Tagged: OnThisDay

The Battle of Waterloo: Ney’s Cavalry Charge.

By 1500, Lobau confirmed that the Prussians were only five miles away and would be in a position to attack in less than two hours. Napoleon was now on the clock. A Prussian appearance would destroy morale, so he quietly started the rumor that the troops to the east were Grouchy’s. This bit of “command disinformation” had to hold up until Grouchy did show up, or Ney broke Wellington’s weak point, his center, and La Haye Sainte was its key.

Around 1530, D’Erlon threw the full weight of his reformed corps at the tiny farm compound, but the French numbers worked against them and Major Baring’s troops held out. Again trying to make up for his previous failure, Ney had assembled 12,000 (one, two, plus three zeroes) French cavalry to support him once he struck the ridge. Ney was expecting D’Erlon to steamroll the farm. Meanwhile, the Grand Battery continued to pound the remainder of Wellington’s line, then completely exposed on the forward slope after the counterattack.

By 1600, the Grand Battery was inflicting serious damage on the Allied troops, so Wellington pulled everyone not engaged around La Haye Sainte back to the reverse slope. Cavalrymen in the best of times are an impatient lot, and the fiery Ney with thousands of his brothers were no exception. To the great mass of cavalrymen, it looked as if the Allies were retreating. A great cry went up, and unwilling to wait any further on D’Erlon, Ney ordered the charge. Napoleon was furious but could do nothing to stop the impetuous Ney. The cavalry surged forward and easily overran Wellington’s cannon. But as they crested the ridge they ran not into retreating columns, but dozens of hollow infantry squares.

The infantry square is a formation that provided all around protection against a cavalry attack and relies on simple animal instinct: a horse will not throw itself against a wall of sharp objects, in this case bayonets. All the cavalrymen could do was ride up or around and whack the bayonets with their sabres, or shoot the Allies with their carbines and pistols. The square is horribly vulnerable to cannon shot and infantry attack, but with D’Erlon occupied with the fight on the reverse slope, no square would be broken that day.

But that didn’t stop Ney from trying and he personally led many of the attacks. While rallying a group of cuirassiers, he yelled, “Come and see how a Marshal of France can die!” He had five horses shot out from underneath him but he survived. Still, Ney wouldn’t stop and the Allies were hard pressed. If La Haye Sainte or Hougamont fell, and that infantry came to Ney’s aid, the game was over.

Around 1730, Wellington, stuck in a square and oblivious to anything beyond it, kept looking at his watch and saying, “Give me night, or give me Blucher.”

The Battle of Waterloo: The Attack on the Center

At 1300, Napoleon’s artillery was finally in position, and the 80 guns of the “Grand Battery” opened on Wellington’s line. Napoleon, a former artillery officer (imagine that), had made a career of smashing a portion of an adversary’s line with cannon and then following the through the rupture with dense columns of infantry acting as a human battering ram. Wellington knew this and placed the majority of his troops on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge, which protected them from the worst, but not all, of the cannon fire. The casualties began to mount.

At 1320, D’Erlon’s I Corps stepped off on the long march through the wet wheat fields, and finally Wellington’s artillery returned fire. For the next 30 minutes, the Allied troops stoically stood in formation and took it, while the French slowly marched forward and took it. On both sides, whenever holes appeared in the line, men from the rear ranks stepped into them. About 1345 pm, Wellington, fully within range of Napoleon’s guns (most of his staff would be casualties by the end of the day), commented,

“Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let’s see who pounds the longest.”

D’Erlon’s Corps first encountered the walled farm at La Haye Sainte and detached 7000 troops to assault it, as the rest continued on. The farm was held by 700 line infantry of the King’s German Legion. King George III of Britain (yes, that one) was not actually English, but German; his other title was King George of Hannover. The King’s German Legion were soldiers who fled Hannover to Britain when Napoleon conquered it in 1803 and they formed some of Wellington’s best troops. Major Georg Baring and his battalion proved a thorn in D’Erlon’s side for the next six hours.

