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.
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.
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.
On 26 May 1942 German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel launched his offensive in Libya with the intention of capturing the Allied port of Tobruk and pushing on to Egypt. This would keep the British at bay so the Italian Army and Navy and German Paratroops could capture Malta in Operation Herkules, which was in the final stages of preparation. The PanzerArmee Afrika feinted along the coast road, and sent the Afrika Korps with most of the German and Italian panzer and armored divisions around the south of the British Gazala line.
The Allies fortified the Gazala Line after stopping Rommel’s Riposte in response to their over-extension during Operation Crusader the winter before. After months of digging in and preparing to renew the offensive, the British, Commonwealth, and other Allied troops defended brigade sized defensive boxes or sand forts reinforced by mines and barbed wire along the forward edge of the battlefield. These boxes ran from the coast road along the Mediterranean south into the desert with the areas in between patrolled by the garrisons. The box furthest south was held by the Free French at the oasis near Bir Hacheim.
Up to this point in the war the Free French were still tainted by the surrender of France two years before and the Vichy French collaboration with the Germans. The determined Vichy defense of Syria and Lebanon the previous summer especially stung. Additionally there were few purely ethnic French formations in the Free French units (most surrendered in 1940) and the majority were French colonial troops or Foreign Legionnaires, considered unreliable or freebooters by the other Allies. The Battle of Bir Hacheim would change all that.
The Free French consisted of two battalions of Legionnaires, a colonial battalion from Central Africa, one battalion from Indochina and the French Pacific possessions, and a motley crew of Arabs, Bedouins, and French sailors and marines. The Free French box at Bir Hachiem suffered the brunt of Rommel’s attack. The fort of Bir Hacheim was the only position preventing Rommel from flanking the entire British line. Rommel expected the fort to fall in one day, but General Marie-Pierre Koenig’s Free French brigade at Bir Hacheim disillusioned him of that notion. The British just north fell back, and Rommel ended up sending the bulk of his five best and most powerful German and Italian Divisions at the French. The German attacks repeatedly bogged down in the face of tenacious French resistance and options for maneuver were limited by what Rommel came to call the “mine marsh” of Bir Hacheim. For sixteen days, Koenig’s Frenchmen held off the best Rommel could throw at them and gave the British to the north the needed time to prevent themselves from being encircled and counterattack.
Only overwhelming firepower from German Stuka dive bombers and a lack of ammunition forced the evacuation of the fort on 10 June. During the escape, the only female French Foreign Legionnaire in history, the Englishwoman Susan Travers, was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre and the Legion’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. She reconnoitered a gap in the Axis encirclement which allowed more than 2/3rds of the French strength, including equipment, to escape back to Allied lines to fight another day.
The Battle of Bir Hacheim lessened the stigma of the French defeat in 1940, delegitimized the Vichy French regime, and proved that Free France was a real partner in the Allied fight against the Germans.
On 24 May 1942, Admiral Isokuru Yamamato was a troubled but confident man. He and his staff had just finished up his final wargame for Operation MI, the invasion of the Aleutians and Midway Island. It was a resounding success… but only because his chief of staff declared the results of two Japanese carriers sunk as unrealistic. That was half of his current force of four carriers. He was troubled not because of the result of the game but because he only had four carriers: the Kido Butai should have six. Unfortunately, the Zuiakaku and Shokaku inexplicably returned to Japan after the Battle of the Coral Sea instead of returning to his main base at Truk, the Japanese version of Pearl Harbor in the Central Pacific where they could make repairs and cross level planes. And they could not be called back without delaying the operation. He had lost 1/3 of his main strength before the battle even began.
Yamamoto still had many advantages. His aircrews had infinitely more experience than the green American airmen. Also, even without his two wayward carriers, he still outnumbered the Americans 2 to 1 in that all-important class of ship. But most importantly, he believed he would have the element of surprise in the coming battle. Yamamoto was sure the Americans would react to an invasion of Alaska and he would ambush them at Midway as they did so. Four carriers should be more than enough. On the morning of 25 May, 1942, the various Japanese task forces would begin leaving their home ports for the intricate and complicated Operation MI.
Up to that time, Admiral Yamamoto’s Japanese Combined Imperial Fleet of four fleet carriers, seven battleships, and 174 other ships was the largest and most powerful naval force ever assembled for a single purpose in human history. The vast majority of it was headed directly for the Hawaiian Islands, specifically the tiny island of Midway.
On 15 May, 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was created in the United States Army. Initially the WAAC was open to just 10,000 women to serve in jobs to free up men for combat duty. Eventually over 150,000 women would serves as “WAACs” or “WACs” for Women’s Army Corps as it was known in 1943. They were the first women to serve in jobs other than nursing in the US Army. The program was so successful it eventually spread to the other services: the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus, Always Ready), the Air Corps civil WASPS (Women’s Air Service Pilots) and the Marine Women’s Reserve. Gen MacArthur called the WACs “my best soldiers”, adding that they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined than the men.
In spring of 1942, US cryptanalysts had great success reading the Japanese naval code but so far in the war, the results have been mixed at best. Still, the cryptanalysts continued to decode Japanese radio transmissions and they knew the next Japanese target was “OBJ A-F”. With only two remaining American aircraft carriers operational, the USS Enterprise and the USS Saratoga (the USS Yorktown was still limping back from the debacle in the Coral Sea) Admiral Nimitz had to know where OBJ A-F was so he could ambush the six fleet carriers he expected to participate in the next Japanese operation. The list of possible targets included another raid on Ceylon (Sri Lanka), American Samoa, Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands, and several others.
Cmdr Joseph Rochefort, the senior intelligence officer of the Pacific fleet, thought it might be Midway Island and used a radio deception to confirm. He sent a cable to the garrison to tell them to send a radio transmission in the clear stating that their freshwater distillation system was broken and they needed freshwater as soon as possible. The confused radioman at Midway, who walked past the fully functioning system all the time, initially questioned the order but sent the message anyway. On 15 May 1942, Cmdr Rochefort’s cryptanalysts decoded a Japanese message saying that OBJ A-F requests freshwater. Nimitz immediately began preparing his ambush of the Japanese carriers as they approached Objective A-F, Midway Island.