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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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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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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When last we talked about Eric Sevareid, he had jumped from a C-46 moments before it crashed into the Burmese jungles.  Twenty-two days later, on August 24, 1943, he was reunited with civilization.  And in between, there was quite a story for the young correspondant to tell.

With a plane still burning nearby, Sevareid and his fellow passengers had just gathered their wits when they found themselves in the company of natives.  There was some immediate consternation as several tribes in the area (most notably the Ponyo) were known head-hunters.  But their fears were short-lived…these short, dark-skinned men were Nagas, and they had helped Stilwell’s people in the past.

The Nagas took the men to their village, where they were fed and tended.  That evening, more survivors from the crash were brought into camp (remember, only the flight officer had been killed).  As they tended to their wounds, the drone of another plane overhead was heard.  From it parachuted Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, a surgeon, and two more medics.  The broken bones and other injuries could now be treated with proper care.

For nearly two weeks, the group stayed at the Naga camp, waiting for the rescue party and regularly supplied by air drops.  On the 14th, the rescue party arrived and, after a couple of rest days, they departed the Naga camp on the 18th.

The next six days were not much different that General Joe Stilwell’s evacuation from Burma more than a year before:  Up hills, down hills, torrential rains, incredible heat and humidity, leeches, and ubiquitous mosquitoes.  But with the advantage of continual supply by air, the trip was far more bearable.

Eric Sevareid and the others reached the bungalow of Philip Adams (who was not only the sahib of Mokokchung, but was also the leader of the rescue party) on the 24th, and that evening was spent eating a hot meal, imbibing adult libations, and listening to the incomparable crooning of Frank Sinatra.

Other than being with his wife and two children, life probably couldn’t have gotten much better for Sevareid than it was right then.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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As the early morning darkness gave way to sunrise, Eric Sevareid found himself sitting in the belly of a plane…he was not alone.  The 30-year-old correspondent was one of 20 passengers and crew aboard the new C-46.  Their location?…Chabua, India.  Their destination?…Kunming China.  The date?…August 2, 1943.  Sevareid was smack dab in the middle of the loneliest theater of World War II.

The CBI.

For more than a year, pilots of the Air Transport Command had been flying supply missions from India into China, working to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces (and the U.S. Army Air Force as well) in their campaign against the Japanese.  These daring missions involved flying over the eastern Himilayan mountains, known in local-speak as “The Hump.”

The supplies that landed in China didn’t always end up in the proper hands, and the black-market was burgeoning in and around the drop-off point of Kunming.  Unscrupulous hoarders were earning immense fortunes selling supplies shipped from Indian bases where, as Donovan Webster writes, “troops were living on gruel, Spam, and rice, while those close to Hump deliveries in China grew fat on American-bought pork, beef, and chicken.”

Eric Sevareid himself would write, “When I saw the American establishment at Chabua, where hundreds of Americans and thousands of natives slaved in scorching sun or dismal rain to get supplies into China, I could not help feeling a certain resentment of the Chinese resentment of the inadequacy of these suppplies.  Our men were killing themselves and being killed every day in the effort. … There were at this time absolutely no amenities of life … It was a dread and dismal place. … They were trying to do too much with far too little.  Pilots were overworked, and when they had made the perilous flight to China and back the same day, having fought storm and fog and ice, they simply fell into their cots as they were, unshaved and unwashed, to catch a few hours of unrefreshing sleep before repeating the venture the next day.”

It’s not a pretty picture that Sevareid paints, and I’m sure the feelings he had accompanied him that morning as, with the sunrise, he lifted off with 19 others on one of these “ventures”.  And one hour into the flight, Eric became acutely aware of the dangers of the mission when the guy sitting next to him informed him that one of the engines had gone out.  These new C-46s had engines that were occasionally prone to vapor lock.  Still processing the implications, the dull roar of the plane noise was replaced by a shattering howl and blinding light.

The crew chief had popped the plane’s exit door and was ordering all the luggage and supplies to be pushed out.  Sevareid’s luggage was soon hurtling through Burmese airspace, along with the remaining cargo.  His last words aboard the plane, penned quickly in his notebook, read “Nine fifteen a.m.  Baggage out.  Left engine not working.”

