Tagged: OnThisDay

Riva Ridge

After the capture of Rome in June 1944, the US 5th Army and British Eighth Army raced north and ran into the German Gothic Line across the northern Apennines Mountains. Through October and November, they ground their way through the miles deep German defensive belts, suffering tens of thousands of casualties. Like Monte Cassino the year before, the key to the position was Monte Belvedere which controlled Highway 64, and the gateway to the Po Valley and the cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena. The key to Monte Belvedere was Riva Ridge whose artillery controlled all approaches. The Germans easily fought off three previous determined assaults there and considered the southern face of the ridge impossible to scale.

This was particularly true at the time because the best mountain troops in the Mediterranean theatre, Gen Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps, were withdrawn and sent to France. But after two years of intense mountain training in the Colorado, America’s only mountain division, the 10th Light Infantry (Alpine) arrived in Italy just after Christmas 1944. They entered the line in late January 1945, and with the 1st Brazilian Expeditionary Division were told to seize the approaches to the Po Valley. The 10th was assigned the difficult task of seizing Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.

For three weeks the mountaineers of the 10th conducted tedious nighttime patrols to determine routes to the German positions at the crest of the mountains. They discovered nine, all of which required some sort of vertical ascent using ropes or free climbing. They would have to do this without their specialized mountaineering equipment which sat in a warehouse in Boston awaiting transport. Nonetheless, on the night of 18-19 February 1945, the reinforced 1st Battalion 86th Infantry scaled the sheer and icy cliff faces (with 80 lbs packs) of Riva Ridge underneath the noses of the complacent German defenders. By the morning of the nineteenth, the Americans seized the ridge and neutralized the German artillery. This allowed the remainder of the division to make the equally arduous assault on Monte Belvedere the next night.

For the Americans on Riva Ridge, seizing it turned out to be the easy part: the Germans immediately counterattacked and would not let up the pressure for weeks. Fortunately, 10th Mountains’ logistics personnel worked ingenious miracles supplying the combat troops at the top of the ridge, without which Riva Ridge would fallen to a German counterattack the next day following the assault.

Climb to Glory!

The Battle for Iwo Jima

On 19 February 1945, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th US Marine Divisions of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s Task Force 56 landed on the island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin’s island chain south of Japan. They were to secure Iwo Jima’s three airfields. Because the island was about halfway between the Japanese Home Islands and the B-29 airfields in the Mariannas, Iwo Jima was planned to be used for an emergency landing field, though it was rarely used as such. Nonetheless Iwo Jima was a perfect staging area for the invasion of mainland Japan, scheduled for the upcoming autumn. For the next five weeks, 70,000 Marines and Navy personnel fought 22,000 Japanese defenders under Lieut General Tadamishi Kurabayashi for control of Iwo Jima.

Kurabayashi copied the tactics of ambush and interlocking fields of fire from impenetrable pillboxes that worked so well for the Japanese on Peleliu five months before. But unlike Peleliu, the Japanese had a further advantage: the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima was much easier to tunnel through. Kurabayashi’s troops spent almost a year digging in and connecting every pillbox, artillery position, and mortar, machine gun and sniper pit by tunnel. Furthermore, the entire southern portion of the island was dominated by the dormant volcano Mt Suribachi from which Japanese spotters could observe every inch of the island. Virtually the entire Japanese defense was underground and the three day American pre-invasion bombardment was especially ineffective.

The Marine’s first waves landed unopposed and subsequent patrols failed to find the defenders. Many thought the bombardment killed them all. They could not have been more wrong.

The Japanese only opened fire when the second wave crammed itself onto the beach, just as the assault battalions began to move off. The two waves of Marines crowded on the beach took enormous casualties from hidden Japanese positions.

Kurabayashi forbade wasteful banzai charges, but the Japanese took full advantage of the mobility afforded by the extensive tunnel system. Thousands of Marines were killed or wounded from “cleared” Japanese positions that were suddenly reoccupied after the Americans moved on.

