The Battle of Phou Pha Thi: The Fall of Lima Site 85

In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.

In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.

Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.

By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.

With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.

The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.

On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”

The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.

Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.

After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.

Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.

The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.

The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.

Operation Loincloth

In India, British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell and Lt Gen William Slim began an intensive retraining program of British and Commonwealth troops after being unceremoniously thrown out of Burma by the Japanese in 1942. The training focused on how to survive and operate effectively in the jungle and dispel the myth of Japanese maneuverability and dominance in jungle warfare caused by the fall of Singapore and Rangoon the year before.

One of Wavell’s commanders took the training concept to a new level. Brigadier Orde Wingate, a tough and brilliant, but thoroughly eccentric officer (he spent hours combing his back hair, as just one example) worked for Wavell and with Slim in East Africa. He was convinced his concept of large scale brigade sized “Long Range Penetration” raids to destroy Japanese rail and supply hubs would force the Japanese to withdraw from Burma. These columns would be supplied completely by air, leaving no ground supply lines for the Japanese to sever. These columns were to operate as if they were cut off and surrounded at all times.

Unlike the Gideon Force in Ethiopia two years before, Wingate’s units did not volunteer for the arduous training required for such an operation but were assigned to him seemingly at random. Wingate received a mix of British regulars and commandos, older British reservists, Indian units of various castes, Burmese, and Gurkhas. They spent most of 1942 training to operate on foot deep behind Japanese lines for months at a time supplied by only mules and resupplied only by air. With this diverse group, he formed the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, nicknamed the ”Chindits”. A “chindit” is the corrupted spelling of “chinthe”, which Wingate couldn’t pronounce correctly. A “chinthe” is a mythical Burmese beast that is part lion and part dragon and are usually seen in pairs guarding sacred Burmese sites. The term was meant to let the Burmese know the Chindits were fighting as protectors of Burma, symbolize the marriage between ground and air operations, and give the impression there was always a second unseen column or bombing mission ready to strike.

Early in February 1943, 3000 Chindits crossed into Burma for Operation Loincloth. They marched in two battalion groups broken up into 300 man columns. The Chindits successfully penetrated deep behind Japanese lines and caused chaos for several weeks. They cut Japanese rail lines and attacked isolated outposts. Local Burmese flocked to assist the Chindits, mostly because they were paid in parachute silk, and cloth was extremely difficult to come by. However by mid-March the Japanese recovered and steadily increased pressure. On 12 March 1943 in a typical example of a Japanese response, one of the Northern Group’s columns was ambushed and nearly annihilated, saved only by Gurkhas with a kukri charge that drove the Japanese off. By late March, Wingate accepted the inevitable, and ordered everyone back to India. It would take two more months of constant marching for the Chindits to return to friendly lines.

By any statistical measure Operation Loincloth was a dismal failure. The Japanese supply lines were cut for less than a week. 1/3 of the force was killed or captured and another third was so debilitated that they had to leave service. Most of the remaining third moved on to other units after spending months, and sometimes years, recovering from the four month and 1500 mile march through the jungles and mountains of Burma. However, the Chindits captured the imagination of the British and American publics, and Winston Churchill ordered Wavell and Wingate to prepare another raid. Moreover the Americans went on to create their own Chindit-style organization: the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders. Most importantly, and far out weighing any material damage they did, the Chindits shattered the perception of Japanese invincibility in jungle warfare.

The Evil Empire Speech

The first year of President Ronald Reagan’s first term was dominated by the economy and domestic politics. Even in 1982, he only gave one important foreign policy speech at Westminster to the British House of Commons. For several years, the Soviet Union had moved more SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles into Eastern Europe. Reagan and NATO leaders wanted to counter this with a “dual-track” policy of arms control negotiation and deployment of US Pershing II missiles to Europe. However, the Soviets stonewalled the negotiations, and encouraged a “freeze” of nuclear weapons in Europe, which of course they could violate much more easily. Reagan’s domestic opposition, and European anti-nuclear parties supported the freeze as a step toward “de-nuclearizing” Europe.

