Time”.  Ships were being sunk within sight of American cities…

…which, due to an incredible bit of bureaucratic and political fumbling, remained brightly lit and, more importantly, pretty much uninformed about what was going on.  The Roosevelt Administration didn’t want to create excessive panic on the East Coast – and so for the first month of Paukenschlag, it was business as usual along the East Coast.

But between the Administration’s political desire not to panic the entire East Coast - or to admit America was too vulnerable in what was, after all, a mid-term election year where Roosevelt rightly feared Republican backlash from the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor (which, indeed, led to the GOP’s best showing since the debacle of 1936), and the Army and Navy’s inability and unwillingness to either coordinate their efforts or divert forces from what they saw as their real missions – attacking Germany and Japan – virtually nothing was done.

So as the sinkings skyrocketed, the US didn’t institute a convoy system until February, and didn’t start truly devoting enough resources to the job until summer.

The USS Roper - a World War I-vintage destroyer plucked from the reserve fleet to patrol the coast for subs. In a controversial incident in 1942, Roper sank one of the few U-boats actually sunk during Operation Drumbeat. In an unrelated incident, I met one of Roper's crew at the dedication of the World War II memorial in Saint Paul, in 2007.

The U-boats got so bold that they were actually able to land agents and saboteurs on the US coast.  They didn’t have any great effect – indeed, the first batch of them landed smack-dab on one of the few stretches of shore that was regularly patrolled by the military, and were promptly captured – but it was a sign that the US’ vaunted isolation, our ocean rampart, was porous.

Which is something Americans learn every few generations – in 1812, or 1942, or 2001 or…

…well, who knows?

Operazioni Speciali

One of the most enduring myths of World War 2, along with “the cowardly French” and “the incompetent Poles”, is “the inept, gutless Italians”.

Of course, with the Italians there is plenty of circumstantial evidence.

In 1940, Italian troops were routed in Mussolini’s attempt to invade Greece.  The Germans had to rescue the Italians – a humiliating setback for Mussolini.

The Italian attempt to join Germany in invading France was stopped cold by France’s line of border fortresses.  Italian gains in France were measured in yards, not miles.

Then, early in 1941, the Italian army in North Africa was demolished, with hundreds of thousands of POWs, by a much smaller British force.  This required the Germans to send Erwin Rommel – the leader of the Panzer group that had cut France in half the previous summer – to intervene with the German “Afrika Korps” – leading to a seesaw year and half of battling across Egypt and Libya.

Italy had several strikes against it, militarily.

Socialism: “But wait, Merg – Mussolini was a fascist!  Literally! Fascists are the opposite of communists!”  Only if you’re a professor with Marxist leanings.  Fact was, Mussolini made the trains run on time by nationalizing them – and much of everything else.  Since he seized control in 1922, Mussolini latched onto a vision of building a bigger, stronger Italy through aggressive government intervention in industry and economy.

As a result, Italy was deeply in debt when the war began; money that Italy could have used to modernize its military – to say nothing of its economy – was being paid out in debt servicing.

Just like in Obama’s USA.

Evolution: Italy was still a developing country in 1940.  Italy’s industrial GDP was only a sixth that of France or Britain.  It was still primarily an agricultural nation.

Bad Gear: In part because of industrial backwardness, but more because of the crushing debt burden, Italy’s military equipment was backward and largely obsolete, and sparse even so.

Not only was Italy’s primary tank during the war – the Fiat – yes, Fiat – Carro Armato M13/40 - a hopelessly obsolete mid-thirties antique even though it was built in 1940…

…but only 3,500 of them were built during the entire war – less than two months’ worth of production for the American Sherman tank.

Italy’s main fighter plane?  The Fiat (!!!) CR42…

A pair of CR42 biplanes.

…which was distinguished by being the last biplane in first-line service with any major air force.   It was, by the way, an excellent biplane fighter – which, in the life-or-death of air combat, is a poor consolation prize.

Italy’s rifle?  The “Terni”- the Mannlicher-Carcano M1891 – was, as its model number shows, entering its fiftieth year of service.

It was a small, underpowered turnbolt rifle with an obsolete and troublesome mechanism.  Worse, Italian doctrine and industry felt it sufficient for the Italian infantryman to be issued with 36 rounds of ammunition as his basic combat load.  Bubba Schlockdorf carries more ammo into the woods to hunt deer in the fall.

Bad Leadership: All armies to one extent or another distinguish between officers and enlisted men. Officers are usually separate from the men – largely so life-and-death decisions don’t get colored by being excessively close to the men.

The Italian military took this to a highly dysfunctional extreme.  Officers in the Royal Italian Army – remember, fascist government aside, Italy was still technically a monarchy – subscribed to many of the worst habits of militaries in monarchies; the enlisted men combined terrible living conditions, lousy pay and miserable status as draftees with a fairly weak non-commissioned officer corps.

As a result, Italian regular units’ morale often collapsed in the field under fire.

But Italian non-regular units – units selected from men who wanted to be there, and who were motivated to kick ass – fighter pilots, and especially men who fell under the very loose category “specal forces?”   That was another story.

It was seventy years ago tonight that Italian “special forces” carried out one of the most devastatingly successful special missions in the  history of warfare – one that very nearly changed the course of World War II.


Ever since the Italian fleet had been gutted at Taranto the previous winter, the British fleet had kept the Italian Navy bottled up in harbor.

But seventy years ago tonight, a tiny team of six Italian Navy frogmen riding three torpedos that had been converted into transports launched from an Italian submarine.

An Italian manned torpedo. It was designed to carry two men, and a demolition charge, to the target; the men would swim to shore and attempt to escape.

They slipped past the harbor defenses, and left a set of demolition charges underneath the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, as well as a Norwegian oil tanker.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

And in the wee hours of the morning, all three charges exploded, ripping the stern off the tanker, and sinking the two battleships.  They sank in shallow water, and both were recovered and returned to action…

…after a year during which their absence was badly felt in the Mediterranean.

The six Italian marines were captured by Egyptian police and turned over to the British.

At any rate – one of the enduring myths of World War II was “the Italians were incompetent cowards”.  And – like “The French ran like scared bunnies” and “the Poles rolled over” – it’s as true as any wartime oppo propoganda ever is.

“Send More Japs”

It was seventy years ago today that an episode of American history occurred that is only just barely starting to see its due in our popular culture.

It may be too little, too late, as the generation that felt the reverence due the event passes from the public stage.

Consider this my attempt to fix that.

Wake Island was a tiny outpost in the middle of the west-central Pacific.  It was a stop

And seventy years ago today, the Japanese Navy (and its attendant Marines) planned to invade the island.

We’ll come back to that.


Wake Island, all 1,300-odd acres of it, is as barren a piece of real estate as there is in the world.  It had no permanent inhabitants – Marshall Islanders would hunt birds on the little coral atoll, but until the Western world invented long-range flight, the island served no habitable purpose to humanity.

The Pan-Am Clipper changed that.  The atoll’s three islets sheltered a lagoon whose calmer-than-the-open-ocean water was an ideal landing place for the Pan-Am Clipper’s flying boats (which was the mainstay of transoceanic travel in the 1930s, long before transcontinental jets).

A Clipper, anchored in the lagoon at Wake Island, 1936

So Pan-Am built a fuel and rest stop at Wake, with a hotel and a small village for the workers that would service the planes and the passengers as a near-last stop on the three-day, San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, Manila, and Hong Kong itinerary.

And an airbase that was useful for long-range civilian aircraft was even more useful, in those years when we awaited war with Japan, to the military.  And so in the previous January, the Navy started buildng a base in the lagoon to support the fleet and, vitally in this pre-jet, pre-satellite days, long-range patrol aircraft.  The job was a crash program, bringin 1,200 American civilian workers to the island and, in August, in view of the skyrocketing tensions between the US and Japan, the island’s first permanent garrison, 400 Marines of the “First Marine Defense Battalion” and 55 more to run a dozen Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters of Marine Fighter Squadron 211.

A Marine F4F Wildcat, flying over a ground crewman on Wake Island before the war.

Along with seventy sailors, that made up the entire American force on the island, commanded by Lieutenant Commander WInfield Cunningham, USN.

The island was, in the perspective of the vast Pacific, practically on Japan’s doorstep.


Four days before, on December 7 (the eighth on their side of the International Date Line, on which Wake also lay), as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam and the Philippines, a Japanese air force raid from nearby Saipan hit Wake.  Wake’s defenders fared about the same as those at Pearl Harbor – eight of the 12 Marine fighters were destroyed on the ground in a bombing raid that also killed or wounded most of the men in the Marine air detachment.  The four surviving planes couldn’t catch the bombers (on December 8, anyway; they did kill two Japanese bombers in a followup raid the next day.

And then, on the morning of December 11, the Japanese closed in for the coup de grace.

And the Marines – armed with a bunch of old pre-World-War-1 cannon that’d been removed earlier that year from a scrapped battleship –  waited until the Japanese were less than two miles offshore before opening up a withering bombardment.  One of the Marine shells hit the shell magazine of the Japanese destroyer Hayate, blowing it up, killing the entire crew.  It was the first Japanese surface ship sunk in World War 2.

IJN Hayate

In the meantime, the four surviving Marine Wildcats, loaded with light bombs, took off, and attacked the Japanese invasion fleet – which was operating without direct air support (no aircraft carrier).  One Wildcat landed a 250-pound bomb on the afterdeck of the destroyer Kisaragi; ordinarily a destroyer would have a decent chance of surviving a hit by such a small bomb…

IJN Kisaragi

….but the Japanese sailors, displaying a lack of damage-proofing that would plague their Navy throughout the war, had left the anti-submarine depth charges armed.  They exploded, sinking Kisaragi, also with all hands.

The Marines also hit the Japanese flagship, the old light cruiser Yubari, nearly a dozen times in the lightly-armored superstructure…

IJN Yubari, which was sunk in 1944 by an American submarine.

…killing dozens and prompting the Japanese commander, Admirial Shigeyoshi Inouye, to abort the landing attempt.

The news of the victory- the closest the US came to good news that first awful week of the war – was spread far and wide throughout the US, along with Commander Cunningham’s message back to the US, which ended with the phrase “Send more Japs”.  It was treated as a “remember the Alamo”-type act of defiance. It was most likely “padding” – extraneous phrases thrown into messages to throw off Japanese-native translators eavesdropping on the transmission. But it was the sort of story Americans wanted to hear amid the unrelenting bad news of that week.

It was the first and last time in history that an amphibious attack would be repelled by coastal defenses.

And with the US and British Pacific Fleets sunk, Hong Kong lost, the Philippines invaded, British troops being outfought and outmaneuvered on the Malay approaches to Singapore, that was as close to a victory as the Western Allies could find in that dismal first few weeks of World War 2.

It couldn’t last.  While the Pentagon pondered sending a relief mission, bigger priorities – defending Hawaii from an expected invasion, reinforcing the Philippines – took precedence.  The Japanese peeled off two aircraft carriers that were returning from Pearl Harbor, and dispatched a brigade of Japanese marines.  And 12 days later, those Marines rammed two old destroyers ashore on a Wake-island beach, clambered off, and in a short, sharp, ugly battle subdued the Marines. It was incredibly bloody; estmates are that nearly 800 of the Japanese attackers were killed (on top of the entire crews of the two destroyers).  About 100 Americans were killed all told, with the rest being bundled off into captivity. Some of the American civilians were kept on the island – where, in 1943, a Japanese commander had them all executed.  One survivor managed to carve the inscription “98 Wake Island 5-10-43″ into a rock before being captured and killed himself.

The "98 Rock" on Wake Island - today, a monument to the American victims of the Japanese war crime.

The Japanese commander was executed for the war crime after the war.

An Industrial Solution

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Sunday has two anniversaries; one of them is the Nazi declaration of war on the US (and you’ll see the other one on Sunday).

But today is the seventieth anniversary of the war’s most ghastly contribution to human history; it was the opening of a “camp” near the Polish village of Chelmno, on the grounds of a former baronial manor.  It was a placid looking place that would add a new word to the world’s vocabulary of evil: the German Vernichtungslager.

We’ll come back to that.


Concentration camps – places to put people who were for whatever reason inconvenient or needed to be held in one place – had existed for quite a while.  They got the name from the British during the Boer War, when they “concentrated” the families of Boer fighters in a few easily-guarded locations. They turned out to be ghastly places – not so much because the Brits intended it as through bureaucratic incompetence.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, their agenda bode ill for lots of people – gays, the mentally ill, Romany (“Gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents of all stripes, and especially the Jews.  And, following Lenin’s lead, they started straight in with their own Konzentrazionslagern – the Germans called them “KZs” - as a place to put all manner of undesirables.  There were hundreds of KZs, starting with Buchenwald in 1937, in Germany and in every corner of the Reich. They served many purposes – holding tanks for political prisoners, forced labor camps, even propaganda facades.  And thousands died in the KZs – from disease, malnutrition, overwork exposure, the brutal and capricious “discipilne”, even the whim of the guards; 50,000 at Buchwald and Ravensbrück, similar numbers at Dachau, Nordhausen, Theresienscadt, and Sachsenhausen and many, many more.

