Tagged: OnThisDay

The Raid on Dieppe

With America’s entry into the war, Admiral Doenitz’ sent all of his available long range Type IX U-boats to sink merchantmen along the unprepared and nearly undefended East Atlantic coast. The British knew this was happening through the Ultra intercepts, but the Americans ignored them. So began the “Second Happy Time”, as U-boat captains sank ships off the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea with impunity.

The German Kriegsmarine’s (Navy) Happy Time of the first eight months of 1942 wasn’t necessarily destined to be so happy just because of American arrogance and laxity; the Battle of the Atlantic got exponentially more difficult for the Allies on 1 February 1942. On that day, the Kriegsmarine switched from a three rotor to a much more secure four rotor Enigma machine for their U-boats’ operational communications. When Alan Turing and the boys and girls of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park woke that morning, they found they could no longer read the Germans’ mail. Undetected U-boats went about slaughtering the vital merchantmen needed to keep Britain in the war.

Turing needed a four rotor Enigma machine, or at least as much German cryptographic material as possible, such as code books or old messages (these were a source of “cribs” or known plaintexts with their corresponding ciphertext, that dramatically reduced the time needed to decode messages) if Britain and America were going to go back to evading the U-boats and attacking them, instead of chasing them around by following the trail of sunken ships they left behind.

The task to “pinch” i.e. steal, a four rotor Enigma machine fell to the commandos of Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters. Mountbatten’s normal targets for enemy cipher material were German weather trawlers in the North Atlantic, but they dried up when the Germans established their secret weather stations in Spitsbergen Islands in the Arctic Ocean. The commandos came to rely on sensitive material they captured on various raids to fill the void, such as the Loften and Vargas Islands in Norway, and St Nazaire in France, but none produced what Turing needed, including several other operations planned specifically to pinch a machine but were aborted for various reasons.

In early April 1942, Britain’s clandestine secret service, MI6, and its research arm, the blandly named Inter Service Topographical Department (ISTD) identified a four rotor machine and a veritable treasure trove of cipher material in the Moderne Hotel at the French port of Dieppe. The Moderne housed a Kriegsmarine port headquarters, a headquarters for a squadron of minelayers, and most importantly, a detachment from the Kriegsmarine Special Purpose Signals Regiment 618. MI6 even pinpointed the location of the Enigma machine: locked in a safe in a storage room in the basement.

Mountbatten gave the operation to raid the Moderne Hotel at Dieppe to the “Authorized Looters of the Admiralty”, Ian Fleming’s (author of the James Bond novels) 30 Intelligence Assault Unit. 30AU was a covert intelligence gathering formation that “cleaned up” after, or during, regular and commando operations, and then went out of their way to hide the fact that they did so, so as to preserve the integrity of the information they acquired. Combined Operations planned Operation Sutter using 30AU supported by 40 Royal Marine Commando for June. But several attempts in June and July failed due to bad weather. Sutter was scrapped, and Mountbatten was told to pinch another machine somewhere else.

However, the plan was resurrected in late July by Winston Churchill. Mountbatten considered Churchill his direct superior, much to the General Staff’s dismay. Churchill was fascinated by commandos, cryptanalysis, cloak and dagger stuff in general, and even by Mountbatten, whom he considered a younger version of himself. Operation Sutter was the combination of all of these and Churchill couldn’t resist. Furthermore, Mountbatten was “growing his empire” with the Prime Minister’s support and his operations were getting progressively larger. He still wanted, and needed, to execute Sutter, but the security risks caused by aborted attempts meant that it had to change. So instead of just 30AU and 40 RM Commando, he’d use a whole division. Mountbatten wanted to “crack a nut with a steam hammer” to cover up the true objective in the Moderne Hotel.

Mountbatten wanted the Royal Marine Division but Churchill was under intense political pressure to get the 2nd Canadian Division into the fight. They arrived in Britain just after the evacuation at Dunkirk and had been training for almost two years and had not seen any action. Operation Sutter was renamed Operation Jubilee and the 2nd Canadian Division would provide the steam hammer.

Operation Jubilee was the first Allied large scale division-sized amphibious operation in the European theater. As the US Marines were finding out at that moment in the Solomons, it was much more difficult and complicated than at first realized, especially since the Canadians and commandos weren’t assaulting mostly unoccupied beaches, but a heavily fortified port. The plan called for independent commandos to first clear heavy gun emplacements on the flanks of Dieppe. The next wave of Canadian infantry was to clear machine gun nests and pillboxes overlooking the main assault beaches. The Canadian main body would follow on with a frontal assault supported by tanks on Dieppe itself. While the engineers accompanying the main assault were wrecking the port facilities (the stated cover objective for the raid) 30AU and 40 RM Commando was supposed to secure the hotel and seize the Enigma machine. For the job, 30AU even recruited a former cat burglar and safecracker, given amnesty for his previous crimes, specifically for the mission. In addition to an entire division, this single individual was supposed to be supported by copious amounts of naval gunfire and RAF bombers. However, the bombers were called off as they were too inaccurate and they couldn’t risk damaging the hotel. The supporting battleships and cruisers were also called off in the name of security: the Germans would certainly wonder what they were doing when they entered the English Channel.