In early 1983, the “freezniks” were making inroads into a core element of Reagan’s base: religious leaders. Several prominent religious organizations had already publically come out in support of the freeze, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America. On 8 March 1983, Reagan made a speech in Orlando, Florida at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals to clarify the stakes of the Cold War in Europe.

The televised speech was 32 minutes long, but it was one large 72 word sentence, toward the end of the speech, that sent shockwaves throughout the world:

“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation to blithely declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

For the first time in the Cold War, an American leader had the courage to use the word “evil” in a public forum to describe the totalitarian nature of world Communism. Up to this point in Reagan’s presidency, speech censers excised the word, which was originally supposed to appear in the Westminster speech, or removed it at behest of Reagan’s domestic opposition as a “sign of respect” for the Soviet Union.

The New York Times derided the speech as “primitive and dangerous”, but the “Evil Empire Speech” galvanized dissidents in Communist countries. Millions of people around the world that suffered under Communism and state socialism felt that finally someone understood their travails. In Poland, the Solidarity Movement was reeling under the Communist marshal law, and Lech Walesa credited the speech as breathing new life into the movement. The speech broke the tradition of “détente” with the Soviet Union and cemented the Sino-Soviet split. The crusade to end Communism led by Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II had begun, and would hasten the end of the Soviet Union by decades.

No one in 1983 would have predicted, even in their wildest fever dreams, that the Soviet Union would fall just seven later.

The Spanish Flu

The rapid spread of disease among the cramped conditions of military cantonment areas has been a problem for armies since time immemorial. The unprecedented scale and rapidity of the US military’s expansion in the wake of the America’s entry into the First World War made it especially susceptible. The US Army and Marine Corps, to include the National Guard began the war with 218, 265 men in uniform. Just 16 months later there were more than four million. Every one required the creation of brand new facilities to house, feed and train them. The cramped and sometimes unsanitary condition were ripe for outbreaks of disease.

In 1917, several outbreaks of the flu ravaged American training camps. Not especially noteworthy at the time, on 4 March 1918, company cook Pvt. Albert Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas with the flu. But Pvt Gitchell contracted a new strain dubbed H1N1, and he was first documented case of the virus. Unlike previous flu outbreaks which were generally only fatal to young children, the previously sick or the elderly, H1N1 targeted healthy adults, and was highly contagious. More than 500 cases were reported at Camp Funston and nearby Fort Riley over the next few days

The H1N1 flu virus quickly spread across the country with the troop trains. Just a week later on 11 March, the first case was diagnosed in Queens New York, where troops prepared to depart overseas for France. From New York, it spread to all parts of the globe.

Wartime censors kept the flu outbreak out of the newspapers and off the radio in countries that were fighting. However, the morale of the civilian population was not a concern in neutral countries, such as Spain. The flu epidemic dominated the headlines of Spanish newspapers, especially after Spain’s ruler, King Alfonso XIII, contracted the sickness. With the greater press attention, the world began referring to it as the “Spanish Flu”. A second deadlier wave broke out in August of 1918.

The H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic infected nearly 1/3 of the world’s population between March and November, 1918. Reported cases dropped off dramatically that winter. But in the space of just nine months, nearly 80 million people succumbed to the Spanish Flu, or about 5% of world’s population.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea

The flip flopping Japanese focus between New Guinea at the expense of Guadalcanal and then Guadalcanal at the expense of New Guinea was the single greatest air/land factor in the eventual Allied victory at Guadalcanal. With the Americans firmly established at the bottom of the Slot, the increased threat to their main base in the South Pacific at Rabaul convinced the Japanese that they needed to win New Guinea so they could focus back on the Americans in the Solomons.

The Japanese brought two divisions from China and Korea to reinforce the area. They established the next chain of island fortresses up the Solomon’s from Guadalcanal. They were to buy the time necessary so Imperial Japanese Headquarters could focus on stopping, and eventually rolling back, the American and Australian advances up the Kokoda Track in New Guinea.

