Archive for the ‘Mediterranean’ Category

Operation Ladbrooke was designed as a fairly straightforward mission, but failed miserably even in its success.  The goal was simple:  fly 1,700 soldiers to the Ponte Grande bridge.  That bridge, which spanned the Anapo River, was located just south of Syracuse, a city on the southeast side of the island of Sicily.  It was July 9, 1943, not quite two months since Allied forces had driven the German army from North Africa.  And now, the opening salvos of the battle for “the soft underbelly of Europe” were being fired.  Ladbrooke was just one small piece of the Allied invasion of Sicily, code-named Operation Husky.

The soldiers of Ladbrooke were to capture their target before it could be demolished, and hold it against German and Italian counterattacks.  Having done that, they would move into Syracuse and secure its docks, providing a key point of disembarkation for the Eighth Army.  Unfortunately for those soldiers, the results were an unmitigated disaster.  In his book The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson writes that Ladbrookebore the signature traits of so many airborne operations in the Second World War:  poor judgment, dauntless valor, and a nonchalant disregard of men’s lives.

The soldiers would be transported in Horsa gliders which were pulled by aircraft using a 350-foot rope.  And that’s about all the good one could say about the mission.  It was flown at night by pilots who had very little night experience and almost no experience pulling gliders.  The area near Ponte Grande were rocky and full of stone walls, which made terrible (to say nothing of dangerous) landing zones for unpowered, wooden gliders.  Naysayers of the plan were many…naysayers that actually spoke up were few, as the plan had originated in General Montgomery’s headquarters, and speaking out carried with it career risks.

Glider pilots with any experience at all had never flown in anything but sunshine and calm conditions, a far cry from what they encountered that windswept Friday night.  But off they went, all 144 gliders from a half-dozen airfields in Tunisia.  And from that point (before the bullets even started coming), the plan was shot.

Some pilots had poor navigation maps, some had none at all.  The strong winds buffeted the planes and gliders badly, and numerous pilots became disoriented, flying far off course.  Some soldiers landed on Malta, while others were dropped back in Tunisia.  And while that’s pretty bad, those soldiers were the fortunate ones.  Winds caused additional strain and broke the tow-ropes on some gliders, which then landed in the Mediterranean, with all occupants drowned.

And while the majority of the gliders made it to where they could see Sicily, some pilots released their gliders too early, which again meant a swim and, on many occasions, death by drowning.  Only 54 gliders actually made to land belonging to Sicily and, even then, results were pretty awful.  Enemy anti-aircraft fire shot down a number, while others crashed heavily on landing, killing most (or all) of their passengers.

Rather than the five hundred men expected to take the bridge, a mere platoon seized Ponte Grande.  By morning the force had grown to nearly 100, but they were shelled heavily by Italian mortars and machine guns, and forced to surrender.  The bridge was later recaptured by Royal Scot Fusiliers.

So yeah, the bridge was captured intact, but the price was terrible.  The glider forces sustained more than 600 casualties, and more than half of them drowned without ever firing a shot.  While the mission of Ladbrooke was accomplished, the failure of the plan was seen over the ensuing weeks, as bodies washed up on shore with daily regularity.  Atkinson summarizes, “If the courage of those flying to Sicily that night is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for the judgment of their superiors in concocting and approving such a witless plan.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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Today was not a day of war for the Greek cruiser Elli.  August 15, 1940 was a day of celebration.  Anchored in Tinos Harbor in the Cyclades (a chain of islands southeast of mainland Greece), she was arrayed for a party rather than geared up for battle.  In his book on the sea battles around Crete, David Thomas describes the scene when he writes, “The 2,083 ton cruiser, barely larger than a destroyer flotilla leader, presented a gay scene, the bright summer sunshine adding to the colour of the bunting and flags which decorated her overall.  She – and the estimated 40,000 people ashore – were there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to the Greeks second only to Easter Sunday as a sacred day.”

Also in Tinos Harbor was the Delfino.  She was not there to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  The Italian submarine was submerged and outfitted for war, and she had the Elli in her sights.  And at half past 8 in the morning, the Delfino made her move, launching 3 torpedoes at the her target…a sitting duck.

