Category: History

The Battle for Wireless Ridge

The British 3rd Commando Brigade “yomped” across East Falkland Island and successfully assaulted and occupied the five hill masses that surrounded Port Stanley to the west. The 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (3 Para) seized Mt Langdon with some difficulty, but was fixed by accurate Argentine artillery fire and could not continue on to seize its eastern most spur, Wireless Ridge, whose occupation would render Argentine defenses on Mt Tumbledown untenable, and isolate Port Stanley from the north. The task to seize Wireless Ridge was given to 2 Para, who was fifteen kilometers away on the slopes of Mt Kent as the brigade reserve.

On the evening of 13 June 1982, 2 Para yomped the 15 km to its assault positions north of Wireless Ridge. 2 Para’s new commander, Lt-Col David Chaudler who was flown in from Britain (!) and replaced the former commander killed at Goose Green, vowed that the battalion would not attack without adequate fire support again. So in support, 2 Para was allocated a generous allotment: two batteries of 105mm tube artillery, 3 Para’s mortars, two Scimitar tanks (skinny), two Scorpion light tanks (stubby… you know what I am talking about… The cards, man, the cards) from the Blues and Royals, and the 4.5 in deck gun of HMS Ambuscade (One of my favorite words. We need to get the term “ambuscade” into doctrine).

Just after midnight, 2 Para assaulted on line after a diversionary attack on Mt Tumbledown by the Scots Guards, and a short but vicious preparatory bombardment on the dug in Argentine positions. D Co would actually assault Wireless Ridge, while other companies seized the small hillocks to the north. The assault on Wireless Ridge was tactically polar opposite from Goose Green. Argentine resistance was systematically rooted out by superior firepower, by the light tanks, artillery, mortars and machine guns, upon contact. The Argentinian soldiers of the 7th Infantry Regiment usually broke before they were engaged in close combat with 2 Para infantry. There were four exceptions.

The first was not by 7th Inf Regt soldiers, but by a platoons worth of troopers from the Argentinian 2nd Airborne Regiment on their way to Mt Longdon, who counterattacked west directly into D Co as it assaulted east. D Cofought them off over the next several hours. The second exception was a dismounted counterattack by the crews of aa armored car squadron (read “troop” or “company”), which was annihilated by heavy machine guns and the Scorpions and Scimitars. The third attack by the Argentinians was by a bypassed 7th Infantry Regiment platoon who struck the flank platoon of D Co which was led by a brand new lieutenant fresh from school. The Argentinian platoon leader was furious after hearing his friend was killed, and rallied his men to counterattack. They nearly overran their adversaries, but were brought under intense and accurate fire support by the British platoon commander, who had to drop down to the fire support net in the confusion and coordinate his own support. D Co (the main effort) didn’t have a forward observation officer (?), and the other FOO’s were prioritizing their missions. The young platoon commander just asserted himself into the net, and probably saved D Co a very bad morning.

The fourth and final Argentine counterattack came as the sun came up. 200 Wireless Ridge survivors and staff officers were rallied by the 10th Brigade operations officer and formed a hasty defense on the west side of Port Stanley. Since about 4 am, the remaining Argentine artillery fired on Wireless Ridge. As dawn broke about six, 50 members of the ad hoc defense, led by the 7th Inf Regt executive officer and regimental chaplain, assaulted the ridge with fixed bayonets under cover of the bombardment. The Paras were initially flabbergasted at the lines of Argentinian infantry singing as they advanced, but they were eventually beaten back with great losses.

The failure of the impromptu Argentinian dawn assault broke the Argentine defenses and the Argentinian infantry to the south and west on Mt Tumbledown routed and fled back to Port Stanley. That evening the Argentinian commander in the Falkland Islands, with no further help from the mainland, recognized the futility of the situation and surrendered. The British reoccupied the South Sandwich Islands, the last Argentinian conquest in the South Atlantic on 20 June, and both sides declared an end to the hostilities.

The Fall of Tobruk. 

