Category: History

The Border Battles: The Battle of Dak To

 In 1967, the General Secretary of the North Vietnamese Communist Party Le Duan, and the new commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam, Tran Van Tra, felt that South Vietnam was ripe for revolution, contrary to what both Gen Westmoreland, the American Commander of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam and Võ Nguyên Giáp, the commander of the People’s Army of North Vietnam were saying. Both Tran and Le Duan felt that a general offensive during the Tet holiday would lead to a general uprising among the South Vietnamese. However, Giap was politically neutralized over the summer, and could not prevent Tran and Le Duan’s from carrying out their plan.
 
The first phase of the “Tong-Tan-cong-Noi-day” or “General Offensive, General Uprising”, called for North Vietnamese attacks along the borders with Laos and Cambodia in order to lure American units out of the interior of South Vietnam. In the late summer of 1967, the North Vietnamese began a series of division level operations with the short term objective of destroying an American brigade, but with the ultimate objective of pulling American units away from their bases and Vietnamese population centers.
 
The first such battle was for the area around Dak To in the Kontum province of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Four PAVN (People’s Army of [North] Vietnam) Regiments fortified the hills around Dak To in order to isolate and destroy the Special Forces base there. In October 1967, the American 173rd Airborne Brigade launched Operation Greeley to clear the PAVN troops from their fortifications among the jungle covered hills. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, elements of the 4th Infantry Division, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, the 42nd ARVN Regiment and various US and ARVN Special Forces were in close combat with the North Vietnamese regulars among the steep hills in what became known as “The Battle of the Slopes”. In late October, the North Vietnamese withdrew, but it was a ruse to lure the Americans into a deadly regimental sized ambush.
 
The hills around Dak To were honeycombed with tunnels, bunkers, and fortifications designed to withstand the heaviest American bombardments short of a direct hit from a B-52 strike. On 3 November 1967, the 173rd Airborne and supporting tough ARVN paratroopers launched Operation MacArthur specifically to seize the hills which dominated that stretch of the border with Cambodia, protect the vital Dak To airfield, and destroy the “fleeing” North Vietnamese. The 174th PAVN Regiment was waiting, dug deep into the hills.
 
By 19 November the 173rd and ARVN troops cleared most of the hills, but took heavy losses. The 173rd’s 1st Battalion 503rd Parachute Infantry (1/503rd) was wrecked nearly beyond repair, but the so were three PAVN regiments. That morning, 2/503rd moved overland to clear a hill where a CIDG company reported taking fire from bunkers the day before. The hill was 875 meters high.
 
Unbeknownst to the Sky Soldiers, the veterans of the 2nd Bn, 174th PAVN Infantry Regiment were watching from the steep slopes above. 2/503rd assaulted Hill 875 in a classic “two up – one back” formation since they could no longer put four rifle companies into the field. The assault was actually under tactical command of the senior infantry company commander on the ground, CPT Harold Kaufman, with the battalion commander circling above coordinating support. However, the “one back” company had to hold the landing zone so only two companies assaulted the heavily fortified hill held by an entire PAVN battalion. The initial attack met heavy resistance and only managed to get half way up the hill.
 
At 1400, the 174th sprung the trap. Its 1st and 3rd battalions surrounded and struck A Company who was securing the landing zone. Heavy machine gun fire, mortars, and B-40 rockets pounded the assaulting troops on the hill side. Kaufman immediately called off the assault and formed a perimeter, but he had about a hundred casualties, mostly dead or missing, of his original 300, and the North Vietnamese had overrun the landing zone. That evening six helicopters were shot down trying to deliver ammunition and take wounded off the bare slope. To make matters worse, a Marine A-1 Skyraider dropped two 500 lb bombs directly on the Americans, and caused 80 more casualties. It looked as if Tran and Le Duan would get their destroyed American unit.
 
The “friendly fire” decapitated the 2/503rd leadership on the ground. When the bomb hit, Kaufman and the two other company commanders and first sergeants were conversing on how to hold out for the night, until the relief column could get there in the morning. The errant airstrike killed or seriously wounded them all. Even worse, chaos broke out among the remaining troops who thought they were all going to die. Discipline broke down. The leadership of the battalion fell to the platoon leaders, with C Company commanded by a platoon sergeant, and they regained control of the men. For the rest of the night, one of the PLs called in artillery that ringed the small American perimeter like a palisade.
 
The next morning, the 173rd’s 4/503rd was still hours away. Desperate hand to hand fighting occurred all along the perimeter that morning, The 2nd Battalion men thought they were being sacrificed, but the North Vietnamese shot up so many American helicopters the day before that the 4th Battalion had trouble getting to an LZ near Hill 875. Also, the thick vegetation made the three km ruck difficult, and there was the threat of ambush every step of the way. The besieged 2nd Battalion men were outnumbered, out of water, out of medical supplies, and desperately low on ammunition.
 
