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Posts Tagged ‘1943’

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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Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff was a man with a mission.  But I suppose that, for a Colonel in the German Army, having “a mission” was pretty obvious, especially in the spring of 1943.  Hitler’s forces had just suffered devastating defeat along the Volga, and things were not going well in the African desert.  So there were plans to make, and troops to move, and battles to fight (and from this point on, mostly battles to lose).

But this specific mission was different.  For von Gersdorff, it was life-changing.  In fact, it was life-ending.

You see, von Gersdorff was a conspirator.  He was one of many involved in the numerous plots to assassinate Der Fuhrer.  Officially, he was an intelligence officer in the Abwehr and part of Army Group Center, having been transferred there for the start of Operation Barbarossa.  Army Group Center was commanded by another conspirator, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock.  One of von Bock’s officers was Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, yet another conspirator who happened to be von Gersdorff’s cousin…you now see how Gersdorff ended up where he did.

These men, who correctly believed that Hitler was leading the nation to humiliation and defeat, had put together several plans to either arrest or kill Adolf Hitler.  To this point, none of them had succeeded.

On March 21, 1943 (which happened to be Germany’s Memorial Day to those killed in WWI), they tried again.  Each year, the German leader attended a memorial service.  But rather than arrest him or – what was tried on other occasions – place a bomb where Hitler would be, it was decided to carry the bombs right to the man.  Von Gersdorff volunteered to a suicide mission.  He placed bombs, each with a ten-minute fuse, in his pockets.  During Hitler’s stroll among the memorials, von Gersdorff would get close and detonate the bombs.

It was a good plan, until he arrived at the museum.  He got near Hitler, started the fuses, and waited for the bang.  Unfortunately, the German dictator was in a tremendous hurry and stayed at the museum for just eight minutes before being whisked off.  With the opportunity gone, and not wishing to blow himself to smithereens for nothing, Von Gersdorff quickly excused himself to the restroom, where he worked feverishly and successfully defused the bombs.

Freiherr von Gersdorff escaped detection and arrest.  But even more miraculous than that, he was not implicated in the famous July 20 assassination plot, which nearly succeeded.  His role in that attempt was to hide the explosives that Count von Stauffenberg eventually carried in his briefcase.

One other interesting note about Col. von Gersdorff.  Less than one month after he successfully defused the bombs in his pockets, he discovered the remnants of the Russian massacres in the Katyn Forest.

Recommended Reading: Valkyrie: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler

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Rabaul.

In all of the readings here (which now number more than 700), there has been precious little said about Rabaul.  That’s going to change…at least for today.  As you might know, there isn’t a whole lot to say about the present-day place…oh, where is it?  Ok, go to your globe and find Australia.  Then find Papua New Guinea off Australia’s northeast coast.  To the northeast of Papua, there’s a bow-shaped island.  That is New Britain, and on the very northeast tip of New Britain lies the town of Rabaul…right here.

As I was saying, Rabaul really doesn’t exist anymore, due to a volcanic eruption in 1994.  The ash that rained down was heavy and thick enough to collapse most of the structures, and the place was abandoned.  But up until then, it had been the provincial capital.

And during the Second World War, it was one of the largest and most important Japanese bases in the Pacific.  I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times.  It was the origin of Isoroku Yamamoto’s final flight and it was the destination of Saburo Sakai’s remarkable “flight of survival”.

And on November 5, 1943, it was the destination for a bunch of U.S. carrier-based planes.  It was then that Task Force 38’s six-day assault of Rabaul began.  And while it may have been the first of the naval attacks on this Japanese fortress, it certainly wasn’t the first attack.  Land-based planes had begun air strikes in mid October.

Rabaul had been lost to the Japanese in 1942 (along with a bunch of territory), but rather than try to recapture it by a costly direct assault, Allied planners decided to bypass Rabaul and capture more accessible targets.  This would allow Rabaul to simply wither away due to lack of supplies.  Furthermore, with the recent Allied invasion of Bougainville (in the western Solomon Islands), attacks on Rabaul would keep Japanese air and naval assets from threatening that operation.

So aircraft from Admiral Sherman’s carriers struck, assisted by air cover from a frontal system.  Pilots succeeded in damaging a bundle of cruisers and destroyers, though nothing was sunk.  Fifth Air Force would add their bombs and bullets a little later in the day, so it was a pretty solid start to the reduction of Rabaul, and a far better option than an invasion.

Recommended Reading:  The Pacific War Day by Day – I just picked this little gem up a couple weeks back.

