The Third Battle of Monte Cassino

New Zealanders at the Third Battle of Monte Cassino

After the destruction and fortification of the Abbey, the uncoordinated attacks by the 4th Indian Division failed to dislodge the Germans on the Cassino front in mid February. For the next month, cold and rainy weather prohibited any further Allied attempt.

On 15 March 1944, the skies cleared briefly and for three hours, thousands of Allied bombers and artillery pieces turned the area around Monte Cassino into a roiling mass of smoke, dust, fire and debris. The Allies thought that surely no one could have survived. But if there was one lesson the Allies would refuse to learn during the Second World War it was that no matter how devastating and intense the bombardment, there was always some stubborn fool who refused to die, and emerged from the rubble to defend with a vengeance against dumbfounded attackers. As it was at Tarawa, so it would be at Monte Cassino.

Unlike the Second Battle, the Fifth Air Force properly coordinated with Gen Freyburg’s New Zealand Corps. As soon as the bombing ended, Freyburg’s troops hurled themselves toward the monastery and against the dazed German paratroops, with some success. They were assisted by tanks that arrived over a road laboriously cut over the mountain. The Indians captured Castle Hill. The Gurkhas secured Hangman’s Hill (named for the broken cable car cable that hung from a pole on the hill which made it look like a gibbet). The Kiwis captured most of Cassino town, although the center was still in German hands including the railway station, which dominated the entrance to the Liri Valley.

The air bombing however, destroyed any roads and trails and made resupply and further armor support difficult. Furthermore, fire from the abbey and incessant German counterattacks prevented any further gains. The Allied attacks ground to a halt, they were within 250m of the monastery.

After the initial two days, the Third Battle of Monte Cassino could be likened to two punch drunk fighters wearily flailing away at each other. Unfortunately, the Germans landed the last punch before the bell rang. Heavy rains on 23 March convinced both exhausted sides to stop fighting. But the writing was on the wall: the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger (Parachute) Division were now horribly under strength and there was very little prospect of replacement or relief.

The Battle of Los Negros

First Wave on Los Negros, courtesy of the US Army Center of Military History

In 1943, the 1st Cavalry Division turned in its horses and tanks and became an infantry formation, slated for service in the Pacific. By 1944, they were in New Guinea preparing to capture the Admiralty Islands from the Japanese. The islands had a large harbor and space enough for large airfields. Their capture would complete Operation Cartwheel and sever Rabaul. (Not that it really mattered: the Japanese had already written it off. The Allies didn’t know that though.) More critically though, the Admiralty Islands were a perfect staging area for operations against the Palau Islands and, most importantly for MacArthur, the Philippines.

On 23 February 1944, three American bombers overflew the Admiralty Islands, and were not fired upon. In their arrogance, the Fifth Air Force automatically assumed the islands had been evacuated (The Japanese were conserving their ammunition). The Fifth Air Force commander went straight into MacArthur’s office and suggested an immediate landing. MacArthur’s G2 (intelligence officer) vehemently disagreed but MacArthur, ever the glory seeker, authorized an immediate “recon in force” with one of the 1st Cavalry’s squadrons.

There were over 4000 Japanese waiting on the islands.

On 28 February 1944, 500 troopers of the 2nd Squadron of the 5th US Cavalry, loaded on a few fast transports and destroyers, and headed north. They landed on a secluded beach along the southern shore of the island of Los Negros. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise, because they were all defending the large harbor at Seedler Bay which is where they expected the Americans to assault. The beaches in the south were too small to support a landing capable of seizing the rest of the islands.

The Japanese were convinced this was a diversion. 2/5 Cavalry had secured the beachhead but could advance no further without endangering it (a mini Anzio). But with no further American landings, the Japanese decided to destroy the beachhead on the night of 2 March. Just after sundown and all throughout the 3rd, 2000 Japanese attacked the small exposed beachhead perimeter. Only massive naval gunfire and air support allowed the troopers to hold the line. The 2nd Squadron 7th Cavalry was landed that afternoon to reinforce the small beachhead.. As the Japanese were rolling up both ends of the beach, 2/7 Cavalry landed into the Japanese defenders. They thought they were just offloading into a secure beachhead, but instead most of the squadron assaulted onto an opposed beach. But in true cavalry fashion, they arrived just in the nick of time to prevent the beachhead’s destruction

Once the rest of the division back on New Guinea heard of 2/5 and 2/7 Cav’s predicament, they commenced a hasty and confused embarkation to relieve their besieged brethren. The rest of the 1st Cavalry Division arrived in the Admiralty’s over the next few days. Los Negos was secure by the end of the month, but the 1st Cavalry Division fought on until May against dug in Japanese defenders to secure the rest of the Admiralty Islands for MacArthur.

