After the capture of Rome in June 1944, the US 5th Army and British Eighth Army raced north and ran into the German Gothic Line across the northern Apennines Mountains. Through October and November, they ground their way through the miles deep German defensive belts, suffering tens of thousands of casualties. Like Monte Cassino the year before, the key to the position was Monte Belvedere which controlled Highway 64, and the gateway to the Po Valley and the cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena. The key to Monte Belvedere was Riva Ridge whose artillery controlled all approaches. The Germans easily fought off three previous determined assaults there and considered the southern face of the ridge impossible to scale.
This was particularly true at the time because the best mountain troops in the Mediterranean theatre, Gen Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps, were withdrawn and sent to France. But after two years of intense mountain training in the Colorado, America’s only mountain division, the 10th Light Infantry (Alpine) arrived in Italy just after Christmas 1944. They entered the line in late January 1945, and with the 1st Brazilian Expeditionary Division were told to seize the approaches to the Po Valley. The 10th was assigned the difficult task of seizing Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.
For three weeks the mountaineers of the 10th conducted tedious nighttime patrols to determine routes to the German positions at the crest of the mountains. They discovered nine, all of which required some sort of vertical ascent using ropes or free climbing. They would have to do this without their specialized mountaineering equipment which sat in a warehouse in Boston awaiting transport. Nonetheless, on the night of 18-19 February 1945, the reinforced 1st Battalion 86th Infantry scaled the sheer and icy cliff faces (with 80 lbs packs) of Riva Ridge underneath the noses of the complacent German defenders. By the morning of the nineteenth, the Americans seized the ridge and neutralized the German artillery. This allowed the remainder of the division to make the equally arduous assault on Monte Belvedere the next night.
For the Americans on Riva Ridge, seizing it turned out to be the easy part: the Germans immediately counterattacked and would not let up the pressure for weeks. Fortunately, 10th Mountains’ logistics personnel worked ingenious miracles supplying the combat troops at the top of the ridge, without which Riva Ridge would fallen to a German counterattack the next day following the assault.
Climb to Glory!
On 19 February 1945, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th US Marine Divisions of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s Task Force 56 landed on the island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin’s island chain south of Japan. They were to secure Iwo Jima’s three airfields. Because the island was about halfway between the Japanese Home Islands and the B-29 airfields in the Mariannas, Iwo Jima was planned to be used for an emergency landing field, though it was rarely used as such. Nonetheless Iwo Jima was a perfect staging area for the invasion of mainland Japan, scheduled for the upcoming autumn. For the next five weeks, 70,000 Marines and Navy personnel fought 22,000 Japanese defenders under Lieut General Tadamishi Kurabayashi for control of Iwo Jima.
Kurabayashi copied the tactics of ambush and interlocking fields of fire from impenetrable pillboxes that worked so well for the Japanese on Peleliu five months before. But unlike Peleliu, the Japanese had a further advantage: the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima was much easier to tunnel through. Kurabayashi’s troops spent almost a year digging in and connecting every pillbox, artillery position, and mortar, machine gun and sniper pit by tunnel. Furthermore, the entire southern portion of the island was dominated by the dormant volcano Mt Suribachi from which Japanese spotters could observe every inch of the island. Virtually the entire Japanese defense was underground and the three day American pre-invasion bombardment was especially ineffective.
The Marine’s first waves landed unopposed and subsequent patrols failed to find the defenders. Many thought the bombardment killed them all. They could not have been more wrong.
The Japanese only opened fire when the second wave crammed itself onto the beach, just as the assault battalions began to move off. The two waves of Marines crowded on the beach took enormous casualties from hidden Japanese positions.
Kurabayashi forbade wasteful banzai charges, but the Japanese took full advantage of the mobility afforded by the extensive tunnel system. Thousands of Marines were killed or wounded from “cleared” Japanese positions that were suddenly reoccupied after the Americans moved on.
