Tagged: WWII

Popski’s Private Army

British Col John Hackett was a light cavalryman born a hundred and fifty years too late. The open spaces of the Western Desert were prime territory for the raiding, reconnaissance and derring-do of the hussar of old. While at the Middle East GHQ recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Hackett was instrumental in forming the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service to operate deep behind German and Italian lines in Egypt and Libya.

Hackett knew talent when he saw it, and approached Major Vladimir Peniakoff to form his own group. Peniakoff was a Russian Jew who was also a Belgian citizen that enlisted in the British Army, after being turned down by the RAF and Royal Navy as too old. He was assigned to the recently disbanded Libyan Arab Desert Force. The Libyan ADF was a polyglot organization of native Arabs and Bedouins with British officers, who fought the Italians. However, the LADF was disbanded because the LRDG refused to work with them anymore as they were to ill-disciplined. Hackett found Peniakoff drunk in Cairo after coming back from a difficult LRDG mission, only to find his unit disbanded, his pay stopped, and himself unemployed. He gladly accepted Hackett’s request to start his own group.

Taking the best of the former members of the LADF and scouring the replacement depots, barracks, brothels, and bars of Cairo for men of “special qualifications”; Peniakoff formed the No. 1 Demolition Squadron and trained them to conduct reconnaissance, espionage, and raiding behind German lines. The No. 1 Demolition Squadron consisted of Englishmen, Scots, Arabs, Bedouins, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, and Turks. His Arab signalmen couldn’t pronounce “Peniakoff” but they could pronounce “Popski” which was a buffoonish cartoon character in the army’s daily paper. “Popski” soon became Peniakoff’s nom de guerre.

To keep his motley crew in line, Popski had only one punishment for a disciplinary infraction or not performing a duty to standard: dismissal from the unit. This gave the unit an uncommonly high level of competence and espirit d’ corps, attributes that were much needed when operating alone in the unforgiving Libyan desert. Popski’s squadron used heavily armed but reliable jeeps and trucks which they treated like “ships on the sea” i.e. they carried everything they would need with them and required no support from anyone. The unit was self-contained and self-supporting: if a truck broke down and couldn’t be fixed or towed, it was left, along with the crew if there was no room on the other trucks.

On 9 December 1942, Col Hackett approached Popski and demanded he change his call sign because No1 Demolition Squadron was causing too many problems on the radio. Popski couldn’t think of anything. Hackett, exasperated, told him if he didn’t come up with a suitable name right away, he was going to call his unit “Popski’s Private Army”. “I’ll take it” and the PPA was born. For the next two years, Popski’s Private Army consistently raised havoc behind German and Italian lines, appearing where they were least expected and dashing off before the Germans could do anything about it. They were arguably one of the most effective (and daring) small units in the Mediterranean theater and their exploits read like a dime store adventure serial.

The Battle of Tassafaronga

On 23 November, 1942, Vice Adm William, “Bull” Halsey was promoted to rank of admiral, with four stars on his collar. However, there was a shortage of four star rank in the South Pacific, so Halsey borrowed a pair of two star ranks from Marine Maj Gen Alexander Vandegrift, and had them welded together. The 1st Marine Division was recently replaced by MG Alexander Patch’s 23rd “Americal” Division on Guadalcanal, and Vandegrift was on Noumea for Halsey’s promotion ceremony. In a fitting tribute to the men who got him that fourth star, Halsey sent his three star ranks to the wives of Dan Callaghan and Norman Scott, both of whom were killed in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal the week before.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal delayed but didn’t end, RearAdm Raizo Tanaka’s Tokyo Express runs down the Slot. And Halsey still needed to put together another surface task force to stop him. A task force centered on Willis Lee and his battleship, the USS Washington, was the obvious choice. But when a battleship does break, it breaks big, and the Washington was still tied up for repairs. And sending a battleship admiral out without a battleship was akin to a demotion. The other choice was Thomas Kinkaid, but he was a carrier admiral, and on his way back to Pearl Harbor. Halsey had to find someone else.