During the night of 19-20 June 1942 Rommel discontinued his feigned pursuit of the retreating British and masterfully turned around his four best divisions, the veterans of the old Deutches Afrika Korps: the 90th Light, 15th and 21st Panzer, and the Italian armored division Ariete. That night they moved from an all-out pursuit and prepared to assault Tobruk. At 5:30 am 20 June, every Luftwaffe bomber in the Eastern Mediterranean struck the south east corner of Tobruk perimeter and the defending unit, the 11th Indian Brigade, broke under the combined arms assault by Italian infantry and artillery with German tanks and planes. Confusion in the British headquarters would not allow the numerically superior South Africans to reposition forces from uselessly defending against an amphibious assault, or from the south and west to counter the threat. By nightfall on the 20th, the Germans secured the port.
The next day, the British surrendered. 30,000 Commonwealth troops marched into captivity and it was the second largest surrender in British history after the fall of Singapore some months earlier. In the last six months, the Japanese captured Malaya and Singapore despite being significantly outnumbered, and ignobly ran the British out of Burma with barely better odds. Operation Crusader had six months of dedicated support and priority within the entire British Empire and Rommel erased those painstaking gains in a matter of weeks: first in January, and then in June. The Australians and Poles held Tobruk against all odds for nearly nine months; The British Army gave it away in two days. Any reputation for competence and fighting prowess held by the British Army was gone.

Rommel would tell the captured officers, “Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.” He was promoted to Field Marshal shortly thereafter; Rommel was a lieutenant colonel just four years before.

Winston Churchill, in Washington DC meeting with President Roosevelt, called the Fall of Tobruk “a shattering and grievous loss”. He would say to Roosevelt that “I am the most miserable Englishman in America since Burgoyne” (the British general who surrendered at Saratoga during the American Revolution).

Churchill commented in his memoirs that 21 June 1942 was the worst day of World War II.

The Monterey Pop Festival

America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.

By the late sixties, the Vietnam War had reached a fever pitch and tens of thousands of young men were drafted at random every month. Without knowing whether they were going to be drafted, with the possibility of returning home in a metal coffin as hundreds were by 1967, Rock and Roll was first an escape, then a cultural force unequaled so far in American history.

In early 1967, music promoters in Monterey, California wanted to capitalize on this phenomenon. They wanted to do for Rock and Roll what they did for Jazz with the Monterey Jazz Festival: bring together the best acts in the country to a single venue. This had never been done before on this scale. In 1965 and 66, Rock and Roll occupied that holy trifecta of the music industry: it was the best written and most creative music, it was the most popular, and you could dance to it. Furthermore, by having it in the same venue as the respected jazz and folk festivals, it would legitimize Rock and Roll as a serious musical genre.

The first act the Monterey Pop Festival promoters contacted was biggest live band of 1966, The Mamas and the Papas. However, the Jazz template was barely large enough for them, much less the who’s who of Rock and Roll that were on the list to be invited. The Mamas and the Papas’ producers and managers expanded the scope of the festival, spread the performances over three days, and then got about the business of herding the eclectic group of the biggest names in Music to Monterey.

The response was unheard of and the heavy advertising meant fans of all kinds began to arrive. By early June, 1967, the original promoters and the city of Monterey began to get cold feet. The Age of Psychedelia was upon America and the Summer of Love was all around. The hippies of San Francisco were descending upon the city in ever increasing numbers for the festival. The city commissioned a song, “San Francisco”, (you know, the one with the silly line, “…gentle people with flowers in their hair…”) to be used in a commercial to remind the festival goers that violence, squalor, and vandalism does not equal peace, love, and harmony. That public service announcement would become one on the biggest hits of the year (San Francisco was a big hit with many Vietnam vets: San Francisco was the first stop on the return trip back from Vietnam) The advertising campaign worked and the police and security found themselves wielding bouquets not batons.

