The Miracle of Dunkirk

In late May 1940, the German panzers unexpectedly broke through and even though the British and French armies gave a good account of themselves when they had the opportunity to fight, they were cut off in Belgium and northern France. When the Germans reached the channel coast, Allied command and control had completely broken down and widespread panic infected every command echelon above division. Reacting to French chaotic political leadership, the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the British Expeditionary Force to fall back to the port of Dunkirk, even though only about 40% had actually come into contact with the Germans. This completely unhinged what was left of the line and would force the surrender of the Belgian Army to the north (something the Belgians still haven’t forgiven them for). But the troops were needed to defend against any German invasion of the British Isles.

After their lightning quick advance across France, the German panzers needed time to resupply and reorganize, so Hitler stopped them and turned the destruction of the BEF at Dunkirk over to the Luftwaffe. This fateful decision gave the British and French much needed time to organize a defense of the port by sixteen British infantry battalions, which they defended with a tenacity and aggressiveness they had not exhibited so far in the campaign. Furthermore, this time allowed them to coordinate doomed last stands by outliers, such as the defenders at Calais and the French First Army at Lille, that could buy the Royal Navy time to evacuate the 400,000 troops that packed the area around Dunkirk.The British, French, and Belgian soldiers maintained their discipline for the most part. They calmly, if resignedly, sat in formation on the beach waiting for The Word on whether they would be rescued or ordered to surrender. (Could you imagine doing this today?). Though there was a cloud of about 35,000 stragglers, mostly in the town where fires raged out of control. Nonetheless, that any troops in so small an area with little food, water, or medical care made the sandy Dunkirk beaches on the 25 and 26th of May crowded and chaotic. Additionally, a choking pall of smoke from a nearby oil refinery blanketed the area. This made life uncomfortable, but helped with the daylight air attacks on the exposed men on the beaches. However, it did not prevent them. Most disconcertingly though, the port was wrecked from Luftwaffe bombing and its docks and quays in shambles. Churchill ordered the men evacuated, but the Royal Navy estimated they would only be able to get 40,000 off the beaches, just 10% of the troops waiting at Dunkirk.

On 26 May, 1940, the Royal Navy and Air Force launched Operation DYNAMO to evacuate as many troops as possible from the port and off the beaches around Dunkirk. That afternoon, Capt. Bill Tennant landed with 16 officers and 160 sailors organize the evacuation on the beach. To do this they had to coordinate the troops on the shore with over 150 ships packed into the harbor. However, the drafts of most of the ships were too deep to get close to the beach. To mitigate this, the Royal Navy confiscated or requisitioned every small boat on the Thames and on the southeast coast of England. The 700 “Little Ships of Dunkirk” were yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats (British for coast guard cutters), trawlers, tugboats, ferries, paddle steamers, and shipping steamers, and mostly crewed by naval personnel but many by civilian owners and their crews. The smallest was the Tamzine, a 15 ft fishing boat that brought off over 100 soldiers (it’s in the Imperial War Museum in London). Over nine days the Little Ships brought the soldiers off the beach and ferried them to the larger ships off shore, while the bigger ships rotated past the East Mole.

To Tennant’s surprise, he discovered the East Mole still intact later that night. The East Mole was a breakwater for the harbor, and extended nearly a mile into the Channel. It should say something about the state of confusion on the beach that it took him nearly seven hours to discover a mile long breakwater that could be used as dock. Nevertheless, with the East Mole available, ships could be loaded directly. There was a glimmer of hope for remainder that the Royal Navy didn’t plan to evacuate.

Under constant air attack, about 250 of the 900 ships that took part in “The Miracle at Dunkirk” were sunk. Furthermore, German shore batteries up the coast forced the remaining ships and boats to take a much longer bypass that circumvented the fire. Despite these obstacles, between 27 May and 3 June 1940, the Royal Navy rescued 330,000 much needed troops so they could fight again another day.

After the horrible news of the last three weeks, the British population was jubilant at the unexpected success of the evacuation. “The Spirit of Dunkirk” still refers to the idea of British courage, solidarity, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity.

