By the summer of 1943, Operation Reinhardt, Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” to his identity politics’ first victim, the Jews, was almost complete: nearly two million Jews in the General Government (German occupied Poland) were killed in industrialized ethnic extermination. National Socialist bureaucrats and technocrats led by SS wunderkind Reinhard Heydrich devised a plan in 1942 to exterminate “non-desirables” as efficiently as possible in order purify Germany of the so-called “untermensch” or “sub-humans”. To this end the National Socialists established three major death camps and an entire support system to liquidate the Third Reich’s Jews and political opponents, Sobibor being the least well known of its murderous sisters: Belzec and Treblinka. By mid-1943, the Jews of Germany and the General Government had almost completely disappeared. Victims had to be sought from elsewhere. In order to maintain the “quotas”, trains full of Jews from as far away as the Netherlands were packed off to the extermination camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland. The National Socialists were running out of Jews to murder in their occupied territories.
The trains from the west arrived with less frequency, and the Jews of the Sonderkommando knew their turn was soon. The Sonderkommando was composed of healthy and skilled Jews taken from the masses of those on the way to “the showers” who could assist the Nazis in running the camp under pain of death. They were sorters of the deads’ possessions, the burners and buriers of their bodies, and the labouers who performed the menial tasks of the camp under the watchful eyes of its Ukrainian guards. (As for the Ukrainians, they had to make a choice between the socialism of Stalin, which starved 8 million Ukrainians to death in 1937/38 or the socialism of Hitler which would murder just as many later in 1941-43.) With no choice but to comply or be killed, the Jews of the Sonderkommando survived to the best of their ability. In the spring of 1943, a “kapo” (a forced Jewish guard that the Nazi’s used to divide the Jewish community) arrived at Sobibor on a train from the recently closed death camp at Belzec, and confirmed what the Sonderkommando at Sobibor suspected: once the camp was closed the Jews who were forced to assist in its administration were killed.
On 14 October, 1943, the Sonderkommando of the Sobibor Death Camp rose up against their jailers and torturers. A Soviet-Jewish Red Army prisoner of war who survived the extermination at Minsk, Lieutenant Alexander Perchesky led the attempted mass escape at Sobibor. The original plan was to silently kill the 16 National Socialist SS overseers, and while the Ukrainian guards were confused, walk out the main gate with all 600 Sonderkommando, and escape into the forest. What actually happened will never be known. Perchesky and his Jewish confederates killed eleven SS administrators and seized the camps armory, but they could not execute their plan. The SS were mostly killed silently but eventually the guards were alerted, and many of the Sonderkommando were killed in the ensuing confusion. Most Jews in the camp were unaware of the plan. Nonetheless, their situation was dire enough that they participated at the moment of decision. 300 of the 600 remaining Jews of Sobibor escaped into the nearby forest, where many joined Polish and Jewish resistance groups. Unfortunately, most, but not all, escapees were subsequently recaptured and shot by the SS and their lackeys.
The Escape from Sobibor was such a stain on National Socialist honor that the chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed. He wanted the camp as anonymous as the 250,000 victims were that passed through. The buildings of Sobibor were bulldozed and pine trees planted over top. The gas chambers were torn down and a road built on their foundations. By 1944, there was no sign the Death Camp of Sobibor existed.
Like every atrocity, victims survive. Some went on and fought in Polish and Soviet partisan units, some just fled. The survivors emigrated to America, Brazil, and Israel, and were instrumental bringing their German National Socialists and their Ukrainian enablers to trial. The Uprising at Sobibor was the greatest mass escape in the history of the Holocaust.
During the Six Day War of 1967, Israel routed Syria, Jordan and Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank in order to provide a buffer against further Arab attacks. Six years later the humiliated Arab states were seething for revenge. On 6 October 1973, Arab armies, mostly from Egypt and Syria, launched Operation Badr, an attack on Israel while most of the Israeli Defense Force was on leave for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The attack was a complete surprise to Israel.
To make matters worse, the Arabs were well equipped with new Soviet equipment including tanks, planes, infrared night vision, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-tank guided missiles (which were making their first appearance on the modern battlefield). The Israeli Defense Force’s initial losses were devastating. Egypt ingeniously penetrated the Israeli defenses along the Suez Canal by using high pressure water to “cut” through Israeli sand berms and then quickly pursued Israeli troops into the Sinai. Moreover, Syrian armour nearly broke out of the Golan Heights. Had it not been for determined and near-fanatical resistance, hard decisions on the use of reserves, and ad hoc counterattacks, the Syrians would have penetrated into the hills of Galilee and the cities of Israel’s northern coastal plain beyond. For the next 19 days, the largest air and armored battles since the Battle of Kursk during the Second World War took place.
Israel’s initial counterattacks were disastrous, but they did buy time for reserves to mobilize. The fighting was so bad that Israel seriously considered using its then-secret small nuclear arsenal to stop the advancing Arab nations, especially Egypt. However, a combination of hard fighting, Israeli airpower, Arab mistakes and their unwillingness to move beyond their static SAM belts allowed Israel to blunt the offensive and counterattack. Eventually, the Egyptians in the Sinai were surrounded and Cairo was threatened. The Syrian Army was broken and only the Iraqi and Jordanian armies prevented Israel from seizing Damascus. The war ended with a ceasefire on 25 October.