At 3 am on 19 August 1942, the invasion force left the south of England to raid Dieppe to “help relieve the pressure on the Soviets and open the second front against the Germans in the West”, which we know now was complete bullshit. Unfortunately, the invasion force didn’t even get across the English Channel before things started to go wrong.

The landing craft of No 3 Commando, charged with silencing the coastal battery at Berneval to the east of the main landings, ran into a small German coastal convoy, whose armed trawler sank or scattered most of their landing craft. However, a handful of the indefatigable commandos managed to land and prevent the guns from firing by sniping at gunners. They accomplished their mission but it was an inauspicious start to the operation.

Further west was the only bright spot of Jubilee. No 4 Commando under the indomitable Lord Lovat, and accompanied by 40 Americans of the newly formed US Army Rangers, “in a classic operation of war” seized and neutralized the battery at Varangeville. The rest of the operation was a disaster.

When the next wave of Canadians came ashore to clear the German positions covering the main assault beaches, the Germans were already alerted and waiting for them in previously unidentified caves and firing positions. The Canadians were massacred and accomplished none of their objectives. Shortly thereafter the main assault landed directly into the teeth of the German defenses. Naval gunfire by destroyers off shore and air support by fighters and fighter bombers was completely inadequate. The few tanks that made it to shore were either stuck in the sand or stopped by roadblocks from getting into tow. The engineers needed to blow the barriers were easy targets for German machine gunners. Few Canadians reached the town, much less the hotel. Maj Gen John Roberts, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Division, ordered in his reserve and then 30AU and 40 Commando to force their way in. But after three unsuccessful and very costly assaults, the order went out to evacuate.

Of the 5000 men, mostly Canadians, that took part on the Raid of Dieppe, 900 were killed, 600 wounded, and almost 2000 were captured. Dieppe was a national disaster for Canada. The Germans were genuinely confused about why the Allies would try to force a division sized landing against two full regiments in a fortified city, or even conduct an operation that was “too large for a raid and two small for an invasion”.

They wouldn’t know the answer for seven decades until a curious Canadian historian came across a single recently declassified signals intelligence document from the ISTD that simply stated, “Dieppe Objective Not Realized”, and then unraveled from there.

Mountbatten and Churchill would both maintain the fiction til the day they died that the Raid on Dieppe was a large scale rehearsal for the future amphibious invasion of France. To that end, Dieppe did provide plenty of lessons learned in large scale amphibious operations, in particular naval and air fire support, beach composition and reconnaissance, simplicity of concept and simultaneity of concurrent objectives, among many others. These lessons would be directly incorporated into and instrumental in the success of the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November of 1942. But the cost for those lessons, and that fiction, was high: in addition to the casualties, Roberts would be made a scapegoat, and the Germans would bask propaganda value of the Allied defeat for months.

As for the original objective of the Dieppe Raid, the four rotor Enigma machine? Turing would have to wait another two months when one fell into the figurative Allied lap after a chance capture of sinking U-boat off Egypt in October.

The Battle of Bennington

In mid August, 1777, British General John Burgoyne’s plan to capture Albany and the Hudson River valley, which would separate New England from the Middle and Southern colonies, was beginning to suffer from logistical problems. In addition to gunpowder and food, his army was in desperate need of horses. To remedy this, he dispatched LieutCol Frederich Baum and 800 Hessians, mostly dismounted dragoons, to the town of Bennington, Vermont which he expected to be defended by no more than the remnants of Seth Warner’s brigade of Green Mountain Boys, at most 400 men.

Unfortunately for the Hessians, John Stark was commissioned by the state of New Hampshire to raise a force of militia to protect the area. John Stark was a former Lieutenant in Roger’s Rangers, a former Continental Army Colonel (he resigned and returned to New Hampshire after being passed over for Brigadier General), and Hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, where his men defeated a flanking attack across the Mystic River beach (which forced the costly frontal attacks) and then led the rear guard as the Americans withdrew. Stark had an uncanny ability to predict his foe’s maneuvers. He would do the same again against Baum.

Stark had twice as many men as Baum, nearly 1600, and moved on the Hessian column upon discovering it. Both sides received militia and Indian reinforcements but Baum didn’t know the area and moved into a defensive position on a hill to await more reinforcements from Burgoyne. Stark’s militia immediately surrounded the position.