After a grueling four day fight for the southern part of the island, the Marines captured Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The event was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag raising on the summit of the volcano. (The famous picture was actually of the second flag raised on the Mt Suribachi. The first was about an hour before but of a much smaller flag.)

Unfortunately, the hardest fights for the island were still to come. Kurabayashi’s main defensive line was further north protecting the second and third airfields on the island. The Marines were forced to clear every square foot of the island.

The only tactic that was effective against the dug in Japanese was an armored frontal assault. The Marines lead with tanks, especially the Sherman “Zippo” flamethrower tank, which forced the Japanese to attack — they had no way to stop the tanks short of physically assaulting and overrunning them. The dismounted Marines would fight off the now exposed Japanese, and then clear the Japanese positions with tank main gun rounds, satchel charges, and flamethrowers. Once the Japanese were cleared or dead, a bulldozer then sealed the inevitable connecting tunnel. The entire operation was usually under fire from supporting Japanese positions and artillery. The Marines did this until the last organized Japanese resistance ended. That occurred when the remaining defenders, out of food, water and ammunition, launched a final banzai charge led by Lieut General Kurabayashi himself (in defiance of his own orders) on 25 March 1945.

The island was declared secure, and the US Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment took over from the Marines. The 147th was an Ohio National Guard unit from Columbus Ohio, lost from the 37th Infantry Division when that division “went triangle” (Four to three regiments per division) in 1942. Starting on Guadalcanal, the 147th spent the rest of the war cleaning up after the Marines, and Iwo Jima was no different. About 1500 Japanese were still living in the tunnels and fighting on the desolate island after the Marines departed. The last two Japanese defenders didn’t surrender until 1949.

The Battle for Iwo Jima was the bloodiest and most bitterly contested amphibious operation of the Second World War. The Americans suffered 30,000 casualties including 7,000 killed in action. All but 200 of the 22,000 Japanese fought to the death. Of the 82 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the entire War in the Pacific, 27 were awarded for actions on the small island of Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz said of the Marines who fought there:

“Uncommon valor was a common virtue”.

The Liberation of Auschwitz

On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.

Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.

Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.

KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.

1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.

The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.

When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.

On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.

The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.

Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia. However, several KL Auschwitz III camps were used for workers to dismantle the IG Farben factories for transport east. And several other camps were eventually used to hold Polish political prisoners by the NKVD and its proxies once Silesia was fully occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet vow of “Never Again” clearly didn’t apply to themselves.

The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp initially wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.

In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Invasion of Normandy: Prologue

On 1 June 1944, the BBC broadcast the first lines from Paul Verlaine’s 1866 poem “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”)

“Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”).

The lines were a message to the French Resistance that the Allied invasion of France would begin in less than two weeks.

Two days later on 3 June, in the pouring rain, 150,000 men of the six assault divisions, the US 1st, 4th and 29th, the British 3rd and 50th, and the Canadian 3rd, and three airborne divisions, the US 82nd and 101st, and the British 6th finished moving into their staging areas all along the southern coast of England. The next day, they would load the LSTs and troop transports, and in the case of the airborne divisions, wait in huts on airfields next to the gliders and planes that would take them across the channel to Normandy. 800,000 more soldiers would take their place and wait their turn to cross in the coming days. On the afternoon of the 4th, Gen Eisenhower postponed the invasion at least one day due to weather. Many of the soldiers would not disembark and had to stay on their ships in the choppy seas and six foot swells.

That night, in the poor weather, the first Allied troops to invade Normandy parachuted in. Three teams from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and three teams from the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) landed in order to mark the drop zones for the pathfinders and airborne forces that were scheduled to arrive the next night.