But amidst all of the celebration, Winston Churchill, ever the pragmatist, would remind the country, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

The First Battle of Sackets Harbor

Coming one month and one day after the United States declared war on Britain, the first battle of the War of 1812 was not initiated by the Americans, but by the British. Their naval commander at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario where it feeds the St Lawrence River, had a small flotilla of five ships. On 19 July 1812 he set out to capture American shipping on the lake. That morning the British seized a small ship filled with flour, from whose crew they learned of an American brig, the USS Oneida, at Sackets Harbor, New York, not too far away. The British sent the crew to the town to inform the garrison that they were to surrender a recently captured (before the war) merchant schooner along with the Onieda to the British, and if the Americans fired on them, they’d “burn the village to the ground”.
29 year old Lt Melancthon Woolsey, the captain of the Onieda, was having none of it. The British commander must have been misinformed because there was a substantial American force in Sackets Harbor, though only one fighting ship, Woolsey’s Oneida. He sent runners to assemble COL Bellinger’s 27th New York Militia Regiment, and took command of the infantry company and a volunteer artillery battery under CPT Camp already in town. Once his lookout spotted the approaching British off in the distance, Woolsey sailed the Oneida out to meet them. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the morning winds off the lake prevented him from leaving the harbor, so he anchored his ship broadsides to the British, and quickly transferred the guns of the landward broadsides to augment Camp’s shore battery.
Along with the other guns, Woolsey had a lone 32 pounder which was originally meant for the Oneida, but was too big, and was mounted in a swivel on shore, in Camp’s hastily built “Fort Volunteer”. The 32 pounder was commanded by Mr. William Vaughan, the Oneida’s sailing master (roughly equivalent to an old warrant officer specialized in navigation) and it was he who fired the first hostile round of the War of 1812.
Vaughan didn’t have any 32 lb ammunition, so he initially used 24 lb cannonballs (of which he had many, the Oneida’s guns were mostly 24 pounders), and wrapped them in carpet that he ordered torn up from the floors of the village houses. The first shot was woefully short, and laughter was heard from the crews of the British ships. They weren’t laughing for long.
Woolsey turned over his ship to his first mate, and directed the battle from the shore battery. For two hours, the Americans and British traded fire, of which only the Americans’ was effective, especially that of Vaughan’s gun. Many of the British cannonballs failed to even reach the shore battery, and those that did just plowed shallow furrows in the mud until they stopped. Many were 32 pounders from the bigger British ships, so Woolsey had the men dig them up. Vaughan fired them back at the British to much greater effect.
In response to the accurate American fire, the British ships raised anchor and began to maneuver, in order to throw off the American’s aim and get their other broadsides into the fight. As the British flagship, the HMS Royal George, was doing so, a 24 lb cannon ball entered her stern and raked the ship: killing eight sailors, wounding a dozen more, and doing a great amount of damage all along its entire length. Shortly thereafter, the exasperated and ineffectual British withdrew back to Kingston, without causing the American’s any casualties, and no damage beyond the furrows. One sailor remarked, “The enemy broke nothing but – the Sabbath”.
In celebration, Woolsey’s sailors and gunners, and the militia in the village with their band, broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
Though they didn’t take part in the battle, 3000 militia arrived in Sackets Harbor by nightfall, and many watched from shore. Woolsey, Camp, Vaughan, and “Black Julius” Torry, an African American on Vaughan’s gun crew, were given credit in the dispatch to the governor of New York for America’s first victory in the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor would become the American military and ship building epicenter in the Lake Ontario arms race against the British and Canadians across the St Lawrence River in Kingston.

Maroubra Force

The Battle of the Coral Sea temporarily checked a direct seaborne invasion of Port Moresby on the southeastern coast of Papua. The Battle of Midway, whose magnitude of defeat the Japanese Imperial General Staff only publicly acknowledged in the beginning of July, made any seaborne threat to Port Moresby highly unlikely. With no air cover from the remaining Japanese carriers (the Zuikaku and Shokaku were still in port until mid-July, 1942), any invasion force would be at the mercy of land based bombers. Moreover, it was obvious MacArthur would attempt to build airfields on the north coast of Papua to extend their reach (He would. However, the never fully realized Operation Providence didn’t get out of the reconnaissance and security phase). For Lieut Gen Harukichi Hyakutake (we will hear his name again) the commander of the Japanese 17th Army in Rabaul, New Guinea and Papua needed to be secured by any means possible.