In recent months, the Mediterranean had seen an increase in conflicts between the Italians and the British.  The British were very interested in keeping the Italian Navy out of the eastern part of the region, particularly the Aegean and Ionian Seas.  For their part, the Italians were seeking an expanded empire (not unlike their Axis partners Germany and Japan).  Italian strong-man Benito Mussolini had set his sights on Romania, but Adolf Hitler got there first.  So Italy turned to Greece, which had pro-British leanings.  And nothing says “you’re in the crosshairs” like a submarine attack on an idle pip-squeak cruiser during peacetime in front of 40,000 people at a religious celebration.

Two of the torpedoes missed the Elli, but did damage some of the docks.  The third struck home, hitting the ship in the boiler room, dropping her to the harbor floor, and killing nine sailors.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, told the public that the attacker was unknown.  Problem was, his government was the only group of people that “didn’t know”.  The public knew it was the Italians, and the military knew it was the Italians.  Even when investigators recovered fragments of Italian torpedoes from the waterlogged Elli, the government (in its efforts to avoid a military confrontation with Italy) squelched the findings and maintained that the attackers were unknown.

And as we know, Greece’s attempts to prevent war with Italy were ultimately pointless, as Mussolini’s forces attacked Greece two months later.

Recommended Reading: Crete 1941

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As May of 1941 rolled into June, the situation for the British in the Mediterranean was bleak.  North Africa was under siege from Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps, Greece had been occupied by the Germans, and Crete has just fallen to a daring (and costly) German paratroop assault.  British General Archibald Wavell faced a daunting task:  keep the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s vast oil supplies from falling under the “crooked cross” of the Axis flag.

But manpower was scarce.  In fact, there was really none to be had.  So Wavell turned to Colonel Dudley Clarke, and tasked him with figuring out a solution to the problem.  In his recently-published book Deathly Deception (which focuses on Operation Mincemeat), Denis Smyth writes, “In such straitened military circumstances deception could act as a force multiplier, dissuading the enemy from assaulting a particularly weak point in British defences.”

In the closing days of May 1941, that weak point was Cypus.  Located just 300 miles straight east from newly-acquired Crete, the British believed it presented a juicy target to the Germans, offering a chance to dominate the Mediterranean, ease supply to Rommel in North Africa, and look straight down the chute of the Suez Canal.  And Cyprus was defended by a less-than-adequate 4,000 British soldiers of, shall we say, not front-line caliber.

So Clarke and his men decided to convince the Germans that Cyprus had more men than it really did.  He created the 7th Division and “placed” it on Cyprus.  And on June 13, 1941, the deception began.  There were dummy headquarters and dummy tanks (like the one shown above) placed around the island.  There were phony divisional signs and directions placed on the roads and intersections.  Since a divisional HQ generates quite a bit of radio traffic, that was contrived as well.  In fact, the British went so far as to leak some information about the island’s defenses to a known Axis collaborator.

As it turns out, the Germans didn’t really have plans for Cyprus at all.  But the deception was valuable anyway.  The German High Command completely fell for the ruse.  The 7th Division didn’t go away.  In fact, over time, more fictional forces were created, and they wreaked havoc on the German planning. Field Marshal Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein brought with it the capture of German documents, which overestimated British tank counts by 40% and infantry strength by a staggering 45%, thanks in part to phony forces.

When preparing for the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943, and ultimately, the Normandy coast in 1944, these ficticious units served to dilute the German defenses, forcing them to keep busy in lots of places for no good reason.  And the 7th Division, created out of thin air in June 1941?  In German minds, it never went away.  That division (along with others) figured into German planning all the way to the end of the war, almost 4 years later.

Recommended Reading:  Deathly Deception – A mostly fascinating look at one of the most famous deception campaigns of the Second World War.

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Since being removed from power, Benito Mussolini had been spending quite a bit of time reading Ricciotti’s Life of Jesus.  Well, reading and being transferred from prison cell to prison cell.  There was little doubt in the mind of Pietro Badoglio, the new Italian leader, that the Germans would be searching long and hard for the old Italian leader.  So Mussolini was shuttled around from one secret place to another, ending up in late August at the Hotel Albergo-Rifugio, a mostly inaccessible (and closed down) ski resort in the Gran Sasso peaks of the Apennines.