The Israelis however had suffered horrendous losses and the Arab armies acquitted themselves well. Israel found itself a new respect for the Arab armies, in particular Egypt’s and would eventually sign a peace accord as military equals. In the United States, military leaders still reeling from a decade of war in Vietnam, saw the Yom Kippur War as a validation of tank and artillery-centric conventional war. This perception was reinforced in 1975, when North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, not through a popular insurgency, but from a conventional attack with massed tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower. For the next 33 years after the Yom Kippur War, future American doctrine would completely disregard the counter-insurgency lessons of Vietnam and focus on the conventional warfare exemplified by the Yom Kippur War.
After the Ottoman threat to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire diminished in the late 1680s, the Holy League turned its attention to Louis XIV’s France, who seized territory at the expense of the Christian nations of Europe fighting the Turks. They wanted to curb and roll back France’s expansion into the Low Countries and territories beyond the east bank of the Rhine, and solidify William of Orange’s victory in the Glorious Revolution to prevent Louis XIV from restoring James II to England’s thrown. To this end they formed the League of Augsburg, better known as the “Grand Alliance” in 1688 of the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and eventually Spain and the Italian state of Savoy. The War of the League of Augsburg, better known in North America as “King William’s War”, was fought over the next nine years and involved fighting on five continents and on the seas in between
Though Louis XIV’s massively expanded army won magnificent sieges and glorious battles, his marshals failed to reap any decisive reward. (Tis the problem with offensive operations by a force operating with interior lines of communication. See the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg, spoiler: Lee escaped.) The Dauphin’s operations in Swabia in the spring of 1693 sputtered, and Louis’ advisors convinced the king to support newly promoted Marshal Catinat across the Alps in Italy. Catinat was then organizing an army to relieve the operationally vital city of Pinerolo in the Piedmont then invested by Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, who was himself reinforced by Imperial troops. Louis agreed and sent his elite Gendarme galloping south.
On the morning of 4 October 1693, the Duke of Savoy lined up his polyglot army against the French relief force outside the village of Marsaglia. Savoy’s pan-European army included Milanese cavalry and Hungarian hussars (the first hussars in Western Europe, and soon adopted by all nations), Bavarian and German infantry, Savoyard, Spanish, Lombard and Neapolitan troops, Waldensian and Huguenot refugees, and Swiss, English and Flemish mercenaries. However, the language difficulties and uneven quality of Savoy’s troops allowed Catinat the time to organize his army so it could target specific points in Savoy’s line. Prior to the battle, Catinat meticulously arranged his line so there was overmatch by professional French units against lesser Allied formations. That morning, Savoy assaulted the French line, and was handily repulsed by the new regimental efficiency of the reformed French army.
Soon thereafter, the French counterattack broke Savoy’s army.
On the left, the heavy cavalry of the Gendarme under the Duke de Vendôme in a legendary countercharge scattered the Allies to their front in the midst of their own charge and then, without breaking stride, fell upon the Allied center in the flank. In the center, the Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish soldiers under French command by treaty (for an equal number of French soldiers fighting the English in Ireland), smashed through the Allied line. Concurrently, the entire French line surged forward in the first massed bayonet charge with socketed bayonets in history. Savoy’s army was destroyed in detail.
Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy lost 11,000 men compared to less than two thousand under Marshal Catinat. The Battle of Marsaglia was the single most lopsided victory of the War of the League of Augsburg and salvaged French martial prestige after a year of disappointment for Louis XIV. However, like most battles of the war, the French were unable to capitalize on the victory. The siege of Pinerolo was lifted, but since the battle happened so late in the fighting season, Catinat had to withdraw back across the Alps to winter in France. The Battle of Marsaglia did induce the young 29 year old Eugene of Savoy to seek reform of the Imperial armies, and he would become the Holy Roman Emperor’s greatest leader of men in the early 18th century.
However in 1693, the Battle of Marsaglia changed little – The War of the League of Augsburg/the Nine Years’ War/the War of the Grand Alliance/King William’s War dragged on inconclusively for another four years.
In 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy sought to unite all ethnic Germans under the National Socialist flag. In March of that year, he had united Austria and Germany in the Anschluss. Hitler’s next target was the Sudetenland, then a part of Czechoslovakia, which contained a sizable German minority. However, the amalgamation of the Sudetenland was just an excuse for the conquest of Czechoslovakia, which stuck into Germany like a lance into the belly of the Third Reich.
The rugged mountains and hills of the Sudetenland were key to Czechoslovakia’s defense against invasion from Germany. The Czechoslovakian Army was every bit comparable to the contemporary Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. The Czech Army of 1938 was based on a quick mobilization while the professional army held extensive fixed fortifications in the rugged terrain through which German troops would have to pass. (The regular army was already fighting German Freikorps in the Sudetenland). Also, the Czechoslovakian Army had arguably the best tank designs of 1938, the Skoda Works’ Lt vz 35 and 38 tanks, far superior to the German PzI and PzIIs. Even with Germany’s strategic advantages, a German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 would have been a hard fight, and one that Germany was not guaranteed to win. Had the Czechoslovakians been allowed to resist, or even threaten resistance, the Second World War would have turned out quite different. However, the Czechoslovakians were not part of the negotiations.