The Battle of the Alamo

The Fall of the Alamo, by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, 1903

In the summer and autumn of 1835, Texian and Tejano separatists threw out the Mexican troops of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the reigning dictator of the Centralist Republic of Mexico, due to his heavy handed rule and revocation of the Constitution of 1824. The Texian success sparked rebellions across the length of Mexico. In the winter of 1835/36, Santa Anna’s army brutally suppressed those rebellions, and then turned north on Texas. After the disastrous Texian invasion of Matamoros, Gen Sam Houston’s volunteers needed time to retrain and organize to repel Santa Anna. To buy him that time, Col William Travis, decided to occupy and hold the old Franciscan Alamo mission outside of the town of San Antonio de Bexar.

Travis, a regular army officer, shared command with famed knife fighter Col Jim Bowie, a Texian volunteer with ties to Bexar. But even with a group of Tennessee volunteers under frontiersman and former US congressman Colonel Davy Crockett, The Texian defenders of the Alamo still amounted to less than 200 men, and Travis sent increasingly desperate (and dramatic) letters asking for reinforcements. On 23 February 1836, Santa Anna’s army arrived in Bexar. It would take ten days for Santa Anna’s entire army of 4000 to arrive, while Travis and Bowie received less than 80 reinforcements. As Santa Anna’s army gathered, he besieged the Alamo for 13 days.

At dawn on 6 March 1836, Santa attacked the Alamo to the sounds of Deguello bugle calls which announced no quarter for the “pirates” as Santa Anna had decreed the Texians. He attacked with four columns of a total of about 1800 men: one column from each cardinal direction. He hoped to overwhelm the overextended defenders of the Alamo’s long walls. However, the north, east, and west columns all massed on the north wall in the confusion of two previous failed attacks.

The third assault finally carried the north wall after a hastily patched breach, caused by ten days’ worth of bombardment, was finally captured and opened, allowing Mexican soldiers to stream into the mission. (Travis was killed defending this breach.) Texian soldiers on the south wall turned their cannons around and attempted to defend in both directions but were soon overwhelmed. (Crockett, with his Tennesseans, initially defended the low wall outside the chapel. He died fighting along the makeshift wall facing north. Or, according to one report, was captured and executed there.) Many of the remaining defenders attempted to escape but were cut down by Mexican cavalry. Those that didn’t barricaded themselves in the barracks and chapel, where they were systematically rooted out and killed (which was where an ailing Bowie died). Any prisoners were slaughtered and only a few Texian non-combatants walked away from the assault. However the defenders sold themselves dearly and the Mexicans took about 600 casualties.

Santa Anna thought the utter destruction of the Alamo’s defenders would end Texian resistance but he was gravely mistaken. Texian civilians fled Santa Anna and volunteers flocked to Gen Sam Houston’s retreating army. Santa Anna would follow but Houston’s galvanized army would turn and attack at the Lynchberg ferry on the San Jacinto river. Houston’s Texian victory at the Battle of San Jacinto captured Santa Anna, and subsequent negotiations led to the Texian independence from Mexico.

Merrill’s Marauders

Members of the US Army 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) “Merrill’s Marauders” resting outside of Nhpum Ga in Northern Burma, circa late Mar or early Apr 1944

In 1943, the colorful and eccentric British general, Orde Wingate, created his famous “Chindits” for long range deep penetration raids behind Japanese lines in Burma support of Slim’s 14th Army. Not to be outdone, Joseph Stillwell wanted a similar American formation for long range deep penetration raids behind Japanese lines in Burma in support of his Chinese American Army along the Burma/Ledo Road. A call went up throughout the US military for volunteers for a long and dangerous mission in some of the most unhospitable and unforgiving terrain imaginable. 3000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines from across the Pacific and continental US headed to India to train. They were formed into the 5307th Composite unit (Provisional), codename “Galahad”, and were commanded by BG Frank D. Merrill.