And Badoglio was right…the Germans were frantically searching for Mussolini.  And they were using more than just the normal channels (spies and message interception).  They were using channelers as well.  Rick Atkinson briefly mentions it to his readers in his book The Day of Battle.  He writes, “Hitler’s search for his erstwhile ally included consultation with various occultists and astrologers, among them a certain ‘Master of the Sidereal Pendulum,” as well as more conventional intelligence clairvoyants.”

At some point (I’m guessing from conventional channels), the Germans discovered Mussolini’s latest residence, and Hitler turned immediately to Captain Otto Skorzeny, quite possibly his most trusted commando operative, with orders to effect a rescue.

And Skorzeny did just that on September 12, 1943.  He loaded 108 commandos into gliders and headed for the Gran Sasso.  Mussolini was looking out the window when he saw his rescuers come sliding across the grounds.  Within minutes (and without a shot being fired), Otto Skorzeny had flung open the door to Mussolini’s room and the deposed dictator was a free man.  He and Skorzeny shoehorned themselves into a tiny Storch airplane, and flew off to safety.

Benito Mussolini was warmly greeted by Adolf Hitler, who would soon install him as the head of the Italian Social Republic.  It was nothing more than a figurehead position over a piece of real estate that would eventually fall to the Allies, but I suppose a good number of things, even working for Hitler in 1943, were better than prison.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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On April 30, 1943, the battle for North Africa was winding down, and the Axis had defeat staring it in the face.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the tactical genius, had exited the theater in poor health nearly two months before.  In fact, the final offensive against the depleted Panzers (Operation Strike) was just a week away.  Tunis and Bizerte were certain to fall, and if they did, the Germans were facing a loss of men and equipment that could rival Stalingrad.

But on this day, Allied war planners weren’t thinking about the “here and now”.  They were looking ahead to the next target…Sicily.  The trick, however, was to get Adolf Hitler and his military leadership thinking about a place other than Sicily.

And that’s where Operation Mincemeat came in.  This involved making the German government believe that it had captured top-level, top-secret documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece and Sardinia.  But the Germans were pretty intelligent in their own right, and fooling them wouldn’t be easy.  Plus pretty much everyone knew that, after Africa, the next step would be Italy, and Sicily make the perfect stepping-off point.  This would have to be quite the ruse.

The idea was to have a body, dressed up like a mid-level officer, wash ashore on the Spanish coast.  British Intelligence believed that the Spanish, with their close ties to Germany, would immediately report the discovery, and things would progress.  So the body of a man that recently died of poisoning was found, and a stash of phonied documents of the operation in Greece was placed in a briefcase and strapped to him, along with a major’s uniform and some old receipts and a made-up wife-to-be.

The submarine HMS Seraph then carried the body in a canister filled with dry ice.  As the dry ice evaporated, the carbon dioxide consumed the oxygen and preserved the body without refrigeration (which would have been a dead giveaway to German doctors).

At 4:30am, the Seraph off-loaded the body and the intelligence services watched and waited to see if their trick worked.

To say it succeeded would be an incredible understatement.  The Germans bought it, hook, line, and sinker.  Field Marshal Rommel, now in better health, was sent to Greece and given overall command of its defenses.  Additional reinforcements were directed away from Sicily and to Greece and Sardinia instead.  A Panzer Division was moved from France and, more importantly, two Panzer Divisions were moved from the Eastern Front, a move that would have a big benefit for the Russians at Kursk.

And when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily in July of 1943, Hitler and his generals still believed it to be a feint, and continued their focus on Greece.  By the time they figured out they had been tricked, Sicily was all but lost.

So I guess that just like Michael Knight, one (dead) man can make a difference.

Recommended Reading: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory – It’s probably dangerous to recommend a book that, as of this writing, has yet to hit the presses.  But I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on it.

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The German air raid on the Italian port of Bari would have, under normal circumstances, occupied a minor space on the shelves of history.  It is notable that the attack, which took place on the evening of December 2, 1943 and involved 105 Junkers Ju-88 bombers, caught the Allies completely off guard and achieved a “Pearl Harbor”-esque level of surprise.

But Bari was primarily a supply port and depot, so the targets were hardly as glamorous as Battleship Row, with capital ships lined up like so many immobile ducks in a shooting gallery.  Still, there were a lot of supply ships and merchantman moored about.  The Germans succeeded in hitting two ammunition ships and, as we would suspect, they exploded in titanic fashion.  An oil pipeline was also severed, dumping fuel oil into the harbor.  Once it caught fire, the harbor became a sheet of flame, igniting other merchant and supply ships.  In all, nearly 20 ships were destroyed and the port was closed for three weeks.