On the morning of 16 August 1777, John Stark addressed his troops, “Yonder are the Hessians. They were bought for seven pounds and tenpence a man. Are you worth more? Prove it. Tonight the American flag floats from yonder hill or Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”

Molly Stark did not sleep a widow that night.

Unlike American militia in most Revolutionary War battles, Stark’s men from Vermont and New Hampshire fought as well as any regular from the Continental Line, and engaged the Hessians, Loyalists, and Indians at bayonet and saber point all afternoon. Just after the mortally wounded Baum surrendered, Hessian reinforcements from Burgoyne arrived, and they too were savaged, escaping only because night fell.

At Bennington, Burgoyne lost over a thousand men. Even worse, the remainder of his expedition was cut off from any forage and isolated in the wilderness of Northern New York. Burgoyne had no choice but to move on Albany as fast as possible, lest his men starve, or freeze to death later in the year from a lack of winter quarters.

Major General Lafayette and (soon to be) Major General DeKalb

In 1776 and early 1777, the US Ambassador to France, Silas Deane, was handing out promises of commission to any man with military experience who was willing to travel to America to join Washington’s Continental Army, which was in desperate need of trained and experienced officers. Unfortunately, most were long on resume and short on actual experience. However, in April 1777, two officers ran the British blockade in a private ship and arrived in Charlestown, South Carolina in late June.

The first was a giant bear of a man, the 56 year old Johann von Robais de Kalb, better known as Baron DeKalb. DeKalb was the son of a Bavarian shoemaker and a career soldier. At 16, he left home to join a German regiment in the French Army and served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made a noble for his exploits. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1764, but found that civilian life in a small estate outside Versailles with his rich French wife didn’t suit him. In 1767, he traveled to America as part of a clandestine French mission to assess the possibility of the thirteen North American colonies rebelling against Great Britain. He was so impressed with the American people that he decided he would join their inevitable revolution. He got his chance in 1777, when he met a young man of similar ambitions — Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.Lafayette was DeKalb’s opposite in every way. The slight Lafayette was just 18 in 1777. At the age of 14, just four years previously, he married a relative of the King of France, and was commissioned a sous-lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers, and soon a lieutenant in the dragoons. He was as deficient in military matters as DeKalb was experienced. But he was as dedicated to the American cause as DeKalb after a dinner party in which the disgruntled Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s brother, expressed support for the rebellion. However France was actively trying to stay out of the American Revolution and as a relative of the French king was forbidden to depart. So the extraordinarily wealthy teenage Lafayette just went to Spain with DeKalb and several other officers destined for service in America, and bought a ship. 

The “Victorie” took the men across the Atlantic and Lafayette bought coaches to take them to Philadelphia, where they planned to collect Silas’ promised commissions as major generals. But Washington had been burned by adventurers with imaginary exploits who convinced Deane they were something they weren’t, and Continental Congress couldn’t afford to pay a general’s salary to someone who wasn’t. They refused to honor Deane’s promises.

The rich Lafayette offered to serve for no pay. This, and the timely intercession of Ben Franklin by correspondence, won over the Continental Congress, who was still debating the merits of turning away so well connected a Frenchman. On 31 July 1777, the 19 year old Marquis de Lafayette became the youngest major general in the history of the US Army, an accomplishment that still holds today. He received his commission exactly 18 years after his father, a colonel of grenadiers, was killed at the Battle of Minden fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years War. Lafayette departed to assume a position on Washington’s staff shortly thereafter.

Lafayette’s commission infuriated DeKalb. The proud and quiet, but equally competent German was much more qualified for a commission as a major general than the young Lafayette (and all of the Continental generals, and even Washington for that matter…) He had grown fond of the Frenchman, who looked to DeKalb as a mentor and great friend, but the slight couldn’t stand. He lobbied for a commission for a month before the large and thoroughly exasperated German burst into Congress and demanded his commission, laying out his extensive military career to the aghast assembly. Still they refused. The resigned DeKalb finally requested payment to return to France, which he implied was the least bit of recompense for a breach of trust between himself and the fledgling nation. On 17 September 1777, the ashamed Congress relented, and the next day, DeKalb left for Washington’s staff to eventually take command of two Massachusetts’ brigades on the left of the Continental Line.

MG DeKalb added much needed professionalism to the Continental Army. When Washington ordered the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge later that year, DeKalb was instrumental in the training and discipline of the Continental Army. Unfortunately, history would award his fellow German, Baron Von Steuben, the lion’s share of the credit for the professionalization of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, but it couldn’t have been done without DeKalb.

For the next two years DeKalb would be Washington’s most trusted and stalwart division commander, and always in the thick of the fighting. DeKalb was tragically killed during the disaster at Camden in 1780, fighting to the last with his regulars, as Horacio Gates’ militia fled the British and Tory bayonets.