The first relief wasn’t from the 4th Battalion though, but from a lone helicopter. Hovering 15ft off the ground, the 2nd Battalion’s executive officer, MAJ William Kelly, jumped out with the battalion surgeon and some of the the companies’ headquarters troops with ammunition and water. Shortly thereafter, the lead company of the 4th battalion fought its way over the dead bodies of the previous day’s battles, and through the attacking North Vietnamese. That night the rest of the relief battalion infiltrated into the perimeter. MAJ Kelly took command of the both battalions. The two battalion commanders circling overhead might have disagreed, but in reality they were just glorified fire support officers. Sometimes your men have to be able to look you in the eye.
 
The next day, the 4th Battalion assaulted the hill while the remnants of 2nd Battalion held the perimeter against the North Vietnamese at the base. The bunkers had to be cleared before any medical evacuation or resupply could be attempted for the cut off Americans. After fighting all day, the 4th Battalion managed to take the first line of trenches and bunkers, but it was enough for several helicopters to get in that night. On the 22nd the 173rd’s brigade commander forbade any further frontal assaults and ringed the perimeter with constant airstrikes and artillery. A battalion from the 4th Infantry Division was landed at the same landing zone that 4/503rd landed at two days before. A combined assault was scheduled to take the hill the next day.
 
On Thanksgiving morning, 1967, the North Vietnamese regimental commander decided that he had had enough. He mauled the Americans, but he had lost over a thousand men. Just before the American assault, he pulled his men off of Hill 875 through escape tunnels. Tran ordered the remaining PAVN troops around Dak To area back to Cambodia. Le Duan wouldn’t get his destroyed American brigade, though he came close.
 
The Battle of Dak To was some of the bitterest fighting of the Vietnam War. The Americans defeated the North Vietnamese, and badly, but the Battle of Dak To and those like it, such as the Siege of Khe Sahn, fulfilled Tran’s operational objective of pulling the Americans away from the population centers. More than half of American combat power in South Vietnam was along the borders of Laos and Cambodia when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive three months later in January, 1968.

Popski’s Private Army

British Col John Hackett was a light cavalryman born a hundred and fifty years too late. The open spaces of the Western Desert were prime territory for the raiding, reconnaissance and derring-do of the hussar of old. While at the Middle East GHQ recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Hackett was instrumental in forming the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service to operate deep behind German and Italian lines in Egypt and Libya.

Hackett knew talent when he saw it, and approached Major Vladimir Peniakoff to form his own group. Peniakoff was a Russian Jew who was also a Belgian citizen that enlisted in the British Army, after being turned down by the RAF and Royal Navy as too old. He was assigned to the recently disbanded Libyan Arab Desert Force. The Libyan ADF was a polyglot organization of native Arabs and Bedouins with British officers, who fought the Italians. However, the LADF was disbanded because the LRDG refused to work with them anymore as they were to ill-disciplined. Hackett found Peniakoff drunk in Cairo after coming back from a difficult LRDG mission, only to find his unit disbanded, his pay stopped, and himself unemployed. He gladly accepted Hackett’s request to start his own group.

Taking the best of the former members of the LADF and scouring the replacement depots, barracks, brothels, and bars of Cairo for men of “special qualifications”; Peniakoff formed the No. 1 Demolition Squadron and trained them to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and raiding behind German lines. The No. 1 Demolition Squadron consisted of Englishmen, Scots, Arabs, Bedouins, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, and Turks. His Arab signalmen couldn’t pronounce “Peniakoff” but they could pronounce “Popski” which was a buffoonish cartoon character in the army’s daily paper. “Popski” soon became Peniakoff’s nom de guerre.

To keep his motley crew in line, Popski had only one punishment for a disciplinary infraction or not performing a duty to standard: dismissal from the unit. This gave the unit an uncommonly high level of competence and espirit d’ corps, attributes that were much needed when operating alone in the unforgiving Libyan desert. Popski’s squadron used heavily armed but reliable jeeps and trucks which they treated like “ships on the sea” i.e. they carried everything they would need with them and required no support from anyone. The unit was self-contained and self-supporting: if a truck broke down and couldn’t be fixed or towed, it was left, along with the crew if there was no room on the other trucks.

