Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘World War II (1939-1945)’ Category

When we last discussed the Chindit forces more than a year ago, we came to the conclusion that the perceived successes of Orde Wingate’s brainchild were greater than the actual success.  But we also realized that, in early 1943, any good news for the Allies was pounced on and broadcast to the masses back home.

Prime Minister Churchill was fascinated by Wingate and formed a friendship with the wildly eccentric military man.  When the Quadrant Conference began in August of 1943, Wingate was invited to join Churchill.  Based on his experience with the Chindits, Wingate presented a larger, more ambitious plan to the Allied Supreme Command.  Of course, President Franklin Roosevelt was in attendence, and took a keen interest in the proposals he heard concerning these “unconventional” forces.

He returned home, mulled it over for a bit, and then took action.  In his book The Burma Road, Webster describes it for us.  “…on August 31, 1943, in the United States – and throughout the entire U.S. Army – a call from President Roosevelt himself had gone out.  The request was for 2,830 army officers and troops to volunteer for ‘a dangerous and hazardous mission.'”  The men would need to be physically fit and trained in jungle warfare.

Borrowing heavily from pattern of the Chindits, the unit was officially called the 5307th Composite Unit and code-named “Galahad”.  The men came from jungle training camps.  Some came from the far flung island fights in the South Pacific.  Others came from army jails and psychiatric wards.  They were about as unconventional and could be.

And eventually, they would take the name that made them famous in the jungles of the CBI…the name of their leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.  Merrill was no stranger to the jungles of Southeast Asia.  He had been with General Joseph Stilwell as the region was overrun in 1942 as an Army Major.  He had accompanied “Vinegar Joe” on his walk out of Burma, developing a heart malady for his efforts.  And now he had his own version of the Chindits.

Merrill’s Marauders.  Born on this day in history by order of the President of the United States.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

It was just a single plane.  One silly plane.  A lone Mitsubishi A6M Zero, one of nearly 11,000 made by Japan during the Second World War.  Today, there are a handful of flyable Zeroes in the world, but as far as I know, there exists but one example that still flies with the original engine.  These are truly rare birds.

But the Zero I’m thinking of isn’t in a museum.  In fact, other than a couple of miscellaneous parts, the subject of Today’s History Lesson no longer exists, having been chopped up in a training accident in 1945.  As you might have guessed, I’m referring to Tadayoshi Koga’s aircraft, shot down during a raid on Dutch Harbor in 1942.

Koga crash-landed on Akutan Island, 25 miles from Dutch.  The plane flipped onto its back, sustaining minor damage and killing Koga in the process.  The plane lay on Akutan for more than a month, until it was discovered by a PBY Catalina pilot.  The plane was investigated, recovered, and transported to Dutch.  It then became something of an adventure to not only keep the find as much a secret from the Japanese as possible, but also keep souvenir hunters at bay.

Packing the plane for transport from Alaska was also something of a problem due to the fact that the Zero’s wings were integrated right into the fuselage.  At the end of the day, Koga’s plane was packed into a rather strange crate and shipped off.  It arrived at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, on August 12, 1942.  And over the next six weeks (as we know from our time together here), it was there that the plane was repaired, reconditioned, and made flyable.

Recommended Reading: Cracking the Zero Mystery

Read Full Post »

As another disastrous month at the keyboard winds down – I either need to get it back together or let this proposition go – let’s talk a bit about President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and North Africa.

With the first half of 1942 “in the books”, President Roosevelt found himself in the middle of a debate concerning when and where American soldiers should fight the Germans.  To be sure, we were already doing battle with Japan – the Coral Sea and Midway engagements were recent history and Operation Watchtower (the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) were just around the corner.  But we had yet to make a concerted effort against the Axis’ primary belligerent.  And the President had already stated his “Germany First” policy, but where to put it into action?

Britain’s Prime Minister had his idea.  North Africa.  Churchill saw a boat-load of advantages to offensive action there, and he was happy to enumerate them.  Occupation of North Africa (particularly Algeria and Tunisia) would trap Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps between those forces and the British Eighth Army that was already protecting Egypt and the Suez Canal.  North Africa offered American soldiers a way to “get their feet wet” in a situation less dangerous and difficult than a frontal assault on France.  Removing the German presence from the Mediterranean would allow supplies to be shipped through the Suez Canal, which saved a massively long trip around the southern tip of Africa through German-infested waters.  And it got American soldiers into battle against Germans (thereby relieving the Russians) in 1942, rather than further down the road.  It made sense to Winston Churchill, and he told Roosevelt, saying, “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas.  In fact, it is your commanding idea.  Here is the true second front of 1942.”