Hitler promised the Sudetenland would be his “last territorial demand”. The Soviet Union sided with Czechoslovakia but were also not part of the negotiations. Great Britain and France sought to appease Hitler and Germany. Though France recognized Hitler’s plans for European domination, her perceived weak financial and military situation demanded that Britain also stand in defiance of Germany. On 30 September 1938, eleven months before the start of the Second World War, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland in exchange for peace.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain immediately flew back to London. At Heston airport (now Heathrow) he proclaimed he had secured “peace in our time” and waved the document for all to see.
After the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was fair game for all her neighbors. In October, Hungary was given most of southern Slovakia by Germany, and in November, Poland seized small Polish enclaves in northern Moravia and Slovakia. The Soviet Union rightfully viewed the Munich Agreement as a betrayal of Czechoslovakia, which was confirmed when Hitler seized the rest of the country six months later. In Stalin’s eyes, Great Britain’s and France’s policy of appeasement showed that they could not be relied upon to fight if Hitler decided to demand Soviet territory. The Soviet Army in 1939 was a wreck as a result of the purges of the officer corps in 1937/38 and would not be able to resist. As a result, the Soviet Union began negotiations with Nazi Germany for a non-belligerence treaty which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939.
Emboldened by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Allied fecklessness, Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 which began the Second World War. More than 60 million soldiers and civilians died over the next six years in the most destructive war in human history.
On 3 September 1943, General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army crossed the Straits of Messina and invaded the toe of Italy in Operation Baytown. There was very little German and no Italian resistance. Montgomery correctly predicted that the Germans would withdraw from the toe and heel of the Italian boot. However, when Allied planners acted on this and reduced Baytown to just four battalions, Montgomery vehemently protested and due to his stature in Britain, increased the force size to two full divisions. Critical shipping and landing craft that were in desperate short supply in the Mediterranean theater was diverted to Baytown at the expense of the other invasion of Italy at Salerno, Operation Avalanche.
Operation Avalanche landed at Salerno six days later, supposedly to cut off escape of the Germans opposite Monty, and “then seize Naples for the ports, establish airbases around Rome and, if feasible, farther north”. But the only Germans in front of Monty were engineers which blew bridges, mined roads, cut abatis, and slowed down the already cautious British Eighth Army. The Eighth Army wouldn’t see a German for days. The loss of shipping to Baytown meant that only three divisions made the landing at Salerno, and not the six required by the original plan (and what was used in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily). The deficiency was expected to be made up by defecting Italian units as Avalanche was timed to coincide with the armistice with Italy.
After Mussolini was ousted in July, King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio professed Italy’s continued dedication to the “Pact of Steel” made with Germany, but simultaneously had agents secretly meeting with the Allies. After much cloak and dagger skullduggery, the armistice was signed on 3 September and announced on 8 September. The BBC broadcast followed by Badoglio’s radio confirmation was the first the Italian army had heard about the armistice, and they were paralyzed. The “sound of armistice” was said to be “the ringing of phones” as stunned Italian commanders sought instructions from their superiors. Though also surprised, the Germans were quicker to react. Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, a German Italophile of the highest order, dismissed previous concerns of Italian treachery but prudently planned for it. On the evening of 8 September, he, like a scorned lover, turned his newfound hatred of the Italians into immediate action. German units across the Italian peninsula disarmed and detained nearby Italian army formations and crushed those that resisted.
The timing of the Italian armistice had serious repercussions for the Allied landings at Salerno. No longer would the American and British troops confront its Italian defenders, who were most likely to surrender or even assist the invaders, but the Germans. The veteran German 16th Panzer Division quickly took over the defense of the Salerno beaches. The 16th Panzer was a veteran of the Eastern Front and was withdrawn from Stalingrad after losing all of its tanks. It was reconstituted with a full complement of replacements and new equipment, and placed in the German strategic reserve. Slated for the Battle of Kursk, it was redeployed to Italy to oppose the Husky landings on Sicily but didn’t arrive in time. The 16th Panzer was arguably the freshest, best equipped and best trained panzer division in the Wehrmacht at the time. And they were waiting in the captured Italian positions overlooking the Salerno beaches for an Allied invasion they knew was imminent. The invasion arrived the next morning.
On 9 September 1943, Gen Mark Clark’s Fifth Army landed on two sets of invasion beaches near Salerno, which were separated by the Sele River. Clark was advised to land both of his corps north of the river, but decided against this to increase the chances of capturing the Germans to the south. He wrote to his wife that he expected “a pursuit, not a battle”. The northern corps, the British X Corps, landed just south of Salerno and initially fared well. The corps commander opted for a pre-invasion bombardment which was highly effective due to Italian deserters which pinpointed every artillery position, headquarters’ building, and machine gun nest. To the south the 36th Infantry Division’s MG Fred Walker declined the pre-invasion bombardment in order to surprise the defenders and limit Italian casualties. As a result, the guardsmen from Texas landed directly into the teeth of the German defense.