Almost before he could think, he was nearly the plane’s last passenger.  Waiting a moment to clear a mountain (so his chute would have time to open, he prepared himself to jump, only to be thrown from the plane as it lurched to the left.  He gave himself a precious one or two seconds to clear the plane, then pulled the ripcord.  The force of the chute’s deployment ripped Eric back to reality.  He opened his eyes in time to see the oily orange fireball of the C-46 as it disintegrated against the mountainside.

As it turned out, there were numerous injuries among the passengers, but just a single fatality (the flight officer, later found still strapped in his seat).  And apparently the crew had radioed coordinates before the plane went down, because another plane flew over in short order and dropped supplies with a note that a rescue party would be coming.

But for Eric Sevareid, jungle life had been replaced, for the time being, with jungle living.

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When assessing the success of the Chindits’ missions, The Times of India concluded that Orde Wingate’s 3,000-man force had dealt the Imperial Japanese Army a deadly blow in the Burmese jungles, ripping the aura of Japanese invincibility to shreds while scoring significant triumphs over the invaders.

Propaganda is a wonderful thing.

The truth of the matter is that, while Wingate’s charges were able to disrupt Japanese communications and rail services to some degree, they weren’t nearly as successful as The Times of India made them out to be.  It didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure out that these Long-Range Penetration groups were supplied solely from the air, and once they did, the soldiers searching for supply lines to attack were recalled and the hunt for the groups intensified significantly.

Towards the end of March (a little more than one month into the mission), the Chindits were recalled from Burma but, at this point, several of the groups (there were seven in total) were more than a 1,000 miles deep, and had an arduous journey of extraction ahead.  And the return trip was more dangerous, with the Japanese in hot pursuit from both the front and rear.

One by one, each group crossed the Chindwin River and made their escapes.  The group with Wingate was actually the first to reach safety.  Three days later, Fergusson’s Column Five reached India with the Japanese just six hours behind them.  The last of the Chindit groups (Column One), led by Lieutenant Dominic Neill, didn’t arrive until June 6, 1943.  As they crossed the Chindwin, they were told that Japanese pursuers, which had been dogging them for days, were but thirty minutes behind.  Operation Longcloth had ended.

Of the 3,000 men that began the expedition, fewer than 2,200 returned.  And of those, only 600 were ever fit to serve in the military again.  An estimated 205 Japanese soldiers had been killed.  Neill, reading the newspaper accounts, probably chuckled at the reports as he said, “I killed a lot of lice…not too many Japs.”  Mike Calvert’s Column Three probably saw the most action, and not all that much overall.

But in southeast Asia in 1943, any positive news was pounced on.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster gives a good summation when he writes, “Still, having seeped into Burma, smashed a spoke of Japan’s defensive wheel, and emerged to tell about it, Orde Wingate and his Chindits – no matter what the reality – were heroes worldwide.”  In fact, Prime Minister Churchill was so impressed with the results, fact or fiction, that he seriously considered putting Wingate in charge of all British and Indian troops in India.  The idea was quickly (and probably wisely, given Wingate’s extreme eccentricity) quashed by senior commanders.

But the Chindits had proven that, given good supply logistics and extreme dedication to task, the Long-Range Penetration mission had potential, and Operation Longcloth was a mission that verified that potential.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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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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Well, I’ve been a bit sporadic of late.  The laptop computer I often use when writing appears to have given up the ghost.  The screen randomly goes black and it reboots.  It doesn’t appear to be a hard drive issue, because I can start the symptoms by just tapping on the keyboard or someplace on the case…sometimes it doesn’t even require that.  I took it to work and had our very capable helpdesk guy tear it apart and check it out, but even his abilities don’t seem to be enough.  But it was 3 years old when I got it (for just $100 or so), and I’ve had it nearly two years.  Five years on a laptop is usually like dog years, so…I don’t know, maybe we’ll look for a new one…maybe not.  Whatever.

