Why Study Military History?

XII. Why Study Military History? BY AIR COMMODORE PETER W. GRAY, RAF

The answer as to why we should study history, military history or strategic thinking varies from an intellectual exercise in its own right, through the need to know the story and on to Dominick Graham’s ‘spectrum of categories: entertaining, informative, descriptive, inspirational, critical, educational and prescriptive’.51 If we extend this to encompass the notion of history as an interpretation of the past in which a serious attempt is made to filter out myth and legend, the role of the discipline becomes both more demanding and more necessary. Given mankind’s continuing reliance on the use of force as an instrument of policy, our interest in the past is ever more important. We need to shed the myths, fables and legends, of which military history has more than its fair share, if we are to learn anything from history. Tradition and fable have often matured into the fault lines between nations and between peoples. If we are to have anything approaching a reasonable understanding of the complex situations in which we are increasingly likely to find ourselves, dexterity with the analytical tools provided by the study of history is essential.

Still the One and Only School of Statesmanship

Still the One and Only School of Statesmanship

In Seeley’s mind, the thing that made history worthwhile as an academic discipline was its status as a source of education for decision-makers and others involved in the public realm. Seeley did much to ensure that the curriculum at Cambridge largely echoed his vision. Of course, while Seeley expressed it in an undoubtedly provocative fashion, his argument had a long lineage, with roots deep in antiquity. The idea that studying the past could help one to navigate the present, and respond to future challenges, was an old idea, one that went back to Thucydides and Polybius…

It is one of the more welcome developments within a troubled modern historical profession that some scholars are fighting to reassert this conception of history. After decades of ever-narrower specialisms and esoteric topics, a growing number of academics have been pushing back and making the case for historians’ engagement with policymakers — or what has been termed “applied history”…

What exactly is it about studying the past that makes history so useful? Thankfully, the answer to that question can be expressed in a single word: imagination….

A historical cast of mind opens up, and fertilizes, one’s imagination. It raises awareness of the primacy of contingency and possibility in human affairs. It underlines the importance of improvisation and outside-the-box thinking. It brings home, painfully, the need to develop a keen sense of limits. It helps us to grasp the consequences of getting decisions wrong. It serves to illuminate pathways through dense forests. And, yes, it offers inspiration from past examples….

Operation Cherry Blossom: The Invasion of Bougainville

The overarching Allied operation in the Solomon’s Campaign was Operation Cartwheel, the isolation and eventual capture of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, Imperial Japan’s main base in the South Pacific. The previous capture of New Georgia and other northern Solomon Islands placed Rabaul within heavy and medium bomber range, but shorter ranged fighters and naval bombers needed airfields closer. The island of Buka, just north of Bougainville was the obvious choice, but Adm Halsey decided that the flat areas of the much larger Bougainville were enough to provide the airfields necessary for the eventual isolation of the islands, while doing the same to Rabaul.

On 1 November 1943, Halsey launched Operation Cherry Blossom, the invasion of Bougainville. The initial landings at Torokina on the west coast of the island were virtually unopposed: only a single Japanese platoon was in the area. Gen Hyukutake of the Japanese 17th Army gambled that Halsey would invade Buka off the northern tip of Bougainville and bypass Bougainville entirely. He chose wrong. Nonetheless, he and the naval commander at Rabaul, Adm Kusaka, rushed men and ships to the area to seal the beachhead and eventually reduce it with naval gunfire and ground attack. They knew from their experience at Guadalcanal that if the Allies got a secure beachhead with a functioning airfield, the Americans were almost impossible to dislodge, especially as American naval surface warfare proficiency had come leaps and bounds since the precious year. The Americans knew it also.

In the shadow of Mt Baranga, an active and smoking volcano, Allied transports rushed to unload. 30% of the initial 3rd Marine Division landing force, including three SeaBee battalions, assisted with unloading the transports in order to get them safely away before the inevitable Japanese naval sortie arrived. The Japanese attempted to imitate their success at Savo Island the year before, but Adm Aaron Merrill’s Task Force 39 was waiting for them and savaged the Japanese at the entrance to Empress Augusta Bay off the west coast of Bougainville. Nevertheless, Halsey was concerned.