100 miles and world away in Normandy, the German commanders took a look at the poor weather and the low tide, and were convinced that the Allies would not invade. And if they did, it would be farther up the coast at Pas De Calais. Rommel, the Army Group commander on the Atlantic Wall, departed on a drive back to Germany to spend some leave with his wife for her birthday on June 5th. His corps and division commanders prepared to depart for a map exercise at the chateau at Rouen, and they planned to be away from their HQs for the next few days.

In the early morning of 5 June, 1944, Gen Eisenhower met with his 14 most senior staff members and commanders to make the final decision whether or not to go ahead with the invasion of France in June. Group Captain James Stagg, the senior meteorologist on the staff, briefed that 6 June’s weather would briefly clear but the conditions would be still be well below what was thought to be the minimum necessary for safe and successful operations. Eisenhower looked around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion. It was most definitely not a vote. Seven wanted to go, and seven wanted to postpone until later in the month when the moon and tides were synced again.

After a long moment (Everyone in the room would describe it later as the longest moment of their lives), Eisenhower simply said, “Ok, let’s do it”, and stood up and walked out of the room. One of his last official acts was authorizing the 6 June 1944 Order of the Day for release. Known today as the “Great Crusade” speech, one copy was issued to over 175,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the assault force that night.

Within 20 minutes of “Ok, let’s do it”, 5000 ships, 12,000 aircraft, and 200,000 men began their journey across the English Channel. The ships first rendezvoused at “Area Z”, known colloquially as “Piccadilly Circus”, before heading south to Normandy. Operation Neptune, the invasion of Normandy, and a component part of Operation Overlord the invasion of France, was the largest amphibious invasion of Europe since the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C.

Eisenhower went on to say that the next 24 hours were the most difficult of his life because now that decision was made he could no longer affect anything, and could do nothing except wait. To pass the time for those 24 hour he received reports, drank coffee, smoked five packs of cigarettes, played draughts with his aide, briefed reporters (!) on the next day’s events so they could start their stories, and wrote a short speech accepting responsibility if the invasion failed. That evening, he met with member of the 101st Airborne at their staging areas. A few chatted with Eisenhower, the far bigger crowd was around Kate Sommersby, Eisenhower’s driver and former model.

At 7:30 pm, the BBC broadcast the next lines to Verlaine’s poem:

“Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). They were a code to the French Resistance that the invasion would begin in 48 hours, and that that they should begin sabotage operations, particularly the rail network.

At 8:30 pm, Churchill sent a coded telegram to Stalin simply stating, “Tonight, we go”.

About an hour later he wished his wife a good night, who told him not to worry. He shot back, “Do you know that when you wake up tomorrow morning, 20,000 men may be dead?”

At exactly 11:00 pm, Eisenhower, with his aide, and driver, watched the first C-47 transports carrying the 101st take to the sky.

“Well, it’s on. Nothing can stop it now.”

The Battle of Lewes

The Battle of Lewes

In 1215, King John of England (the Sheriff of Nottingham’s evil boss in Robin Hood) was forced to sign the Magna Carta after his defeat in the First Baron’s War. The Barons revolted due to King John’s autocratic and tyrannical ways, and judicial favoritism for his supporters. The Magna Carta was a historically critical step towards rule by constitutionally bound parliamentary governments. However, the Magna Carta was just the most famous of a series edicts and documents in medieval England meant to limit the power of the king, and establish the rule of law, instead of rule at the king’s whim.

In 1264, King Henry III was the latest Anglo-Norman king to spread his chicken wings and ignore his agreements. In 1258, he and his barons signed the Provisions of Oxford. The Provisions established a permanent Privy Council of baronial and royal advisors for administration of the kingdom, and more importantly, a thrice yearly baronial council to parley with the king (a “parliament” in French) regarding all financial matters. True to form of most tyrants, King Henry III reneged on the agreement at the first opportunity. In 1263, King Henry III unilaterally raised taxes because he wanted to purchase the Kingdom of Sicily (long story). And again, his barons had to force him to comply by force of arms. The Second Baron’s War began when Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, rallied the barons to force the king’s compliance with the Provisions of Oxford.