There is a bit of debate over how effective code-breaking was during the Second World War.  Some say the knowledge gained from it was minimal, while others suggest that it made a significant difference in the outcome.  In my semi-professional opinion, the truth is in the middle.  There is little doubt that once the Germans were turned at Stalingrad and North Africa was successfully wrested from Nazi control, the War was not going to end well for the Nazis.  In the Pacific, the American victory at Guadalcanal gave the U.S. a one-year cushion from the outbreak of hostilities to fully wind up its prodigious production capacity, one that Japan had absolutely no chance of matching.

So on a strategic level, message interception and deciphering probably didn’t dramatically change the end result.  But on a tactical level, decoded intercepts gave the Allies a tremendous advantage in some of their operations.  The “Miracle at Midway” was truly that…a miracle.  But code-breakers had given the U.S. Navy some crucial information that really helped.  The same held true in the days following the launch of Operation Overlord, and someday we’ll delve into that a little.  It helped save British and French forces at Dunkirk.  It gave the Soviets a key advantage in responding to Operation Citadel.

And on April 14, 1943, it was Magic (the cryptanalysis efforts to break Japanese codes) that informed U.S. naval intelligence that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would be flying from Rabaul to the Solomon Islands.  The messages included a very detailed itinerary, the Admiral’s flight times, and the plane in which he’d be flying.  Leadership in the U.S. Navy had been handed, over the wires, a perfect opportunity to take out the Japanese Navy’s top military strategist.  It was equivalent to the Japanese launching a successful attack on Admiral Nimitz or General MacArthur.

And as we know, the strike was successfully carried out five days later.  Breaking the other guy’s codes (while simultaneously protecting one’s own system) was a full-time job for hundreds of people during World War II.  Did it make a winner out of a loser?…probably not.  But on numerous occasions, it made a significant difference.

Recommended Reading: The Enigma War

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General Orde Wingate was a rather mysterious man.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster describes him as “brilliant and blazingly eccentric“, simultaneously “the British army’s most respected – and most distrusted – officer“. 

He was a fourth-generation military man and, having been born to devoutly Christian parents, he himself was also deeply religious, having memorized large passages of the Bible’s Old Testament.

His Gideon Force (named after his favorite Bible character) accomplished great things in Ethiopia in 1941 (and we’ll likely visit those exploits in the future), but his lack of communication got him into tremendous difficulty with his commanders, so much so that, despite his victories, he was packed off to Cairo and summarily demoted from the rank of colonel to major.

Depression set in and, combined with malaria, had a devastating effect on Wingate.  On July 4, 1941, Major Wingate unsuccessfully attempted suicide, but for his efforts earned six months of rehab and psychiatric treatments.

Deemed fit to command again, Wingate returned to action…this time to Burma.  He arrived in February of 1942, and it was already too late to salvage what, to this point, was a Japanese rout.  But Wingate foresaw the usefulness of a group of men not unlike the Gideon Force – guerillas going behind enemy lines in deep penetration missions, and so he went to work with the 77th Indian Brigade.

He may have been a Christian, but his training espoused little grace and almost no mercy.  He wanted his men diamond-hard and chiseled on the anvil of toughness.  All training movements were performed on the double.  Men were required to forage for their own meals, which meant dinners of frogs, insects, lizards.  Illness ran rampant through the 3,000 trainees, but Wingate had little sympathy…there were no hospitals or pretty nurses behind enemy lines.

Donovan again records one of Wingate’s tirades.  “Everyone is taught to be doctor-minded.  Although it is all right in normal civilian life, where ample medical facilities are avialable, it will not apply to us in the jungle.  You have to diagnose your own complaints and then cure yourselves…We shall not stop for you, for our very lives may be jeopardized by waiting for stragglers.  If you are sick, you are of no use to us – you are an unwanted liability.  We shall leave you to effect your own salvation.”  Wingate didn’t mince words.

The training was brutal, but rather than cause bad blood and resentment in the men, it galvanized them.  They worked together to help one another eat, stay well, and stay alive.  They developed tactics with both precision and flexibility, to the point that there were very nearly telepathic in their actions.