Though a brilliant operational commander and leader of men, he still thought in year old archaic terms for naval superiority, i.e. CV>BB>CA>CL>DD. He, and to be fair the rest of the US Navy, still hadn’t grasped that the Japanese’ most damaging weapon was the Long Lance torpedo on their small destroyers, and that the quick firing radar controlled 6” guns on the American light cruisers were far superior to the big manual 8” heavy cruiser guns. He saw the reports that the Japanese had heavy cruisers and that he didn’t so he ordered Task Force 38, his only carriers, to strike Rabaul and sink any shipping that could interfere with the invasion of Bougainville. He specifically tasked them to drive away the heavy cruisers to protect his transports and their escorts and to prevent another “Hell Night” as had happened on Guadalcanal. He was successful in his gamble, but only because he was ignorant of the Japanese lack of carrier-borne pilots. Halsey thought he might be sailing into a “reverse Midway”, but Kusaka had no way to strike Halsey’s carriers and the land based planes were committed over Bougainville. Kusaka withdrew his ships back to Truk, the main Japanese anchorage in the South Central Pacific and out of the fight. No further Japanese attempts to interfere with any Solomon Island were to occur for the rest of the war. The Naval Battles of the Solomon Island, which began so ignobly off Savo Island 17 months before, ended in a decisive American victory.

After the failed Japanese attempts to destroy the beachhead by sea, the US 3rd Marine and US Army 37th Infantry Division expanded the beachhead over the next few weeks. Navy SeaBees started construction of an airfield literally just off the beach, and quickly began building roads inland. They built them so fast that Marines told them to slow down as their roads were pushing farther forward than the Marine pickets. By the end of November 1943, the Japanese increased their counterattacks, and had occupied the hills around the beachhead with artillery, despite several serious losses against counter-counter attacking Marines in the perimeter. First, the entire initial naval landing force sent by Kusaka at the onset of the invasion was wiped out at Koromokina Lagoon on 7-8 November, and an entire Japanese regiment was destroyed at Piva Forks later in the month.

In December 1943, the 3rd Marine Division was replaced by the veteran US Army Americal Division, and they and the 37th expanded the perimeter to prevent artillery fire from molesting Empress Augusta Bay and the three airfields under construction. The first aircraft to land of the newly operational beach airfield was a corsair from the famed VMF 214, the “Black Sheep” squadron, on 11 December. Within hours, Maj. “Pappy” Boyington and his fighters did a sweep over Rabaul, just because they could, and taunted the surprised Japanese to come up after them. The Japanese knew the Allies were building airfields on Bougainville but completely misjudged the speed at which the SeaBees could construct one under fire. Though until all three airfields were completed, the fighters more often than not flew ground attack missions in support of marines and soldiers fighting a few hundred yards from the flight line. The operational airfields finally convinced Gen Imamura at Rabaul, Hyukutake’s boss, that Halsey’s main effort wasn’t coming at Buka.

Imamura was convinced all throughout November and December that Halsey would attempt to seize Buka, and he wasn’t wrong, he just had the timing incorrect. (Buka was Halsey’s next target after the airfields on Bougainville were completed.) Imamura assumed Halsey knew about the severe Japanese shortage of carrier qualified pilots, and would use his own carriers to support a bold landing on Buka, bypassing and isolating Bougainville and getting that much closer to Rabaul if successful. However, Halsey was unaware of the pilot shortage and assumed the carriers were still out there lurking, waiting to pounce. To Halsey, Buka was too exposed and not worth the risk; a risk which Imamura assumed the legendarily aggressive Halsey would take. Once the Black Sheep and other fighter squadrons did their sweeps over Rabaul, Imamura could no longer ignore the danger the airfields posed. He released troops from Buka and northern Bougainville to reduce the growing Allied perimeter at Torokina. But Imamura’s assault was now substantially more difficult, Halsey’s two US Army divisions had time dig in and stockpile necessary supplies.

