Posts Tagged ‘1944’


The holiday of good cheer and lights.  The morning of presents under a tree, wrapped and ready to be opened.  It’s the one day when most everything business-related comes to a screeching halt and people can just relax.  For millions of people, it’s the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is easily the most influential person that ever walked the planet.  We sing Silent Night and, for a day (and night), many folks actually do sleep in heavenly peace.

For the Alamo Scouts, December 25, 1944 was a day of peace.  The Scouts had been formed in November of the previous year and operated in the Southwest Pacific Theater, primarily around the Philippines.  As you might expect from the group’s name, their job involved reconnaissance and occasional raider activity.  And since that first scouting mission to Los Negros, teams had been sent out forty-nine times.  And forty-nine times the teams had come back intact – not a single man killed.  The most recent mission, conducted by the Sumner Team, had returned on the 21st after forty-seven days in the field.

The men were treated to a lavish meal with all the fixings.  Next Christmas, with the war over, the Alamo Scouts would be just a recent memory.  But on this day, it was time for thanks and celebration.

Merry Christmas everyone!!  Be safe and joyful.

Recommended Reading: Shadows in the Jungle

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Joachim Peiper was getting a bit frustrated, because he was getting further and further behind schedule.  Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we know so well as the Battle of the Bulge) had gotten off to a good start for him and his German compatriots.  Having achieved complete surprise with a 30-division offensive in the dead of winter in the Ardennes Forest, the Allied forces (comprised mostly of American troops in this area) were forced to retreat in the face of the onslaught.

The German objectives were simple.  Reach Antwerp, create a divide in the British and American forces, and hope for a peace deal.  Once that was accomplished, the German High Command could move all its arms and men eastward and try to slow down the Russians.

But the American troops hung in desperately, in many places fighting with a tenacity that surpassed even that of the desperate Germans.  And Peiper was seeing the results of that first-hand.  The offensive was just two days old, and already he was running late.  His final objective, the Meuse River, was taking too long to reach.

Peiper had lost time as he neared the village of Malmedy.  The next town on the road, Stavelot, had seen resistance slow him even more.  On December 18, 1944, he arrived at the village of Trois Ponts, which presented him with a chance to make up some lost time.  If he could cross the Ambleve River using the town’s three bridges (hence the name…Trois Ponts), there was good road ahead, which would allow his tanks to rip through the Belgium countryside and reach the Meuse in a just a couple of hours.

The Americans, however, had other plans.

As Peiper’s lead tanks rolled toward the bridges, they were met by opposing tanks.  The two enemies had barely begun their engagement when, to Peiper’s dismay, the sound of a blast and the rumble of a bridge falling into the Ambleve was heard.  Shortly after, the second major bridge at Trois Ponts was detonated.

This was disastrous.  The German commander now had to move his charges north to the bridge at Cheneux (a tiny village near La Gleize), which meant yet another delay and more precious fuel wasted.

An exasperated Peiper finally reached Cheneux in the last light of day.  He rounded the bend and watched in horror as, just two hundred yards away, the bridge (this time crossing the Lienne River) disappeared in a flash and a crash.

Joachim Peiper’s advance to the Meuse had been stopped.

The Battle of the Bulge, from a German perspective, was all about advancing and covering tons of ground in a very short time.  The German war machine had precious little fuel to use, so rapid movement and the capture of enemy depots was vital before the weather cleared and the Allies’ unbelievable advantage in the air could be used to its fullest.

The dedication of American engineers and sappers, like the ones Peiper faced, played a key role in blunting the German advance and eventually turning the German advance into a retreat and rout.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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For the captain and crew of the USS Salmon, the events of October 30, 1944 probably felt more than just a little like their own spin on Das Boot.  If you’ve seen that classic movie, you know the crew of the Salmon had some serious danger that day.  If you haven’t seen it, you now have a two-part homework assignment:  find Das Boot…watch Das Boot.  Out on what was her 11th patrol of the war, she was near the Ryukyu Islands (you might recognize Okinawa as the main island) with a couple of other submarines.  On this night, the group attacked Jinei Maru, a Japanese tanker, and all three subs scored hits.

But like most wartime surface vessels, Jinei Maru was guarded by escorts, and they immediately responded to the threat.  The subs separated and the Salmon received a severe depth-charging, which crippled her.  Quoting NavSource.org, “This case of damage can be considered one of the most serious to have been survived by any U.S. submarine during World War II.  Pressure hull deformation was extensive in way of both engine rooms.”  She began taking on water, slipping deeper into the darkness and closer to her doom.  The crew probably watched in growing horror as the needle on the big depth-o-meter drooped past 300 feet (the typical test depth for which WWII-era subs were rated), then 350, then 400.  It wasn’t until a hull-crushing 500 feet that the dive was finally checked.

With his sub damaged and buoyancy compromised, the captain had no choice but to surface and take his chances, badly outgunned and wounded.  They opened their hatches at the surface and found themselves undetected in the darkness, but with the nearest enemy vessel little more than four miles away.  For several hours they feverishly worked to make repairs, but then their time was up…the enemy had found them and was closing fast.

The captain of the Salmon, possibly taking a lesson from Commander Evans just a couple of days before, turned his sub toward the enemy and attacked…on the surface…at full speed.  Passing within a couple of hundred feet of the Japanese escort CD-22, she let loose with everything she had, which amounted to some machine guns and the deck-mounted 3-incher.  They raked the escort’s structure and kept right on going at maximum speed, finding an ever-so-friendly rain squall waiting to mask their escape.

And escape they did…all the way to Saipan, where clean clothes and repair facilities awaited the fortunate crew.  The USS Salmon wouldn’t take to the water again until the war had ended, but her final encounter at sea had been perilous, and one from which most submarines didn’t survive.

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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.

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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

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As the Battle of the Bulge entered its second day, it was pretty clear that a lot of things were unclear.