Halsey reached deep into his bench and promoted his senior cruiser captain, Carleton Wright, to command the newly formed Task Force 67. However, Wright had never fought a night surface action before and nor had any of the captains of the ships that constituted the ad hoc Task Force 67, except the captain of the destroyer USS Fletcher. With the deaths of Scott and Callaghan, and the unjust sacrifice of Gil Hoover on the Helena, (Hoover was relieved of command for not stopping for survivors after the USS Juneau exploded. He felt the threat to the remaining battered and limping ships was too great. A decision even Halsey, who fired him, admitted later was the right call.) the hard won experience of the previous four months was lost. Kinkaid began rewriting American surface doctrine, but left before he was finished. Wright’s Task Force 67 might have had an impressive four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and four destroyers, but they were mostly brand new to the fighting off Guadalcanal. Raizo Tanaka was a grizzled veteran of Ironbottom Sound, and the American newcomers would pay a heavy price for their ignorance.

On 29 November 1942, the Cactus Air Force spotted Tanaka’s Tokyo Express run and Wright moved to intercept. Just before midnight on 30 November, the Fletcher made radar contact with the oblivious Japanese. However, Wright still wanted visual confirmation, and told his destroyer captains to hold fire on their torpedoes. For four critical minutes, the Japanese steamed forward unknowingly under observation from unseen American eyes. But the Americans didn’t do anything with that information. When Wright finally gave permission, Tanaka’s destroyers were already outside the optimum firing angle. Even worse, thirty seconds after “the tin cans launched their fish”, the cruiser Minneapolis opened fire alerting Tanaka to the nearby American presence.

The American cruisers hammered Tanaka’s lead destroyer, sinking it, but didn’t fire on any of the others. Tanaka quickly took advantage of the poor American fire control. He ordered a smoke screen from his flagship, and signaled to the rest “All Ship’s Attack”. His simple order not only caused every American torpedo to miss but brought his destroyers in line for a perfect torpedo run based on the American gun flashes. Tanaka’s heavily over matched destroyers put forty Long Lance torpedoes into the water in probably the most devastating torpedo spread in history.

The Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were hit by at least two torpedoes a piece and put out of action. Only the lighter Honolulu remained unscathed of Wright’s cruisers due to radical maneuvers made possible by her higher agility. The Minneapolis’ bow was nearly cracked off and hung low at a 70 degree angle. The New Orleans lost her bow forward of the No 2 turret, and the shock of the explosion killed everyone forward of the superstructure. The Pensacola was struck amidships and aviation fuel for her floatplane started a fire that raged throughout the ship. The Pensacola’s crew eventually contained the fires; the same couldn’t be said for the Northampton, whose fires eventually caused her to sink.

Japanese superiority in surface torpedo warfare was well known to Americans by late 1942. Thousands of Allied sailors had died finding that information out the hard way. Hundreds of pages of reports were filed on that very subject. In fact, Adm Togo won the Battle of Tsuchima using the same tactics nearly forty years before. Americans would claim later that Wright was successful because he prevented Tanaka from delivering supplies to the starving Japanese on Guadalcanal. But even with the addition of a single lost destroyer, Tanaka sank one cruiser, put three out of commission for at least a year, killed 400 America sailors and wounded nearly thousand more. That’s a high price to pay for a couple of days’ supply of food and ammunition.

Fortunately, the Battle of Tassafaronga was the last major surface action in the waters off Guadalcanal. The US Navy’s sacrifice over the previous four months convinced Yamamoto that Ironbottom Sound could no longer be contested and consequently that Henderson Field could not be neutralized. There would be no Kantai Kessen in the South Pacific in 1942. The Tokyo Express would continue to run but would eventually be turned back by America’s “Hooligan Navy”, the unruly PT Boats operating from bases on Tulagi. Their incessant attacks on the Tokyo Express would eventually bring down the previously indefatigable Tanaka.