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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.

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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.

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The Grand Dorsal sounds like some part of a large dolphin, but it has nothing to do with swimming mammals.  To learn a little more about it, you need to consult an atlas.  Go to west-central Tunisia, just a stone’s throw (or an artillery shell’s throw, in this case) from the country of Algeria, and find the city of Kasserine.  Just to the west is the Grand Dorsal, and right there is a break in the Dorsal’s spine, forming the Kasserine Pass.

This two-mile gap was the scene of one of the more famous engagements fought in North Africa during the Second World War.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was the first real meeting between the vaunted Panzers led by Erwin Rommel and U.S. forces.  And to say the battle (actually a series of battles), which began on February 19, 1943, didn’t go well for the Americans would be an understatement.

In fact, in terms of territory lost, the 85-mile retreat forced on the men over the course of the week-long battle was the worst shellacking of the war.  Harry Butcher, a former CBS executive turned naval aide and confidant to General Eisenhower, wrote, “The proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history.”  Eisenhower himself would say (to General Marshall), “Our people from the highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game.”

It was a tough defeat.  Casualties exceeded 20% of men involved, a staggering total.  Hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, and trucks with the American star littered the area as burned out hulks, while on the German ledger, losses were less than a 1,000 casualties (including just 200 dead).

But even in defeat such as this, there was hope.  The loss was tactical, not strategic.  For all their military prowess, Rommel’s forces had not reached (nor captured) any Allied supply depots.  Allied forces, particularly the British First Army, had not been forced back into Algeria.  And in general, Allied offensive capabilities had not been stopped, which meant that once America’s superior war production replaced the losses, the Axis would have to fight all over again.

And at the top, there was Eisenhower, who admitted his mistakes, learned from them, and then made the necessary adjustments (and personnel changes) to hopefully avoid them in the future.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a definite loss for the Americans, still getting their feet wet in war against a much more experienced foe.

But the takeaways, like many of the other engagements in North Africa, served to turn relatively green troops into a fighting machine that would, within months, stand victorious on the shores of Tunis.

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1943 had not been very kind to Hitler’s military.  His army, navy, and air force had, in the space of 11 months, suffered a series of crushing defeats.  In the east, Stalingrad had been lost in dramatic fashion early on.  Then the German armies were forced to call it quits in North Africa in May.  Then there was the expensive battles around Kursk coupled with Allied landings in Sicily and then Italy.  All in all, pretty bad.

And as the year drew to a close, a new threat was emerging…the Allied second front.  The Allies were desperately trying to keep any operations a secret, and the Germans badly wanted to know.  But most everyone guessed that this invasion would be opened on the northwest coast of France.

There is little doubt that the far-flung battles fought over Russia’s vast expanses had been the clear focus of Hitler for a couple of years, but with the turning of the tide in ’43, eyes began to turn elsewhere.  Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had been pushing for more attention to be given to the western theater, where increased Allied activity was seen as a prelude to bigger operations.  He didn’t feel that current manpower and equipment levels were adequate to check a concerted effort by the enemy.

His report, submitted in late October, reached the Fuhrer’s hands.  Less than a week later, von Rundstedt got his response.  On November 3, Hitler issued Directive No. 51, which largely backed his Field Marshal’s assessments and recognized the need for an increased western presence.

In his book The Atlantic Wall, Alan Wilt records that Adolf Hitler recognized that some ground could be given in the east without sacrificing the Third Reich’s chances for survival.  He then recounts Hitler’s words concerning the west.  “Not so the West!  Here, if the enemy succeeds in breaching our defenses along a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time.  All signs point to an offensive against the western front of Europe, at the latest in the spring, perhaps even earlier.  For that reason, I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters…”

And to emphasize the importance of Directive No. 51, the Fuhrer took another important step.  On this day in history (November 5, 1943), Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was ordered to begin inspecting “the defensive readiness of the German-occupied coasts.”

As we know, Rommel was one of Germany’s most capable field commanders.  Having gained fame (and the respect of his adversaries) in the deserts of North Africa, he had spent much of the first half of 1943 fighting illness.  But having convalesced, his service to his country was renewed.  And all up and down the coasts, from Denmark to Brittany, Rommel would inspect and call for improved defenses.

And in the succeeding months, he would work to build up the Atlantic Wall (a series of coastal fortifications) to greater strength, hoping to stop an expected Allied invasion.

Recommended Reading:  The Atlantic Wall – Written by a military history professor of mine…I really enjoyed the class.  And his book’s pretty good, too.

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