Nevertheless, the Japanese troops encountered so far in the battle were relatively few compared to what Imamura had on hand. It took Hyukutake nearly two months to stage Imamura’s reinforcements in their assault positions around Torokina. In March, Halsey’s perimeter on Bougainville would feel the entire weight of Hyukutake’s 17th Army.

To be continued…

Pennsylvanians in the Ardennes: the 28th and 99th Infantry Divisions

On 16 December 1944, Operation Wacht am Rhein, Hitler’s Ardennes Counteroffensive and the eventual “Battle of the Bulge”, initially crashed into two units originally formed in the Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: the US 28th Infantry Division on the southern shoulder of the Bulge, and the US 99th Infantry Division on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.

In the south, MG Norman Cota’s 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, aka “The Bloody Bucket”, had its three regimental combat teams (RCTs) on line facing the entirety of both the XLVIII Panzer and LXXXV Corps. Each RCT had more than two German divisions opposite them.

After the initial surprise on 16 December 1944, the 28th’s northernmost RCT, the 112th from Butler and northwestern PA, held the Our River bridge at Ourthe for over two days against overwhelming odds before falling back in good order to St Vith to take part in the critical defense there with the US 7th Armored Division. The Germans expected to capture the Our River Bridge in the first hours of the first day.

In the south, the 109th RCT from Scranton and northeastern PA, defeated the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division and rendered them combat ineffective for the rest of the battle. The 109th only fell back when their positions became untenable because of the breakthroughs to their north in the 110th RCT’s sector. The entire 109th RCT received Luxembourg’s Croix De Guerre for their defense of the small duchy.

In the center of the 28th’s line, the 110th RCT from Uniontown and southwestern PA felt the full weight of three German divisions: the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 26th Volksgrenadier divisions. Although the initial attacks were repulsed, sheer weight of numbers broke through the forward defenses along “Skyline Drive”, the north-south highway along which they defended. Still, isolated companies and platoons of the 110th fought the Germans to a standstill for two critical days before they were broken. The 110th’s stand culminated with the defense of Clervaux on the Clerf River where the scouts, cooks, bakers, and staff personnel of the 110th’s HQ Company held the fortified chateaux until they ran out of ammunition. That bridge was another initial German objective that took two full days to capture. The time the 110th bought allowed some of Eisenhower’s only reserves, the 101st Airborne Division, to arrive at the key crossroads town of Bastogne before the Germans. By the 19th, most of the 110th RCT was either dead, wounded, or captured, but the survivors formed the core of “Team Snafu” which would play a vital role in the 101’s defense of Bastogne.

In the north, the US 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division had only recently arrived in Europe, but it was in position just west of the Siegfried Line long enough to adequately dig in, if only to keep warm. The 99th formed in 1942 from mostly Western Pennsylvanians and eastern Ohioans, and took their division insignia from the shield used on the Pittsburgh city crest and the emblem of Pittsburgh’s recently renamed football team, the Steelers.

On 16 December 1944, the division was struck by the vanguard of the 6th SS Panzer Army, and many units broke under the onslaught. However, isolated companies and platoons fought back savagely and prevented a German breakthrough. Though the center collapsed, on the far left of the 99th’s line, three companies of the 395th RCT at Hofen defeated the 396th Volksgrenadier Division. On the far right at the other end of the line, a single Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of 22 men under LT Lyle Bouck fought off the entire German 9th Parachute Regiment near the Belgian town of Lanzerath.

On the night of the 16th, the commander of the unit behind the paratroopers, the infamous Jochim Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, stormed into their command post demanding to know why the attack stalled. The commander of the 9th told him there was an entire battalion dug in and fiercely defending the ridge above the town. Peiper ordered the paratroopers to support his Panther and King Tiger tanks in a deliberate attack that night. He was furious to find out that only a single platoon had held up an entire panzer corps for 24 hours.