The Japanese decided to assess the feasibility of seizing Port Moresby by land. A Japanese reconnaissance pilot detected what he thought was a road connecting Port Moresby in the south with Buna on the north coast of Papua. However, the Kokoda Track was nothing but a slippery and sodden 60 mile trail that turned into a morass of deep mud whenever it rained, which was often. To complicate matters further, the Kokoda Track snaked over the Owen Stanley Range. The Owen Stanley Range is some of the harshest and most forbidding terrain on the planet: steep and tall mountains with jagged cliffs covered in dense jungle and moss covered upland swamps. Furthermore, he reported the Track as much wider than the overblown hiking trail it was. The staff of the Japanese 17th Army in Rabaul was skeptical of its the actual size, but there were no other options: the Japanese needed to secure Port Moresby as part of their outer perimeter. So Hyakutake requested the Japanese 4th Fleet land troops on northeastern Papua at Buna and Gona to secure a beachhead and recce the “road”.The defense of Port Moresby was the only reason preventing a Japanese invasion of northern Australia. And that the Kokoda Track was the only remaining way to get there was not lost on the Australians. This made Buna the next obvious Japanese target. 

On 25 June 1942, the newly formed Australian New Guinea Force launched Operation Maroubra (named after a Sydney suburb) to defend Buna, and prevent the Japanese from seizing the village of Kokoda and its airfield in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Range.

On 12 July, the Australian 39th Battalion of the 30th Brigade, a militia unit formed just after Pearl Harbor that so far spent the war as Port Moresby’s garrison, arrived in Kokoda after a grueling, if uncontested, two week march on the trail. With the Papuan Infantry Battalion at Buna, another militia unit with native Papuans and Australian officers, the 39th Battalion was referred to as the ad hoc “Maroubra Force” to distinguish them from other 30th Brigade units on the southern side of the Owen Stanley Range. They arrived none too soon.

On 21 July 1942, the Japanese launched Operation Ri, and landed the South Seas Force at Buna. The South Seas Force was a brigade sized naval landing force consisting of an infantry battalion, elite marine company, and an independent engineer regiment with native laborers from Rabaul. The Japanese commander, a well-connected lieutenant colonel, appropriated the engineers to act as infantry. Together, they quickly overwhelmed the reinforced Papuan battalion at Buna, and on the 25th broke through the 39th‘s defenses at the entrance to the Kokoda Track. Despite their men being used as infantry, the engineer officers surmised that it would take six porters to supply every soldier on the track. This was a ludicrous requirement even by the shoestring standards of Japanese logistics.in response, the aggressive and proud commander just had the engineers augment the native porters, and attacked south, determined to take Port Moresby.

With the loss of Buna and Kokoda, the Maroubra Force was not off to an auspicious start. But they came into their own in their dogged delaying actions and fierce counterattacks at bayonet point back down the Kokoda Track. The diggers made the Japanese pay dearly for every ridge and every blood soaked meter of trail. On 8 August, the 39th actually retook Kokoda briefly, and even buried their commander, who had been killed there the week before. When the Japanese landed, the rest of 30th Brigade began the march up the track and reinforced the 39th and the remaining Papuans. But the casualties were heavy, and the supplies over the track only came in trickles. The brigade commander was killed and the Maroubra Force fought on under the newly arrived but indomitable commander of the 39th, LieutCol Ralph Honner, with the other battalion also under their own junior officers. For over a month, the Japanese continually smashed into them with successive banzai charges, slowly pushing the Australians back. But the Japanese were suffering horrendous casualties, and in order to save face, Hyakutake was required to continually feed troops into the Kokoda Track. These troops were much needed on Guadalcanal where American Marines had landed on 7 August.

About the time the Marines were hanging on to Henderson Field by their fingernails, the Australian 21st Brigade of the veteran 7th Division arrived and its commander, Brigadier Arnold Potts, assumed command of the Maroubra Force and the remnants of 30th Brigade. The 21st was a regular formation with extensive experience in the Western Desert and fighting in Syria and Lebanon. They had no jungle training or experience, but they quickly learned from the 30th Brigade troops – grizzled veterans after a month on the Track. 

In punishing conditions that Allied medical professionals would study to determine how long a human being can survive on the line in the jungle before they’re permanently broken (three months), Potts and the Maroubra Force slowly fell back and bled the Japanese. For another month, the Japanese threw troops down the Kokoda Trail in an ever lengthening supply line and sledgehammered the Australian positions. However, as Japanese strength grew, these banzai charges were just fixing attacks that supported flanking columns which attempted to “trail block” the Australians until they withdrew. (The same technique worked very well against the British in Burma). But the Japanese focus on getting combat troops into the fight on the Kokoda Track meant there was little throughput for logistics. For example, the Japanese engineers were thrown into the fight as infantry before they could actually do what they were meant to do, turn Buna and Gona into a proper port and improve the Track. Many Japanese units were unsupported and withering away.