On 9 December 1942, Col Hackett approached Popski and demanded he change his call sign because No1 Demolition Squadron was causing too many problems on the radio. Popski couldn’t think of anything. Hackett, exasperated, told him if he didn’t come up with a suitable name right away, he was going to call his unit “Popski’s Private Army”. “I’ll take it” and the PPA was born. For the next two years, Popski’s Private Army consistently raised havoc behind German and Italian lines, appearing where they were least expected and dashing off before the Germans could do anything about it. They were arguably one of the most effective (and daring) small units in the Mediterranean theater and their exploits read like a dime store adventure serial.

Lydia Darragh and the Battles of White Marsh

When General Sir William Howe’s British army occupied Philadelphia in 1777, he commandeered the house of a wealthy local patriot as his residence. The house wasn’t large enough to properly accommodate meetings with his officers, so he decided to seize the house across the street, belonging to the Irish Quaker Lydia Darragh, the local midwife. Darragh protested that she had already sent her children away and she herself had nowhere to go. Howe let her stay as long as she made her house available for British officers to rest, and she retire early if they had any evening meetings.

Although Darragh was Quaker and had family in the British Army, her oldest son was a soldier in the Continental Army and she despised the British. She routinely listened at the door of Howe’s evening meetings. On the night 3 December 1777, she heard of Howe’s plan to launch a surprise attack on Washington camped at White Marsh outside the city to the northwest.

The next morning, Darragh was granted permission to leave the city to purchase flour. On her way she met an American cavalry officer to whom she delivered the information about the impending attack. Washington planned to use the information to surprise the British and force them to fight another Bunker Hill-style battle on ground his choosing.

Washington was in desperate need of a morale boosting victory. Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga had some in the Continental Congress calling for Gates to replace Washington. Furthermore, the Continental Army was woefully under supplied and lacked shoes, clothing, and blankets for the coming winter. Desertion was becoming a problem. The arrival of Morgan’s Riflemen, and Glover’s and Patterson’s brigades from up north further exacerbated the supply situation, not to mention the morale situation as the Washington’s men hadn’t won a victory since Princeton the winter before. Darragh’s information was a God-send.

On the evening of 4 December 1777, Howe’s army departed Philadelphia in hopes that a night attack on Washington’s encampment would destroy the Continental Army. However just after midnight, Howe’s surprised light infantry encountered fully alert cavalry pickets and American skirmishers. Washington planned on engaging the British army, withdrawing in feigned confusion back to his entrenchments, fixing the British with a Bunker Hill style defense, and then attacking both flanks. Unfortunately Howe saw through the ruse.

For the next three days, both sides skirmished and jockeyed for position as Howe continually kept trying to out flank Washington’s strong entrenchments and Washington tried to force Howe into attacking them. The British got the better of the Americans in most engagements, but Howe couldn’t find a way to defeat Washington without doing exactly what Washington wanted him to do. To everyone’s surprise, Howe withdrew his men back to Philadelphia on the eighth of December. The shame of the withdrawal would lead to Howe’s resignation as commander in chief of the British Army in North America.

Though he still held the field of battle, the frustrated and disappointed Washington accepted that he would not be able to encamp his army in the warm houses of Philadelphia for the winter. He still had to monitor Howe so he needed to quarter for the winter relatively close to Philadelphia, but far enough away to preclude any surprise attack by the British. Washington chose a clearing along Valley Creek wherein resided a local iron forge, about twenty miles away from his encampment at White Marsh.

The trek from White Marsh took the exhausted and demoralized Continental Army almost eight days. On 19 December 1777, the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge.

Frederick the Great’s Masterpiece: The Battle of Leuthen

In the early days of the Seven Years War, known in the British colonies of North America as the French and Indian War, Prussia was surrounded and isolated by its enemies France, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Austria. Frederick II, King in Prussia’s only major ally was Great Britain. Unfortunately for Frederick, the British war would be conducted in India, the West Indies, the Americas, and especially on the high seas. King George II could offer no military assistance to the Prussians on the European continent. In 1757, the weight of numbers was immediately felt by Frederick and his small army. His initial invasion of Bohemia to knock Austria out of the war failed, the Russians over ran East Prussia, France steamrolled his small German allies to the west, and Austria was marching on Silesia to the south with a massive army from the heart of their empire.

Frederick however had two big advantages: he had interior lines of communication which allowed him to quickly shift his army to face the different threats, and his army was much more highly trained and disciplined than his opponents’. Knowing the French would be an easier target, he first engaged and mauled the French “mob” at the Battle of Rossbach; lest they fall upon him from behind as he moved to face the much larger and better trained Austrian Army. He then turned to face the Austrians.

At the town of Leuthen (Lutyia in modern Poland), Frederick’s 37,000 man force encountered the 80,000 strong army under Prince Charles of Lorraine. What Charles didn’t know was that the rolling hills around Leuthen were the Prussian Army’s primary drill grounds and maneuver training area. Every one of Frederick’s soldiers, officers and units had spent thousands of hours learning and mastering the rigid tactics of the eighteenth century linear battlefield there. And now they were going to fight a battle on the very ground they’d trained on.