On 2 March 1943, 7000 Japanese soldiers loaded onto nine transports, which would be escorted by eight destroyers. They were reinforce the troops facing MacArthur on New Guinea, and to land behind Allied lines near Kona, which would cut off the Allied advance. That area was chosen because it was the site of the first Japanese land defeat to the Australians the year before and they needed to erase that stigma of defeat.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, American and Australian code breakers knew of the plan and US BG Ennis Whitehead’s 5th Air Force was waiting. The heavy and medium bombers of the 5th Air Force had not been particularly effective against naval targets up to this point in the war. However,in the past six months, they made widespread organizational, tactical, and mechanical changes to their tactics and doctrine. Among many other changes, they put multiple heavy machine guns in the noses of the bombers, and perfected the tactic of “skipping” bombs into their targets like you would skip a stone across a pond. The changes proved very effective. On 3 and 4 March 1943, Whitehead’s air crews sank all of the transports and all but two of the destroyers in the Bismarck Sea between the islands of New Britain and New Guinea.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was the last time the Japanese would attempt to move large amounts of troops via sea transport without complete air superiority. Regrettably, the aftermath of the battle was ugly for both sides: Japanese machine gunned surviving American and Australian bomber crews and the Allies did the same to Japanese seaman and soldiers awaiting rescue in the sea. The Battle of the Bismarck Sea’s legacy became the arch-example of the dehumanizing ferocity that could characterize the War in the Pacific during WW II.

The Battle of Kasserine Pass

With Montgomery approaching from Libya and Eisenhower closing in from Algeria, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had to do something. He constructed the Mareth Line to Heisman Monty, whom he knew would stop to deliberately attack. This allowed Rommel valuable time to deal with the Americans and Brits advancing from the west.
On Valentine’s Day, 1943, Rommel unleashed the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and the Italian Centauro Division against MG Lloyd Fredendall’s American II Corps at the Faid Pass in the Atlas Mountains. Fredendall was an excellent peacetime trainer and one of George Marshall’s favorites, but in combat he completely fell apart.
Fredendall liked to issue complicated orders over the radio using slang and code words only he knew. Also, he turned out to be a “chateau general” in the First World War style. Over the past two weeks he had an entire engineer battalion blast tunnels in the side of a narrow valley seventy miles behind the lines to serve as his headquarters, from which he issued orders and refused to leave. Fredendall was barely on speaking terms with the 1st Armored Division commander, Orlando Ward, who vehemently disagreed with Fredendall’s practice of scattering his tank regiments and ordering them around without telling him. Fredendall had even given one of Ward’s company commanders instructions directly.
But Fredendall shouldn’t bare the entirety of the blame, he was just emblematic of the problems that plagued all levels of the US Army in North Africa. When Rommel attacked, the inexperienced, uncoordinated and poorly led Americans immediately broke under the assault by German and Italian tanks. Rommel continued on through the Kasserine Pass. Fredendall ordered a general retreat, routing virtually the entire II Corps. Mass chaos erupted across American lines as soldiers abandoned all of their equipment and fled west as fast as they could drive, or run.
Fortunately, Fredendall’s superior British Lient Gen Kenneth Anderson countermanded him and ordered all units to stand and fight. Also, Eisenhower dispatched the senior American armor general in theater, the commander of the 2nd Armored Division MG Ernest Harmon, to be II Corps’ deputy commander. (Patton was busy turning Casablanca and Western Algeria into a logistics hub.) As soon as Harmon arrived at Fredendall’s headquarters, he was given command and Fredendall went to sleep. Harmon reorganized the 1st Armored Division and the managed to pull the II Corps back together into a semi-coherent defense. Finally, Anderson brought up experienced British infantry and massed American and Brit artillery to stop Rommel before he reached the big Allied supply dumps in French Algeria. After several days of hard fighting starting on 21 Feb, Rommel could no longer continue forward and withdrew back into Tunisia. By 27 Febuary 1943, the Battle of Kasserine Pass was over.
Although the battle was at best a draw for the Germans, or even technically a defeat, the US Army’s first contact with the German Wehrmacht (and the Italians for that matter) was embarrassing and ignoble. In a few short days, Rommel laid bare the flaws in American tactics, discipline, doctrine, leadership, training, and equipment. And with over 10,000 casualties, these were expensive lessons. The Americans would take the war with the Germans much more seriously from then on.