They quickly took the nickname,”Merrill’s Marauders”. On 26 February 1944, 2700 marauders departed Ledo on the 1000 mile march through the Himalayan foothills and Burmese jungle to destroy the Japanese logistics hub at Walabum. Like the Chindits, they were to be supplied completely by air. Due to the Japanese counteroffensive into India in March, the two month operation turned into a four month operation. In those four months of living in the jungle, they had five major and dozens of minor engagements with the Japanese, marched over 2000 miles, fought through the height of the monsoon season, and made Japanese operation in northern Burma a living Hell until they finally seized the vital Myitkyina airfield in late May, 1944. But they wouldn’t be pulled off the line until June.

Malaria, typhus, jungle rot, and particularly dysentery took its toll (Because of this, they all had flaps sewn into their pants so they didn’t have to drop their drawers when they needed to defecate). BG Merrill even had to be evacuated for malaria (and a second heart attack) in April. By the time the Marauders returned to Ledo, they had a staggering 95% casualty rate: only 149 of the original 2997 were not killed, wounded, captured, missing or stricken with disease.

Those 149 would go on to form the nucleus of the 475th Infantry Regiment, which of course would be redesignated after the war to the 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger).

The Japanese Inner Perimeter

By early 1944, Allied submarines, particularly American submarines, were doing to the Japanese what German U Boat captains could only dream of. No cargo ship flying the Rising Sun was safe anywhere in the Pacific. Moreover, American industry was pumping out new ships faster than crews could be trained to man them. There were enough aircraft carriers that fast carrier “strike groups” were raiding islands and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Inefficiencies in Japanese industry meant they simply could not keep up with the losses, much less innovate and upgrade their current ship types. Finally, their “Outer Defensive Ring” was under siege and penetrated in a few places: The “Japanese Pearl Harbor”, the Truk lagoon in the Caroline Islands, was a beacon for submarines. And most of its ships and port facilities were destroyed in Operation Hailstone, a concerted air and naval attack to destroy shipping there on 16 February. Heeding the lessons of Tarawa, Nimitz made short work of the Japanese garrisons in the Marshall Islands. The Japanese 28th Army was in process of being destroyed in Burma. Australian, Kiwi and American troops under MacArthur were steadily marching across New Guinea. Landings and land based airpower on New Britain, Bougainville and New Georgia had already isolated and neutralized Rabaul, unbeknownst to the soldiers and Marines fighting toward it from Cape Gloucester. And MacArthur wasn’t even attempting to hide preparations for landings along the north coast of New Guinea and in the Admiralty Islands to its northeast. The Japanese had to fall back; Bushido be damned.

As early as September, 1943, the Japanese Imperial Headquarters considered the withdrawal to a smaller perimeter in the Pacific but the admirals did not want to lose face in front of their bitter rivals, the generals of the Imperial Japanese Army. Their new perimeter would start in Burma, where they would hold the line against Slim’s 14th Army, then attack into India and cut the Ledo/Burma road that supplied the Chinese. The rest of the perimeter would extend to Singapore, the strategically and economically important Dutch East Indies, Dutch New Guinea, the Philippines, and finally the Palau, Marianna, and Bonin Islands. There the Allies were to be stopped.

For a few months they discretely “redeployed” capital ships under the guise of preparing for a massive counterattack. By January 1944, they had no choice but to strip the forward bases of anything that could be used. Everything to the south and east of this line was to be abandoned. But the submarine threat and the lack of industrial output meant that there was only room for irreplaceable equipment, not troops. The remaining garrisons were told they would receive no more support and they were on their own. On 22 February 1944, the last convoy left Rabaul, once the most important Japanese base in the South Pacific, taking with it the last of its vital equipment, and never to return.

300,000 isolated Japanese soldiers, sailors and marines were abandoned to their fate, and left to fight or starve to death

The Miracle on Ice

Sports Illustrated cover 3 Mar 1980. First cover in the magazine’s history that did not have accompanying language, because none was needed.
The late 70s was one of the darkest times in American history. Nixon and the Watergate scandal brought trust in the government to then all-time lows. The promise of nuclear energy was scuttled after the disaster of Three Mile Island. The OPEC embargo caused massive lines at gas stations. American hostages were flaunted by a theocratic Iran to the world in front of an impotent America whose military was gutted after the betrayal of South Vietnam. Islamic and domestic left wing terrorists had committed hundreds of attacks across the country. Unemployment was nearing 10% and the inflation rate flirted with 20%. America’s inner cities resembled war zones where good cops battled not just skyrocketing crime rates but rampant corruption. In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter used the term “malaise” to describe America’s “crisis of confidence” in the late 70s. “The Great Malaise” was an apt description of America in late 1979.
 