Roosevelt’s military commanders most assuredly did not agree.  They saw North Africa as a sideshow.  They didn’t believe an invasion there would pull a single German soldier from the Russian steppes or from the approaches to Stalingrad.  In fact, American commanders believed that action in North Africa was more about protecting Britain’s flagging empire than winning a war against an aggressor, and they wanted none of it.  A frontal assault on Germany’s stronghold in Europe, though not feasible in 1942, certainly made more sense to them.

And in the middle sat Roosevelt.  He took these arguments in and then added his own ideas to the mix.  There was politics.  It was 1942, and mid-term elections were coming.  Early indications showed that a restless populace, eager for action against Germany, could give his party a ballot-box beating in November.  But ultimately, it came down to doing something – anything – to help the Russians in 1942.  Earlier in the year, he had stated “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.”

And on July 30, 1942, the President made his decision.  As the sun set on summer-time Washington, D.C., Roosevelt gathered his military commanders and told them North Africa was the target.  A European invasion, while on the cards, would not be happening this year.

The torch of Operaton Torch had been officially lit.

Recommended Reading:  An Army at Dawn

Read Full Post »

It’s a Friday night, it’s hot like a furnace, and it’s a 4th of July weekend.  I highly doubt many of you are sitting by your computer wondering what Joel is going to write on July’s first day.  And that’s fine, because I’m not wondering, either.  I know what I’m going to write, and I know it’s going to be pretty quick.

Back in May, I visited the dentist…oh, yay, I’m writing about the dentist on a holiday weekend.  You’re probably thrilled if you’re not reading.

Normally the visit involves 45 minutes of torture, where I get to watch TV with my mouth ajar.  The assistant, who came in earlier and put her broom and pointy hat in the corner, is now mumbling things like, “My husband never makes the bed…my kids never pick up their toys…my husband…”.  The worst thing is she has those really sharp things in her hands and she punctuates each “never” and each “always” with a scrape across my teeth.  Nurse Ratchet then finishes with a smile and says, “You should floss more.”  I want to say, “You should take an anger management course”, but that slight smell of sulfur and brimstone in the air tells me it’s probably best to keep my mouth shut.  Besides, it’s not like I’ll be in any condition to speak for at least another hour.

But this time, I got Nurse Relief instead.  She was awesome.  My appointment wasn’t all that bad, though I’ll never say I enjoyed it.  It was tolerable.  Maybe it had something to do with flossing, that new hobby I picked up and began doing religiously in January.  But I think it was also because Ms. Relief didn’t have a devil-spawn above her manipulating the strings.

Going good so far?…yeah, I didn’t think so.

So way back in 1893, President Grover Cleveland went to the dentist.  I’m pretty sure he hated it, too, because they found cancer in his mouth.  Three weeks later, on July 1, 1893, the President “went on vacation”.  CNN and FoxNews (or whoever ran the show back then) probably showed pictures of the yacht right there off Long Island.  Of course, the vacation was just a ploy to keep people from worrying too much.  Even his wife (who was pregnant at the time) didn’t know.

The President was on the boat…but so was a surgeon.  And on this day in history, the surgeon removed the cancer from the President’s mouth.  Of course, the operation (done through his mouth to avoid all the cutting) involved removing some of his jaw and palate, which left his face somewhat disfigured.  So the news folks were fed a line about the President having a couple of rotten teeth removed, which they apparently bought.  Eventually, the President was fitted with an insert-thingy (I’m a computer guy, not a doctor) that made him look normal.

Now had I been a news reporter, I would have been suspicious right away.  Oral surgery is a delicate procedure…at least it better be when it’s done on my mouth.  So who does tricky dentistry-type things on a boat that’s rocking in the water?  I guess Nurse Ratchet was his surgeon, too.

I bet this is the where the phrase “Don’t rock the boat” got it’s start.  And it’s probably why we see the right side of President Cleveland’s face on the $1000 bill.

Recommended Reading:  The President is a Sick Man – Hot off the presses!

Read Full Post »

When Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in June of 1944, they did so with the goal of capturing beaches that would create serve as a “supply offload” point.  Of course, ultimate goal was to head east, free western Europe from Germany’s vise grip, and destroy Adolf Hitler’s regime.  What many of the boys running ashore that gray morning may not have known was that, hundreds and hundreds of miles to the east, the Red Army was planning a storm of its own, a complimentary assault to the west.  And it was scheduled to begin on June 22, 1944, exactly 3 years after the Germans began their conquest of Russia.

Much had changed on the Eastern Front in 3 years.  Moscow had been saved early on.  Stalingrad had been saved by a brilliant counteroffensive against General Paulus’ entrenched Sixth Army.  And Leningrad, after two-and-a-half years of siege, starvation, and suffering, was now back in Russian hands.

The Wehrmacht had been pushed back everywhere in the east, feeling the increasingly crushing weight of the vast Red Army that had finally gotten its act together, coupled with the overwhelming production capability possessed by the Soviet Union.  And the Wehrmacht was going to feel it again.

