Category: History

The Rwandan Genocide

Rwandan National Genocide Memorial (Photo by author)

After Germany’s loss in World War I, the mostly ethnically homogeneous colony of Rwanda (now a very small nation in east central Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo) was given to the Belgians for administration. The native people of the area had two social classes: the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu. The only distinctions between them were the number of cows a person owned. When a Hutu man obtained ten cows, he and his family became Tutsi with certain social privileges. If they dropped below ten cows, they became Hutu. Over the next 50 years, the Belgians favored the Tutsi minority and used them to rule over the colony more effectively.

Eventually, the race obsessed Belgians (and Europeans and Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries in general, and even today) assigned the Tutsis and Hutus tribal/racial status and forbade any social movement, ending centuries of social mobility between them. Identity politics (exasperated by “tribal” ID cards) eventually led to resentment of the ruling Tutsi from Hutus. When democratic reforms were introduced in the 1950s and 60s, the Hutu majority made sweeping gains. The Hutu used their new found political advantage to secure state structures and resources, legislative and executive powers, and seek revenge on the “oppressive” Tutsis. For the next 30 years, the history of Rwanda is scarred by reoccurring cycles of violence as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda fought each other in a series of civil wars, wars with Tutsi dominated Burundi, and tense cease fires between the tribes and countries of the region, as they all prepared for the next cycle to begin again.

On 6 April 1994, the tentative peace of the early 90s was destroyed when the moderate presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated. On 7 April, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military rounded up all prominent Tutsis and murdered them. Once all Tutsis in any Rwandan official capacity were dead, the Hutu unleashed their gangs and militias to exterminate all Tutsis and Twa (pygmies) in the country and extolled all loyal Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. The militias and Hutu gangs widely distributed machetes to Hutus so they could kill any Tutsi they found: man, woman or child. Any who did not do so were killed with the Tutsis as well. Over the next 100 days 1.1 million Tutsis, Twa, and moderate Hutus were massacred, the majority by machete.

That’s 11,000 people a day for the next three months, or one person murdered every eight seconds.

The international response was tepid at best and complicit at worst. The United Nations Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, was established to oversee the most recent cease fire and transitional government, but was powerless to stop the genocide. Some of the first murders of the Rwandan Genocide were ten Belgian peacekeepers guarding the Tutsi interim prime minister after they were ordered to surrender when there was confusion whether they were allowed to use force to defend their charge. Most of the Rwandan staff were specifically targeted early in the genocide which paralyzed UNAMIR. Several impromptu safe havens for Tutsi and moderate Hutus were established, most notably Kigali’s football (read: soccer) stadium where Dallaire had his headquarters. However, most were abandoned by UNAMIR troops when the UN Security Council ordered Dallaire to concentrate on evacuating foreign nationals. Tens of thousands were left to their fate.

After decolonization in the 1960s, the Hutus fell under France’s “Françafrique” special relationship with its and Belgium’s former African colonies. Despite reports of mass rape and genocide, this special relationship bled over into the United Nations’ and the world’s response to what was happening in Rwanda. France sent troops to assist UNAMIR in evacuating citizens, but refused to evacuate Rwandan nationals with Tutsi identification cards, even if they were married to a French citizen. Hundreds of Tutsis were detained by French troops and turned over to Hutus to be killed. Furthermore, France and the United States blocked all efforts to assist Dallaire. Two weeks after the start, they pushed through UN Security Resolution 912 which reduced UNAMIR from 2500 troops to 270, barely enough to protect the stadium. The United States had lost soldiers during a UN mission in Somalia the previous October (“Blackhawk Down”) and President Bill Clinton refused to become involved militarily in Africa again. Clinton was quoted as saying “Leave it (Rwanda) to its fate”, and didn’t permit his staff to speak the word “genocide”.

The Tutsi had to save themselves.

Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi organization based in Burindi resumed the Rwandan Civil War after it was obvious that the UN would not stop the killing. The RPF invaded Rwanda on 8 April and made steady progress toward Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, while chasing the newly formed Hutu government across the country. Kagame’s forces received a steady influx of new recruits and captured the city in June. Later that month France launched Operation Turquoise, ostensibly to stop the genocide, but actually to prevent Kagame from seizing the southwestern fifth of the country and protect Hutu genocidaires and Hutu refugee camps in Zaire.

30% of the Twa (pygmy) population and 75% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was murdered between April and June 1994.

The Rwandan Genocide was the opening act of the Great African War, which killed an additional 5.4 million people in the Congo and the African Great Lakes region over the next 14 years.

The Siege of Kohima

The Tennis Court and Commissioner’s Gardens

In late March 1944, the Japanese launched the invasion of India from Burma. British Gen William Slim, the 14th Army commander, was poised to invade Burma but wished to kill as many Japanese as possible prior to it. The invasion of India was the perfect opportunity and Slim planned to concentrate his troops on the Imphal plain to do so. Unfortunately, the Japanese were more numerous than he thought, many of his troops were still too far from the battle, and “most distressingly”, the Japanese moved faster than Slim expected.

While Slim was sorting out the battle on the Imphal plain, Japanese Maj Gen Kotaku Sato’s 31st Division made a lightning fast forced march thru the jungle toward Kohima, the halfway point on the crucial Dimapur to Imphal supply route. (Dimapur was Slim’s railhead and main logistics area). Slim’s box tactics allowed his soldiers to be cut off temporarily, but the loss of Kohima would prevent all ground supply from reaching Imphal and there wasn’t enough air transport in Southeast Asia and India to supply his four divisions. The 31st Division’s advance was rapid, but they were opposed by a single battalion from the Assam Regiment and some Assam policemen over the last 60 miles. They heroically delayed Sato for four critical days before the Japanese could reach Kohima.

Those four days allowed Col. Hugh Richards to organize an ad hoc defense of Kohima centered on the ridge east of the road. Thousands of noncombatants were evacuated and any soldiers who knew how to handle a rifle were organized into units and dug in. Richards had only the 2500 soldiers, including 450 men of the 4th Bn of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, part of a heaven sent Rajput machine gun Bn, 400 men of the Shere Regt of the Royal Nepalese Army, the remains of the Assam Bn (when they arrived from delaying the Japanese) and 500 convalescents and transients from the hospital and way station in Kohima, to fight the 13,500 approaching Japanese. On 3 April 1944, the Japanese surrounded the town. The Battle for Kohima began the next day.

For the next 13 days, the besieged Allies faced suicidal but effective human wave assaults, and brutal hand to hand combat all along Kohima Ridge. Rajput machine guns and British artillery melted down because of their rapid and continuous fire in the 120 degree heat. The battle eventually focused on the Allies’ critical vulnerability: water. By 16 April, the Allies were down to one pint of water per man per day. Eventually, the thirsty remnants of Richard’s defenders were forced back into a 500m by 500m box on Garrison Hill which contained a small spring outside of the old district commissioner’s house. The only thing separating the spring from the Japanese was the commissioner’s garden and tennis court. On the night of 16/17 AprIl, the Japanese, who had suffered 8000 casualties by this point, tried one last banzai charge across the tennis court to capture the spring. The “Battle of the Tennis Court” raged all night, but by dawn it was obvious the Japanese would not succeed.

On the 19th, the Indian 161st Brigade of the British 2nd Division, attacking from Dimapur, broke through to Garrison Hill. The next day, the Japanese dug in and prepared for the inevitable Allied counterattack.

The Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino. The Poles Discover the Key to Cassino, Point 593

The British and Americans knew the destruction of the Abbey at Monte Cassino in February changed the calculus of the battle, though they did not realize its extent. The key to the Liri Valley and Route 6 to Rome was the town of Cassino; the key to Cassino was Castle Hill, the key to Castle Hill was Hangman’s Hill; and the key to Hangman’s Hill was the Abbey itself. Since the clumsy and brutish destruction of the Abbey allowed the Germans to fortify it, the Brits and Americans assumed that it needed to be the focus of the battle. But as the Germans suspected, and the Italians knew, that this was not the case: the key to the Abbey was actually Point 593, which was a small hillock just to the northwest on Snakeshead Ridge.

In the previous three battles, a supporting attack was always launched against Pt 593, but only to prevent enfilading fire on the main attack or tie down counterattack forces, not to capture it. When the Polish II Corps received the mission to take the Abbey, the corps’s staff naturally started its mission analysis. During their initial intelligence preparation of the battlefield, a young analyst did his research on the area and noticed the ruins of a small 17th century Papal star fort on Pt 593. But why was that star fort in such an inaccessible location? Digging into the history of the area for the answer, he found that the star fort (and presumably the earlier medieval keep ruins beneath it) provided a last desperate refuge for the monks during Italy’s turbulent past. Control of the star fort by the monks ensured that if it wasn’t also captured, the Abbey was untenable. The analyst studied the terrain further and found that the Allies could reverse engineer the battle: If Pt 593 fell, the Abbey would fall; if the Abbey fell, Hangman’s Hill would fall; if Hangman’s Hill fell, Castle Hill would fall; if the Castle fell, Cassino would fall. And if Cassino fell, the Road to Rome through the Liri Valley was open.

So think of the Abbey as a typical suburban American house. The star fort on Point 593 was (and still is) a sort of combination storage shed and fortified zombie apocalypse safehouse in the back corner of the monastery backyard. Also, it butt’s up against the back fence (Snakeshead ridge), so unless you climb over the back fence, you can’t approach the shed (Pt 593) except through the house (the Abbey).

In that context, think of the Liri Valley as the street the house is on. Throughout the Monastery’s 1500 year history, any army wishing to drive down the street, i.e. exit or enter the Liri Valley to capture Naples or Rome, had to secure the Monstaery because it dominated traffic on the street. To do this some secured Papal approval because the Monastery was property of the Papal States, governed directly by the Roman Catholic Church. But most chose to capture the Abbey.

These historic encounters usually followed a similar pattern. The attackers would initially try storming the hill, and inevitably fail. There would then be a siege. Shortly thereafter, the attackers would get restless because they were wasting time and resources on the Monastery that would be required for use on Rome or Naples. So they would get impatient and launch multiple costly assaults, which would wear down the monks and their defenders. When capture was imminent, the monks would then retire to the small fortress on Pt 593 and the attackers would flood victoriously into the Monastery. That was, until they got into the backyard and were stopped cold by the defenders on Pt 593. The star fort on Pt 593 made the northwest corner of the abbey untenable and the space between the monastery and the fort a killing ground, i.e. the backyard in our house simile.

Now here’s the true genius of Pt 593: Occupying it could only tangentially affected the Liri Valley. Attackers that captured the monastery but not Pt. 593 could enter and exit the Liri Valley at will, even with the monks still occupying the back corner of the backyard. However, it was to the backyard of the Monastery what the Monastery was to the Liri Valley: As the Monastery made passage in the Valley difficult, Pt 593 made the northwest portion of the Monastery grounds untenable. So naturally, the attackers looked at Pt 593, then looked at the valley, then looked back at Pt 593 and said, “Screw this, I’m not attacking that, I’m done with this place. We need to move onto Rome (or Naples).” And the invaders would invariably move on to Rome or Naples, and leave a token force to keep the monks isolated in the star fort. This was the signal for the monks to make the attackers lives miserable until they either left, or were weakened sufficiently that the monks could burst forth from Pt 593 and slaughter them. In either case, the monks would then reclaim the Abbey, clean up the debris, restock the library, and resume the Rule of St Benedict, at least until someone else wanted to enter or exit the Liri Valley without the Pope’s permission.