On 5 December 1757, the two armies lined up opposite each other. In the early morning mist and fog common to Central Europe, Frederick disengaged from battle before it really even began. Prince Charles was surprised, but nonetheless let the Prussians leave unmolested, confident that Frederick would have to eventually face him. It would happen much sooner than he expected.

Frederick was just feigning retreat and marched south over the familiar terrain around the Austrians’ left flank without getting lost in the fog, all the while screened by the hills. Once south of the Austrians, Frederick’s entire highly trained army did the 37,000 man equivalent of a “Left Flank, March” and rolled up the Austrians from the south while the Austrians were still facing west. Unable to concentrate any sort of mass to the face the attack, the surprised and confused Austrians broke in short order.

The Seven Years War/French and Indian War would eventually become the planet’s first “World War” but because of the Battle of Leuthen, the next five years of that war would be fought on Prussian and British…and American terms.

The Battle of Tassafaronga

On 23 November, 1942, Vice Adm William, “Bull” Halsey was promoted to rank of admiral, with four stars on his collar. However, there was a shortage of four star rank in the South Pacific, so Halsey borrowed a pair of two star ranks from Marine Maj Gen Alexander Vandegrift, and had them welded together. The 1st Marine Division was recently replaced by MG Alexander Patch’s 23rd “Americal” Division on Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift was on Noumea for Halsey’s promotion ceremony. In a fitting tribute to the men who got him that fourth star, Halsey sent his three star ranks to the wives of Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott, both of whom were killed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the week before.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal delayed but didn’t end, RearAdm Raizo Tanaka’s Tokyo Express runs down the Slot. And Halsey still needed to put together another surface task force to stop him. A task force centered on Willis Lee and his battleship, the USS Washington, was the obvious choice. But when a battleship does break, it breaks big, and the Washington was still tied up for repairs. And sending a battleship admiral out without a battleship was akin to a demotion. The other choice was Thomas Kinkaid, but he was a carrier admiral, and on his way back to Pearl Harbor. Halsey had to find someone else.

Halsey reached deep into his bench and promoted his senior cruiser captain, Carleton Wright, to command the newly formed Task Force 67. However, Wright had never fought a night surface action before and nor had any of the captains of the ships that constituted the ad hoc Task Force 67, except the captain of the destroyer USS Fletcher. With the deaths of Scott and Callaghan, and the unjust sacrifice of Gil Hoover on the Helena, (Hoover was relieved of command for not stopping for survivors after the USS Juneau exploded. He felt the threat to the remaining battered and limping ships was too great. A decision even Halsey, who fired him, admitted later was the right call.) the hard won experience of the previous four months was lost. Kinkaid began rewriting American surface doctrine, but left before he was finished. Wright’s Task Force 67 might have had an impressive four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, but they were mostly brand new to the fighting off Guadalcanal. Raizo Tanaka was a grizzled veteran of Ironbottom Sound, and the American newcomers would pay a heavy price for their ignorance.

On 29 November 1942, the Cactus Air Force spotted Tanaka’s Tokyo Express run and Wright moved to intercept. Just before midnight on 30 November, the Fletcher made radar contact with the oblivious Japanese. However, Wright still wanted visual confirmation, and told his destroyer captains to hold fire on their torpedoes. For four critical minutes, the Japanese steamed forward unknowingly under observation from unseen American eyes. But the Americans didn’t do anything with that information. When Wright finally gave permission, Tanaka’s destroyers were already outside the optimum firing angle. Even worse, thirty seconds after “the tin cans launched their fish”, the cruiser Minneapolis opened fire alerting Tanaka to the nearby American presence.

The American cruisers hammered Tanaka’s lead destroyer, sinking it, but didn’t fire on any of the others. Tanaka quickly took advantage of the poor American fire control. He ordered a smoke screen from his flagship, and signaled to the rest “All Ship’s Attack”. His simple order not only caused every American torpedo to miss but brought his destroyers in line for a perfect torpedo run based on the American gun flashes. Tanaka’s heavily over matched destroyers put forty Long Lance torpedoes into the water in probably the most devastating torpedo spread in history.

The Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were hit by at least two torpedoes a piece and put out of action. Only the lighter Honolulu remained unscathed of Wright’s cruisers due to radical maneuvers made possible by her higher agility. The Minneapolis’ bow was nearly cracked off and hung low at a 70 degree angle. The New Orleans lost her bow forward of the No 2 turret, and the shock of the explosion killed everyone forward of the superstructure. The Pensacola was struck amidships and aviation fuel for her floatplane started a fire that raged throughout the ship. The Pensacola’s crew eventually contained the fires; the same couldn’t be said for the Northampton, whose fires eventually caused her to sink.