Weathering round shot, canister shot, double canister, rifle fire, and finally the renowned disciplined musket fusillade from British infantry, D’Erlon’s 17,000 strong columns struck the British lines at 1400. D’Erlon knew his enemy though, and he concentrated his heaviest attacks on the least reliable of Wellington’s troops, the Belgians and Dutch. Wellington acknowledged this weakness and interspersed British and German units to stiffen their lines (just as he had done on the peninsula with the Portuguese and Spanish). However, the Dutch were hastily mobilized for this campaign and many of the Belgians fought for Napoleon previously, some for over ten years. After just 15 minutes, their lines cracked and then broke.

The rout of Wellington’s Belgians and Dutch in the center was Napoleon’s high watermark of the battle. Had D’Erlon had more troops, from any source, to secure the breach and prepare for the inevitable counterattack, the battle would almost certainly have been over. But after the long march under fire and the furious fight on the ridge, D’Erlon’s men by themselves couldn’t withstand a determined counter attack. Around 1430, the top hat and great coat clad Sir Thomas Picton led the 5th Division in a counterattack. Soon after, the British heavy cavalry moved forward to exploit the highlanders’ assault. Just after Picton unleashed his highlanders, the Earl of Uxbridge released the Household Brigade and the Union Brigade against the French. With La Haye Saint Sainte still under Allied control, the French had nowhere to rally, and the British cavalry swept the D’Erlon’s men from the field. The British cavalry was only stopped by French lancers and cuirassiers in a countercharge. Some of the British horsemen made it all the way to the Grand Battery.

D’Erlon was furious. His first attack nearly successful, and he inquired Ney as to why he wasn’t supported. His men would be forced to make the same attack again. Their ordeal was for nothing. Where was the cavalry? Bad staff work had them too far from the breakthrough. Where was the Imperial Guard? Napoleon jealously guarded their use. Where was Lobau and VI Corps? They were investigating a body of troops spotted six miles to the east.

The east? Blucher had arrived.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Assault on Hougamont

On 18 June, 1815 Emperor Napoleon I of the French faced Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his Anglo-Dutch-Belgian-German Army just south of the town of Mont St. Jean. Napoleon planned on attacking the Duke at 9 am, but heavy rains the night before prevented his artillery from getting into position in time and, in any case, the soggy ground would greatly reduce their effectiveness. So Napoleon issued his orders and waited for the ground to dry. As he waited, the very sick Napoleon took a nap. At 1130, Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s commander on the ground, wanted to make up for his failure to be aggressive at Quatra Bras and grew impatient. He gave the order for General Reille’s II Corps to begin their attack on the walled chateaux of Hougamont in order to draw away some of Wellington’s reserves in preparation for the main attack on the center of the British line.

Wellington knew the importance of Hougamont, and sent his best unit to hold it: the Brigade of Guards, backed by the best of the King’s German Legion: the Nassau and Hannoverian jaegers (German for “hunters”), light infantry whose accurate rifles made every tree precious. But Reille threw almost the entire veteran 6th Infantry Division, led by Gen Jerome Napoleon, the Emperor’s little brother, along with the 9th Infantry Div, at Hougamont. After fierce fighting on the approach, the French reached the gates and walls of the compound. But the chateaux and courtyard itself were held by the senior regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream Guards, led by the indefatigable Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonald, and there was an impasse. But make no mistake – the brawl for Hougamont was a still bitterly contested swirling maelstrom of a melee, in which no side had an advantage.

That is until 1230, when a monster-of-a-man, Sous-Lieutenant Legros, of the 1st Legre of the 6th Division, physically hacked through the northwest gate at Hougamont with an axe he found in the orchard. Thirty Frenchmen managed to storm through, and the entire battle hung in the balance. But LieutCol MacDonald personally led a counterattack during which Captain Henry Wyndam and Corporal James Graham managed to shut the gate. The thirty Frenchmen were all bayoneted, including Lieut Legros. The only survivor was a young unnamed drummer boy, whom was saved by Pvt Mathew Clay, and escorted to the chapel.

Though he didn’t know it, Wellington’s first crisis had passed.

Although the fighting around Hougamont raged all day, Jerome and Reille would get no closer to capturing it than they did at 1230. In an ironic twist, the fight for the chateaux and orchard would occupy almost a quarter of Napoleon’s Army. Like the campaign in Spain, the supposed feint at Hougamont, was a bleeding ulcer for Napoleon that consumed men and leadership, much needed elsewhere on the battlefield at Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo: the Narrative

Today on the “bicentennial plus five” of one of the most famous battles in history, I am hoping to lay this one out for you like TA-50. Before we begin our journey, there is something you must understand first that is kind of a pet peeve of mine: the loss of context within the narrative. And the writers about the Battle of Waterloo are the worst at it.