On 14 May 1264, Henry III and his son Prince Edward (the future King Edward “Longshanks”) met the barons outside of Lewes castle in Sussex, England. Henry III outnumbered the barons three to one, and Prince Edward was initially very successful leading the first charge which scattered the baronial cavalry from London on the far left of the line. However, Edward’s pursuit of the broken knights left his father uncovered. Forced to assault the baronial line unsupported, Henry’s army broke when Montford’s reserve smashed into Henry’s flank. Upon seeing the assault, the baronial yeomen and levy charged off the hill they were defending, routed the remainder of the King’s army, and seized the king. When Prince Edward’s victorious, but exhausted, forces returned to the battlefield, they were promptly defeated.

King Henry III was forced to sign the Edict of Lewes reaffirming the Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford. Prince Edward was held as a hostage to assure compliance and the battle led to the first session of the newly established parliament. However, Edward escaped later in the year and Henry III immediately tore up the Edict of Lewes, and vowed never to call a parliament again. Through Edward’s prowess, Henry III eventually fought the Barons to a negotiated settlement after a costly three years of war. But the barons fought on far longer than Henry assumed possible. This wasn’t lost on the young Edward.

Though successful, the Second Baron’s War taught Edward the hard lesson that he needed his subjects’ input in governing the kingdom. This was especially true if he was going to expand into Wales and Scotland, and retain Plantagenet lands in France. When he was crowned in 1272, King Edward I permanently established the English Parliament, in effect giving more than what the barons demanded, and fought for, during the war.

The Battle of the Alamo

The Fall of the Alamo, by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, 1903

In the summer and autumn of 1835, Texian and Tejano separatists threw out the Mexican troops of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the reigning dictator of the Centralist Republic of Mexico, due to his heavy handed rule and revocation of the Constitution of 1824. The Texian success sparked rebellions across the length of Mexico. In the winter of 1835/36, Santa Anna’s army brutally suppressed those rebellions, and then turned north on Texas. After the disastrous Texian invasion of Matamoros, Gen Sam Houston’s volunteers needed time to retrain and organize to repel Santa Anna. To buy him that time, Col William Travis, decided to occupy and hold the old Franciscan Alamo mission outside of the town of San Antonio de Bexar.

Travis, a regular army officer, shared command with famed knife fighter Col Jim Bowie, a Texian volunteer with ties to Bexar. But even with a group of Tennessee volunteers under frontiersman and former US congressman Colonel Davy Crockett, The Texian defenders of the Alamo still amounted to less than 200 men, and Travis sent increasingly desperate (and dramatic) letters asking for reinforcements. On 23 February 1836, Santa Anna’s army arrived in Bexar. It would take ten days for Santa Anna’s entire army of 4000 to arrive, while Travis and Bowie received less than 80 reinforcements. As Santa Anna’s army gathered, he besieged the Alamo for 13 days.

At dawn on 6 March 1836, Santa attacked the Alamo to the sounds of Deguello bugle calls which announced no quarter for the “pirates” as Santa Anna had decreed the Texians. He attacked with four columns of a total of about 1800 men: one column from each cardinal direction. He hoped to overwhelm the overextended defenders of the Alamo’s long walls. However, the north, east, and west columns all massed on the north wall in the confusion of two previous failed attacks.

The third assault finally carried the north wall after a hastily patched breach, caused by ten days’ worth of bombardment, was finally captured and opened, allowing Mexican soldiers to stream into the mission. (Travis was killed defending this breach.) Texian soldiers on the south wall turned their cannons around and attempted to defend in both directions but were soon overwhelmed. (Crockett, with his Tennesseans, initially defended the low wall outside the chapel. He died fighting along the makeshift wall facing north. Or, according to one report, was captured and executed there.) Many of the remaining defenders attempted to escape but were cut down by Mexican cavalry. Those that didn’t barricaded themselves in the barracks and chapel, where they were systematically rooted out and killed (which was where an ailing Bowie died). Any prisoners were slaughtered and only a few Texian non-combatants walked away from the assault. However the defenders sold themselves dearly and the Mexicans took about 600 casualties.