For the Allies, confusion reigned as commanders struggled to come to grips with what was really happening on what was supposed to be a “Ghost Front.”  There was talk of English-speaking Germans in American uniforms…there were rumors that some of these men had already been captured.  Weather conditions and heavy cloud kept Allied reconaissance (in the best case) ineffective or (in the worst case) grounded altogether.  Communication lines with front-line officers had been cut in the initial bombardment, so giving and receiving orders was, in places, completely impossible.  And men not prepared to fight had suddenly been awakened from a “war-footing” slumber with a desperate enemy breathing down their necks.

The men wearing the other uniforms were not asleep.  On the contrary, they were ready to jump off.  But the fog of war served to make its own confusion.  The German High Command had laid out a series of simple goals:  make for Antwerp and Brussels and seek to divide the enemy.  But the implementation of those goals was largely dependent on good timing and good fortune.  Personnel had to achieve their goals within a certain time (and before the Allied forces could regain their footing) or, like a house of cards when the breeze kicks up, it would all come tumbling down.

And for the Germans, the “tumbling down” process was already happening, in just the offensive’s second day.

As a perfect example, consider paratroop Colonel Friedrich August Freiherr von der Heydte.  Less than two weeks before Watch on the Rhine (the German name for the Battle of the Bulge) began, he was informed that he would be receiving 1,200 elite paratroopers for a secret mission (he didn’t know what) against targets (he didn’t know where) to disrupt the enemy (he didn’t know who).  It wasn’t until the 14th (two days before the jumpoff) that he and his 1,200 men – which, far from elite, turned out to be mostly the rag-tags and troublemakers other commander didn’t want.  Only a couple hundred had any real jump experience at all – got word that their mission would be to drop into the Ardennes, capture the crossroads leading to Verviers, Eupen, and Malmedy, and tie up American reinforcements.

And in the early morning of December 17, 1944, Baron von der Heydte’s jumped off…one day later than scheduled and all over the place.  High winds and inexperienced pilots meant drop zones got badly missed.  More than 100 planes took paratroopers into the sky, but just 35 of them got their cargoes to the right spot.  Some missed by more than 100 miles, many dropping behind their own lines in Germany.  For the Colonel, this was far worse than the debacle he had experienced in Crete.  At least Crete was an island, and the men were confined to well-defined space.  But try to find your men when your search territory is Europe!  It was a pretty bad predicament.

As dawn broke, von der Heydte had gathered four privates, a lieutenant, and an injured sergeant.  When they reached the crossroads, another 20 men had joined them.  As they swapped stories and struggled to shake off the numbing cold, trucks filled with American infantry came around the corner and began passing the men.  With no time to think or even plan a defense, the Germans could do nothing but watch.  But rather than firing, the Americans simply waved as they passed, probably thinking they were friendly forces.

The slowly-growing group of Germans watched the first of many convoys pass, as the U.S. 7th Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division made their way east.  Had von der Heydte been equipped with his full 1,200-man roster, he could have done some serious impeding and delaying.  As it was, his group (which grew to over 100 men) was basically spectators.

Confused Germans, wondering what had happened to their comrades, watching confused Americans, wondering what was happening to theirs.

Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War

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Though he was just 29 years old, Joachim Peiper had lived a lifetime.  A Colonel in the SS Sixth Panzer Army, he had served with distinction on the Russian Front, which meant he had witnessed (and been a part of) scenes of violence rarely surpassed in a war full of terrible deeds.  Max Hastings, who I consider to be one of the finest historical writers of our generation, gives us a brief introduction to the man in his masterful book Armageddon.

He writes, “Peiper, a Knight’s Cross holder, was the archetypal brave, gifted Waffen SS commander just twenty-nine years old, with a record of brutality on the Russian Front which commanded respect even in SS circles.  In one advance, Peiper’s battalion claimed 2,500 Russians killed and just three captured.”

But in December of 1944, Peiper was no longer on the Russian Front.  As the Red Army bore down from the east, Peiper had been moved west…to the front facing the Americans.  It was hoped that Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we have come to know as the Battle of the Bulge) would push the Allies far enough westward to maybe divide them and get a separate peace deal done.  Our Colonel, his men, and his tanks had been secretly moved into place and were prepared to jump off.

And as we remember from last year, it was Peiper’s men who massacred the American soldiers at Malmedy.  It’s easy for us to understand how such an event happened.  A group of German soldiers, well-versed in a take-no-prisoners style of warfare, led by a take-no-prisoners battalion commander, and placed in a desperate, last-gasp situation.  It’s pretty cut and dried.

But I think there’s even more to it.  On December 12, 1944 (just four days before the Battle of the Bulge began), Peiper and his men were in Dueren, Germany when it was bombed by light bombers from the U.S. Ninth Air force.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time Dueren had been targeted.  On November 16th, the city had been absolutely plastered by British and American bombers.  More than 1,700 had set their sights on the “city of antiquities” and, in the space of two hours, dropped more than 9,000 tons of bombs on the city’s center.  And like Tokyo (and other Japanese cities) would experience a few months down the road, the bombs created a maelstrom of fire and destruction that left the city a complete ruin.  In fact, there is no building in Dueren today that dates prior to 1945.

Peiper and his men were witness not only to the aftermath of the November 16 attack, but witnessed first-hand the attack on the 12th.  In his biography of Colonel Peiper, Patrick Agte wrote, The widespread destruction, which lay before them, was worse than at the front. What was even worse was the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, which came over them in the face of this catastrophe… Encouragement and orders were unnecessary. Everyone was filled with the desire to help and also filled with horror, sympathy and rage!…This isn’t war; it’s mass murder!”

The unarmed Americans slaughtered at Malmedy were victims of an offensive powered by desperation and fought by men seeking revenge…a very bad combination.

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The dark, early-morning hours of October 25, 1944 were punctuated by the bright light of the explosions.  Rather than sleeping (as most people do at this hour), the men of the USS Tang were having a field day.  But for this Balao-class submarine, “incredible success” would have been the catchphrase for entire patrol.  Since departing from Midway and taking up station in the Formosa Strait, the officers and men had one Japanese target after another.

There were a pair of cargo ships in early October, and then a quiet period.  But the last 48 hours…wow!  The lone sub had discovered a large convoy on the 23rd.  As darkness fell, she closed in for the kill, sinking 3 freighters and a transport before making her escape.