MG Lafayette would follow a different course. Lafayette had come to America “not to teach, but to learn” and this greatly impressed Washington. He inserted himself wherever he was needed. The young man would become the son Washington never had. Despite his youth, Washington trusted Lafayette with his most difficult and sensitive commands and missions. For example, Washington entrusted the young 19 year old with an invasion of Canada in 1778, which was cancelled at Lafayette’s request due to lack of supplies and men. However, “The Fearsome Horseman” as he was known among the native tribes, brought the Oneida nation over to the American cause, whose support would be much needed in Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign the next year. Lafayette would be hugely influential in the delicate negotiations with France to coordinate a common strategy after France’s entry into the war. Lafayette would fight for America wherever and whenever needed for the rest of the war, and it was his independent command that maneuvered Cornwallis into a box at Yorktown.

After the war, Lafayette would return to France and continue his service in the name of Liberty. He would be one of the few nobles not exiled, or executed by the guillotine during the French Revolution. He stood firm for a representative government in France, and was one of Napoleon’s few political enemies after his rise to emperor. Lafayette continued his quest after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was a 70 year old Lafayette at the barricades as head of the National Guard during the Revolution of 1830. Afterwards, he turned down an offer as dictator after the royalist troops were routed.

Lafayette died in 1834 a hero to both America and France. He was buried in a French cemetery, but underneath soil taken by his son, Georges Washington, from Bunker Hill, whose memorial Lafayette dedicated.

At a eulogy in America, former president John Quincy Adams said of Lafayette, he was, “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”

The First Battle of Sackets Harbor

Coming one month and one day after the United States declared war on Britain, the first battle of the War of 1812 was not initiated by the Americans, but by the British. Their naval commander at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario where it feeds the St Lawrence River, had a small flotilla of five ships. On 19 July 1812 he set out to capture American shipping on the lake. That morning the British seized a small ship filled with flour, from whose crew they learned of an American brig, the USS Oneida, at Sackets Harbor, New York, not too far away. The British sent the crew to the town to inform the garrison that they were to surrender a recently captured (before the war) merchant schooner along with the Onieda to the British, and if the Americans fired on them, they’d “burn the village to the ground”.
29 year old Lt Melancthon Woolsey, the captain of the Onieda, was having none of it. The British commander must have been misinformed because there was a substantial American force in Sackets Harbor, though only one fighting ship, Woolsey’s Oneida. He sent runners to assemble COL Bellinger’s 27th New York Militia Regiment, and took command of the infantry company and a volunteer artillery battery under CPT Camp already in town. Once his lookout spotted the approaching British off in the distance, Woolsey sailed the Oneida out to meet them. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the morning winds off the lake prevented him from leaving the harbor, so he anchored his ship broadsides to the British, and quickly transferred the guns of the landward broadsides to augment Camp’s shore battery.
Along with the other guns, Woolsey had a lone 32 pounder which was originally meant for the Oneida, but was too big, and was mounted in a swivel on shore, in Camp’s hastily built “Fort Volunteer”. The 32 pounder was commanded by Mr. William Vaughan, the Oneida’s sailing master (roughly equivalent to an old warrant officer specialized in navigation) and it was he who fired the first hostile round of the War of 1812.
Vaughan didn’t have any 32 lb ammunition, so he initially used 24 lb cannonballs (of which he had many, the Oneida’s guns were mostly 24 pounders), and wrapped them in carpet that he ordered torn up from the floors of the village houses. The first shot was woefully short, and laughter was heard from the crews of the British ships. They weren’t laughing for long.
Woolsey turned over his ship to his first mate, and directed the battle from the shore battery. For two hours, the Americans and British traded fire, of which only the Americans’ was effective, especially that of Vaughan’s gun. Many of the British cannonballs failed to even reach the shore battery, and those that did just plowed shallow furrows in the mud until they stopped. Many were 32 pounders from the bigger British ships, so Woolsey had the men dig them up. Vaughan fired them back at the British to much greater effect.
In response to the accurate American fire, the British ships raised anchor and began to maneuver, in order to throw off the American’s aim and get their other broadsides into the fight. As the British flagship, the HMS Royal George, was doing so, a 24 lb cannon ball entered her stern and raked the ship: killing eight sailors, wounding a dozen more, and doing a great amount of damage all along its entire length. Shortly thereafter, the exasperated and ineffectual British withdrew back to Kingston, without causing the American’s any casualties, and no damage beyond the furrows. One sailor remarked, “The enemy broke nothing but – the Sabbath”.
In celebration, Woolsey’s sailors and gunners, and the militia in the village with their band, broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
Though they didn’t take part in the battle, 3000 militia arrived in Sackets Harbor by nightfall, and many watched from shore. Woolsey, Camp, Vaughan, and “Black Julius” Torry, an African American on Vaughan’s gun crew, were given credit in the dispatch to the governor of New York for America’s first victory in the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor would become the American military and ship building epicenter in the Lake Ontario arms race against the British and Canadians across the St Lawrence River in Kingston.