Santa Anna thought the utter destruction of the Alamo’s defenders would end Texian resistance but he was gravely mistaken. Texian civilians fled Santa Anna and volunteers flocked to Gen Sam Houston’s retreating army. Santa Anna would follow but Houston’s galvanized army would turn and attack at the Lynchberg ferry on the San Jacinto river. Houston’s Texian victory at the Battle of San Jacinto captured Santa Anna, and subsequent negotiations led to the Texian independence from Mexico.

Operation Hailstone: The Raid on Truk, the “Japanese Pearl Harbor”

The invasion of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands finally exposed the Japanese shortfalls in naval and land based aviation to American intelligence officials. Additionally, the increasingly one sided air battles over Rabaul after the invasion of Bougainville proved that the quality of Japanese airpower was in serious decline. To ensure adequate numbers to face the American fighter sweeps over Rabaul, the Japanese were required to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to feed the defense of the South Pacific. Squadrons were transferred from far flung Japanese possessions, including the Gilberts and Marshalls, and sent to Rabaul. The nearly nonexistent Japanese air response to the invasion of Kwajalein convinced Admiral Nimitz to push up the timetable in the Central Pacific, and more specifically the invasion of Eniwetok. However, Eniwetok was within striking distance of the Japanese main naval base in Central Pacific: the Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The “Gibraltar of the Pacific” was essentially a sunken mountain range surrounded by coral reefs and has, by far, the best natural lagoon in the Central Pacific. Its 50 by 30 mile sheltered anchorage has so far in the war allowed the Japanese to strike Pearl Harbor and conduct continuous operations in the South Pacific.

Like Rabaul for Allied planners, Truk was The Lair of the Boogeyman from which All Bad Things Emerged.

Nimitz needed to neutralize Truk. His plan for the Central Pacific involved a future invasion, but the operation to secure the Marshalls meant something had to be done immediately.

By the beginning of 1944, American industry produced enough new aircraft carriers to allow the formation of fast carrier “strike groups”. These strike groups raided Japanese held airfields, anchorages and shipping all throughout the Central and South Pacific. Nimitz formed the largest such strike group so far in the war, Task Force 58 under Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher of five fleet carriers, six light carriers, and seven new fast battleships with accompanying cruisers and destroyers as escorts.

Task Force 58 was a massive force, nearly double the Japanese strength against Pearl Harbor just two years before, but it was still headed for Truk. The idea of willingly sailing aircraft carriers into range of major land based airpower was still alien and unthinkable to most carrier admirals. (The only reason the Japanese did it at Pearl Harbor was because they hadn’t declared war yet. Even at Midway, the main threat was still the island, all the way up until four of their carriers were sunk.) And Truk was the biggest Japanese base outside of Japan. On 15 February when Mitscher announced over the loudspeaker their destination for Operation Hailstone, one of his pilots said, “I nearly jumped overboard.”

However, as early as October 1943, the Japanese recognized they could no longer hold the outer perimeter of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and settled on a smaller more easily defensible perimeter to gather strength for a counter attack. They withdrew most of the capital ships from Truk back to the Palaus, so few of the juicy targets remained. The mighty Yamato and Musashi had spent almost 18 months at Truk and had only recently departed. Nevertheless, the withdrawal to the inner perimeter meant that much of the shipping form the outer bases went to Truk first, a major transit point, before heading west. Mitscher’s raid caught the lagoon without capital ships, but filled with arguably more important transport and cargo ships that the Japanese could ill afford to spare.

On the morning of 17 February 1944, Task Force 58 approached Truk behind a storm front and struck the airfields first just as the Japanese did on the morning of the 7th of December 1941. American surprise was complete. Japanese pilots were mostly on shore leave, but the 90 or so Mitsubishi “Zeros” that went up were promptly shot down. By 1944, the Zero was outclassed in almost every category by the new American Hellfighters and Corsairs, and due to fuel and training shortfalls, American pilots had hundreds of more hours in the air than their Japanese counterparts. By the afternoon, any Japanese air response was non-existent, and the Mitscher’s dive and torpedo bombers attacked Truk’s lagoon and shore facilities with impunity. They only had to worry about a few manually controlled anti-aircraft guns and these were quickly dispatched once they revealed their positions.

Unlike Nagumo’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Mitscher didn’t withdraw after two strikes, but launched 13 separate strikes against Truk. Even Mitscher’s boss, Adm Ray Spruance, wanted to get in on the action. He took tactical command of the battleships New Jersey and Iowa and some escorts to chase down fleeing Japanese ships that managed to escape the lagoon. Only darkness ceased Operation Hailstone.

And it was in the darkness that the Japanese managed to strike back: a single torpedo from a “Kate” night bomber penetrated the screen and struck the carrier Intrepid.

For the loss of about 25 planes, most whose pilots were rescued and about 40 personnel, mostly from the Intrepid, Mitscher sunk five cruisers, four destroyers, and almost forty support, transport and cargo ships, including the all-important fleet oilers, and damaged many more. His fliers either shot down or destroyed on the ground almost 250 planes, and over 4500 Japanese personnel were killed, and twice that number wounded, most of whom could not be evacuated.

The destruction of the Truk anchorage convinced Nimitz that it could be bypassed and that an invasion was unnecessary. In the space of just 12 hours, the mightiest Japanese naval base outside of the home islands went from being the focus of all American operations in the Pacific to a tiny and obscure footnote in most Pacific War history books.

The Six Days’ Campaign

La Grande Armée was no more. The victors of a hundred battles lay dead in the snows of Russia and fields of Germany. It seemed as if Napoleon had lost his tactical brilliance after the catastrophic meat grinding battlefield losses in 1812 and 1813 against the nations of the Sixth Coalition. By early 1814, Napoleon was forced to fall back on Paris with a 70,000 man shell of his Grande Armée. Four Allied armies numbering more than 600,000 men followed closely behind.

Napoleon was defeated or so the world thought.

Unexpectedly, Napoleon turned to the defense of France with a verve not seen since his campaigns in 1805 and 1806, almost a decade earlier. First, his negotiations with Austria caused significant hesitation in Austria’s Prince Schwarzenburg’s Army of Bohemia (Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, was an Archduchess of Austria and Schwarzenburg’s niece). The second Allied Army, the primarily Swedish and German Northern Army under Napoleon’s former subordinate and now Swedish Crown Prince Jean Bernadotte experienced supply difficulties in the winter weather while slowly moving through the Netherlands. The third Allied Army, the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Army, was still crossing the Pyrenees far to the south. With the Austrians, Swedes and British too far away to help, Napoleon turned on Field Marshal Prince von Blücher’s Prussian Army of Silesia on 29 January 1814. Napoleon fixed Blucher in place at the Battles of Brienne and the desperate defense of La Rothiere. He used the respite to gather fresh conscripts and collect garrisons to reinforce his army.
In the freezing weather, with green troops and few supplies, Napoleon struck back.

Using his advantage of interior lines of communication to great effect, Napoleon turned on Blucher on 10 February 1814. Over the next six days Napoleon, with an army of just 30,000, won four major victories over Blucher, at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, and Vauchamps. He then crushed Blucher’s Russian and Prussian reinforcements on 17 February at the Battle of Mormans. Schwarzenburg paid for his indecisiveness on the 18th when Napoleon defeated him at the Battle of Montereau. In a period of just 20 days, Napoleon and his marshals with a combined force of just 45,000 won ten separate major battles against 400,000 Allied troops. The Austrians and Prussians streamed back east.

The Six Days’ Campaign, and the battles in the days before and after, was a masterpiece of tactical maneuver warfare, a tribute to the courage of the French character, and a testament to the inspired leadership that coaxed the new French conscripts to victory over an overwhelming number of Allied veterans. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the problem with relying on interior lines is that it rarely, if ever, leads to the complete destruction of one’s enemy. Napoleon couldn’t finish the job and still cover Paris.

Napoleon’s inability to pursue allowed the Allies to recover by the end of month. When Blucher and Schwarzenberg returned in March, Napoleon was not be able to repeat the brilliance of the Six Days’ Campaign the month before, despite severing the Allies’ supply lines to the east at the beginning of the month. Blucher and Schwarzenburg just ignored the maneuver and drove on the French capital. On 30 March, the Allies triumphantly entered Paris. Napoleon abdicated the French throne five days later after his marshals mutinied, thus ending the War of the Sixth Coalition. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would spend the rest of his days.

Or so the world thought…

Dungeons and Dragons

In 1969 and 1970, friends Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson regularly played a miniature based Napoleonic tabletop wargaming system at the Lake Geneva Wargaming Conference (GenCon). However, their games in those years became smaller and soon revolved around special individual soldiers and their stories. In 1970, they transferred the concept to a medieval setting because Gygax, a Dark Age enthusiast, found the appropriate miniatures. They used the rules from the game “Chainmail”, which Gygax had written with a friend, to resolve individual actions. Together, they developed a generic fantasy wargaming system that focused solely on individuals and their stories instead of armies and groups of soldiers.

In 1971, Arneson added a storytelling role to the referee, a fixture in the contentious world of tabletop wargaming, who was usually a neutral observer and adjudicated disputes. The “Game Master” guided the players on quests and played the monsters. At Gencon that year, Arneson and a few of his friends ran Gygax and a few of his friends through a “six level dungeon” where the big bad at the end was a “troll in magic armor”. Gygax was enamored with the “funhouse” aspect of the game and immediately saw the creative and commercial possibilities. Over the next year Arneson and Gygax developed the rules for their game, which then went by the working title “Blackmoor”, and created a fictional and vaguely Tolkein-esque setting centered on “The Great Kingdom” for use with the system.

In December 1973, they formed Tactical Studies Rules with two other friends to self-publish their new tabletop gaming system because no established gaming company was interested. The first run of the newly named “Dungeons and Dragons” was only 1000 copies that were assembled in Gygax’s garage. On 26 January 1974, Gary Gygax invited everyone over to his house for the first session of Dungeons and Dragons which only became available to the public that day.

Pennsylvanians in the Ardennes: the 28th and 99th Infantry Divisions

On 16 December 1944, Operation Wacht am Rhein, Hitler’s Ardennes Counteroffensive and the eventual “Battle of the Bulge”, initially crashed into two units originally formed in the Grand Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: the US 28th Infantry Division on the southern shoulder of the Bulge, and the US 99th Infantry Division on the northern shoulder of the Bulge.

In the south, MG Norman Cota’s 28th “Keystone” Infantry Division of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, aka “The Bloody Bucket”, had its three regimental combat teams (RCTs) on line due to the enormity of its front. Along the Our River which separated Luxembourg and Germany, the 28th unwittingly faced the entirety of both German XLVIII Panzer and LXXXV Corps. Each RCT had more than two German divisions opposite them.

After the initial surprise on 16 December 1944, the 28th’s northernmost RCT, the 112th from Butler and northwestern PA, held the Our River bridge at Ourthe for over two days against overwhelming odds before falling back in good order to St Vith to take part in the critical defense there with the US 7th Armored Division. The Germans expected to capture the Our River Bridge in the first hours of the first day.

In the south, the 109th RCT from Scranton and northeastern PA, defeated the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division and rendered them combat ineffective for the rest of the battle. The 109th only fell back when their positions became untenable because of the breakthroughs to their north in the 110th RCT’s sector. The entire 109th RCT received Luxembourg’s Croix De Guerre for their defense of the small duchy.