And Orde Wingate had taken to calling his men “Chindits”, a mis-pronunciation of “Chinthe”, the half-man, half-lion statues that guarded the doors of Burma’s Buddhist temples.

At the end of 1942, Wingate’s men were ready, and then General Archibald Wavell delivered the news that circumstances had forced him to cancel the Chindits expedition into Burma.  Orde Wingate (now a colonel again) came unglued, castigating the General for nearly two hours until, unbelievably, Wavell relented.

And on February 13, 1943, Operation Longcloth got under way as the Chindit forces, broken into seven groups like tynes on a fork, began crossing the border from India into Burma to fight as guerillas behind enemy lines.

The next month or so would determine if Wingate’s Ethiopian success could be duplicated in the dense jungles of southeast Asia.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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Today we bid adieu to the USS Chicago.  The heavy cruiser was sunk off Rennell Island, situated roughly 200 miles straight south of Guadalcanal, during the afternoon of January 30, 1943.  The Chicago was part of a task force that was sent to Guadalcanal due to increased enemy naval activity in the area.

The U.S. Navy had incorrectly assumed that a flurry of recent Japanese movements were the first moves in another offensive action in the area.  So Admirals Nimitz and Halsey deployed as large a force as possible.  The USS Enterprise (recovering from war wounds sustained near Santa Cruz)  was augmented with carrier USS Saratogo.  And a bevy of heavy cruisers and destroyers, including the Chicago, was ordered to rendevouz, under the leadership of Admiral Richard Giffen.

In reality, the Japanese were getting their ducks in a row to completely evacuate Guadalcanal.  Operation Ke was now underway, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was working to keep the soldiers on the ground safe.

Giffen’s force was attacked in the final hours of January 29th and, despite the cover of darkness, they gave a good account of themselves.  But a couple of enemy aircraft shot down near the Chicago silhouetted her against the darkness.  Japanese Betty torpedo bombers targeted her, and hit her with two torpedoes, killing the engines and leaving her listing and dead in the water.

Her sister ship USS Louisville began towing the damaged Chicago out of harm’s way (shown above), but she was found again the next afternoon by enemy torpedo planes and hit with four more torpedoes.  At this point, she rolled over and sank.

Looking back, the loss of a single cruiser doesn’t seem to be much in light of the reality that the U.S. was just about to wrest its first major chunk of Pacific territory from the enemy.  But the naval side of the 7-month struggle had been sprinkled with bad decisions and a tendency to underestimate the enemy’s capability while simultaneously acting with a bit too much self-confidence.

The loss of the Chicago was, in some ways, the proverbial broken record.  Admiral Giffen’s push to reach his sector caused him to move his forces in predictable patterns.  At one point, he even gave up the standard zig-zag movements.  These tactics angered Admiral Nimitz a lot, though he didn’t replace Giffen who, despite his errors off Rennell Island, was a capable Admiral with significant experience.

The sinking of the USS Chicago, and the loss of 62 of its men, left a bitter taste to mingle with the sweet when Guadalcanal was secured a week later.

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Our ISP seems to have conquered the Internet ills it had yesterday.

The Civil War battle at Fort Donelson earned Ulysses S. Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant (see it there?…”Ulysses S”…”U. S.”…”Unconditional Surrender”?).  But you probably didn’t need to be reminded of that, much less have it explained.  It’s one of those pieces of Americana that just never goes away.

But that same demand, emanating from the mouth of President Franklin Roosevelt at the end of the Casablanca Conference 80 years later on January 24, 1943, was probably a little more surprising, particularly considering the circumstances under which he said it.  In 1862, Fort Donelson was beaten and General Grant’s Union forces had clearly won the day.  In January 1943, the same could not be said for Allied forces fighting around the world.

To be sure, there had been victories.  The Wehrmacht had been stopped and reversed at Moscow.  Leningrad was suffering badly, but holding on.  And Paulus and his men had been outflanked (brilliantly, I may add) and then surrounded at Stalingrad…a massive defeat there was looking inevitable.  But even with those losses, German strength in the east was formidable.