Twelve hours before, the division celebrated the armistice, and expected to be met by Italians on the beach with “wine and opera tickets”. Instead they were met with barbed wire, MG42s, 88s, and PzIVs, with predictable results. The 16th Panzer surprised everyone, including the British, and nearly threw the invasion back into the sea despite only assuming the defense hours before. That they didn’t was solely due to prodigious Allied naval gunfire support. There were no airborne landings the first day because Matthew Ridgeway’s 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with the abortive Operation Giant II, where the division was supposed to reinforce Italians defending Rome from German attack. The operation was cancelled at the last minute (transports were in the air) because it was rightfully recognized to be a suicide mission. (Giant II is a great story, and a cautionary tale about politics overruling military realities. Fortunately sensible minds prevailed, but only just, and only after a covert commander’s reconnaissance. I really need to do a post on it.) The only unqualified success on the first day was LTC William Darby’s Ranger regiment and Brigadier Laycock’s Commandos which landed northwest of the British X Corps. The Rangers and Commandos quickly occupied the mountain tops to the north of the invasion where they could observe the roads to the north, down which Kesselring’s reinforcements would have to arrive. And arrive they did.
Kesselring concentrated all of his considerable might on Salerno: six veteran German divisions to Clark’s two British and one American, but it would take a few days. In the meantime it was a race between reinforcing the confused and shallow Allied lodgment, which was far too long for the troops available, and massing the necessary counter attack force, under the guns of the invasion fleet, to throw them back into the sea. Fortunately for Kesselring, the Germans mostly had air superiority. Allied aircraft, though more numerous, had to fly from a few small escort carriers in the bay or from far off Sicily. The Luftwaffe attacked the invasion fleet numerous times each day, including one of the first uses of a guided bomb, and increased the confusion on the beach. Clark expected to take the Montecorvino Airfield on the first day, and forward base his fighter cover from there. However, the airfield was swept by German direct fire and unusable for the next two weeks.
Clark had further issues, especially command. He quickly activated the VI Corps in Walker’s area to help sort out the confusion, adding a three star general to the beach, and then landed his own headquarters there in the south. With the gap between the southern American beachheads and the British in the north, Clark only really had control of VI Corps, which only had control of one division, Walker’s 36th. So the poor men of the 36th had three echelons of command controlling just them (proto-SETAF) and the confusion that generated. Clark did have a few battalions of the US 45th Infantry Division for a reserve and he committed them to the Sele River gap to connect the British X Corps and US VI Corps, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
George Patton, essentially relieved of command for slapping a soldier in Sicily, was asked by Eisenhower to review the Avalanche plan. After just minutes looking at the plan’s graphics, he stated, “As sure a Jesus lives, the Germans will counterattack down the Sele River.” And they did.
In the early morning of 13 September 1943, Kesselring’s newly formed Tenth Army under Heinrich von Veitinghoff (we will hear his name again), assaulted Clark’s perimeter with a main effort down the Sele valley to split the Fifth Army and defeat both corps in detail. Entire Allied battalions vanished as if blown away in a fiery crimson mist. Clark seriously considered evacuation, at very least of the 36th to the British side of the beachhead. Clark’s boss, British Gen Harold Alexander, angrily ceased it immediately after he flew down to the fleet lest it affect morale. Clark sacked the VI Corps commander. But angry generals weren’t going to stop the Germans.
The only reasons the German offensive on “Black Monday” the 13 of September didn’t reach the beaches was simple American firepower, and the tenacity of small units of Allied troops with their backs to the wall. B-17s in a rare tactical strike bombed the Sele plain, and the US light cruisers USS Philadelphia and Boise with their quick firing 6” guns melted the paint off their barrels, and then fired them til they drooped and could no longer guarantee accuracy. Moreover, much to the chagrin of the Germans, entire companies of the 36th and 45th unexpectedly fought to the last round as their compatriots to their flanks broke and fled. This random phenomenon of American resilience would confound the Germans for the entire war. On the 36th’s left flank was the infamous “Burnt Out Bridge” over the Sele River which had it fallen would have doomed the American side of the beachhead. Firing over open sights, two battalions of American artillery stopped the Germans cold from penetrating a hasty defense consisting of cooks, bakers, mechanics, staff officers and various and sundry rear echelon personnel who found themselves as infantry, leavened by a few recently arrived tank destroyers.
The Germans tried a final time to break Avalanche on the 16th but ran into reinforcements hastily brought in from other areas of the Mediterranean. The entirety of the 45th was eventually landed, giving Clark a two-division American corps. The 82nd Airborne, off the hook for Giant II, was parachuted inside the beachhead perimeter or landed by boat and sent directly into the line. Admiral Cunningham of the British Mediterranean Fleet packed his battleships with troops from Libya and Malta and used his ships life boats to row them ashore.
Clark had won the race to reinforce the Salerno beachhead before Vietinghoff reduced it, but just barely. The battle was a near run thing, to steal a quote from Wellington. Kesselring requested two panzer divisions from Rommel’s army defending Italy north of Rome and was denied by Hitler. Had they been approved, there is no doubt among historians of the Italian campaign of the Second World War that the Allies would have been thrown back into the sea.
Monty continued his stroll up the boot and didn’t link up with the Clark fully until 20 September. After the failed counterattacks at Salerno, Vietinghoff retreated to the prepared fortifications on the Volturno Line, in order to further delay the Allied advance.