In 1977, the Soviet Union unveiled the Tu-22M Tupolev strategic nuclear bomber and the SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missile, both of which meant that the Soviet Union could directly strike NATO countries with medium range warheads from well within Soviet territory. The perceived nuclear superiority of the Soviets terrified NATO countries and the resultant SALT II talks between the US and USSR broke down in late 1979. Soon thereafter the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan ending even the façade of détente. The Soviet Union was seemingly on the march across the globe.
 
On 13 February 1980, the XIII Winter Olympics began in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet team had won the last four gold medals. They were de facto professional hockey players even though that was technically against the International Olympic Committee’s amateur-only policy. Nevertheless, the heavily favored Soviet team was expected to take the gold again.
 
America’s team wasn’t expected to even make past group play. All of the team members except one were new. And they were all collegiate players with an average age of just 21, the youngest team in the history of Olympic hockey. Coach Herb Brooks formed the team in the summer of 1979, and forged the young men through grueling and repetitious training. In an autumn match against Norway, Brooks determined the team was not focused enough and had them skate “Herbies” aka sprints up and down the rink, well after the janitor turned the lights off that night. On 9 February, the US met the Soviet team in an exhibition match at Madison Square Gardens. The Soviet Union crushed America 10-3.
 
At Olympic group play, the US team stunned the world by tying Sweden and defeating the Czechoslovakian team, who was predicted to win the silver medal. The American team then defeated Norway, Romania and West Germany to advance to the medal rounds, along with Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union.
 
On 22 February 1980, the American team again met the Soviet team. The match wasn’t televised, it was taped to be played the next day during prime time. And the match wasn’t even for a gold medal, the round robin type tournament was based on points. Nevertheless, it seemed the entire Cold War came down to this moment, and the Americans were expected to lose. And badly, like they did weeks before.
 
The Soviets had not lost a game in 12 years.
 
At the end of the first period, the score was surprisingly tied 2-2, but the Soviets took the lead in the second period 3-2. However, in the third, a rare American power play goal tied the game. At the ten minute mark, the American team captain Mike Eruzione scored again giving America the lead, and the Soviets trailed for the first time.
 
“Play your game” was Brooks’ mantra throughout the rest of the third period.
 
Characteristically, Brooks continued the American offensive, refusing to hunker down, and the decision increased America’s shots on goal. The Soviets began to panic and became sloppy. The Soviets didn’t pull their goalie because they hadn’t been in this situation since most their adversaries were in middle school in the 60s. As the seconds slowly ticked by the crowd and announcers began to count down. Al Michaels final comment during the match,
 
“11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game.”
 
“Do you believe in miracles?”
 
“Yes!”
 
And the buzzer sounded.
 
The crowd went insane and the team mobbed the ice. Herb Brooks sprinted back to the locker room and cried.
 
In the locker room later, the team received a congratulatory call from President Jimmy Carter and spontaneously broke into a rendition of “God Bless America”.
 
(I need to dust my room…”)
 
The Miracle on Ice shocked the world, and America even more so, especially three hours later when the game was finally broadcast.
 
A few days later, America met Finland and a win would secure the gold. Going into the second intermission, America was down 2-1. Rink side, Brooks looked at his team and just said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking graves.” And then walked toward the locker room. Halfway there he stopped, turned, pointed at them, and said, “Your fucking graves.”
 
American came back and won the gold.
 
At the medal ceremony, normally only the captains were allowed on the podium, but American hockey team changed that when they all crowded on. The IOC eventually ditched the medal podium for hockey at the next Winter Olympics.
 
The Miracle on Ice provided a sorely needed boost in American self-confidence. The win is easily the greatest moment in American Olympic history, if not sports history.