But now, as October 24th wrapped into the 25th, the Tang’s radar screen was again lit up, this time with so many blips that it was practically impossible to read.  At periscope depth, the view was one of more transports (with aircraft on the decks, making them most inviting), tankers, and destroyer escorts.

The Tang planted at least one torpedo in the large transport, the tanker exploded, and a destroyer (which was now bearing down on them) exploded as well.  It was shaping up to be another banner day.  After doing a check and finding themselves clear of immediate pursuit, turned to finish off the tanker, still afloat but dead in the water.  And with but two torpedoes left (of 24 they carried), these would be the final shots before returning home.

With the firing solution obtained, the 23rd torpedo was off, running (in Navy parlance) “hot, straight, and normal.”  The 24th torpedo was then fired, and while it was “hot”, it was anything but “straight and normal.”  It began turning in a wide circle, almost as though it was targeting the ship that shot it.  The Tang quickly moved to escape the torpedo’s circle, but with only half a minute, there wasn’t enough time.  And at 2:30 in the morning, the torpedo hit the Tang, coincidentally, in the torpedo room.

A handful of men, including Lt. Commander Richard O’Kane, managed to escape the sinking vessel, but they were quickly picked by a (surviving) Japanese destroyer.  And as it was also carrying survivors of the vessels O’Kane and his men had just sunk, it’s safe to say that they didn’t receive a very warm welcome.  The nine survivors would remain POWs until the war ended.

Recommended Reading:  The Bravest Man

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Well, that was a 3-day “timeout” from writing that I didn’t intend to have.  There were topics about which I wanted to write, but one little thing after another conspired to keep away from the keyboard.  But as I was riding my bike home from work this afternoon, I saw my first Audi R8.  That event alone is worthy of press.  Bright black with chrome wheels…a sight to behold.  Now unless you own one of these masterpieces, you don’t just see one everyday.  And in a town of 5,000 people, having an R8 drive down the street elicits a response similar to the one I heard on Memorial Day, when our 4-year-old grandson first saw a Kool-Aid Fizzy tablet dropped in water…“Oooo…it’s a miracle!!”

The CBI is, in some sense, the forgotten World War II theater.  “CBI” is an acronym for China-Burma-India and, right away, even students of the war have to think hard to piece together any coherent facts.  I’m no different.  But at its simplest, the CBI is the story of Allied forces, supplied from India, fighting the Japanese in Burma, trying to open supply routes to China.  That’s pretty much it.

And while most of the fighting and dying took place in the awful jungles of Burma, it would stand to reason that the Japanese, at some point, would launch attacks into India to cut off Allied supply lines.  And that’s what they did in March of 1944 with the initiation of Operation U-Go (I think the Japanese military had at least a dozen Operation U-Go’s in the war…it’s like they were building cars or something).

The goal of Operation U-Go was the capture of the border towns of Imphal and Kohima, which would cut off Allied supply lines into Burma.  Begun on March 6th, General Renya Mutaguchi’s five infantry divisions (with some supporting armor) crossed the Indian border with good effect, cutting the road between the two towns and effectively isolating the defenders there.

But the story here was reinforcements, as fresh British and Indian forces were able to be flown in to augment the beleagured forces holding up the Japanese invaders.  For the Japanese, their lines of supply were just as bizarre and complex as the forces on the other side.  However, with the war turning against them elsewhere, it was much more difficult to actually keep their troops supplied.

By June, General Mutaguchi’s men were low on ammunition, starving, and battling disease.  He knew further offensive action was pointless because, frankly, very few men still alive could effectively fight.  And when the Fifth Indian Division reopened the road between Imphal and Kohima, Mutaguchi knew it was over.

In The Burma Road, Donovan Webster writes, “On July 7, in despair for his men and the slaughter that awaited them, Mutaguchi took his leave to a hilltop overlooking Imphal and chanted a Shinto prayer for help.  And, remarkably, the next day, July 8, full five months after Mutaguchi’s diversionary troops on the Arakan Peninsula had fired the initial shots in the ‘March on Delhi’, the Japanese were given orders to begin their withdrawal from India back into Burma.”

The Japanese would leave a trail of guns, broken tanks, artillery, and dead soldiers as the survivors limped away from the fight.  The orders to retreat, received on July 8, 1944 and a rarity for the Japanese, meant that Mutaguchi would leave the battle having suffered more than 55,000 killed and wounded.  What started with such promise was, up to this point, the largest defeat in Japanese history.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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Intelligence, whether or not you’re Martha Stewart, is a good thing.  It’s always helpful to know stuff.  I know that here in America, we drive on the right side of the road.  And since I’m old enough to drive, that turns out to be a pretty useful fact that I can put into action every day.  And gravity.  Years ago when I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the whole gravity thing was a nice little chestnut to have locked away in my brain.  Without that knowledge, three more steps north would have left the bus 165 pounds lighter on the return trip.

But some things I know are pretty much worthless.  Take the speed of light in a vacuum as an example.  Without even looking it up, I know it’s 186,282.397 miles per second…and I’ve known that since junior high.  But big whoop!!  What possible good does that do me?  It’s never helped me in a job interview.  I don’t think it’s ever been an answer on Jeopardy.  It’s not even a good conversation starter at parties.

However, let’s say we were the Allied High Command in 1944…June of 1944.  And on the 6th of that month, we had launched a massive invasion of Western Europe called, I don’t know, Operation Overlord or something.  And then four days later, ULTRA (the name we gave our codebreaking methods) revealed the location of the headquarters of Panzer Gruppe West, the primary reinforcements to be used by Germany to attack the men we were sending ashore at Normandy.

That knowledge might prove to be most useful.

And it was.  General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (commander of Panzer Gruppe West) had set up his headquarters in the Chateau at La Caine (about 20 miles south of the Normandy coast).  Allied intelligence got wind of it and passed the information on to the commanders.  And they, knowing the importance of Schweppenburg’s forces, wasted no time in dealing with it.