After a grueling four day fight for the southern part of the island, the Marines captured Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The event was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag raising on the summit of the volcano. (The famous picture was actually of the second flag raised on the Mt Suribachi. The first was about an hour before but of a much smaller flag.)
Unfortunately, the hardest fights for the island were still to come. Kurabayashi’s main defensive line was further north protecting the second and third airfields on the island. The Marines were forced to clear every square foot of the island.
The only tactic that was effective against the dug in Japanese was an armored frontal assault. The Marines lead with tanks, especially the Sherman “Zippo” flamethrower tank, which forced the Japanese to attack — they had no way to stop the tanks short of physically assaulting and overrunning them. The dismounted Marines would fight off the now exposed Japanese, and then clear the Japanese positions with tank main gun rounds, satchel charges, and flamethrowers. Once the Japanese were cleared or dead, a bulldozer then sealed the inevitable connecting tunnel. The entire operation was usually under fire from supporting Japanese positions and artillery. The Marines did this until the last organized Japanese resistance ended. That occurred when the remaining defenders, out of food, water and ammunition, launched a final banzai charge led by Lieut General Kurabayashi himself (in defiance of his own orders) on 25 March 1945.
The island was declared secure, and the US Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment took over from the Marines. The 147th was an Ohio National Guard unit from Columbus Ohio, lost from the 37th Infantry Division when that division “went triangle” (Four to three regiments per division) in 1942. Starting on Guadalcanal, the 147th spent the rest of the war cleaning up after the Marines, and Iwo Jima was no different. About 1500 Japanese were still living in the tunnels and fighting on the desolate island after the Marines departed. The last two Japanese defenders didn’t surrender until 1949.
The Battle for Iwo Jima was the bloodiest and most bitterly contested amphibious operation of the Second World War. The Americans suffered 30,000 casualties including 7,000 killed in action. All but 200 of the 22,000 Japanese fought to the death. Of the 82 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the entire War in the Pacific, 27 were awarded for actions on the small island of Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz said of the Marines who fought there:
“Uncommon valor was a common virtue”.
After the Union’s capture of Atlanta and subsequent March to the Sea, Major General William T Sherman turned north with a vengeance on the state that started the US Civil War, South Carolina. In January 1865, he laid siege to the Charleston and Fort Sumter in the harbor. On 17 February, the rebels had had enough and abandoned the fort and city in the middle of the night. On their way out of the city, the Confederates set fire to the stores of cotton bales to keep them out of Sherman’s hands.
By the next morning, the fire spread and engulfed most of the city. The mayor of Charleston asked Sherman for help fighting the fires and stopping the looters, but Sherman politely declined. When he saw the fire was not affecting the one building in Charleston he wanted to destroy, the US Arsenal, Sherman had his men set fire to it too. He left some troops to occupy Fort Sumter, and took the rest to pursue the retreating rebels.
It was the first time the Stars and Stripes flew over Fort Sumter since the start of the US Civil War three years prior.
Early in World War II, at the height of “The Phony War” on the Western Front between Great Britain and France, and Nazi Germany, the Battle of the Atlantic raged between German U-boats and pocket battleships and British and French shipping and escorts. In December 1939 the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sank several British merchantmen, rescued the survivors and transferred them to the German tanker Altmark for transport back to Germany.
During the long cruise to Germany, the Altmark violated Norwegian national waters to escape the pursuing British destroyer HMS Cossack. The Norwegian Navy interred the Altmark but refused to let the crew from the Cossack search it for the prisoners. First lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill radioed the captain with some of the best common sense rules of engagement ever, to search it anyway.
“Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat undertakes to convoy Altmark to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard on board, and a joint escort, you should board Altmark, liberate the prisoners, and take possession of the ship pending further instructions. If Norwegian torpedo-boat interferes, you should warn her to stand off. If she fires upon you, you should not reply unless attack is serious, in which case you should defend yourself, using no more force than is necessary, and ceasing fire when she desists” -Winston Churhill
The Norwegians backed off but the German crew of the Altmark prepared to repel boarders. The Cossack pulled along side and forcibly boarded and captured the Altmark killing eight Germans and wounding 15 others. It was the last naval action in history with the recorded use of the cutlass. The Cossack’s crew searched the ship, yelling “Anyone Englishmen here?” When the captured merchant seamen answered “yes”, the captain of the Cossack coolly replied, “Well, the Navy is here”.
The Altmark Incident convinced both the British and German governments that neither side would respect Norwegian neutrality. The British invaded Norway on 8 April to cut off Germany’s much needed supply Swedish iron ore and to open up a supply route to the Finns who were fighting Hitler’s ally, the Soviets. The Germans invaded Norway on 9 April to secure U boat bases on the North Atlantic.
In 1850, General Charles Napier was the British Commander in Chief of India. On 17 February 1850, Napier met with several influential Hindu priests who complained about the British prohibition of Sati, or the Hindu tradition of burning a widow alive on the pyre of the dead husband. The Hindu priests said the custom was an integral part of their culture.
Napier replied, “Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The practice of Sati all but disappeared on the Indian subcontinent.
In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.
Dresden was a Baroque German city and dubbed the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Central European mystique was rivaled only by Vienna and Prague. In early 1945, it had little military significance and fewer anti aircraft defenses. 900,000 civilians, mostly refugees fleeing Soviet atrocities, swelled the city.
On the night of 12-13 February 1945, 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers struck the city with incendiaries solely to break the German civilian will to continue the war. The mission was the brainchild of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a disciple of Giullo Douhet, the influential Italian pre war air centric strategic bombing enthusiast who believed that ground troops were obsolete. By late 1944, the “thousand bomber raids” of the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force were having significant economic impact on Germany’s ability to carry on the war. Harris wanted to go further and “break the will” of the German people. That “the Blitz” on London and other British cities did not do so in 1940 was of no concern to him: the Germans just simply didn’t drop enough bombs. Harris saw no need for ground troops and that air power alone could win the war. According to Harris, every day that his bombers supported ground attacks was “another day in the life of Nazi Germany.”
The bombing of Dresden on the night of 12/13 February 1945 created a firestorm that demolished the city. A “firestorm” is a fire that burns so hot it consumes oxygen at such a furious pace that it creates a tornado-like windstorm around the fire to feed it. The firestorm demolished 90% of Dresden’s inner city and killed upwards of 40,000 German civilians… in one night.
It was the largest single loss of life in the shortest period of time in the war. The two atomic bombs dropped months later on Japan weren’t nearly as destructive.
The American Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden’s rail yards the next night but the damage was already done. Because of Dresden, Churchill would call off Harris’ Bomber Command’s nighttime area “terror bombings” of civilian targets.
The bombing of Dresden tarnished the sacrifices of the American and British bomber crews and the real economic and military impact the bomber campaigns had during the war. Harris would escape war crimes charges (because the Allies won) but public opinion would force him to emigrate to South Africa after the war
In late 1114, Henry V (not that one, the Frankish version) the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded the Duchy of Saxony to assert his authority on Duke Lothair of Supplinsburg. Lothair was the Pope’s ally in the Investiture Controversy and supported the Pope’s demands to appoint local church officials. More practically, Lothair despised Henry’s heavy handed ways. Henry was a direct descendant of Charlemagne and believed he was a Roman Emperor no different than Nero, Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius.
On 11 February 1115, Lothair’s Saxon army met Henry’s Imperial army just outside the town of Welfesholz (in modern day Saxon-Anhalt, Germany). The Imperial Army was led by Henry’s field marshal, Count Hoyer of Mansfeld. The Imperial Army was defeated when a young knight slew Mansfeld in single combat during the battle. The Imperial Army army routed after witnessing Mansfeld’s death.