The Election of November 1938 and the Reichstag Fire

In July 1932, Chancellor Franz von Papen dissolved the German parliament, or Reichstag, and called for new elections in November, hoping to reduce the National Socialist majority. As Papen predicted, at the polls on 6 November 1932, Adolf’s Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party lost seats to the Nationalists, and the Social Democrats lost seats to the Communists. The Nazi’s voting bloc of Nationalists, National Socialists, Social Fascists, and Anti-Comintern Social Democrat defectors that elected the Nazi Party to the most seats in the Reichstag in 1931 and 32 was breaking down and had seemingly culminated. However, the Communists, on orders from Moscow, refused to work with the Social Democrats who in turn refused to work with Nazi’s. The National Socialists had by far the most seats, but not enough to form a government. Since no one party in the German parliament could form a majority government President Hindenburg was urged to continue governing through emergency decrees until a new electoral system that included an upper house was devised.

Franz von Papen, the most historically important person you’ve never heard of, had other ideas.

At the end of January, von Papen, formerly of the Catholic Center Party but opportunistically turned Nationalist after they picked up Center Party seats, co-opted the National Socialists to form a government. For seven months Germany lacked a government at the height of the Depression. This alliance gave the Nationalists and National Socialists a slim majority in parliament, but just enough to form a government exclusive of the other parties, and with von Papen the puppetmaster of the upstart Nazis.

Hindenburg, a monarchist, would still be president and Von Papen, as the minority member would be Vice Chancellor. Papen, a nobleman, convinced Hindenburg that the Nazis could be controlled if the low born Hitler was made part of the government. Hitler, a former laborer, starving artist and corporal in the Great War, was thought to be susceptible to manipulation when confronted daily with the problems of governance, and would seek assistance from his political and administrative betters. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. But Hitler wasn’t interested in sharing power with the Nationalists. One of his first acts was to dissolve the Reichstag and announce a new election in March, an election he was sure would bring majority power to his National Socialists.

However, on the night of 27 February 1933, just a month after Hitler became Chancellor, the German Reichstag building, where the parliament met, caught fire in an obvious arson attempt. Before the Berlin Fire Department could put out the fire, the building was gutted. A member of the Dutch Communist Party, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught at the scene. Hitler, Josef Goebbels his propaganda minister, and Herman Goering, a cabinet minister charged with forming the secret police (the eventual Gestapo) immediately denounced the Communists and declared the attack the first act of a Communist revolution. The next day, President Hindenburg issued the Reichstag Fire Decree to preempt the suspected Communist putsch.

With no parliament, the President had emergency dictatorial powers according to the Weimar Constitution and the Reichstag Fire Decree suspended virtually all civil liberties in Germany. The freedoms of speech, assembly, press, privacy, association and habeas corpus were all suspended indefinitely. The National Socialists immediately mobilized and shut down any newspaper and radio station not friendly to the Nazis. Tens of thousands of Communists and political adversaries were arrested and the Communist party banned in the March election.

After mass voter fraud, suppression, and intimidation stemming from the provisos in Reichstag Fire Decree, the National Socialists won a majority in Reichstag that March. The first act of the new democratically elected majority in the German parliament was to pass the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was an amendment to the Weimar Constitution which allowed the German cabinet, in effect Hitler himself, to enact laws without consent of the Reichstag. On 23 March 1933, the elderly President Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act into law which made Chancellor Adolf Hitler a legal dictator.
In the space of just two months, the National Socialists, with just a simple majority, went from a powerful, but still minority party, to the majority party with sole lawmaking and executive powers. The Nationalists were intimidated into dissolving their party in June 1933, and all other political parties were banned that November. By the end of 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had complete control of Germany.

While Hitler and the National Socialists consolidated power, Marinus van der Lubbe and several other Communists were put on trial for the Reichstag Fire. A court in Leipzig determined that van der Lubbe acted alone and he was executed in 1934 for his role in the Reichstag Fire.

Though no definitive “smoking gun” was ever found implicating the National Socialists in the Reichstag fire, a mountain of circumstantial evidence did, most of which was found from captured German documents in the Soviet Archive after the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990. Though we will probably never know exactly what happened, the generally accepted theory is that van der Lubbe, a lifelong unstable pyromaniac who had recently firebombed several buildings, did plan, and maybe even attempted to destroy the Reichstag building. Goering through his spies learned of the plan and Goebbels ordered Ernst Rahm of the SA to carry out a parallel plan. After Rahm’s SA team started the fire and escaped, van der Lubbe was arranged to be in the area (or was even possibly setting his own arson) and picked up as the culprit. His own planning was used as evidence against him. The SA team, and Rahm himself, were killed in The Night of the Long Knives in 1934, erasing any future witnesses of Nazi complicity in the fire.