Immediately (which in this case meant June 10, 1944), air assets were dispatched.  Forty Hawker Typhoons and sixty-one B-25 Mitchells attacked the chateau, wounding von Schweppenburg and killing 17 of his staff.  Panzer Gruppe West HQ was out of commission.  But, more importantly, communications between the HQ and the actual fighting men (and tanks) had been lost.  And as Allied tank forces were beginning their inital breakouts from Normandy on that very day, it offered them some additional freedom of movement.

Recommended Reading:  Overlord:  D-Day and the Battle for Normandy

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From the time the death camp at Auschwitz received its first inmates in 1940 until it was taken by the advancing Red Army in early 1945, very few people even attempted to leave the camp of their own free will.  Hundreds of thousands walked into the camp, only to be turned to dust, having been fed to a ghastly machine that used their gassed remains for fuel.  Numerous prisoners would be transferred from this massive “production” center to other camps, and nearly 20,000 would be forced to leave when the Russian guns got too close for German comfort.

But escape?  Well, there were numerous attempts, but success was almost impossible.

But not totally impossible.

On April 7, 1944, Rudolf Vrba (on the left) and Alfred Wetzler (on the right) took their shot at freedom.  And while these two had no other companions, they had the assistance of many.  A new camp in the “Mexico” section was under construction, and there was a large pile of wood sitting outside the fences of the main camp, but inside the guarded outer cordon.  Men belonging to the camp underground dug out a foxhole underneath the pile of wood and, at 2pm that Friday afternoon, Wetzler and Vrba entered the hole.

They went in alone, but not empty-handed.  They carried detailed plans of Auschwitz and its location, as well as the names of officers.  Filip Müller, a fellow prisoner in the crematoria and eventual author of Eyewitness Auschwitz, did his part as well.  He writes, “I handed to Alfred a plan of the crematoria and gas chambers as well as a list of names of the SS men who were on duty there.  In addition I had given to both of them notes I had been making for some time of almost all transports gassed in crematoria 4 and 5.”  Müller also described to the men in detail the extermination process and provided them a real prize, a label from a Zyklon B canister.  Of course, these were the canisters that held the cyanide pellets used to gas those arriving on the trains.

Wood was quickly piled over the opening, followed by dirt.  But since their German captors searched with dogs specially trained to sniff out escapees, wood and dirt alone wouldn’t be enough.  Soviet POWs, experienced in escape attempts, suggested drenching the area with paraffin (kerosene) followed by a generous dusting of tobacco.

Shortly after the 7pm roll-call, the sirens began wailing throughout the camp.  The absence of Wetzler and Vrba had been discovered, and the waiting process now began for those who knew of their escape.  It was well-known that the outer cordon around the camp would only be removed after three days of searching for escapees.  The plan was to have the two men sit in their pitch-black hovel for 3 days, then make their way out under cover of dark.

Inside the camp, the men held their breath, eyeing the gallows already constructed for the to-be-captured prisoners…gallows on which Wetzler and Vrba would never swing.  Miraculously, the two men emerged from their hideout three nights later and, wearing Dutch suits and boots taken from the camp, made their getaway.  But more than that, with all pro-German authorities scouring the countryside for them, they successfully reached the Polish/Slovakian border and crossed over.

They reached Jewish friends and, using their contraband from the camp, began making detailed reports about Auschwitz and its activities.  The rumors that had been floating around since Wannsee were now confirmed for all the world to see and hear.

Recommended Reading: Eyewitness Auschwitz

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The 77th Indian Brigade’s first mission into Burma met with limited success.  In case you don’t recall, this group of fighters, better known as the Chindits, had stepped into Burma to take on the Japanese forces in February of 1943.  Their long-range penetration mission was something of a tactical experiment, and it was organized by the more-than-a-little-eccentric Orde Wingate, a Colonel who quoted extensive passages of the Bible and walked around with an alarm clock strapped to his wrist.

His “missionary” work in Burma, called Operation Longcloth, succeeded in disrupting some of the Japanese communication and rail services, but met with heavy casualties.  Of the 3,000 men than began Longcloth, more than 800 were killed, captured, or died of disease.  And 600 of those that returned were too wounded or sick to remain in active service.

But Wingate, now a Major General, knew how to “accentuate the positive…eliminate the negative”.  Talking up the successes of the mission, he gained the ear of Prime Minister Churchill, and he gained the opportunity to give it another go.  In fact, Wingate’s testimonials at the Quebec Conference inspired U.S. Army leaders, including President Roosevelt, who then started planning similar forces of their own (a subject we’ll tackle at some point in the future).

The second mission, named Operation Thursday and begun in early February of 1944, was much larger (involving a full division still called the Chindits) and had at its command its own mini “air force”, charged with close air support and dropping supplies.  The jungle warfare in 1944 (like 1943) was fraught with peril.  Diseases, hunger, and a more prepared enemy made the going very difficult.  But worse was to come.

On March 24, 1944, General Wingate was returning to Burma from a troop-morale visit in India when the B-25 Mitchell in which he was a passenger crashed into the Indian hills west of Imphal, killing everyone on board.  All that could be identified of Wingate among the charred wreckage was his helmet.  As the heart and soul of the Chindit forces, his loss staggered the men.  His good friend and subordinate Mike Calvert said, “We were numb from the shock.  We could not yet understand or appreciate the consequences.  It was like going smoothly along in an aeroplane when the navigator comes in and says, ‘The pilot has died of heart failure.  There is no copilot and none of us knows what to do.’ “

General Slim bypassed Calvert, who may have been a logical choice to succeed Wingate, because Slim deemed “Mad Mike” nearly as eccentric (and therefore unstable) as the now-dead General.  Instead, he brought in Major General Joe Lentaigne, one of Wingate’s unit commanders, to carry on.  While Letaigne was well-versed in Wingate’s methods, he had often been critical of them, which put him at odds with a good deal of the force.  It may be true that the Chindits didn’t always like Orde Wingate, but they were fiercely loyal to him.