In the east, Germany fielded Army Group Centre with 1.2 million men in 63 divisions.  But in his book Absolute War, Chris Bellamy gives the real score, and while it’s just a bunch of numbers, they boggle the mind.  “Facing them, the Russians assembled nearly 2.4 million in 168 divisions, 12 ‘corps’ – the tank formations equating to divisions – and 20 brigades.  For the first time they also had the newly formed First Polish Army – 4 divisions and 2 brigades.  The balance of forces was overwhelmingly in the Russians’ favour:  36,400 guns and mortars against 9,500; 5,200 tanks against 900; and 5,300 aircraft against 1,350.”

The Russians called it Operation Bagration.  It was the largest Allied land operation of the Second World War, and it began just two weeks after Operation Overlord and just one week after the largest ocean operation of the war (Operation Forager).

And just like Overlord (scheduled for June 5th), Bagration ended up being delayed a day.  But when the coiled spring was released, it let loose with the roar.  At 5:00am, the first shots of this massive counteroffensive were fired.  Every artillery piece along the front had been alloted roughly six tons of ammunition, and the rolling barrage they offered up to their German enemy was devastating.  It was followed up Katyusha rocket attacks, to which the Germans had been introduced at Stalingrad, and were terrifying in their randomness.  Probing attacks the previous day by company- and brigade-sized forces allowed the Russians to seek out German weaknesses.  In addition, an excellent deception campaign (much like the one waged on the Normandy coasts) had caused a lot of German armor to be moved away from the main attack.

So when the tanks of the Red Army smashed into the 450-mile front, they did so with a massive 7-to-1 advantage.  German resistance could do little but melt before the onslaught.  When Bagration ran its course in mid August (less than 8 weeks later), Army Group Centre had largely ceased to exist.  Total German losses are still unknown.  And the Russians had advanced more than 300 miles to Poland’s door.

After more than 3 years of occupation and brutal butchery, the Germans had been largely evicted from Red Army territory.

Read Full Post »

If you remember way back to this site’s younger days, you might recall the discussion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Signed in August of 1939, it allowed for the disappearance of Poland, half of which went to Germany, and the remainder going to Russia.

But included in the pact was permission for the Russians to do as they pleased with the Baltic States…Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.  Of course, that permission didn’t come from any of the named countries.  Funny how that works sometimes.

Well, on June 15, 1940, Russia began cashing in on their end of the deal.  It actually began a little before that with accusations by the Russians that the Baltic States were sympathetic to the Allies.  They were followed by more accursations, this time that the Baltics were actually collaberating with the Allies.  On the 12th, the Russian government simply issued an ultimatum, demanding that the country allow Red Army troops to cross the border.  And on the 15th, the Soviets simply moved in and occupied Lithuania.

The following day, Latvia and Estonia would follow suit, falling victim to the bloodless war.

A little more than a month later, all three states would be absorbed into the Soviet Union.  And they would remain so for less than a year.  Then the Germans would come calling…

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

Read Full Post »

The German advance through France and the Low Countries in May of 1940 was, without question, one of the more remarkable operations of the Second World War.  Yeah, the wrong side (at least from my perspective) planned it, prepared it, and executed it.  And the right side (at least from my perspective) had no answer, relying on static fortifications and a real lack of will to fight.  But still, from a military standpoint, we have to be impressed by how well the Wehrmacht carried it off…it was brilliant.

Within weeks, German Panzers had pinned their French and English opponents against the English Channel, their choices reduced to either surrender or slaughter.  They were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-planned.  It was over.

Well, for the port city of Calais, it was over.  On May 26, 1940, Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his few remaining holdouts gave up the fight.  They had been been holed up in a 16th-century citadel for the better part of four days, subjected to relentless artillery fire and bombing.  When the Germans finally gained the bridges to the citadel, Nicholson knew the battle was lost and gave it up.

If there was any remaining delusion that the French and British Expeditionary Forces could stop the German advance, it vanished at this point.  The call went out from Dunkirk to Number 10 Downing Street that desperate help was needed.  And, of course, we know that it arrived just 15 or 20 miles to the north and west at another port city.

Dunkirk.

The bravery and tenacity of Nicholson and his men at the citadel in Calais should not be understated, but to credit their holdout with permitting the evacuation is to push reality.

They certainly did their part, but the evacuation should mostly be credited to Adolf Hitler, who, two days before, ordered his Panzers to halt.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

Read Full Post »

Happy May Day!!  It’s hard to believe we’re already beginning 2011’s fifth month.  For Today’s History Lesson, this year has been really out-of-sorts as compared to years past.  Pieces have been few and far between.  Where most months would see 15 to 20+ articles, the last 3 months have seen 10 or fewer.  A heavy workload at the office, slow progression through Madison’s biography, and maybe even a bit of burnout have all combined to create something of a writing drought.  But May is here and the big project at work is nearing completion.  I finished the year-long slog through Madison’s bio, and “refreshed” myself with a bit of fiction, so hopefully things can get back on track.