The Battle of Parabiago

In the early to mid-14th century the Scaligeri of Verona had either conquered or bought most of northeastern Italy during the internecine Italian conflicts fought between various city states, petty lords, ruling families and the Pope. In 1337, Venice, Florence, the Visconti of Milan and the German House of Este declared war on the expansionist Scaligeri. Fighting with Verona was Lodrisio Visconti, an exile from Milan for imprisoning his brother and uncle, who fled when they were freed. Lodrisio amassed quite a fortune in Verona’s service, assumed the title of Lord of Seprio, an old dilapidated roman fort outside Milan, and a formed his own company from mercenaries of the Holy Roman Empire and a loyal following in Verona’s army.
 
In 1339, Compagnia di San Giorgio, or the Company of St. George, was 6500 strong and consisted of 2500 German and Italian knights, a thousand Swiss halberdiers and the rest Scaligeri militia and infantry. Lodrisio’s army, centered on the Company of St. George, was a large (for the time), well organized, and professional force forged in two years of constant war for hegemony of northern Italy. The Company had such a reputation that some of the finest German mercenaries in the service of Venice, Duke Werner von Urslingen and Count Konrad von Landau, switched sides with their men to join the company. The Company of St. George was the first condottiere company with an Italian chief, and Lodrisio Visconti’s first condotta (contract) was the capture of his former home, Milan. Milan was co-ruled by Lodrisio’s former captives, his uncle Luchino Visconti and his brother Azzano with Lodrisio’s other uncle, Giovanni, the Bishop of Milan. (Get all that?)
 
On 20 February 1339, Luchino led the Milanese citizen militia, with 700 knights from Savoy under Ettore da Panigo, out to meet his wayward nephew, while Azzano remained in the city stricken with gout. In knee deep snow outside the village of Parabiago, Lodrisio caught one half Luchino’s army and routed it and capturing Luchino. Lodrisio’s pursuing army subsequently encountered the second leaderless wing and defeated it also.
 
However in the confusion of the battle, several companies of Milanese militia didn’t get the message that they were defeated. Their confused defense bought just enough time for Azzano, who rallied survivors from his uncle’s first defeated wing, to arrive with reinforcements from the city. At about the same time, da Panigo also rallied his knights and took command of some militia marching belatedly to the battle from the town of Rho. Da Panigo assaulted the 400 troops Lodrisio left behind to guard his captured uncle. Da Panigo freed Luchino and together charged directly into Lodrisio’s “victorious” army while it attempted to subdue Azonne’s remaining diehards. Popular legend has it that St. Ambrose, a 4th century Bishop of Milan, appeared out of a cloud on a white charger to lead the final assault. Whether divine intervention was necessary or not is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that the best German mercenaries in Italy broke under the onslaught, and Lodrisio himself captured.
 
Lodrisio was incarcerated in a cage in a small town southeast of Milan for ten years, and only released after both Luchino and Azzone were died in 1349. (Azzone died of gout and Luchino was poisoned by his wife in revenge for cruelly punishing her for infidelity.) And in celebration Giovanni had a church and abbey built and dedicated to St. Ambrose of the Victory.
 
Despite the condottiero’s inauspicious beginnings at the Battle of Parabiago, Lucino, Da Panigo, Urslingen and Landau all went on to form their own condottiere companies based on Lodrisio’s template, who also formed another company after he was released. Their examples inspired other adventurers and mercenaries, and condottieri formed up and down the Italian boot. For the next 150 years the condottieri had a monopoly on military power in Renaissance Italy.

Operation Fischfang: The Germans Strike Back, The Stand of the REMFs, and The Return of Old Ironsides

Made immeasurably easier by the unimaginative Allied leadership, the Monte Cassino front was well in hand, and German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring could concentrate all available German reserves on crushing the Anzio beachhead. He knew the Allies knew he was building up for a massive counter attack, but he also knew the Allies couldn’t do anything about it. Despite Allied airpower, he could simply unload his trucks and trains faster than they could unload their ships.
 