Fall Blau

By early 1942, Germany had used up its oil reserves and was suffering significant oil shortages. Despite extensive interwar investment into synthetic oil plants, 75% of Germany’s oil was supplied by the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. In March of 1942, Romania ministers informed Hitler that they could not meet Germany’s planned oil needs for 1942. On 4 April 1942, Hitler signed Fuehrer Directive 41 which made seizing the Caucasus oil fields a priority.  This would also have the added benefit of denying the oil to the Soviets, and was desperately needed by the German economy.

Despite being at war for almost three years, and engaged in hostilities with Great Britain, the Soviet Union and now America, the German economy was still not on a war footing. Furthermore, the larger amount of territory that needed defended combined with the losses of men and material in the past year, especially during the nearly incessant Soviet winter counterattacks, reduced the capacity of Germany military to conduct offensive operations. Unlike Operation Barbarossa the year before, the Wehrmacht could no longer launch a general offensive in the East on three axes. Therefore, Fall Blau (Case Blue in German), the German offensive in 1942 would focus on Army Group South at the expense of the center and north. Army Group North would continue its limited attacks on Leningrad, while Army Group Center stood fast in front of Moscow.

Due to extensive German deception operations, Stalin had expected the Germans to continue on towards Moscow and was taken completely by surprise by the German advance south east across the Ukrainian and Russian Steppe. After defeating several wasteful Russian spoiling attacks, on 28 June 1942, Fall Blau launched 1.3 million German, Romanian, Italian, and Hungarian troops towards the Caucasus Mountains and the Volga River. Four armies supported by eleven panzer divisions of Army Group South assaulted southeast with the final objective of seizing the oil fields at Maykop, Grozny, and Baku in the Caucasus Mountains and around the Caspian Sea. They did so with three axes of advance. The first was clearing the Crimean peninsula and capturing Sevastopol which had been under siege for many months. The second and main effort would be the strike towards the Caucasus for the oil fields. And the third axis was an advance on the Volga River in a supporting effort to protect the flank of the Caucuses.

The initial advance was wildly successful, especially so in areas supported by the Luftwaffe.

The High-Water Mark of Burgundy: the Siege of Beauvais

In the confused French dynastic struggles after the Hundred Years War, Charles the Bold, who was the Duke of Burgundy and brother in law to both the King of England and King of France, was more powerful than his liege lord, Louis XI of France. The Duchy of Burgundy at the time consisted of most of modern Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and significant parts of France. At the conclusion of the truce made with Louis at Peronne in 1468, Charles seized some towns on the Somme, and in 1471 Louis declared him treasonous. The hot tempered Charles, who at this point saw no reason why Burgundy shouldn’t be an independent kingdom like France, England, or Austria, invaded. His intent was to unite with another rebellious vassal of Louis’, the Duke of Britanny. Their combined might could easily defeat the French king’s army.

The Burgundian army of Charles the Bold was the most modern fighting force of its time. Charles’ father Philip the Good learned the hard lessons of the Hundred Years War, when armies with small cores of disciplined full time professionals consistently out maneuvered and outfought much larger feudal levies. The Burgundian system was still based on feudal levies, but Charles demanded a large measure of discipline, training, and equipment from the men mobilized by his vassals. They were more recruited than conscripted. Those nobles whose men didn’t meet the standard faced fines, censure, and even confiscation of territory. Furthermore, he also reorganized his army into a combined arms formation of traditional, if updated and codified, medieval lances (a knight, squire, a sergeant at arms, all mounted, and three mounted archers, supported by a page and three foot soldiers: a handgunner, a crossbowman, and pikeman), professional mercenary halberdiers and pikemen (mostly Germans), and professional bowmen and crossbowmen (usually Welsh, or English, with Italian crossbowmen). Most importantly though, his army was integrally supported by cannon, which were relatively mobile for the time. Battles in the Middle Ages were rare; sieges were not. Charles’ inclusion of gunpowder units separated him from Louis XI’s similar reforms. The Burgundian army therefore looked more like a large and well drilled condottieri company that specialized in seizing fortified towns, than a traditional feudal army.

After crossing the frontier, Charles captured several French towns, and those that resisted paid the price. On 27 June 1472, Charles’ vanguard reached the town Beauvais and expected it to promptly surrender, based on his reputation alone. But the town resolve was stiffened by a tiny force sent by Louis, and by the remaining defenders of Roye, the town Charles sacked just two weeks before. Beauvais was heavily fortified, but the garrison was small and lacked cannon.