Kesselring planned to make the Allies fight up the entire Italian peninsula to keep them as far from Germany as possible, for as long as possible. The Allies established the beachhead at Salerno but would not secure Naples until 1 October, and would not secure Rome until nine months later on 5 June 1944.
After spending a year in the American Volunteer Group aka “The Flying Tigers” Gregory Boyington was reinstated in the US Marine Corps at the rank of major. He spent the first six months in the South Pacific in various staff jobs, culminating as the commanding officer of an F4F “Wildcat” Fighter squadron for just a month. In August 1943, the squadron was ordered back to California to be reequipped with new F-4U “Corsair” fighters, and Boyington knew that he if he left the South Pacific, he would be replaced and never fly in combat again. At 31, he was significantly older than most combat pilots, especially fighter pilots. So the squadron left, and he was thrown into the replacement pool on Espirtu Santo, the US Navy’s main supply and personnel depot in the South Pacific.
The impatient Boyington rounded up all of the unassigned fighter pilots on the island and convinced his higher headquarters to form them into a squadron under his command. (They were not all misfits awaiting court martial as per the TV show. They were a mix of brand new LTs and orphaned veterans from disbanded squadrons, which the Marines seemingly did at random.) In August 1943, VMF-214 was activated, but had no mechanics or support and few administrative personnel. Moreover, Boyington only managed a few planes scrounged from the depot level maintenance on the island. One night he gathered his 27 pilots together to come up with a name. They agreed on “Boyington’s Bastards” due to their situation. A few days later, a Stars and Stripes reporter commented that he couldn’t print that, and suggested “Black Sheep”. It stuck. Cool names were nice but Boyington needed planes, equipment and people if the Black Sheep were to fight the Japanese. Boyington was given just four weeks before they were sent forward.
In August 1943, the Allied Operation Cartwheel, the isolation of Rabaul, was entering a critical phase. MacArthur was closing in on New Britain to the west, and more importantly for Boyington and VMF-214, the US Army invaded Vella Lavella and Arundel in the Northern Solomons. Once captured, these islands would provide airfields in support of the invasion of Bogainville, thus finally ejecting the Japanese from the Solomon Islands that started with invasion of Guadalcanal about a year before. The Japanese desperately tried to stall their inevitable capture in order provide time to prepare Bougainville for defense, where they planned to make a stand.
On 11 September, VMF-214 moved from Espirtu Santo to the Munda airfield on New Georgia with their recently acquired Vought F4U-1 Corsairs. The Corsair was a new fighter designed with the Japanese A6M “Zero” in mind. It is essentially an F4F Wildcat upgraded with a bomber engine that gave it power enough to outmaneuver the Zero. The Corsair’s “gull” wing design was needed to keep the massive propeller off the ground. However, the giant engine also blocked the view of a carrier during the landing, so the Navy didn’t want it. The Marines, operating mostly from island airstrips took them all. (The Navy opted for the similarly capable F6F Hellcat, which didn’t have the carrier landing difficulties the Corsair did.)
Even with the edge the Corsairs gave Boyington and the Black Sheep, their first missions were busts. “Gramps” Boyington (As he was known to his men since he was a decade older than the next oldest pilot in his squadron) was worried they were going to be disbanded. The Marines were notorious for reassigning personnel from a squadron that didn’t perform; that’s how he got most of his pilots. But their luck changed on 16 September over Ballale. The Black Sheep scored 11 confirmed air-to-air kills, five of which were Boyington’s, and another nine probables over the island. The press immediately ran with the story: The maverick leader of a cobbled together squadron scoring so many victories in one day was great print. But the name “Gramps” had to go: although his men called him that until the end of the war, the press dubbed him “Pappy” which history remembers him by.
For the next 84 days, Pappy Boyington and the Black Sheep operated as far forward as Admiral Bull Halsey allowed, on airfields abandoned by the Japanese or off of makeshift strips cut from the jungle by Seabees hours before. During the island hopping of that first month, many were technically behind Japanese forward bases. Though the Black Sheep took almost 40% casualties in that time, they mixed it up with the Japanese over Bougainville daily. Their adversaries knew Boyington and several of the higher scoring Black Sheep by name and called them out over the radio. They’d respond with taunts and challenges for the Japanese to come up after them. By late-October, the Japanese quit responding and wouldn’t even take off to engage a fighter sweep unless they significantly outnumbered the Americans. Halsey found a kindred spirit in the hard drinking and hard fighting Boyington and visited the squadron on his tours of the front. Boyington and the Black Sheep’s greatest victory was their fighter sweep over Bougainville on the 17th of October. The 25 pilots of the squadron circled the Kahili airfields taunting the Japanese to come up and fight. Sixty proud Japanese pilots responded, and twenty didn’t return. The Black Sheep suffered no casualties.
The squadron was pulled off the line for rest and recuperation soon thereafter, and it was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by Halsey. To celebrate, the entire squadron including ground personnel took a week of leave at the historic and posh Australia Hotel in lovely downtown Sydney. From all accounts it was a party of epic proportions from which the hotel never recovered.