Regardless, it’s safe to say that any man appointed to take over would have stood in General Wingate’s shadow.  His were big shoes to fill.  But the despite the darkness that descended over the Chindit forces on this day, there was still a battle to be fought, and an enemy to be defeated in the Burmese jungles.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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The two-and-a-half month battle fought on Peleliu in the fall of 1944 was one of the most vicious engagements of the entire war.  Thirteen hundred Marines and more than five hundred Army soldiers were killed in the process of subduing nearly 11,000 Japanese soldiers that were incredibly well-entrenched.  But regular readers of Today’s History Lesson probably know all this.  Other than Guadalcanal, I think I’ve spent more time discussing Peleliu than any other single battle, so it’s no big secret.

It’s also no secret that, even after nearly 70 years, a pall of controversy hangs over this 13 square miles of coral.  And much of the debate stems from the events that happened on this day…March 2, 1944.

As the sun rose on that day, American forces in the Pacific were knocking the Japanese all over the place.  Their naval base at Truk was abandoned and in ruins, having been plastered by U.S. carrier aircraft in mid-February.  More than 250 aircraft and three dozen ships were destroyed.  Admiral Koga packed (what was left of) his bags and retreated to the Palau Islands, setting up a temporary base on Peleliu until a bigger naval base could be completed in the Philippines.

But by the time the sun had set that day, Koga’s plans, to quote Bill Sloan’s outstanding Brotherhood of Heroes, “…went up in smoke – along with 160 more Japanese planes.”  He continues, “…scores of Hellcat fighters and Dauntless dive-bombers from the carriers Hornet, Lexington, and Bunker Hill ravaged Peleliu’s airstrip in relentless day-long raids.  Low-flying Avenger torpedo planes sowed hundreds of magnetic mines across the entrances to Malakal harbor, trapping some thirty enemy ships inside, then returned to sink or disable all of them.”

Peleliu was a wreck.  Whatever offensive punch the island possessed on March 1st was gone.  The garrison stationed there was still strong but, like Truk, it no longer posed any long-range threat to General MacArthur’s designs on the Philippines.  Even the Japanese knew that was true, and declared the garrison expendable.

But the 1st Marine Division became part of a power struggle between MacArthur, who really considered them to be “his” Marines and wanted to keep them, and Fleet Admiral Nimitz, who wanted them returned to Navy control.  And General MacArthur’s passionate appeal to President Roosevelt carried the day, and the Philippines operation, with Peleliu as a flanking maneuver, was on.

So the 1st Marine Division, followed later by the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, would be called upon to expend a lot of blood to capture a postage-stamp-sized piece of real estate that, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the Pacific War one iota.  A piece of real estate that had been pretty much defeated six months prior to invasion.

Throughout our discourses, I’ve visited Peleliu numerous times.  If you’re interested, here are links to those pieces:

Sep 4, 1944 – Leaving Pavavu: Out of the Frying Pan…
Sep 15, 1944 – Peleliu: The War’s Most Controversial Battle
Sep 18, 1944 – Action Jackson: Hero of Peleliu
Oct 12, 1944 – Andy Haldane: Loved and Lost on Peleliu’s Hill 140
Oct 13, 1944 – Corporal Andrusko: 1 Bullet, 3 Wounds, 1 Miracle
Nov 27, 1944 – The Guns on Peleliu Fall Silent
Feb 1, 1945 – Japanese Holdouts Give it up on Peleliu

Recommended Reading: Brotherhood of Heroes

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As the Allied air forces began take the fight to Germany in 1943, they very quickly learned a double-edged lesson.  Operation Gomorrah and individual attacks on the ball-bearing factories at Schwienfurt and the oil fields of Ploesti (ok, Ploesti’s in Romania, not in Germany, but it still works for our example) taught U.S. military planners that heavily-gunned bombers like the B-17 and B-24 were not enough to fight off enemy fighters.  The Flying Fortresses and Liberators each sported nearly a dozen machine guns as protection, yet bomber losses in many of these missions were large.

The second part of the lesson was a corollary to the first…fighter protection for the bombers was essential.  Many bombing raids had fighter escorts for part of the trip to the target and for part of the trip home.  But no fighter in the inventory had the range (even with droptanks) to accompany the bombers all the way to their targets.

P-38’s and P-47’s had to turn back early, and the bombers were left alone at their most vulnerable time, flying straight, level, and at a consistent speed to make their bombing runs.  The Germans were well aware of this issue, and capitalized on it fully, waiting until the bombers were well into Germany before loosing the fighters.

But that was 1943, and 1944 saw some positive developments, at least as far as the American bomber pilots were concerned.  P-51 Mustangs began arriving in the theater in force, and they had the range to go all the way to Germany.  So when Allied planners began laying the groundwork for Operation Argument, they had a new tool in the shed with which to work.

In the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Navy spent the better part of the war trying to draw out (and defeat) the U.S. Navy in a decisive battle.  Operation Argument was, in a sense, a similar attempt by the Allies to draw out the Germans and destroy their fighter forces with their new long-range escorts.

Operation Argument began on February 20, 1944 and involved a week-long series of large-scale bombing attacks on German airfields and aircraft manufacturing and assembly facilities throughout Germany.  Big Week (as Operation Argument is also known) was a modest strategic success for the Allies, who used more than 3,000 sorties to drop 10,000 tons of bombs, destroying or damaging numerous targets.

But the biggest success was the 75% reduction in bomber losses.  Allied air commanders had discovered a repeatable formula that protected the bombers.  When testifying at Nuremeburg, Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering said that when he saw fighters escorting the bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.  Operation Argument was the beginning of that realization.

But here’s that pesky P-51 Mustang again.  A modestly-powerful medium-altitude fighter that is now saving the day for the bombers in high-altitude escort missions.  The calendar of Today’s History Lesson is getting closer to answering the question.

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It’s getting late this evening, so I’ll keep it fairly brief…or at least I’ll try to.

When we discussed the sinking Japan’s humongous battleship Yamato (now approaching two years ago), we put it in a hypothetical shootout with the USS Iowa.  Back then, I concluded that such a battle would have been won by the ship that landed the first blows with its main rifles (18″ on the Yamato, 16″ on the Iowa).  I still hold to that.