Japanese superiority in surface torpedo warfare was well known to Americans by late 1942. Thousands of Allied sailors had died finding that information out the hard way. Hundreds of pages of reports were filed on that very subject. In fact, Adm Togo won the Battle of Tsuchima using the same tactics nearly forty years before. Americans would claim later that Wright was successful because he prevented Tanaka from delivering supplies to the starving Japanese on Guadalcanal. But even with the addition of a single lost destroyer, Tanaka sank one cruiser, put three out of commission for at least a year, killed 400 America sailors and wounded nearly thousand more. That’s a high price to pay for a couple of days’ supply of food and ammunition.

Fortunately, the Battle of Tassafaronga was the last major surface action in the waters off Guadalcanal. The US Navy’s sacrifice over the previous four months convinced Yamamoto that Ironbottom Sound could no longer be contested and consequently that Henderson Field could not be neutralized. There would be no Kantai Kessen in the South Pacific in 1942. The Tokyo Express would continue to run but would eventually be turned back by America’s “Hooligan Navy”, the unruly PT Boats operating from bases on Tulagi. Their incessant attacks on the Tokyo Express would eventually bring down the previously indefatigable Tanaka.

On 14 December Hyakutake reported that he was losing at least 50 men a day from starvation, and could not conduct offensive operations. A week later, Yamamoto decided to abandon the Guadalcanal and evacuate as many troops as possible.

Casablanca

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid – 75 years young. On 26 November, 1942, the masterpiece “Casablanca” premiered in New York ahead of its scheduled general release in January. MG Patton’s capture of the actual town of Casablanca in French Morocco a few weeks before during Operation Torch had recently hit the news, and Warner Bros wanted to capitalize on the increased interest in the dusty North African town.

Based on the play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca followed the cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart at the top of his game, who had a fateful encounter with a stupid hot ex-girlfriend, played by the timeless Ingrid Bergman, who, of all the gin joints in all the world, walked into his. Filled with the usual suspects of early 40s Hollywood, Casablanca was perfectly cast: Peter Lorre as the conniving but surprising Ugarte, 30s sex symbol Paul Heinreid as the stiff and vaguely uncomfortable (doing the right thing tends to do that to people) resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sydney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous powerbroker Signor Ferrari, and Claude Raines as the opportunistic corrupt bureaucrat Captain Renault.

Now I may stick my neck out for no man, but I’ll do it for Casablanca: It is the greatest movie script in history. Many movies try, but Casablanca succeeds. There isn’t a single wasted frame. To have gorgeous cinematography without any wide angle scenery shots is unknown today. I was shocked, Shocked! to learn that the script was rejected out of hand by several hundred Hollywood executives and writers when it was circulated in 2010 with the names changed. I may have been misinformed, but Casablanca’s themes of honor, duty, and redemption are considered trite in Hollywood today (probably not: it’s the Romantic in me). I don’t mind too much though: we’ll always have Casablanca.

Casablanca is a story of Redemption. Many Hollywood movies have Redemption as a theme, Casablanca only more so. Just four characters in its splendid cast weren’t redeemed for their past transgressions, but only because there was no reason to: Sam played by the always delightful Dooley Wilson was Rick’s moral compass. (Yes, where do you think Tolkein got the idea from?) The waiter Carl, played by the screen stealing SK Sakall, was Casablanca’s moral compass. And Lazlo was the world’s moral compass. The fourth was Maj Strasser, who as the un-redeemable Nazi villain, had no moral compass.

The obvious tale of redemption was Rick, who by the end of the movie realized America wasn’t a place, but an idea worth fighting for. But never underestimate a blundering American screenwriter: there are many others who found their redemption by the end of the movie. There’s also Renault, a true democrat, who realized the folly of taking the easy path by accommodating the Germans. Or Ugarte, who redeemed himself in Rick’s eyes by killing Nazis. Ilsa redeemed herself to Victor for her earlier infidelity with Rick, or Berger, or Sascha, or Ferrari, or the German couple. The list goes on. You may disagree with me, but you’ll sound like someone who is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe in your heart. One look at Yvoone singing La Marseilles should dispel any doubts.

Yvonne’s tears were real. The autumn of 1942, when Casablanca was filmed, was a dark time for the world. The Allied victories at Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad hadn’t happened yet. The papers were filled with Axis advances across the globe. German panzers ran roughshod over the Soviet Union. Rommel seized Tobruk, and was poised to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Marines fought for their lives on a tiny South Pacific Island; Japan sank several American carriers and were threatening to cut off Australia. Hitler’s National Socialists had Europe under the iron boot heel of collectivism, and the stories of their brutality reached America through the tens of thousands of refugees that escaped. All across the country, Americans were asleep; their arrival woke America up. Yvonne, and most of the cast of Casablanca, was part of that wave of refugees.