The battle effectively broke Imperial power and ended the destructive 50 year long “civil war” between medieval Germans that had stalled Central Europe politically and culturally. More importantly, the Battle of Welfesholz forced Henry, at the Concordant of Worms in 1122, to accept the Papal investiture of bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, and soon, all of Christendom.
Up to this point in the Middle Ages, Imperial dukes, counts, and princes relied on the bishops and clergy for the administration of their territories. Since the clergy had to be literate (to read the Bible) and Imperial nobility could appoint them, it made sense to have the loyal clergy administer the Empie. But after the Battle of Welfesholz and Concordant of Worms, the Empire’s administration was no longer solely loyal to the Emperor and his princes. The new Papal influence on bishops forced the Imperial nobility to create their own administrations separate from the clergy. A loyal secular administration demanded an increase in literacy among the population to fill the vacuum left by the potentially divided loyalties of the clerical (religious) staff.
The ability to appoint bishops greatly increased Papal and monastic influence across Europe and elevated members of the lower classes to unheard of power and glory in the process as Papal appointed clergy. And the nobility’s inability to appoint clergy in their realms meant a vast increase in noble military aged males with nothing to do. Where once they’d be chosen as priests and bishops, they now became barons, knights, or mercenaries. This massive influx of fighting men pushed feudalism to its natural limits and the Imperial lands became a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other.
Upon his return from the Boer War, Lord Baden-Powell, a British cavalry officer and an old Africa and India hand, believed that cosmopolitan Edwardian society didn’t teach the life skills necessary for British youths to live overseas in unfamiliar cultures and environments. He also found that his “Aid to Scouting”, a military manual that focused on reconnaissance in hostile terrain, was a big hit among teenage and pre-teen boys. In 1907, he formed the Boy Scout Association to teach boys survival, individualism, manners and citizenship.
Two years later, a Western Pennsylvania newspaper mogul, William D. Boyce, was on a trip to East Africa and spent some time in London. One morning he was lost in the narrow streets and thick fog when an unknown boy scout came upon him and led him back to his hotel. The scout refused recompense and said he was “only doing his good deed for the day.” Boyce was so impressed with the young man that on his return trip he stopped at Baden-Powell’s Scouting headquarters and obtained a copy of “Aid to Scouting”.
Four months later on 8 February 1910, Boyce founded the Boys Scouts of America. He based the program on Baden-Powell’s book and incorporated several other youth organizations based on Native American lore and frontier living.
In the late 80s, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” (restructuring), “glastnost” (openness), and the lesser known “khozraschyot” (commercialization) reforms to make the Soviet system more efficient and alleviate the crushing social, political, spiritual, and economic problems of late stage socialism. However, Gorbachev’s reforms gave a small taste of life in the West and just acted as a catalyst for the demand of more reforms. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communist and socialist governments fell across Eastern Europe culminating in the violent Romanian Revolution in December 1989. However, the iron grip of the Communist Party in Russia staved off revolution in the Soviet Union, though significant political turmoil and economic stagnation still existed. Reformers fought “moderates” who fought hardliners who fought everyone for the soul of the Russian people.
In a victory for the reformers, Western businesses were allowed access to Russian markets. One of the first business to capitalize (ahem…) on the new market was the McDonald’s Corporation. On 31 January 1990, the first McDonald’s fast food restaurant opened on Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. Thousands lined up and waited for hours to spend the equivalent of several days’ wages for a Big Mac.
The Golden Arches, the most recognizable symbol of Western Capitalism, had entrenched itself in the belly of the beast. The Russian people weren’t just lining up for a tasty burger, but to experience firsthand the inevitable changes on the horizon. For the first time, there was no jumping of the queue for party members. True egalitarianism was found in the order line; a queue that ended at the smiling face of the polite cashier. The politeness of the cashier was shocking to a people who were “used to the commercial boorishness” of the Soviet consumer goods’ sector and the unchallenged petty power of even the lowest members of the party and government bureaucracies. For years, the McDonald’s in Moscow was the most popular and trendy restaurant in the country.
Within two years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.