The Japanese were literally sacrificing the lives of their soldiers by assaulting the Australian positions before they starved to death. The problem for Brigadier Potts was it was actually working.

Maroubra Force was in close contact with the Japanese for all of August and most of September. At no point in time were the nearest Japanese farther than 30 meters from the Potts’ main line of resistance. There was at least a platoon passage of lines to the rear under heavy pressure every day. To exasperate the Japanese supply situation, Potts’ established “Chaforce” and “ Honnerforce”, both about 400 man ad hoc task forces, to raid the Kokoda Track to the north. Nonetheless, the Japanese still came on.

MacArthur and some armchair strategists in Australia were concerned with the Japanese advance, and several Australian officers were sacked, fueled by wild tales of panicked abandon of positions. But they failed to grasp the extreme conditions on the Kokoda Trail: the heat, humidity, the thickness of the vegetation, disease, even the cold at the higher elevations. Furthermore, they failed to even acknowledge the lengths the Japanese were willing to go to maintain an overwhelming superiority in numbers, which never dropped below four to one.

While the Japanese advance continued, the Australian buildup at Port Moresby was slowly gaining momentum. The rest of the Australian 7th Division arrived, and on 7 September the indefatigable 39th Battalion was withdrawn from the line. Of the 800 men that started up the trail two months before, just 30 remained. 

But what cannot continue indefinitely, eventually will not. Just as the fighting on the Kokoda Track relieved pressure on the US Marines on Guadalcanal, the reverse was true in September: The losses suffered by the Japanese in the Solomon’s forced Hyakutake to suspend operations on New Guinea until “the Guadalcanal matter was resolved”.

Maroubra Force held, despite the Japanese within sight of Port Moresby.

In mid-September, Potts turned over the Maroubra Force to the commander of the recently arrived 25th Brigade, who withdrew to Imita Ridge, the last effective natural barrier before Port Moresby. Despite Hyakutake’s orders, the Japanese tried one last push before they moved into defensive positions. They failed.

After a brief respite, it was time to do it all over again, but this time in reverse. In late September, after it was obvious the Japanese suspended the offensive, the Australians began attacking back up the Kokoda Track. For the first time in the Pacific War, the Japanese were on the operational defensive.

The Japanese would prove as tenacious in the defense, as they were aggressive and courageous on the attack.

The Blackout of 1977

The late 70s were a dismal time for most Americans. President Carter described it as a “crisis of confidence” in his famous “Malaise speech” in 1979. The darkest moment in this dark time, both figuratively and literally, was the blackout of New York City in the sweltering summer of 1977.

The summer of 1977 was a miserable time for New York. The Yankee’s hadn’t won a World Series in 13 years. The apocalyptic and imminent global cooling promised by activists at the First Earth Day in 1970 had failed to materialize and the high temperatures routinely broke records that July. Crime also reached new record highs that wouldn’t be broken until the crack epidemic in the 80s, as gangs took over portions of the city. (When “The Warriors” was filmed the next year, a near-futuristic dystopian modern take on the Anabasis where gangs tried to take over the city, New Yorkers weren’t sure if it was fantasy, fiction, or a documentary.) The pervasive sense of fear was palatable: that summer, the Son of Sam went about murdering random New Yorkers with a .44 cal revolver. No one felt safe. The overworked New York City police were powerless in the face of this wave of crime. Police officers were routinely targeted for assassination which greatly reduced their effectiveness. Furthermore, New York was in the midst of a financial and budget crisis which led to pay freezes and layoffs in the police and city administrations, and spread the already small NYPD even thinner. City services were curtailed, and city maintenance was neglected.

Around 8:30 pm on 13 July 1977, a lightning strike hit a power line which overloaded the large Ravenswood’s generator, and a faulty circuit breaker prevented it from shutting down. This overloaded the Consolidated Edison Indian Point Water Power Plant which did shut down. Further lightning strikes cut powerlines to other generators and power stations. In less than 30 minutes, 90% of the five boroughs, over 7,000,000 people, were without power, just as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was the sixth inning between the Mets and the Cubs when the lights went out. 

Then the chaos began. 

