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Posts Tagged ‘1944’

Christmas.

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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