But the process of hauling a prisoner off to a KZ, there to die slowly of any number of causes, didn’t serve the goal of ridding the world of Jews (first; the Slavs and other “Lower” races would follow) fast enough.   The Nazis, being analytical Germans, experimented with many different means of killing people without all the procedural overburden, and removing impediments like “the human will to survive and endure”, from the equation; roaming teams of SS who’d shoot people in the hundreds were the first method, tried over the previous year and a half since the fall of Poland.

The idea had been broached to make the process more an industrial than military one.  The next question was “what sort of industrial process”.  The idea of using some sort of poison gas was broached.

Being a nation of engineers, the Nazis thought to prototype a couple of different approaches, to remove all the variables and find the optimal approach before switching into full production.  Among the variables to be removed was the pesky issue of “neighbors”; unlike the KZs, which would be tucked in next to towns and factories and farm regions all over Germany and the occupied countries, the new camps, Vernichtungslagern, or “Extermination Camps”, and called “VZs” by the Germans, would be be located in rural Poland – a backward place in those days, far from any potentially friendly borders, away from prying media eyes, and very sparsely populated by European standards.

And it was at Chelmno, seventy years ago today, that the first approach – vehicle exhaust gases piped into the back of a panel van jammed with 60-odd victims.

The Chelmno gas van.

…followed by burial in a mass grave in a nearby forest, was first tried.

Like any good engineers and scientists, they kept meticulous notes.  The exhaust gas -mostly carbon monoxide – was just too slow.  And burial was far too labor intensive; at another “prototype” VZ at Treblinka, cremation seemed to work much more efficiently. All of the data points led to the conclusion that carbon monoxide was far too slow and inefficient a means of killing; when the Nazis designed camps to optimize the approach, they settled on Zyklon-B, a form of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in pellet form, which worked twice as fast.

And so both of the “prototype” plants were shut down after relatively short runs in service; about 152,000 Jews, Poles and Gypsies died at Chelmno in the next two years.

We’ll have more on Treblinka later.


If the above seems banal – it’s intentional.  The most jarring thing about reading about the Holocaust was its turning of modern industrial methods – the 1940′s equivalents of “Lean Six Sigma” and “Total Quality Management” – to the process of genocide, reducing it to a bean-counting, widget-producing exercise.  Genocide – the planned destruction of an entire race of humanity – had always been a brutal, bloody thing.

Seventy years ago today, the effort to turn it into just another waterfall project got underway for real.


It’s in all the papers; today is the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

All the TV stations will show the familiar footage – the USS Arizona, ablaze from several bomb hits, exploding, spewing a geyser of greasy smoke hundreds of feet in the air, killing 1,000 men in a matter of seconds; the blazing and capsized battleships on Battleship Row…

…the rows and fields full of wrecked aircraft…:

All that’s true.

One thing Americans rarely see, or have to study, is that Pearl Harbor was just one of many similar attacks all around the Pacific Rim.  At the same time as the Japanese carrier-based planes were attacking Pearl Harbor, more planes, launched from Taiwan (then called Formosa) attacked America’s huge base at Clark Field, in the Phillipines:

25 US bombers and dozens of fighters were destroyed on the ground.

:The Japanese also captured Hong Kong, crossing from occupied China and taking the British colony (with its garrison of Brit, Canadian, and Chinese troops) in a short, sharp, brutal battle:

Singapore – Britain’s easternmost colony and naval base – was attacked.  More devastating to the Brits, the naval expedition they sent to reinforce Singapore, the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse, were sunk off the south coast of Malaysia by Japanese torpedo bombers:

The Prince Of Wales and Repulse (background) burning on the left side of the photo. The ship moving in the foreround is a British destroyer.

At the same time, the Japanese invaded Guam…

..and attacked Wake Island, of which more later this month.

It was, in short, the the biggest – in terms of area covered – attack in the history of warfare.  And it plunged the half of the northern hemisphere that wasn’t already at war with Hitler into the greatest session of human bloodletting in history. This blog focuses mostly on the smaller stories, and the unknown ones, in the war.  There were many at Pearl Harbor – most notably to this blog’s audience, the fact that the first shots fired that morning were fired by Minnesotans.  A gun crew of Minnesota Navy Reserve sailors from Saint Paul, crewing a cannon on the U.S.S. Ward, a refurbished World War I destroyer on antisumbarine patrol off the entrance to the harbor, spotted a Japanese midget submarine that was attempting to infiltrate the harbor.

The crew of the starboard four-inch gun on the USS Ward. Some of the men, mostly from Saint Paul, are still with us, thank God. Their gun is on the state capitol grounds, on the frontage road by the Vets building near Wabasha street.

The Minnesotans – using the very cannon that currently sits in the yard at the Veterans building, at the foot of Capitol Mall in Saint Paul – hit the submarine twice, sinking it before it could get into position.  I wrote about them four years ago.

Here’s the long and short of it; to a generation of Americans who think – with reason – that 9/11 was a catastrophe…well, it was.  But our nation’s power and ability to respond to the aggression was not affected.  Clearly not – our military riposte was sudden and overwhelming.

Now – imagine an attack that sank three or four of our Supercarriers, the mainstays of our Navy, in the matter of an hour, and cut off and isolated, say, Korea, leaving its tens of thousands of American troops isolated, cut off from supplies, devoid of air cover, and pretty well helpless, and left us more or less unable to respond in kind without massive effort and sacrifice, at all?

Because that, adjusting for modern military doctrine, is what happened on December 7.  That was where this nation was at seventy years ago at this hour; not just bloodied, not just beaten , but truly unable to respond.

And very few Americans alive today can imagine that.


As Americans from coast to coast scratch their heads and wonder about US troops being deployed to Uganda, it’s a good time to remember when brinksmanship really took a nation to the brink.

It was 70 years ago today that the destroyer USS Kearny was torpedoed.

USS Kearny

In the wake of the Battle of Britain – mainly, with the strong indication that the United Kingdom would survive – Franklin D Roosevelt ordered the beginning of “Lend Lease” shipments to the British.  He also traded fifty World-War-1-era destroyers to the British in exchange for bases in the Azores and Canada.

Which was just diplomatic business, really; it meant the US was taking sides, to be sure, but it didn’t put any Americans into harms way.

Now, October of 1941 was pretty close to the nadir of the Battle of the Atlantic, as far as the UK was concerned.

Part of convoy in 1941, shot from a British cruiser.

German U-Boats were sinking British and allied merchant ships far faster than they could be replaced – and killing about half of the even harder-to-replace merchant marine crews with each ship that sank.  And beyond that, the supply of “escort” ships – the destroyers, frigates, corvettes and sloops that tried to protect the merchant ships from the submarines’ depredations – was getting destroyed as well; Britain’s destroyer fleet had suffered grievous casualties at Dunkirk, in the Mediterranean, and defending Norway, as well as to the U-boats.  And the emergency building programs to replace them weren’t close to breaking even with the loss rate, much less making up for lost ground.

Churchill later confessed that of all the situations he faced during the war – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Siege of  Malta, the titanic battles in the Western Desert – only the Battle of the Atlantic genuinely frightened him.  Britain was within a hair’s breath of being starved into submission.

So what did put Americans into harm’s way was FDR’s concord with Churchill that, to help the British focus their endangered fleets of escort ships until the huge wartime shipbuilding programs could take effect – hopefully before Britain was starved to the negotiating table – American ships would escort Britain-bound convoys into the mid-Atlantic, to a hand-off point where British and Canadian forces would take over.  Roosevelt made it known that US ships would attack any U-Boats that crossed their paths.

This act – escorting war materiel to a belligerent power, and threatening to take military action against any interference – abrogated, practically and legally, any claim America had to its “neutrality”.  Which didn’t stop Roosevelt from waging the propaganda war to claim neutrality; he called the escort efforts “Neutrality Patrols”.

It was while on “Neutrality Patrol” that the Kearny and three other American destroyers were sent on a very un-neutral mission.  A Britain-bound convoy was being overwhelmed by a U-boat “Wolf Pack”, taking terrible losses; the four American ships were sent to assist in the convoy’s defense.

Which is not what “neutral” powers are supposed to do.

And it was at about 4AM on the morning of October 17 that the German submarine U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes, one of which hit the Kearny in its forward boiler room.   It was later speculated that the commander mistook Kearny for a British destoyer.No matter – eleven US sailors were killed.

The Kearny, with the hole in its forward "fireroom".

There really were two stories here.

One would be reflected in the nation’s slow slide into war.  FDR had been setting the nation up for war for years; the National Guard and the nation’s industry had been mobilizing for over a year.  The “Neutrality Patrols” were essentially daring Hitler to hit first.  And he would; in two weeks’ time, another American destroyer, the USS Reuben James, would be sunk by another U-boat in another similar incident, this time with much greater loss of American life.  And the “Neutrality Patrols” would become, in all but name, combat missions.  In many ways, at least as regards the battle in the Atlantic Ocean, Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war was just this side of a formality.

One other story – not nearly as famous – would be reflected in the fact that “only” 11 American sailors died in the incident, and the Kearny survived, afloat, and was repaired to serve out the rest of the war (to be mothballed in 1946, and to be finally scrapped in the early seventies). It was the resolution of an engineering issue that had been roiling naval architects for a generation.

Kearmy, undergoing repair at the Boston Navy Yard

The Kearny, like all fast warships of the day, was steam-powered (gas turbine power was a generation in the future, and diesel engines don’t have nearly the power output per ton of power plant for ships this size).  Now, it’s more efficient to put the steam turbines (which drive the propellors) together near the rear of the ship, and the boilers together as close as possible near the boilers – more efficient in terms of space, engine efficiency, and cost.

But that also means that a bomb or shell or torpedo hit in the boiler room, or engine room, will knock out either all steam power or all engine power.  And so US naval architects started separating boilers and engines.  Now, destroyers are long, narrow ships – with a length to “beam” (width) ratio of 10:1 (your cruise ship may be more like 6:1) – so that meant half of the ships’ lengths were eaten up by a boiler room, an engine room (for the left propellor), and then another boiler room and the engine for the right prop.  It meant that a ship could – as the Kearny did – take a hit that would knock out one engine unit, but still allow it to steam to safety.  Now, a “destroyer meets torpedo” encounter usually ended with a sunken destroyer, and it usually did, throughout the war; life on destroyers was the second most dangerous one in the floating Navy, after submariners.  But this design redundancy made American destroyers, and the British and other foreign ships that copied it, able to survive damage that would have acrippled and sunk similar ships, and often did.

Beyond that, the Kearny incident first displayed what would become one of the US Navy’s great strengths during the war; damage control.  The US Navy stressed damage control in a way that no other navy did – allowing US Navy ships to survive damage that frequently did leave other nations’ ships crippled or sunk.

More on that later next year.

Big Iron

Seventy years ago today, the German U-Boat offensive was at its peak, and the battle that the German Luftwaffe had failed to win in the summer of 1940 was very, very nearly won by Germany’s submarine fleet.

Britain being an island, it depended on foreign trade.  And that trade – and the food, fuel and raw material it provided – were being choked off, rapidly rather than slowly, by the staggering attrition of the world’s merchant fleets.  It was later said that of all the threats the British home island faced during the war, the U-boat threat was by far the one that most vexed Churchill.

The British merchant fleet, and those of the rest of the countries that traded with the UK, were being sunk far faster than the world’s shipbuilding industries could replace them.


With that in mind, it was 70 years ago today that the SS Patrick Henry was launched.

It wasn’t a warship.  It was, in fact, a dumpy, unprepossessing freighter.  Instead of the steam turbine engines that ran most of the world’s fleets of newer ships, and almost all warships, the Henry was powered by a reciprocating steam engine based on an 1890′s-era British design that could drive the ship at 11 knots, maybe, in smooth seas, but was really designed to keep the ship puffing along at a cruising speed of six knots for weeks at a time.

It was a good-sized freighter – 14,000-odd tons – but by no means remarkable in any other way, except for the sheer simplicity of its design.

And yet it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt that gave the ship’s commissioning speech.

What distinguished the Patrick Henry was that it was the first of 14 ships, more or less exactly identical, that would come down the ways that same day.  As a class, they were called “Emergency” freighters.  They were built by auto magnate Henry J. Kaiser, CEO of the Kaiser Motor Company, at the brand-new Kaiser shipyards and, eventually, at many other such yards around the US, using the same techniques pioneered by the American automobile and consumer products industries.

Shipbuilding had been a craftsman’s business since the dawn of navigation.  Even in ships of the same “class”, there had always been considerable differences; each ship was pretty much a one-of-a-kind project, built from the keel up in a slipway, launched, and replaced by another keel. It was more like building a house – even a tract house – than a car or a refrigerator.

But the “Liberty” ships changed all that; their components were as standardized as those of any automobile; indeed, the Kaiser yards adopted the full assembly line idiom, with the keels being trundled down the ways, with frames and engines and plating and fittings and entire prefabricated sections being riveted or welded on at each successive station.  And so the Liberty ships were effectively identical; there were stories, possibly apocryphal, of sailors boarding docked Liberty ships after nights in port and bunking down for the night, only realizing in the morning that they’d boarded the wrong identical ship.

The Kaiser yard at Vanport, Oregon, on the Columbia River. Henry Kaiser built an entire city of 40,000 to serve the yard.

It was a technique that promised to revolutionize shipbuilding – and, more importantly, build ships faster than the Nazis could sink them.