And while the Yamato-class battleships were easily the largest and most powerful of their type ever produced (with displacements approaching those of an aircraft carrier and those massive 18″ guns), I think the ships of the Iowa-class actually demonstrate the highest refinement of the mark, with their advanced (for the 1940’s) radar and fire-control systems.

The Iowa-class dreadnoughts came out of somewhat conflicted thinking.  The two preceding battleship classes (North Carolina and South Dakota) both tried to balance the need for bigger armament and protection while simultaneously remaining within the 35,000-ton limit imposed by the Treaty of London.  As it turns out, the South Dakota’s, with their shortened length (which meant better armor protection) and more powerful engines, actually were pretty good ships, as we saw at Guadalcanal.

But by the time they were in the water, Japan had already withdrawn from the Treaty and word that her Navy was building much larger ships came floating across the Pacific.  So an entirely new design was drafted, one which eschewed the Treaty requirements, and the Iowa-class battleships were born.

Six hulls would be laid down, and four would be completed.  The IowaNew Jersey, the Missouri, and the Wisconsin comprised BB-61 – 64 in the Navy’s registry.  The Illinois and Kentucky (BB-65 & BB-66) were begun, but never finished.  BB-65 was eventually sold for scrap and parts of BB-66 were used to repair the Missouri after she suffered a ship-to-ship collision.  There was more-than-passing consideration for equipping the Iowa’s with 18″ main guns, and the U.S. Navy already had them in the inventory, ready to go.  But the guns would have “upset the apple cart” of the design, requiring more weight, bigger engines, and most importantly, a wider body.  Increased width meant the Iowa’s could not have used the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal, so the plan for 16″ rifles stayed.  As it is, the Iowa’s fit through the Canal with a few feet to spare.

The Missouri was the last the of the Iowa’s to be launched, having done so on January 29, 1944.  And of course, by this time the battleship had been overtaken by the aircraft carrier as the main instrument of force projection.  So she had the dual honor of being the very last battleship launched.

But these ships would hang around for a long time.  They served in Korea and in Vietnam.  Then they were placed in reserve until the 1980’s, when President Ronald Reagan’s call for a 600-ship Navy brought them back online, largely as missile platforms.  Both the Wisconsin and Missouri fired weapons in anger in the first Gulf War (the Iowa would likely have participated as well, but was damaged when a turret exploded).

As far as I can tell, the Iowa-class battleships are the longest-serving ships in U.S. history, fighting in various conflicts over nearly 50 years.  These battlewagons only journeyed together as a “foursome” for a few hours on one occasion, but it was probably a site to behold, and someone was wise enough to snap a photo (shown above)…the four most powerful ships of their kind (and the last of their kind) gliding through the water.  Their usefulness in the days of cruise missiles and carrier-centric fleet defense is long gone, but their beauty and grace will never be eclipsed.

Recommended Reading:  Iowa Class Battleships

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As Major James Howard climbed into the cockpit of his fighter on January 11, 1944, he was already an ace. He was about to become one all over again.

Howard “grew up” as a pilot in the fledgling carrier wings of the U.S. Navy.  In the late 1930’s, he was aboard the USS Enterprise.  But when Claire Chennault put together his all-volunteer force in Burma in mid-1941, Howard couldn’t resist the lure of immediate action, possible glory, and flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, at that time the best fighter available in the U.S. inventory.  So he left the Navy and joined what became known as the Flying Tigers.  In 50+ missions, Howard was credited with six-and-a-half kills, one (and a half) more than the 5 required to be an ace.

In mid-1942, the Flying Tigers were assimilated into the Army Air Force, and Howard was commissioned as a captain, and promoted in 1943 to major.  It would be as a squadron commander in the 354th Fighter Group that he would become, for a while, a household name.  Which brings us back to January 11th…

Flying escort for a bombing package of B-17 Flying Fortresses, their formation was jumped by a gaggle of German Me-109’s and 110’s.  And while the gunners in the belly of the bombers had their hands full, they were also treated to an aerial spectacle as Howard repeatedly pressed attacks against the enemy.  Even when separated from the rest of his squadron and flying alone, he remained the aggressor.  James Howard was credited with 3 definite kills and 3 probables.

When Frederick Graham published the story a week later in the New York Times, he reported how bomber crews returned to base just gushing about this one guy who, for a short time, was a “one-man air force”.  The leader of the bomber force later said, “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. It was a case of one lone American against what seemed to be the entire Luftwaffe. He was all over the wing, across and around it. They can’t give that boy a big enough award.”  And it would be their eyewitness accounts that not only verified his actions, but upped Howard’s conservative “2 kills and 2 probables” to “3+3”.

The leader of the bomber force was right. Five months later, Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits (shown above with Howard on the right).

And James Howard’s airplane?  Well, his P-51B Mustang landed safely (unlike our comrade Alexander Gorovets) with just one bullet hole.  A pretty awesome result for a modest, tall, skinny kid.

But now intrepid readers will likely recall that, when we last visited the P-51 Mustang (in 1940), she was flying for the first time.  Characterized as a very solid medium-altitude fighter, what was it doing in 1944 as a high-altitude bomber escort, shooting down enemy planes with reckless abandon?  Ah, that is the question…and we’ll answer it in a couple months.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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I have in front of me my Today’s History Lesson spreadsheet.  In it are a series of pages…one page per year, one event (occasionally two) per day.  Some days have events running out to 2016, which still surprises me.  History is big.

But today is Christmas Eve, and a quick look at the spreadsheet (which shows topics, for this day, through 2011) , doesn’t really include anything that conveys the spirit of this season.  So, I think I’ll ditch those on the list (actually, I’ll just push them all out another year), and talk briefly about something I read just this afternoon.

I’m just about finished with Charles Whiting’s book Ardennes: The Secret War.  His story of the Battle of the Bulge is told largely from the German perspective, and it makes for interesting reading.  In describing the last Christmas Eve of the war, he writes, “As night descended upon war-torn Europe, it brought with it a strange kind of respite from the bloody struggles of the day and the new ones of the morrow.”

