The Battle of the Atlantic: Seesaw

At no point during World War Two were the fluctuating fortunes of both the Allies and the Axis in the Battle of the Atlantic so fully on display as the first two weeks of March 1941.

-26 February: Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau broke out into the Atlantic. They sink 22 ships around the Azores and Cape Verde Islands and returned on 14 Mar.

-1 March German pocket battleship Admiral Sheer broke out into South Atlantic, sinks six ships, returned on 27 March.

-2 March: U Boat wolfpack savaged fast Convoy HX-109. Convoy was found due to German expertise in radio signal direction finding which each U-boat was equipped. In all, 83 ships were sunk by U boats over these three weeks, an above average total.

-4 March: Operation Claymore. The first large scale commando raid of the war. Commandos raided the fish oil and glycerin factories of the Norwegian Loften Islands. Wildly successful, but even more so because the commandos captured four rotors of a German enigma machine which would allow the British to decode German naval signals traffic.

-6 March: In a reaction to estimates from the Home Office that Great Britain had just five months of essential supplies left, even with severe rationing, Winston Churchill issued guidance that the Battle of the Atlantic was the top priority of the British and Commonwealth armed forces.

-7 March: Germany’s #3 U boat captain and hero of the raid on Scapa Flow, Gunther Prien, was killed when his U boat was sunk in an attack on convoy OB-293.

-7 March: 12 German E- boats (PT boats) nearly destroyed convoys FN-426 and FS-429 off the English coast.

-11 March: the German cruiser Admiral Hipper sank 14 of 19 freighters in convoy HG-43 off the African coast near Sierra Leone.

-11 March: Lend-Lease.

-12 March: RAF bombers severely damaged the FW-220 factories near Bremen, and due to bureaucratic infighting they never recovered. The FW-220 “Condor” was Germany’s only four engine bomber. Allied convoys feared the big long range converted passenger plane because a sighting of one inevitably meant one or two sunk ships from bombs, and a wolfpack attack within 24 hours.

14 March: German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis sank or captured four ships in the south Atlantic. In all, the Atlantis and her sister ships, the most famous of whom were the Komoran and Pinguin, sank or captured 14 ships in these two weeks.

16 March: the German’s #1 and #2 U boat captains, Otto Ketchmer and Jochim Scepke were both killed separate wolfpack attacks in the North Atlantic. Scepke’s U-100 was the first U-boat lost while tracked by radar.

-16 March: German battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen began sea trials in the Baltic.

Lend Lease

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the global threat from National Socialist Germany and Imperial Japan long before most of America. Despite strong bipartisan isolationism in Congress (not to mention German –American was the largest ethnicity in America at the time), FDR managed to conclude the Destroyers for Bases Agreement on 2 Sept 1940 in which 50 near obsolete “four stacker” Wilkes and Clemson class destroyers were given to Great Britain for 99 year leases of British bases in the Caribbean and New Foundland. After securing victory in the 1940 election, FDR announced that the US would become the “Arsenal of Democracy” on 2 December 1940 with the knowledge that numerous secret State and War Department studies concluded that Great Britain after the Fall of France was “doomed without full economic and financial support from the United States”.

That winter, stories from the Luftwaffe Blitz and U boats in the North Atlantic shifted public opinion in the US. On 11 March 1941, Congress passed the Lend Lease Act and FDR signed it into law the same day. The Lend Lease Act provided military supplies to Great Britain, Free France, and other countries fighting Germany without “cash up front” for additional leases on Allied bases, most notably Danish Iceland. This was in direct contradiction to the Neutrality Acts which dominated US foreign policy for over a decade.

The Lend Lease Act would eventually provide over a quarter of Great Britain’s and the Commonwealth’s military supplies. In the short term it provided Canada with the ability to take over the convoy escort duties in the Western Atlantic (Canada by the end of the war would have the 3rd largest navy in the world after the US and GB). Additionally, the US would provide escorts for convoys in American territorial waters, an area that FDR would continue to extend farther and farther away from any American coast. Lend Lease dropped any pretense that America was going to stay neutral in the war in Europe.

The Battle of Camp A Shau

Camp A Shau was the last of three US Special Forces camps in the strategically important A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Just two miles from the Laotian border, Camp A Shau sat astride a juncture in the Ho Chi Minh Trail where supplies could continue south, or enter infiltration routes to the cities of Da Nang and Hue, both thirty miles away.

On the morning of 9 March, 1966, four communist regular North Vietnamese Army battalions of 2000 men attacked the camp defended by 17 Americans, 40 Nung mercenaries, and 400 Vietnamese and Montagnard militiamen of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).The communists took part of the camp the first night but the battle raged for the next 36 hours. On the night of 10 March, out of ammunition and water, with staggering loses among the air support, the camp was ordered abandoned. A squadron of US Marine Sikorsky H-34s, HMM-163, flew through what they called “The Tube” in an attempt to evacuate the camp.