Their stories did get out because, though they tried, even the Nazis couldn’t kill that fast. The refugee’s roles gave Casablanca an authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The vast majority of the cast either fled Europe before the war, or fled their countries when Hitler overran them. Only three credited cast members were actually born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Paige (the Latina singer with The Voice). Madeline LaBeau who played Yvonne was French, Leonid Kinsky as Sacha was Russian, Lazlo was a German Jew, Berger was Norwegian, Renault was English, Ugarte was Austrian, Carl was Czech, and Strasser German. Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Maj Strasser, had actually experienced Nazi persecution and demanded the role because he wanted to show the world the true face of National Socialism. (He was also the highest paid actor in the film.) On that set, the cast made a beautiful friendship, and it showed on screen.

My heart may be my least vulnerable spot, but there’s a soft spot there for Casablanca. Every time I watch it, I watch it as if it’s the last time. It may be a little game I play, but Casablanca is the “Black and White” movie that I show someone who has never seen a black and white movie before. And though I always fight on the side of the underdog, I am not a cut rate reviewer. A review of Casablanca would not be complete without a few words on the song that ties the whole movie together, “As Time Goes By”. It may be poor salesmanship, but I’ll leave that to Sam,

“You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh…

The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…

And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you’ / On that you can rely…

No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…”

I think I’ll play it again.

Happy Land: The Raid on Djedeida

During Operation Torch, British LtGen Kenneth Anderson attacked out of Algeria and into Tunisia in order to capture the ports of Bizerte and Tunis and stop the German build up. Due to American organizational and logistical problems, he could only attack with two British brigades and an adhoc American brigade group known as “Blade Force”. Blade Force was formed around the 1st US Armored Regiment of the 1st US Armored Division, equipped with M3 Lee medium tanks and M3 Stuart light tanks.

The advance started off well but Anderson’s force began to run into serious opposition from German units just south of Bizerta. Nevertheless, on 26 November 1942, C Company, 1st Arm Regt, commanded by MAJ Rudolph Barlow infiltrated through German lines (yes, you can infiltrate with a tank) and stumbled upon the German airfield at Djedeida. Barlow immediately ordered his 19 tanks on line and attacked.

In what can only be described as a “Tanker’s Wet Dream”, C Company machine gunned aircraft and trucks, gunned down scurrying Luftwaffe ground personnel, shot up buildings and tents, set fuel containers on fire, and on at least two occasions, crushed aircraft by running them over.

However, several aircraft managed to take off and were soon strafing the American tanks. Also, the raid didn’t last much more than an hour before nearby German units responded. Without infantry support, (US Combined Arms Doctrine was woefully antiquated in 1942) Barlowe couldn’t hold the airfield, so he wisely withdrew and exfiltrated back towards American and British lines (yes, you can exfiltrate in a tank). The Raid on Djedeida destroyed over 20 German aircraft and put the airfield out of commission.

Unfortunately, the Americans learned all the wrong lessons and the Germans all the right ones. GenLt Nehring, the German commander in Tunisia, was now alerted to the holes in his defense and reacted accordingly. And the raid had no appreciable effect on Luftwaffe operations due to the resiliency of their operating and supply systems. The Raid on Djedeida did however produce a great sense of accomplishment and bravado among American tankers. That cockiness would have been quickly dispelled had Barlowe stayed around any longer: a mere 2 kms away were four of the brand new German Panzer Kampfwagen VI “Tiger” tanks, equipped with armor impenetrable by anything an American tank could shoot at it, and was equipped with a variant of the vaunted and lethal dual purpose 88mm flak cannon that can easily out range the tiny 37mm anti tank gun on the American tanks.

The Americans would learn that lesson soon enough.

The Next Act Begins

During a speech about the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa on 10 November 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Late October 1942 was the high-water mark for the Axis across the globe. But in the beginning of November they were stopped at El Alamein, Stalingrad, and Guadalcanal. November 1942 saw the Allies take the offensive. However, the Germans were far from defeated and determined to wrest the strategic initiative back. In response to the Torch landings, Hitler sent his strategic reserve, which was still very much in demand on the Eastern Front, to occupy Vichy French Tunisia and subsequently throw the Allies out of North Africa.