Although chaos reigned throughout the 99ths sector on 16 December, they held the Germans long enough for LTG Gerow of the US V Corps to unilaterally order the US 2nd Infantry Division to the twin towns of Rocheroth and Krinkelt. On the 15th, the 2nd was attacking the Siegfried Line to the north of the 99th and immediately stopped, turned and headed south to help the 99th. The 2nd held the towns long enough for the remains of the 99th to pass through and set up a new defensive line on Elsenborn Ridge, less than 10 miles from their original positions.

The 6th SS Panzer Army broke out to the west but their objective was Antwerp which was to the north. As Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division proceeded west instead of northwest they were increasingly pushed onto roads designated for other German units further to their south, which caused massive traffic jams. The 2nd and 99th Divisions (with the 1st Infantry Division to their right at Bullingen) held Elsenbrn Ridge and the northern shoulder of the Bulge for the rest of the battle despite furious and increasingly desperate German attacks to move forward.

On the 16th of December 1944, surprise was complete and the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed. However some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. By the end of the day the Germans’ strict timetable was already irreparably upset. The Battle of the Bulge was all about roads, road marches, and road junctions. On Day One, the NCOs, and junior and field grade officers of the 28th and 99th Divisions denied the attacking German Army the roads and time they needed to win the battle.

Creating Decision Forcing Cases: The Combat Case Study Method

Creating Decision Forcing Cases: The Combat Case Study Method

Whatever the source, a combat case study will provide most, if not all, of the essential elements of a decision forcing case:  a situation in which a leader finds himself, a decision that he makes, and the events that followed the decision.  In addition, it will also provide a useful starting point for searches for items that will enhance the presentation of a decision-forcing case, things such as maps, photos, and orders of battle.  (These can often be found in unit histories, war diaries, accounts of battles, and chronicles of campaigns.)

The Death of Captain Waskow

 In the Battle for San Pietro Infine, A Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment, commanded by Captain Rufus Cleghorn was responsible for one of the few Allied successes so far in the battle. They had seized the crest of Monte Sammucro, but for their efforts they endured fierce German counterattacks. The Germans threw so many grenades that the Texans used their rifles as baseball bats to hit them back before they exploded.

After four days, Able Company was reinforced by Baker Company, commanded by Cleghorne’s friend, 25 year old Captain Henry T. Waskow from Belton, Texas. On the night of 12 December 1943, B Company, down to about 50 men, moved into assault positions to exploit A Company’s success and clear the ridge above San Pietro Infine between Monte Sammucro and Hill 730.

While the company was in position, Captain Waskow quietly made his rounds among the men, chatting and offering words of encouragement. In a dark, shallow ravine, he spoke to Pvt Riley Tidwell about how when he got “Back to the States, I’m going to get one of those smart-aleck toasters where you put the bread in and it pops up.” Those were his last words. A German machine gunner heard him and opened fire. A fragment from the resulting mortar barrage killed him instantly. A mule train, run by Italian volunteers, took his body down off the mountain two days later.

At the bottom of Monte Sammucro was Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent whose dispatches from the front appeared in over 200 newspapers. He didn’t write about generals or huge battles but wrote about the common soldier in an intimate style that resembled letters home. This greatly endeared him to the soldiers, NCOs and junior officers who wanted their stories to be heard. Ernie saw the beloved company commander’s body come down the trail strapped to a mule, and the experience became the subject of his most famous dispatch, “The Death of Captain Waskow”. It is arguably the finest and most heartfelt expository passage of World War II.

“The Death of Capt. Waskow

By Ernie Pyle

AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, Jan 10 (1944) (by Wireless) – In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Tex.

Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had been in this company since long before he left the States. He was very young, only is his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.

“After my own father, he comes next,” a sergeant told me.

“He always looked after us,” a solder said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”

* * *

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow down. The moon was nearly full and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came belly down across the wooden backsaddle, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies, when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the other. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road.

I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don’t ask silly questions ….

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on watercans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about him. We talked for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall.

Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting.

“This one is Capt. Waskow,” one of them said quickly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The uncertain mules moved off to their olive groves. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud:

“God damn it!”

Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.

Another man came. I think it was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was grimy and dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as tho he were alive:

“I’m sorry, old man.”