The town of Malmedy enjoyed, relatively speaking, a “sleep in heavenly peace” from the ravages of war.  Just a week before, nearly 100 captured American soldiers had been slaughtered in one of the more infamous atrocities of the war.  In the ensuing days, it had been recaptured by the Americans as the German advance reached its zenith, far short of its intended goals.

And then disaster struck Malmedy again, this time courtesy of the U.S Ninth Air Force.  Unable to find their primary target on December 23rd, the B-29 Superfortresses of the 322nd Bombardment Group headed for their secondary target, the town of Lommersum.  Still lost, they inadvertantly bombed Malmedy instead.  To make matters worse, they didn’t just bomb the town once, but three times.

Malmedy was a shambles, with dozens of American soldiers and hundreds of civilians killed.  The following evening, December 24, 1944, Red Cross trucks showed up at the hospital with gifts for the injured children.  The nuns tending the children stopped their work and sang Silent Night to the soldiers bringing the gifts.

They may not have realized it (and I’m digressing a bit), but the nuns were celebrating the anniversary of one of the most famous Christmas carols ever written.  On December 24, 1818, Josef Mohr (a German priest and the carol’s lyricist) sat down with Franz Gruber (an organist who composed the music) in Gruber’s apartment and, for the first time, put words and music together.  They would introduce it at Midnight Mass as evening turned to morning that night.

Back in Malmedy, however, another drama was unfolding.  Two German soldiers volunteered to sneak into town and bring back their dead comrades lying about.  Moving as quietly as possible, they took each dead soldier to their jeep, working ever closer to the American positions.

Whiting then continues…

“Suddenly, just as they had freed yet another body…, there was the crunch of a boot on the hard snow.  They froze.  The noise came closer.  Dark shapes appeared out of the night.  The two men found themselves staring into the faces of an American patrol, waiting for the first angry challenge to be followed by the shots that would surely kill them.

Nothing happened.  The Americans took another look at the two Germans, then proceeded silently on their way, like neighbors passing each other in the night.”

It’s a shame all differences aren’t handled like that.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War

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The Battle of the Bulge was an offensive born of desperation.  As its creator, Adolf Hitler may have, in the back of his mind, suspected it was a gamble.  But his subordinate generals, closer to reality than their weakening leader, knew without question that it was a last gasp.  Field Marshal Walter Model asked one of his commanders, tasked with a parachute drop, if he believed his chances of success were at least 10 percent.  The commander, completely honest, replied between 10 and 20 percent.  “I wish the whole offensive had the same kind of chance,” said Model. “Then it is necessary to make the attempt, since the entire offensive is the last remaining chance we have of concluding the war favorably.  If we don’t make the most of that ten percent chance, Germany will be faced by certain defeat.”

The German offensive was really a race…a race to reach Antwerp and Brussels before the fuel ran out.  All those divisions that lined up and shoved off against the Allies?  Many of them didn’t have enough fuel to reach their goals unless they could somehow capture it.  That meant overwhelming the British and Americans and destroying their ability to fight without actually destroying the fuel dumps and depots along the way.  It also meant capturing them before the Allies figured out the German weakness.

And so, on the surface, these factors may have helped explain the events at Malmedy, which occurred on December 17, 1944, just one day into the offensive.  It was here that the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion had an unplanned meeting with Kampfgruppe Peiper.  Peiper’s forces were part of Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army we mentioned yesterday, and they were already behind schedule in their efforts to reach the Meuse River.  Late in the morning, they came ripping into Malmedy…and the 285th.

These American troops were about as unseasoned as could be, and had little time to react before Peiper’s lead armor began turning their convoy trucks to burning hulks.  Armed with rifles and a machine gun or two, there was no hope of a successful fight or even retreat, so the 100+ men surrendered.  Peiper himself (and his lead elements) drove through Malmedy.  He wanted to capture an American general, and rumor had one located up the road in Ligneuville.

The remaining Germans marched the captured men of the 285th into a field and summarily executed them.  When the Germans left the scene, a handful of survivors (those who had played dead or fell under dead comrades), made their escapes, returning to safety with a terrible story to tell.  Between 80 and 90 men remained, their bodies turning white and cold under the falling snow.

I said before, desperation may have been a cause for this.  But the facts seem to show otherwise.  First, this wasn’t the first such action in Operation Watch on the Rhine, in just its second day.  There were numerous reports of captured soldiers and civilians being murdered.  Furthermore, Kampfgruppe Peiper had been in Poland, Russia, Italy, and now the regions of Normandy…these men had a fearsome reputation.  Everywhere they went, stories like this followed them.  There were the executions of intellectuals in Poland, Jews in Russia, and Jews in Italy.  Now, it was American soldiers.

And while it would take nearly two months for the site of the massacre to be uncovered, it took just hours for word of the Massacre at Malmedy to make its way through the Allied ranks.  President Roosevelt was quoted as saying, “Well now the average GI will hate the Germans just as much as do the Jews.”  The President was at least partly right.  Numerous soldiers (some instructed by their superiors) enacted a policy of not taking members of the SS alive (Pieper’s men were part of an SS Division), so they simply killed those who surrendered.

It was still early, and the British and Americans were reeling on the Ghost Front, but retribution for Malmedy would become one of the battle cries that winter.

Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter

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When people talk about “the battle of the bulge”, it generally has something to do with weight.  One might refer to the struggle to control his or her waistline.  Possibly it’s a discussion of some new exercise equipment.  Or it’s a conversation around the water-cooler about the latest episode of the many weight-loss programs that occupy our television screens, most notably The Biggest Loser.

If you, as a budding history buff, were to jump in and say something like, “Did you know that the phrase ‘the battle of the bulge’ comes from the last major German offensive, launched in late 1944?”, you might get a nod or two, that four- or five-second span of awkward silence, and then a response like, “Did you see how totally mad Jillian got at the black team for, like, sneaking Twinkies into their beds?!?”.

Don’t worry, stuff like that happens all the time to fans of history…we’re lone wolfs in a world of “right now.”