On 16, 17, and 18 June 1967, almost a hundred thousand spectators arrived to listen to and watch the best live Rock and Roll bands in the world. The Monterey Pop Festival immediately revolutionized the industry and became the template for every music festival since. Without it there would be no Coachella, no Woodstock, no Lollapalooza, or no Punk Rock Bowling. Monterey wasn’t the first music festival, but it was the first filmed and the resulting documentary made it the standard. Careers were launched based on their performances and many would go on to be household names, while some bands would fade into obscurity after cracking under the cultural pressure. Many performers would cement their place in Rock and Roll history with their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Of the thirty or so bands that played, including Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Byrds, and The Grateful Dead, five acts in particular stood out.

The first and possibly the biggest surprise was Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. “She didn’t just sing with her voice; she sang with her whole body” commented a newspaper review. After just one song, The Mamas and the Papas, watching in the audience, knew they were no longer the biggest act on the West Coast.

The next was Otis Redding. Unlike today, Rock and Roll was a unifying force with artists either consciously or unconsciously introducing their culture to their audiences, no matter the color of any of their skins. Otis Redding just moved from gospel music to R&B and his appearance was his “coming out”. He stunned the crowd and sang with such soulfulness, that it was as if he knew he wouldn’t last the year.

The third act to steal the show were the British invasion late arrivals, The Who. Though Pete Townsend and Keith Moon had been destroying their instruments for years in Britain, Pete’s first smashed guitar in America sent shock waves though the audience, and catapulted The Who to instant superstardom.

Another shocker was Jimi Hendrix who electrified the audiences with his guitar. At the end of his set, Jimi doused his guitar in lighter fluid, and set it on fire. He then got down his hands and knees and worshiped the flaming instrument like a pagan god – the High Priest of Rock and Roll in front of a hundred thousand disciples.

The last act to steal the show was not at all pleased with Hendrix’ theatrics. The 47 year old Master Sitarist Ravi Shankar was appalled at the flaming guitar and saw it as a desecration. The former court musician of the Indian Raj was the most unlikely Rock and Roll star; nonetheless, Shankar stole the show and held the audience enraptured. His music is most associated with the mind expanding psychedelia of the time, but at the festival, he did the unthinkable: asked the audience to stop doing drugs, implying that they couldn’t truly appreciate the music while high. And they did, at least for a bit.

Ravi Shankar’s presence at the Monterey Pop Festival highlighted the fact that the biggest band on the planet, the Beatles, were not actually playing live at the festival. He had almost single handedly invented World Music after taking the Beatles’ George Harrison as a pupil, and their absence was noticeable. The Beatles were there: high as kites and partying three days straight, but they never got on stage.

By late 1966, the Beatles were the best studio musicians in the business, bar none. They wrote the most innovative, most creative, most technically difficult music heard in generations. But that creativity came at a price: it sounded like shit on stage.

Many of their latest songs required facilities and back up only found in a studio. There was no place for an accompanying orchestra on a stage. These were the days of Eleanor Rigby and Sgt Pepper, not a Hard Days’ Night and I Want To Hold Your Hand. Their recently released Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and is, the greatest studio album ever released and will continue to be so until we invent new musical instruments or aliens give them to us, and even then we’ll have our work cut out for us. But as great as Sgt Pepper is, it couldn’t be played on stage, at least not in 1967 nor could their previous two albums.

By then the Beatles hadn’t played live for some time. Sgt Pepper was written specifically because they knew if they got on that stage at Monterey their mystique would be ruined. They decided to ditch the limitations and showmanship of the stage, for the expansive creativity of the studio and the business of selling records. The chose the science of the studio over the art of entertainment. They needed a studio album to compete with the Festival and to remind everyone they existed even though they weren’t on stage in the biggest rock concert of the century. Sgt Pepper was the first Pop album.