In addition to withering fire from all angles, including above, the evacuation proved more difficult than expected. Discipline broke down as the helicopters approached. Many of the Vietnamese switched sides or, with the Montagnards, tried to swarm the helicopters as they landed. Unable to take off because of the weight of soldiers hanging off of the birds, crew chiefs and green berets had to resort to shooting the hangers-on, after yelling and beating didn’t work. In the chaos, this resulted in full-fledged gun battles inside some helicopters, a breakdown in the defense as the NVA surged onto the landing zone, and some special forces leading a breakout into the jungle to escape.

The next day, the squadron conducted a series of search and rescue missions looking for survivors. Over half the garrison was killed or turned, and all but three of HMM-163’s helicopters were either shot down or too damaged to fix. The NVA would turn the A Shau valley into one of its major logistics and staging areas, and over the next four years the US would launch increasingly large operations to clear the valley, culminating with the Battle of Hill 937, aka Hamburger Hill.

The Raid on Columbus

In the winter of 1915/16 Mexican counter-counter-revolutionary (I think), Pancho Villa, was on the losing end of his fight against “Primer Jefe” First Chief Venustiano Carranza. The “Villistas” as Pancho Villa and his men were called, were holed up in the Chihuahua Mountains and were desperate for supplies to continue. Three miles across the US/Mexican border was the town of Columbus, New Mexico, which could provide the necessary guns, horses, food, and blankets.

Before dawn on 9 March, 1916, Pancho Villa and 500 Villistas attacked Columbus and Camp Furlong just outside of town where 120 troopers of Headquarters, H, and F Troops of the 13th Cavalry were stationed. The garrison at Camp Furlong was saved by the actions of two lieutenants, one barefoot, who organized a defense around the post’s guard shack with the headquarters troop’s machinegun platoon. Once the Villistas were beaten back at the camp, F troop moved into Columbus where the civilians were fighting back from the brick schoolhouse while Pancho Villa and his men looted and burned the rest of the town. They arrived just in time to prevent the Villistas from robbing Columbus’ bank when a well-placed Hotchkiss machine gun prevented any attacker from crossing Broadway, Columbus’ main street.

The raid was successful, if at a heavy cost, as Pancho Villa stole hundreds of horses, rifles and pistols, and much needed food and blankets from the town at the cost 90 casualties, 70 of whom were killed. But he wasn’t counting on the natural aggressiveness of the United States Cavalryman. As Pancho Villa raced to the border, and then 15 miles into Mexico, the regimental executive officer with 40 men dogged them for the next 8 hours, killing or wounding another 250 Villistas, and forcing Pancho Villa to abandon much of his booty.

In the end Pancho Villa suffered over 300 casualties and the Americans eleven troopers and ten civilians killed and another dozen wounded in the Battle of Columbus. The raid sent shockwaves through the United States, particularity the death of the pregnant Mary James, who was killed by the Villistas fleeing the burning Hoover Hotel. President Wilson would authorize a punitive expedition into Mexico led by LTG John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to capture or kill Pancho Villa.

The Paris Commune

After the French Second Empire fell in its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Paris demanded more representation in the interim Third Republic ruled by the National Assembly at Versailles. Paris was administered directly by the Assembly the same way Washington DC was administered the US Congress for many years. Furthermore, many Parisians felt that they were not adequately represented in the Assembly (they weren’t) and that the Assembly was going to bring back the monarchy (they weren’t). On 18 March 1871, the Paris Commune, or city council, revolted against Republican rule with the support of the National Guard which was not disarmed by the Prussians at the end of the war as was the French army.

The “Communards”, as they were known, were very progressive minded and even managed to put some reforms into place, such as women’s suffrage, the separation of the church and state, pensions for widows of National Guardsmen, and some worker’s rights, particularly the abolition of shift work and worker’s fines. But by the same token, many radical ideas were forced upon the Parisians at the barrel of a gun, such as banishment of rent, debt, and interest, and workers forcibly taking over their employer’s enterprises. The Commune ruled by decree and acted as the three branches of govt: executive, legislative and judicial, backed by the guns of the National Guard. The French Tricolor was immediately abandoned for the Socialist Red.

Like any organization with absolute power, absolute corruption soon followed. And the “Tyranny of the Majority” became progressively worse over the next two months. First they came for the Catholics, then the businessmen, then the managers, then the property owners, then finally anyone deemed “Enemies of the People”. Within two weeks, social order broke down and culminated in early May with the establishment of the Committee for Public Safety, which was just as brutal as it was during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But instead of guillotines, the preferred method of executing “undesirables” was firing squad.