When he reviewed the Allied plan for his friend John Lucas in December, the prescient George Patton took one look at the operations map and stated, “As sure as God is good, the Germans will counterattack down that stream,” pointing at the streambed parallel to the Via Anziate that bisected the British in the northwest and the American in the southeastern portion of the beachhead.
 
On 16 February, 1944, Smiling Al Kesselring did exactly that.
 
That morning, Kesselring launched all of his available troops at the Anzio beachhead in Operation Fischfang, with two infantry divisions, two Panzergrenadier divisions and one Panzer Division attacking south from the Alban Hills and smashing into the British formations defending the Via Anziate. The Germans easily broke through them and in several other places along the undermanned and overextended lines of the Anzio lodgment. Broken Allied units streamed back to the beach to find a boat or even swim to the safety of the fleet offshore. Within three days, German panzers in some places were attacking into the beachhead defenses that were occupied by the Allies the first day of the invasion three weeks before.
 
Everything was going as MG John Lucas had foreseen. Despite political pressure to attack, he knew from the moment the VI Corps landed that he didn’t have the troops, nor the shipping, to push inland and simultaneously defend the beachhead from the inevitable massive German counterattack. Every mile he advanced inland added another seven miles to defend. So despite the venom thrown at him by his armchair critics, he chose to build up the beachhead and now it paid off. Because of his foresight, Lucas had one trump card left to stop the German offensive – good old fashioned American firepower. The German attacks were consistently broken up by continuous, accurate, and massed artillery and naval gunfire.
 
But despite what Ft Sill will tell you, artillery can’t hold ground against even a slightly determined enemy attack, and the Germans were nothing if not determined to drive the Allies into the sea. To hold ground you need infantry, or at least soldiers to act as infantry, however imperfectly, and men and women to lead them. Once the German threat was clear, junior staff officers and NCOs put down their pencils, projector slides, and memos, and instead of heading to the ships, they headed to the front lines.
 
In one typical (even if the persons involved were atypical) example, an entire brigade of the US 45th Infantry Division, the Thunderbirds of the Oklahoma Army National Guard, broke under the German onslaught and all of the field grade officers in the brigade were either dead, wounded or captured. Colonel William O Darby, the former commander of the 4415th Ranger Force, which was disbanded due to lack of trained replacements after being destroyed in the Battle of Cisterna, worked on the VI Corps staff when he learned of the Thuderbird’s rout. He recognized the threat to the beachhead immediately, and asked for and received command of the defeated brigade. He then went to the replacement depot where the remainder of his rangers were awaiting orders for new units, and then gathered up everyone who would come along. Enroute to the threatened sector, he met the broken and retreating members of his new command and rallied them.
 
Darby, with the remnant of his new command, his old rangers, raw replacements from the depot, and even his former staff section, halted the German breakthrough in the 45th’s sector.
 
This scenario, in various sizes, was repeated up and down the line.
 
The German advance was stopped, in some places within sight of the beach, not by trained infantrymen, but by ad hoc units of British and American supply clerks, typists, mechanics, MPs, sailors, stevedores, truck drivers, engineers, chaplains, radio operators, and cooks, supported by artillerymen firing their guns in direct lay. The most veteran units in the Wehrmacht were fought to a standstill by the rear echelon soldiers of VI Corps. “The Stand of the REMFs” bought Lucas much needed time to organize his own counter attack.
 
That counterattack would be in form of the VI Corps’ mailed fist: “Old Ironsides”, the US 1st Armored Division, which had finally finished unloading on the morning of the 19th. With the subtlety of a drunken pipe wielding street thug, the 1AD commander MG Ernest Harmon unleashed his iron sided, fire breathing, steel Leviathan directly into the teeth of the German vanguard.
 
The Germans ceased Operation Fischfang the next day.
 
Despite Hitler’s continued orders to attack, Kesselring would not launch another operational offensive in Italy for the rest of the war.