Popular music is a fiscal contract between a producer of a popular product in the most convenient media format and a consumer who is the best judge of the various merits of that product. Rock and Roll is a social contact between band and fan separated only by bright lights, stacks of speakers, and an elevated dais. Sgt Pepper and the Monterey Pop Festival created an irrevocable and irreparable divide in music. The bands that played Monterey influenced the development of rock and roll and its countless sub genres. The disciples of the mastery of Sgt Pepper, who didn’t or couldn’t play at Monterey, mostly because their studio albums couldn’t be replicated on stage, influenced pop.

The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it

The Stars and Stripes

After the victories of Trenton and Princeton, the Continental Army swelled with new recruits and the skirmishing between foraging parties and raiding between patriots and loyalists over the winter and spring of 1777 was fierce. In early spring, LTG George Washington moved the Continental Army out of winter quarters and encamped at a strong position at Middlebrook, New Jersey to prevent Gen William Howe’s British Army in New York from moving on Philadelphia overland. 1777 was expected to be the decisive year. Washington needed every advantage he could muster and mitigate every issue possible. One small issue was the Continental Army’s colors. 

The Grand Union Flag which by this time was carried by the majority of the Continental regulars caused quite a bit of confusion. It had a Union Jack in the upper left corner on a field of alternating red and white stripes. Many patriots disliked the flag by 1777. Some saw it as a loyalist flag, including British troops. Moreover, it didn’t look particularly different from the Union Jack on the battlefield. At the very least, the Grand Union flag didn’t symbolize a complete break from Great Britain as was promised by the Declaration of Independence. Washington needed a new flag. In response to Washington’s request, on 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first flag law. It read, “Resolved. That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” 

This resolution left quite a bit to the imagination, such as the size and location of the blue field, the position of the stars, even the shape of the flag and the direction of the stripes. These details were filled in, not by Betsy Ross as in the popular American myth, but by Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration and Congressional delegate from New Jersey. 

Hopkinson was a talented designer and had a keen interest in designing the symbols for the new Republic. It was his recommendation that the blue field with stars replace the Union Jack in the Grand Union flag carried by the Continental Army. Although his first design was not a circle but alternating columns of two and three stars. This meant that the current colors could easily be “fixed”, without the problems of sewing a brand new flag and replacing the existing ones. (Hopkinson would go on to design just about every American symbol from the Great Seal to the dollar bill.) 

Whether the first original flag of the new United States of America was sewn by Betsy Ross is so far lost to history. The entire Betsy Ross story is based on a single written testimony by her grandson given nearly a hundred years later in 1870. The story is not backed up by any physical evidence or written records whatsoever: no committee records, no bills of payment, and no journal entries in anyone’s diary or memoirs. Nothing. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that there is no solid evidence for it at all. The first flag had to be sewn by someone, Betsy Ross is as good a choice as any, and better than most.

The British began their invasion of the United States the same day as the flag resolution, 14 Jun 1777, when Gen John Burgoyne and his Indian allies crossed into New York from Canada, and Howe began a series of maneuvers against Philadelphia. 1777 would be a momentous, if frustrating, year for America. To meet the threat, the Continental Army would have a new flag for her regiments to rally around: a flag of thirteen alternating red and white stripes with a blue field in the corner upon which there was a circle of thirteen white stars.

The original Stars and Stripes of the United States of America.

The Battle of Gazala: Black Saturday. 