The Last Tokyo Express

By the end of December 1942, the Japanese had lost the battle of attrition against the US on Guadalcanal. The Japanese navy could no longer keep the Army supplied and they were losing many men each day to malnutrition and disease, and many more to relentless US Army 25th Infantry and Americal Division attacks.

But there was still 12,000 much needed troops on the island. The Japanese troops from Guadalcanal were needed to reinforce another series of fortified islands further up the Solomon Island chain. In the beginning of the New Year, the Imperial Japanese Headquarters decided to withdraw from Guadalcanal. Operation Ke commenced at the end of January 1943 and Admiral Mikawa’s Tokyo Express brought out all of Gen Hyakutake’s troops on the final runs from the island over the nights of February 1st, 5th and the 7th.

On the morning of 8 February 1942, the bloody six month Battle for Guadalcanal was over. Although 2 ½ more years of bloody fighting lay ahead, most of the post war Japanese leaders and virtually all Japanese historians consider the Battle of Guadalcanal as the point from which the war was essentially unwinnable for Japan. (On the contrary, most Americans consider the Battle of Midway the turning point in the Pacific.) The best Imperial Japan could muster met the best America could muster in arguably the most even sided contest of the War in the Pacific. Japan would not recover. The Jaanese would be on the strategic defensive for the rest of the war.

The Cossack Uprising of 1648

The destruction of the Golden Horde in the 15th Century by the Timurid Empire virtually swept from the map the last remnants of the Mongols’ conquest of northeastern Europe. All that remained was the Tartar Khanate of Crimea and a vast and deserted steppe that stretched from the Carpathian Mountains in the west to the Urals in the east. Into this void stepped two powerful kingdoms, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Kingdom of Muscovy.

Where the frontiers of the two states met opposite the Crimean Tartars along the river basins of the Dnieper, Don, and Donetz, the Poles and Russians encouraged settlers to the area to provide a bulwark against the slaving raids of the Muslim Tartars and Ottoman Turks. The settlers were not an ethnic group but fiercely independent homesteaders, frontiersmen, and adventurers known as Cossacks. The Cossacks formed “Sichs” (literally “cuts”, either of land or the logs that formed their stockades and forts) and were expected to defend the area in exchange for land and fealty.

By the 17th century, the Zaporizhian Sich along the Dnieper River was a semi-autonomous part of the powerful Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. However, the Orthodox Cossacks begrudged their Catholic Polish and Ruthenian (Russified Lithuanians) overlords, then at the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation. Additionally, they despised the increasing number of Poles, Ruthenians, and especially Jews who were settling the Sich. The Cossacks felt that the Szlachta, the pervasive nobility of the Commonwealth, and the Jews, which unlike the rest of Europe were welcomed in the Commonwealth, had more rights than the Cossacks (They were correct). Finally, the Cossacks resented the Polonization of their own quasi-nobility, particularly those that converted to Catholicism. Whenever the situation demanded or the Cossacks showed signs of rebellion, the Polish king usually declared a war against their Muslim neighbors. The war kept the Cossacks busy, and the loot kept them appeased. The Cossacks loved the king because he showered them with privileges as a counterbalance against the nobility.

In 1647, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa, the Swedish king of the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth elected its king, usually a foreigner to keep him weak; it’s complicated) ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the Ottomans. However, the Sejm (the parliament of nobles) vetoed the idea and ordered the Cossacks to prepare for a new war against the growing power of Muscovy’s successor, the Tsardom of Russia. This sent the Cossacks into a rage. The Russians were coreligionists and used Cossacks themselves. More importantly, those Russians on the Steppe were poor and the Ottomans were rich. Moreover, piracy on the Black Sea, contemporary pirates in the Caribbean had nothing on Cossacks in the Black Sea, was infinitely more lucrative and enjoyable than marching around the cold and endless Steppe. The Cossacks were on the edge of revolt, they just needed a leader.