Joseph Goebbels’ tenure as Chancellor of Germany was incredibly short, easily measured in hours.  The world around him was crumbling in more than one sense.  Literally, the incredible rain of bombs, bullets, and artillery pieces were turning the heart of Berlin (and much of the rest of Germany) to dust.  Figuratively, the last vestiges of the Third Reich and its National Socialist platform were being blown to smithereens.  His boss, Adolf Hitler, was now mostly ashes outside the Chancellery, having committed suicide with his new wife.

But still, in the flickering light of May 1, 1945, Germany’s new Chancellor was able to conduct business, though there were just a couple of tasks to complete.  First, there was ordering General Krebs to take a message to Russian General Vasily Chuikov informing him that Hitler was dead and requesting a ceasefire.  That probably wouldn’t have taken too terribly long since the Russians were, at this point, just down the street.

And second, there was settling his own disposition and that of his family.  He had decided to follow Hitler’s example and commit suicide.  His wife had decided to do the same.  But their children?  The parents reasoned that, as survivors of the parents, the kids would be subject to all sorts of terrible things.  So Frau Goebbels, with help from Hitler’s doctor, injected the children with morphine as they slept and then crushed cyanide capsules in their mouths.

And then husband and wife took care of their last act.  It gets a little fuzzy here since, in the confusion of battle (and the remaining Germans attempting to escape), the true account has been lost.  But the best evidence points to Joseph Goebbels shooting himself while his wife took cyanide, duplicating the deaths of Hitler and Eva Braun.  An attempt to burn their bodies was made, but poorly executed, and they were identified within days.

But of course, the next day would see (and hear) the gunfire end at 3:00pm.  For the Allies (and the Russians in particular) however, the biggest prizes had escaped the hangman’s noose.

Read Full Post »

In April of 1945, the Second World War was winding down in both the European and Pacific theaters.  Now don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of bloodshed left in both areas.  Way out west, the Battle of Okinawa, commenced in the quiet Easter morning of April 1st, was now turning into the true fight-to-the-death for which Japanese encounters had become known.  Back in the battered, blasted, and bombed-out remnants of Germany, the Russian armies were extracting four years of pent up revenge against their enemy the streets of Berlin.  For Germany, it was only a matter of time.  For Japan, it was much the same.

It strikes me as somewhat strange that these two “partners in war” never really partnered at all during the war.  Sure, they had signed up to fight as a team, but on the field of battle, it never played out like that.  Germany and Japan ran their own schedules, never coordinated any activity and, as far as I know, never once engaged an enemy on the same battlefield.  Part of the reasoning is obvious.  Japan’s interests were in the Pacific, Germany’s lay in Eastern and Western Europe.  In between were thousands of miles of reasons keep things separate.  But even over the distances, the two could have attempted to coordinate attacks, worked to stretch their enemies more thinly, or something…anything.  But to my limited knowledge, it didn’t happen.

Of course, by the time both Germany and Japan were fully engaged, both Russia and the United States were fully engaged as well, and there was no way Germany and Japan could match the war-making capabilities of either foe.  Each of the Axis powers couldn’t handle its own main enemy, much less give thought to really assisting in another theater.

It’s against this backdrop that we come to Berlin and April 15, 1945.  Amid the fire and bombs and slaughter, Japanese Vice-Admiral Katsuo Abe was granted a meeting with German Admiral Karl Donitz.  Finally granted, I should probably say…he (and other emissaries) had been trying to interview (surviving) members of the German High Command for a while.  And when Abe entered Donitz’s presence (which was well underground), he finally asked about coordinating some attacks…no, I kid.

Vice Admiral Abe pretty much begged his German counterpart to send the surviving German fleet to Japan so it could be used in the Pacific against America.  At first glance, it’s not so unreasonable a request.  Germany’s days of fleet actions were finished.  She didn’t even have enough ammunition for all the guns defending Berlin, and ships and U-boats couldn’t defend the Chancellary.  But from the German point of view, Abe was basically saying, “You guys are toast, give us your goodies so we can delay our own defeat a bit longer.”  The response from Donitz was predictable and emphatic.  Abe tried his luck with Ribbentrop and Keitel a couple of days later, but was again flatly refused.  The Japanese Admiral persisted and tried to meet with Hitler, but the now-deranged dictator was too busy playing with pretend armies on his maps deeper in the bunker and refused to even grant Abe an audience.

So two countries that now had no chance of victory gave up their last chance to work together.  And based on how they had carried out the war to that point, it was fitting.

Read Full Post »

Ok, so yesterday’s lesson involved the steel bridge on the Kwae Yai River in Thailand.  Today, we move 100 yards away…to the wooden bridge.  It was this particular bridge that was the subject of Pierre Boulle’s book and the award-winning movie adaptation.

Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, so I don’t remember all the details.  But I seem to recall the climatic scene in which a wounded (and maybe dying?) Alec Guiness falls on the detonator that blows the wooden bridge to smithereens.

And this is where my frustration with movies “based on a true story” really comes front and center.  I know I’ve harped on this before.  The actual historical account had nothing to do with dynamite charges.  But had the director stayed true to the facts, I think the movie would have had just as great (and award-winning) an ending.  But such are movies.

With the steel bridge down, the Japanese now focused all their air defenses on protecting the wooden bridge still standing.  Seventh Air Force realized this, so the planners sent out a pre-attack mission of B-24s that would attack the air defenses surrounding the bridge and drop radar-confusing chaff.  Like yesterday, the focus narrows to John Sims and co-pilot Charles Linamen.  While again flying a Liberator, it was different aircraft, so new that it remained free of nose art.  And in this theater, no one wanted to fly a brand-new airplane, because enemy gunners zeroed in on them, thinking they were more advanced and deadly than the known marks.

And they sometimes had glitches.  The plane flown by Sims and Linamen had one glitch, and it showed up at the worst possible time.

Rolling in on the bridge, the first problem was obvious.  The pre-bomb attack planes were nowhere to be seen, and no defense suppression of any kind had been performed.  So Sims and his flight flew into a hailstorm of lead and fire.  Their first pass involved dropping a pair of thousand-pound bombs…but that glitch.  The ejector racks on Sims’ Liberator only allowed a single bomb to be released.

Donovan Webster gives us the play-by-play.  “But what a shot it was.  It was falling beautifully . . . down, down, down becoming smaller and smaller as it plummeted.  Finally, with an in-unison sigh from every crew member who had a vantage, the one-thousand-pound bomb hit the bridge squarely:  precisely at its center and between the two rails.  Seconds later, it exploded, taking out two wooden spans.”

The wooden bridge was down…and soon, so would Sims and Linamen.

They returned to take two more passes and drop their final bombs and, by that time, Japanese gunners had found the range.  The brand-new B-24 was hit by flak and heavily damaged.  But somehow they nursed their stricken bomber back to friendly territory before finally setting down on a sandy beach.  Just the account of the crew’s drama in their dying aircraft would be worth the price of admission to the theater.  The entire crew escaped with an incredible tale to tell.

It’s just a shame that most people know a very different story.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

Read Full Post »

French author Pierre Boulle’s best-selling book The Bridge on the River Kwai needs precious little introduction to old-time movie viewers.  Yep…I said that right.  I can say that because the movie based on the book was probably more famous than the book itself.  Set in World War II’s Thailand and starring William Holden and Alec Guiness, it’s a story of how these men build, and then destroy, a bridge.  Guiness plays the leader of the prisoners required to build a bridge on the Kwae Yai River so the Japanese can transport supplies.  Holden plays the American prisoner who escapes from the camp and is eventually tasked with returning to destroy the bridge.

But what you might not know is that there were two bridges.  The wood bridge, completed in February of 1943, is one the novel-readers and movie-watchers know.  The steel bridge was built 100 yards away and was finished in the summer of the same year.

And both bridges died on consecutive days in 1945.

While both bridges were valuable targets to the Allies, the steel bridge was the bigger prize, because it allowed for heavier traffic.  And since October of 1944, the Seventh Bomb Group had made it a high priority, mounting strikes against it and damaging it on numerous occasions.  But always the Japanese (with the help of their POW-slave labor) had repaired it.

However, on April 2, 1945, the Allies got it right.  One of the B-24’s sent to bomb the bridge, piloted by John Sims and Charles Linamen, flew through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire (the Japanese knew it was a valuable target as well), and placed their bombs perfectly in the middle of the bridge.  Two spans of the bridge became one with the River they were built to traverse.

And normally, the Japanese would have scrambled to get the slave labor to work.  But in April of 1945, in western Thailand, there was no steel available to the flagging war effort to support bridge building and repair.  The (steel) bridge on the River Kwai was down…permanently.

And as for the wooden bridge 100 yards away?…the one that got all the press?  Well, let’s take that one down tomorrow.

Read Full Post »

It’s a quick one this evening, but it’s two days in a row that I’ve been able to get here, and that’s saying something in light of my recent (and prolonged) absences.

Operation Iceberg (the Battle of Okinawa) needs no introduction to those who study the Second World War.  This famous “last battle” of the Pacific campaign was extremely costly, both in lives lost and in what it ultimately led to…atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We’ve also mentioned a couple of small “sub-operations” in the Kerama Islands, specifically Tokashiki and Kerama Retto.

So for today, let’s visit Keise Shima.