The failure to capture the Free French defensive “box” at Bit Hacheim greatly delayed and disrupted Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Gazala offensive. The Germans and Italians broke though the British lines above Bir Hacheim but couldn’t exploit the breach. Rommel’s forces formed what became known as “The Cauldron” while they waited for the Free French position to be reduced which would allow the Axis mechanized and motorized forces to proceed east without a worry to their flank and rear.
The British Eighth Army launched their armoured brigades at the Cauldron according to their commander, Lieut Gen Neil Ritchie’s plan, Operation Aberdeen, but the Germans cut them to pieces when they neared the screen of 88mm anti tank guns. As the British approached, they were accurately engaged by the longer ranged 88mm guns, and in the confusion, counterattacked by Rommel’s panzers. Moreover, the British counterattacks were uncoordinated brigade sized assaults, of which Rommel commented, “if you attack me in penny packets, then I shall defeat you in detail.” The failure of the Operation Aberdeen allowed Rommel to take the time to reduce Bir Hacheim in a deliberate manner. 
Bir Hacheim fell on 9 June 1942, and Rommel unleashed the Afrika Korps two days later on the southern and eastern end of the British Gazala Line, on 11 June. 
Even though the Germans were attacking this time, Rommel’s tactics worked just as effectively as they had during Operation Aberdeen. As the German and Italian tanks approached the boxes at Knightsbridge and El Adem, the British tanks charged forward in the grandest tradition of the Scots Greys and Household Cavalry to engage them. They were then consistently massacred by the waiting 88mm anti tanks guns, in position due to superior German radio intercepts, then mopped up by the panzers. With the only British counterattack threats neutralized, Rommel went about systematically reducing the remaining defensive boxes, rendering the Allied defenses to the north and west untenable. 
On 13 June 1942, the British lost nearly 400 tanks, and the Knightsbridge box fell. Rommel’s panzers were now in a position to isolate the port of Tobruk, and more importantly cut off the remainder of the British Eighth Army on the coast road and Gazala Line. The damage to the Eigth Army was so extensive that many troops referred to 13 June 1942, as “Black Saturday”. Gen Claude Auchlinek, the commander of all Allied troops in the Western Desert, authorized Ritchie to withdraw from the Gazala Line to a position south of Tobruk, and if that couldn’t be held, to the Egyptian frontier. 
The Gazala Line was broken. British, Commonwealth, and Allied troops streamed east, and in some cases counterattacked east. Rommel wouldn’t relent on his assaults and the Eighth Army had no time to consolidate a defensive line anchored on Tobruk. The British fled further east to reach the safety of the bottlenecks on the Egyptian frontier: whether Mersa Matruh, or the small town of El Alamein. 
The painstaking gains made by Operation Crusader the year prior were erased in less than three weeks. Despite superiority in men, tanks, artillery, and equipment of all kinds, Ritchie could not contain Rommel. He lost nearly a thousand tanks, including almost all of his new lend lease American Grant tanks, and left Rommel with the initiative. The Battle of Gazala was Rommel’s finest moment, though it was almost entirely due to his cryptanalysts and 88mm anti aircraft guns used in a now familiar role. Nonetheless, through Rommel’s leadership, the Axis troops leveraged their asymmetrical advantages against his adversaries’ self imposed constraints, namely limiting the size of the armoured formations, to great effect.
The Germans and Italians would capture countless tons of much needed Allied equipment, and chased the British far into Egypt. The advance would call into question the need for Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta, then in its final preparations. Tobruk would fall under siege a second time. 
Tobruk had held out the year before for nine months, but it would not do so again.