Hundreds were stuck in elevators and tens of thousands were stuck in traffic or on the subway, both of which came to an immediate standstill. 911 emergency lines were swamped with almost 20 million phone calls (!) that night, despite radio stations broadcasting desperate pleas from city officials to only make calls in life or death circumstances. However, most calls were less about the electricity and more about their fellow New Yorkers taking advantage of the darkness. 

The only lights in New York City after 9pm were car headlights and fires. The New York Fire Department responded to over 1100 cases of arson that night, and hundreds more false alarms, including many ambushes by gang members. Most of Broadway was on fire. The next morning, one city paper ran the headline, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning.” The city was lit by an eerie orange and purple glow of flashing lights and raging fires among its homes and businesses. But for all the fire damage to the city, the looters and vandals were worse.

The 2500 NYPD cops on the ground were quickly overwhelmed with the sheer scale of violence, destruction, and looting that began in the twilight of the setting sun. Before it got so dark on that moonless night that you could barely see the hand in front of your face, all 12,000 on and off duty police were on the streets. 

Home invasions were common but the looting of the closed businesses easier. On the night of 13-14 July 1977, New York City was sacked. The massive wave of looters took everything that wasn’t nailed down. One looter was heard yelling through the streets, “It’s Christmas time!” Few businesses in the city escaped damage. One car dealership lost 57 cars stolen off the lot. TV crews were usually attacked as their recording cameras were evidence, but one crew was offered stolen jewelry for cheap while broadcasting live. Many neighborhood blocks barricaded themselves in and shot at anyone they didn’t recognize, so the more industrious of criminals just mugged the looters. It was safer. 

In the frenzy, the looters took anything, if they didn’t need or want it, they could sell it or give it away. The police arrested one looter with a bag of clothes pins; and another with bags of macaroni. 3700 suspected looters were arrested that night: The largest mass arrest in New York history. 

What separates the Blackout of 1977 and the ones of 1965 and 2003 was the chaos continued in the daylight. The power finally came back on 25 hours later. $300,000,000 in damage was done to the city. The damage was almost as bad as the New York Draft Riots 114 years previously, when Union warships had to bombard the city. The New York State Power Authority canvassed all the best trade schools and hired and trained the best electrical students to work in the power plants, replacing the city run Consolidated Edison employees that were found negligent in causing the Blackout. Mayor Abe Beame would eventually lose the Democratic primary, and the mayor’s office, to challenger Ed Koch the next election. 

For New Yorkers it was a day akin to 9/11, the Challenger explosion, or the death of John F. Kennedy.

The First Battle of El Alamein

At the end of June, 1942, Mussolini flew to Libya to personally plan his triumphal march into Cairo. Rommel was driving hard across North Africa and it looked as if he would make it to the Suez as long as he was properly supported. To that end, the Italian High Command (Rommel’s nominal superiors, though he reported directly to Hitler and the OKW, annoying the Italians) began siphoning men, material, and equipment from Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta set for mid-July, to Libya and Egypt. Herkules was fully supported by Rommel, who previously even offered troops for the operation as he understood the necessity for taking Malta in order to secure North Africa. But while chasing the British Eighth Army into Egypt, Malta took a back seat and the invasion was postponed due to lack of supplies. Despite horrific bombing that by July 1942 brought the island to its knees, the Germans wouldn’t take Malta for the rest of the war. 

Gen Ritchie, the commander of the Eighth Army who lost both the Battle of Gazala and Tobruk, wanted to defend the heights at Mersa Matrah, 150 miles inside Egypt, in a glorious face saving last stand against the Germans. The realistic and practical Gen Auchlineck, his superior and Commander in Chief of the Middle East, quickly noted that Mersa Matrah was indefensible against Rommel and just as quickly fired him. Auchlineck took personal command of the Eighth Army and withdrew them east under heavy pressure, all the way back to El Alamein, just 60 miles from Alexandria and the Nile. El Alamein was a bottleneck between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the impassable Qattara Depression of the Sahara desert to the south, through which Rommel must pass to reach Cairo and the Suez Canal. Rommel was so feared by the British headquarters that the hasty evacuation of Cairo during this time would be forever known in British military history as “The Flap.” Throughout the month of July, Gen Auchlineck’s Eighth Army and Rommel’s PanzerArmee Afrika would duke it out in a brutal battle of attrition for the passes and hills of El Alamein. However, Rommel’s extended supply line all the way back to Tobruk and Tripoli couldn’t keep pace with Auckineck’s shorter supply line to Alexandria and the Germans were halted. The battle turned when New Zealand troops overran Rommel’s all important radio interception company on 9 July, thus depriving him of his most useful and timely intelligence, upon which he depended.