Situated just five miles northwest of the Okinawan city of Naha, the three tiny islets don’t even show up Google’s mapping system…they’re that small.  But their proximity to the Okinawa’s coast (and to the eventual landing beaches) made them nice targets for occupation.  The plan was to land two battalions of the 532nd Field Artillery on-shore, where they would set up a couple dozen 155mm cannon.  These cannon would support the “Love Day” landings set for April 1.

The men landed on March 28, 1945, after struggling to actually make it to shore.  Their landing craft got hung up in the reefs, which left most of the men floundering in shallow water.  Fortunately, the Japanese had temporarily left the area – though they would appear the following night to offer up a bit of resistance – so the soggy landings were unopposed and the men were able to establish their positions.

The “Long Toms” (as the artillery pieces were called) were the largest land-based guns in the inventory, and they were perfectly suited to this duty.  And they would be put to good use.  As you may recall, the main landings on Okinawa were totally battle-free and almost completely free of any kind of enemy fire.

Such was not the case on Keise Shima.  Their primary target was a communications tower in the city of Naha and, as soon they began firing, they were answered by enemy fire.  The 532nd’s HQ, located in one of the gun pits (which I believe is shown in the picture above), took a direct hit from heavy Japanese artillery, killing everyone there (including several officers).  Another gun emplacement took a direct hit as well, but the shell was a dud that failed to explode.

So while Operation Iceberg got off to a very quiet start for the Marines that walked onto Okinawa’s beaches (so quiet, in fact, that some inexperience men believed the Japanese had left Okinawa), that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone involved.

Recommended Reading: The Ultimate Battle

Read Full Post »

“They formed a pitiful spectacle:  eight hundred POWs who had spent forty-five days being shuffled across Germany from camp to camp during the coldest winter in living memory.  They carried rough wool Wehrmacht blankets rolled around their emaciated bodies, backpacks made from old Hessian sacks, homemade portable stoves, and each other as they hobbled into the American compound at Hammelburg. … They were veteran Kriegies from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland, who had walked more than three hundred miles to reach Hammelburg.”

That’s the introduction given us in The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw as he prepares us for the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

Leading these men was Colonel Paul Goode, who had been captured in July of 1944 in Normandy after surviving the heavily contested landings of Overlord’s Omaha Beach.  Conditions for the men in Stalag XIII (no, not this Stalag XIII) were terrible.  Poor sanitation led to dysentery as surely as the poor diet led to malnutrition.  Mix in the brutal cold that often left the men’s barracks at around 20°F, and it’s easy to see that these men were ripe for rescue.

And that’s what General George Patton decided he wanted done.  Recent rescue missions carried out in the Philippines at places such as Los Banos and Cabanatuan (which we’ll discuss next year) had seen remarkable success, and the often irascible general believed he could do better.  He bragged that “this is going to make MacArthur’s raid on Cabanatuan peanuts!”

The mission ended up an unmitigated disaster, though it really wasn’t the fault of Captain Abe Baum, who had overall command of the operation.  Task Force Baum (as it came to be called) had to travel 70 miles behind enemy lines with a relatively undersized force of 16 light and medium tanks, two dozen half-tracks, and about 300 men.

The mission began on March 27, 1945, which was just a few days after the idea was hatched.  That meant “minute” logistical details didn’t get worked out.  Little things like the actual location of the camp (locals would have to provide that information), how many prisoners were actually in the camp, and assembling a force big enough to deal with a local German counterattack.  But other than that…

Task Force Baum actually made it to the Stalag that afternoon, but arrived at just half strength because the time required to find the camp meant it was exposed to more enemy fire than expected.  And once the remnants arrived, they found not just the 300 officers they were supposed to rescue, but hundreds of additional prisoners, most too weak and sick to walk.  They loaded up as many of the officers as possible, and told the rest to follow as best they could.

The task force didn’t begin its return trip to American lines until after dark, by which time the Germans had begun to descend on Task Force Baum.  And then came the worst possible outcome, as the Germans eventually surrounded Baum’s forces.  The resuce mission scattered, losing all of its tanks and having most of its men captured (or in the case of the freed POWs, recaptured).

And of course, it wouldn’t have been a Patton-sized mission without some level of controversy, and this had that aplenty.  There is solid evidence that Patton knew one of the prisoners in Stalag XIII was Lt. Colonel John Waters, his own son-in-law.  The logical conclusion is that Patton ordered this rescue mission, putting the lives of hundreds of men in danger, simply for the sake of one man.

In the end, no one was rescued, a bunch of good men were killed or captured, and Colonel Waters (who was wounded in the rescue attempt) couldn’t even leave the POW camp and had to be left behind.  And what’s more, elements of the 14th Armored Division arrived in the area less than two weeks later, freeing many of the men.