The Diary of Anne Frank

On 12 Jun 1942, a young Dutch girl received a red and white plaid covered diary from her father for her 13th birthday. 
She would start recording her thoughts in it a week or so later. Her father picked the diary out based on her pointing it out on one of their walks along the streets of Amsterdam. That walk would be one of their last. 
Otto Frank and his daughter, Anne, were Jews. In July 1942, the Netherlands’ German National Socialist conquerers and their Dutch collaborators would place great restrictions on them in preparation for the implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish population in the country.
The plight of the Dutch Jews was a difficult one. Unlike other countries, the huge population density of the Netherlands meant there were few places to escape to. There were no vast forests for refuge as there were in Eastern Europe. Also, the advanced Dutch civil bureaucracy had records on the entire Jewish population of the country and the Germans quickly identified and located them all. Moreover, although the Dutch people were sympathetic to the Jewish plight under Nazi domination, the Dutch government was unwilling to publicly intervene on their behalf, even passively. Unlike in other countries, the Dutch administration did the bidding of their National Socialist overseers with cold efficiency. In exchange for continued employment, pay, and benefits, the supposedly apolitical Dutch civil service ushered the Jewish population to its death. Few Dutch Jews were detained by Germans: they were identified by Dutch census data, rounded up by Dutch police who went directly to their homes based on Dutch tax files, held in Dutch camps run by the Dutch civil servants and held there by Dutch guards, and sent East to the death camps on Dutch trains run by Dutch engineers and Dutch rail crews. 
Anne Frank and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis and their own countrymen. They hid in a small three story room concealed behind a bookshelf in her father’s workplace. They were taken care of by several of her father’s sympathetic coworkers who visited once a day to deliver food and stay for a visit. 
Anne chronicled each day in the cramped space in her diary. Her diary was her escape. She wrote of the dreams of a teenage girl, the boredom and difficulties of their existence, her love for and exasperation with her family, the terror of the listening to German soldiers and Dutch police searching the premises, her budding romance with the son of another family in hiding, and most importantly the hopes of survival in one of the darkest periods in human history. 
The Frank family survived in hiding for more than two years, almost each day chronicled by Anne. They were arrested by the Gestapo after being betrayed in August 1944, by whom is unknown and subject to much debate. Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz where she was separated from her father, but was not sent to the gas chamber with the rest of the children because she just turned 15 two months before. Nevertheless, Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen Belsen Concentration camp to be worked to death. They both died of typhus in March 1945. 
Anne Frank’s diary was saved by one of her family’s helpers after their arrest and recovered by her father who survived after being separated from his family. Anne Frank’s unedited record of her family’s existence behind the bookcase was published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl”.
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most poignant documents of the Holocaust, and Required Reading for Humanity. 

The Raid on Medway

The late seventeenth century saw a series of wars from the 1650s through the 1680s between two great European Powers, England and the Dutch Republic, for control of the world’s seas. Although victorious in the First Anglo-Dutch War, by 1667 the English couldn’t prevent a Second.

England had just experienced the Great Plague of 1664 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. When combined with the extravagant spending of King Charles’ court, the English Parliament had had enough. They simply couldn’t afford the navy anymore despite the Dutch threatening a grand alliance between itself, France, and Spain. The English decided to rely on diplomacy alone. The English Navy went into dock until it could be afforded again. The Dutch struck.

The English laid up their best and largest ships at Chatham on the Medway River south east of London at the mouth of the River Thames. On 9 June 1667, Admiral Michael De Ruyter led the Dutch fleet and the very experienced Dutch Regiment De Marine up the heavily fortified river on a daring raid to destroy what was left of the English Navy.

The Dutch marines stormed the surprised defenders of the fort at Sheerness, protecting the Mouth of the Thames. The actual anchorage at Medway was protected by a great chain at Gillingham, supported by a few warships and two hastily constructed gun batteries. But they did little to stop the determined Dutch. The only factor preventing the complete destruction of the entire English fleet was unfavorable winds, which prevented the fireships from closing the distance to the docks at Gravesend and Hope.

Fifteen of the last eighteen English ships of the line were destroyed, and the two largest, the HMS Royal Charles and HMS Unity, were towed back as trophies. It was the worst defeat in English naval history and they sued for peace soon after.

The Treaty of Breda was a great victory for the Dutch. They received many territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, includingrecovering most of what they were forced to cede in the First Anglo-Dutch War. The only piece of former Dutch territory the English kept was a small island they captured in North America: New Amsterdam. They promptly renamed the town on the island after James Stuart, Duke of York and governed it as the Province of New York.

