Good Intentions

Seventy years ago today, a 500-pound bomb from an American bomber that dropped its payload miles short of its intended target fell 20,000 feet, and landed squarely on top of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

General Lesley McNair, who died – spectacularly – 70 years ago today.

Literally. The bomb fell directly into McNair’s foxole, landing physically directly on top of the three star general. McNair was dead from being hit by 500 pounds of metal screaming earthward at 600 miles per hour, even before the bomb exploded.

But explode it did, further mangling the unlucky general’s body so badly that the only parts that were immediately recognizable were the three gold stars from his collar, found some distance away from the bomb crater that remodeled the general’s foxhole.

The graves registration detail found the parts the best they could – which is exactly as difficult a job as you might imagine for a body that had been almost literally wrapped around 400 pounds of explosives and 100 or so pounds of steel. His mortal coil thus uncoiled and then re-coiled, he was buried at the American Cemetary in Normandy – the senior American interred at this most holy of shrines to America’s sacrifice in Europe.

He was one of four American three-star generals killed in action during the war.

It wasn’t McNair’s first brush with death; he’d been wounded by German artillery in North Africa the previous year.

McNair (center) in Tunisia. The day after this photo was taken, McNair was wounded by fragments from a German artillery shell.

But neither his bad luck nor his bravery were the the most notable thing about General Lesley McNair. For while his death was one for the trivia contests, his life was of immense impact – much of it controversial to this day.

For while generals like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Clark, MacAuliffe and Gavin were household names in America, then and (mostly, and among historians) now, there were few men in history who had more to do with how America fought the war, and the lot of the American fighting man, than Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

And most of the legacy was just as bad as McNair’s end was spectacular and bizarre.


McNair was born in Verndale, Minnesota in 1883. He graduated in the top sixth of his class at West Point, and was commissioned into the Artillery in 1904. But in the tiny US Army of the early 1900s, he served in many capacities – in the Vera Cruz expedition of 1914, and the raids into Mexico to chase Pancho Villa in 1916. Then, service in World War I in France, where at age 35 he became the youngest general in the US Army while serving in the First Infantry Division.

Like most career officers, he reverted to his permanent rank of Major after the war – but resumed his slow climb through the ranks through the twenties and thirties; he became a Lieutenant Colonel in 1928, Colonel in 1935, Brigadier (one-star) General in 1937.

Then came the frantic pre-war build-up of troops; McNair got a second star in September of 1940, and a third just nine months later. He commanded the General Staff College, and was then promoted to head of Army Ground Forces. An administrative command, it meant he was in charge of organizing and training the immense army that was forming in the US for service in both Europe and the Pacific.

And as such, he had an outsized influence on the way the new Army was being built, trained, and equipped for war.

And he used that influence in a broad, sweeping way that history records had deeply mixed results.

He had three policies that were of special importance to every US soldier that fought in the ground forces in World War 2.

Cannon, Tanks And Automobiles:  McNair was an old-school artilleryman.  But he was not the usual villain in these sorts of stories – the hide-bound, tradition-addled stuffed shirt general who spent the entire war fighting the previous war.  Far from it.  .  Unlike many US generals, in the thirties and the early years of World War 2, he saw what was going on in Europe – how the Germans had revolutionized ground warfare with the Blitzkrieg, based around tightly integrated units of tanks, infantry and mobile artillery, operating in close coordination with the air force.

And he figured he’d do the Germans one better.

Troops debarking from an M3 “Lee” medium tank during the Louisiana Maneuvers – the Armored Corps’ dress rehearsal – in 1940.

Not only did he create the Armored Force as a separate branch of service – breaking the tanks away from the Infantry and Cavalry, which had “owned” them and driven their development down two separate, abortive lines of design philosophy- but created a separate branch, the “Tank Destroyer” branch, in which all the Army’s anti-tank weapons would serve, regardless of type, towed or self-propelled.

An early “Tank Destroyer” – basically a 76mm antitank gun plunked onto a halftrack.

And McNair gave both of the new branches core doctrines.  Believing that the notion of tank-on-tank duels was outmoded and wasteful, he gave to the tanks the job of  driving through a breakthrough (a hole battered in the enemy line by the artillery and infantry) to find the enemy’s vulnerable rear-areas, as the Germans had done in France – all the while avoiding enemy tanks and anti-tank weapons (as the Germans had done in France, mostly because most of France’s tanks were bottled up in Belgium in 1940).

A “towed tank destroyer” – a towed 76mm antitank cannon. Unlike Soviet and German antitank guns, US towed anti-tank guns were largely both too immobile and not powerful enough for the enemy tanks they faced.

Fighting enemy tanks would be the job of the Tank Destroyers.  These would be a combination of light, lightly-armored, fast, relatively powerfully-armed self-propelled anti-tank guns, and traditional towed anti-tank cannon, which were treated more or less the same in the branch’s tactical doctrine.

It only looks like a tank. It’s an M36 “Jackson” Tank Destroyer. Its armor was only proof against small-arms fire and shell fragments, and the turret had an open roof. But the 90mm gun could deal with any German tank on an even footing, which, by the winter of 1944, was much better than most American armored vehicles could manage. And it was fast.

The doctrine was as revolutionary as the stimulus that created it, the Blitzkrieg itself.

The doctrine also turned out to be a complete dud in wartime.  The German tanks – with a doctrine that emphasized tactical flexibility and initiative on the part of small-unit commanders – didn’t oblige the US commanders and line up to do battle with the Tank Destroyers as the Tanks slipped past to wreak their mayhem.  The towed “tank destroyers”  – antitank cannon – tended to suffer terrible casualties for limited results; they simply weren’t equipped to fight successfully under McNair’s doctrine. The mobile tank destroyers were much more effective – but again, rarely if ever managed to insinuate themselves between the tanks and the enemy.

If anything, the Armored Force suffered worse.  They fought virtually the entire war with the M-4 Sherman (which we talked about three years ago); the best tank in the Western world when it first went into action at El Alamein in 1942, by D-Day it was under-gunned, under-armored, and frighteningly vulnerable to exploding when hit.  American (and British, Canadian, Free French, Indian and Polish) tankers paid a brutal price.

Two M-4 Sherman tanks, their turrets blown clear by exploding ammunition, inspected by German SS soldiers, probably in Italy. Early versions of the Sherman were as much as 80% likely to have a catastrophic fire, often ending with a crushing explosion.  The forward hatches are open – perhaps the driver and machine gunner got out alive.

Worse – in 1943, when forward-looking officers, worried about stories about the new generations of German tanks, the Panther and Tiger, along with contemporary generations of German tank destroyers and anti-tank guns, proposed building a heavy tank, with a gun powerful enough to defeat the German tanks and armor thick enough to withstand a hit from their powerful guns, in order to do battle with the new threat, McNair stonewalled them, insisting (using “settled science”) that the Sherman was their German tanks’ equal and then some.

The gruesome death toll among Allied tankers in Normandy shook up the US Army command; General Jacob Devers, commander of the Armored Force, went over McNair’s head to General Marshall – McNair’s boss – and finally got the go-ahead to produce the M-26 Pershing, the first American tank able to go head to head with the Panther or the Tiger one-on-one with a reasonable chance of not just survival but victory.  The M-26 was the first in an evolutionary line of tanks that ended with the M-60 Patton, which still serves in Israel and many other countries around the world – but a total of maybe 50 of them actually got into combat by the end of the war in Europe.

A platoon of M26 Pershings in Germany during the war. The M26 was the first American tank capable of going into action against German Panther and Tiger tanks with a reasonable chance of not only surviving, but winning.  It had the gun from the M36 (above), and thicker armor than a German “Tiger” tank.

McNair’s untimely but spectacular demise helped pave the way for this – but for thousands of Allied tankers, it was too little, far too late

You Fight Like You Train:   While commanding Army Ground Forces, McNair was responsible for hatching the training doctrine for troops that would go overseas.  And  before their first contact with the enemy, Americans were fairly confident in the training their sons and brothers were getting.

Basic trainees at bayonet training.

But for all the puffery about American training before the first contact with the enemy – and the reconstructive history about the subject after the war – the fact is that the US Army’s training served it very badly.

US troops received a very hasty basic training program, one that focused relatively little on small-unit tactics.  The training program before D-Day was heavily focused on training troops in their specialized skills – tankers, signalmen, artillerymen, truck drivers, mechanics and so on pretty much learned how to handle tanks, do communications, shoot cannon, drive trucks and fix things and so on, without much training in how to fight should be situation call for it.

Beyond that?  The infantry training was unrealistic and not especially suited to training people for combat in World War 2.  This wasn’t fixed until after the horrendous casualties of the Normandy campaign were assessed and absorbed. And the lessons learned at ghastly cost in North Africa and Italy were very slow to migrate outside the units involved.

Worst of all?  There was very little time spent training people how to assume duties above their grade if their superior were killed or wounded.  If a company commander were incapacitated, his platoon leaders would know only what they’d observed – and it frequently wasn’t enough.  So when US units started taking casualties, frequently they’d lose their way and flounder, until later in the war when enough men had had vital combat experience.

American troops from the 106th Infantry Division, as prisoners of the Germans. On the opening day of the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, the 106th – mostly men who’d passed basic training and no more, some of whom had never fired a real rifle before being assigned as “infantry” – got slammed by surprise.  As much as 2/3 of the division, 8-9,000 men, surrendered. It was the largest single-unit mass-surrender in US Army history.

But both of those problems paled compared to McNair’s greatest failure -  a system whose inadequacy hadn’t even begun to be tested when McNair and the bomb intersected seventy years ago today.