By mid-April, the chaos descended to the point that the units of the National Guard, which were recruited and based on Parisian neighborhoods, became mere neighborhood gangs and protection rackets against the excesses of rival neighborhoods and their National Guard units, or muscle to prevent spurious denunciations of its members as “Enemies of the People”. This prevented the National Guard from coordinating the defense of Paris against the rearmed French Army supported by the Prussians. On 21 May, the “Versaillier” Army entered the city through an unguarded gate and began seizing neighborhoods. The Communards had no organized defense, so like their grandparents in 1830, and their parents in 1848, the Communards resorted to the time honored barricade, where furniture, bricks, carts and wagons formed impromptu ramparts across Parisian streets. But the French army was prepared for this and bypassed the barricades by blowing through or knocking down walls inside the buildings along the street. As the French army steadily pacified each neighborhood in turn, they shot any Communard that was found with a weapon, or had powder stains on their person. 21-28 May 1871 was known as “Bloody Week” and tens of thousands more were killed and much of Paris burned to the ground.

Future communists, socialists and anarchists would see the Paris Commune as a model. Karl Marx praised the Paris Commune, calling it the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but felt that the Communards did not go far enough fast enough. Marx would later write that Communards should have immediately eliminated all undesirables, and in the moment of the initial fervor, formed the supporters into an army to export the revolution, or at the very least defeat and “reactionaries and their armies”. Marx’s disciples: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Kim, Castro, Mugabe, Chavez, and many others would put the lessons of the Paris Commune into action to great, and deadly, effect in the 20th Century.

A Fortuitous Snowstorm

The fortification of Dorchester Heights by the Continental Army made Boston untenable for the British: Henry Knox’s cannon dominated the city and the harbor. On 5 March 1776, Gen Howe prepared 2500 redcoats to seize the Rebel position just as he had done ten months before at Bunker Hill. The operation would commence at dawn the next day.

General George Washington expected the attack and placed 6000 troops on Dorchester Heights to repel it. But he also knew that if the British managed to close and come at his poorly trained and poorly disciplined troops with the bayonet, no amount of continentals would matter – they would break. Even a Pyrrhic victory for the British like Bunker Hill would spell the end of the siege of Boston. Washington’s critical shortage of powder would be exposed to all the world, and without the cannon the British navy could supply Howe indefinitely. That would leave Washington just one remaining option: Storm the city.

Washington couldn’t chance a loss of the Dorchester Heights without possession of Boston – It would be the end of the Revolution. And he couldn’t storm the city while the navy was in the harbor… Unless it was distracted.

Which it would be supporting Howe’s assault.

Washington decided to gamble everything on a single throw of the dice. While Howe and his best troops were busy south of the city supported by the British Navy, Washington’s best regiments would assault over the Boston Neck, overwhelm the redoubt with sheer numbers, and seize the city. The casualties would be excessive, but a loss at Dorchester would be fatal to the Revolution if he didn’t already have Boston. He would lead the attack the moment Howe’s men were committed on the peninsula and unable to reinforce the Boston neck.

On the night of 5/6 March 1776, Rebel spies reported British assault troops were loading flatboats for transport across the harbor. Washington brought up his best regiments, including the fishermen from Marblehead that proved so critical in the year ahead, to assault positions before the neck. The morning of 6 March was expected to be the bloodiest of the war.

But it wasn’t to be: A fierce and blinding, but unexpected, snowstorm hit Boston around midnight and continued throughout the morning. About noon it stopped as quickly as it started. But by then Howe couldn’t attack. His flatboats would be easy targets for Knox’s guns. He knew surprise was lost and Washington would reinforce the heights. Losing a large part of his army in another Bunker Hill just to be bottled up on another peninsula would gain him nothing. (Remember he didn’t know about the shortage of powder.) The next day Howe drafted a note to Washington offering not to burn Boston to the ground if he was allowed to evacuate unmolested.

Washington quickly agreed. On 17 March as the last Redcoat and loyalist were boarding ships in the harbor, Washington triumphantly entered Boston. As he was traversing the Boston Neck, he eyed the British redoubts and fortifications he planned to personally assault on the morning of 6 March 1776.

No amount of troops could have forced the Neck: The Americans would have been massacred, and Washington would have undoubtedly been killed leading the charge. It wasn’t the last time Washington and the Continental Army was saved by the weather.

The Fortification of Dorchester Heights

On 2 and 3 March 1776, Henry Knox’s cannon from Ft Ticonderoga opened fire on British positions around Boston. They did the same on the late afternoon of 4 March. But as the British were safely tucked away riding out Knox’s bombardment, LTG George Washington put in motion his plan to fortify Dorchester Heights, which overlooked Boston and the harbor.