In North Africa, the forces of America, Britian, and France were struggling to make good progress against a German enemy that, even in a somewhat weakened state and at the end of a very long supply line, was still a formidable foe.  To the east, British forces were pushing the remnants of Rommel’s powerful Afrika Korps towards Tunisia.

And American Marine and Army forces were on the verge of seizing Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

So there had been gains and some considerable victories, but calling for “unconditional surrender” at this point was not all that unlike the Indianapolis Colts calling for the Jets to forfeit the game this afternoon when the Colts were down 17-13 in the 3rd quarter (though Manning’s men had gained the momentum).  The Allied forces clearly had momentum, but they were still behind with a long ways to go.

But Roosevelt was convinced that (eventual) victory was certain, and he had discussed the policy with his Joint Chiefs prior to leaving for Casablanca.  And so, at the conclusion of the Conference, in front of the cameras and with Prime Minister Churchill sitting next to him, he stated that, “The elimination of German, Japanese, and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

Prime Minister Churchill reaction, which he controlled very well, was still one of surprise.  In his book War Summits, David Stone recognizes this but also clarifies the Prime Minister’s position.  He writes, “Apparently, although he had certainly broached the subject with Churchill beforehand, Roosevelt’s decision to announce it at this press conference took the British leader by surprise.  However, this would appear to have been more a question of presentation and timing rather than an indication of any disagreement over policy, and Churchill immediately endorsed and reinforced Roosevelt’s announcement at the January 24 press briefing.”

Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had the clairvoyance to see that the Second World War was going to last another two-and-a-half years, but they had laid down the terms under which it would end.

Recommended Reading:  War Summits

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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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Usually, when I cover a topic, the search for related artwork or photos is relatively easy.  But when the subject is the USS Liscome Bay, such is not the case.  There are very few photos available.  And that’s because the life of Liscome Bay was short, and it was a life that ended quickly…and violently.

She was known as CVE-56 in Navy-number-speak, as was classified as a Casablanca-class escort carrier.  That means she was about half the size of a conventional carrier, and carried a smaller compliment of men, aircraft, and armor.  But its smaller size also meant it was cheaper to build and could be finished in much less time than bigger flattops.  So it’s no surprise that, in the 20 months that Casablanca-class carriers were built, a staggering 50 examples were built…more than any other carrier class ever.  The St. Lo, which we just talked about last month, was a Casablanca-class carrier.

Normally, escort carriers were fairly slow got the more mundane jobs like supporting land-based activity such as close air support and interdiction strikes.  Casablanca-class carriers were moderately fast (capable of 20 knots), but were still considered too slow for major fleet action (bigger carriers, battleships, and such could all make 30 knots or more).  Still, they got to mix it with the big boys on occasion, as Taffy 3 did in Leyte Gulf.

But St. Lo and Taffy 3 and Leyte Gulf were in October of 1944, and this was November of 1943…almost a year earlier.  At this point the Navy was thinking about the Philippine Islands (and Leyte Gulf and all that), but the work at hand involved the Gilbert Islands, specifically those around Betio…Tarawa.  Concurrent with the landings at Tarawa were the landings on Makin, a small group of islands about 100 miles south.  The small Japanese garrison on Makin (less than a 1000 men) was expected to fall quickly…a day, maybe two.

Like most Pacific operations, however, it didn’t play out that way.  Cleaning up Makin took 3 full days.  And of course, this ground operation was supported by the escort carriers…in this case, the Liscome Bay, Corregidor, and Coral Sea.  Having just been commissioned in August, our subject was brand new, carrying 28 aircraft and more than 900 men.

In the early morning (just after 5:00am) of November 24, 1943, she was preparing to launch aircraft when one of the ship’s lookouts yelled, “Here comes a torpedo!”  Indeed, the Japanese submarine I-175 had arrived the day before and selected the Liscome Bay as her target.

At 5:10am, a single torpedo struck the aft engine room and exploded.  But the real catastrophe occurred when the torpedo remnants plowed into the aircraft bomb magazine.  When ammunition cooks off, it does so in dramatic fashion, and the Liscome Bay was no exception.  Witnesses said the ship was just a massive ball of orange flame, and bits of ship hit other task force vessels nearly 3 miles away.  At 5:33am, Liscome Bay slipped beneath the waves, carrying with her nearly 650 sailors and officers.