In the mid twentieth century, this all changed. Modern engineering, improved and efficient aerial and ground logistics, proper reconnaissance and modern firepower lessened the formidability of the terrain. Snakehead Ridge was still impassable to vehicles and even to mules in some places, but the French in January proved that that was no barrier to a successful assault, if you had prepared properly, conducted a sufficient recce, surprised your enemy, had a touch of élan, and most importantly, threw a ton of soldiers at it.

To deceive the Germans, the Polish II Corps planned to execute the same plan as the Indians and Kiwis before them. But since they had a larger force along the same frontage, they would weigh the attack on Pt 593 from over Snakeshead Ridge, thereby breaking the historic cycle, by taking Pt 593 before the Abbey. As the monks knew, this would make the backyard and NW side of the Abbey untenable, but this time not for the attackers, but for the defenders, the Germans.

The young Polish analyst presented his findings, and the Corps operations officer issued initial reconnaissance guidance to confirm it. Unfortunately, the Poles were not yet in the line at Cassino and moreover, Operation Nunton forbade any patrolling to minimize the risk of capture. But MajGen Wladyslaw Anders, the Polish II Corps’ Commander, was so intrigued with the information that on 5 April 1944, he personally undertook a dangerous low level aerial reconnaissance of the area. Though he was nearly killed for his efforts, he confirmed the analyst’s assessment and issued his commander’s planning guidance accordingly. Disconcertingly, he found that the Germans turned the area around the ruins of the star fort in a hellish maze of mines, wire, interlocking fields of fire, and preregistered artillery. On the other hand, he also saw it was possible, if improbable, to capture Pt 593 from the north and northeast, but only if the attack was properly planned and coordinated. Unlike the Americans, the British, the Indians, and the Kiwis; the Poles’ main objective during the Battle for Monte Cassino would be Point 593, not the Monastery itself.

Introducing #Scharnhorst: The Vision of an Enlightened Soldier “On Experience and Theory”

When the officer in the General Staff has received a good education in times of peace, in times of war he will quickly become useful in many roles. But without a good education in times of peace, an officer in the General Staff will never achieve anything significant in war. For the latter requires judgement, which is developed through repeated study of military incidents, and a great amount of past facts that we have to keep in mind. These are necessary if we wish, in all cases that occur, thanks to resemblance in circumstances, to be able to judge to some degree the success of an enterprise and avoid the mistakes experience could discover––if we wish to consult all the special circumstances and among the numerous possibilities to choose the most beneficial ones. Nothing in this case is more dangerous than one’s own experience without the understanding with which military history provides us. The few instances of this personal experience now become the yardstick, and all similar occurrences are judged according to them, even if the circumstances and the results are marked by a greater diversity.

I have often seen how deficient, in terms of providing advice, those perform who apply only the facts they have personally experienced. How uncertain and fearful they are in undertaking something the circumstances require, but they have never encountered in the span of their life. These people do not know what one should dare in war. Through reminiscences of a hundred possible but unlikely disasters, they make the general they support anxious. They would, perhaps, never dare an audacious thought because no similar case from history, crowned with success, gives them the necessary confidence. — GERHARD VON SCHARNHORST

https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/4/1/introducing-scharnhorst-the-vision-of-an-enlightened-soldier-on-experience-and-theory

The Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino: Operations Nunton and Diadem

Gen Harold Alexander, the Allied commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, was exasperated with Gen Mark Clark’s unimaginative and uncoordinated attacks on Monte Cassino, and his failure to capture it despite three attempts and the priority of support in the theatre. Moreover, the landing at Anzio was at a stalemate. It was obvious that the forces at Anzio were not going to come to the rescue of those at Monte Cassino, but those at Monte Cassino needed to break through to come to the aid of those at Anzio. Finally and most importantly, Alexander knew that he would only have one more “go” at Monte Cassino before the priority of men and material went to Operation Overlord, the upcoming invasion of France in May. The fourth battle for Monte Cassino had to succeed or any chance of capturing Rome before autumn, or even winter, would be nonexistent and Germany would be able to shift troops from Italy to resist the invasion of France.