In the center of the 28th’s line, the 110th RCT from Uniontown and southwestern PA felt the full weight of three German divisions: the 2nd Panzer, Panzer Lehr and 26th Volksgrenadier divisions. The 110th’s defensive positions didn’t even form a continuous line, but consisted of company strongpoints kept in contact with adjacent units through patrolling. Although the initial attacks were repulsed, sheer weight of numbers broke through the forward defenses along “Skyline Drive”, the north-south highway along which they defended. Still, isolated companies and platoons of the 110th fought the Germans to a standstill for two critical days before they were broken. The 110th’s stand culminated with the defense of Clervaux on the Clerf River where the scouts, cooks, bakers, and staff personnel of the 110th’s HQ Company held the fortified chateaux until they ran out of ammunition. That bridge was another initial German objective that took two full days to capture. The time the 110th bought allowed some of Eisenhower’s only reserves, the 101st Airborne Division, to arrive at the key crossroads town of Bastogne before the Germans. By the 19th, most of the 110th RCT was either dead, wounded, or captured, but the survivors formed the core of “Team Snafu” which palyed a vital role in the 101’s defense of Bastogne.

In the north, the US 99th “Checkerboard” Infantry Division had only recently arrived in Europe, but it was in position just west of the Siegfried Line long enough to adequately dig in, if only to keep warm. The 99th formed in 1942 from mostly Western Pennsylvanians and eastern Ohioans, and took their division insignia from the shield used on the Pittsburgh city crest and the emblem of Pittsburgh’s recently renamed football team, the Steelers.

On 16 December 1944, the division was struck by the vanguard of the 6th SS Panzer Army, and many units broke under the onslaught. However, isolated companies and platoons fought back savagely and prevented a German breakthrough. Though the center collapsed, on the far left of the 99th’s line, three companies of the 395th RCT at Hofen defeated the 396th Volksgrenadier Division. On the far right at the other end of the line, a single Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon of 22 men under LT Lyle Bouck fought off the entire German 9th Parachute Regiment near the Belgian town of Lanzerath.

On the night of the 16th, the commander of the unit behind the paratroopers, the infamous Jochim Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division, stormed into their command post demanding to know why the attack stalled. The commander of the 9th told him there was an entire battalion dug in and fiercely defending the ridge above the town. Peiper ordered the paratroopers to support his Panther and King Tiger tanks in a deliberate attack that night. He was furious to find out that only a single platoon had held up an entire panzer corps for 24 hours.

Although chaos reigned throughout the 99ths sector on 16 December, they held the Germans long enough for LTG Gerow of the US V Corps to unilaterally order the US 2nd Infantry Division to the twin towns of Rocheroth and Krinkelt. On the 15th, the 2nd was attacking the Siegfried Line to the north of the 99th and immediately stopped, turned and headed south to help the 99th. The 2nd held the towns long enough for the remains of the 99th to pass through and set up a new defensive line on Elsenborn Ridge, less than 10 miles from their original positions.

The 6th SS Panzer Army broke out to the west but their objective was Antwerp which was to the north. As Peiper and the 1st SS Panzer Division proceeded west instead of northwest they were increasingly pushed onto roads designated for other German units further to their south, which caused massive traffic jams. The 2nd and 99th Divisions (with the 1st Infantry Division to their right at Bullingen) held Elsenbrn Ridge and the northern shoulder of the Bulge for the rest of the battle despite furious and increasingly desperate German attacks to move forward.

On the 16th of December 1944, surprise was complete and the majority of the American units in the Ardennes collapsed. However some did not, despite the German’s best efforts. By the end of the day the Germans’ strict timetable was already irreparably upset. The Battle of the Bulge was all about roads, road marches, and road junctions. On Day One, the NCOs, and junior and field grade officers of the 28th and 99th Divisions denied the attacking German Army the roads and time they needed to win the battle.