On 14 December Hyakutake reported that he was losing at least 50 men a day from starvation, and could not conduct offensive operations. A week later, Yamamoto decided to abandon the Guadalcanal and evacuate as many troops as possible.


Here’s lookin’ at you, kid – 75 years young. On 26 November, 1942, the masterpiece “Casablanca” premiered in New York ahead of its scheduled general release in January. MG Patton’s capture of the actual town of Casablanca in French Morocco a few weeks before during Operation Torch had recently hit the news, and Warner Bros wanted to capitalize on the increased interest in the dusty North African town.

Based on the play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”, Casablanca followed the cynical American expatriate Rick Blaine, played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart at the top of his game, who had a fateful encounter with a stupid hot ex-girlfriend, played by the timeless Ingrid Bergman, who, of all the gin joints in all the world, walked into his. Filled with the usual suspects of early 40s Hollywood, Casablanca was perfectly cast: Peter Lorre as the conniving but surprising Ugarte, 30s sex symbol Paul Heinreid as the stiff and vaguely uncomfortable (doing the right thing tends to do that to people) resistance leader Victor Lazlo, Sydney Greenstreet as the unscrupulous powerbroker Signor Ferrari, and Claude Raines as the opportunistic corrupt bureaucrat Captain Renault.

Now I may stick my neck out for no man, but I’ll do it for Casablanca: It is the greatest movie script in history. Many movies try, but Casablanca succeeds. There isn’t a single wasted frame. To have gorgeous cinematography without any wide angle scenery shots is unknown today. I was shocked, Shocked! to learn that the script was rejected out of hand by several hundred Hollywood executives and writers when it was circulated in 2010 with the names changed. I may have been misinformed, but Casablanca’s themes of honor, duty, and redemption are considered trite in Hollywood today (probably not: it’s the Romantic in me). I don’t mind too much though: we’ll always have Casablanca.

Casablanca is a story of Redemption. Many Hollywood movies have Redemption as a theme, Casablanca only more so. Just four characters in its splendid cast weren’t redeemed for their past transgressions, but only because there was no reason to: Sam played by the always delightful Dooley Wilson was Rick’s moral compass. (Yes, where do you think Tolkein got the idea from?) The waiter Carl, played by the screen stealing SK Sakall, was Casablanca’s moral compass. And Lazlo was the world’s moral compass. The fourth was Maj Strasser, who as the un-redeemable Nazi villain, had no moral compass.

The obvious tale of redemption was Rick, who by the end of the movie realized America wasn’t a place, but an idea worth fighting for. But never underestimate a blundering American screenwriter: there are many others who found their redemption by the end of the movie. There’s also Renault, a true democrat, who realized the folly of taking the easy path by accommodating the Germans. Or Ugarte, who redeemed himself in Rick’s eyes by killing Nazis. Ilsa redeemed herself to Victor for her earlier infidelity with Rick, or Berger, or Sascha, or Ferrari, or the German couple. The list goes on. You may disagree with me, but you’ll sound like someone who is trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe in your heart. One look at Yvoone singing La Marseilles should dispel any doubts.

Yvonne’s tears were real. The autumn of 1942, when Casablanca was filmed, was a dark time for the world. The Allied victories at Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad hadn’t happened yet. The papers were filled with Axis advances across the globe. German panzers ran roughshod over the Soviet Union. Rommel seized Tobruk, and was poised to seize Egypt and the Suez Canal. Marines fought for their lives on a tiny South Pacific Island; Japan sank several American carriers and were threatening to cut off Australia. Hitler’s National Socialists had Europe under the iron boot heel of collectivism, and the stories of their brutality reached America through the tens of thousands of refugees that escaped. All across the country, Americans were asleep; their arrival woke America up. Yvonne, and most of the cast of Casablanca, was part of that wave of refugees.

Their stories did get out because, though they tried, even the Nazis couldn’t kill that fast. The refugee’s roles gave Casablanca an authenticity that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The vast majority of the cast either fled Europe before the war, or fled their countries when Hitler overran them. Only three credited cast members were actually born in the United States: Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson, and Joy Paige (the Latina singer with The Voice). Madeline LaBeau who played Yvonne was French, Leonid Kinsky as Sacha was Russian, Lazlo was a German Jew, Berger was Norwegian, Renault was English, Ugarte was Austrian, Carl was Czech, and Strasser German. Conrad Veidt, who played the evil Nazi Maj Strasser, had actually experienced Nazi persecution and demanded the role because he wanted to show the world the true face of National Socialism. (He was also the highest paid actor in the film.) On that set, the cast made a beautiful friendship, and it showed on screen.

My heart may be my least vulnerable spot, but there’s a soft spot there for Casablanca. Every time I watch it, I watch it as if it’s the last time. It may be a little game I play, but Casablanca is the “Black and White” movie that I show someone who has never seen a black and white movie before. And though I always fight on the side of the underdog, I am not a cut rate reviewer. A review of Casablanca would not be complete without a few words on the song that ties the whole movie together, “As Time Goes By”. It may be poor salesmanship, but I’ll leave that to Sam,

“You must remember this / A kiss is still a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh…

The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…

And when two lovers woo, / They still say, “I love you’ / On that you can rely…

No matter what the future brings / As time goes by…”

I think I’ll play it again.

Happy Land: The Raid on Djedeida

During Operation Torch, British LtGen Kenneth Anderson attacked out of Algeria and into Tunisia in order to capture the ports of Bizerte and Tunis and stop the German build up. Due to American organizational and logistical problems, he could only attack with two British brigades and an adhoc American brigade group known as “Blade Force”. Blade Force was formed around the 1st US Armored Regiment of the 1st US Armored Division, equipped with M3 Lee medium tanks and M3 Stuart light tanks.

The advance started off well but Anderson’s force began to run into serious opposition from German units just south of Bizerta. Nevertheless, on 26 November 1942, C Company, 1st Arm Regt, commanded by MAJ Rudolph Barlow infiltrated through German lines (yes, you can infiltrate with a tank) and stumbled upon the German airfield at Djedeida. Barlow immediately ordered his 19 tanks on line and attacked.

In what can only be described as a “Tanker’s Wet Dream”, C Company machine gunned aircraft and trucks, gunned down scurrying Luftwaffe ground personnel, shot up buildings and tents, set fuel containers on fire, and on at least two occasions, crushed aircraft by running them over.

However, several aircraft managed to take off and were soon strafing the American tanks. Also, the raid didn’t last much more than an hour before nearby German units responded. Without infantry support, (US Combined Arms Doctrine was woefully antiquated in 1942) Barlowe couldn’t hold the airfield, so he wisely withdrew and exfiltrated back towards American and British lines (yes, you can exfiltrate in a tank). The Raid on Djedeida destroyed over 20 German aircraft and put the airfield out of commission.

Unfortunately, the Americans learned all the wrong lessons and the Germans all the right ones. GenLt Nehring, the German commander in Tunisia, was now alerted to the holes in his defense and reacted accordingly. And the raid had no appreciable effect on Luftwaffe operations due to the resiliency of their operating and supply systems. The Raid on Djedeida did however produce a great sense of accomplishment and bravado among American tankers. That cockiness would have been quickly dispelled had Barlowe stayed around any longer: a mere 2 kms away were four of the brand new German Panzer Kampfwagen VI “Tiger” tanks, equipped with armor impenetrable by anything an American tank could shoot at it, and was equipped with a variant of the vaunted and lethal dual purpose 88mm flak cannon that can easily out range the tiny 37mm anti tank gun on the American tanks.

The Americans would learn that lesson soon enough.

The Next Act Begins

During a speech about the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa on 10 November 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Late October 1942 was the high-water mark for the Axis across the globe. But in the beginning of November they were stopped at El Alamein, Stalingrad, and Guadalcanal. November 1942 saw the Allies take the offensive. However, the Germans were far from defeated and determined to wrest the strategic initiative back. In response to the Torch landings, Hitler sent his strategic reserve, which was still very much in demand on the Eastern Front, to occupy Vichy French Tunisia and subsequently throw the Allies out of North Africa.