Alexander’s staff produced Operation Diadem, a massive coordinated attack involving all Allied troops in Italy. To gain the necessary mass and concentration, Alexander stopped all operations along the Adriatic coast, and to Clark’s relief, had the British Eighth Army take over the area around Monte Cassino. Alexander then shifted the American 5th Army south west and told Clark to focus on Anzio. The 5th Army units still in the south would nominally be Clark’s but would actually support the Eighth Army whose boundary was extended to the Liri Valley.

Alexander, ever a fan of Lord Horatio Nelson, took to heart Nelson’s quip prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, “Only numbers can annihilate”. He had to do just that in order to prevent the Germans from falling back to the next mountain defensive line and repeating the bloodbath of the last four months. Alexander planned to use entire Allied corps to seize areas that were division objectives in Clark’s operations. The US Second Corps would attack up the Tyrrhenian coast road. French Gen Alphonso Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps would attack over the impassable Aurunnci Mountains that formed the southern shoulder of the Liri Valley. While the British XIII Corps would attack over the northern shoulder. The Canadian I Corps would be in reserve to exploit the breach, and it fell to the 75,000 men and women of the Polish II Corps to seize the Monastery.

An ambitious plan of this size and scope took a month to prepare and required the movement of hundreds of thousands of troops, all of which had to be in secret. On 2 April, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Nunton to deceive the Germans as to the Allies’ preparations over the next five weeks for Diadem. Nunton consisted of thousands of fake radio messages, and dummy vehicle parks and supply depots around Naples in order to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning another amphibious invasion north of Rome. Additionally, Nunton encouraged the Germans to believe that the units to their front were not being reinforced or replaced.

Operation Nunton was wildly successful. The Germans didn’t suspect another assault to open the Liri Valley and had no idea the Allied troops to their front had shifted and were reinforced. For example, Juin’s, 50,000 strong French Expeditionary Corps with their diverse colonial troops and distinctive uniforms had to move from vic Monte Cairo to below the Liri Valley, a distance of 15 miles, and the Germans never suspected a thing. Alexander tripled the number of soldiers in the attack zones for Operation Diadem, set to launch concurrently with Operation Overlord in May.

The Third Battle of Monte Cassino: the New Zealand Corps is Dissolved

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, March 1944

On 23 March 1944, bad weather, heavy casualties, and signs of complete exhaustion slowed the Allied attacks against Monastery Hill. But Kiwi MajGen Bernard Freyberg was determined to take it and ordered further attacks. Freyberg was an excellent division commander, probably the best in the theatre, but he was out of his depth as a corps commander. He was brave to a fault and his troops loved him because he saw to their welfare, but his brash personal style of leadership caused chaos in the corps headquarters.

Greatly concerned, the Allied commander in Italy, British Gen Harold Alexander, came down to Freyberg’s headquarters to assess the situation. When he saw the extent of the devastation to the New Zealand Corps, he said one word to its adamant commander, “Passchendaele”. 27 years before during the First World War, almost an entire generation of Canadian young men were killed off in fruitless attacks against a strong German position in the Battle of Passchendaele. The word struck Freyberg like a slap across the face. A veteran of that war, he immediately called off the offensive.

Three days later on 26 March, what remained of the New Zealand Corps was rolled in the British XIII Corps. The Third Battle of Monte Cassino was over.

The Third Battle of Monte Cassino

New Zealanders at the Third Battle of Monte Cassino

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Los Negros

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

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

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

There were over 4000 Japanese waiting on the islands.

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

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

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

The Battle of the Alamo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merrill’s Marauders

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

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

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

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

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