The competent and able commander of Charles’ vanguard immediately recognized that he had to storm the town quickly or Louis would be able to mass on the area and the Burgundian advance would be halted. He unleashed his cannon, created several breaches, and smashed one of the town’s gates, before he ran out of ammunition. That the Burgundian vanguard even had cannon surprised the defenders. The professional Burgundians rushed into the gaps.

The small French garrison could not hope to repel the attackers, but they received help from an unexpected quarter, the townspeople of Beauvais. They had heard what had happened to Roye and the other towns, and they were determined not to share the same fate. The men joined the French soldiers in the breaches and at the gate, though not on the walls because the Burgundian ladders were just a bit too short, a grievous oversight.

With the hand to hand fighting concentrated in the breaches and gate, the French archers and crossbowmen had free reign on the walls. They were supplied with a steady stream of arrows and bolts by the town’s women and children, who quickly joined in, throwing whatever was at hand: stones, boiling water, logs, and especially torches. They threw so many torches at the Burgundians that they caught the suburbs of the town and the remains of the gate on fire. This created an inferno through which Charles’ army had to pass. Nevertheless, the Burgundians continued the assault.

In the afternoon, it seemed Beauvais was lost, despite the efforts of the courageous townsfolk. The Burgundians seized a breach and began spilling onto the walls and into the town. However, the women and children threw themselves at the invaders with whatever they had: axes, knives, sticks, and torches. They kept the line from breaking, but the French were slowly pushed back. Just when it seemed the people of Beauvais would break, they looked up and saw an amazing sight: a young woman hacking her way across the wall.

A soldier was attempting to place the Burgundian flag on the wall above the breach to signify a breakthrough, and Jeanne Laisné, the daughter of a local peasant, attacked him with her father’s hatchet. She wounded the flag bearer and fought with such ferocity that he fell off the wall into the moat below. The sight of the French woman flinging a heavily armored man at arms into the moat and capturing the ducal banner of Burgundy electrified the resistance. The French defenders held on just long enough for two hundred lances sent by Louis to arrive in time push the Burgundians back out of the town. That night and the next day Louis’ army converged on Beauvais and the townpeople began the laborious process of repairing the breaches. They couldn’t repair the gate, so they tore houses down and turned the gatehouse into a bonfire. The Fires of Beuvais burned so hot that the gate was impenetrable to the Burgundians for nearly a week.

More French troops arrived and managed to enter the Beauvais before Charles could properly invest the town. The furious duke attempted to bombard the town into submission, but the French continued to valiantly fight on. The charred suburbs turned into a no man’s land where Burgundians were ambushed, assaults were disrupted, and skirmishes killed and wounded Burgundian troops that Charles’ could ill afford to lose. Every man he lost at Beauvais was one more that couldn’t fight against Louis’ main army then in Brittany.

By the end of July, Charles had 120 dead, including 20 lords killed leading charges, and more than three thousand wounded, many of whom eventually died. Heavy rains flooded his camp, and the moves to dryer ground made the encampment susceptible to raids by the people of Beauvais, killing and wounding even more. On 20 July 1472, Charles decamped and moved into Normandy.

Charles the Bold would never link with the Duke of Brittany and eventually returned to Burgundy after looting and pillaging his way across Normandy. His bid to establish the Kingdom of Burgundy at France’s expense came to nothing.

In contrast, Louis XI consolidated his power. In gratitude, he rewarded the town of Beauvais for its heroic stand. He exempted the town from many of his taxes, and relaxed many of the rules his nobles had placed. Louis inaugurated an annual parade through the town to honor the defenders, one in which the women and children march ahead of the men in honor of their ingenuity and sacrifices; a tradition that continues to this day. In particular, he rewarded Jeanne Laisné whom he christened Jeanne Hachette for her bravery, and exempted her family and her descendants from taxes for eternity.

The Battle of Plassey

In 1756, the 20 year old Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, did not share his grandfather’s fondness and welcoming of the British East India Company traders. He accused them increasing their fortifications in the area and of meddling in internal politics with some justification. This caused him great difficulties and distractions from his wars against the Afghan tribes and Mahratta raiders to his north. Siraj-ud-Daulah mobilized his levies, sought support from the French East India Company, and moved against Fort William, the British East India Company’s outpost near Calcutta. The British for the most part evacuated, but left a small force of soldiers, sepoys (native troops equipped and trained in the tactics and techniques of European warfare) to garrison Fort William including civilian administrators and family members.