And that was why President Roosevelt orated long and hard about the contributions of the ship’s namesake, and promised that this ship – not one of the sleek new aircraft carriers on the ways, or the fleets of destroyers and submarines working their way from the drawing board to the builders yards – would bring liberty to the people of Europe.

Because it was the most visible symbol of perhaps the most defining feature of World War II; the complete harnessing of the sheer might of American industry in every possible respect.

Beause the Henry, and her thirteen sister ships launched that day, were the first of 2,710 “Liberty Ships” built during the war.

Think about that.  From seventy years ago today until VJ Day, there were roughly – in fact, almost exactly – 1,400 calendar days.

That means after the initial fourteen-ship orgy of launching seventy years ago today, American industry produced very close to two of these freighters every day. Seven days a week.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.  The American shipbuilding industry, from 1941 to 1945, produced:

  • 33 aircraft carriers
  • 6 battleships
  • Dozens, plural, of 10,000-ton heavy and light cruisers
  • Close to 1,000 destroyers and smaller, slower “destroyer escorts”, many of which served into the 1970s
  • Over 200 submarines.
  • Over 1,000 “Landing Ship, Tank” ocean-going assault ships.
  • Thousands of other freighters, transports and tankers, in addition to the Liberty ships, including over 2,000 “C” class freighters, from the 1,200 ton “C1″ class coastal luggers to the 20,000+-ton “C4″ heavy lift haulers
  • On top of that, well over a thousand tankers.
  • Thousands of minesweepers, escort frigates,

A WWII-era "C1" steamer, in civilian use after the war.

All of those were ships – ranging from 1,000 ton minesweepers to 55,000-ton battleships.  It doesn’t even count the uncountable thousands of smaller boats – hundreds of PT Boats, sub-chasers, air-sea rescue boats and “PC” patrol craft, thousands of landing craft, and hundreds and hundreds of anonymous little utility craft; net tenders, buoy tenders, fuel lighters, and every other kind of boat needed to do every single job the Navy (and Army, which had its own navy) needed doing afloat.

The Bethlehem Steel Shipyard on Staten Island, which built cargo ships, tankers, landing craft, and a total of 43 destroyers. You can see some of each, here, with a few tankers for good measure.

And that is on top of the tens, plural, of thousands of aircraft, the 55,000+ tanks, and the hundreds (plural) of thousands of trucks, jeeps and other vehicles cranked out to support and supply not only our war effort, but those of most of the rest of the free and Communist worlds.

And it’s a fascinating look at how very different American industry is today compared to 70 years ago.

As he was planning Pearl Harbor – which was well underway seventy years ago today – Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned his leadership that the strike against Hawaii would have to be a catastrophic one – because if America wasn’t knocked out of the war immediately, our industry would drown the Empire.

As, indeed, it did.

The most amazing comparison?  We couldn’t do it today if we tried.

The Unit

Every so often, America’s attention is drawn to small groups of men who very sincerely don’t want attention drawn to them.

US Navy SEALs fast-roping onto a carrier

The latest example – and, counterintuitively, one of the most spectacular examples in history – was the May raid by special forces, publicly credited to the Navy SEALS, that killed Osama Bin Laden.   There’ve been other examples; the long patient waiting game in the Arabian Sea last year that led to three simultaneous sniper shots killing three pirates; the rescue of kidnapped British missionaries in Iraq…

Polish GROM commandos. Modeled after the SEALs, GROM became highly-respected in Iraq.

…and, going back a few years, the rescue of passengers from a Lufthansa airliner in Somalia (killing the terrorists, rescuing the passengers), and the rescue of dozens of hostages from the Iranian Embassy in London, after the terrorists had actually started killing hostages.   Other missions – Entebbe, Mogadishu, and even Desert One – are household phrases among people who watch these things.

In every case, the missions were carried out by groups of men that their respective governments denied existed – indeed, actively deceived their publics about; for starters, “SEAL Team Six”, which the media credited with the Bin Laden raid, doesn’t actually exist, and hasn’t in decades (either does “Delta Force”, although the unit it refers to most certainly does).

These weren’t “just” “commandos” – whose debut, seventy years ago earlier this year, we covered – units like the Rangers, the Royal Marine Commandos and other units whose specialty was sneaking up on the enemy and then wreaking untrammeled mayhem.  These were units that combined the determined brawn of the commando and the paratrooper with a subtle precision that was, to those used to the mayhem of an infantry or tank attack, unusual for the military.

It was seventy years ago today that a British infantry captain, David Stirling, founded a small unit of men intended to launch focused, pin-prick but devastating raids deep behind German/Italian lines in Libya – indeed, a unit whose intention was to make “lines” irrelevant.  Some staff officer christened the unit the “Special Air Service”, to throw off German intelligence.  The name stuck.

Col. Stirling and an SAS

The SAS was formed for some of the same reasons as the Commandos – but with a different approach to a mission.  Where the Commandos, and the American “Ranger” units they spun off,  sought to descend on a target by surprise and with overwhelming force and inflict immense mayhem, the SAS was different; working in generally in groups of two to sixteen men, they’d slip in by parachute, or by heavily-modified Jeeps, deep into enemy territory and operate for long periods; sometimes to sabotage enemy airfields and bridges; others, to assassinate enemy officers or collaborationist politicians; others still, to scout targets for bombing raids; other times, to support and create resistance groups among locals deep in enemy territory.

A pair of wartime SAS jeeps. Armed with machine guns intended for air-to-air usage, they were very difficult to aim - but at the range they were used at, aim was superfluous.

The men selected were, above all, tough.  Not “strong”, as such, but men who were wired to go to any length, even death, before accepting failure.   They were trained to a razors edge; experts at stealth, fieldcraft, camouflage, combat demolitions, communications and the blocking and tackling of close-in infantry combat, they were drawn from the hardest men in the British empire; Cockney scouses, New Zealander farmers, highlanders, career soldiers who’d become bored with the lockstep to-and-fro of regular army life.

SAS patrol in Libya

How tough were they?  One patrol of four men, whose jeeps were knocked out, walked 100 miles through the Libyan desert to get to safety – with a two-gallon can of water.

How trained were they?  One man, carrying a truckload of captured Italian mines, heard the sound of a detonator arming itself, and dove instinctively from the truck just before it blew up.

How successful were they?  Hitler himself, after enduring SAS raids in North Africa, the Adriatic and Italy as well as  in France (where SAS patrols linked up with the French Maquis resistance in the Vosges mountains and created a resistance movement that essentially denied the area to the Germans for nearly a year until liberation came), ordered captured SAS men to be turned directly over to the Gestapo, and then executed.

By the end of the war, the SAS comprised five battalions – two of them French, and one of them Belgian.  Both countries’ current special forces units trace their lineage to those units.

French SAS troopers in a village in the Vosges mountains.

As, of course, does the current SAS, the British Army’s premiere special operations unit.

Belgian SAS troopers somewhere in Holland, World War 2

It is, of course, the armchair colonel’s most self-indulgent exercise to speculate who is “the best special forces unit”, especially given that any unit that doesn’t believe that it’s the best is probably not fit to fight.

But it’s worth noting that as we enter the second decade of a War on Terror that has put immense loads on the western world’s Special Forces – the men that can do the seemingly impossible – the number of units that trace their lineage directly back to World War II.

  • We noted some time ago the birth of “The Commandos”, and units like them – America’s Airborne Rangers, the British Special Forces Support Regiment, the French Parachute regiments, Australia’s various Commando Regiments.
  • The “US Special Forces” – the “green berets” of popular lore, born in the Cold War, honed in Vietnam, and 85 of whom (backed up with the full might of the US Air Force) routed the Taliban in 2002 at the head of the other “Northern Alliance”, were rooted in three units that were formed after Pearl Harbor; the “Office of Strategic Services”, which would parachute three-man teams of operatives into France to link up with resistance groups; the “1st Special Service Force“, a joint US-Canadian commando unit intended to infiltrate enemy territory in Norway and Italy, especially in winter, to destroy tunnels and hydroelectric dams; and the 99th Independent Infantry Battalion, recruited from Norwegian natives and fluent speakers in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Michigan, intended to land in Norway to form a guerrilla movement.  These three units all provided the basis for the “Green Berets” mission today; combat power plus cultural and language skills to carry out ‘Unconventional Warfare” – recruiting resisters – deep in enemy territory.  Other units – the “Alamo Scouts”, small groups of American operators that infiltrated the Philippines by submarine to link up with resistance groups – followed the same model.
  • Other units – like “Number 30 Assault Group”, a commando unit with which a young Ian Fleming served as a planner – blurred the line between “commando” and “intelligence operative”; they specifically sought and attacked German and Italian headquarters; adept in lockpicking, burglary, stealth and German as well as close-quarters battle, they sought plans, maps, rosters, communications, encryption equipment and, at the end of the war, data on Germany’s nuclear weapons program – and provided a rich vein of narrative for Fleming to mine in his “James Bond” series.
  • Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols as we know them today started with Britain’s “Long Range Desert Group” – groups of 6-8 men in converted Dodge trucks loaded with radios, weapons and, above all, fuel and water, that’d infiltrate German lines in the Western Desert to scout and report back targets for Allied aircraft to destroy.

But the first, and perhaps the most influential, and that one that brought all those threads together, was the SAS.   The unit fought throughout the war, was disbanded in 1945 but reformed in 1947, and has been the west’s leading “black bag” unit ever since.

SAS troopers in Aden - now called Yemen - in the sixties, in the midst of a very hot war.

A young American exchange officer, Charles Beckwith, used his experience with the unit as a template for the unit that became known as “Delta”, which serves the same role for the US Joint Special Operations Command today.

Are they Deltas? Are they even Americans? Nobody's supposed to know. But this is supposedly a sanitized photo of "Delta" operators in Afghanistan.

The British Marines’ equivalent of the SAS, the “Special Boat Service”, which spun off from the SAS during the missions to support Greek and Yugoslav rebels during the war, became (along with the US Navy’s “Frogmen”, close-recon and demolitions experts in their own right) the model for the US Navy SEALs.

World War II-era "Frogmen" - anscestors of the SEALs.

And the SAS led the world at learning how to fight terrorists at knife-point range…

SAS troopers assault the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980. Terrorists had begun killing hostages; the SAS pulled off the rescue.

…along with the Israelis, of course, whose elite unit, Sayaret Matkal, which carried out the Entebbe raid, is modeled on the SAS, and with whom it shares its’ motto, “Who Dares Wins”.

Israelis greet commandos returning from rescuing over 100 Israeli hostages from Idi Amin's clutches at Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976.

It’s the bleeding edge of warfare as it’s practiced today, spinning together the most rarified strands of intelligence and soldiering – and it started seventy years ago today in the Libyan desert.


Throughout this series, I’ve been focusing on the smaller stories behind the big stories of World War 2 – one of mankind’s most defining event.  Little things that have been nearly lost to popular history; the myths behind things that popular culture and the government have told us about the war over the years.

But there’s nothing small about today’s piece.

It was seventy years ago today that the greatest single cataclysm in human history started.   It involved the most soldiers of any battle in history; seven million combatants on the first day, a total of 12 million men involved by the time winter fell, the first wave of a four year long battle that would involve tens of millions of soldiers, and leave tens of millions – 4-5 million Germans, over 25 million from the USSR, military and civilian.

The phase of the war that started on this date in 1941 – Unternehmen Barbarossa in German, for “Operation Barbarossa”, a reference to Friedrich the First, the Holy Roman Emperor who’d conquered northern Italy hundreds of years before  - was an attack by almost four million German soldiers and 3,500 tanks, on a front over a thousand miles wide.  It had three major objectives; in the north, seize the Russian approaches to the Baltic Sea at Leningrad, to forever safeguard the German coast from enemy naval attack; in the south, to take the agricultural heartland of Ukraine, and beyond them the oil fields of the Caucusus; in the center, the drive through the Russian heartland to Moscow to try to decapitate the Soviet government.

Every history book tells you that much.

Beyond that?  The four year war in the East reset the counter on “bloody” for all human history – so much, indeed, that it is incomprehensible to Americans today how bloody it was.  ”The Eastern Front” had an air of menace on Hogan’s Heroes, an aura of Stalingrad and the frozen hell of the steppes and reek of death wafting over the taiga, which made trivial the fact that in four years, over 30 million people – soldiers, civilians, everyone – died.   There is no way to comprehend human numbers like that.

German soldiers accompany a tank across the steppe. As vaunted as were the mechanized Panzer divisions, most of Germany's military was horse-drawn, and could not keep up - a key part of the failure to take Moscow.

A smaller chunk?  OK – the casualties in Barbarossa – from June 22 to December 5, 1941, when the war entered its next phase, the hellish frozen stalemate at the gates of Moscow – totalled 1.2 million German and Soviet dead (including 800,000 that the Soviets would admit to; it was likely much higher).  Even taking the Soviets at their word, that’s more than the total of American dead from all of our wars in the past 236 years combined.  In under six months.  The Soviets suffered twice as many dead in these six months than the United Stated did in the entire war, and that’s just counting immediate, documented combat casualties; if you add in all the Soviet prisoners of war captured just during these six months that died in captivity, the Soviets lost three times as many people – by their own admission – as all the Americans that have died in every war in our history.