It was just a bad decision by a General known for taking risks that sometimes worked really well and occasionally didn’t.  He had promised Captain Baum a Medal of Honor for pulling off the mission.  Of course, once the mission failed, Patton (desirous of avoiding the investigation a Medal of Honor required) gave his Captain a Distinguished Service Cross.  He also earned a stern rebuke from an angry General Eisenhower for himself.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

Read Full Post »

On March 13, 1942, U.S. cryptanalysts wedged the first cracks into Japan’s JN-25 code system.  As we well know, this bright spot falls into that dark, 6-month period for the U.S. armed forces between the disaster at Pearl Harbor and its first victory at Midway.

The advent of radio had really transformed radio communications for the world’s navies, allowing messages to be sent instantly over long distances.  Unfortunately, anyone with a receiver and the proper frequency could hear the message, and if one knew the language, well…secrets didn’t stay secrets very long.  So out came the codes, and they increased in complexity rapidly as each previous version was cracked by the enemy.

During World War II, Japan used numerous different coding systems.  There was one for the army, a Flag Officers Code (that the U.S. never cracked), and numerous others.  But JN-25 (as it was called by the U.S.) was the biggie, as it was used by the Japanese Navy…hence the “JN”.

This system consisted of a codebook with nearly 30,000 entries.  On top of that book was a “superenciphering” 300-page additive book, with each page containing 100 random five-digit sequences.  This created a sort of two-tiered encryption, which proved to be a tough nut to crack, indeed…even with the use of a very rudimentary computer (the IBM ECM Mark III).

But U.S. cryptanalysts were aided in their jobs by the Japanese themselves.  First, the five-digit sequences in the additive book were not used just once, but repeatedly, which gave codebreakers a hook on which to grab.  Second, Japanese command formality meant that phrases like “I have the honor to inform your Excellency” were used many times, as were nicknames for various commanders.  This repetition is anathema to encryption, because repeated patterns are the first things for which codebreakers look, and even using a different five-digit superencryption key couldn’t hide those pattern phrases for very long.

So rather that having to decipher a massive code system, it really became an exercise in collecting enough Japanese messages and putting enough smart people to work finding those repeated patterns.  Add in two parts patience and two parts persistence, and stir until enough of JN-25 was cracked to begin reading messages.

Within a month, the U.S. Navy had enough information to try a little test.  “Island AF” kept coming up in messages and the Navy suspected it was a reference to Midway.  So they told the guys on Midway to transmit that they were low on water.  Sure enough, a coded Japanese message was intercepted days later reporting Island AF low on water.

Game over.  Check and mate.

The Japanese knew their systems could be hacked, so they changed them periodically.  But their initial arrogance (caused by their incredible successes) meant they didn’t change them as much as they should have.  And they never really altered the basic structure of their messaging.  So U.S. codebreakers would simply look for the phrases and nicknames, which largely gave them “the key to the candy store.

Read Full Post »

It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the 9th day of March, and this is the first piece of the month.  But work continues to swamp, and some other things have interrupted the daily routine as well.  I hope I can get this thing back on track.

Let’s take a quick run to North Africa tonight.  Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps was in serious trouble.  The German victory at Kasserine Pass just weeks before had rung hollow in Axis ears.  And now, they were on the defensive.  Operation Capri, a German defensive action, had completely fallen apart.  Field Marshal Rommel had, in the course of a day, lost a third of his tanks.  He lamented, “This operation was pointless from the moment it turned out that we had not taken the enemy by surprise.”

It never crossed his mind that the Allies were reading the mail.  In his book An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson writes, “The slaughter had been so lopsided, the battle so plainly anticipated by the British, that the field marshal suspected treachery, perhaps from the Italians, a suspicion Kesselring came to share.”

But in some sense, little of this mattered anymore.  Rommel knew that the story had been written in Africa.  For another two months, men on both sides of the fight would continue to do their duty and die for their cause.  But North Africa was lost for the Axis.  And Erwin Rommel was a sick man.

Hans von Luck, Rommel’s reconnaissance commander, reported, “I hadn’t seen him for some weeks and was shocked at how unwell he looked.  He was visibly weak…and completely worn out.”  It was time for him to say goodbye to Africa.  At 7:50am on March 9, 1943, Erwin Rommel boarded a plane at Sfax and took off for Rome.  Other commanders would finish the fight in North Africa.  Some would die and most would go into captivity.

Rommel would never return to North Africa.

Read Full Post »

Los Negros Island is another one of those places that probably doesn’t ring a bell with too many people.  I’ve never been there, but part of its obscurity might have to do with its location – far, far away from the United States and pretty close to Australia.  Or maybe it’s the island’s size – pretty small.  Or maybe because it’s somewhat misnamed – according to Google’s maps (and depending on the tides), it’s not really an island at all.

Los Negros is part of the U-shaped hook off the eastern end of Manus Island, the largest of the Admiralty Islands that lie northeast of Australia.  And on February 27, 1944, it was the scene of the first Alamo Scouts mission.