Afterwards, the Black Sheep flew from Vella Lavella until the invasion of Bougainville in November. They then flew from the strip at Torokina just off the beach, with the ground Marines fighting just a few hundred yards away. From Torokina, single engine fighters could finally reach Rabaul. Boyington and the Black Sheep led the first fighter sweep of Simpson Harbor since the Australians left 20 months before. On 3 January 1944, Boyington tied Eddie Rickenbacker’s record for total kills during the First World War, 26. His record tying kill preceded him back to base where the press waited for him to land. Unfortunately he never showed up. Pappy Boyington was shot down on his way back and captured by a Japanese I-boat. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Boyington always joked to the others not worry about him, “even if he was on fire with 30 Japs on my tail… I’ll meet you in San Diego for New Years and we’ll have a drink.”
True to form, the Marine Corps brass disbanded VMF-214 four days after Boyington was shot down, and the pilots of The Black Sheep were sent into the replacement pool.
After the war, that drink came four months early. On 29 August 1945 Boyington was liberated from his Japanese prison and flown back to the United States. On 21 September, he was met by 21 of his former subordinates and they had another epic party; this time at the elegant St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The get-together was chronicled with a spread in October’s edition of Life magazine.
In their short three months of combat operations under Boyington, VMF-214 had nine aces, a combined 97 Japanese planes killed and another 203 more probables and damaged. The Black Sheep had the most kills in the shortest time of any Marine Corps or Navy fighter squadron up to that point in history.
Under the pretext of assisting Protestant Hungarian rebels against the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire sent a massive army of over 200,000 to seize the southern gateway to Central Europe, the Austrian capital of Vienna. As in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Emperor Leopold I assumed that the Ottomans needed to seize the fortresses in Hungary along the Danube in order to float their heavy artillery down the river to successfully besiege the city. He fortified and reinforced Vaag, Raab and Commore downstream from Vienna, only to have the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha surprisingly move overland from Belgrade and strike directly at the heart of Christian resistance to Ottoman expansion in Europe, Vienna. “The head of the snake”, in Kara Mustapha’s words.
In the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire was both simultaneously the splendid and all-powerful Caliphate of Islam, and showing the first signs of becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire was known later in the 19th century. In the late 17th century Ottoman society stagnated and further conquests had been checked and rolled back in the Northeast and East by an aggressive Imperial Russian Tsardom, in the Middle East by the Safavid Persians, in the Indian Ocean by Portuguese sailors, and in the Mediterranean by the galleys of Spain, Italy, and the Maltese Knights. Only in Transylvania, Hungary and the Ukraine had the viziers of the sultan had any success conquering territory in the name of Islam.
Kara Mustapha was the latest of a long line of the aggressive and competent Albanian Köprülü viziers, and he was by far the most ambitious. He recognized that the Ottoman Empire must expand or its internal governmental and organizational fallacies would bring the Empire down. He saw himself as the future ruler of the heartland of Europe in the name of the sultan. He boasted that he “would water his horses in St. Peter’s Square” and “turn the Basilica into a mosque”. Sultan Mehmed IV, who was enjoying the fruits of being the most powerful man in Islam (his personal hunting grounds were larger than modern day Bulgaria and his personal harem was in the tens of thousands) gave a green silk cord tied as a noose to Kara Mustapha: seize Vienna or strangle yourself. Kara Mustapha wore it around his neck, day and night.
By advancing overland, Mustapha gambled that he could take Vienna before reinforcements from the Empire’s Circles (Circles were an administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire e.g. Franconian Circle, Bavarian Circle etc.) or a relief force from Poland arrived. Although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was normally a staunch ally of the Holy Roman Empire’s arch rival, France, the Commonwealth’s elected King Jan III Sobieski signed the Treaty of Warsaw that spring and vowed to come to Vienna’s aid if the Turk’s besieged it, as Leopold was if the same befell Krakow. But Krakow was a long way from Vienna and it took time to assemble a large enough army to do battle with Mustapha and relieve the city. Kara Mustapha’s surprise overland move on Vienna would have been successful had it not been for three men: Prince Hieronim Lubomirski, Count Ernst von Starhemberg, and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano.
When Mustapha’s Tartar foraging parties were spotted just two day’s ride from Vienna in early July, Emperor Leopold I hastily departed for Linz, entrusting the defense of city to Starhemberg, the military governor of Vienna, and Leopold’s spiritual advisor Marco d’Aviano. Although Vienna was unprepared for a siege, Starhemberg leveled Vienna’s vulnerable suburbs, quickly evacuated most of citizenry, tallied and secured the arms and stores, and tirelessly established the defense and organized the remaining civilians into a militia. The Imperial commander, Charles V Duke of Lorraine gave Starhemberg 1/3 of the Imperial army, about 12,000 men, to defend the walls and man Vienna’s 380 cannon, before he withdrew further into Austria with the remainder to await and gather further reinforcements. The first reinforcements were 3000 Poles under Lubomirski who immediately forced marched from Poland upon news of Mustapha departing Belgrade, and arrived in Vienna just before the Turks invested the town on 15 July 1683.
Mustapha sent the traditional offer of submission to Islam to spare Vienna, but Starhemberg refused, and would have even if he wasn’t just recently informed of the slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town just south of Vienna which had accepted Mustapha’s offer, whose inhabitants were massacred anyway. The Turks then tried to bombard Vienna into submission, but without their heavy artillery, was outgunned by the numerous cannon protruding from Vienna’s Walls. Mustapha settled into a siege, and on the advice of his French mercenary engineers and artillerists, ordered his men to dig trenches and his sappers to dig mines. He aimed to break the walls of Vienna from below, the defenders with constant assault, and the will of the population with isolation and propoganda.
Marco d’Aviano was the rock upon which the morale of Vienna sat. Under his leadership, he and the Catholic priests of Vienna gave twice daily sermons to the troops and civilians in the city extolling the virtues of continued resistance. They were the front line in the war against treachery from within and broke up at least one plot to secretly open a small gate to a force of elite Turkish Janissaries. D’Aviano and Starhemberg took Turkish propaganda head on and read aloud leaflets proclaiming promises from Mustapha if the city was surrendered. They had only to point at Perchtoldsdorf and the other broken promises of the Ottoman Empire.
Most able bodied citizens were formed into a militia which Starhemberg skillfully intermixed with his Imperial professionals. Every day and night he visited the sentries on the walls. When Mustapha’s trenches crept closer and the countermining failed to prevent the Turks from breaching the walls, the tireless Starhemberg was there to plug the gap or oversee the repairs. One furious assault in early September was thrown back only because of a desperate countercharge by Starhemberg at the head of a company of shoemaker apprentices. Usually, at his side was the stalwart Lubomirski, whose Poles formed the shock troops that sealed the breaches from the inside. His men were used to the deprivations of a city under siege and provided a stoic example for the citizens of Vienna to emulate. More importantly, Lubomirski and his Poles represented a concrete manifestation of King Sobieski’s promise to come to the city’s aid. No matter how cunning and steadfast the defense of the city, Vienna would eventually fall without assistance from the outside.
In the beginning of September, King Sobieski arrived with his army at Hollabrunn, Austria, where he took command of the 24,000 strong Imperial army under the Duke of Lorraine and 28,000 Germans from Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia under Georg Frederich, the Prince of Waldeck to form a united coalition to relieve Vienna. Though the Duke of Lorraine, as the senior representative of Emperor Leopold and the host nation, was entitled to the command (He also narrowly lost the election to the Polish throne to Sobieski years before), and Price Waldeck brought the most troops, both agreed that Sobieski was the most qualified to defeat the Turks. The Turks referred to Sobieski as “The Lion of Lechistan” for his victory at the Battle of Chocim and had defeated all comers, Islam and Christian, for the past decade and a half. Just twenty years before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subsumed by its enemies in a period known as “The Deluge”, when the armies of Sweden, Brandenburg, Austria, Transylvania, Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, and Russians completely overran the country. Sobieski was instrumental in the Commonwealth clawing back from that catastrophe. In the late summer of 1683, King Jan III Sobieski was at the head of a coalition army trying to save Christendom from the advances of the Islamic Caliphate.
On 6 September 1683, the army inexplicably crossed the Danube with no resistance at Tulin just 30km from Vienna, even though Mustapha’s Tartar light cavalry under his greatest cavalry commander, Khan Murad Giray of Crimea, observed their every movement. Any delay at this point would have been fatal. Just two days later, Mustapha’s sappers breached the wall and his Janissaries occupied the Burg bastion and the Burg ravelin, and were poised to break through the Löbel bastion. The final tunnels under the Löbel bastion were nearing completion; their detonation would doom Vienna. No matter how valiant the defense by Starhemberg and Lubomirski, the loss of two bastions would allow Mustapha to overwhelm the exhausted and beleaguered garrison. However, a Ruthenian noble under Lubomirski, Jerzy Kulczycki, volunteered to sneak through the Turkish lines to contact Lorraine and returned with news of Sobieski’s imminent arrival, which redoubled Starhemberg’s countermining efforts.
Mustapha gambled again that his sappers could blow the Löbel bastion and take Vienna before the coalition army could relieve the siege. It was a good bet. Sobieski still had to make the approach, and then traverse the ravine and stream crossed Wienerwald (Vienna Wood) before he could attack. Moreover, as Sobieski was granted the position of honor in the line, the right, the Polish army had to climb the Kahlenburg, a steep, rocky hill that Mustapha assumed was impassable to cavalry and cannon.
On the 9th and 10th of September, Polish peasants and soldiers dragged their 131 cannon over the Kahlenburg not wanting to waste the horses on such an arduous task. Two ropes were tied to each gun with 20-30 men pulling on each while an equal number pushed the spokes of each wheel. It was painful and backbreaking work which even the nobles, including the King, participated in. On the afternoon of 11 September, the Polish army lit fires and shot flares into the air to alert the garrison of Vienna that salvation was near. That evening, Sobieski and his Poles came down the Kahlenburg, again without harassment from the Tartars.
Murad was held back by Mustapha, who was preoccupied with the sappers’ progress and refused to believe the Tartar reports. The Khan, offended by his treatment, took his men and rode home, on the eve of the battle.
At 4 am on 12 September, 1683, the Polish cannon with their commanding position on the Kahlenburg fired into the Turkish camp signaling the beginning of the Battle of Vienna. On the left of the coalition line, Lorraine’s Imperial troops were the first to engage, followed quickly by Waldeck in the center. The Poles, reorganizing after the trip over the Kahlenburg, engaged soon thereafter. The battle was a slow process as the ground was cut by vineyards and low walls, each of which was stoutly defended by the Turks. However, Mustapha held back his best troops, the Sipahi’s and Janissaries, from the battle in anticipation of the imminent breach of Vienna’s walls.
The coalition pounded forward. Nevertheless, the Turk’s still outnumbered the attacking Christians. The battle continued all morning and all afternoon. Sobieski counseled his commanders that the objective of the day was to establish an advantageous position from which to begin the next day’s battle. He informed them that no battle of this magnitude could possibly be won in a single day. The broken terrain they were fighting over must be cleared before Sobieski’s trump card, the famed Polish Winged Hussars, could be unleashed to break the Turks.
All afternoon Lorraine and Waldeck begged Sobieski to charge as the Turks begrudgingly relinquished yard by painful yard. Sobieski wouldn’t relent: a premature charge would waste the striking power of the Hussars, who so far had never lost a battle. In a land that prided itself on its cavalry, the Husaria were a cut above. Only the richest and most competent of horsemen could afford and handle the accouterments of the Husaria. Armoured in a thick Sarmatian breastplate and a Germano/Roman helmet on the heaviest warhorse in Europe, the Polish Hussars were dedicated to the shock value of the charge. Heavily armed with an 18ft lance, a longsword like the knights of old, a sabre like any good Polish nobleman, a battle axe or Cossack warhammer for the melee, and a carbine and a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous French musketeers, the Husaria were meant for one thing and one thing only – to break an army with their charge.
The Husaria’s most distinctive feature was not their armour or weaponry, but their panoply. On his back, the well-to-do Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. This exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles on which flew hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars. The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
The German, Imperial, and Polish infantry and cavalry pounded the Turkish lines, but still Sobieski would not release his hussars, much to the dismay of those who had fought face to face with the determined Turkish defense for almost twelve straight hours. At 4 pm, just an hour or so before the sun set which would bring an end to the fighting, the first breakthroughs occurred. Both Waldeck and then Lorraine reported that the walls and vineyards were cleared, followed closely by Sobieski’s own Poles. However, was there enough daylight to finish the battle before Mustapha’s sappers blew the mines under the Löbel bastion?
Sobieski, observing the disorganization in the Turkish lines and camp before him, gambled that there was. He ordered the Polish Hussars to charge, and every Pole, Austrian, and German with a horse to follow.
At 4:30 pm, 12 September 1683, 3000 Polish Winged Hussars, followed by 20,000 Polish Panzerini and Kozacy, Austrian and German Ritters, and any coalition fighter with a horse, charged the Turkish lines. The battle was in doubt for but minutes. The largest cavalry charge in history passed through the Turkish lines, then the Turkish camp, and didn’t stop until it was at the Gates of Vienna, five miles away. Upon seeing the effects of the charge, Starhemberg and Lubomirski sortied with the entire garrison and struck the elite Turkish Janissaries and Sipahis as they formed to stop the Husaria. The starving civilians of Vienna followed closely behind, fell upon the Turkish camp, especially the herds of cow and buffalo which they butchered on the spot, and ate their fill.
For but a brief moment, all of Christendom was united in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Gates of Vienna. King Jan III Sobieski was accompanied by Starhemberg and Lubomirski around the city to the rousing crowds of jubilant Viennese. The Viennese bakers created a fluffy crescent shaped pastry in honor of the victory over Islam which we know today as the “croissant.” And for the hardier folk, the Jewish bakers boiled some dough in a circle in honor of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. Today, we call them “bagels”. Kulczycki would eventually go on to open Vienna’s first cappuccino café after the battle with 200 sacks of coffee beans captured from the Turkish camp. With the all the magnificent plunder about, no one wanted the beans but Kulczycki. Vienna had coffee cafés previously, but Kulczycki’s was the first to serve the bitter liquid with sweetened steamed milk. He opened the “Blue Bottle Coffee House” and it was an immediate hit. (The café is still there, and yes, I’ve been there.) Word of the victory sparked wild celebration in Rome, Krakow, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even London and Paris. But it was not to last.
Lorraine quickly sent word to Emperor Leopold that he needed to return promptly so that Sobieski wasn’t recognized as the savior of Vienna. German and Austrian contemporary accounts and later German historians would roll Lubomirski’s exploits into Starhemberg’s, and excise him completely from the historic record. Leopold was offended at Sobieski’s triumphal parade through Vienna and forbade any monument dedicated to him in the city. Waldeck was relegated to a Hapsburg puppet, instead of the leader of a large contingent of fiercely independent Germans who took on the brunt of Kara Mustapha’s defense and allowed the Polish cavalry to seize the day.
The Christian participants went on to form the Holy League against the Turks and reconquered Hungary, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia from the Ottomans. The battle signaled the Ottoman Empire’s irrevocable decline and they would never again threaten Europe.
Kara Mustapha Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, did not escape his green cord – the Sultan’s assassins strangled him in Belgrade on Christmas Day, 1683.