However, he did this under the false assumption that Stalingrad was captured. Unknown to Hitler, Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army still occupied an area of the city less than a square mile along the Volga River (just let that statement sink in for a second). On Hitler’s directive, 100,000 mostly German troops commanded by Lt Gen Walter Nehring began landing in Tunisia in the second week of November. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, retreating across Libya with the beaten PanzerArmee Afrika, was furious with Hitler and hastened back to Tunisia to take command. (If Rommel would have had those troops, or even just their supplies for the battles at El Alamein, there is little doubt that he would have been able to seize Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Ditto for Paulus at Stalingrad.)

Eisenhower, and especially British LtGen Kenneth Anderson in eastern Algeria, recognized the German threat and they attempted to seize Tunisia before the Germans could organize. Unfortunately, confusion among the inexperienced Americans meant that the British could only attack with two brigades against dug in German troops with Luftwaffe air superiority. The attack predictably failed and the German build up in Tunisia would continue unabated.

Sometime in the next couple of months, the eager but naïve US Army would meet the German Army in battle for the first time. But instead of ill supplied, beaten, and weary Italians and Germans of the old Afrika Corps; the Americans would meet experienced and rested German troops, battle hardened against the Russians, led by one of Germany’s most capable tactical leaders, and armed with the newest equipment that the German economy could produce. In hindsight, the question wasn’t whether the Americans would win, but whether they would recover.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: The Battleship Night Action

Halsey had nothing left to stop Kondo from destroying Henderson Field except Willis Lee’s battleships, so against all doctrine and correct naval thinking, Halsey sent them in. Yamamoto was operating battleships in the confined waters of the Slot, so why couldn’t he? Lee formed an adhoc task force with four destroyers with relatively full fuel bunkers, and the newly christened Task Force 64 set off.

Just before midnight on the 14 November 1942, Lee’s battleships rounded Savo Island and just southeast, one of his commo guys picked up a faint transmission from PT boats prowling off Florida Island and preparing to attack. Lee contacted them directly. Minutes later, Kondo’s ships were spotted by radar at about 20,000 yards heading southwest. The big guns on the South Dakota and Washington roared, and registered hits, but the targets were soon masked by Savo Island. The only Japanese ship sunk was a lost destroyer that appeared alone on the west side of Savo Island. It was quickly dispatched by the 5” guns of both battleships’ secondary batteries and the destroyers. Before anyone realized what the lost destroyer meant, disaster struck.

Standard Japanese doctrine (which soon became American doctrine) called for the escorting destroyers to race ahead and launch torpedoes when an enemy force was spotted. When Lee opened fire, all nine of Kondo’s destroyers and both light cruisers launched their “Long Lance” torpedoes which had a range, speed, and reliability advantage over anything the Americans had. As Lee’s destroyer screen emerged from the shadow of Savo Island, they unwittingly advanced into a cloud of torpedoes. Two destroyers exploded and were broke in half immediately, and the other two maneuvered for their lives, effectively taking them out of the battle.

The sacrifice of the destroyer vanguard almost certainly saved Task Force 64: all 36 torpedoes missed the unwieldy battleships. The South Dakota engaged the Japanese ships, but then suffered a catastrophic electric failure. The South Dakota was always considered a “hard luck ship” and she lived up to her reputation that night. For three minutes, an eternity under fire, the South Dakota went dark, and all systems shut down. It was discovered later that a chain reaction caused by a short circuit in the after turret failed to trip a breaker because its chief engineer tied it down. She drifted out of position, and an observer on one of the destroyers said a flare popped overhead that lit her “like a spotlight on a stage”. The Japanese hammered the South Dakota.

But like the Hiei the night before last, the South Dakota was mainly under fire by the destroyers of Kondo’s Screening Force, and the cruisers of the Bombardment Force. Kondo didn’t believe the reports that he faced battleships: he thought they were mistaken for heavy cruisers, and wanted to save the Kirishima for Henderson Field. He would a heavy price for that mistake.

The Washington passed through the wreckage of the two destroyers to the cheers of the survivors in the water, and engaged the Kirishima and her escorting cruisers “at body blow range”.

The Washington wasn’t one of the old venerable pre-war battlewagons that took a pummeling at Pearl Harbor. She was one of the new fast battleships built to keep up with the aircraft carriers. Moreover, because “bigger is better” in America, she was designed around 16” guns instead of the late 1930’s standard of 14”. This upgrade caused all sorts of problems. For example, the first time the Washington fired its main batteries in gunnery without the warning bell, the concussion literally blew the surprised captain’s pants off his body, and put thirty men in the sick bay for busted ear drums and broken bones from being thrown against the bulkheads. However, nothing on the planet could stop a sixteen inch shell headed in whatever direction it was fired in. Even though in the holy trinity of speed/firepower/armor in ship design, armor took a back seat for the Washington, her speed and firepower more than made up for it. The Washington was specifically designed to sail quickly into harm’s way and hit first at long range, which her big guns and powerful radar allowed.