Rommel would go no further.

Down the Rabbit Hole

On 4 July, 1862, writer Charles Dodgeson took a friend’s three young daughters, Edith, 8, Alice, 10 and Lorina, 13 on an afternoon picnic trip into the countryside of south eastern England. In true Victorian fashion, he rowed them down the Thames River. During the trip, he regaled them with a tale of a young girl and her adventures after she had fallen down a rabbit hole. 

The protagonist of the story was named Alice after Dodgeson’s favorite of the three sisters. The girls so loved the story they wanted him to write it down for them when they returned from the picnic. The manuscript he gave them later would eventually be published under Charles Dodgeson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll, as “Alice in Wonderland”.

Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

“I don’t think…” said Alice. “Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

Alice asked, “How long is forever?” “Sometimes, just one second,” replied the White Rabbit

Japan First

In late spring and early summer of 1942, there was an inter-service food fight in the American military: who first, Japan or Germany? It was supposedly settled by Roosevelt and Churchill at the ARCADIA conference in DC in Dec 1941: Germany would be the initial focus of the Allies because of the threat to Great Britain and the USSR, and Japan would be contained with what was left.

However, the Fall of Tobruk, the news of which was given to Churchill as he was meeting with President Roosevelt at the Second Washington Conference, greatly changed the focus in Europe. GEN Marshal, the US Army Chief of Staff, was pushing for an invasion of France for various reasons in 1942. With Churchill visibly shaken with the news of Tobruk, the two leaders began wargaming worst case scenarios, specifically a German-Japanese link up in India. In late June 1942, this wasn’t as farfetched as it sounds today: Japan was chasing British troops out of Burma and into India, India itself was on the brink of revolt, German formations were driving hard on the Caucuses, and Rommel seemed poised to seize the Suez and move on to Kuwait. Roosevelt offered Churchill all the help he wanted and purposely diverted convoys of material, specifically tanks, from the US to Egypt, at the expense of the troop buildup GEN Marshall wanted in England. 

This diversion of resources made an invasion of France unfeasible in 1942 (if it ever was). It was obvious that the British, whose full support was absolutely necessary for a cross channel invasion of France, would not focus on France as long as the British Eighth Army was fighting in Egypt. As a consolation, General Marshall threw his support behind Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French North Africa in November. Roosevelt disapproved the plan, saying it wouldn’t help the Soviet Union, and told Marshal to keep working on a second front to assist Stalin.

But ADM Ernest King, the Chief of Staff of the US Navy, was concerned about the Japanese advances in the South Pacific and their threat to Australia. In particular he was worried about the recently discovered Operation FS, the proposed Japanese invasion Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia, and the large airfield being built for it on the island of Guadalcanal. The airfield and Operation FS would cut Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea’s lifeline with the US. (Additionally, it was the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, not the Germans…) 

In an epic showdown with GEN Marshall and President Roosevelt, ADM King eventually persuaded the President to support his plan to stop the Japanese under the condition that the Navy and Marine Corps would do it themselves with no Army help outside of assistance from MacArthur’s troops fighting in New Guinea. The US Army would concentrate on an invasion of Europe and/or reinforcing the British in North Africa.

Immediately after the meeting, Admiral King cabled Admiral Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific the news. And on 8 July 1942, Admiral Nimitz issued his orders to Marine Major General Paul Vandegrifft and the 1st Marine Division, then staged in New Zealand, to proceed with Operation Watchtower: the invasion of the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, set to begin in early August, 1942

The Destruction of PQ-17

For the first six months in 1942, German U boats savaged Allied merchantmen along the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea, in what was known to the German Navy as “Die Glueckliche Zeit” or “The Happy Time”. Generally, the exceptions were the Allied Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union. The dangerous American and British Arctic convoys that delivered much needed war material to the Soviet Union assembled and departed from Iceland (P) for the Soviet ports above the Arctic Circle at Murmansk and Archangelsk (Q). 16 previous convoys had reached the Soviets with varying degrees of success, but the largest and most successful by far was PQ-16 at the end of May, 1942. With Fall Blau (the German operation against the Caucuses’ oil fields) on the immediate horizon, Hitler decreed that the German military increase operations against the next such convoy. PQ-17 departed Hvalfjörður, Iceland on 23 June, 1942.