As soon as the sun sank below the horizon, thousands of Continentals trudged up the heights with hay bales. With these they created a wall in the darkness that obscured their movements and muffled the sound of thousands of soldiers digging. Then they dug trenches and gun pits for cannon throughout the night. By 4am, the last of Knox’s guns were in place. The hay bale wall was dismantled and the bales were used to reinforce the position. The guns on Dorchester Heights dominated Boston Harbor. Admiral Shuldham informed Gen Howe, the commander of the British army in Boston, that the city was untenable. The stunned Howe replied, “The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”

But it was all a bluff: Washington barely had enough powder to hold the heights if the British attacked as they did at Breed’s Hill, much less clear the British Navy from the harbor.

The Raid on Nassau: America’s First Amphibious Assault

In the early months of 1776, George Washington was desperate for gunpowder. So the Continental Congress dispatched the fledgling US Navy to seize British stores along the Carolina and Georgia coasts. In secret, they also authorized Commodore Esek Hopkins to raid into the Caribbean.

On 3 March, 1776, Hopkin’s and his small flotilla appeared off the coast of the British colony of Nassau. Captain Samuel Nichols and 200 Marines landed on the island in the first amphibious assault in Marine Corps’ history, and bloodlessly seized the fort.

The next day the Marines seized the town on the other side of the island only to find that the British governor and the townsfolk worked all night loading most of the powder onto ships. The ships departed at first light and slipped by Hopkins.

The Tripartite Pact and the Eastern Mediterranean

In a diplomatic coup, Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, and Romania on 1 March 1941. This made seven of the eight countries bordering Jugoslavia hostile to the British. A “Grand Balkan Alliance” against Germany with Jugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey became a pipe dream of the British Foreign Office. Additionally, German troops crossed into Bulgaria the same day making the invasion of Greece a near certainty. Winston Churchill, sensitive to German propaganda and an American perception that Britain does not help her Allies, ordered three of General O’Conner’s best units from the Western Desert in North Africa to Greece: the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 6th Australian Division, and the 1st UK Armoured Brigade.

Opposite O’Conner, LtGen Erwin Rommel organized every German soldier in Africa around the newly arrived 5th Panzer Regiment and created the 5th Light “Afrika” Division, which along with picked Italian motorized and armored units, prepared for an immediate offensive.

On 1 March 1941, the 33rd Flak (anti-aircraft) Regiment unloaded on the docks of Tripoli, Libya. The 33rd was equipped with 88mm flak 18 cannons which were designed to fire at high altitude bombers, but it’s high velocity projectiles proved equally effective against Allied tanks. The 33rd would provide Rommel with a much needed advantage against the heavier Allied armor.

“The Murder Mill of Verdun”

The German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Moltke the Younger was replaced by his rival FM Erich von Falkenhayn after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the autumn of 1914. In 1915, von Falkenhayn chose to solidify the trench lines stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea and focus on defeating the Russians. After vast gains in the East that year, von Falkenhayn decided to focus back on the West and defeat the French in 1916.

His plan was to “bleed the French white” in a battle of attrition for the emotionally significant city of Verdun. Von Falkenhayn knew the French would never allow the Germans to keep Verdun, so he planned to destroy the counterattacking French with a concentration of artillery unseen in history. Moreover, the terrain around Verdun favored the Germans: the area was littered with natural choke points that could be exploited. The most significant being the single road the French had to use to supply their armies, and the location of Verdun on the east bank of the Meuse river, forcing the French to rely on just seven bridges, all within range of German artillery. Finally the French forts protecting the city, robust and built after the French loss in 1870, were criminally undermanned after being stripped for fighting in Flanders the year before. The centerpiece of which were the massive twin forts of Vaux and Douaumont.

At 0715, 21 February 1916, Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Execution Place) began with a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns. The German artillery fired over a million shells along a front just 19 miles long by 3 miles wide. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns, up to 420 mm (16.5 in), fired on the forts and the city of Verdun; a rumble could be heard 99 miles away. The bombardment was paused at midday, as a ruse to prompt French survivors to reveal themselves. The main German attack was launched that afternoon. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time and the infantry followed closely with rifles slung, to use hand grenades to kill the remaining defenders. The battle would eventually last ten months and cause almost a million casualties on both sides throughout the year.

1916 was one of those seminal years in Western history, comparing only to 440 BCE, 34 CE, 410, 843, 1066, 1096, 1492, 1648, and 1776. It can be argued (convincingly imo) that the culmination of 2500 years of recorded history occurred at the Battle of Verdun, and it’s two incestuous offspring: the Battle of the Somme and Brusilov’s Offensive. These battles pitted the four great Christian, rational, progressive, technologically advanced (all by the standards of the time) Westphalian states in an irrational, emotionally driven, nationalist, suicidal, industrial slaughter the effects of which our great great great grandchildren will still deal with.

Everything before Verdun led to it, and everything after Verdun was because of it. If Western civilization continues its slow slide back into barbarism, historians in the far distant future will look at 0715, 21 February 1916, as the moment the descent began.