The operation on Makin Atoll was intended to be a relatively clean one-day operation.  One explosion, however, had caused U.S. casualties to achieve near parity with the Japanese.

Recommended Reading:  Tarawa:  A Hell of a Way to Die

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When Operation Citadel was abandoned by Adolf Hitler in July of 1943, it left in its wake the scattered bit of destroyed aircraft, the hulks of thousands of tanks, the burned out remains of more artillery pieces, and the still, quiet corpses of even more Russian and German soldiers.

While not marking the eastern-most advance of Germany’s territorial conquests (those honors go to places like Stalingrad and Moscow), it certainly was the last best chance the vaunted Wehrmacht had to push eastward.  When Citadel ended near the city of Kursk, the Germans would be, for the next two years, steadily drifting west.  The city of Kharkov (south of Kursk) was wrested from German hands six weeks later (toward the end of August), and the Russian advance picked up some momentum.

Somewhat more than 200 miles to the west of Kursk lies Kiev, the Ukranian capital and, at the time, the 3rd-largest city in the Soviet Union.  Two months after retaking Kharkov, the Russians armies were on the cusp of again taking ownership of Kiev.

To the south, Soviet forces were struggling with difficult terrain and well-deployed German defensive positions, and it was believed that a stronger push to the north (around Kiev) might either draw off German guns from the south or allowed those forces to be encircled.

On November 1st, the Soviet 38th Army attacked Kiev (part of the 1st Ukranian Front, comprising nearly three-quarters of a million men), which was occupied by the 4th Panzer Army.  On the 3rd, a massive artillery bombardment (partially using pieces quietly moved from the south) rained down on the Germans, and the Soviet 60th Army entered the fray, supported by heavy firepower from the air.

The Germans were simply overwhelmed and, with their heavy casualties and equipment losses, could do little to stop the onslaught.  It was time to get out of town.  But, as is so often the case in war, the exiting army took time to destroy whatever valuables they could find.

So when the Soviets retook Kiev on November 6, 1943, the city was a smouldering wreck and most of the city’s vast collection of antiquities were nothing more than shattered and burned memories.

Recommended Reading: The Eastern Front – Day By Day, 1941-45

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If ever there was a city that experienced the changing fortunes of warfare, it is Kharkov.  Today, it’s the second largest city in the Ukraine.  During the Second World War, it was a Soviet-German battleground no less than 5 times.

In 1941, it was captured in late October by the Wehrmacht in that early onslaught we remember so well.  In April of 1942, the Soviet Army (as part of their successful winter offensive) established a beachhead on the west side of the Donets River near Izyum and prepared an attempt to recapture  would launch an attack against Kharkov.  This attack, launched in May, ended in disaster as Friedrich Paulus’ forces surrounded the attackers and the Soviets lost a quarter of a million men in roughly two weeks.

When Stalingrad fell from Germany’s grasp in early 1943, the Soviets used that victory as a springboard and continued westward from the Volga, recapturing Kharkov in February.  And then Erich Von Manstein’s Panzers would again smash against the city, retaking it just a month later.

If you’re getting the idea that living as a citizen in the Kharkov between 1941 and 1943 warranted “hazardous-duty” pay, you’re not far from the truth.

But war would come to the city one last time.  When the Germans launched Operation Citadel in July of 1943, they did so believing they could encircle, trap, and wipe out large numbers of Soviet forces around the city of Kursk.  They were wrong.  The Soviet tactic of layering their defenses served to wear down the German attackers to the point that Citadel had to be cancelled.  But the Soviets didn’t cancel anything this time.

The Soviets quickly took the offensive and began pushing the Germans back to the west.  And as July rolled into August, Kharkov was again the center of attention.  Though facing a tenacious opponent, the Soviet armies were the stronger at this point, and Kharkov fell, this time for the last time, to the home team on August 23, 1943.

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