A good tally for the Germans, to be sure, but really not enough to make it stand out on its own.  So what makes this particular event different?…what gives it more historical “shelf space” than others?

The SS John Harvey.

The John Harvey was a Liberty ship that arrived in Bari with a special cargo…a classified top-secret cargo.  In her holds were 2,000 bombs carrying mustard gas.  Used extensively in World War I, this chemical agent caused terrible burns when contacting the skin and respitory damage when inhaled.  The use of chemical weapons had been outlawed in the 1920’s, but the military feared that the Germans, in the face of defeat, might resort to unconventional weapons of their own.  The John Harvey was an Allied “contingency” plan…and it back-fired badly.

The John Harvey was one of the victims of the raid, and as she exploded and sank, some of the the mustard gas was released.  It mixed in with the oily water, which coated sailors as they struggled for shore.  It got into the air, mixing with the smoke of the fires and passing over the city of Bari.

Within 24 hours, hundreds of civilians were showing up at medical facilities with strange burns, acute illness, and blindness.  Medical staff found it increasingly difficult to handle the work, not only because of the volume of cases, but also because many of them (having been exposed to the sailors and wounded) were now being affected by the agents.

The Allied High Command kept quiet, desperately wanting to keep the mustard gas a secret, which forced medical personnel to “fish in the dark” for the causes of the symptoms.  It wasn’t until weapons experts were brought in and began examining the situation that the source was discovered.

And it would be another three months until the news was made public.  But by then, hundreds (and probably thousands) of people had died from exposure.  It’s likely that many deaths were not counted simply because so many people fled the city to escape the “mystery disease” that burned, blinded, and killed.

The final reports were classified by the U.S. until the late 1950’s, but the British documents were actually sanitized, changing the cause of death from World War II’s only release of chemical agents to “burns due to enemy action”.  It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that the British admitted the truth.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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The decision by Vichy French forces to lay down their arms in North Africa didn’t play well at the top of the German military.  The announcement, coming on November 11, 1942, was immediately followed by the German occupation of Vichy France.

Nazi forces rolled through Vichy (which comprised the southeast half of France) and arrived at Toulon, a major port that opened into the Mediterranean Sea.  It was also home (and still is, for that matter) to a large portion of the French fleet, which interested the Germans greatly.  Docked in Toulon were 3 modern battleships, 7 cruisers, 18 destroyers, nearly 2 dozen submarines, and dozens of smaller auxiliary boats, tenders, and tugs.

It presented a nice addition to the Germany Navy, and a huge boost to their presence in the Mediterranean.  At that point the Germans began negotiating with Admiral Jean de Laborde, trying to get him to surrender the fleet peacefully.

Simultaneously, French Admiral Darlan was trying to get Laborde to sail the fleet out of Toulon and to the North African coast (not all that long of a journey) and add its firepower to the Allied side of the ledger.  The French ships stationed at Casablanca had foolishly decided to fight the incoming Allied forces and were soundly defeated.  The addition of the ships from Toulon would be most welcome.

For two weeks the negotiations continued, with the Germans and Allies each trying to win the day.

In the early morning hours of November 27, 1942, German patience ran out and SS panzer troops stormed the gates of Toulon’s naval base.  Immediately, Laborde gave the “Scuttle, scuttle, scuttle!” order.  And in one of the greatest acts of self-sabotage ever, the French sailors complied.

The sea cocks were opened and the waters of the harbor poured into the ships.  The engines were destroyed, along with the instruments, and the base at Toulon became a giant junkyard.  One by one, the ships got lower in the water, the fires set in the engine rooms eventually succumbing to the incoming flood.

In all, more than 70 vessels were sunk.  The 3 battleships, the 7 cruisers, 15 of the 18 destroyers, a dozen submarines, most of the torpedo boats, and all the tugs.

The immense frustration felt by Darlan (and many others) was tempered by General Eisenhower who, always the diplomat, reminded everyone that keeping such a powerful force out of German hands was a victory of sorts.

I wonder if anyone was brave enough to tell the good General that it wouldn’t take many of these victories to cost the Allies the war.

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