Then a solder came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tender, and he said:

“I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the Captain’s hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

Finally he put the hand down. He reached up and gently straightened the points of the Captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.”

The Historical Profession Is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

The Historical Profession Is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

“…Yet as the historical discipline (like much of the American academy) became more professionalized, especially after World War II, it also became more specialized and inward-looking. Historical scholarship focused on increasingly arcane subjects; a fascination with innovative methodologies overtook an emphasis on clear, intelligible prose. Academic historians began writing largely for themselves. “Popularizer” — someone who writes for the wider world — became a term of derision within the profession…”

“…The result of these changes is a discipline that feels remarkably parochial to students or anyone outside the ivory tower. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore, the profession’s leading exception to these trends, recently pointed out, “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”

The second issue, closely related to the first, is the hostility toward certain kinds of historical inquiry. Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline. That focus had its costs: Issues of race, gender, and class were often deemphasized, and the perspectives of the powerless were frequently ignored in favor of the perspectives of the powerful. During the 1960s and after, the discipline was therefore swept by new approaches that emphasized cultural, social, and gender history, and that paid greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups. This was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field. Yet what was initially a very healthy impulse to broaden the field ultimately became decidedly unhealthy, because it went so far as to push the more traditional subfields to the margins.

Two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, have noted that “American political history as a field of study has cratered … What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” Political history, however, is a growth industry compared to diplomatic history and military history. Scholars who study strategy and statecraft, diplomacy and policymaking, and the causes and consequences of war are often labeled as old-fashioned, methodologically unimaginative, and ideologically conservative. As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained to us, the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative. Not surprisingly, those who study these subjects are a dying breed within major American history departments…”

The Battle of San Pietro

The Battle of San Pietro. In 1941, Director John Huston was basking in the limelight of his Hollywood blockbuster, “The Maltese Falcon”, a ground breaking masterpiece that starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre and brought film noir into the main stream. 27 months later, in December of 1943, US Army Captain John Huston and his film crew were attached to the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. The division was trying to force its way through the Bernhardt Line via the Mignano Gap into the Liri Valley. The last obstacles were in front of them: the village of San Pietro Infine and the flanking mountains of Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo. The battle raged from 8 to 18 December, 1943.

CPT Huston was there to make documentary films for the US War Department. And in December and January 1943 he would shoot the controversial “The Battle of San Pietro”. If you have an extra half an hour, it’s worth watching.

The film does an excellent job explaining the battle to civilians. The film was originally 55 minutes long but was ruthlessly edited by Gen George Marshall down to 36 minutes so it could be shown in theatres prior to the actual movies. He wanted to make it mandatory viewing so American civilians at home would understand what their Army was doing. However, it was never released to the general population during the war. The War Department suppressed it because of its gritty realism (for the time), the dead bodies, and its “anti-war” tone. Huston replied that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. It was quietly released to the public in 1946.

Some notes:

-Gen Mark Clark’s intro was filmed while the battles for Anzio and Cassino were fought in January 1944. Was he trying to justify something?

-The failed Italian attack on Monte Lungo was highly publicized because it was the first use of Allied Italian troops fighting alongside Americans. The Italians were rushed into the fight so they could be part of the overly optimistic expected breakout and capture of Rome. They weren’t ready and paid for it.

-About 30% of the film was shot after the fact using “dramatic reenactments” by 36th Division soldiers and Italian civilians in San Pietro Infine. Most of the recreated shots are of soldiers walking around, the shots in the town, and of the civilians. The difference between the actual footage and the recreated footage is obvious.

-All the dead bodies are real.

-The civilians were actual citizens of San Pietro Infine, but they had to be cleaned up first. It took several weeks for them to recover from their hellish ordeal living in the caves outside of town before they were ready to film.

-The only factual inconsistency was the name of the church. In the film it is said to be “St Peter’s”, but the church is actually St Michael’s. John Huston didn’t want to break up the flow of the film with the difference.

-Almost all of the American soldiers in the film would be killed, captured, or seriously wounded during the 36th Division’s failed assault across the Rapido River a month later in January 1944.