The British knew of the German intentions from Enigma decrypts and prepared well. The 34 merchantmen of the convoy would have close-in protection from six destroyers, and twelve other corvettes, support ships and anti-submarine and anti-aircraft trawlers. Furthermore, a close cruiser squadron shadowed the convoy to protect and against small surface raiders. To protect against the German battleship Tirpitz, which was in Norway to prevent an Allied invasion of Scandinavia, the British Home Fleet would sortie from Scapa Flow. Finally, after the successful joint operations with the US Navy to supply Malta with fighters in June, the British Admiralty asked for American assistance, and the reluctant Admiral King agreed to provide the battleship, USS Washington, and the carrier, USS Wasp, and their escorts. PQ-17 was the most heavily defended convoy in the North Atlantic so far in the war.

German signals intelligence picked up the departure of the convoy and PQ-17 was spotted by a U-Boat and tracked very quickly. For nearly a week, the convoy endured incessant Luftwaffe attacks from airfields in Norway, and was swarmed by an increasingly larger wolfpack as U boats closed on the area. Nonetheless, the convoy only suffered three ships lost, two of whom were to ice damage, and not from the Germans. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, PQ-17 looked to be another success.

Unfortunately, that “unforeseen circumstance” turned out to be the British First Sea Lord, the elderly Admiral Dudley Pound. Normally, as First Sea Lord, Pound would not concern himself with day to day operations of the Royal Navy, but because of the Americans’ involvement and his personal request to King, he tracked the progress of PQ-17 meticulously.

On the morning 4 July, 1942, an RAF reconnaissance plane failed to spot the Tirpitz in the Trondheim fjord in Norway, and this sent a panic in the Admiralty, mostly because of Pound’s involvement and his inevitable demands that the Tirpitz be found. The Tirpitz sortied regularly but Hitler or the head of the German Kriegsmarine Adm Raeder would lose their nerve, and order the valuable and irreplaceable ship back to port. This looked to be the same. (The Tirpitz hadn’t actually left port yet. It wouldn’t do so until the next day and almost immediately turn around for obvious reasons.) But Pound demanded, in conclusive terms, that the Tirpitz was not threatening PQ-17. British naval intelligence was sure this was the case, but had no definitive evidence. The British had come to rely on the Enigma intercepts but those for that morning would not be decrypted until that afternoon. Additionally the overly stressed Pound mistook the analysis of the U boat threat to the convoy as the analysis of the surface threat, which was dire if the convoy scattered as they would have to if the Tirpitz attacked. (Despite the extensive precautions, Pound had little confidence that the British and American battleships would intercept the Tirpitz before it reached the convoy.) When the Enigma decrypts did come in late that afternoon, they only provided circumstantial evidence that the Tirpitz was in port or heading back to port. The British Naval Intelligence couldn’t say with 100% certainty where the Tirpitz was, but also refused to say that the Tirpitz was not a threat to PQ-17, which was what they believed (at least according to the investigation afterwards). 

Pound assumed the worst case despite the evidence, and that night issued three orders directly to the convoy between 2111 and 2133 on the evening 4 July 1942. The first stripped the convoy of its cruisers and destroyers, who proceeded to rendezvous with the battleships for the expected fight with Tirpitz. The second ordered the convoy to disperse its formation, a precaution against surface attack. The third, and fatal, order to actually scatter the convoy, and for the merchantmen make their way to Archangelsk independently. This order was almost always given by a convoy commander after the escorts are overwhelmed by continuous attack. On 4 July, the Luftwaffe and U boat contacts were numerous, but were handled well, and no enemy surface ships were sighted, much less the Tirpitz. The order to scatter made the individual merchant ships easy prey for bombers and U boats, and was a death sentence for PQ-17.

In the perpetual sunlight of the Arctic summer, unbelieving U boat captains and bomber pilots watched with unimagined glee as the convoy broke apart before their very eyes. Ten merchantmen were sunk the next day, five by torpedoes and five by bombs. Five more the day after. Destroyer captains shamefully listened to the death cries of their burning and sinking charges, as they uselessly prowled the seas looking for the Tirpitz. In defiance of Pound’s order, several junior captains of minesweepers and corvettes herded merchantmen together for protection, but it was not enough and the convoy still had 600 miles to sail to reach the Soviet port. Several ship crews got creative and painted themselves white with paint intended for Soviet tank camouflage and hid among the ice. One captain loaded the Sherman tanks on his deck with ammunition from another ship and turned his ship into a massive anti-aircraft platform.