The vast majority of non-scholarly work on the battle break it up into “The Five Great Acts of Waterloo”. They are:

-The Assault on Hougamont
-The French Attack in the Center
-Ney’s Cavalry Charge
-The Fall of La Haye Sainte and the Prussian Attack
-The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard

It is a readymade narrative that makes a great story. But it loses a bit of the scope of what was happening in those few square miles of fields, forests and buildings, between the Inn at LaBelle Alliance, Napoleon’s headquarters, and the “Butte du Lion”, “The Mound of the Lion”, the immortalized position where Wellington spent most of the battle. Many authors and film makers portray them sequentially, and I will be no different since I’m confined to my self-imposed limits of a blog post.

But they weren’t just sequential, they were sequential and then simultaneous. Think of a wave hitting a beach. The wave doesn’t actually hit the beach all at one time; it crests and rolls down the beach, as other waves follow behind it and strike where the first wave (and then second and then third…) had already subsided.

The Battle of Waterloo acts in the same way: Each act happened sequentially but each continued on throughout the day. The battle began with the assault on Hougamont, and after its initial failure the French began the attack on the center. But that doesn’t mean that the French gave up on Hougamont, the battle for the chateau and orchard continued all day, likewise with the attack in the center. This continued in a rising crescendo for more than eight hours until the climax of the battle, the final assault by the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. It would be a disservice to everyone if you, gentle reader, thought that any single event was the only thing happening on the battlefield. Eight hours after the battle started, as Napoleon’s grenadiers were rockin their kickass bearskin caps forward, D’Erlon was still pushing from La Haye Sainte into Wellington’s center, Lobau was in the fight of his life against the Prussians at Plancenoit, Ney’s cavalry was still attempting to break squares, and poor Jerome was still feeding the meat grinder that was Hougamont.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On 13 June 1775, Rebel spies learned of a British plan to sortie out of Boston and break the American siege. Newly named Continental Brigadier General William Prescott devised a plan to fortify the Charlestown peninsula, the only logical place that the British could land.

On the night 16 June, Prescott, and another newly minted brigadier general, Israel Putnam, along with Colonel John Stark, and Dr. Joseph Warren (who should have had command but fought as a private out of respect for the Continental Congress’ 14 June decision) led 1400 men to fortify Bunker Hill, just past the Charlestown Neck. Whether by design or error, the Patriots fortified Breed’s Hill further down the peninsula, and then did not inform anyone at the Cambridge camp of the change. The decision would have grave consequences on the future battle.

The British were surprised (and would continue to be throughout the war) at the American ability to heavily fortify a position overnight, but it didn’t matter. With the Americans on Breed’s Hill, all the British had to do was land near Bunker Hill to win the battle. If the British occupied Bunker Hill, they would cut off Prescott’s force from the American siege lines, and then all they had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and the Americans would surrender. British Major general Henry Clinton, actually proposed this course of action but was overruled by his peers. Major general William Howe, the new British commander who had just recently replaced General Gage, wanted nothing to do with an American surrender: He wanted to use the might of the British Empire of the to crush the rebels. He didn’t just want to defeat the Americans, he wanted to send a message about the futility of resistance. Fear was to keep the rebels in line – fear of the British Army and Royal Navy.

On the morning of 17 June 1775, Howe landed 3,000 men on the peninsula while the Royal Navy bombarded the Americans. The British initially didn’t attack, they sat on the beach and drank tea waiting for reinforcements. This gave time for Prescott to notice another flaw in his defense, Breed’s Hill could be outflanked to the north, and the entire Rebel position turned. Fortunately, Howe’s dithering allowed John Stark and New Hampshiremen to quickly scrape out a trench along a rail fence which blocked any movement north of Breed’s Hill. When Howe finally did attack, he sent a feint against Breed’s Hill and his main effort slammed into Stark, and was promptly defeated. Howe’s attack would have been successful had it occurred an hour earlier during morning tea time. In any case, when the British advanced up the hill Israel Putnam gave the famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, a common order in the age of the musket, while John Stark used a more practical series of painted stakes in the ground 100 paces out.

The American’s inflicted heavy casualties on the initial British attack and they retreated back to landing area, much to the jubilation of the defending American militiamen. Howe tried again, this time reversing the attacks, with the main attack on Breed’s Hill and the feint against Stark, but with the same result. The defeated British streamed back to the landing area, leaving their dead and screaming wounded littering the hill. After the second attack, the Battle of Breed’s Hill was a resounding American victory. Had the battle not occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, the names “John Prescott”, “Israel Putnam” and “John Stark” would be household names in America.

The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on the Charlestown peninsula, and that fact was the reason the British could reform for another attack. Howe refused to allow the boats to transport his defeated troops back to Boston. Stuck on the beach with nowhere to go, Howe and his staff and subordinate general officers rallied the British troops. They reorganized the formations, their staffs filled in for the fallen officer the Americans deliberately targeted, and Howe personally led the third attack.

As the situation stood the Americans couldn’t defeat a third attack. They impotently watched the British reform on the beach. Prescott couldn’t attack due to the untrained nature of his militia, but more importantly the American were running out of ammunition. The main army at Cambridge was continuously feeding troops and supplies onto the Charlestown peninsula, but the situation to the west of Breed’s Hill was chaotic, to say the least. Many American troops and most of the powder and shot stayed on Bunker Hill, and never made it to Prescott. When He departed the night before, Prescott said he was going to defend bunker Hill, so that’s where his supplies and reinforcements stayed. Few American officers marched their men to the sound of the guns, and only went where they were told. Furthermore, Prescott left no one on Bunker Hill to coordinate the reinforcements and desperately needed supplies. Finally, the Royal Navy was shelling the Charlestown Neck and Bunker Hill to isolate Breed’s Hill. Many American militiamen got their first taste of cannon fire there, and wanted no more of it. Hundreds turned around and went home.

The Americans had few casualties so far in the battle and if Prescott had the men, powder, and shot sitting on Bunker Hill, he could have defeated Howe’s third attack. But he didn’t, the Howe’s third assault carried the earthworks at bayonet point. The Americans just couldn’t stand against the British bayonet (…yet). They retreated off the peninsula. The retreat was disorganized, but several units surprised the British with their dogged and orderly fighting withdrawal, especially John Stark’s New Hampshire regiments. Many British officers were impressed with the fighting quality of the Americans when they were obviously properly trained. Nonetheless, most of the American casualties were during the retreat, including both William Prescott and Dr. Warren, whose deaths were a grievous blow to the American cause.

All was not lost though. Howe refused to follow up his victory, and continue the attack into the disorganized and defeated Americans. The newly coined Continental Army was shaken by the losses at Bunker Hill and its defeated defenders streaming back into camp. In any case, it did not have the powder for another battle. The vast majority of the Continental Army’s powder was used up or lost at the Battle for Bunker Hill. Had Howe pushed, the entire Continental Army may have broken up.

Fortunately for the Americans, Howe didn’t, and he settled the Pyrrhic victory at Breed’s and Bunker Hills. Howe had defeated the Americans, but he had so many casualties, Howe would not be able to lift the siege anytime soon. Clinton remarked in his diary, “A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.” The Battle of Bunker Hill was a propaganda victory for the Americans. The amateur Americans had stood up to the mightiest army in the world and threw it back twice with horrendous casualties. The British recognized that Americans were serious, and capable. The defeat at Bunker Hill had far reaching repercussions on American operations. For the next three years, American planning would be dominated by “Trying to create another Bunker Hill.”

The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Rumors about the extent and horrors of German concentration camps had been circling among the Allies for about two weeks, mostly from news stories about the Soviet discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system, and the American liberation of the camp at Buchenwald on 4 April. On 15 April 1945, the British 11th Armored Division became the next initiates into the horrific and insanity inducing fraternity of soldiers who first discovered a National Socialist concentration and extermination camp when they liberated the camps at Bergen-Belsen.

The camp at Bergen-Belsen was originally a Wehrmacht prisoner of war camp, and an exchange camp where Jewish civilians were held so they could be traded for German prisoners of war captured by the Allies. About 50,000 Jews, Polish and Russian pows died in the overcrowded camps before Bergen-Belsen was turned over to the SS in 1943. After the Wannasee Conference, Bergen-Belsen was expanded into concentration and extermination camps. Jews from across the Third Reich were sent Bergen-Belsen based on their potential ransom. The Jews were either exchanged for prisoners or sold to Allied and neutral nations for hard currency. Jews that didn’t sell quickly enough or got sick were shot. As the Russian armies closed in from the east, prisoners from the camps in Poland were sent west and many ended up in Bergen-Belsen.

By 1945 disease was rampant. Typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid, and dysentery ravaged the overcrowded camps. Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. On 11 April the typhus outbreak was so bad the SS created an exclusion zone around the camps and handed them over to British without a fight. Unfortunately, the peaceful transfer of the camps enabled time for the National Socialists to destroy the very meticulous records of their atrocities.

When the Brits arrived on 15 April 1945, they found 64,000 half starved and sick prisoners in camps designed to hold 10,000. They also found 19,000 unburied corpses. The captives had not eaten for days and madness and chaos engulfed the camps. The British troops restored order and trucked in food, water, and medical supplies and personnel to deal with the survivors. Medical specialists were flown in from Britain to assist. Despite their best efforts, about 500 prisoners died everyday for next the few months, mostly from disease. One of the last Luftwaffe attacks of the war occurred at Bergen-Belsen on 20 April which killed three British medical orderlies and several dozen prisoners.

The British forced the camp staff and civilians from nearby Celle to bury the dead. Correctly assuming that future generations would deny the Holocaust and National Socialist atrocities, the British command documented the Bergen-Belsen camps. No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit (like todays combat camera detachments) thoroughly covered Bergen-Belsen and interviewed as many survivors and liberators as possible.

The madness inducing pictures and recordings are available on the Imperial War Museum’s website.

The camps at Bergen-Belsen were so thoroughly riddled with disease that the camps were completely evacuated in August and burnt to the ground to prevent further spread. In the end, about 100,000 prisoners died at Bergen-Belsen from torture, medical experiments, disease, malnutrition, or execution, including about 14,000 after it was liberated, most to disease or complications in feeding.

The Battle of Formigny and the End of The Hundred Years’ War

After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Duke William of Normandy gained the English Crown and became King William of England, aka William the Conqueror. This technically made the King of England a vassal of the King of France. However, England under the House of Plantagenet was considerably more powerful than France under the House of Capet. This was particularly true when England added Gascony, Anjou, Aquitaine (basically all of western France) and parts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, (and allied to Burgundy) to become the Angevin Empire in the 12th century. (Angevin because it was ruled by the royal line of Anjou of whom King Richard the Lionheart was its most famous member). The Capetian Kings of France wouldn’t stand for it and made it their mission over the next 250 years to enlarge the Kingdom of France at the expense of the Angevin Empire and the Kingdom of England. This led to the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

The first 91 years of the Hundred Years’ War: The naval battle of Sluys, chevauchee, knights, longbows, the Black Prince, the Dauphin, Battle of Crecy, the Black Death, Battle of Portiers, the Black Death, King Henry V, St Crispin’s Day, Battle of Agincourt, and the English declare victory.

The next 21 years: Joan of Arc, Siege of Orleans, The Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal by Burgundy, and the English lose everything except Normandy and a toehold in Gascony.

Toward the end of the war in 1449, King Charles VII of France violated the Treaty of Tours and invaded the last significant English possession on continental Europe, Normandy. The English gathered a small army and in March 1450 crossed the channel. The English army was mostly yeoman archers, which is how they won most of their battles in the last 100 years.

However, this time the French maneuvered them into a position where they could be attacked on three sides, so the English and Welsh bowmen could not concentrate their fire. The low number of heavily armed and armored knights and men-at-arms couldn’t adequately protect the the lightly armored archers. On 15 April 1450, the French knights, professional men at arms, and mercenary companies handily overran the English outside of the town of Formigny, on the road between Caen and Bayeux. As a result of the battle, all of Normandy except Calais would be ceded to the Kingdom of France, and effectively ended the Hundred Years’ War.

The formal peace treaty was not signed for another 20 years, but after the Battle of Formigny, the English no longer sought territorial possessions on the continent and turned their attention to the sea.

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.