Operation Hailstone: The Raid on Truk, the “Japanese Pearl Harbor”

The invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands finally exposed the Japanese shortfalls in naval and land based aviation to American intelligence officials. Additionally, the increasingly one sided air battles over Rabaul after the invasion of Bougainville proved that the quality of Japanese airpower was in serious decline. To ensure adequate numbers to face the American fighter sweeps over Rabaul, the Japanese were required to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to feed the defense of the South Pacific. Squadrons were transferred from far flung Japanese possessions, including the Gilberts and Marshalls, and sent to Rabaul. The nearly nonexistent Japanese air response to the invasion of Kwajalein convinced Admiral Nimitz to push up the timetable in the Central Pacific, and more specifically the invasion of Eniwetok. However, Eniwetok was within striking distance of the Japanese main naval base in Central Pacific: the Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was essentially a sunken mountain range surrounded by coral reefs and has, by far, the best natural lagoon in the Central Pacific. Its 50 by 30 mile sheltered anchorage has so far in the war allowed the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor and conduct continuous operations in the South Pacific.

Like Rabaul for Allied planners, Truk was The Lair of the Boogeyman from which All Bad Things Emerged.

Nimitz needed to neutralize Truk. His plan for the Central Pacific involved a future invasion, but the operation to secure the Marshalls meant something had to be done immediately.

By the beginning of 1944, American industry produced enough new aircraft carriers to allow the formation of fast carrier “strike groups”. These strike groups raided Japanese held airfields, anchorages and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Nimitz formed the largest such strike group so far in the war, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher of five fleet carriers, six light carriers, and seven new fast battleships with accompanying cruisers and destroyers as escorts.

Task Force 58 was a massive force, nearly double the Japanese strength against Pearl Harbor just two years before, but it was still headed for Truk. The idea of willingly sailing aircraft carriers into range of major land based airpower was still alien and unthinkable to most carrier admirals. (The only reason the Japanese did it at Pearl Harbor was because they hadn’t declared war yet. Even at Midway, the main threat was still the island, all the way up until four of their carriers were sunk.) And Truk was the biggest Japanese base outside of Japan. On 15 February when Mitscher announced over the loudspeaker their destination for Operation Hailstone, one of his pilots said, “I nearly jumped overboard.”

However, as early as October 1943, the Japanese recognized they could no longer hold the outer perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and settled on a smaller more easily defensible perimeter to gather strength for a counter attack. They withdrew most of the capital ships from Truk back to the Palaus, so few of the juicy targets remained. The mighty Yamato and Musashi had spent almost 18 months at Truk and had only recently departed. Nevertheless, the withdrawal to the inner perimeter meant that much of the shipping form the outer bases went to Truk first, a major transit point, before heading west. Mitscher’s raid caught the lagoon without capital ships, but filled with arguably more important transport and cargo ships that the Japanese could ill afford to spare.

On the morning of 17 February 1944, Task Force 58 approached Truk behind a storm front and struck the airfields first just as the Japanese did on the morning of the 7th of December 1941. American surprise was complete. Japanese pilots were mostly on shore leave, but the 90 or so Mitsubishi “Zeros” that went up were promptly shot down. By 1944, the Zero was outclassed in almost every category by the new American Hellfighters and Corsairs, and due to fuel and training shortfalls, American pilots had hundreds of more hours in the air than their Japanese counterparts. By the afternoon, any Japanese air response was non-existent, and the Mitscher’s dive and torpedo bombers attacked Truk’s lagoon and shore facilities with impunity. They only had to worry about a few manually controlled anti-aircraft guns and these were quickly dispatched once they revealed their positions.

Unlike Nagumo’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Mitscher didn’t withdraw after two strikes, but launched 13 separate strikes against Truk. Even Mitscher’s boss, Adm Ray Spruance, wanted to get in on the action. He took tactical command of the battleships New Jersey and Iowa and some escorts to chase down fleeing Japanese ships that managed to escape the lagoon. Only darkness ceased Operation Hailstone.

And it was in the darkness that the Japanese managed to strike back: a single torpedo from a “Kate” night bomber penetrated the screen and struck the carrier Intrepid.

For the loss of about 25 planes, most whose pilots were rescued and about 40 personnel, mostly from the Intrepid, Mitscher sunk five cruisers, four destroyers, and almost forty support, transport and cargo ships, including the all-important fleet oilers, and damaged many more. His fliers either shot down or destroyed on the ground almost 250 planes, and over 4500 Japanese personnel were killed, and twice that number wounded, most of whom could not be evacuated.

The destruction of the Truk anchorage convinced Nimitz that it could be bypassed and that an invasion was unnecessary. In the space of just 12 hours, the mightiest Japanese naval base outside of the home islands went from being the focus of all American operations in the Pacific to a tiny and obscure footnote in most Pacific War history books.