We mentioned the Alamo Scouts in our discussion of the Los Banos rescue mission, but didn’t really go into much detail.  Officially called the U.S. 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit, they operated in the Pacific Theater and served as deep-penetration reconaissance units and did a bit of raiding and rescue on the side.  They were nicknamed Alamo Scouts because they fell, ultimately, under the command of General William Kreuger, who hailed from Texas and greatly admired the men who died defending the Alamo.

Formed in November of 1943, the first teams of this all-volunteer force finished their grueling training in early February of 1944.  This worked out well with Douglas MacArthur’s timetable, as he was preparing to complete the isolation of the huge Japanese airbase at Rabaul.  This could only be done with the retaking of the Bismarck Archipelago, accompanied with Kreuger’s capture of the Admiralty Islands.

Reconaissance aircraft seemed to indicate that Los Negros didn’t have any Japanese soldiers on the ground.  But aircraft could only see so much, so the job of the Scout team, led by Lt. John McGowen (and whose team was selected by a flip of the coin), was to get in there and determine the truth of the matter without stirring up a hornet’s nest should the enemy be discovered.

The mission lasted just two days, and the Alamo Scouts found that Los Negros was, as McGowen reported, “lousy with Japs.”  They extracted and reported back.  Though MacArthur initially poo-pooed the McGowen’s findings, Kreuger fully trusted his charges.  And good thing he did.  Operation Brewer, which began two days later, eventually ran into heavy Japanese resistance.  The fact that General Kreuger allocated reserve forces to the assault (based on the Alamo Scout report) made the difference between victory and a much different outcome.

The small mission was the first of more than 100 missions that Alamo Scout teams would conduct over the next 20 months, and it’s a small miracle that, in all those missions, not a single Scout was killed in action.

Los Negros Island (as well as Manus Island) were captured by the Americans.  That U-shaped area in between the two islands became Seeadler Harbor, one of the finest harbors in all the Pacific…and site of the Mount Hood’s titanic demise several months later.

This won’t be the last time we visit the Alamo Scouts.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

Read Full Post »

In the early months of 1945, Douglas MacArthur’s forces worked to reclaim Philippino territory from the Japanese that they had captured back in those “dark” months of 1941 and early 1942.  And as the Japanese retreated, their death-before-capture philosophy took a more sinister turn.  News filtered back to Allied lines that the Japanese were killing POWs and captured civilians being held in prison camps all throughout Luzon.

Allied leadership, starting with MacArthur, realized that something should be done to try to save as many prisoners as possible, so numerous missions were carried out in an effort to prevent a potential slaughter.

One of the larger internment camps was located near Los Banos, roughly 40 miles south of Manila, at what is today the University of the Philippines at Los Banos.  It mid-February of 1945, it sat about 25 miles behind enemy lines, which meant two things.  First, any rescue mission would require stealth, daring, and intricate planning.  Second, with the Americans advancing every day, a possible liquidation of the camp (and the death of more than 2,100 occupants) might not be far away.

A rather complex 4-phase plan was laid out and handed to the 1st Battalion, 511th Airborne Regimental Combat Team tasked with ultimately entering the camp and conducting the rescue.  It involved reconaissance by Alamo Scout teams with local guerrilla forces and a drop of paratroops to link up with the guerrillas to assault the camp.  Another group of soldiers driving the rescue vehicles were tasked with carrying the prisoners out and transporting them to Amtracs.  And finally, additional forces would move along Highway 1 to act as a diversion and protect the flanks of the main operation.

The mission was carried out on February 23, 1945, and was a stunning success.  Despite the prediction of heavy casualties, the liberators suffered just 6 killed and 4 wounded from a force of nearly 950 men.  The assualt lasted mere minutes before the Japanese defenders were either killed or run off.

As quickly as possible, the internees were loaded into the rescue vehicles.  When some delayed, wanting to go back and grab their possessions, Lt. Hettlinger ordered the huts torched to speed the evacuation.  They exited the smouldering camp and hurried down the road.  They met the Amtracs, who had not only arrived right on time, but hadn’t alerted the local Japanese to their presence.

A total of 2,147 men, women, and children (including Lois Kathleen McCoy, just 3 days old) boarded the Amtracs and crossed Laguna de Bay to safety.

It’s rather sad that this fantastic rescue garnered so little print space in the newspapers.  As one of the most daring rescue mission of the war (and one that was so tremendously successful), it deserved a better publicity fate than it received.  But February 23, 1945 was the day that 5 Marines and a Navy corpsman raised that immortal flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.  And AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s immortal photo so captivated the public that all other stories faded in its presence.

But the Los Banos rescue mission stands as an incredible achievement of planning, execution, and mercy.

Mission Accomplished.

Recommended Reading:  Shadows in the Jungle – More detail on Los Banos, and a great book about the Alamo Scouts, relatively unknown heroes of WWII.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »