The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: The Battle of the Dead and the Cactus Air Force

When the Japanese Bombardment Group and Task Force 67.4 mutually broke contact in the early morning hours of 13 November 1942, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was far from over. As soon as the American ships cleared the Sealark Channel, the PT boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three screamed into the Savo Sound to go hunting. The PT Boat skippers, driving the smallest warships (warboats?) in the fleet, had a Napoleonic complex, and tended to shoot first and ask questions about target identity later, especially since they were quickly sunk if spotted. So when the task forces were in the area, they were kept dockside. PT boats were still a novelty in 1942, and coordination measures with the task forces were still being worked out. No coordination existed except to check in with “Cactus Control” on Guadalcanal, which MTBRON Three dutifully did. However Cactus Control didn’t know that the Portland was still trying to limp out of Savo Sound with a damaged rudder and unable to break 10 knots. The PT boats attacked the crippled ship, and fortunately missed. They wouldn’t miss the next time though. It was found that the torpedoes were launched on the wrong bearing: the thirty odd steel hulled ships sunk in battle over the last two months messed with the compasses in the wooden boats. “Ironbottom Sound” truly was.

When the sun rose that morning, the Savo Sound was a holocaust of debris, bodies, oil slicks, and burning wreckage. Several ships were adrift and on fire, and the stranded Japanese were fighting to the death. The Portland was forced to engage sailors on a wrecked Japanese destroyer firing at them as they crawled out of the Sound. The burning Hiei did the same to an American destroyer whose crew correctly surmised the Japanese weren’t taking prisoners. Two burning and slowly sinking destroyers sat the night out a few hundred yards from each other: only to continue fighting at first light when they recognized the enemy. There are several reports of survivors fighting in the water, and even Japanese killing their to own to prevent surrender. Neither side had yet to conduct any search and rescue, everything was needed for the coming day. Until the battle ended, the exhausted, and most likely wounded, survivors were written off, so the morning became known as “The Battle of the Dead”. The only consolation was for the American survivors, who could signal the Cactus Air Force as they went about the grim and coldly efficient business of sinking the remaining hulks, including the seemingly unsinkable Hiei, and attacking Tanaka’s Transport Group still coming down the Slot.

The Marines, Navy, and the Army flyers of the Cactus Air Force took to the task with a vengeance. First they swept the Savo Sound of any remaining Japanese ships, including the Hiei, which absorbed a silly amount of bombs and torpedoes before she finally sank later that night. Then they turned on Tanaka and the destroyers and freighters of his Transport Group as it slowly made its way to Guadalcanal. Every ship that unloaded on Guadalcanal meant a tougher fight for Vandegrift’s exhausted 1st Marine Division. The attacks were relentless.

On Henderson Field, the ground crews were augmented by cooks from the mess tents, headquarters staff, and even rescued sailors from the previous night’s fight that managed to make it to shore: all in the name of servicing the aircraft quicker. Some pilots did 4, 5, even 7 sorties that day. Vandegrift requested more planes, and Halsey delivered. He ordered the Enterprise to send all of her torpedo and dive bombers to operate out of Henderson Field, and she would return to port. When the carrier planes arrived, Cactus Control wasn’t expecting them, and they were initially thought to be a Japanese strike. When they were recognized, one ground controller likened them to “descending from above like angels from heaven.”

Tanaka lost a destroyer and seven transports packed with men and equipment. However, many of the troops were transferred off the sinking ships onto the escorting destroyers, but the losses in the supplies were painful. The Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were starving, and Tanaka was their only hope.

That night, the four remaining transports beached on Guadalcanal. They would never survive another day in the Slot during daylight. Tanaka managed to land 7000 more troops on the island but not nearly enough food. The commander of the Japanese forces on the island, Maj Gen Hyakutake, called it “chickenfeed”. One of his regimental commanders was reporting 70% of his men were ineffective due to hunger. The 7000 new troops made Hyakutake’s logistics’ situation even worse. The key was Henderson Field: transports couldn’t make it down the Slot as long as it was operational. Yamamoto decided to try again.

Yamamoto sent a few cruisers down the Slot that night, and Halsey got word, but Task Force 67.4 was spent. The only ships he had left were the Enterprise’s escorts, the battleships Washington and South Dakota. He sent them north. However, after unloading all of her bombers to Henderson Field, the Enterprise steamed further south to get closer to port. When the battleships got word to be in Savo Sound by midnight, Rear Admiral Willis “Ching Chong” Lee replied, “Does he think we have wings?”

The cruisers bombarded Henderson Field, and destroyed some planes, but after All Hell’s Eve it wasn’t too concerning. In fact, when Lee’s battleships couldn’t make it in time, Cactus Control unleashed MTBRON Three. The plucky little PT boats put three torpedoes into the Japanese ships and chased them off, cutting their bombardment short. In any case, only the big guns on the battleships could suppress Henderson Field long enough for Japanese transports to make it to Guadalcanal. And at that moment, there was one steaming north away from the fight, the Kirishima.

The furious Yamamoto fired the disgraced Abe and gave command of the Bombardment Force to his right hand man, Adm Nobutake Kondo. Kondo was on his way from Truk with the cruisers Atago, Sendai and Takao to reinforce Abe when he was ordered to rendezvous with the Kirishima and Nagara and go back down the Slot. Kondo was to destroy Henderson Field the next night, that of the 14th.

The prewar battleship admirals would finally get their showdown with the Japanese.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Friday the Thirteenth

When ViceAdm Halsey told MajGen Vandegrift that he would get him help, Vandergrift took him at his word. So much so that on 31 October 1942, Vandergrift significantly weakened the perimeter of Henderson Field to mass troops so the Marines could take the battle to the Japanese. For over a week, Vandergrift’s men mauled concentrations of stunned Japanese and pushed them back away from the perimeter. But even combined with the horrible losses taken in the Battles for Henderson Field and off the Santa Cruz Islands in late October, Yamamoto was not willing to give up Guadalcanal.

On 12 November, the tenacious Tanaka put together another Tokyo Express run with transports that departed for Guadalcanal carrying 7000 more troops and enough supplies to last 30,000 men a full month. Steaming ahead was Vice Adm Hiraki Abe’s Bombardment Group consisting of the fast battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the cruiser Nagara, and eleven destroyers. Abe was to sweep the Savo Sound of any Allied ships that night, then plaster Henderson Field.

American Naval Intelligence was reading the Japanese mail again and Halsey knew all about the plan. But knowing about the plan and having the resources to do anything about it were two different things. Halsey wasn’t completely sure it was accurate: the Japanese didn’t include any aircraft carriers. He assumed Yamamoto still had at least three carriers left (He did, just without planes and pilots). American Intelligence didn’t know that the Japanese had little naval airpower remaining after the grievous losses off the Santa Cruz Islands. All Halsey had were the Cactus Air Force and the carrier Enterprise. And he wouldn’t have the CAF if Abe got through with his Bombardment Group. But he also couldn’t risk the Enterprise.

Still at this point in the Pacific War, the score between the Americans and Japanese was kept by the number of aircraft carriers each possessed, and the Americans were losing. Yamamoto had three, Halsey just one. The loss of the Enterprise would be a blow that Halsey might not be able to recover from, if only from a propaganda stand point. (This is actually kind of bullshit: Nimitz himself was quoted saying, “I wish we had as many carriers as the Japanese say they sunk.” No one believed the Japanese broadcasts anymore. However, losing the last one would still be pretty bad.) So Halsey needed to protect the Enterprise, if only to maintain some flexibility when dealing with the Yamamoto’s moves on Guadalcanal. So when the half repaired Enterprise sortied from Noumea, it was accompanied by the only two battleships Halsey possessed, the South Carolina and Washington, for anti-aircraft protection. Abe battleships would have to be taken care of by Norman Scott’s cruisers.

On 11 November, Halsey’s promise to Vandergrift was being delivered in the form of the remainder of New Caledonia’s garrison, the US Army’s 187th Infantry Regiment. Their transports’ escorts were rolled into Scott’s Task Force 64 in order to put as many ships as possible in Abe’s path. However, the escorts were commanded by Rear Adm Dan Callaghan, Halsey’s predecessor’s chief of staff who needed a job after his boss was relieved. Unfortunately for Scott, Callaghan outranked him by 14 days. So instead of Norman Scott, the only surface warfare admiral in any Allied navy with a victory over the Japanese, command of the warships that had to stop Abe fell to Callaghan.

Task Force 64 was renamed Task Force 67.4, to show Callaghan was still subordinate to Task Force 67, Halsey’s transports, and sent into the Savo Sound to find and destroy Abe’s Bombardment Group. A month before, it would have been an impressive force: two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers, but against Abe’s massive battleships, it was “a death sentence”. Just the Hiei itself had almost as much raw firepower as Callaghan’s entire command. Callaghan thought he was being sacrificed, and this sense of doom permeated throughout the entire task force.

It didn’t help that the next day was Friday the Thirteenth, the unluckiest day of the year.

Just after midnight, on 13 November 1942, Task Force 67.4 made radar contact with Abe’s Bombardment Group steaming towards Guadalcanal in a ragged formation. To get out of a rain squall, Abe reversed course and then reversed again. The maneuver threw his formation into chaos, but he needed out of the rain in order to use his flares and searchlights. The American cruiser Helena picked up the Japanese with its powerful radar, and Callaghan ordered the task force directly at them. Abe was in two columns, and Callaghan drove his ships in a single file line right between them – like a lance into Abe’s gut.

Any advantage the Americans had from early radar contact was wasted by Callaghan, who didn’t trust the new technology. So the two forces closed with each other on the starless and moonless night: one out of ignorance, and one out of incredulity.

At 0130, Callaghan’s destroyer vanguard had to make emergency turns to avoid ramming the Japanese ships, which broke the American formation. The battle finally started a minute later when a powerful searchlight from the Nagara lit up Callaghan’s flagship, the San Francisco. Callaghan ordered the peacetime protocol, “Counter-illuminate”, but the San Francisco’s gunnery officer, a veteran of several battles in Ironbottom Sound, replied “Fuck that”, and yelled, “Open fire” into his mic.

What followed was, “a bar brawl where someone turned out the lights, and everyone started swinging.” The American ships were amongst the Japanese, and the last order Callaghan gave was “Odd ships fire to starboard, even number to port” but by then it was too late. Every ship was fighting its own battle with whatever ship it could see among the flickering light from flares, searchlights, and burning ships.

Abe was taken completely by surprise. His battleships were loaded to fire high explosive incendiaries at Henderson Field, and initially their shells didn’t pierce the American armor but it did set fire to anything exposed. And at knife fighting ranges his big 14” guns weren’t nearly as effective as Callaghan’s 8” guns on the heavy cruisers, or even the Helena’s 6” guns. No feasible amount of armor could stop the San Francisco or Portland’s shells fired in a flat trajectory at those velocities at point blank range. Within minutes, the Hiei was on fire from stem to stern, and the rest of Abe’s ships were not much better.

The Japanese surprise didn’t last long though. For the next 40 minutes, cruisers dueled with battleships, destroyers dueled with cruisers, and battleships dueled with destroyers, as the little ships darted in and out of the fight while launching ship killing torpedoes in all directions. Marines watching from shore described the exploding ships as “the opening and closing of the doors to Hell.” Visual identification was difficult, and more than a few friendly fire incidents occurred. At one point, Callaghan’s San Francisco fired at the Hiei through Norman Scott’s Atlanta, killing Scott and everyone on the bridge. Callaghan himself was killed when the battleship’s massive guns tore apart the San Francisco’s superstructure.

The battle was decided by a lowly destroyer, the Sterett. Late in the battle, she made a gun run on the Hiei and put 36 5” rounds into the bridge (She was too close for torpedoes to arm), which severely wounded Abe. At this critical juncture, the Kirishima was finally making her presence felt on the leaderless American ships. But the terribly wounded Abe thought the battle was lost and ordered a withdrawal. The Kirishima and the remaining Japanese ships turned north. Once again, the Japanese penchant for centralized command and control saved the Americans.

“Friday the Thirteenth’s Cruiser Action” left the Americans crippled. The skipper of the Helena took command and shepherded everyone away from the Japanese, but only the Helena and one destroyer were fit to fight the next day. The light cruisers Atlanta and Juneau were sunk along with four destroyers. Onboard the Juneau, were the Sullivans – five brothers who joined the Navy together, noe of whom survived the battle. Furthermore, the heavy cruiser Portland was sailing in circles desperately trying to repair a damaged rudder and engine, and the San Francisco had 26 holes in her, most 14” wide.

But the Hiei was drifting and on fire, and the Kirishima was headed back north. The Japanese battleships didn’t get a chance to fire on Henderson Field that night. When the sun came up, what remained of Abe’s Bombardment Group and Tanaka’s transports felt the full fury of the Cactus Air Force.

And they neither could, nor felt like taking prisoners.

The Bolshevik Revolution: Red October

On 25 October 1917, (7 November according to the Gregorian calendar) radical socialists called Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Leon Trotsky hijacked and precluded a wider socialist rebellion against the Russian Provisional republic led by Alexander Kerensky.

In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated after the massive casualties sustained on the Eastern Front, mostly during the failed Brusilov Offensive in late 1916, and the resultant second and third order effects back home. A Provisional Government was formed, but to coordinate action of the middle and far left in the Provisional Government, a separate Petrograd Soviet, or worker’s council, was formed and chaired by Leon Trotsky. The Petrograd Soviet was based on other soviets that ruled locally in many parts of Russia. Petrograd, modern St. Petersburg and the capital of Russia at the time, was one of Russia’s most important cities, along with Moscow, and its soviet, and by default Trotsky, wielded outsized influence.

During the summer, the Provisional Government weathered several rebellions but in September and October 1917, Russia was wracked by massive strikes. On 23 October 1917, the Bolshevik Central Committee of the 2nd Congress of Soviets, which was meeting in Petrograd, resolved that the time was ripe for revolution, which was planned for two days later to coincide with the arrival of a flotilla of destroyers crewed by pro-Bolshevik sailors and marines.

On 25 October, Red Guards, specially formed paramilitaries consisting of armed factory workers, peasants, and deserters from the army and navy, seized strategic locations throughout the city in a near bloodless coup, as most of the Petrograd garrison joined the insurrection. That evening they seized an abandoned Winter Palace, the symbol of Russian Imperial rule. Kerensky fled earlier in the day to find military forces loyal to the Provisional Government specifically Cossack units outside the city. But since the Red Guards controlled the railroads, telegraphs, and the chokepoints around the city, Kerensky ended up borrowing a car from the American Embassy to flee. He managed to make his situation worse when some soldiers loyal to him fired on a unit that could have been persuaded to join his cause, and this act made him seem very Tsar-like in the eyes of many.

The next day, the Bolsheviks announced to the 2nd Congress of Soviets they had seized Petrograd and the Winter Palace. But instead of immediately forming a Constituent Assembly for a new constitution, the Bolsheviks announced that rule of Russia would be immediately given to the deputies of the local soviets. The Mensheviks and most of the Socialist Revolutionary Party walked out in protest, but Trotsky taunted them on the way out, “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!” But Trotsky was right, they were used, and when they were no longer needed, discarded. As many groups found out later much to their detriment (Lenin famously referred to them as “useful idiots”).

A new Constituent Assembly was elected from the Bolsheviks, the remaining Socialist Revolutionaries, and their allies, but even that was quickly disbanded when it proposed reforms that took power away from the soviets. Within a month, private property was confiscated, wages were fixed, and all forms of social hierarchy that didn’t stem from the barrel of a gun were abolished, such as military rank and noble or educational titles, the first secret police, the Cheka, were established, and the “hammer and sickle”, a proposed symbol unity between the worker and peasant, was adopted. The Bolsheviks would immediately seek terms with Imperial Germany, resulting with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended Soviet Russia’s participation in the First World War, and began the Russian Civil War.

The Great Emu War

After the First World War, Australian veterans were given land to farm in Western Australia. In late 1932, the increased irrigation, the cleared and cultivated land, and the not-yet-harvested crops proved to be an attraction for emus. Emus are large flightless birds indigenous to Australia, and only slightly smaller than an ostrich. In October 1932, great feathered hordes of emus descended upon the farms of the Wheatbelt region in their annual migration from the coast to the interior.
The emus ate the crops, trampled the land, destroyed property, and made a horrible cacophony that was enough to wake the dead. Angry Diggers attempted to fend off the invaders, but these direct descendants of dinosaurs seemed to absorb rifle shots, and scattered before they could be brought down. Moreover, the farmers’ fences proved no obstacle to the avian menace, and provided infiltration points for fences’ original targets: rapidly breeding and garden and crop annihilating rabbits and dingos.
In late October 1932, a section from the Royal Australian Artillery under command of Major GPW Meredith with a few Lewis guns was ordered to stop the Emu Menace. However, rains prevented Meredith’s operations from commencing. Despite Mother Nature, on 3 November Meredith attacked. Meredith found great flocks of emus, perfect for slaughter by the machine guns. Unfortunately, emus did not act as soldiers did assaulting trenches in the First World War. As soon as Meredith’s Lewis guns opened fire, the emus scattered. In the great flocks of hundreds, the soldiers managed to kill only a few.
Most distressingly, the emus reformed out of contact and continued their pillaging and brigandage of the farms. Meredith would find them, set up, kill a few, and frustratingly have to repeat the process as the emus evaded. He attempted to ambush the emus at a dam where the emus congregated in the evenings for a drink, but even this proved futile as the emus just found other places to patronize. Within a few days, the emus stopped traveling in great numbers and dispersed into the countryside in smaller groups. Furthermore, each small group seemed to have a leader, an alpha emu that usually stood over six feet with “a great dark plume” who watched over his emu flock, and warmed of the soldiers’ approach. Meredith attempted to motorize his firepower by bolting the guns on automobile hoods, but unlike the biplanes of the First World War, a moving vehicle jostling about the countryside was not a stable firing platform. On 8 November, the disconsolate Meredith withdrew from the area of operations.
Round One to the emus.
After the farmers complained to their representatives in the Australian Parliament, Meredith was sent back the next week, by direct order from the Minister of Defense. This time however, Meredith spent his time wisely and organized an anti-emu militia formed from the farmers. The renewed effort by Meredith’s machine guns and the farmer’s marksmanship had a greater impact. For the next three weeks, Meredith’s counter insurgency claimed the lives of over 300 emus, and possibly more due to the emu’s distinct lack of medical care for their wounded. But it still was not enough. The Australian press was having a hoot with the story, and the negative press for the “The Great Emu War” caused Meredith to be recalled in December.
Round Two to the Emus.
Despite appeasing the emus and halting direct military operations, the emus refused to curtail their deprivations of the Wheatbelt. The farmers continued to request military assistance, but the Australian government refused to authorize boots on the ground. They were unwilling to pay the political cost for a direct decades long War with the Emu. However, they didn’t surrender. The emu were akin to Napoleon’s corps and required forage to operate, so local governments invested in new emu/dingo/rabbit-proof fencing for the farmers. In essence, the new fencing isolated the emus from their logistics hubs. More importantly though, the Australian government issued a bounty on proof of every dead emu. In the mid to late 1930s, scalp hunting emu bounty hunters descended upon the Wheatbelt. Many tens of thousands of emus were killed over the next decade, giving credence to the impossibility of Meredith’s task, but ending the Emu Menace to the farmers.
Round Three to Australia.
Mission Accomplished.

The Second Battle of El Alamein: Operation Supercharge

For a week, the battle between Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzer Armee Afrika and Lt Gen Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army raged around an obscure railroad terminal in Egypt at El Alamein. In the previous weeks, both sides dug in and laid extensive minefields all the way from the coast to the impassable Qatarra Depression in the south. So far, the Second Battle of El Alamein was a constant cut, parry, and riposte by both sides, as the Eighth Army sought weak points in the German defenses, and slowly ground down Rommel’s forces. From Enigma intercepts, Montgomery knew of Rommel’s supply difficulties; it was only a matter of time before the Axis lines broke.

On 1 November 1942, Montgomery found his weak spot just above the Miteirya and Kidney Ridges in the north of the battlefield. There, dismounted engineers (the “light feet” of Operation Lightfoot, since they wouldn’t set off the anti-tank mines if they stepped on them) had cleared several passages through the German and Italian minefields. That evening, Montgomery reshuffled his forces and formed a composite division under the redoubtable Bernard Freyberg (Crete notwithstanding, Freyberg was still the best division commander the British had) and what remained of his 2nd New Zealand Division.

Just after 0100 that night, Freyberg launched Operation Supercharge to crack the German lines and pass the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions through so they could engage and destroy the remainder of Rommel’s ever dwindling supply of panzers. After a furious four hour bombardment, the Kiwi and British infantry forced the ridges doggedly defended by dug in Italian infantry, but expended themselves doing so. The only remaining static Axis defense was an anti-tank screen along the Rahman track. Freyberg had no infantry left to clear it, but with the breakout so close, a good old fashioned cavalry charge, Light Brigade-style, had to be tried.

The job fell to Brigadier Currie’s 9th Armoured Brigade, initially attached to Freyberg to fix Rommel’s inevitable counterattack after the infantry pierced the line. Now they were attacking directly into the teeth of German anti-tank guns. Just after dawn with the sun at their backs the British tankers rolled forward desperately trying to close the distance before the dreaded 88s shot them to pieces. But attacks that were suicide earlier in the year were merely exceptionally dangerous now. Thanks to Roosevelt’s stripping of tanks from America’s first armored division and sending them to the Middle East after the Fall of Tobruk, the thin skinned and light gunned Honeys, Cruisers, and Crusaders had been replaced by heavier and newer Churchill, Grant, and Sherman tanks, with thicker armour and longer ranged guns. For 30 intense minutes, Currie’s tanks dueled with Rommel’s guns. He didn’t break through, but there were few anti guns remaining. Rommel reinforced the line. However, only a counter attack could prevent the Eighth Army, a formation that Auchinlek and Montgomery spent months painstakingly building up, from breaking through and cutting the all-important coast road.

About an hour later, a Kiwi brigadier was wondering why the 9th Arm Brigade wasn’t supporting the defense. He found Currie dozing on a stretcher. “Sorry to wake you, John, but where are your regiments?” Currie waved to the half dozen tanks laagered around him. “Not your headquarters, your regiments?” Channeling Picket at Gettysburg, Currie groggily replied, “These are my regiments, Bill.”

Fortunately for Currie, Freyberg, and Montgomery, Rommel had little fuel and few tanks left to effect a counterattack. That afternoon, he threw the Littorio Armored Division and the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions at the gap, where they were stopped cold by British and Kiwi anti-tank guns and artillery, supported by waves of RAF air support, who by this point in the battle had near complete control of the air. The Germans and Italians lost nearly 100 tanks in what became known as “The Hammering of the Panzers”. It was about the same number of losses as the British, but Rommel had no replacements. He had just 35 tanks remaining, little fuel, and there was a British armoured car squadron rampaging through his rear areas who had slipped through in the confusion. Rommel knew the battle was lost.

However, Rommel was determined to save as much of his command as possible. That night he radioed Hitler directly for permission to withdraw, which Hitler replied the next day that Rommel needed to stand his ground, and ended his message with, “you can show them no other road than that to victory or death.” Rommel decided to compromise, but waiting on Hitler’s reply cost him dearly. He planned on withdrawing six miles, but never had the chance. During the night Montgomery again reorganized his forces and launched three infantry brigades at what was left of Rommel’s defenses along the Rahman Track, and broke through. Only the determined and stalwart defense by several Italian units prevented the PanzerArmee’s complete destruction, as Rommel waited on Hitler’s response. The elite Folgore Parachute Division, which spent most of its existence preparing for an airborne assault on Malta, was encircled and destroyed. They literally fought until the last bullet was expended. The Afrika Korps’ longest serving Italian allies, the Ariete and Littorio Armored Divisions and the Trieste Motorized Division, were also destroyed in desperate rear guard actions to buy Rommel time for the rest to withdraw.

By the morning of the 4th, the situation was hopeless, and Rommel abandoned the line to fall back to Fuka, 50 miles west. But he couldn’t even stop there. Montgomery’s armoured divisions dogged him the entire way, and by the 11th, Rommel was thrown out of Egypt. Rommel deemed Cyrenacia untenable with what remained of his once feared PanzerArmee Afrika, and by 23 November was back at El Algheila, where he started nearly eleven months before. Despite Hitler’s order to stand and die, Rommel’s compromise to withdraw just six miles at the end of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, turned into a retreat of over 650 miles. He would never return.

After the Second Battle of El Alamein, Churchill noted, “We can almost say that before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat”.

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

On All Hallow’s Eve, 1517, local teacher, professor of theology, and Augustinian monk, Martin Luther posted a proposal for a public debate on the door of Wittenberg castle’s church regarding the sale of indulgences by traveling Dominican friars. In 1517, indulgences were certificates guaranteed by the Pope that the bearer would not have to spend time in Purgatory for their earthly sins. Luther had drawn up a list of 95 theses which were his concerns, not specifically against indulgences themselves, but with their sale without any true contrition. He wanted to provoke debate, something he was very good at, and reform the Church, not break with it.

There is no evidence of Luther actually “nailing his theses to the door”. However, that day Luther did send copies of his 95 theses to Albrecht the archbishop of Mainz and Jerome the Bishop of Brandenburg, who forwarded them to the Pope. The bishops then let the matter drop. Stymied by his chain of command’s inaction, Luther sent his 95 theses to several friends throughout Germany. These friends promptly had many more copies made on one of the newest inventions of the Renaissance, the printing press. Luther gained a following and the Dominicans’ revenue from indulgences dropped. At the powerful Dominican order’s request, Pope Leo X issued a decree demanding the following of the Dominican practice of indulgences, which Luther and his adherents ignored. He wouldn’t give in without his debate.

Prominent German theologian John Eck took up Luther’s gauntlet. In July 1519, the two debated in Leipzig. Eck got the best of Luther, but only because Eck slandered him by pointing out that a century before, Jan Hus also thought indulgences were sacrilegious. This bit of sophistry horrified Luther, who had accepted Jan Hus and his failed Hussite rebellion in Bohemia in 1414, as the height of heresy. There were quicker ways to get burnt at the stake than by being called a “Hussite”, but not many.

Luther dug into Hus’ teachings to refute Eck. However, he found that he was actually fully in agreement with Hus, and speaking to his followers, said, “We are all Hussites without realizing it.” Luther began a proper campaign of book and pamphlet writing espousing and clarifying his thoughts on the Church, which due to the printing press, spread rapidly throughout Europe. It was at this point that Luther began calling for a break with the Church of Rome.

At several points in those formative years of the Protestant churches, Luther could have easily been declared heretical and burned at the stake. However, Luther had a powerful benefactor, the Elector Frederick of Saxony, who did not want his star orator and teacher, and Saxony’s most famous subject, harmed. When Luther was summoned to Rome to explain his views (where he would have almost certainly been killed), Frederick convinced the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian, to allow Luther to debate the Dominicans in Augsburg. The ailing Maximillian, who needed Frederick’s vote to get his grandson Charles elected as the next Emperor, was only too glad to accommodate Luther.

After Charles was elected Emperor, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire continued to be more important than the “Monk’s Quarrel”. Under Frederick’s protection, “Lutheranism” spread throughout Europe. In 1521, Luther was at the height of his popularity, and Charles requested that he explain himself at the Diet of Worms, fully expecting Luther to recant. But Luther did no such thing, and many of the members of the Diet called for his immediate execution. However, Charles honored his promise of Luther’s safe conduct. The Diet was called because Charles needed funds to fight the Turks, who had just recently captured Belgrade, which opened up the Hungarian Plain to Turkish raids and incursions. Frederick was by far the richest elector in the Empire, and Charles needed his support.

After securing Frederick’s support, Charles did outlaw Lutheranism, but by then it was too late. Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German, so that “every man can be his own priest”, which broke the power of the clergy and “democratized salvation”. Due to Luther’s superior rhetorical skills, prolific book writing and pamphleteering, which was compounded by the printing press, Lutheranism could no longer be contained. It had spread throughout Germany, France, the Low Countries, and even England.

The Protestant Reformation would eventually set Europe on fire. It would take over a hundred years of bitter and bloody internecine warfare before most Catholics and Protestants realized religion wasn’t worth killing each other over.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge

For various reasons, there was no clear successor to the Roman Empire after the death of Emperor Constantius in 306 CE. In the following years, two clear candidates emerged: Maxentius, who held Rome and made himself emperor, and his brother in law Constantius’ son Constantine who was in Britain at the time. In 312, Constantine gathered his legions and marched to the Italian peninsula to challenge the usurper.

On the night of 27 October, Constantine said he had a vision (some accounts say his legions saw it also) of a symbol, and heard the words “Under this sign you shall conquer”. Although commonly thought to be the cross, the symbol was the early Christian Chi Rho (P with an X in the stem) made of the first two letters of the word “Christ”. That night Constantine had the symbol painted on his legion’s shields, helmets, and banners.

The next morning, Constantine’s legionnaires met Maxentius at Milivian Bridge over the River Tiber on the Via Flaminia. Constantine decisively defeated Maxentius, and killed most of his troops, including the usurper himself, as they tried to flee across the bridge or swim the river. Constantine claimed divine intervention of the Christian God as the reason for his victory.

Constantine was not a Christian himself. Like most Roman soldier-emperors he worshipped Sol Invictus and Mithras, but saw the Christian god as one of many, and for the rest of his reign he ended the persecution of Christians. Emperor Constantine I did much to promote and protect Christianity across the Empire and was baptized a Christian on his deathbed. Constantine is arguably the single most important secular reason for Christianity rising from a mostly Eastern slave, outcast, and women’s cult, to the state religion of both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.

The Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

 “Strike –Repeat, Strike.” With those three words, ViceAdm Halsey unleashed the US Navy in the South Pacific to stop the Japanese juggernaut that headed southeast down the Solomon chain. Yamamoto was under the mistaken impression that the Japanese Army on Guadalcanal had seized Henderson Field, or at worst, were close enough to prevent the Cactus Air Force from taking off. This was simply not true. And the Tokyo Express would pay for it the next day.
Yamamoto sent a vanguard force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers down the Slot to assist the army in securing the rest of Guadalcanal, and prevent an American evacuation. Ever vigilant Australian coast watchers spotted them, and on the afternoon of 25 October, 1942, the Cactus Air Force sank the cruiser Yura, heavily damaged a destroyer, and forced the remainder to turn around. However, Yamamoto’s staff took the strike as proof that the American carriers were near Guadalcanal, and not that Henderson Field was still in American hands.
Halsey dispatched the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 64, under Rear Adm Willis Lee and reinforced by the battleship Washington (the indefatigable Norman Scott was 2IC because battleship admirals usually outranked cruiser admirals) to assist the Marines with naval gunfire, and if possible seek out and destroy the Tokyo Express. They wouldn’t get a chance. That left just the Japanese carriers. Nagumo would never risk his carriers in the confined waters of the Slot, which meant that they could only approach from the open seas to the north of the Solomon Islands.
Nagumo’s plan was to bait the American carriers with an advanced force of battleships and the light carrier Junyo. And then destroy them with a strike from his fleet carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, and another light carrier Zuiho. The first commander to launch a strike on his adversary’s fleet carriers was usually victorious. In the waters south east of Guadalcanal, Nagumo knew the Americans would have the advantage in reconnaissance. His plan was for the American first strike to hit his advance force.
Nagumo was right. B-17s and PBYs from Santa Cruz spotted both of the Japanese carrier forces on the afternoon of the 25th. However, unable to reciprocate and find the American carriers, the furious Nagumo prudently turned north and took his ships out of range. During the night, he would close the distance. The move saved his carriers from total destruction. Task Force 61 under Rear Adm Thomas Kinkaid was sprinting north with his own carriers, the Hornet and Enterprise. In the spirit of Halsey, Kinkaid risked a strike which would have caught Nagumo had he not turned around. In the end, it just forced his pilots to land in the dark to the loss of eight planes. As both sides closed the distance that night, the battle would be decided the next day.
On 26 October, 1942, both commanders closed to within 200 miles of each other, and both found each other just after dawn. In fact, their opposing strikes ran into each other heading to their respective targets, causing a furball as the escorting fighters from both sides engaged. Nonetheless, they each eventually found their targets. The American flyers set fire and disabled the Junyo and the Skokaku, and heavily damaged another cruiser. The Japanese pounded the Hornet, which would eventually have to be abandoned (The burning hulk was sunk by Japanese destroyers the following morning). And the Enterprise took a few bombs, but she managed to contain the fires and repair the damage. The Enterprise took on as many of the Hornets pilots as it could. Those that couldn’t land, were sent on to Guadalcanal. (As an aside, with each American carrier sunk, the Cactus Air Force got stronger. To the Marines, it seemed that this was the only way they got new pilots and planes.) At dusk both sides retired out of range. There would be no battle the next day.
In terms of ships sunk, the Battle off of the Santa Cruz Islands was a solid Japanese tactical victory. Nagumo had two carriers damaged, but two more were unscathed. Kinkaid had one sunk, and one damaged and unable to continue operations. However, the fight north of Santa Cruz was the first taste the Japanese pilots got of state of the art anti-aircraft fire. The Japanese planes had a horrible time penetrating the flak put up by the specialized anti-aircraft cruisers, such as the Juneau and San Juan, whom bristled with radar controlled 5” guns. Moreover, these same guns were thick on the carriers and the battleship South Carolina. It was argued later that the only reason the Hornet was hit was because a new ensign in charge of the Hornet’s forward battery accidentally threw the guns into maintenance mode as the first Japanese bomber began its dive, which locked the barrels straight up in the air. Also, several Japanese planes resorted to flying into the American ships, the Hornet especially, whose flight desk was awash in aviation fuel from one proto-Kamikaze.
But the Japanese paid a heavy price. Nagumo lost 100 planes, and 148 aircrew. Kinkaid lost only 37. The Battle off of the Santa Cruz Islands saw more Japanese pilots killed than Midway. Almost 2/3rds of the pilots who participated in the raid on Pearl Harbor were dead. Nagumo turned north that night not for lack of carriers, but for lack of planes and pilots to fly off of them. However, Halsey didn’t know that, and for the next ten days, every workman on Noumea was dedicated to getting the Enterprise, the only remaining American carrier in the Pacific, back in the fight.
But because of the Japanese inability to replace its veteran pilots, there wouldn’t be another carrier battle in the Pacific for 18 months. Though they didn’t know it, from this point on in the Second World War, the Americans had nothing to fear from Japanese naval airpower. The Kido Butai was dead.

The Battle for Henderson Field

Since the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese way of war in the Pacific can be characterized as the search for the “Kantai Kessen”, or Decisive Victory, that would end the war, just like the victories that defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century, brought the Tokugawa Shogunate to power in the 17th, or defeated the Russians in the early 20th. In late September, 1942, Yamamoto belatedly recognized that the Americans were committed to holding Guadalcanal, and therefore it could be used as bait for a decisive victory over Nimitz’ Pacific Fleet.
The problem was Henderson Field. It had to be captured or neutralized before Yamamoto would risk Nagumo’s remaining carriers and the Combined Fleet’s battleships in the South Pacific. At great pains, the Tokyo Express put two divisions of Gen Harukichi Hyakutake 17th Army on Guadalcanal. They had the task of securing Henderson Field. When this was accomplished, Yamamoto would unleash Nagumo and the battleships to sink the remains of the US Pacific Fleet as it inevitably came to the support of the Marines on Guadalcanal. After several delays, Hyakutake was scheduled to attack on the 23 October, 1942.
But the impenetrable jungle creased by steep ravines south of the airfield meant that the 2nd Sendai Division was still not in place by the afternoon of the 23rd. Hyakutake ordered another 24 hour delay. But the message never reached the fixing force that was to attack across the Matanikau River. At dusk on the 23rd, two Japanese regiments surged across the shallow water and along the north beach led by nine Type 97 medium and Type 95 light tanks. The Banzai didn’t even make it across the river. Marine artillery and 37mm anti-tank guns made short work of the tanks, while the waist deep Matanikau made a perfect moat that slowed the Japanese charge down just enough to prevent any breakthroughs. 600 Japanese died in the attempt with an unknown number of wounded. The Marines had about 50 casualties.
The attack did cause BGen Geiger to shift some forces west in response to the attack (Vandegrift was meeting with Halsey at Noumea on the 23rd and 24th) to cover the southern flank of the Lunga Point panhandle, which was normally only covered by patrols. They arrived just in time to stop the late flank attack on the Matanikau River line. However, this left Edson’s Ridge and 2500 yards of the southern perimeter covered by just LtCol Lewis B “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines. But the Japanese attacked there in September and were slaughtered. They wouldn’t do so again, or so the thinking went.
Unfortunately, Chesty Puller’s patrols completely missed the buildup of the 2nd Sendai Division over the previous two weeks. But it mostly wasn’t their fault. The Japanese assembly areas were much further south than they expected. Not that Hyakutake planned it that way. Most of his men thought they were four miles from Henderson Field, but they were actually eight. The Japanese had complete disregard for the Marines and didn’t even conduct reconnaissance in the direction of the airfield, no checking routes to the assault positions, no recce of the defenses, nothing. They figured they’d just do a movement to contact, roll over any Marines they encountered, and seize the airfield.
And had the entire division attacked at the same time, they would have at least broken through to the airfield. However, on the afternoon of the 24th, Mother Nature dropped a thunderstorm on the island that threw the Japanese approach marches into chaos. Between the driving rain, and the marches north being almost double the distance than they were expecting, the Japanese attacked piecemeal against Puller’s Marines.
Around 2130 that night, one of the Marine listening posts rang up the headquarters, Puller answered.
“Colonel, there about 3,000 Japs between you and me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. They’ve been all around us singing and smoking cigarettes heading your way.”
The first attacks began at 2200 and lasted all throughout the night, as individual Japanese units made contact, they attacked. The listening post was mistaken, there wasn’t three thousand but over seven. However, the piecemeal attacks allowed Puller to reinforce threatened parts of his line. Near continuous artillery support and canister fire from the anti-tank guns broke up the attacks. Still, the night was a near run thing, and his headhunter’s staff fought off their share of Japanese. And his water-cooled machine guns got so hot that the water evaporated and had to be replaced with only liquid readily available, urine. Puller requested help and received it from a battalion of the US Army’s 164th Infantry. As the soldiers filtered into the line the next morning, Puller attacked some stubborn Japanese that had pushed a bulge into his line. That was as far as they would get.
The Japanese attacked again on the night of the 25th, and received the same fate. By the morning of the 26th, Hyakutake called off the relentless but futile attacks. His men had suffered over 3000 killed, and many more wounded, most of whom would be found dead by the advancing Marines and soldiers in the months that followed.
Hyakutake’s assault on Henderson Field was a complete failure. But Yamamoto wouldn’t know that for several more days. In fact he believed the exact opposite: on the evening of the 24th, with the second phase of the battle barely begun, a Japanese soldier reported that he saw green and white flares over Henderson Field, the signal that the air field was captured. The flares were almost certainly American. Nonetheless, Hyakutake’s staff triumphantly reported to Yamamoto’s headquarters that the airfield was secure. Yamamoto ordered his fleet south.
At that moment, 900 miles further south, Vandegrift met with his new boss Halsey. Halsey asked him if he could hold, and Vandegrift replied, “I can hold, but I’ve got to have more active support than I’ve been getting.” It might as well have been a shotgun blast to Halsey’s chest. Even though he had been in charge less than a week, it was unfathomable to him that anyone would think his Navy was not doing its job. Halsey assured him that would change.
On the evening of the 24th, signals intelligence picked up a massive increase in Japanese traffic, and a bit later in the nearly full moonlight, US Army Air Corps long range reconnaissance spotted the bulk of Yamamoto’s fleet heading south. Just before midnight, Halsey sent a message to his commanders that resonated throughout the theater. It said simply,
“Strike – Repeat, Strike.”

America Enters the Trenches

 On 18 October, 1917, the first battalions from the 1st Division (US) left their training camps around Gondrecourt for the front at Sommerville, France. As part of their training, the American units would relieve the French 18th Division in the trenches. The “trench rotation” was a complicated night relief in place, and was old hat for French and British units after three years, but new for Americans unused to the realities of modern war on the Western Front.
The Sommerville sector was considered a quiet part of the front and used to rest and recuperate tired veteran units, or ease new ones into the war. The American battalions, with their attached machine guns and support units, would spend three days in the second line French trenches to familiarize themselves with the sector, then occupy the first line trenches for a week. As part of the training, these ten day rotations were done under French officers. American officers maintained command of companies and platoons, while French officers and staffs controlled the battalions and brigades, as the American counterparts watched and learned. The American 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment entered the French second line trenches on 21 October 1917, and the first shell fired in anger by American artillery during the First World War was shot the next morning in support by Battery C, 6th US Artillery. Three days later, the battalion entered the first line trenches opposite the German army across No Man’s Land.
The Germans knew something was going on and planned to find out during the next rotation. On the night of 2 November, just as the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry was settling into their muddy trenches after relieving the 1st Battalion, the Germans raided for prisoners. They isolated the targeted American sector with artillery and Sturmtruppen (specially trained German assault troops, or “Stormtroopers”) flooded the trenches of F Company. The Germans killed three, wounded four, and took ten prisoners back to their lines. Those soldiers were the first American casualties of World War One.
The Americans wouldn’t be surprised again. Another raid two weeks later was beaten back with heavy casualties. By the beginning of December all of the 1st Division’s battalions had rotated through the trenches and were trucked back to Gondrecourt to finish training. Their stint in the trenches wasn’t long, but it was long enough to let the surprised Germans know the United States was now truly in the war.