The Battle of Messines

The failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the widespread mutinies in the French army forced the hand of the British Army. Sir Douglas Haig ordered his commanders to launch attacks along its front to draw away the German reserves, lest they exploit the French situation. The first operation was to reduce a small German salient on Messines Ridge opposite the British Second Army. The British and Canadians of the Second Army had been preparing for an offensive since the trenches stabilized after the Second Battle of Ypres nearly two years before. Recently reinforced by the Australians and New Zealanders, the Second Army had more than twenty mines painstakingly dug underneath Messines Ridge. Because of the geological conditions of the area, the mines took nearly a year to complete.
Due to the high water table of Flanders, each mine had to be dug straight down about 150 feet through the waterlogged “sandy clay”, to the “Bastard” clay mix, or “Paniselien Clay” which was impermeable to water. Then the mines had to be dug horizontally underneath No Man’s Land to the German lines. The issue was the great force the sandy clay placed on mine shafts. The tunnel companies of the Second Army lost more than a few men before they figured out that the vertical shafts had to be lined with specially made steel walls to prevent “flooding”. If one ruptured, then it would fill the entirety of the shaft and mine with thick oozing sandy clay, killing everyone inside, and requiring the tunnelers to start over in a different spot.

Throughout 1916 and 1917, the British mined underneath the Messines Ridge, and the Germans countermined, though the Germans did not realize how the extensive the British mining operation was. As the British dug horizontally, the Germans in several places dug vertically. Where they intersected involved vicious hand to hand combat with shovels, knives, and pick axes that would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The biggest danger was flooding by the Germans, inadvertently at first but deliberate later on: the Germans used timber for their shafts through the sandy clay, which ruptured regularly. If a German shaft connected with a British mine, the timber virtually guaranteed the entire British effort would be eventually flooded with the sandy clay “ooze”. By June 1917, the British had 25 mines underneath the Messines Ridge which the Germans were unaware of. They packed them with nearly 600 tons of explosives.

The British planned to detonate them on 7 June 1917 to seize the ridge as part of the reduction of the Messines Salient. This assault was a prelude to a general offensive in July. The night before, the chief of staff of the Second Army told the press, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography”.

Due to the heavy preparatory bombardment, the Germans were expecting the attack. However, they weren’t prepared for what came next. At 3:10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 of the mines were detonated. The other six were packed with explosives, but “lost” in the tunnel warfare, couldn’t be detonated, or were underneath positions that were evacuated (These would pose significant problems after the war, and several still haven’t been found). The resulting explosion was heard by the British Prime Minister as he toiled away at his desk in London, and as far away as Dublin, Ireland. It was the loudest recorded event in history until the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima 28 years later. The explosions knocked over just about every soldier and officer in the Second Army. They opened great craters in the Messines Ridge, and instantly killed nearly ten thousand German troops.

The remaining stunned Germans were in no shape to resist the subsequent assault. The British, Canadians and Australians all incorporated the lessons learned from the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. The Allied troops at the Battle of Messines seized all of their initial and subsequent objectives within hours. The Germans counterattacked but were unsuccessful.

The Messines Salient was in Allied hands, but there was no plan to exploit the success. Nonetheless, the Battle of Messines was the first Allied victory in the Great War where defensive casualties outnumbered offensive casualties and was a much needed boost to Allied morale.

Of the remaining mines, a thunderstorm detonated one in 1955, luckily killing just a cow. The remainder are still being located.

The Yorktown Dies Hard

The American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown was no stranger to pain and suffering. She had been officially “sunk” by the Japanese three times in the last month – once with the “Lady Lex” in the Coral Sea, but against all expectations, she managed to limp back to Pearl for repairs. And twice more the day before after the Japanese got over their initial surprise at her appearance north of Midway. Admiral Yamaguchi and the planes from the Hiryu were sure they “sunk” her in their first counterattack after the devastating American attack that sank the Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu. However the repair crews did such a good job that when the Japanese returned, they mistook her for the Enterprise and “sunk” her again. Each time her repair crews and damage control parties brought her back from the brink of death to fight another day. And they were determined to do so again.

The damage from the last attack was so extensive that Captain Elliot Buckmaster even ordered an “Abandon Ship”. But when she stubbornly refused to sink, he and his crew re-boarded the ship to continue repairs. A tug, the USS Vireo, was summoned from Pearl Harbor. A destroyer, the USS Hammann, pulled alongside to pump out water and provide electricity to the Yorktown’s repair crews during the long tow back to port. The crew worked all night and into the afternoon of 6 June.