And Willis “Ching Chong” Lee was America’s foremost expert in exactly that.

Lee got his nickname from his fondness for being stationed in China in the 20s and 30s, and loved to sit on the bridge and trade bawdy stories with the enlisted men and junior officers. But it was just a cover to endear himself with the crews: Lee was America’s master of gunnery in the age of radar. He saw everything in terms of math. He literally wrote the book on radar fire control, and was friends with the guys who wrote the technical manuals in both fields. He flattened the Washington’s fire control so the radar plot officer could talk directly to the guns, which cut targeting time down considerably. Everything was based on the radar picture. Lee’s dedication to this new-fangled technology would pay dividends that night.

When Lee could finally ascertain exactly where the South Dakota was after her mishap, he unleashed the Washington’s full fury on the Kirishima. The nine giant phalluses on the Washington tore into Kondo’s centerpiece. The Kirishima attempted to fire back several times, but gunnery reliant on the Mark One Eyeball was in the past. The Washington pulverized the Kirishima with deadly accurate main and secondary fire before the Kirishima could even bracket. Kondo quickly called a destroyer over to transfer his flag and evacuate as many sailors as possible. The burning Kirishima capsized three hours later.

The shaken Kondo still had two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a swarm of destroyers, Lee had but the Washington. However, the Washington was given the attributes of an avenging spectre. She was out in the darkness, and no one would knew where she was until, if they were lucky, giant splashes appeared out of nowhere before the massive killing blows arrived. The biggest and baddest m*******a in the Sound was out there somewhere, and the Japanese had no idea where she would appear. The thought broke Kondo – He ordered his ships back north.

The next morning, the American PT boats and marauding destroyers would have their way with the beached transports. A few days later, Vandegrift was replaced by MG Alexander Patch of the US Army’s Americal Division to continue the fight on Guadalcanal, just over three months since the Marines splashed ashore. The US Army would drive Hyakutake and his starving troops off the island. It was only a matter of time before Guadalcanal was secured. The Marines held just long enough for the US Navy to figure out its business. Though there would still be clashes in Ironbottom Sound, and vicious barroom brawls for months between the sailors of the Washington and South Dakota, the Japanese would never again seriously threaten the sea lanes around Guadalcanal.

When informed of the results, President Roosevelt said specifically of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, “It would seem that the turning point in this war has at last been reached.”

The Battle of Krasny and The Bravest of the Brave

After the capture, and subsequent destruction, of Moscow by Russian patriots, Napoleon realized that Czar Alexander I was not going to sue for peace. Reluctantly, Napoleon began his retreat on 8 October 1912 before his army starved to death during the Russian Winter. He planned on retreating just to his depots at Smolensk but that position proved to be untenable and he had to continue on to Poland. His Grande Armee disintegrated further every step of the way.

On 15 November at the Battle of Krasny in Western Russia, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov surprised Napoleon’s strung out columns on the road to Smolensk. Of the French Corps engaged over the next 3 days, Poniatowski’s Advanced Guard and Junot’s Corps managed to escape the trap, Eugene’s Corps was destroyed, Davout’s Corps was wrecked nearly beyond repair, tens of thousands of French stragglers were captured or butchered by Cossacks, and the baggage train and what was left of the artillery were overrun. The Grande Armee was only saved from complete destruction by an audacious feint by the Imperial Guard led by Napoleon himself. The maneuver threw the Russian command into panic and indecision, and Kutuzov held back his final attack which would have most assuredly destroyed the French. The bold maneuver allowed what was left of the Grande Armee to escape west.

Unfortunately, the maneuver did nothing for Napoleon’s Rear Guard, Marshall Ney’s III Corps, which was then completely cut off from the rest of the army. On 18 Nov 1812, the Russians surrounded Ney and offered terms for surrender to which Ney promptly declined. Thinking Napoleon was still just ahead (and not fleeing west as he was), Ney attacked with his 8000 troops and 7000 stragglers, whom he hastily organized into units. The valiant but ultimately futile charges, many led by Ney himself, broke thru line after line of Russians but the rest of the Grande Armee was nowhere to be found.

Ney was forced to retreat into the forests with whatever he had left and march westward along woodsmen’s’ trails, fighting off Cossack attacks and Russian troops at every clearing and field. Throughout the ordeal, Ney often took up a musket and fought alongside his men on the line, and was later universally credited by them as the only reason they didn’t break. Three days and nights later, Ney with just a remnant of 800 troops, rejoined Napoleon in an emotional reunion, during which the Emperor proclaimed him to be “The Bravest of the Brave.”