Soviet POWs march into captivity. 3 million Soviet soldiers were captured during Barbarossa. Less than 5% survived the war.

In six months.

And that was just the appetizer for the most intense orgy of bloodletting in human history – a war whose repercussions are still felt today; the historic wary paranoia of the Russians was supercharged; the horrors of the war turned the Germans from a warlike people to an exceedingly pacific one almost overnight, in historic terms.

And the machinery of the Holocaust?  The extermination camps of eastern Poland?  The invasion gave them cover (and charged interest in 1945, when trains that should have hauled supplies to the German Army were diverted to haul Jews around).

German soldier examines a dead Russian, and a blazing BT-7 tank.

But we had a long way to go to get to any of that.  By this time of the day, 70 years ago, the German Luftwaffe had destroyed 2,000 Soviet planes – many on the ground, shot up in long straight rows just like the Americans planes at Wheeler Field in Hawaii would be on December 7, only by the scores of hundreds rather than dozens – for a loss of 35 of their own.

Russian planes - Polikarpov trainers in this case - destroyed by a German dive bomber attack.

By the end of day three, nearly 4,000 Russian planes had been knocked out, and the Germans had complete air supremacy along the entire front.

The big story – that the Germans drove to the gates of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, but were bogged down first by poor logistics, then by autumn rains, then finally a fearsome Russian winter.

German tanks and "half-track" personnel carriers roll past blazing Russian tanks and buildings.

All that’s well in the future.

Seventy years ago today, the biggest meatgrinder in all human history was teeing up with a vengeance.


Throughout this series, I’ve been highlighting the usual stuff about World War II – the battles and the personalities – but also the political and social events,  many of which still affect us today.

I’m also highlighting, bit by bit, over the next few years, some of the industrial trends that affect us today.  Great example coming up in future months – the fact that the US was able to build, on top of their thousands of tanks, aircraft and combat warships, over 4,000 units of one class of 5,000 ton merchant ships.  That’d be one of nine or ten different classes of ships, all of which were built in the hundreds or thousands.

We also undertook some of the most immense research and development projects in the history of science and engineering; in four years of frenetic research, we not only took the atomic bomb from the stuff of fuzzy-headed academics to Hiroshima – we also developed from scratch and built the plane to carry it, the B29 Superfortress – a plane whose development cost nearly as much as The Bomb, and may have been the most troubled, overrun-prone weapons development program in history, at least among weapons that actually got into service, the kind of thing that would have given William Proxmire a stroke, had those sorts of figures been made public back during the war.

We couldn’t do that today if we had to.

But today’s installment is about the opposite extreme – and it’s not about the US.


Today, seventy years ago, the United Kingdom had just endured the worst year in its military history; driven from the Continent, the Brits had pulled off a miracle the previous June, evacuating most of its army at Dunkirk.  But that Army came home virtually without equipment; it had left all its tanks, artillery, machine guns – virtually everything heavier than the infantry’s rifles, and hundreds of thousands of them, too – lying in the sands and the approach roads to Dunkirk’s beaches.

And while they’d staved off Hitler’s first push to invade the island during the Battle of Britainthe previous summer, things were still dire. British industry, even though entirely harnessed to the war effort, was struggling to re-equip the British and Commonwealth militiaries for the invasion they still believed could come – as  well as for the war bubbling along in the Mediterranean, and which they also expected to erupt in the Pacific sooner than later.

They did have one advantage.  They’d captured thousands of tons of Italian ammunition in action the previous summer, as they’d swept aside the Italian , including a curiously large supply of 9mm ammunition.

That sparked a curious adaptation.


The gun maker’s art in the years up to World War II was indeed an art.

The typical military firearm before World War II, all the way down to the lowliest infantry rifle, was a work of, if not art, at least craftsmanship.

The British "SMLE" Rifle. First built in 1903, it served until the 1950s.

With wooden furniture varnished to a fine sheen, and metal parts laboriously machined from solid blanks of high-quality steel, military weapons were high-quality pieces of equipment that took lots of time, money and skilled effort to manufacture.

The same was true of the newest addition to the infantryman’s armory – the submachine gun.

An Italian Beretta M38. With its milled wooden parts and perfectly-machined metal components, the M38 was a high-quality - and expensive - piece.

Basically a tiny machine gun that fired low-power pistol ammunition to make it manageable when being held in a rifleman’s hands (machine guns firing full-powered rifle ammo required a bipod or tripod), the submachine gun had evolved during World War 1 to bring extra close-range firepower to the infantryman.

The British Army, one of the world’s most conservative, came late to idea of issuing the submachine gun.  But after the drubbing in France, where they’d seen the effect the Germans MP38/40′s devastating effect in close-range action, they got into the market.

The MP38/40 - not to be confused with the Italian M38.

Their first attempt was to buy the American Thompson.  Most famous today as the preferred weapon of a generation of rumrunners and gangsters, British agents glommed onto every one they could find.

A Model 1928 Thompson.

Which wasn’t many.  The Thompson was a very old-school weapon, machined to a very high standard of finish, slow and laborious to build – and the US military was buying them as fast as factories could turn them out.

The Brits needed more, and they needed them fast.

At the Enfield weapons works, two men – Major Reginald V. Shepherd and designer Harold Turpin – designed a simple, intentionally crude weapon, designed to be built quickly and cheaply and to use the mountains of Italian 9mm ammunition.  It looked like a couple of lengths of pipe with a crude wooden forearm.  The British military bureaucracy took the first initial of their last names, added “En” for “enfield”; and so the “Sten” was born.

The Sten Mark 1.

It was unbelievably crude by the standards of the weapon-makers craft.  It was designed to be built quickly, cheaply, mostly out of stampings and welded parts rather than machined metal, by less-skilled labor.  It cost a fraction of the time, money, skill and materiel of the Thompson.

And it was still too complex.  So after a few hundred Mark 1s were built, the factory simplified it even more, into the Mark II.

The Sten Mark 2

It looks crude and cheap.

It was crude and cheap. It was manufactured in the millions.  By the time production ramped up, it could be built with five man-hours of labor, for under $12 in 1940 money.

It was not a high-quality weapon.  The design of its 32 round magazine promoted jamming; some British paratroops joked that their Stens jammed every time they fired them. The safety mechanism tended to slip, allowing frequent accidental discharges after the locking pin wore down from heavy use.

But it was fast and cheap.

And as the war wore on, a cheap submachine gun that one had was worth more than a quality piece that was still being built.

In addition to (quickly) re-equipping the British and Commonwealth armies, the Sten was dropped by the thousands to resistance groups throughout Europe.

And, needing guns, they quickly reverse-engineered  the crude, simple Mark 2 and started building it in clandestine machine shops throughout Europe.  Sten Mark 2s were build in secret plants, or underground chains of machining and stamping and sheet metal fab shops, in Norway, Denmark, Poland and Yugoslavia.  And not in inconsiderable numbers, either; resistance guerillas build them in the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

A Polski Sten, with a custom-made short 10 round magazine, designed for easy concealment, perhaps for an assassin stalking German officers.

The Sten was fired for the first time seventy years ago today.  And while it’s a footnote in many ways, it showed the extent to which the heat of war caused western ingenuity to push western business and industry into behaviors it’d never considered before.

Across Britain and the US, the stresses of war- from imminent invasion to the more mundane issues of having to produce with rationed, scarce material and with unskilled labor as the skilled workforce got drafted – were causing industry to adapt in ways it’d be hard to imagine today.

A British "Mosquito", the most successful light bomber of the war. Built of a mostly plywood airframe, it was assembled from parts built by...Britain's furniture makers.

And locations.  As the US war effort ate up available shipyards along the US coasts, the booming submarine program prompted US industry to build a submarine construction yard…

…in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

It is hard to imagine that sort of dislocation today, when it takes decades for the US military to pick a new pistol, where the Army has been noodling with replacing the venerable M16 for nearly four decades (and still issues fifty-year-old M14s to troops that need a reliable rifle in the sand) and US industry takes a decade to build a factory, if they build one at all.

More in coming months.

For Want Of A Secret

“Military Intelligence” is a both a sarcastic rejoinder about the meatheadedness of bureaucracy and a fairly smug standup comic’s conceit.  This past week, the assault on Obama Bin Laden after fifteen years showed the end result of intelligence work.

Of course, intelligence is rarely that spectacular, even in terms of end results.

Mostly, intelligence work involves thousands of hours of mind-numbing tedium trying to learn what ones opponent is doing, either in general in peacetime or in very specific terms in time of conflict.  It covers everything from listening to and decoding and translating millions of hours of radio transmissions, to compiling intercepts and triangulations of enemy’s radar and radio transmissions, to poring over photographs from satellite, reconaissance aircxraft, submarines and drones to figure out opponents’ numbers, equipment and intentions, to getting information from agents or reports from the battlefield and, most importantly, piecing information from all these sources together to form at least an educated guess as to what your opponent is doing, or planning to do.

The ultimate dream of every intelligence service? To be able to listen in on ones’ enemy’s most secret communications, and thereby know what he’s doing as soon as he does.

It is a dream, for the most part.  Almost invariably, the best your intelligence can do is piece together external signs into an educated guess.

But every once in a while the intelligence officer gets a lucky break.

Seventy years ago today was one of them.


On the opposite side of the intelligence fact-gatherer is the array of people whose job it is to keep secrets from their enemies; from the soldier wearing camoulage, to the counterintelligence operator looking for signs of the enemy’s prying eyes with the aim of co-opting or neutralizing them, to the cryptographers inventing complex codes to try to stay several jumps ahead of the enemy’s cryptoanalysts decoding efforts and, in this case, the engineers who develop the machinery to make the job sustainable, fast and error-proof.

It was in 1918 that a German engineer, Arthur Scherbius, patented the first version of what would be the German solution to that problem during World War II – a machine that would become known as “Enigma”, and would be the result of an intelligence campaign that not only changed the course of the war, but led to developments that frame the entire Information Age.

A German "Enigma" machine.

This guy explains it pretty well; three rotors, each containing 26 embedded wires – one for each letter of the alphabet – performed simple ciphering of letters; if you pressed the “G” key, run through one rotor, might become a “W”.  Filtered through two more rotors, a “reflector”, and then back through all three, meant the initial character would be changed a total of seven times between the click of the key and the lighting of the lamp that gave the final results.  Then, after each character, the third rotor would rotate to its next position, meaning that the code cipher changed with every key stroke.  Every day, the combination of rotors and rotor starting positions was changed according to code books published by the various armed services; the first few characters of each message, already encoded, would tell the recipient (who had set the rotors to the same initial setting, per the code book) which further initial setting to use for each of the wheels, in theory making the system even more secure.

The Poles, as befits a nation surrounded by mortal enemies who bore it no good will, had developed a crackerjack intelligence service (much as Israel has throughout its existence).  In the mid to late Thirties, mathematician and cryptologist Jerzy Różycki working for Polish Intel’s Biuro Szyfrów (Cypher Burearu) began working out the mathematical methodology to at least start figuring out the initial cypher-wheel setting.

It was a start.

But the codes didn’t stay static.  The early Polish discoveries were eventually rendered obsolete by developments in the Enigma machine, and with their secure coding procedures.

Britain, too – with its long history in cryptography – recognized the importance of code-breaking in general, and Enigma in particular.  British Intelligence – MI6 – gathered the Polish refugees after Poland and France fell, and set up shop at the cold, barren estate of Bletchley Park.

And in one of the most intense frenzies of advanced pure applied mathematics ever put to solving a practical problem, the Brits began tackling the theoretical aspects of decoding messages intercepted from Enigma.

But it’d help ever so much to get hold of a machine.


A German U-Boat, “U110″, had set off on March 1, 1941 on its second war patrol, under Kapitänleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, who’d commanded the boat ever had since its commissioning the previous November.   Lemp was an experienced U-boat commander; while commanding U30, he sank the first Allied vessel to fall to a U-Boat in the war, the passenger liner SS Athenia.   U-110 was his second command.

U110. It was a sister-ship of the U505, which is on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

In the nine weeks it’d been on patrol, it had already sunk one cargo ship.  On May 9 Lemp, operating as a “wolf pack” with U201, closed in on convoy CB-318.

Lemp sank two merchant ships that day, approaching submerged and firing torpedos.  But on his last approach, he left his periscope up too long.  Accounts vary; one said Lemp was distracted by a malfunctioning torpedo, while another says he lingered to confirm a kill, without sweeping the horizon…

…to note that HMS Aubretia had sighted the periscope and was closing in.

HMS Aubretia. A "Flower" class corvette, basically a converted fishing trawler, it was one of hundreds of slow, dumpy but seaworthy ships of the class that tried to guard convoys from the depredations of the U-boats.

U110 dove fast – but Aubretia bracketed the submarine with a spread of depth charges which rattled the crew and popped valves open and, more importantly, gave Aubretia a firm sonar fix on the submarine.   Two more British destroyers – HMS Bulldog and HMS Broadway – closed in to help.

HMS Bulldog. Commissioned in 1931, it was an old ship that largely served on convoy escort duty thoughout the war.

Bulldog captured the sub on sonar, and dropped 15 depth charges.  Broadway closed in and did the same.