Enter Bohdan Khmelnitskiy, a respected Ruthenian noblemen and veteran of nearly countless wars against the Ottomans and Crimeans. In 1645, Khmelnitskiy had a land dispute with a powerful Polish magnate (the upper tier of the Szlachta). The magnate’s starost (like a county commissioner) Daniel Czaplinski raided and seized Khmelnitskiy’s land. Khmelnitskiy protested to the king, but the king couldn’t take on such a powerful magnate. So Khmelnitskiy stole Czaplinski’s wife and was arrested. In late 1647, he escaped and fled to the Zaporizhian Sich with his Registered Cossack regiment. (A “Registered Cossack” was a Cossack that was officially in the pay of the king or a magnate.) With the Sich on the brink of rebellion, the charismatic Khmelnitskiy pushed them over. On 25 January, 1648, Khmelnitskiy had the Commonwealth’s administration in the Sich killed. The next day, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy was elected Hetman (warlord) of the Zaporizhian Sich.

Cossack rebellions had been attempted before, but were always crushed by superior heavily armoured Polish cavalry. Unlike in Napoleonic times when Cossacks were known for their superior light cavalry, in the 17th century they constituted the light infantry par excellence. They were akin to tens of thousands of Robert’s Rangers roaming the Steppe. The Poles and Ruthenians always provided the cavalry. So when the Cossacks did revolt, they were always crushed by a massive charge of Husaria and Panzerini, against which they could not hope to stand. In a tribute to Khmelnitskiy’s charisma, he convinced the Sich to make an alliance with their archenemy, the Crimean Tartars, who could provide the cavalry necessary to defeat the Commonwealth. The Crimean Khan dispatched his best general, Tugur Bey, with 18,000 Tartar horsemen to assist the uprising.

Khmelnitskiy’s Uprising would bring fire and sword to the Steppe, and eventually to the Commonwealth itself. Hundreds of thousands of Ruthenian, Polish, Jewish, and Cossack peasants, burghers, and nobles were killed, or sold into slavery to pay for Tugur Bey’s cavalry. Sensing Commonwealth weakness, by 1655 all of its neighbors, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire invaded in what is now known in Polish history as “The Deluge”. In 1654, Khmelnitskiy ceded the Zaporizhian Sich to Russia in the Treaty of Pereyaslav for continued military support against the Commonwealth.

The Sixth Army Surrenders

On the Eastern Front during World War II, the German Army had reached its high water mark in Oct 1942 with the Sixth Army assault to seize the Soviet city of Stalingrad. However, a tenacious and heroic defense by General Chuikov’s 62nd Army, and Marshall Zhukov’s counterattacks during Operations Saturn and Uranus, surrounded and cut off 290,000 Germans in Stalingrad. Hitler was consumed by the idea of capturing the city named after his nemesis and would allow no breakout. To accomplish this, he ordered General Paulus, the 6th Army commander, to stand his ground. He ordered Field Marshall Goering’s Luftwaffe to supply Paulus from the air. And finally he told Field Marshal Von Manstein to break through to the beleaguered German defenders. All of them failed in their tasks. Paulus lost 2/3s of his army trying to hold the ever shrinking “cauldron”, Goring could only supply 15% of what Paulus needed, and Manstein fought to within 35 miles of Stalingrad but could get no closer. On 31 January 1943, Paulus surrendered the remaining 90,000 skeletal and starving members of the 6th Army in Stalingrad to the Soviets. Most would die in the prison camps and only 5,000 would ever see Germany again. The surrender was a devastating and irreplaceable loss of men and material for Germany. For the rest of the war, the Germans would be on the strategic defensive in the East.