At 5:29am on December 16, 1944, the term “battle of the bulge” didn’t yet exist.  The area around the hills and forests of the Ardennes region (Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France) was quiet.  There had been little military activity in the region.  So little, in fact, that the area on the Allied side was primarily defended by two groups of soldiers – those with little actual battle experience (as a way to gain it), and those with much experience in need of rest and recuperation.

The winter of 1944 had, in northern Europe, been a little harsher than previous years, and the battlelines, which mostly ran a little to the west of the Rhine River, seemed to be in hibernation.  Adolf Hitler had brought back Field Marshal von Rundstedt, but he was an old-school tactician who would likely fight a purely defensive action.  The Allied plans of “German defeat by Christmas” were pretty much shot, but there was little doubt that the Germans were not capable of a serious offensive action.  As a result, many Allied generals were taking a well-earned Christmas break.  Montgomery was off polishing up his golf game.  Bradley and two of his subordinates (Generals Hodges and Quesada) were in Spa, Belgium, being fitted for custom shotguns.  Eisenhower had his valet’s wedding to attend.

There were some minor Allied concerns.

There had been little or no intelligence activity in the last couple of months.  ULTRA, the Allied code-breaking system, had seen fewer and fewer intercepts floating through the airwaves.  Some chalked it up to the Wehrmacht running out of steam.  There was that one message intercepted back in late October, calling for English-speaking German soldiers to report to Otto Skorzeny, but that was apparently a big nothing.

And where was the Sixth SS Panzer Army?  Commanded by General Sepp Dietrich and composed of at least five armored Panzer divisions, there was no agreement among the Allies as to its location, and no way (with the poor weather) to get solid reconnaissance.

But still, at 5:29am, there was little concern and only a few dangling questions.

At 5:30am, there were no more questions…just a massive barrage of artillery…German artillery.  By 8:00am, the first of nearly 30 German divisions had smashed into the Allied lines.  That lack of intelligence gathering?  The German Army, now mostly in its own country, had reverted to using standard telephone lines.  Those English-speaking Germans?  They were now behind the Allied lines, wreaking havoc and confusion among the American and British soldiers, already dazed and confused.  The conservative von Rundstedt?  Merely a figurehead…Operation Watch on the Rhine (as the Germans called it…even the name sounds defensive in nature) was Hitler’s baby from the get-go.  And those missing Panzer divisions?  Dietrich’s forces were among the first to come smashing into the forests of the Ardennes.

The goals of this massive last gasp by the Wehrmacht were pretty simple.  They wanted to split the British and American forces, capture Brussels and the Belgian port (and major Allied supply depot) of Antwerp, and hope the British and Americans would accept a peace treaty that was separate from the Soviet Union.  If that happened, the end of hostilities in the west would allow the Germans to concentrate all their attention on stopping the Soviet advances in the east.

Operation Watch on the Rhine (which came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge) got off to a smashing start for the Germans.  In the introduction to his book Ardennes: The Secret War, Charles Whiting writes, “…the Germans pulled off a tremendous intelligence coup.  Never before had they been able to do anything like it – and they would never do it again.  The Allied high command had been caught napping.  Later they made frantic efforts to re-establish their reputations.  No episode in the whole course of the war caused so much public polemic, personal vituperation and self-vindication.  They attempted to show that they had expected the attack in the Ardennes;  hadn’t been fooled at all; had taken that “calculated risk” that top brass was always talking about, a risk that was never apparent to the soldiers who had to pay the “butcher’s bill.”…But in the end, in spite of the bluster, the name-calling, the passing of blame to others, there was no denying the fact that the enemy had well and truly surprised the generals.”

Only time, and blood, would determine if the Allies could stem this winter avalanche.

Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War

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The mighty battle cruiser HMS Hood was felled in 1941 in spectacular (and catastrophic) fashion.  Engaged in a fight with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, her aft ammunition magazine was pierced by gunfire from the Bismarck.  The Hood exploded in a conflagration that split her in two, sank her in minutes with nearly all hands, and reverberated through the British Admiralty all the way to Number 10 Downing.

So one is only left to wonder why the U.S. Navy didn’t feel some misgivings when it commissioned the USS Mount Hood in July of 1944.  After all, “Mount Hood” sounds a lot like “Hood”.  What’s more, Mount Hood is a volcano that, while dormant now, is certainly capable of exploding.  Even more ominous, the ship bearing the volcano’s name was an ammunition ship…and she was loaded with ammunition.  By now, you should know this isn’t going to turn out well.

She was sent packing from Norfolk with 3,800 tons (that’s 7,600,000 pounds) of ammunition.  Her destination?…Seeadler Harbor on Manus Island.  Manus is located a couple hundred miles to the northeast of Papua New Guinea.  The U.S. Navy was stockpiling supplies and ammunition for its forces that were battling on and around the Philippines.

At 8:55am on the morning of November 10, 1944, the Mount Hood was rocked by an explosion.  Seconds later, another much larger explosion blew the ship to smithereens.  Now sometimes when we say “blown to smithereens”, we’re exaggerating to some degree.  We want to convey the force of the explosion, even though whatever it was that exploded wasn’t really reduced to fragments.  But in this case, “blown to smithereens” is appropriate.  “Obliterated” is also accurate.

Eighteen men (not part of the ship’s crew) had left the ship at 8:30am and witnessed the explosion from the beach.  Scrambling back to their transport boat, they headed to the ship and found little bits of debris.  In fact, the largest piece of the Mount Hood found (which had left the shipyards as a 460-foot-long chunk of steel weighing almost 14,000 tons) was a piece of metal 16-feet-by-10-feet.  It was lying in the bottom of the crater.  Yep, just like a real volcano, the Mount Hood eruption left its own mark in Seeadler Harbor.  The crater was 1000 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 30 to 40 feet deep.

A junior officer and five enlisted men (part of the crew) also left the ship just before the explosion.  Not only were they the only survivors, they were the only human remains recovered from the Mount Hood’s 350-man compliment.  Mindanao, a repair ship along-side, was heavily damaged and suffered more than 80 killed.  Every ship within a one-mile radius was either damaged or sunk, and a further 370 men were injured.

A investigation into the cause of the explosion turned up nothing because, well, there wasn’t enough left to study.

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