The fort surrendered after a brief siege. Unbeknownst to Siraj-ud-Daulah, the 146 garrison survivors were placed in a 14’ by 21’ foot cell. When morning came, 123 died of suffocation, dehydration, madness, or were crushed to death in what became known the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. (The exact details are still in dispute, such as the number in the cell. What isn’t in dispute is that 123 died that night of the 146 that surrendered that evening.) The British East India Company ordered Col Robert Clive with a small force at Madras to sail for Calcutta to exact retribution. He defeated Siraj with an aggressive night attack on the Nawab’s camp in February 1757, and secured a treaty which restored the British East India Company’s former privileges in Bengal.

So would have ended the Third Carnatic War, had Great Britain and France not been fighting the Seven Years War at the same time in Europe (and in America as the French and Indian War). At the time, the French, Dutch, and British trading outposts were under the Nawab’s protection by treaty (the violation of which was the official pretext of Clive’s expedition in the first place, well, second, since Siraj argued that the British violated it first with their meddling). Clive saw an opportunity to replace Siraj with one of his more pliable generals, Mir Jafar. But he had to work fast because he was going to be recalled to fight the French at Ponicherry near Madras.

After quickly laying the proper political groundwork, Clive advanced on the French outpost at Chandranagar and burned it to the ground. Siraj sent troops to intervene but anticipating this Clive bribed the Bengali general beforehand. Correctly guessing that Clive was trying to have him replaced, Siraj again massed his feudal levies and headed south, this time to crush the British force.

Clive was vastly outnumbered but had a clear quality advantage. However, that wouldn’t last as he heard a French force was approaching the area from the west. The French force was small like his, but it would provide the necessary backbone for Siraj’s men. Furthermore, many in Clive’s force were Frenchmen, either captives fighting instead of going to prison, or just isolated French merchants and adventurers who chose to join the expedition. Clive was worried that they would defect if an actual French army was in the area. So Clive confronted Siraj in the mango groves outside the village of Palashi 93 miles north of Calcutta. The village is better known by its Anglicized name of Plassey.

Siraj had 19,000 cavalry, 42,000 infantry, and 50 large field cannon, including a number of war elephants and 200 Frenchmen who mostly supervised the guns, and even crewed a few. Clive had a mixed European force of 800 professional infantry, 2100 Indian sepoys, and eight cannon crewed by about 200 gunners and sailors. Although Siraj vastly outnumbered Clive, Clive’s men were much more disciplined for the most part, and all had modern firearms. Siraj’s men mostly had swords and spears, but did have a significant number of old firelock muskets.

On 23 June 1757, Clive and Siraj’s respective troops lined up against each other and the battle began with a thunderous barrage on both sides. The professional British gunners managed a rate of fire of two or three rounds a minute, while the Bengali’s, under French tutelage, managed just one round every fifteen minutes. Fortunately for Siraj, a thunderstorm broke out which ceased the firing on both sides.

When the storm subsided, Siraj decided to attack since his guns and gunpowder were soaked, and assumed Clive’s were the same. However, Clive’s gunners covered their guns and powder with tarps, and unleashed devastating volleys into the Bengali masses as they approached. The Bengali’s retreated.

Siraj by this time was clearly unsure of what to do and sought counsel. He spoke to his astrologer (who was bribed by Clive) and the seer predicted his death if he stayed. Also, Mir Jafar, one of Siraj’s division commanders, also counseled retreat. Siraj did not know that Clive had secured Mir’s assistance. As Siraj was discussing his options with his advisers, Clive attacked. The Nawab of Begali quickly got on his camel and sped out of camp. With their leader gone, the army broke and Mir Jafar and his men defected. Siraj was eventually killed by his own people, and Mir Jafar replaced him as Nawab of Bengal.

The Battle of Plassey removed the French presence from Bengal and brought the area under control of the British East India Company. It was the first step in the British quest for domination of South Asia. Over the next one hundred years, the British would go on to conquer the rest of the Indian subcontinent. By the time of Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, India was known as the Crown Jewel of the British Empire.

The Fall of Tobruk 

During the night of 19-20 June 1942 Rommel discontinued his feigned pursuit of the retreating British and masterfully turned around his four best divisions, the veterans of the old Deutches Afrika Korps: the 90th Light, 15th and 21st Panzer, and the Italian armored division Ariete. That night they moved from an all-out pursuit and prepared to assault Tobruk. At 5:30 am 20 June, every Luftwaffe bomber in the Eastern Mediterranean struck the south east corner of Tobruk perimeter and the defending unit, the 11th Indian Brigade, broke under the combined arms assault by Italian infantry and artillery with German tanks and planes. Confusion in the British headquarters would not allow the numerically superior South Africans to reposition forces from uselessly defending against an amphibious assault, or from the south and west to counter the threat. By nightfall on the 20th, the Germans secured the port.
The next day, the British surrendered. 30,000 Commonwealth troops marched into captivity and it was the second largest surrender in British history after the fall of Singapore some months earlier. In the last six months, the Japanese captured Malaya and Singapore despite being significantly outnumbered, and ignobly ran the British out of Burma with barely better odds. Operation Crusader had six months of dedicated support and priority within the entire British Empire and Rommel erased those painstaking gains in a matter of weeks: first in January, and then in June. The Australians and Poles held Tobruk against all odds for nearly nine months; The British Army gave it away in two days. Any reputation for competence and fighting prowess held by the British Army was gone.