The Supply Chain:  McNair’s crowning logistical achievement was the “Individual Replacement System”, or IRS.  It may have caused more dead Americans than any other factor in World War 2.

America was an industrial nation.  Its frame of reference was largely through the metaphors of industry.  And in that metaphor, a combat division – whose nominal strength was about 15,000 men – was like a machine on an assembly line.  If it could be kept supplied with the things it needed; nuts, fuels, bolts, men, washers, body bags, whatever – it could be kept running 24/7.  It was an appeal to the efficiency that industry demanded.

McNair’s idea; keep the infantry divisions fighting in the front line without a break.  When things got broken in battle – men, machines, it mattered not – use the supply services to replace and repair them.

And so the US Army built an immense force to provide the logistics needed to keep the front-line divisions in action.  If a radio or a jeep or a tank or a typewriter broke, or got knocked out, by enemy action, a new one would be sent up front forthwith, supplied by the immense American industrial effort (and, usually, electricians and mechanics and repairmen at ordnance depots would repair the broken unit and return it to service as well).  If a man got killed or wounded, the IRS would send another one to replace him (and the Medical Corps would try to fix the injured one, and if that didn’t work, Graves Registration would process the remains).  That way – so the theory went – the division could fight on, without worry about its manpower or stock of equipment dwindling.

Other armies – the Brits, Canadians, even the Soviets – would pull units out of combat after casualties built up to a certain level. The units would rest, recuperate, and absorb new men. The older surivivors would teach the new men what it took to survive – or a least get a start on it – before going back into the line. The new men at least would know their unit-mates before the shooting started – which could make a difference between life and death.

The US Army, though, would keep a pool of replacement troops at special centers – “Replacement Depots” – until a unit needed new men.  Then the men were fed, in ones and twos and bits and pieces – forward to the combat units, often under cover of darkness, frequently under fire.

It was an abominable system.

The men in the line were too busy keeping themselves alive to bother teaching the newbies.  The new men learned “on the job” – and casualties were predictably horrendous; between the shortfalls in training and the abrupt introduction to battle, the average life span among a replacement infantryman could be as little as four days in a major battle - which also dissuaded veterans from extending themselves, usually, to pass on knowledge to the replacements.   The replacements that did survive would go on to repeat the pattern when new replacements arrived.  A man that survived thirty days in battle was quite likely to develop the skill that’d make him hard to kill (until they’d been in battle for 4-6 months, when either they got careless or their minds tended to give out).

And so while the American experience of the war doesn’t record it in the community memory, casualties were horrible.  Not on a scale a Soviet or Japanese soldier might recommend, as their lives were squandered hundreds and thousands in “human wave” attacks and suicide missions.  But the losses were ghastly nonetheless.  A veteran of the Fourth Infantry Division – one of the divisions that fought from Utah Beach all the way into Germany by the end of the war – noted that the Fourth was actually three divisions; “one in the line, one in the hospital, and one underground”, reflecting – accurately – that the Division of about 15,000 men suffered over 200% casualties during the war.

And for all of those faults?  When the pressure was on, even McNair’s abhorrent system failed completely.  When the German attack at the Bulge overwhelmed the American casualty-replacement system (which had, in addition to all the aforementioned faults, started shutting down the supply of replacement infantrymen to Europe to get ready to invade Japan) the Army had to press cooks, mechanics, bakers, signalmen, and thousands of air force cadets into service as infantry – with, again, horrendous casualties.

So bad was the system, and so desperate was the Army for replacement infantry, that the Army was forced to move units of African-American truck drivers into infantry roles.  The Army had shied away from putting black units into combat – although there were several (more later in the series) – much less integrating them.

But this was desperate.  Still, unlike other replacements, black troops were fed into the line in platoons of 40 men, intended to stay separate from their white comrades in the bled-white rifle companies.  But the frictional attrition of war broke that down; soon, black squads of 10 served in white platoons of 40.  Then, black men served in white squads, and eventually shared foxholes with white troops – who, by this point in the war, were happy to have someone covering them.

So in a sense, the complete breakdown of McNair’s replacement system helped usher in the integration of the Army; officers who’d seen the performance of black troops alongside white troops in Belgium and Germany in 1945 were not averse to leading mixed troops in action in Korea, five years later.

Black and white soldiers together, in Korea, 1950.

Changes:  Today, the US Army closely reflects its long-term reactions to General McNair’s legacy.  The Army’s been integrated for almost seventy years, of course – well ahead of American society as a whole.

That New Tank Smell:  And jarred by the immense casualties of the Armored Force in its explosive Sherman tanks, the Army embarked on a generations-long battle to make its tanks not only more powerful, but more survivable.  The M-26 led to three generations of development; the M-46/M-47, the M-48 and finally M-60, all solid, reliable, well-armored vehicles with at the very least competitive hitting power.   They rarely fought in combat – Vietnam was mostly an infantryman’s war – but the M-48 and M-60 series vehicles in Israeli service crushed their Soviet-built opponents in 1967 and 1973 and 1981.

And then to the revolutionary development of the M-1 Abrams, which has for over thirty years not only been able to kill every enemy tank that faced it with relative ease, but whose crewmen have, in twenty years in combat in Kuwait and Iraq, not suffered a single fatality from a through-the-armor shot by an enemy weapon.

Hi, We’re The Replacements:  And the US Army scrapped the Individual Replacement System.

During World War 2, units were created in a serial fashion; after they created the 75th Infantry Division, they created the 76th Infantry Division.  Then the 77th Infantry Division, and so on.  They were little more than numbers, without any tradition, any history to evoke any esprit de corps in the young men who’d be doing the fighting.  This was a contrast to the British and Commonwealth armies, where men joined battalions that were spawned from “Regiments” that had long, storied histories.  It was also a contrast with US Marine Corps, where each of the infantry regiments traces a history back through World War I, the Civil War, even the War of 1812, a history that’s spun into a mythology that the USMC uses to instill a sense of pride in the unit (the technical term is “esprit de corp“) that, in combat, has a role in carrying the individual soldier through the worst of times.  In combat, every little bit helps.  And so in the sixties, the US Army began association units with historical regiments, and making thost tradition a part of soldiers’ training - especially in Infantry, Armor and Artillery.

Not that being a replacement got much easier for US troops – but in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq it was never the disastrous human meatgrinder that General McNair created.

The personally disastrous intersection between man and bomb 70 years ago today did not, by itself, ring in all those changes in the way the US Army fought its wars – ithe changes happened over the course of forty years.

But the reaction to the death and wasteage that flowed from General McNair’s best efforts had effects that are still acting on the US military today.

The Peace to End All Peace

Muhamed Mehmedbašić might have hardly believed his luck.  Slowly motoring in front of him, armed with only the lightest of security (60 police officers total between the motorcade and destinations), sat the heir to the hated Austo-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Mehmedbašić, armed with a bomb and accompanied by one of several accomplices, Vaso Čubrilović, had his chance to strike a blow for Bosnian nationalism, even if it was in service to Serbian nationalists.  This was the mission he and three others had been trained for.

Ferdinand’s motorcade sped closer to Mehmedbašić’s position at the garden of the Mostar Cafe.  And…he hesitated.  Mehmedbašić couldn’t do it.  His partner, Vaso Čubrilović, despite being armed with a pistol, couldn’t do it either.  However, the group’s third conspirator, Nedeljko Čabrinović, could.  Čabrinović threw his hand grenade at Ferdinand…and it promptly bounced off his car, rolling under the next vehicle and exploding.  16-20 people were wounded.  The Archduke was not among them.

By 10:30am on the morning of July 28th, 1914, it seemed that Europe had come perilously close to an act of war only to be pulled back again from the brink.

Eve of Regicide: (left-right standing) King Haakon VII (Norway), Tsar Ferdinand (Bulgaria), King Manuel II (Portugal), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), King George I (Greece), King Albert I (Belgium); seated: King Alfonso XIII (Spain), King George V (Britain) and King Frederick VIII (Denmark)

Given the decades of carnage that followed, a certain mythology arose about the era before 1914.  An image of a world at peace, held together by seasoned diplomats and threatened by aristocratic dilettantes, grew as royalty was replaced by revolutionaries, eager to re-write the history of the preceding nearly 100 years. Europe, after the Napoleonic wars, was supposedly an Elysium peace undone between the monarchies and the anarchists that followed them.

But to believe such a narrative ignores decades of bloody history written between Napoleon’s final exile in Saint Helena and the declarations of war that started on August 1st, 1914.  The revolutions of 1848, wars of Italian and German unification in the 1860s and 1870s, the Crimean War, or even the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 showed Europe’s royalist peace was, at best, a facade.  Rather, Europe on the eve of June 28th, 1914 was a centuries-long Cold War that was looking for an excuse to steam to a boil.

A False Peace: Europe had seen years of war before 1914. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13, pictured here, set the stage of redrawing the map of Europe.

Continental European affairs had long been a struggle for a balance of power. France had been balanced against a collection of German states on the continent, and checked by Britain abroad.  The Italian states were a buffer against Austrian ambitions while Austria played the same role against Ottoman incursions into Europe.  Russia was simultaneously a European power and not – an ally for the burgeoning Balkan states, but also an enemy the rest of Europe looked at warily for it’s ambitions in Central Asia – against the Ottomans and also Britain.

This uneasy balance had been permanently altered by the Napoleonic age.  Not only had the concept of overthrowing monarchies become en vogue, but it saw that one powerful state could rule all of Europe – and thus potentially the world.  France in 1815 was little different than Germany in 1914 – a continental superpower who threatened political and economic stability by seeking dominance.  From the end of the Napoleonic wars to 1870, France was viewed as a state-level contagion; unable to be completely isolated and thus needing to be carefully watched and contained by her neighbors.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand being welcomed by Sarajevo’s Mayor. One attempt on the Archduke’s life had already been made that day

The unification of Germany flipped this script.  Britain, and the rest of Europe, suddenly realized a unified Germany represented a far greater threat to Europe’s balance of power than a clearly weakened France.  Germany, unable to comprehend that Britain’s prior alliances were born of political necessity, quickly grew to view their former ally as a future opponent and sought to challenge Britain in terms of naval force and colonial gains.  The speedy ascension of Germany’s battleships, including the mega battleship Dreadnought, and the Kaiser’s colonial possessions in Africa and Asia deeply worried European diplomats and monarchs.  Germany’s alliance with Austra-Hungary, the Duel Alliance, further inflamed fears that Germany was priming to dominate Europe.

In order to try and maintain the “cold war” atmosphere of dynastic détente, a series of new alliances arose.  Mortal enemies Britain and France now had a common fear – Imperial Germany.  While Britain still didn’t trust Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, as the two nations competed in Central Asia in what would be known as “the Great Game”, France wanted to surround Germany, and thus an alliance was born.  Russia, fearful of having an allied Germany and Austria-Hungary on its borders, supported it’s fellow Slavic Serbs, who had just recently acquired independence.  The political calculations of the previous century, the roots of some of which stretched back further centuries, had shifted.  But the motivations that had compelled those prior alliances had not.

Fly the Bloody Flag: the blood-soaked remains of Ferdinand’s uniform

The balance of power brought about by these series of interlocking alliances worked as long as nothing tested them.  But the potential flashpoints were few and far between. Foreign political conflicts, like the Moroccan Crisis of 1906, saw war between the European powers threatened but come of nothing.  Only in the Balkans, where borders and boundaries were constantly shifting, and nationalists on all sides were attempting to seize control, did it seem likely that conflict among the major powers might occur.

Entering into this dangerous mixture was the former Ottoman Vilayet of Bosnia (Bosnia-Herzegovina today) and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Austria-Hungay had been given control of the region from the Ottomans in 1878 in return for the recognition of Serbia as an independent state.  Relations between the two monarchies were healthy, despite Serbian nationalist influences.  But the bloody overthrow of the pro-Austrian Serbian monarchy in 1903 completely changed that dynamic.  A pro-Russian monarchy took its place, leading a nervous Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia in 1909, over Serbian protests. Serbian nationals responded with a series of assassination attempts, some successful, against Austrian officials in Bosnia.  Thus, the visit from the heir to the Austrian throne seemed especially unwise.

Gavrilo Princip: the face that launched 16 million deaths. Princip was no Lee Harvey Oswald. He received aid from Serb’s Chief of Military Intelligence.

But if Slavic nationalism had any friends in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, it would have been Ferdinand.  The Archduke was a major proponent of creating yet a third crown for the Empire – a sort of Austro-Slavic-Hungarian Empire.  But instead of regarding Ferdinand’s desire for increased Slavic authority in the monarchy as a boon, Serbian nationals saw it as a threat and an attempt, which it was, to keep Serbian-Austrian nationals loyal to the crown.  Ferdinand’s ethnic diplomacy would be his undoing.

Serbian nationalist terrorists had unified, somewhat, under the organization known as The Black Hand.  At nearly 3,500 members in 1914, including major Serbian army officials, the Black Hand was the Serbian al-Qaeda or Taliban of its day – a terrorist organization, but one fully supported by a sovereign government.  The members of the Black Hand chosen to kill Ferdinand had received training and support from the highest officials in the Serbian military and intelligence community.  The Serbian Prime Minister was informed of their smuggling into Bosnia.  A half-hearted recall of these sleeper agents was attempted two weeks before the assassination as Serbian officials began to doubt how much Russia would come to their aid if it was discovered that the Serbian government had planned to kill another monarch.  The recall either never reached the Black Hand or was ignored.  There was no turning back.

One of the Serbian conspirators being dragged into jail as crowds attempt to grab him

Ferdinand and his wife Sophie arrived at Sarajevo’s Town Hall quite shaken.  The bomb had failed to harm them, but many of their entourage had been severely hurt.  ”Mr. Mayor, I came here on a visit and I get bombs thrown at me. It is outrageous,” Ferdinand supposedly complained to his mayoral host.  But calmed by his wife, Ferdinand delivered his short speech and left, choosing to visit his wounded compatriots at the hospital.  Now more security conscience than before, the driver choose to avoid the heavily-trafficked city center for a side street.  At 10:45am, they turned right onto Franz Josef Street, a mistaken turn.  Ferdinand ordered the car to back up.

Watching all this, perhaps with slight amazement, was Gavrilo Princip.  He had been a part of the Black Hand’s assassination planning, but he was not a Serbian nationalist. Calling himself a “Yugoslav nationalist,” Princip’s only political goal was to see Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs unified…just under any government but Austria’s.  Princip had been told the first attempt on Ferdinand’s life had failed, and while trying to get to the city center, where he assumed Ferdinand would go, luck had delivered the Archduke right in front of him.  Thus a Serb who wanted unity with other Slavs, on orders from a Serbian nationalist group whose ideology preached Serbian superiority, leveled his gun at a Royal who wanted to provide the same sort of unification to Slavs, only as equals.  With two gunshots, the dreams of Gavrilo Princip and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so similar yet so far apart, died.

Ferdinand was hit in the jugular while his wife, Sophie, was shot in the stomach.  Sophie died first, despite Ferdinand’s impassioned pleas that she hold on, and the Archduke’s seemingly more serous wound.  Ten minutes after arriving at the Governor’s residence to be treated by trustworthy doctors, both the Archduke and his wife were dead.  Princip had been arrested on the spot.  His only stated regret was shooting the Archduke’s wife.  He claimed he had been aiming for the seated Bosnian Governor, accompanying the couple throughout the day.

The immediate impact showed that the Black Hand did not speak for Bosnia.  The next day, riots engulfed Austria and Bosnia – 1,000 Serbian homes and shops were burned and looted.  The local police forces did nothing to protect Serbian civilians, whose only crime had been their ethnicity.  It was a sign of things to come.

Descent into Madness: even newspaper opinion cartoons of the time understood what was about to happen. What would become the “July Crisis” would end in a global war.

A show trial of Gavrilo Princip would not start until October – by then the world was at war and few cared about the man who started it.  While many members of the conspiracy were hung, and Austria-Hungary had gone to war with Serbia over the assassination of it’s heir, Princip’s life was spared, sort of.  Too young by Austrian legal standards to face execution, Princip was given 20 years – that’s it.  He wouldn’t live to see the end of the war.  Imprisonment was brutal for Princip, who suffered from malnurishment and skeletal tuberculosis so bad that it ate away his bones until his right arm had to be amputated.  He died weighing merely 88-pounds.  Perhaps an execution would have been kinder.

If Princip suffered indignities in captivity, Franz Ferdinand suffered indignities in death – and his slights perhaps caused millions more to perish.

Ferdinand’s rival, Alfred, 2nd Prince of Montenuovo and head of the Royal Court, worked to turn Ferdinand’s funeral into a royal snub.  While foreign dignitaries were originally invited, in addition to the entire Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Alfred purposefully chose to keep the funeral to immediate family.  He ordered soldiers not to salute Ferdinand’s coffin as it was transported and even tried to make his children foot the bill for the funeral!  Alfred’s actions were deemed so cruel, the new Archduke led a minor internal revolt to force Alfred to allow Ferdinand the burial honors according to his rank.

But the real cost of snubbing Ferdinand was unknown to Alfred, or others in the Austrian monarchy.  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, soon to become history’s villain for the forthcoming Great War, had communicated his willingness to use the funeral as a summit to prevent a conflict.  After all, most of the royal families that were about to declare war would be attending.  What better place to calm tempers, as he happened in previous dilemmas?

With Alfred’s snub, perhaps the last best chance to avoid war was missed.  There would be peace in the summer of 1914, for now.  But it was a peace to end all peace.

It Was 100 Years Ago Tomorrow

It was 100 years ago tomorrow that Gavril Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.   It’s an event that your junior high history teacher told you started World War I.  Your teacher was right, in the same sense that a buckling road “causes” a sinkhole.

And if you’ve been following my “World War II – Fact And Myth” series marking the seventieth anniversaries of key events in World War 2, you may not be shocked to know that First Ringer and I – frustrated historians, both of us us – are going to be rolling out a similar series, “World War I – Fact and Myth”, touching on the same sorts of events in the First World War at their 100th anniversaries.  The series will obviously overlap for the next 15 months or so – which makes perfect sense, since they really were two different phases of the same war.  Indeed, much of what is going on in the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Europe today is directly tied to what happened in World War I.

So that works.

Of course, it also means a fair amount of re-reading World War I history for both of us!

As a palate-cleanser before the series starts?  Austin Bay on the ways in which World War 1 is still going on.


“Mediocre minds discuss strategy; Good minds discuss tactics; Great minds discuss logistics”
- Unknown, possibly aprocryphal

Every “war” in the living memory of any American under the age of probably 60 has been the sort of thing a peasant in the 1700s might recognize; a country’s professional military duking it out with another country’s military, or with insurgents in some unruly province, while back things went on more or less as normal.

The idea of “total war” – the complete mobilization of every factor of a nation’s economy toward a war effort – sounds completely foreign to people today.  The idea that entire nations would devote their entire economies – down to the food on one’s table – to defeating an enemy who similiarly engaged?  That may as well be words from another language.

But seventy years ago today, there were not one but two separate stories that illustrated how deeply America’s raw industrial output affected the outcome of history’s greatest war.

Shorefront:  For centuries, the greatest problem with launching an amphibious invasion – landing troops from the sea to not merely harass the enemy and leave, but to stay and conquer their target – wasn’t landing the troops on the shore.  Any boat can land a group of soldiers on a beach; with enough courage and skill, they can overwhelm the defenses (if any) and prevail.

The hard part is keeping those troops supplied.  You can’t just land soldiers and expect them to keep moving; you need to supply them with ammunition, food and clothing.  Their artillery support needs to land.  And they all need ammunition.  Vehicles – jeeps, tanks, personnel carriers, to fight the battles, and trucks to carry supplies to the troops at the front – all have to be landed, as well as fuel, oil and spare parts for all the vehicles.  And the men; field hospitals, replacment soldiers, medicine, body bags.  And ever more of all the above.

The irreducible fact of fighting a war across any sizeable body of water is that the bridgehead, sooner or later, would need to capture an intact port, with dock facilities capable of unloading ships full of cargo to be tranported to the front.  Cranes, wharves, warehouses, roads and railroads, all the infrastructure needed to accept, unload, sort, transfer and dispatch cargo to the front to support millions of fighting and support soldiers – there was only one way to get those.

In the case of D-Day, it was complicated by the fact that the same geography that made the invasion beaches usable for the initial assault – a long, gently sloping shelf out from the beaches, with shallow water extending out hundreds of yards – made it exceptionally difficult to bring in cargo ship, which have deep “drafts” – they run aground in water less than 20-30 feet deep.

Or that was the conventional wisdom.  British and American engineers, in the runup to D-Day, hatched the idea of the “Mulberry” – an artificial harbor, capable of providing a shelter from the weather of the English Channel, and instant wharves and jetties and docks built straight out from the invasion beaches, capable of unloading bulk lots of cargo from ships designed to carry lots of it, in water deep enough for the ships to approach and navigate.  They consisted of…:

  • A “breakwater” constructed of long chains of sunken ships and large concrete boxes, to create an area of calm water
  • Instant docks made out of large, prefabricated cement and steel sections that would be towed to the beach and moored in place.
  • Long stretches of floating roadway to join the beach to the docks, so trucks could take unloaded cargo from the jetties directly to the beach, and thence to the road system.

    The Arromanches Mulberry, in service.


There were two Mullberries – an American one off Omaha Beach, and a British one off Sword Beach.  And in the two weeks since D-Day, the two harbors had been erected, and had started their job of moving cargo…

Floating roadways in from a Mulberry dock to the beach.

…when, seventy years ago tonight, a huge gale struck Normandy.  The American Mulberry, anchored in softer sand, was broken apart; floating roadways were washed away; docks were pulled out of place and damaged beyond repair.

The British Mulberry was badly damaged, and out of service for a few days – but it served on at reduced capacity until, later than fall, the Allies finally captured the port of Antwerp (after the Germans destroyed the ports facilities at Cherbourg, Le Havre and Dunkirk).

The remains of the British Mulberry can be seen from Google Maps today, off “Sword” beach, at the French city of Arromanches.

What that meant was the Allies – especially the Americans – had to do what had been considered impossible; bring in all the supplies needed for a huge army, “over the beach”.

And there was the other huge American success story; they pulled it off, using hundreds of “Landing Ship, Tank” vessels.

A row of LSTs, disgorging cargo at Utah Beach.

About 300 feet long, fairly flimsy by naval standards, but designed to run up in waters less than five feet deep to drop off tanks almost directly onto the beach, an “LST” could also carry trucks loaded with supplies that could drive onto the beach with needed cargoes.

And the US built well over 1,000 of them.

LST-1, the first of well over a thousand nearly identical ships. Some are still afloat today.

So when the pre-invasion calculus of moving supplies to the troops got blown away seventy years ago tonight, there was a “Plan B” – raw, brute carrying force.

Raw Numbers:  Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Battle of the Philippine Sea – the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines – was underway.

Let’s go back in time a bit, first.

Two years ago, the US Pacific Fleet was far from recovered from Pearl Harbor.  For that matter, it was reeling from losses at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Solomon Islands.

At one point, the US was down to two carriers – the Saratoga and theEnterprise – afloat in the Pacific.  We had had to resort to the subterfuge of “borrowing” the British carrierVictoriousfor a few months, and masquerading it as an American ship, to deceive the Japanese.

But in the intervening two years, the US had commissioned nearly a dozen new “fleet” carriers (each carrying 90 aircraft), and nine “light” carriers (converted cruisers, designed mostly to carry fighter escorts for the main fleet, and carrying about 40 planes).  More importantly, its pilots had gone from a mass of untrained college graduates to a highly-trained force adept at handing down hard-won experience from combat veterans to newbie pilots.

Five “Essex” Class Carriers – all commissioned since 1942; more carriers than the US actually owned in 1941.  There were eventually nearly twenty Essexes.

In the meantime, the Japanese Naval Air Service – in 1942 perhaps the most elite body of pilots in the world – had been ground down by massive casualties at Midway, whittled away in other battles across the Pacific…

…and finally, launched into an epic attack on the American fleet.

Which led, seventy years ago tonight, to “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Nearly 600 Japanese planes were shot down; the US Navy lost about 120, two-thirds of them due to running out of fuel while attempting to attack the Japanese fleet (which escaped, although not without terrible cost) at extreme range.

Japanese fighter going down at the Battle of the Philippine Sea – one of nearly 600 lost in two days.

The battle left the Japanese navy’s air service with enough trained aircrew to fit out one light carrier; without air cover, there was no question of the Japanese Navy undertaking any non-suicidal offensive action for the rest of the war.

And the bulk of the backstory for this pivotal battle came down to industrial production; the United States had replaced its casualties from Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway and the Solomons at least twice over (and even more so in terms of smaller warships, supply vessels and especially aircraft and aircrew).

The battle spelled the end of any rational Japanese threat in the Pacific.

And between both episodes, on both sides of the world, it showed what a crushingly immense thing US productivity was.

High Time

At long last (within the next decade, anyway) as a growing plurality of Russians long for the Stalinist good ol’ days and as Marxism essentially controls the American academy – the US will be building a museum dedicated to the victims of Communism.

The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation wants to break ground on a museum in Washington in October 2017, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that created the Soviet Union.

“What we see in Ukraine and Russia grappling with and dealing with the toxic legacy of Soviet communism in that part of the world, I think there is a growing awareness that this is a very serious and real issue,” said Marion Smith, executive director of the foundation.

The museum would house documents, art and other historical artifacts, Mr. Smith said. While the foundation has some material, he said it is working with donors to gather other collections and would plan to work internationally with museums in former communist countries for rotating exhibits.

The perfect theme?

Long lines to get in, surly and disconnected service, and the “general admission” tickets are cheap but provide shoddy access, while the limited number of “Deluxe” tickets – let’s call ‘em “Dacha” tickets – get you caviar, top-shelf vodka, and a view of the actual exhibits.


Back To The Future

It’s been about a decade now since the “Drone” – the unmanned aircraft remotely-controlled by a human – promised to revolutionize warfare. 

It was a solid decade before that that the “precision-guided weapon” became the star of the first Gulf War.

And it was a decade and a half earlier that the “Cruise Missile” became first the great destabilizor of the endless series of nuclear arms talks, and then one of the hammers with which Ronald Reagan beat the Soviet Union on the anvil of unbending socialist economic stagnation.

But all three of these currents got their bloody start seventy years ago today, with the first “Buzz Bomb” attack on London.

Hitler and the German bureaucracy were famous for squandering immense effort on weapons, strategies and programs that served no useful purpose but to indulge the vendettas of one Nazi leader or another.  As the German army was running short of tanks on the Eastern Front, Hitler was devoting immense engineering effort to building a rocket to attack New York.  As the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front scraped to supply itself with food and ammunition, railroads were forced to reserve masses of rolling stock to transport people to and among concentration camps. 

And as the tide turned against the German military on land, sea and air – culminating in the D-Day invasions 70 years ago last Friday – Hitler squandered a king’s ransom on weapons designed to terrorize enemy civilians.

70 years ago today the first “V-1″ “Buzz Bomb” struck London.

A V1, captured at the end of the war.

The Vergeltungswaffe 1 – or “Reprisal Weapon 1″ – was the world’s first operational “Cruise Missile” – basically an unmanned aircraft whose sole mission was to fly a preset distance, crash into the ground, and detonate the 1,800 pounds explosives it carried.  It was nicknamed the “Buzz Bomb” by the Allies due to its pulse-jet engine, which burned fuel in a series of bursts rather than in a continuous stream like a modern jet engine, causing the weapon in flight to sound like a very long, immensely loud, dry fart in flight.   The crude jet drove the weapon at around 400 mph – faster than all but the very fastest Allied fighters, the Mustang, Spitfire, Tempest and Mosquito.

V1 in flight

It was a crude weapon.  It wasn’t “guided”, per se – it flew in the direction in which it was launched, from large launch ramps in Holland.  They were stabilized – they had a reasonable chance of flying in a more or less straight direction – and carried a crude timer powered by a propellor which, after a designated number of spins, would send the plane into a power-drive straight into the ground; on contact, the detonator would explode the bomb.  

A V1 on a launch ramp. This was the “guidance system”.

It was crude, not really capable of “hitting a target” so much as “blowing up somewhere in a large area”. 

And London (which was really the only target the bombs were aimed at until the Allied advances during autumn put the launch sites out of range, when they switched to the Allies’ main supply port at Antwerp, Belgium) was a very big target.

The reactions in London have been toned down by the historians – but the attacks caused the RAF and USAAF to redeploy a huge number of anti-aircraft guns and their fastest fighter planes – the P51 Mustangs, Supermarine Spitfire XVs, De Havilland Mosquitos and especially Hawker Tempests that were so direly needed to maintain air supremacy over the continent.   Countering V-1s was the first job of Britain’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor.   This was among the most dangerous jobs in the RAF during this last year of the war; shooting a buzz bomb could set off an explosion that’d take out both planes.  Many pilots preferred to “tip” the V1s – using their wings to flip the buzz bombs’ wings, sending them either off-course or into the ground.  The campaign against the buzz bombs killed 300 Allied airmen.  

A Spitfire “tipping” a V1 in flight. Bear in mind, both planes are moving at 400-450 miles per hour.

The countermeasures – a huge ring of anti-aircraft guns, and squadrons of patroling fighters – killed nearly 75% of the incoming cruise missiles. 

Of 10,000 V1s fired at London, about 2,400 got through. 

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, with a V1 diving to impact in the background.

And while it was nowhere near as deadly as the Blitz of 1940 – the months of firebombing that killed 92,000 Britons (at a cost of 3,000 aircraft and over 7,000 German aircrew), the V-1 campaign destroyed almost the same number of structures, killed 22,000 (mostly in and around London), and incurred no direct German casualties. It was one of the most cost-effective terror campaigns in history.

While the weapons were crude, and the goal was futile, in another sense the first explosion of the first Buzz Bomb 70 years ago today was the first explosion of the 21st Century way of making war.

This Great And Noble Undertaking

I first wrote this piece five years ago.   I’ve updated it, bit by bit, on successive D-Day anniversaries.  I’m reprising it today:


It was sixty-seven years ago today that the Allies started taking Western Europe back from the Nazis.

The first, inevitable step was to get past the Westwall - perhaps the most immense set of fortifications ever built, with the intention of making the beaches from Denmark to the Spanish border a bloodbath for any troops trying to cross the beaches.

In places, it worked:

In some places, the troops had to overcome the near-impossible:

And yet by the end of the day, nine allied divisions were ashore, a toehold for a bridgehead that would eventually expand, ten months later, across Western Europe.

There were troops from the US, of course, on the two western beaches…

…and farther east, beaches with Brits…

…and Scots…

And in the middle, linking the two and meeting the worst resistance other than Omaha, the Canadians:

Troops from the Canadian Third Division coming ashore at Juno Beach – where the ferocity and difficulty of the fighting was exceeded only by Omaha Beach.

…along with troops-in-exile from elsewhere in occupied Europe; French commandos – some of whom had spent four years in exile, and who spent the next year belying the notion that the French were cowards…:

…and Norwegians, who’d been without a homeland for four years…

HNoMS Svenner – sunk by German gunfire off Sword Beach.

…and Poles, who’d been in exile for five years and would, in some cases, remain there for forty-five more:

The world may see nothing like it again.

So – thank a D-Day veteran.

Here’s President Reagan’s address to the survivors of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion, thirty years ago today…:

…who at this time seventy years ago, French Time, were still a day away from being relieved by the troops coming in from Omaha Beach.

Coolness Under Fire

Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

The Scots bagpiper who played as his mates came ashore on Sword Beach on D-Day.

And another account of him playing as his crew attacks Pegasus Bridge.

Lord Lovat’s bagpiper, Bill Millin.

Marching along playing bagpipes in the middle of a battlefield.  I can believe the Germans thought he was insane.

Joe Doakes

His name was Bill Millin. He was actually from Regina, Saskatchewan – but his family moved to Scotland when he was 3.  He became a bagpiper in the 51st “Highland” Division, and then became a Commando in Lord Lovat’s brigade.

Millin, more recently.

And so 70 years ago this morning, Millin went into action armed only with bagpipes and the traditional, ceremonial Sgian-Dubh knife stock in his right sock.

As to insanity?  The Scots have long known that the sound of a bagpipe stokes the savage beast.

Millin died in 2010.  His pipes are at the “Pegasus Bridge” museum, in Normandy.

Flags Of My Ex-Father-In-Law

My ex father-in-law, Al, had been married about a week when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  The next morning, he and his umpteen brothers (I lost count and never really found it again) volunteered for one of the armed forces or another (except for one older brother who had already joined the Navy in the thirties).

He had a busy war.

As I recall the story; he started off working as a cook, then trained as a gunner’s mate.  He shipped aboard theUSS Iowa, and cruised to North Africa to take FDR to the Casablanca conference.

Then, when cleaning his gun (a 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine gun), a recoil spring popped loose, catapulting him over the edge and down a deck or two, cracking a vertebrae or two.  He was in the Naval Hospital for months recuperating from the injury, as Iowa sailed on.

Iowa, later in the war. Iowa has no further place in the story, but it’s cool picture. That’s USS Indiana steaming in the background, in the Pacific in 1944. Collett is actually most likely not too terribly far from these ships…

And so he was reassigned to “new construction” at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, upstream from the Atlantic along the border with New Hampshire – a shipyard that still builds all the US Navy’s destroyers.

He was assigned to the fitting-out and commissioning of a brand-new destroyer – DD-730, to be christened the USS Collett. The destroyer was named after Navy Lieutenant Commander John A. Collett, commander of a torpedo bomber squadron who’d been shot down and killed at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in 1942. In a highly unusual non-coincidence, the ship’s first commander was Collett’s brother, Commander James D. Collett.

Collett during its sea trials, off Boston, May 31 1944.

And seventy years ago today, Collett was commissioned into the US Navy.  Al was a “plankholder” – a member of the crew that put the vessel into service.

Side elevation of a Sumner class destroyer.

Collett was an “Allan Sumner” class destroyer – the first class of US Navy destroyers designed entirely after the war started.  With six five-inch guns in three turrets (instead of the four or five single turrets of earlier designs, all capable of shooting at either ships or aircraft), and twelve 40mm anti-aircraft machine guns, the Sumners reflected the lessons learned so far in the war; anti-aircraft firepower was a matter of life or death.  As indeed for the Collett it would be shortly.

After its shakedown – a fast, wartime working-up period - Collett set sail to join the Pacific Fleet, arriving in Pearl Harbor exactly five months from its commissioning date, and at the massive forward base at Ulithi Atoll three weeks later.

Ulithi Atoll during the war. A squat little coral atoll, it had an immense lagoon, providing a sheltered anchorage big enough for hundreds of Allied ships. Home to hundreds of supply ships, repair ships, barracks barges, ammunition ships, factory ships (including a floating foundry), water distillery barges, hospital ships, even a barge that produced ice cream by the barrel, Ulithi was perhaps the greatest naval base in history – and when the war ended and the fleet pulled anchor, it disappeared virtually without a trace.

And then it was off to war.

Two weeks later, she was off to start in the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines.  And there – on November 14 - Collett was part of an extraordinary encounter.  The destroyer was posted on radar “picket” duty – sailing well north of the main invasion fleet, to provide early radar warning of incoming air raids.  It was among the most dangerous jobs in the Navy; the Japanese knew what the long chains of lone destroyers were doing.  Of course, the carriers provided air cover – but it didn’t always work. 

Destroyers – even big ones like the Collett  – had their limitations.  The general assumption was that one destroyer could take on one attacking aircraft at a time.  That wasn’t chicken feed; an incoming combat aircraft flown by a competent pilot is a formidable target.  And while the fire control systems on American destroyers were wonders of analog technology – by far the most advanced of their day – the complexity of the problem generally boiled down to the simple fact that a destroyer could reasonably hope to deal with one attacking aircraft at a time.  (Larger ships – cruisers and battleships – could deal with more, and a formation of ships escorting an aircraft carrier could put up a storm of anti-aircraft fire that made attacking a US formation a very risky, costly thing by 1944.  Indeed, a kamikaze mission.  But we’ll get back to that).

On November 14, four Japanese G4M2 “Betty” torpedo bombers approached Collett.

A formation of “Betty” bombers.

Seventy years of being the victors in the war have given Americans a sense that Japanese military equipment was junk – but in fact the “Betty” was one of the better torpedo bombers of the war.  It was fast (for a twin-engined bomber), with an extremely long range, and armed with Japanese torpedoes (and unlike American torpedoes, Japanese torpedoes were excellent, accurate, and utterly reliable), the “Betty” was a formidable plane.  And there were four of them.

And they were clearly led by a competent tactician, because the four planes fanned out around Collett, turned, and came in from all four points of the compass – a tactic that virtually ensured that at the very least three planes and likely all four would get to drive their attack home, that three or four torpedoes would be launched, and at least one would almost certainly hit the target, definitely crippling it, probably sinking it.

But the American ship – Commander Collett and his anti-aircraft crews, including Al, who was the gun captain of a 40mm mount to starboard of the forward smokestack – pulled off an incredible performance, shooting down two of the incoming bombers.  In those days, it was an amazing display of gunnery.

A twin 40mm mount, similar to (indeed, interchangeable with) the one Al captained on the Collett. Each barrel fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile. The gun was a Swedish design, appropriated and used by nearly every country still extant by 1944; the US, Britain, and even Germany built them under license. Some are still in active service today.

The other two launched their torpedoes – and, in a feat of seamanship that sounds pretty trival in written English, but which in practice was a couple steps shy of parting the Red Sea, Commander Collett managed to “comb the wakes” of the two incoming “fish”, dodging them both.

The feat may have stopped short of “miracle” – but it was an exceptional display of gunnery, seamanship, and 1940s analog computing technology. 

The Collett - and Al – went on to much more; they battled Kamikazes off Okinawa.  Its’ squadron was among the first American ships to sortie into Tokyo Bay, torpedoing several Japanese merchant ships in the process.  She escorted the Missouri to the surrender ceremony.

And that wasn’t all.  She fought in Korea – Collett was the second ship into Inchon Harbor, battling it out with the Korean shore batteries, among a group of destroyers that were expected to be “sitting ducks“, drawing North Korean fire to mark the guns for obliteration from fleet gunfire and air attacks.  In fact, the destroyers silenced the Korean guns, and Collett suffered light casualties.

She was an active unit of the Pacific Fleet until 1960, when she collided with the USS Ammen, had her bow replaced with the bow from another WWII destroyer, and then served off Vietnam.

Collett in 1969

Then, in 1974, she was sold to Argentina.  The USS Collett became the Argentinian navy ship ARA Piedra Buena.

The Piedra Buena

During the Falklands Islands war of 1982, Piedra Buena was escorting the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano (formerly the US light cruiser Phoenix) when the Belgrano was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror.  Piedra Buena picked up survivors, then returned to Argentina.

The ship’s long career ended in 1988, when the Argies sank her as a missile target.

That, as it happens, was maybe a year before I met Al.

Like a lot of WWII vets, Al apparently didn’t talk a lot about the war (or so his various kids told me).  In 1990, out of ideas for Christmas presents, I built a small scale model of Collett, and mounted it on a plaque with a couple of wartime photos of the ship.

After that, he started talking a little more about the war; he dragged out his old blues, and some of his photos, and some of the stories.  He passed away about ten years back.  Unlike a lot of ex-in-laws, Al and I always got along famously. 

Apropos not much.  I just noticed the anniversary.


Mark Steyn on hashtag diplomacy:

Plenty has been written about all the things that this photo…

…says about the United States today.  None of them good.

Steyn notes – as many have quoted – that it’s certainly not going to matter of inveighing Boko Haram (Nigerian for “So Long, Suckers!”) to “give the girls back”.  Someone’s going to have to either engage in some incredibly tough negotiation (the Bokos know they hold the cards), or take them back, if they can be found (and it’s likely they can’t).

But he brought up two other points – both of them tying the Boko Haram kidnappings to a story I wrote about last week, in which a California school issued an assignment asking students to present evidence that the Holocaust never happened.

Being unaware of the background details, I thought it might juuuuuust be possible it was a debate point, asking kids to step outside their comfort zone (waaaaay outside) to debate a point.

It wasn’t, of course (I’ll be adding the odd bit of emphasis) not, and my vestigial faith in the integrity of public school teachers is, as all-too-frequently, wasted:

That’s never a smart idea. The California schools superintendent who wanted his Eighth Graders to turn in essays arguing that the Holocaust didn’t happen is called Mohammad Z Islam. That’s why they got the assignment, not because they wanted to turn themselves into the Oxford Union. As Laura Rosen Cohen pointed out, there are all kinds of lively topics Mr Cooke might propose for our schools: Did Mohammed exist? What’s the deal with his nine-year-old bride? But in the real world even mild questioning of whether Islam is a “religion of peace” is beyond the pale, and across the Continent the Holocaust is disappearing from school curricula.

That’s the problem. There’s no point winning an Oxford debate if the other side win everything else.

And he notes that modern eighth-graders rarely know what the Holocaust is, much less how to have an Oxford Union-style debate on the subject.

And of course…:

In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

And it’s be hard to argue that the good guys are winning the present.

Boarders Away

There are (or were, at least – I can’t speak for how schools teach history today, and I’m not sure I want to know) a number of battles in World War 2 that are (or were) household knowledge, knowledge of which was part of the common cultural currency of being an American.

D-Day and Pearl Harbor are still fairly well-known.  Americans who’ve served, or know people who’ve served, or are casual history buffs, might know about Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima.

You usually have to get into more-serious history, or people who’ve followed their own family histories closely, to find people today who know anything about Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Saint Lo.   People who watched Band of Brothers might know Market Garden.

But even the serious history buffs, when asked about the truly pivotal battles of World War 2, will frequently omit what may have been the most important battle of all – the Battle of the Atlantic.

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All In The Timing

SCENE:  Mitch BERG is rigging a small “Snark”-class sailboat out for a day of sailing on Lake Minnetonka.  Among the modifications: the stepping of fore and mizzen masts, and the conversion of all three to square rigging, and a black with white-stripe and black “gunports” paint job, to convert the 14 foot boat into a small model of the USS Constitution. 

BERG notices Avery LIBRELLE paddling past on a recumbent bicycle that’s had two outrigger floats attached to the frame, and paddles clipped to the drive wheel, making the recumbant into a crude pedal-powered catamaran. 

LIBRELLE notices BERG before he can duck below the gunwales of the small boat.

LIBRELLE:   Ahoy, Merg!

BERG:  Er, ahoy, matey.  Interesting ride.

LIBRELLE:  Yeah, I paid for it with a government “green energy” grant.

BERG:  Of course you did.  What’s up?

LIBRELLE:  I’m on my way to a float-in observing the 44th anniversary of the Kent State shootings.

BERG:  Huh.  44 years.  Wow.  I remember seeing that on the TV when I was a little kid.

LIBRELLE:  Further proof that we the Masses need to be on guard against totalitarian rule!

BERG:  Huh?

LIBRELLE: Nixon ordered those murders!

BERG: Er, it was more a matter of National Guardsmen panicking under pressure.  There was no conspiracy – at least, none that 44 years of constant scrutiny has found.

LIBRELLE:  Only if you believe the conservative mainstream media.

BERG:  Er, right.  So speaking of coverups, how about Benghazi?

LIBRELLE:  Oh, stop. That was two whole years ago!

LIBRELLE pedals briskly away – running up onto a sandbar.  



The Great Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it happened seventy years ago tonight.

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

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The Setting Sun

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

It would end with the costliest defeat in Japanese history.


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

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

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Falcon: Forty

Outrageous inflation in military spending isn’t a modern phenomenon.  Since the end of the Cold War, though, we don’t hear as much about it.

But in the 1970s, it was getting headlines.  The costs involved in developing weapons were zooming.  And nowhere were these costs more publicized than with aircraft.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the development of several key Air Force and Navy aircraft blossomed into inflationary nightmares.  It started with the F-111, whose protracted development time and cost overruns became a national controversy in the ’60s and early ’70s.

An Australian F-111.

The Navy’s F-14 program (that’d be the plane Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer flew in Top Gun) wasn’t as troubled – but each copy of the plane ran to well over $20 million 1972 dollars, which equals $111,000,000 today, giving a generation of American budget-watchers sticker shock.

An F-14 Tomcat. Not “TomKat”. Sheesh.

The Air Force’s F-15 was another expensive one, marginally cheaper than the F-14 for about the same mission.

An F-15 Eagle

The ballooning cost caused some military theorists to speculate we’d be better off buying more, cheaper aircraft; that in a potential Hot War, the huge number of relatively cheaper Soviet airframes would take horrible casualties against the technologically formidable US planes, but that at the end of the battle there’d be so many Soviets that the Americans would end up getting shot down any way.  Better, the theorists said, to buy many, many of the relatively cheap ($3-4 million a pop in the mid-seventies) F-5, which was comparable with a Soviet Mig-21.

A Mig 21 of the Lithuanian Air Force. First fielded in the late 1950s, over 10,000 Mig 21s were built – the most of any jet fighter in history.

With this in mind, General Dynamics set about trying to split the difference; building as smaller, lighter, less-expensive fighter plane.   This became the F-16 – called the “Falcon” by the Air Force, the “Viper” by many of its own pilots (and the “Lawn Dart” by F-15 pilots, after a few unfortunate crashes early in its development).

An F-16

And the first F-16 flew forty years ago this month.

Weights and costs rose, inevitably, as well – but for the price the Air Force got a plane with a number of firsts:  it was the first “relaxed-stability” fighter plane controlled by “fly by wire” technology.  Stable planes – like an airliner – are designed to fly efficiently and comfortably in straight lines.  They’re stable.  Airline passengers like them that way.  But airliners don’t have to pull 6G (six times the force of gravity) turns to evade incoming missiles, either (ideally).  Fighter planes do, on occasion – and while stability makes flying in one direction easier, it makes it harder to crank the plane into a sudden turn.  Unstable planes are, well, unstable; they’re prone to tipping over and rolling about at random, unless the pilot is in complete control – more complete than a human can possibly manage.  The F-16 used a computer to automatically adjust the control surfaces, many times per second, to keep the plane artificially stable in forward flight, but use the plane’s inherent instability to help it maneuver very quickly.  This technology also involved replacing the traditional mechanical control cables and connections with an electronic data bus, delivering electronic signals from the computer and, less frequently, the pilot, to the plane’s control surfaces (which had the added effect of getting rid of parts that, traditionally, are among a combat aircraft’s most vulnerable to damage).  It made the F-16 the most nimble fighter jet of its era, and one of the most maneuverable of our era as well.

The view (backwards, obviously) from the bubble canopy of an F-16. At least one of this blog’s semi-regular commenters has spent a fair chunk of his career with this view from his office. I’m hoping he shows up for this thread…

There were other advances – a frameless bubble canopy giving an unimpeded view of the surroundings, a pilot seat that was reclined 30° to reduce the physical effects of the gravitational forces involved in violent maneuvering on the pilot, “Hands on Throttle and Stick” controls that put most of the plane’s key controls on the two controls that the pilot kept his hands on most of the time, as well as moving the “stick” (which controls roll and pitch) from between the pilot’s knees to the right side of the seat.

Cockpit of an F-16. I recognize the stick on the right, the ejector seat control in the bottom center, and the throttle on the left. Beyond that, I couldn’t close the canopy much less read anything.

Many of these features have been found on most fighter planes developed since then.  Some – “fly by wire” – have even popped up on commercial passenger aircraft.

The F-16 was adopted by two dozen other countries, and produced in five (US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and South Korea).  It flew in combat in both Gulf Wars and over Bosnia, and has also flown in combat for the Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Pakistani, Venezuelan and (in limited skirmishes against each other) Greek and Turkish air forces.

Norwegian F-16 dropping a stick of bombs

And above all, Israel has used the F-16, as its principle multi-role fighter plane.  Eight of them (escorted by a flight of F-15s) bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, to stall Hussein’s nuclear program.  The raid highlighted both the flexibility of the F-16 (it was both an excellent fighter and a capable bomber) and the skill of Israel’s pilots (one pilot dropped his bomb through a hole in the reactor containment building that had been drilled by the previous plane’s bomb).

Israeli F-16

The F-16 has traditionally been scheduled to fly until 2025 – but delays in its putative replacement, the F-35, have likely stretched that a few years.

Happy Reagan’s Birthday!

Ronald Reagan – by far the greatest president of my lifetime – would be 103 today. 

I’ll be doing my usual Reagan’s Birthday celebration; special dinner, talking with the kids (and, soon, granddaughter Watermelon, who will be old enough to learn the basics before too terribly long), jelly beans at the office. 

Of course, Reagan’s Birthday is more than just a fun holiday, commemorating one of the great men of Western Civilization, a man whose brief ascendancy may have bought the United States a few more decades of prosperity – indeed, existence in its current form – than it had any right to expect 35 years ago. 

No – there are a lot of people out there trying to steal Reagan’s legacy, to pervert it into something it wasn’t, to lie and deceive for craven and low purposes. 

And I’m here to steal Reagan’s legacy back. The lies are all over the place; the answers, the scathing debunquements, are harder to find. 

But not on this blog. 

“Reagan spent a lot of money!”:  Read your Constitution.  Presidents don’t spend money.  The House of Representatives does.  Tip O’Neil spent money like a meth hooker with a stolen Gold Card.  Yes, Reagan’s primary priority – the downfall of Communism – cost money, and a lot of it.  That spending was supposed to be met with cuts to entitlements.  Congress – which, for the first 3/4 of Reagan’s time in DC was entirely controlled by spendthrift Democrats – insisted on keeping the entitlement gravy train flowing.  Presidents aren’t dictators (although Barack Obama seems to have expressed his intention to test that thesis in his last State of the Union); compromises were made. 

But economist James Lindeman of the Heritage Foundation estimated that Reagan’s defense spending paid for itself, with interest, in the nineties; freed of a Soviet Union, America’s economy de-militarized, freeing up immense capital and capacity for civilian production.  The technology that went into making the sonar on the Los Angeles class submarines a top-secret wonder of the world in 1982 was turned into making cell phones smaller, lighter, more capable and downright cheap by 1997.  Bill Clinton’s boom economy was entirely the result of Republican policy; Reagan made the “peace dividend” possible, and Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Congress prevented Bill Clinton from spending it all on Hillarycare. 

“Reagan was teh dum!”:  This notion has been shredded by waves of scholars. 

Of course, the source of that slander was something more toxic than the slander itself.  Reagan was a regular, middle-class American with a degree from a humble, obscure midwestern college, who’d worked his way up through several fields – radio, acting, public relations and then politics – without any of the academic fripperies that the elite has come to regard as the price of entry to respectable success – degrees, and more degrees, from institutions whose main claim to fame is their claim to fame. 

Reagan had none of that.  He had vision, talent, and hard work – the same things the vast majority of Americans bring to the table. 


And that – today, when our academy has turned into a self-sustaining parasite class (not to knock any particular members of the academy who may be friends and occasional radio co-hosts of mine), that’s an example all Americans need.

“Reagan raised taxes”:  Yes, he did.  Eventually.  But not until the real work was done, and much less than he cut them in the first place. 

We talked about this a couple years ago.  Reagan’s tax cuts came early in his Administration, when the economy was, by some measures, worse than it was in 2007.  He slashed taxes – and (unlike the 2007 recession) the economy came storming back. 

The “tax hikes” came in his second term; they were a result of Tip O’Neil and the Democrat Congress reneging on a deal with Reagan.  They were less than 1/4 of the size of the cuts and, most importantly, they happened when the economy was booming.  Could the economy have boomed more without the hikes?  Absolutely.  But raising taxes when the economy is booming isn’t quite as blazingly stupid as raising them when the economy is crippled. 

There truly is no compararison. 

“The Soviet Union would have collapsed on its own”:  That’s one of those things that everyone agreed about – in about 1993.  Of course, reading those same ‘experts’ in the seventies and eighties was quite another story; almost to a person (as showed by Dinesh D’Souza in his essential Reagan bio,Reagan:  How An Ordinary Man Became An Extraordinary President, they agreed in the seventies, the eighties, and even into the early nineties that the Soviet Union and the “Second World” it led were here to stay.  Many believed, on an intellectual level, that the USSR would one day collapse.  Not a one of them went on the record claiming it’d be in any of their lifetimes, to say nothing of “within a decade of Reagan’s inaugural”. 

But that’s history.  For me, it was very personal.  I grew up about 30 miles from the nearest first strike nuclear target, a Minuteman III silo, in the middle of a state with 329 more of them; missiles were almost as dense as oil wells, and covered much more of the state. 

And through most of my teens and twenties, I wondered – what would be the purpose of having children in a world that could get vaporized in half an hour? 

And having that threat ebb – having the bombers roll back from standby, having the Armageddon Clock back off a few minutes, moving the hammer back to half-cocked – answered that question for me; “don’t worry; life looks pretty likely to go on for the foreseeable future”. 

So my response to people knocking Reagan is the same as it ever was – polite contempt for their intellectual vapidity.  But for stealing Reagan’s legacy?  Perverting the facts?  Trying to forcibly bugger history? 

For that, there is no mercy. 

(Which is what you’ll find out if you waste space in my comment section disagreeing with any of the above.  While this blog tries to foster a lively discussion, on this issue there will be no dissent.  It’s my blog and I’ll censor if I want to).

The Sum Of All Putridity

Michael Barone writing in the WashEx notes that Henry Waxman and George Miller, the last two members of the Democrat “Class of 1974″ – the huge class of liberal Democrats that swept into office after Watergate – to have “served” continuously since ’74, are retiring.  (Two other members – Chuck Grassley, one of few Republicans, and Rick Nolan, who spent three terms, retired in 1980, and was re-elected in 2012, are the only two other members of the class).

And the class of 74 left a noxious legacy indeed.  For all the bemoaning of “extremism” and “polarization” that the likes of Lori Sturdevant do (usually blaming it on the Tea Party), it was in fact the “Class of ’74″ that got that ball rolling:

chairmen against whom a certain number of signatures were gathered.

San Francisco’s Phil Burton, who had shrewdly backed many ’74ers, gathered a sufficient number of signatures for every chairmen. Three were defeated by the newly enlarged caucus, including one, first elected in 1940, who addressed the freshmen as “boys and girls.”

Election of committee chairmen became routine, and it meant that anyone seeking a chair had better have a voting record in line with the Democrats’ liberal majority. For example, Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, first elected a month before Pearl Harbor, shifted suddenly from Right to Left.

And it was then that the Democrat Party began to truly shed its honorable, post-WW2-era legacy and become the extremist party it is today.  (It took twenty years for the Congressional GOP to adopt the similar rules).

And lest you think it was all inside-the-beltway wonkery?

The Class of 1974 also shifted the House and the congressional Democratic party from hawkish to dovish. One of its first acts in March 1975 was to block funding for South Vietnam when it was under attack by the North. Saigon fell in April.

They coarsened our political discourse, they worked tirelessly to blow up the national debt (with great success!), and they directly aided and abetted genocide, with the blood of millions on their hands.

Good riddance.

The Punch Line

At the end of World War 2, not a few Japanese soldiers never got the word that Japan had surrendered – or they just plain ignored the word they got.  Some had been marooned on isolated islands that, without a war going on, nobody cared about.  Others refused to believe the news, and faded into the woods to carry on the war and await rescue.

During the seventies – I remember a few of the stories as a kid – the last of these men were being coaxed out of the jungle (or, in some cases, carried out).

In the US, they were punch lines; I remember some of them from when I was a kid in the seventies.

In Japan, on the other hand…

The last, and most famous of these holdouts, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Army, died last week at 91.  He led a small detachment of holdouts in the Phillipine jungle for 29 years.

Lieutenant Onoda, an intelligence officer trained in guerrilla tactics, and three enlisted men with him found leaflets proclaiming the war’s end, but believed they were enemy propaganda. They built bamboo huts, pilfered rice and other food from a village and killed cows for meat; they were tormented by tropical heat, rats and mosquitoes, and they patched their uniforms and kept their rifles in working order.

Onoda emerges from the jungle 40 years ago.

They weren’t a punch line in the Philippines:

Considering themselves to be at war, they evaded American and Filipino search parties and attacked islanders they took to be enemy guerrillas; about 30 inhabitants were killed in skirmishes with the Japanese over the years. One of the enlisted men surrendered to Filipino forces in 1950, and two others were shot dead, one in 1954 and another in 1972, by island police officers searching for the renegades.

The last holdout, Lieutenant Onoda, officially declared dead in 1959, was found by Norio Suzuki, a student searching for him, in 1974. The lieutenant rejected Mr. Suzuki’s pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders. Mr. Suzuki returned with photographs, and the Japanese government sent a delegation, including the lieutenant’s brother and his former commander, to relieve him of duty formally.

He returned to a hero’s welcome, to a nation that – according to today’s media conventional wisdom – was hungry for some sort of meaning as Japan’s recovery from war-shattered nation to prosperity gathered steam.

The Stranded Whale

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Speech

Today, on the official observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, here’s a reminder of what the fuss is all about:

A few years ago, I heard a report on NPR that noted that among African-Americans, people are actually desensitized to the “I Have A Dream” speech.  It’s actually overplayed; people hear it so much, so often, and in so many contexts, that people are more or less numb to it.

And that’s a shame bordering on cultural crime; in an era when public oratory seems a dying art, when the likes of Barack Obama are considered “great public speakers”, listening to one of the greats – Reagan, Thatcher, JFK, Churchill and of course King – is both a thrill and, in a way, almost retro. The idea of being able to move people, not just with words but with rhythm alliteration, repetition for effect, assonance, structure and tone – seems almost a lost art.

It’s a crying shame.

Disaster By Design

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

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


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

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

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

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

Naval ships have the same set of compromises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KMS Scharnhorst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazilian Thunderbolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brazilian “Jug” on the ground in Italy.

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

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

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

More on that next month.

A Memorial To Remember

This coming Saturday, Minnesota’s self-appointed gun-grabber elite are going to try to squeedge some more juice out of waving the bloody shirt of Newtown:  

To Remember: A commemoration of the Sandy Hook school victims, and all victims of gun violence — 9:30 a.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis. To RSVP, click here. Space is limited. This event is co-sponsored by Moms Demand Action, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Organizing for Action.

They’ll then attempt to hold a meeting to promote more laws that would have had no effect on Newtown, or any other real-world gun violence. 

But there’s another anniversary this coming week; tomorrow, in fact.  And it deserves a memorial – because unlike every single thing proposed by “Protect” MN, Moms Want Action and the Felon Mayors, it actually saved lives. 

At around 3:25PM on December 11, 2012, Jacob Tyler Roberts walked into the Clackamas Town Center Mall in Portland Oregon.  He was wearing a ski mask, and carrying a stolen AR-15-pattern rifle with five magazines, a total of 150 rounds.  He donned the ski mask and carried the rifle openly; witnesses apparently thought it was a paintball outfit, and that the rifle was a toy.  One woman reportedly told Roberts to take off the mask – it looked “Creepy”.  Roberts didn’t respond. 

He walked to atrium in the middle of the mall, and started shooting.  He fired off his first magazine, killing two – Cindy Yuille, a 54 year old hospice nurse, and Steven Forsythe, a youth sports coach – and hitting15 year old Kristina Shevchenko in the chest (Shevchenko managed to walk out of the mall, and survived the incident). 

Then, as Roberts turned a corner and reloaded, he ran into Nick Meli, a citizen with a .40 caliber Glock 22 and an Oregon carry permit.  Meli drew - but didn’t shoot.  According to some stories, Meli froze; in others, he saw that there were civilians in the background that would be in danger if he missed.  Either is a fairly normal response under such conditions. 

But Roberts ran away.  He ducked into a JC Penney and ran into a storage corridor, where he pointed his rifle at Penneys employee Rok Sang Kim – but turned, ran down a stairwell, and shot himself. 

Drawn by reports of a mass shooting, dozens of ambulances turned out – but only Shevchenko was treated for any injuries.

The Lesson:  After the Columbine shooting – where a SWAT team waited outside the school for four hours before moving to engage the shooters – law enforcement went on a crash course of learning how to deal with mass shooters.  The lesson learned?  Don’t wait.  Get in, get at the shooter. 

It wasn’t about testosterone; examination of mass shooters showed that most of them are deeply narcissistic and intensely delusional.  In almost every case, the shootings were planned to a fine sheen, like a military operation, if the military were run by delusional people.

And that while the plans were intricate, the shooters’ mental state meant that any serious hiccup to the plan would send them off the rails.  And by “serious hiccup”, they meant “someone putting up meaningful resistance”. 

And so cops changed their tactics; rather than wait for SWAT, cops are now trained to get in, find the shooter, and put some lead on the target.   Because nothing disrupts a lunatic’s plan like having lead sailing past your head (to say nothing of through one’s chest). 

But here’s the little secret; it doesn’t have to be a cop doing the resisting.  History is full of examples of individual citizens putting up armed resistance to mass shooters, and ending the shootings:

  • The Pearl, Mississippi school shooting, where a teacher grabbed a gun and stopped the two shooters.
  • The Appalachian Law School shooting, where a would-be mass-murderer was stopped by a couple of armed students.
  • A robbery that was devolving into a mass-shooting in Virginia was stopped by a CCW permittee.
  • This episode in Texas recently
  • An episode in Richmond, VA in the nineties where a shooter who intended to copycat the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre (in Killeen, TX) was stopped after killing one person, by another citizen with a legal handgun.
  • The New Life Church shooting spree in Colorado Springs in 2007, ended by Jeanne Assam.
  • This episode in Texas, where an armed man killed a mass shooter (and died, himself); it’s generally agreed he saved several lives in the process.
  • Columbine itself was part of the lesson; it’s generally agreed that an armed sheriff’s deputy derailed the greater part of Harris and Klebold’s plans, firing off a couple of shots and deflecting the two shooters back to the library, fouling up their plans to set off bombs throughout the building and perhaps kill many, many more people. 

And of course the the Clackamas Mall shooting. 

Second-Guesses: There are those in the gun-grab movement who try to minimize, discount and ridicule the effect that an armed citizen can have in a mass shooting.  Some scoff that Roberts, and the shooter in the Colorado Springs episode, had jammed guns – as if clearing a jam is anything unusual (especially in an AR15) much less time-consuming to fix. 

But in both shootings, the jam was accompanied by a citizen facing the shooter down (and in Colorado Springs, seriously wounding him). 

The underlying point – mass shooters tend to abandon their plans when they’re faced with active, armed, potentially lethal resistance – stands.  Passive resistance – “lockdowns”, kevlar whiteboards – are better than nothing, provided the mass shooter allows them to be better than nothing. 

Consequences, Intended And Otherwise:  The Gun Control “Gun Safety” movement yaps a lot about “preventing gun violence” – while pushing policies that have never prevented and shall never prevent a single crime. 

And yet a year ago tomorrow, Nick Meli likely saved more lived that all of Michael Bloomberg, the Joyce Foundation, and Rep. Heather Martens’ efforts likely ever will, ever, for all eternity. 

And so for that, we should pay homage at 3:25PM tomorrow.


There’s little I can say about the passing of Nelson Mandela that many others haven’t already said better.

I watched a little of CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage yesterday – and was struck not so much by the elegiac coverage of Mandela and his life (deservedly so) as by the ninety seconds’ revisionist hate hate that the likes of Christiane Amanpour were directing back at Ronald Reagan.

Of course, history records the fact that Reagan opposed legislation that would have confronted the Pretoria government over apartheid. It was the only veto of his that the Democrats ever overrode.

The left has tried to portray this as racism, then and now.

That, of course, relies on hindsight.

The ANC was far from above terrorist activity, before and during Mandela’s imprisonment; his wife Winnie was fingered in numerous murders, kidnappings, assaults and other human rights violations, and she vocally endorsed the practice of “necklacing” political opponents (jamming a car tire around them and lighting them on fire – a particularly hideous form of premeditated murder).

If a group using rhetoric like the ANC’s were operating in the US today, being on Janet Napolitano’s watch list would be the least of their legal worries.

And the track record of Mandela’s contemporaries was pretty ghastly. Robert Mugabe’s revolt against white rule was successful – at the price of pretty much destroying Zimbabwe, which remains a less onerous place then North Korea today only because of the incompetence of the state’s agents. Other similar nationalists in places like Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Angola and the Congo/Zaire created vastly more trouble than they solved.

So Mandela’s greatest accomplishment was not that he toppled white rule – that was going to happen eventually one way or another, by war, ballot or negotiation. It was that he managed to do it without plunging South Africa into the nightmarish miasma of misery that’s attended the rule of virtually all of his contemporaries; that he and the transitional government he led accomplished the job of changing South Africa without descending into (much of) the orgy of retributive violence that greeted the assumption of black rule in Zimbabwe, or the wholesale destruction of economies, societies and uncounted masses of lives in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and a raft of other sub-Saharan nations.

Reagan, it is fair to say, got Mandela wrong. It is not, however, fair to say there wasn’t ample precedent for believing South Africa could have turned out much worse than it did.

And the post-apartheid story is not only still being written – it’s not that great for South Africa. The ANC’s post-Mandela leadership has proved corrupt and incompetent. As most of sub-Saharan Africa slowly claws it’s way to sustainability, South Africa is in economic decline. Hindsight in view of South Africa’s current reality makes Mandela look as much a hero of principled competence as the statuesque moral lesson that’s leading all the newscasts today.

Which is a great elegy for a historic hero; that his reality match his legend.

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