HMS Broadway. Formerly the USS Hunt, commissioned in World War One, it was one of the 50 overaged destroyers lent to the Royal Navy in exchange for bases in the Azores in 1940. It was a sister ship of the USS Ward which, with its crew of Minnesota navy reservists, will be a subject of a post in about seven months.

The depth charge attack did more than rattle the crew of the U110.  The power cut out, sprung valves started flooding the engine room, and Lemp decided to surface – if he could.  Compressed air valves were open, blowing water from the ballast tanks.   The boat made it to the surface, and Lemp ordered “Last stop, everyone off” – slang, it seems, for “Abandon Ship”.

The crew swarmed out the conning tower hatch. The crew of Bulldog initially thought the crew was coming up to turn its deck gun on the British destroyer – a last-ditch affair that could still be deadly at close range – so his machine guns opened fire as Bulldog’s commander, CMDR JOe Baker-Cresswell, ordered the destroyer to ram the sub, killing a few German sailors before it became obvious they were abandoning ship.

Lemp, for his part, had ordered all the ballast tank vents and hatches left open – and, seeing Bulldog closing to ram, figured his ship, and its secrets, including the ultra-secret Enigma machine, would soon be 8,000 feet below at the bottom of the Atlantic.  His crew took to the water…

…as Baker-Cresswell decided it might be worth trying to capture the boat.  Bulldog veered aside, missing the stricken sub and ordering a boarding party led by Sub-Lieutenant David Balme, to get ready in the destroyer’s whaleboat.

What happened next is controversial; Lemp apparently realized his mistake, and started swimming back to the boat.  Accounts vary; some said he was shot by a British sailor, while others say he drowned while swimming.    Aubretia, Bulldog and Broadway picked up 31 survivors, about 2/3 of the boat’s crew.

At any rate, Balme’s crew reached the boat, and took hours to pilfer everything worth taking – including the Enigma and the boat’s entire supply of code books.

Sub-Lieutenant Balme's team rigging U110 for towing. The boat is down by the stern, due both to filling ballast tanks and flooding in the engine room due to the depth charging.

Hearing the tightly-controlled news, MI6 realised the coup the RN had pulled off – and how quickly the Germans would change their codes if they knew that U110 had fallen, intact, into British hands.  So Bulldog, which had been towing the boat to England, was ordered to quietly let it sink.

And the secret stayed put.  MI6 was able to use the captured machine and code books to complete their breaking of the Enigma codes.  For the rest of the war, “Ultra” – the mega-secret British code-breaking team at Bletchley – was able to read German communications at the highest levels in almost real time. German leaders, thinking they were sending messages in complete security, would communicate freely via Enigma – and Allied commanders would often have the messages nearly as fast as their German counterparts.

It was estimated that the complete cracking of Enigma shortened the war in Europe by two to four years.


Or at least that was the public story.  Like so many things in the world of intelligence, the public perception of how things actually went down has been carefully manicured over the years, to throw the enemy du jour off the scent of what the various intelligence services, friend and foe, really know.

Because while most of the public history of Enigma, Ultra and so forth were written in the fifties and sixties and seventies, when MI6 decided to release a story, focused heavily on the events of seventy years ago today, the fact was that as early as 1932, the Poles were breaking Enigma codes (although it didn’t become public knowledge until the nineties), with the help of French Intelligence, which managed to steal a copy of an early German code book and deliver it to their Polish allies.  By 1937, the Poles estimated they were breaking 3/4 of Germany’s general staff Enigma-encrypted radio traffic – and with adequate staff (it was incredibly labor-intensive work), they could have gotten 90%.  Polish Intelligence knew almost as much about Germany’s plan to invade Poland as the Germans did.

Which is not to underestimate the importance of the capture of the U110 seventy years ago today.  It’s always better to have a working model – at the very least, to validate the incredibly complex mathematical models that went into the theoretical solutions.

But let’s go back to the whole “labor intensive” bit.

In order to help process the masses of information  that the complete cracking of Enigma unlocked, and to assist in cracking the rotor settings of German messages, one of the British codebreakers, Alan Turing, developed techniques – the logical “bombe” algorithm and the theoretical “Turing Machine” – which contributed to the eventual architecture of the digital computer.

And the first digital computers, developed at the end of World War 2, were largely developed to help support codebreaking efforts.

Seventy years ago today, the stuff of what was then science fiction crashed into very real life in the icy North Atlantic.

The Sherman

It was seventy years ago today that the US Army selected the “T6 Medium Tank” for production as the standard “medium” tank for the United States Army.

The T6 - the first of over 50,000 "Sherman" tanks.

The process of standardization led to the Army’s procurement bureaucracy to give it an “M” designation- “M4″, in this case.  The Army’s public relations bureaucracy also supplied the tank a name – a custom that had started with British usage the previous summer in the Western Desert, where they named US-built M3 Light tanks the “General Stuart”, after the Civil-War-era Confederate cavalryman, a bit of PR to win American hearts and minds to the British cause that came, at least in part, from Winston Churchill’s desk.

They chose “General Sherman”.

And so the vehicle that would serve as the standard tank for the US Army and Marine Corps – and the British, Canadian, Free French, Free Polish, Indian, Nationalist Chinese and part of the Soviet armies – throughout World War 2 and into the Korean Conflict, entered the American lexicon.

And it showed, literally and figuratively, some of the nagging weaknesses as well as overwhelming strengths of the American war effort for the war that, for the US, was still eight months away.

To call something as tough, as subtle, as powerful or as nuanced “as a Sherman tank” is a metaphor that’s passing from common American usage, as the generation that drove them or grew up with those who did drive them ages out of the prime simile-generating years – but for the first forty-odd years after World War 2, the metaphor was pretty well understood.

And a little misplaced.

Designing any military vehicle, from a ship to a jeep to a fighter jet, is a matter of reconciling three key mutually-exclusive factors; mobility, firepower and survivability (at any given technological level), along with some minor factors (cargo space, habitability, ease of maintenance and so on).    For example – it’s a simple matter to build a tank that can go 80mph.  But can it carry a gun?  Or enough armor to make it survive a hit from an enemy tank?  And can you imagine the maintenance nightmares taking care of the engine and suspension capable of that kind of performance?

Likewise, it’s theoretically easy to build a tank that can’t be killed – build a thick armored shell!  But can it actually move in such a manner as to threaten the enemy?  If not, you have basically a semi-mobile bunker.  And if it can move, how big will it have to be to hold a powerful-enough engine, plus the fuel, plus the crew – and some kind of weapon to boot?

The Sherman was a reflection of how that compromise was made in the US in 1941 , and of a vision that, arguably, went very very wrong.

The United States Army was, arguably, one of the most conservative armies in the world by the 1930′s.  Since the Civil War, its primary experience had been fighting Indian tribes and Philipino insurgents and,briefly, the Spanish and for about a year and  a half, a frantic bout of modern industralized war in France during World War I.

When the tank was invented in the last few years of World War I, it was a revolutionary bit of technology, dropped into the most conservative institutions on earth – the world’s various militaries, most of which had absorbed a century’s worth of technological change since 1815 but which in terms of organization and tactical doctrine were not that much different in 1914, or even 1918, than they’d been at Waterloo in 1815.  Every army, in 1920 as in 1815,  had three branches; Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery.  Thus it had always been.  And most of the world’s armies, being conservative, tried to fit the new technology of the tank into the old idiom of the three-branch Army.

And so by the mid-thirties, most armies built two types of tanks; the slow, well-armored “Infantry Tank”, designed to accompany and support troops as they advanced at the speed of the human leg; tanks like the French Char B and British Matilda…

The French Char B

The British Matilda tank, fighting in Libya 70 years ago

…and variations on the “Cavalry Tank” – fast, lightly armed and armored, built to do what the horse cavalry had always done, scouting and raiding and, when the infantry and tanks blasted a hole in the enemy’s front line, dashing through and wreaking havoc among the enemy’s headquarters and supply lines – tanks like the British Mark VI and the French Somua…

British Mark VI Tank

French Somua Cavalry tank - arguably the best tank in the world in 1940 although plagued with the same sort of mechanical trouble that plague all French automotive products to this day.

The United States did the same – indeed, due to the deep divisions between branches, the Army decreed that in the United States, a “tank” served the infantry, and the cavalry used “Combat Cars” – basically, lighter, faster tanks.

US M1 Combat Car - a cavalry "tank" armed with machine guns. It looks like an antique; it's a contemporary of all the tanks above.

Indeed, the US Army in 1940 still had more cavalry on horses than on tracks:

US Cavalry on maneuvers. In 1940

The only exception?  Germany – which had been barred by the Versailles treaty from having tanks at all.  With no ancient military traditions to honor, the Germans started from scratch – by adapting the writings of British military theorist Basil Liddell-Hart…

Basil Liddell-Hart

…who advocated using masses of tanks as a huge armored fist supported by motorized infantry, aircraft and mobile artillery to blast through the enemy lines and strike straight for the enemy’s vitals in a decisive burst of armored fury.  It was a theory that dominated warfare from 1939 through the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – but it was the Germans called it Blitzkrieg. And  they, via his enthusiastic German disciples Guderian and Rommel, would make Basil Liddell-Hart the father of modern warfare.

And since the Germans had no backwash of Napoleonic or Great Plains Indian-fighting  tradition to protect, they started from scratch, building a generation of one-size-fits-all tanks; tanks whose job was neither to support infantry nor to scout the enemy, but simply to break through and wreak havoc.

The German Panzerkampfwagen III tank - the anscestor of the "Tiger" tanks we'll meet later in the story.

Like most theories, it remained an intellectual exercise – until the ten-month stretch in 1939-1940 between the invasion of Poland and the fall of France.  Militaries around the world realized the World-War-I-era calculus was out of date.

And America looked at developments – strategic and technical – in Europe, and realized that not only was their technology a suicidal decade out of date, but their tactical doctrine, which had changed little since the Civil War, was even worse.

And so the Army’s theorists reacted with, by military standards, blazing speed.  They recognized that there’d been a revolution in how wars were fought, and that it needed to be met by revolutionary means.

And they – led by General Leslie McNair, an artilleryman who’d read Liddell-Hart, and developed his own set of theories – went to work.

Lesley McNair

A group of officers led by McNair concocted a revolutionary series of changes in America’s tactical doctrine.  They reorganized the US Army, on the fly, into a whole new force:

  • The Infantry and Artillery would continue to blast holes through the enemy lines – with an aim toward releasing…
  • …the new Armored Force, which would drive through that gap and hurtle cross-country toward the enemy’s headquarters, capitols, supply dumps – strenuously avoiding tank-vs.-tank combat, to be left to…
  • …the newly-formed Tank Destroyer branch – armed with towed and self-propelled anti-tank guns called “Tank Destroyers”.

An early Tank Destroyer - basically a lightly armored half-track with a WWI-vintage cannon.

An M10 Tank Destroyer, later in the war. It looks like a tank, but its armor is only heavy enough to ward off bullets and shell fragments, not tank/antitank shells.

The theory – the tanks would be armed and armored to fight enemy infantry and rear-area troops.  The tank destroyers, being fast (because of their thin armor) would keep the enemy’s tanks at bay.

So the Sherman had about 2.5 inches of armor in front (where it needs to be the heaviest, provided that it’s facing the enemy, like it’s supposed to) and a low-velocity 75mm gun, designed for blooping high-explosive and smoke rounds at enemy infantry (the lower velocity meant devoting less of the shell to structural strength and more to explosives), and not as good for shredding enemy armor as a higher-velocity gun.

And it was with the Sherman and the tank destroyers that the US went to war.

Not all revolutions work out well.

(It wasn’t McNair’s only idea that turned out badly for the US serviceman; the General remains one of the most controversial leaders of the period.  We’ll revisit McNair in a few years).


The Sherman went into action with the British Army in 1942, at the battle of El Alamein.

A Brit Sherman in the Western Desert

It was a huge success; its gun, facing some of the older German tanks that were vulnerable to its short-barreled gun, performed well.

More importantly, the tank – which adopted forty years of American automotive experience – was phenomenally reliable, for a tank.  Especially compared to their British counterparts; British tanks were even less reliable than Brit cars; some British tanks had an average of under 20 miles between major breakdowns.

So the US Army went into D-Day feeling pretty good about its main mount.

But the German Army, in the two years between El Alamein and D-Day, had been fighting a whole different war.  The Russians, with virtually their entire early-war tank force destroyed by the Germans, had deployed a new, even more revolutionary tank – the T34:

The Soviet T34 Tank

The T34 was unbelievably crude by German standards – ideal for use by hastily trained peasant soldiers to learn and maintain (as well as for rough, unsophisticated factories, some of them working in the open air, to build); it wasn’t “reliable” in the same sense that the Sherman was.  But it had a powerful gun,  and its armor was steeply sloped, making all hits into glancing blows, multiplying the effective thickness of the armor plating.  And it had an American-designed suspension that allowed it to be blazingly fast by tank standards.  It caught the Germans by surprise, shredding their Mark III and Mark IV tanks’ armor, and outmaneuvering them as well.

The Germans responded by developing a new generation of tanks – the “Tiger”…:

The PzKw VI "Tiger" heavy tank

…which looked like a traditional German tank, only much bigger, with a four-inch-thick hide and an 88mm gun – the legendary “Eighty-Eight”, a converted anti-aircraft gun – which could easily punch through even the T34′s sloped armor at long range, and the Panther…:

The Mark V Panther

…which was a direct response to the T34; fast, with thick, sloped armor, and a very long, very high-velocity 75mm antitank gun that could tackle the T34 at vastly better than even odds.

And it was these tanks – and upgraded versions of their older ones, with thicker armor and more powerful guns, that the Sherman met in Normandy after D-Day.

And as the Sherman and the rest of the Army slogged its way across Normandy – a two-month bloodbath – it became clear that the pre-war theory was drastically wrong.   The German tanks were not lining up as obliging targets for the Tank Destroyers.   The Infantry couldn’t break through and give the tanks the clean break they needed to make the dash they were designed for.

And so the Sherman found itself fighting German tanks, and anti-tank guns, that had been built to fight the T34 – and it was found grossly wanting.

A Sherman, knocked out in Normandy

The armor, utterly adequate against the early-war German guns, was too thin against the new generation of German tank and antitank artiller; the Panther’s long 75mm gun and the Tiger’s 88 could punch through the Sherman’s armor at any practical range.  The Sherman’s gun could not penetrate the frontal armor of either enemy tank much beyond 500 yards, if at all.

Sherman in British service, destroyed by a German anti-tank gun in Italy.

Worse?  The design of the Sherman’s ammunition stowage – racks of round slots to hold the cannon’s shells, stacked up along the inside of the tank’s hull, above the tracks and next to the turret – was extremely likely to lead to catastrophic ammunition fires if a German shell penetrated the armor.  And when the ammo went up, it turned the tank in seconds into a swirling inferno of sequenced explosions from which the crew rarely escaped alive.  To a lesser extent, the decision to power the Sherman with gasoline engines rather than the less flammable diesel ones led to catastrophic fuel fires if German shells penetrated the gas tanks – a reason that most tanks are diesel-powered today.

A Sherman's ammunition begins to explode

The Army developed a grim bit of math; it banked on losing five Shermans for every knocked out German tank.

Between all of those factors, the Sherman developed a bad reputation.  British tankers called it the “Ronson”, after the cigarette lighter that “lights up on the first try every time”.  Polish soldiers in exile called it the “Rolling Coffin”. Germans called it “Tommy Cooker” – “Tommy” being the slang term for British soldier.

The life expectancy of an Allied tanker in a Sherman wasn’t all that good.


The Sherman had one other key advantage.  It was built in the US, at the peak of its manufacturing power in relation to the rest of the world.

American industry produced something like 50,000 Shermans in all its variants.

Tracks installed on a Sherman at a Chrysler plant in Detroit

So while the math said we’d lose five Shermans for every German tank, we hit them with ten or fifteen of them.

It left enough tanks to supply US needs, and equip most of the British, Australian, Indian and Canadian and Chinese armies, and the Free French and Free Polish armies, with some left over for the Soviets as well.

A Sherman of the Polish Army in Exile, in Italy.

Shermans fought in every theater of the war.


But in August of 1944, the US broke through the German lines at Saint Lo.  ”Operation Cobra” unleashed Patton’s Shermans to blaze across France, showcasing its strengths – its reliability and endurance.  Patton noted that had he been equipped with British or German tanks, he’d have been bogged down with mechanical problems.

The Sherman?  It just kept rolling:

Shermans gobbling up the miles in France

The Sherman was designed to run with engines – repurposed aircraft and bus engines – that were similar to commercial engines that many American troops had been working on for years.  It was built for relatively easy maintenance and efficient manufacture.

So when a US tank company lost five Shermans killing a Tiger, there were five more in action the next day.  And the day after that.

The Sherman’s reliability was legendary, especially compared with the temperamental German designs.  It was said a company of 17 Shermans could count on arriving in action with 16 or 17 tanks in mechanical order to fight.  A company of 14 Tigers or Panthers might get into action at half strength, with the rest back in the repair depot (at best; by D-Day, allied air superiority meant that company would also lose a couple of tanks on the road, or on the railroad tracks that hauled the cranky German tanks any distance).

But when the Sherman ran into serious opposition, it usually meant at least a few blazing tanks and broken GIs.

There were attempts made to upgrade the Sherman.  There were up-armored, up-gunned versions, culmnating in the M4A4E8 – the “Easy Eight” – with more, steeper-sloped armor, a more-powerful 76mm gun, and which stowed the ammunition in racks surrounded by water, down on the tank’s floor, which cut the rate of explosions dramatically, improving survivability.  Earlier Shermans had as much as an 80% chance of catching fire when the armor was penetrated; with an Easy Eight, it was under a quarter.

An "Easy Eight" at a museum. Note the longer, higher-velocity gun, better able to tackle German tanks - although still not nearly good enough.

The British added a very-high-velocity anti-tank gun, the “Seventeen-Pounder”, to the Sherman – the gun was actually too big for the turret, requiring them to move most of the turret’s contents, like the radio, into a box behind the turret:

A British "Firefly" Sherman liberates a piece of Holland.

The adaptation, the “Firefly”, could kill Tigers and Panthers at the same ranges they could kill Shermans.  But its long barrel, in relation to the rest of the Shermans of the day, made it a prime target for German gunners.

The Brits offered the Firefly to the Americans.  We turned it down.  It didn’t fit General McNair’s doctrine.

But American tankers also learned how to use the Sherman’s strengths – speed, turret that could turn three times as fast as the turrets on German tanks – to its advantage.  One US Sherman unit – the 8th Tank Battalion of Patton’s Fourth Armored Division – caught a German Panther unit from the flank and killed 23 of the superior German tanks, with very light losses.  The preferred tactic; keep a “White Phosphorus” smoke round in the chamber to fire at a German tank.  The smoke round had no chance of killing the German tank from the front – but then, either did the regular round.  But it did blind the German tank/s, hopefully long enough for the Sherman to maneuver around to the side of the German tank, where the armor was much thinner.  It didn’t always work -but it gave a well-trained, experinced crew a shot at surviving and winning a face-to-face battle with a German tank.

And America’s greatest tank ace, Lafayette Pool who, with his gunner Willis Oiler, destroyed over 200 German tanks, personnel carriers, assault guns, and other vehicles, including a few “impossible” shots, killing Panthers with a Sherman at ranges up to a mile.

Napoleon Poole and his tank, "In The Mood".

But the fact remained that for many thousands of GIs, the Sherman was a death trap.


For all its faults, the Sherman story didn’t end in 1945.  The Easy Eight version remained the mainstay of the US armored force in the Korean War, where was better able to operate in the primitive conditions than the later, more  modern but more temperamental American tanks.

An "Easy Eight", along the Han River in Korea.

It bested the North Koreans’ T34s in the rare tank-to-tank actions – due more to experience, training and coordination than to merely technical merit.

And in the 1950′s the Israelis – short on funds and friends but long on ingenuity – refitted a group of surplus Shermans with French-built high-velocity guns.

An Israeli "Super Sherman"

Israeli Super Shermans served on the front lines in the 1956 and 1967 wars; the updated weapons and excellent handling by their Israeli crews allowed them to clobber Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi tanks built ten years and a technological generation later.

They also served – on both sides – in the Indo-Pakistani wars, where they fared rather less well:

Pakistani Sherman, knocked out in action against Indian forces, in the 1965 war. Note the three shell holes. That was one badass Indian gunner.

The Sherman served into the eighties and even the nineties in Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, and – in combat – in the pro-Israeli Lebanese Falange militia.

The Sherman was a tank.  And a metaphor, in many ways, for the best and worst aspects of America’s industrial, doctrinal and bureaucratic approach to the war.

Special Forces

From the dawn of the nation-state until the confluence of the age of Napoleon and the industrial revolution, warfare was largely a matter of professionals duking it out with other professionals (or natives).

There were exceptions, of course; the American Revolution involved a citizen militia (initially) battling a professional army supported by Loyalist militias.

Napoleon changed all that, conquering most of Europe with an army of draftees (backstopped by his Old Guard and New Guard – like most tyrants from the Caesars to Gaddafi, he kept a special elite as his backup, jujst in case).  The Civil War set the pattern for the other big wars of the following hundred years; mass armies (usually draftees or “national service” men), supported by a mobilization of an industrialized society.  The Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II followed the same model – as, in fact, did the Cold War, although the main event of that war never got underway.  Thank God.

But in 1941, Britain’s big, industrialized military was on the ropes.  It had stood off Germany’s invasion attempt the previous summer – barely – but it had left almost all of its best equipment – modern artillery, virtually all of its tanks (that weren’t in North Africa), even its machine guns – on the beaches at Dunkirk the previous June.   British industry was working frantically to replace it – and was buying equipment in the US to help fill the gaps, which would become a big story in coming months.

But in the interim, the gap in the Home Islands was filled by an amazing grab-bag of stopgaps – including arming “Home Guard” men (sort of the British version of the well-regulated militia – civilians who patrolled beaches and landing grounds and such) with everything from quail guns to pikes.

But Churchill wanted to start striking back.  He knew that re-taking the continent in force was out of the question until the Army was re-armed (and, likely, until the US got into the war in a substantial way), so his only real means to hit back at the moment was through a bombing campaign (which was undergoing terrible teething pains), through harrying German coastal shipping with air raids, submarines and torpedo boat attacks…

…and through an idea Churchill had been nursing since his days reporting on the British Army during the Boer War, forty years before in South Africa. There, he’d been impressed by the “Boer” (literally ,Afrikaans for “Farmer”, but used to refer to all Dutch-descended South Africans at the time) troops, citizen militias full of expert marksmen on horseback, loosely organized into groups called “Kommandos” (Afrikaans for “commands”) whose pinprick, hit-and-run raiding so vexed the Brits during that dismal little war.

And so in the aftermath of Dunkirk, Churchill hatched the notion of small groups of highly-trained professionals, who would carry out devastating hit-and-run surprise attacks on German and Italian territory, and christened the new units “Commandos”.

There was no problem getting volunteers; the recruiters for the new units spent the first weeks of the rigorous training, in the craggy, damp, inhospitable Scots Highlands near the town of Achnacarry weeding down the pool of would-be Commandos to the best of the best; men not only adept at infantry fieldcraft and marksmanship, but with the special inner toughness of someone who’ll die before he leaves a job undone.

Commandos on an endurance course cross a creek near Achnacarry

Churchill pushed the idea – but it met considerable resistance from the regular military, who resisted having not only many of their best men, but stocks of scarce equipment and training grounds, absorbed into the new units.  The bureaucratic scuffling carried on through the winter…

More training

…but finally, seventy years ago today, the Commandos got their first workout.   Boarding two fast transports, with an escort of five Brit destroyers, two “Commandos” – British parlance for commando battalions – sailed for the Lofoten Islands, well above the arctic circle off the Norwegian coast near Narvik.  The target – a fish oil factory (German explosive manufacturing used fish oil as part of its process).  The bigger target – a PR victory, showing the world that the Empire could strike back, and showing the British military that the Commandos were for real.

The operation was codenamed “Claymore” The ground commander was Lord Lovat – who would become a legend on D-Day.  But we’ll come back to that in a couple of years.

Landing in the early morning of March 4, 1941, the Commandos achieved complete surprise, and the mission was a complete success.   They destroyed 11 German-held fish oil plants and 800,000 gallons of fish oil, sank five German trawlers and factory ships, and captured the entire 225-man German garrison along with 60 Norwegian Quisling soldiers.  They also brought back 300-odd volunteers for the Norwegian forces in exile.  The only casualty?  A Commando officer who’d shot himself in the leg.

Oil tanks blaze as the Brits withdraw.

One victory was kept very hush-hush, of course.  The Commandos retrieved from one of the German ships a set of rotors from the “Engima” code machine, helping supercharge the hyper-secret process of breaking the “Enigma” code.  Of this, much more soon.

The military victory was small; the PR victory was immense.  The Germans up and down the Atlantic coaast became conscious of the fact that they weren’t safe on the continent (several other raids – by no means always as successful or with casualties so light) followed), causing them to expend a lot of time and manpower guarding against the chance of more such raids.

It was effective in the US as well; as the US was starting to mobilize an immense draftee military, some officers – facing even stiffer bureaucratic resistance than in the UK – eyed the performance of the Commandos, and started pondering the idea of similar units, which led directly to the creation of the first US “Ranger” units after the US entered the war; they trained, initially, alongside the Brits at Achnacarry, on their way to their epic, defining battle at Point Du Hoc on D-Day.  And, thence, to the Airborne Rangers and British Marine Commandos that’ve carried on so much of the War on Terror.

But, again, we’ll return to that.


It was on a brutally cold February 10, in the middle of a long, cold prairie winter, seventy years ago today that the 164th Infantry Regiment – the largest part of the North Dakota National Guard – was activated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There, they joined – for a time – the 34th Infantry Division, which would become known as the “Red Bulls” later in the war, with troops from Minnesota and Iowa.   That didn’t last long; being at a higher state of readiness than the rest of the Division, they were detached from the 34th in early 1942 and packed off to defend New Caledonia from a possible Japanese invasion; the 34th fought in North Africa, and with great distinction in the brutal campaign in Italy, while the 164th would spend the entire war in the South Pacific.

More on that next year.

The 164th Infantry was not the first National Guard regiment to be mobilized; it would not be the last.  It was just one of the most visible signs, here in the upper Midwest, of a term that has little meaning to people today, but was a life or death matter to young men of the era – “mobilization”.

Today, warfare has a lot more in common with the way war was practiced in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; relatively small, elite armies of volunteers – professional soldiers (and sailors and airmen and Marines, naturally) for whom warfare is a job, a career, a calling.  Since the end of Vietnam, and especially the end of the Cold War, that ancient ethos has quietly re-established itself (making a convoluted exception for the American “Militia” tradition, via the highly-professionalized National Guard).

Maryland National Guard airmen in 1940 - back when the Air Force was part of the Army

But Napoleon introduced to Europe the idea of levying huge masses of conscripts, trained in the absolute basics (load, fire and stab on command and, above all, do not run away on pain of savage, ritualized death) and sent en masse to overwhelm the small, elite professional armies across the rest of the Continent.

English cartoon pillorying Napoleon's conscription program

The American Civil War added the full weight and might of a first-world industry to the mix; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 tacked on the management principles of of enrolling the entire nation’s manpower and harnessing them toward the strategic goal; World War I rolled the whole idea of “Total Warfare”, with nation’s entire populations, economies and beings focused on the war, and targeted in turn, into one cohesive whole.

A Union army supply depot. The Union was able to move supplies to its troops in a way no army had ever managed before; it was the first war where the logicistician was as important as the front-line general.

And so the idea of “mobilization” was a term fraught with significance throughout the US, and every major country in the world.  It meant much more than calling up the reserves.  It means setting into motion the harnessing of the nation’s entire economy toward total warfare; starting to convert, or build from scratch, the industrial capacity needed to support the expansion of a military from under 300,000 men to millions; to not only build the rifles for the Army to carry, but their cannon and tanks, and the ammunition to shoot from them, and the fuel to move the men and the equipment around, and the food to feed them at home and in the field, and the trucks and trains to carry all the men and supplies hither and yon; to mine, smelt and form all the iron and steel and aluminum to build all the rifles and tanks and planes and ships; to build the factories and warehouses and barracks and blast furnaces and railroads to build, store, man and create all of them.  To build a Navy from hundreds of ships to thousands; an Air Force from a few hundred plans to tens of thousands; to build a Merchant Marine of thousands, plural, of ships to supply those troops, planes, ships, tanks, and everything they needed, worldwide – and train the millions of men (and women, eventually) it’d take not only to carry the rifles and fire the cannon and drive the tanks and fly the planes and sail the ships, but to maintain all the weapons and vehicles and ships and planes, and to carry the supplies not only to do the fighting, but all the maintenance, plus the men and women themselves, and to take care of administering it all so that the men, rifles, tanks, cannon, ships, planes, food, ammo, winter clothes, summer clothes, spare parts and every other needed by millions of people outside their natural environment got to the right place at the right time to actually fight the enemy.

Barracks under construction at Fort Cronkhite, near Monterey, California

It’s instructive to note that, for all of America’s industrial might and technological prowess today, we could not do what we did in World War Two again if we had to. Which, fortunately and God willing, we won’t.

So even though Pearl Harbor was still a solid ten months in the future, Roosevelt had been getting ready for war for years.  He’d put the Navy – of which was a a former Assistant Secretary – on a crash rebuilding program in the thirties.

A 16 inch gun for the new, fast battleship USS North Carolina, being hoisted into place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1940

It was in part a Depression-era stimulus program – but the program focused buying and building the things needed to fight a war over the vast expanses of the Pacific, again Japan, whom Roosevelt considered the most likely enemy at the time; aircraft carriers and the planes to fly from them; destroyers to escort them, with the range to sail the Pacific; submarines capable of carrying their crews thousands of miles across the trackless ocean and staying on patrol station for a month before making the voyage home, keeping men and equipment in a condition to fight effectively in freezing cold and tropical misery alike.

Woman working at Douglas Aircraft in 1942. As men volunteered or were drafted, women started taking assembly-line jobs. Normal today; unheard of in 1940.

And by the late thirties, as World War 2 started in Europe, the Army was in on the plan as well.   The Army’s “expansion” budget had multiplied sixteen-fold between 1936 and 1940, to eight billion dollars – which may buy you an aircraft carrier or two weeks of Obamacare today, but was an unimaginable investment at the time.

USS Ludlow, one of the "Benson" class destroyers, one of hundreds of warships built in a frantic buildup between 1937 and 1941.

The point?  Pearl Harbor was a tactical surprise – and a brilliant one.  But the war itself caught nobody by surprise.  The US was getting ready for it in every possible way – and in ways that pushed the edges of what was possible, given the technology and economy of the time.

And the politics.  But we’ll come back to that this fall.

As for today?  Seventy years ago, in the middle of the brutally cold winter of 1940-41, the orders went out; by telegram, phone call, good ol’ fashioned mail  – to hometown armories across North Dakota, from the Headquarters Company in Williston to Company H in Jamestown and a dozen or more towns in between.  And farm boys and city kids and a few middle-aged guys who’d been through all of this in 1916 (when parts of the 164th were called up to guard New Mexico against Pancho Villa) and 1917 (where the unit shipped out to France) started reporting to their armories, and got ready to ship out to the foetid malarial swamps of Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, carrying the same Springfield rifles their fathers and uncles – and in the cases of a few senior NCOs, they themselves – had carried in France in 1918.

They’d have a very, very busy war, fraught with danger, full of distinction.  Of the 3,000 or so of them, about 325 would not come home.

We’ll rejoin them in about a year and a half.

Norway’s Favorite Son

Today would have been the 96th birthday of one of World War II’s great unsung (at least in the US) heroes – Max Manus.  I’m not sure if McGyver had a real-life model, but if he did, it may have been Manus.

Born in Bergen in 1914, Manus had quite a life before the war, galavanting about the jungles of Latin America for some years (his father, a Norwegian businessman, had spent many years in Spanish-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic; he’s changed his name to “Manus” from “Magnusson” to fit in better; Max’s full name was the very un-Nordic “Maximo Guillermo Manus”), adventures that later became the subject of a book published in Norway and translated into English.

From there, at age 25, he transitioned to the motti of Finland, volunteering to fight against the Soviets during Finland’s Talvesota, the “Winter War“.  But on on April 9, hearing news of the German invasion of Norway,  gathering a company of 130 men around him to fight on in the interior until resistance ended.

Manus quickly connected with the resistance -  serving mainly as a weapons collector as well as printing illicit counterpropaganda newspapers – until his group was betrayed and Manus was arrested by the Gestapo.  He escaped with the aid of a sympathetic doctor, and escaped to Sweden.  There, he was approached by the British “Special Operations Executive” (SOE), and escaped across the USSR, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and thence across the ocean to the USA.  Hitchhiking to Canada to join Norway’s small army in exile, he returned to Scotland in 1941 for more training with the SOE.

There, recognized for his combat experience, coolness under fire and mechanical aptitude, he was recuited into the elite – the Lignekompaniet, the exile army’s Commando unit.  Trained in sabotage, close combat and parachuting, Manus and a small team of saboteurs were air-dropped into the woods near Oslo.

There, Manus spent the rest of the war making life hell for the occupiers.  His specialty was sinking ships – big merchant ships needed by the Germans for supplying their garrison and hauling much-needed goods back to Germany from Norway.  In 1945 alone, using home-made magnetic mines and a few homemade torpedos, he sank two large cargo ships, as well as many smaller bombings and the killings of not a few German officers and Gestapo agents.  There’s an excellent accounting of his wartime record here.

As the war ended and the royal family returned, Manus was rewarded by being put in charge of King Haakon’s security detail.  He spent the rest of his life – until 1996 – running a variety of businesses, indulging his wanderlust, and eventually living in Spain.  He apparnently suffered from nightmares and a bit of a drinking problem; his years in the (literal) cold took their toll.

But he was one of the great heroes of World War II.   Big enough to get his own movie:

Torino, Torino, Torino

It was seventy years ago today that the British Royal Navy brought the naval world into the 20th century – and gave the  Imperial Japanese Navy a bright idea that would come back to haunt us.

First, a look back at some world and literary history.  Then, some technology.


For big nations in the 1500s through the 1940s, having a neighbor with a big, powerful navy was sort of like knowing one of your neighbors has a badly-trained pit bull and a hole in their fence; even if you don’t see the dog, you make sure all your barbecues are in the back yard; even if the enemy navy never comes out to gight, you have to keep in mind that they could, with dire results in lost ships and wrecked commerce and severed military lines of communication.  This equation has dominated much of modern Western history; from King George’s ships of the line to the Great White Fleet to the Dreadnoughts to the entire NATO fleet of the fifties through the eighties (built to fight a Soviet submarine fleet that, thanks to Ronald Reagan, is now largely long-scrapped or rusting away at dockyards around Russia).

Of course, the daring admiral’s solution is to go to where the enemy fleet is holed up, and destroy it.  That way, your nation doesn’t have to compensate for that big, unseen threat anymore.  Sometimes it doesn’t work – Xerxes came to grief when he tried to root out the Greek fleet at Salamis, and got rooted out himself.

  Sometimes it does; Duncan at Camperdown and Nelson at The Nile  and Decatur’s sailors and Marines at Tripoli managed to change the fates of nations and the courses of wars by sailing not only into harm’s way, but into their enemies’ home ports to destroy them and render them moot as strategic factors.

French flagship LOrient exploding at the Battle of the Nile

French flagship "L'Orient" exploding at the Battle of the Nile

In 1925, Hector Bywater’s novel The Great Pacific War described a fictional Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, with the intent of taking control of the western Pacific.  The scenario involved a line of Japenese battleships steaming into Pearl Harbor by surprise and wreaking havoc.

Fanciful? Of course.  Everyone knew you couldn’t sail a hostile battleship into Pearl Harbor!

Still, the idea of somebody destroying US naval power in the Pacific in a surprise coup de main was floating around.  Implausible – Bywater was most likely called an “paranoid southern wingnut” by liberals of the day who were ignorant that he was the Times of London’s naval affairs corrrespondent – but it was out there.

We’ll come back to that.


There have been few times in the history of warfare when technology advanced as fast as it did in the fifteen years between 1930 and 1945.

In 1930, the tank was a rattling, unreliable contraption assembled with rivets and armed with a popgun and almost as much danger to its own crew as to any enemy.  Infantrymen carried bolt-action rifles not much different than the ones their fathers carried in 1900.  Air forces were composed of biplanes that puttered along at 180 mph.  And the world’s navies were largely dominated by battleships.

HMS Queen Elizabeth - one of the worlds most powerful ships in 1930

HMS Queen Elizabeth - one of the world's most powerful ships in 1930

And when navies went to sea to duke it out, they found each other more or less the same way they had 130 years earlier, in the age of Nelson and Decatur – via the human eye.

Of course, the lookouts reported their findings to other ships via radio, which was edgy stuff even in 1930.  And some of those lookouts flew in airplanes – floatplanes launched from battleships and cruisers and, in a few navies, launched from the world’s first aircraft carriers.

For all of its reputation for hidebound traditionmongering, the British Royal Navy led the world at seeing the utility of aircraft at sea.  They built the world’s first seaplane carrier – the HMS Campania, in 1916, which launched float planes with crude bombs to attack the Zeppelin bases that were launching the air raids that were terrorizing London – and, in 1918, they converted a fast ocean liner into the world’s first flat-top aircraft carrier, the HMS Argus:

HMS Argus, the worlds first operational aircraft carrier, in 1918.  The ship served throughout World War II. HMS Argus, the world’s first operational aircraft carrier, in 1918. The ship served throughout World War II.

They saw the role of the aircraft carrier to be not just scouting for the fleet and correcting the gunfire of the battleships, but attacking enemy ships.   They developed the world’s first torpedo bombers – allowing a tiny, flimsy airplane made of doped canvas and wood and string to sink the most powerful battleship – in theory.

So as the technology to deliver an attack literally and figuratatively zoomed ahead, the technology to detect an incoming attack – the human eyeball – stayed more or less the same way it’d been for all of naval history.

Which meant that if a lookout on a ship saw aircraft coming in at twenty miles out, flying at the then-blistering pace of 120 mph (that was a fast torpedo plane indeed, in 1930), it gave ten minutes’ warning to get an aircraft carrier’s fighters scrambled off the deck – plenty of time to attack incoming planes that hand to come in at low altitude to drop torpedos. 

But after 1930, technology started taking off.  Airplanes became faster; the 100 mph torpedo bomber of 1930 was replaced by planes that could do very nearly 200 mph by 1935.  The United States Marines invented Dive Bombing  (with the Germans and Japanese enthusiastically copying the tactic)- meaning the enemy could not only come in at 200 knots, but do it at 15,000 feet, meaning interceptors needed to add that much more time to climbing to meet the enemy. 

And the speed of ships started climbing, too; most of the world’s battleships in 1930 were red-lined at 23 knots (27mph); by 1935, the British, Germans and Americans had battleships on the drawing boards that could do 28-30.

And so when the Royal Navy decided in the early thirties that they needed a generation of aircraft carriers to fight the next war, it built them on the assumption that the technology of the attack would stay well ahead of the technology of detection – and that their carriers would have to thus be able to shake off plenty of damage and keep operating.  The Illustrious class carriers first laid down i 1934 were fast enough to get away from enemy battleships, but armored well enough to withstand damage from lesser enemy ships, cruisers and destroyers.  Most importantly, their flight decks were armored, to allow them to shake off bomb hits as well as protect the aircraft on the hangar deck down below.

HMS Invincible, 1940

HMS Illustrious, 1940

Britain also scrupulously adhered to the arms control treaties of the day, in those innocent-seeming days when “arms races” involved warships rather than nuclear weapons; in addition to being bombproof, they had to come in under 24,000 tons.  To do all that, something had to give; that something was capacity.  Illustrious could hold 36 aircraft in its original form.  The Admiralty figured it’d be better to have 36 aircraft that would get into action reliably than 52 on one of its older carriers that would risk getting sunk before launching an attack.

And given their initial assumptions and constraints (the “human eyeball” range of detection and the London Naval Treaty), they were correct.

But with war coming on fast, most of the world’s nations – especially Germany and Japan – stopped observing the London Treaty; ship displacement and firepower started creeping upward.  And in 1936, the first radar set was tested, removing the “human eyeball” limit to detecting incoming attacks.   And this revolutionized naval warfare just as much as it did war over land.  When the United States Navy started designing it’s fleet of carriers, it did so knowing that it could “see” attacks far beyond visual range, day or night, allowing the carriers to scramble fighters to break up the incoming raid. and avoid enemy surface ships altogether.  Carriers’ main defense became their air wings rather than their armor plating; with less need to ward off bombs and shells, the carriers could…carry.  The American carriers that were being designed at about the same time – the Yorktown and Essex class ships that carried the US Navy through World War II and much of the Cold War as well – could carry between 72 and 100 planes.  This made the huge carrier-borne sweeps later in the war possible.  The Brits, especially early in the war, were limited to smaller, pinpoint raids against vital enemy targets.  Their carriers just didn’t carry enough planes to carry off bigger operations.

Fortunately for the Royal Navy, just such an operation presented itself, seventy years ago tonight.


The invasion of Greece showed Churchill that the Mediterranean was going to be anything but a backwater front in the war.  This was no small issue for Britain; the key to the British Empire in the Eastern Hemisphere was the Suez Canal, which made communication with the vast bulk of the empire – India, Singapore, Australia, East Africa and many other holdings – cheaper and more feasible.

And since the Italians had a large army in Libya, it was vital to keep supplies going to Egypt to defend the canal.  And to avoid a months-long plod around the Cape of Good Hope up to the Red Sea and thence to Suez, it was vital to keep supplies going across the Mediterranean.

And the Italian Navy had the potential to put a serious crimp in that supply line.


Know what an awesome bit of technology a Ferrari Testa Rossa is?  Italian ships were about the same.

Italian cruiser Gorizia

Italian cruiser Gorizia

Fast, well-armed, but with “short legs” – a very short cruising range – Italian ships were built for dashing across the restricted waters of the Mediterranean to hit enemy fleets and scamper back to base.  And a huge squadron of them – six battleships, nine cruisers and a slew of destroyers – were stationed at the nail on the toe on the foot of the boot of Italy, at the base at Taranto.

The battleship Giulio Cesare at Taranto

The battleship "Giulio Cesare" at Taranto

It was nothing new.  The British had been eyeing up the Italian Fleet as long as there’d been an Italy, for nearly eighty years.  ”How to remove Taranto” had played in several international crises over the previous century.   There’d been many plans, many ideas; in the 1800s, the Admiralty had planned to take the city and port with the Royal Marines, in a pinch.

Well before the war began, the Fleet Air Arm was training in the exacting art of making torpedo attacks at night in shallow water.   In November of 1940, they were the only fleet in the world that could carry the mission off.  While most of the world believed it was impossible to launch airborne torpedos in a harbor (on the theory that the “fish” would plunge into the bottom before stabilizing themselves), the Brits figured it out before the Germans

And seventy years ago tonight, a British task force centered around the HMS Illustrious arrived 150 miles off the Italian coast…

HMS Illustrious

HMS Illustrious

…and launched 24 “Swordfish”  torpedo bombers.

The Swordfish torpedo bomber

The Swordfish torpedo bomber

That’s right.  Biplanes.  Not a whole lot different than the ones that flew from Argus in World War I.  During its Depression-era financing drought, the Royal Navy had enough money to build an excellent class of aircraft carriers – but had only just started figuring out the best airplanes to put on them when the war began. 

But it was the software – the pilots and aircrew – that made up for the ancient equipment. They’d been training to do night-time torpedo attacks for years.   In the days since Desert Storm, we take these sorts of things for granted; in 1940, night torpedo attacks from the air were just this side of science fiction, and almost entirely a function of navigation and piloting skill.

And at just before midnight, that’s what they did.  Two of the 24 planes dropped bombs on the port’s oil tanks as a diversion, and then dropped flares over the harbor.  Ten more dropped bombs on the cruisers and destroyers, mainly to keep the anti-aircraft guns busy.  And the other 12 swept across the harbor, torpedoing three Italian battleships.  Two  – Littorio and Caio Duilio  – were damaged severely enough to leave them under repair in the dockyard for months; the other,  Conte Di Cavour, was out for the rest of the war.

The cost to be Brits?  Two Swordfish shot down by Italian flak.  One crew – two men – killed, one taken prisoner.

Sunken Italian Battleship

Conte Di Cavour, sunk at its moorings and on the DL for the rest of the war.

The attack changed the war in the Mediterranean; the Italians pulled their surviving ships out of Taranto and moved them farther up the coast to Naples, where their short range made their mission more difficult, and the longer approach made them more vulnerable to British submarines.  They were never really a factor in the war again.

And it changed the rest of the war in even bigger ways.  Because the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Isoruko Yamamoto, had studied in the United States in the mid-twenties.  He was familiar with naval history, including the desirability of sinking your enemy before he could sail to threaten you.  He had read at the very least the reviews of The Great Pacific War, if not the book itself – and in any case, as a Japanese strategist in training, had been noodling about the idea of how to destroy the American fleet at Pearl Harbor (and the British one at Singapore, and the Dutch one at Surabaja) his whole career. 

And the daring torpedo attack seventy years ago tonight at Taranto gave him and his staff an idea…


It was seventy years ago today that Italy invaded Greece.

We’ll come back to that.


Chaos Theory is a mathematical, physical and, occasionally, philosophical theory that says among other things that any action can, theoretically, have a hypothetically infinite set of consequences – even consequences that would never have been predictable.

Such was Italy’s invasion of Greece – from whose language, ironically, the word “Chaos” comes.


Mussolini, feeling left out of the big conquest-go-round (he’d been stymied by French resistance in the Alps during the Battle of France, had had only captured a few square miles of the country, and his total so far had been the occupation of Albania in early 1939, and the 1935 conquest of Ethiopia – and even that wasn’t going all that well.  Mussolini decided he needed to rack up a trophy.

Months  of diplomatic maneuvering followed, of course.  The Greek Government was actually fundamentally friendly to the Nazis; the Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, was fundamentally a Fascist in the classical sense of the term, and sought friendly relations with Hitler (who, to be fair, seemed to be the winning side at this point in the war).



But Mussolini saw low-hanging fruit.  His few successes in the war so far had come at the expense of the British; he’d swept aside a token British force to occupy British Somaliland.  Since Britain seemed to be on the ropes so far, he sought to build up bases from which to securely pick over what he thought would be the corpse of British power in the Eastern Mediterranean – Egypt, the Suez Canal, Palestine – to add to his new Roman Empire.

Italian troops in East Africa.

Italian troops in East Africa.

So seventy years ago yesterday, Mussolini demanded that Metaxas allow his troops free passage through Greece to occupy strategic locations – naval and air bases that could be used as jumping-off points in the Eastern Med.

It was an absurd request, designed to be rejected – and Metaxas knew it.   When the Italian ambassador presented Mussolini’s ultimatum, Metaxas replied in French (at the time, the lingua franca – hah! – of diplomacy), “”Alors, c’est la guerre” – “Then it’s war”.  This was passed on to the Greek people in a single word – Ochi.  ”No”.

It was a setup, of course; the Italians invaded promptly, seventy years ago today, with half a million men and a division of tanks and six times as many planes as the Greeks owned.

Italian CV33 tankette - small tank - deploying to Albania before the invasion.

Italian CV33 "tankette" - small tank - deploying to Albania before the invasion.

The Greeks were a small country – but they were an exceedingly tough nation.  The people who hewed a living from the rocky peninsula had just won their independence from the Turks within the previous generation, and still held their independence dearly.  And they had had generations of experience fighting in the rocky, inhospitable mountains.

Greek troops moving into the mountains, 1940

Greek troops moving through the mountains, 1940

While the nation was poor, it had invested heavily in its military – then as now.  Even today, the Greek military is exceedingly large for the nation’s size and strategic position; it’s hereditary hatred of Turkey, whose military is equally exaggerated, keeps things tuned to a fever pitch.

And partly due to that national history, and partly due to Metaxas’ militant nationalism, the Greeks were ready.  They’d built a line of fortifications in the extremely rugged country along the Albanian border.  The Italian offensive smacked into the Elaia-Kalamas line – and bounced off.

By mid-December, the Italian offensive had petered out.  A Greek counteroffensive tossed the Italians out of whatever parts of Greece they’d conquered, and the riposte lopped off a quarter of Albania by April.

Greek soldier sitting on disabled Italian tankette, or mini-tank.

Greek soldier sitting on disabled Italian "tankette", or mini-tank.

In March, concerned by the potential threat to vital British territory at Suez and Crete, Churchill diverted British troops from Africa to Greece to help backstop the Greeks.  Faced with the complete implosion of his ally and, potentially, the loss of North Africa, Hitler responded by invading Greece in April of 1941.  Invaded from Albania and Bulgaria – Hitler’s ally – Greece fell in a three-week Blitzkrieg of immense brutality, leading to four years’ occupation (and fierce Greek resistance).


So let’s go back to chaos theory.

The invasion of Greece set off a chain of events that, directly and indirectly, changed the course of World War II.

  • The Neutralization of Italy: Along with the crushing defeats that’d come in North Africa the following year, Italy proved itself a paper tiger.
  • The Costliest Rescue: Hitler, to bail out his paper-tiger ally, diverted troops from his planned invasion of the Soviet Union to conquer the Greeks.  He was forced to push back the invasion – Operation Barbarossa – by a couple of months to make up for it.
  • The Costliest Counter-Rescue: The British diversion of troops and resources to Greece weakened their position in North Africa, leaving their holdings overextended and ripe for counterattack by German general Erwin Rommel, who would become known as the Desert Fox.
  • Pyrrhic Victories: While the British – overextended, at the end of their supply lines – got clobbered in their attempt to rescue Greece, they were largely able to evacuate.  Many evacuated to Crete – where a German airborne assault managed to conquer the Island in June of 1941, but with casualties so horrific that the Germans never attempted another airborne assault.
  • The Sandy Backwater: Rommel’s success in the deserts of Libya and Egypt led to the diversion of immense British resources to countering him – which led eventually to the turning-point Battle of El Alamein, in early 1942.
  • Supply Lines: The attempt to supply the British forces in Greece passed through and by the key British base at Malta led to one of the epic ongoing naval and air battles in history, as the Germans and Italians pounded the British-held island of Malta.  After Greece fell, Malta became a threat to German/Italian supply lines to North Africa, making the skies above Malta one of the most ferocious air battles of the war, and the seas around Malta a graveyard of British and Italian ships and submarines; the ongoing battle around Malta may have been one of the costliest naval campaigns in history.
  • Diversion: The imperative to lift the threat to Malta, clear the Germans and Italians from Africa and open the Mediterranean to ease the threat on the Suez Canal prompted the first great US land campaign in Europe – “Operation Torch”, the invasion of Morocco and Algeria.  Fraught with costly blunders against the experienced Germans, it was a bloody education for US troops.
  • A Stitch In Time: The two months delay in the launching of the attack on the USSR meant that Hitler’s troops arrived at the gates of Moscow as winter fell, rather than at the beginning of autumn.  It meant their drive to the Caucasus, and the vital oil fields, bogged down in the frozen rubble of Stalingrad, rather than passing through.  This crippled the Germans’ timetable, and enabled the USSR to rebuild its army, to absord Lend-Lease equipment from the US, and to eventually go on to win the war in the East.
  • Echoes: The Greek resistance to the Nazis, esconced in the rugged mountains of that craggy land, was among the largest in occupied Europe.  And like many resistance movements, it was deeply divided between Nationalists loyal to the pre-war government, and Communists whom Metaxas had forced underground and who had been engaged in resistance even before the war. Both sides took their tolls on the Nazis, Italians and Bulgarian occupiers.  Both sides absorbed immense aid from the UK, USSR and, eventually, the US. And after the war, they turned their attention on each other in a bloody civil war that threatened to put Greece in the Soviet bloc for a decade, and into deep-seated political feuding that made the Greek communist party a serious contender for power into the eighties, and has made left-right politics in Greece a bloodsport until this very day, with consequences the Greek nation is feeling even as we speak.

And so a small,  pointless, ego-driven sideshow had side-effects that tipped the outcome of World War II, the Cold War, and our current economic climate.