For the next week, eleven U boats and three squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers savaged the isolated merchantmen in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean. It would be another week after that for the remainder to reach port, after notification from British intelligence that it was safe to leave hiding. Only eleven merchantmen of the original 34 made it to Archangelsk, at the cost of just five German planes. There was such confusion in the North Atlantic that it would take the Admiralty another week just to ascertain the final results.
In all, PQ-17 lost over 110,000 tons of shipping, more than the Admiralty expected to lose if the Tirpitz did attack. This loss included 210 aircraft, 430 tanks, and 3,325 jeeps and trucks; that’s the equivalent of an entire tank division and an entire Soviet air army. Stalin was furious and accused the Americans and British of lying about the number of merchantmen. Admiral King was equally furious and pulled the Washington and Wasp from the Atlantic and sent them to the Pacific in support of the recently approved Operation Watchtower, the invasion of Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The inevitable British investigation found Pound’s orders to scatter the convoy solely responsible for its destruction. But he was not charged as he was the senior Royal Navy officer in the government. He quietly retired for health reasons the next year. 

The jubilant and victorious U boat crews returned to France to bands, parades, and awards ceremonies. The destruction of PQ-17 was the happiest moment of the Kriegsmarine’s Happy Time.

PODCAST: Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson on Military History

PODCAST: Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson on Military History

Secretary of Defense James Mattis once wrote, “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.” He wrote this to impart how important it is for military professionals to study history. In this episode, Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson, a historian at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA, talks about why the study of history is important and how an earlier reform effort has shaped current military reform in the United States.

Lafayette, We Are Here

The first combat troops of the U.S. First Expeditionary Division arrived at the port of St. Nazaire, France on 26 June 1917. They were destined for transport to a training area at Gondrecourt in Lorraine, about 120 miles southwest of Paris.

Rumors of the widespread mutinies in the French Army were beginning to spread, and French civilian morale was low. The French government requested that a regiment of American soldiers march through Paris as a show of American support and a visible reminder that more Americans were on their way.

General Pershing initially balked at the idea. The American regiments in France were not the same as the ones initially chosen from the Southern Department months before. In the interim they were stripped of most of their experienced officers, NCOs, and soldiers, who would form dozens of cadres for the rapidly expanding U.S. Army, and were backfilled with raw recruits. Pershing was worried they would not be able march correctly and would disgrace the United States in the eyes of her Allies. Moreover, Pershing was concerned that if they looked unprofessional, it would give ammunition to the British and French generals who were pushing to have American troops serve directly in their armies as replacements, or at the very least have American regiments serve in their divisions, with no larger American formations. However, Pershing relented in the face of the desperate need for a demonstration of American resolve. In any case, he had nothing to worry about.

With the regimental colors and band in the lead, the U.S. 16th Infantry Regiment paraded through the streets of Paris on 4 July 1917. If they marched out of step, no one noticed because the people of Paris mobbed the American soldiers as they wound their way through the streets. The joyous Parisians cheered, wept, and threw flowers at the mostly green American troops parading through their city. But the tall, young, well fed, and eager American soldiers were a stark contrast to the weary and exhausted French soldiers, drained by three years in the trenches, that the Parisians were used to seeing. The men of the 16th Infantry marched on a five mile route through the city to the Picpus Cemetery, the burial place of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. At 19, Lafayette was the youngest general ever in the American army and so beloved by George Washington’s that he referred to the young Frenchman as his son. Lafayette arrived to fight for the American Cause almost exactly 140 years prior.

Pershing was asked to address the crowd at tomb of the hero of the American Revolution, but since he didn’t speak French, the task fell to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stanton, a quartermaster officer on his staff who spoke the language. At the end of his speech, Stanton said, “Lafayette, We are here”. Though often misattributed to Pershing, Stanton’s message expressed the sentiment common among many Americans and Frenchmen at the time – that America was coming to the aid of France in a time of her direst need, just as France did for America in 1777.

After the ceremony, the 16th Infantry Regiment marched back through Paris to their staging area on the other side of the city. There they were billeted in civilian houses and barns as they awaited transportation to Gondrecourt where they began their much needed training to fight the Germans.