However, at 3:30 pm, the Japanese submarine I-168 fired four torpedoes which sank the Hammann and damaged the Yorktown: this time fatally. Still, she remained afloat for another 15 hours, but with a terrible list to port. At 7:01 am, 7 June 1942, the list became too great and she rolled over. A submarine finally did what the full weight of the Japanese surface fleet and naval air arm couldn’t do: sink the Yorktown.

The Bedford Boys

President Roosevelt federalized the National Guard in early 1941 and in Virginia and Maryland that meant that the men of the 29th Infantry Division “The Blues and Grays” reported to their armories. All across Virginia, guardsmen mobilized and formed the historic 116th Infantry Regiment, the “Stonewallers”, so named because they traced their unit lineage to the 2nd Virginia Regiment. The 2nd Virginia was the senior regiment in Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate Brigade and was present during the brigade’s famous stand during the 1st Battle of Manassas. Company A, of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment was formed from citizens in the sleepy little town of Bedford, Virginia, population of about 3000.

Over the next three years, the 125 men of Company A trained together in Maryland, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary in 1942, and then trained in Scotland. In early 1944, they moved to the south coast of England, and trained some more, this time on amphibious operations and assaulting fortified positions in preparation for Operation Overlord. Due to normal transitions in any normal military unit, there were only 34 original members of the company that marched out of Bedford three years prior. The rest were replacements, though all of the officers and senior NCOs were still Bedford natives.

In the upcoming invasion of France, Company A was assigned Dog Green beach, the 116th’s western most section of Omaha Beach with objective of securing Exit D1: the Vierville draw. On 3 June, CPT Taylor Fellers and 1SG John Wilkes loaded their men onto the British troopship SS Empire Javelin. For the next two days, the seasick Stonewallers steamed in circles in the naval assembly area known as “Piccadilly Circus” waiting on The Word from Gen Eisenhower. On the night of June 5th, they got it, and the Empire Javelin headed south.

In the early morning hours of 6 June, 1944, the 116th loaded into their Higgins boats and began the approach to the beach. It was chaos. Higgins boats were everywhere and navigational errors were rampant. It was never completely sorted out, but at least they were headed toward Normandy.

Unfortunately for CPT Fellers, the Bedford Boys, and the rest of A Company, they were the only formation headed to the correct beach. The rest of the 116th was too far to the east. Two boats full of Rangers tagged along but the engineers that were supposed to land ahead of them and clear obstacles were nowhere to be seen. Looking out over the gunwale, CPT Fellers was horrified to see that there was nothing to his left. The only target for every German gun within 3/4 of a mile was A Company.

200 yards out the British coxswains couldn’t get any closer, one yelled “Up and at ‘em, boys!” and dropped the ramp. Within seconds a mortar exploded inside of a nearby boat and killed everyone. At least three German strongpoints, six MG 42 machine guns and hundreds of Mauser rifles zeroed in on the rest of A Company. Within ten minutes, 90 members of the company were casualties, including all of the officers and most of the NCOs. Only four soldiers would make it to the shingle, which was still two hundred yards from the bluffs that the Germans occupied. Most of the remaining soldiers survived by hiding in the surf and staying underwater while breathing through their nose, their nostrils being the only exposed part of their bodies. The Germans would eventually run out of targets and shoot the wounded to make sure they were dead. Those that the Germans didn’t kill were drowned as the tide came in. 19 of the 34 Bedford Boys were killed in the first minutes of the battle, including CPT Fellers and 1SG Wilkes, and the rest wounded to some degree. Three more would die later in the day.

The first death notifications came to Bedford Virginia about a week later. There were nine on the first day, and the rest were spread out over the next week. They came as Western Union telegrams and were delivered by cab drivers. The small town was devastated. There wasn’t a single person in the town who did not personally know someone killed between 0630 and 0640 on 6 June, 1944.

To honor the sacrifice the town made on that day, the National D-Day Memorial was established in Bedford on 6 June 2001.