Rommel would tell the captured officers, “Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.” He was promoted to Field Marshal shortly thereafter; Rommel was a lieutenant colonel just four years before.

Winston Churchill, in Washington DC meeting with President Roosevelt, called the Fall of Tobruk “a shattering and grievous loss”. He would say to Roosevelt that “I am the most miserable Englishman in America since Burgoyne” (the British general who surrendered at Saratoga during the American Revolution).

Churchill commented in his memoirs that 21 June 1942 was the worst day of World War II.

The Bedford Boys

President Roosevelt federalized the National Guard in early 1941 and in Virginia and Maryland that meant that the men of the 29th Infantry Division “The Blues and Grays” reported to their armories. All across Virginia, guardsmen mobilized and formed the historic 116th Infantry Regiment, the “Stonewallers”, so named because they traced their unit lineage to the 2nd Virginia Regiment. The 2nd Virginia was the senior regiment in Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate Brigade and was present during the brigade’s famous stand during the 1st Battle of Manassas. Company A, of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment was formed from citizens in the sleepy little town of Bedford, Virginia, population of about 3000.

Over the next three years, the 125 men of Company A trained together in Maryland, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary in 1942, and then trained in Scotland. In early 1944, they moved to the south coast of England, and trained some more, this time on amphibious operations and assaulting fortified positions in preparation for Operation Overlord. Due to normal transitions in any normal military unit, there were only 34 original members of the company that marched out of Bedford three years prior. The rest were replacements, though all of the officers and senior NCOs were still Bedford natives.

In the upcoming invasion of France, Company A was assigned Dog Green beach, the 116th’s western most section of Omaha Beach with objective of securing Exit D1: the Vierville draw. On 3 June, CPT Taylor Fellers and 1SG John Wilkes loaded their men onto the British troopship SS Empire Javelin. For the next two days, the seasick Stonewallers steamed in circles in the naval assembly area known as “Piccadilly Circus” waiting on The Word from Gen Eisenhower. On the night of June 5th, they got it, and the Empire Javelin headed south.

In the early morning hours of 6 June, 1944, the 116th loaded into their Higgins boats and began the approach to the beach. It was chaos. Higgins boats were everywhere and navigational errors were rampant. It was never completely sorted out, but at least they were headed toward Normandy.

Unfortunately for CPT Fellers, the Bedford Boys, and the rest of A Company, they were the only formation headed to the correct beach. The rest of the 116th was too far to the east. Two boats full of Rangers tagged along but the engineers that were supposed to land ahead of them and clear obstacles were nowhere to be seen. Looking out over the gunwale, CPT Fellers was horrified to see that there was nothing to his left. The only target for every German gun within 3/4 of a mile was A Company.

200 yards out the British coxswains couldn’t get any closer, one yelled “Up and at ‘em, boys!” and dropped the ramp. Within seconds a mortar exploded inside of a nearby boat and killed everyone. At least three German strongpoints, six MG 42 machine guns and hundreds of Mauser rifles zeroed in on the rest of A Company. Within ten minutes, 90 members of the company were casualties, including all of the officers and most of the NCOs. Only four soldiers would make it to the shingle, which was still two hundred yards from the bluffs that the Germans occupied. Most of the remaining soldiers survived by hiding in the surf and staying underwater while breathing through their nose, their nostrils being the only exposed part of their bodies. The Germans would eventually run out of targets and shoot the wounded to make sure they were dead. Those that the Germans didn’t kill were drowned as the tide came in. 19 of the 34 Bedford Boys were killed in the first minutes of the battle, including CPT Fellers and 1SG Wilkes, and the rest wounded to some degree. Three more would die later in the day.

The first death notifications came to Bedford Virginia about a week later. There were nine on the first day, and the rest were spread out over the next week. They came as Western Union telegrams and were delivered by cab drivers. The small town was devastated. There wasn’t a single person in the town who did not personally know someone killed between 0630 and 0640 on 6 June, 1944.

To honor the sacrifice the town made on that day, the National D-Day Memorial was established in Bedford on 6 June 2001.

The Blue Army

Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.

Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.

The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.

On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.

The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.

The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.

After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.

In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.

After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.