However, he did this under the false assumption that Stalingrad was captured. Unknown to Hitler, Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army still occupied an area of the city less than a square mile along the Volga River (just let that statement sink in for a second). On Hitler’s directive, 100,000 mostly German troops commanded by Lt Gen Walter Nehring began landing in Tunisia in the second week of November. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, retreating across Libya with the beaten PanzerArmee Afrika, was furious with Hitler and hastened back to Tunisia to take command. (If Rommel would have had those troops, or even just their supplies for the battles at El Alamein, there is little doubt that he would have been able to seize Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Ditto for Paulus at Stalingrad.)

Eisenhower, and especially British LtGen Kenneth Anderson in eastern Algeria, recognized the German threat and they attempted to seize Tunisia before the Germans could organize. Unfortunately, confusion among the inexperienced Americans meant that the British could only attack with two brigades against dug in German troops with Luftwaffe air superiority. The attack predictably failed and the German build up in Tunisia would continue unabated.

Sometime in the next couple of months, the eager but naïve US Army would meet the German Army in battle for the first time. But instead of ill supplied, beaten, and weary Italians and Germans of the old Afrika Corps; the Americans would meet experienced and rested German troops, battle hardened against the Russians, led by one of Germany’s most capable tactical leaders, and armed with the newest equipment that the German economy could produce. In hindsight, the question wasn’t whether the Americans would win, but whether they would recover.

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: The Battleship Night Action

Halsey had nothing left to stop Kondo from destroying Henderson Field except Willis Lee’s battleships, so against all doctrine and correct naval thinking, Halsey sent them in. Yamamoto was operating battleships in the confined waters of the Slot, so why couldn’t he? Lee formed an adhoc task force with four destroyers with relatively full fuel bunkers, and the newly christened Task Force 64 set off.

Just before midnight on the 14 November 1942, Lee’s battleships rounded Savo Island and just southeast, one of his commo guys picked up a faint transmission from PT boats prowling off Florida Island and preparing to attack. Lee contacted them directly. Minutes later, Kondo’s ships were spotted by radar at about 20,000 yards heading southwest. The big guns on the South Dakota and Washington roared, and registered hits, but the targets were soon masked by Savo Island. The only Japanese ship sunk was a lost destroyer that appeared alone on the west side of Savo Island. It was quickly dispatched by the 5” guns of both battleships’ secondary batteries and the destroyers. Before anyone realized what the lost destroyer meant, disaster struck.

Standard Japanese doctrine (which soon became American doctrine) called for the escorting destroyers to race ahead and launch torpedoes when an enemy force was spotted. When Lee opened fire, all nine of Kondo’s destroyers and both light cruisers launched their “Long Lance” torpedoes which had a range, speed, and reliability advantage over anything the Americans had. As Lee’s destroyer screen emerged from the shadow of Savo Island, they unwittingly advanced into a cloud of torpedoes. Two destroyers exploded and were broke in half immediately, and the other two maneuvered for their lives, effectively taking them out of the battle.

The sacrifice of the destroyer vanguard almost certainly saved Task Force 64: all 36 torpedoes missed the unwieldy battleships. The South Dakota engaged the Japanese ships, but then suffered a catastrophic electric failure. The South Dakota was always considered a “hard luck ship” and she lived up to her reputation that night. For three minutes, an eternity under fire, the South Dakota went dark, and all systems shut down. It was discovered later that a chain reaction caused by a short circuit in the after turret failed to trip a breaker because its chief engineer tied it down. She drifted out of position, and an observer on one of the destroyers said a flare popped overhead that lit her “like a spotlight on a stage”. The Japanese hammered the South Dakota.

But like the Hiei the night before last, the South Dakota was mainly under fire by the destroyers of Kondo’s Screening Force, and the cruisers of the Bombardment Force. Kondo didn’t believe the reports that he faced battleships: he thought they were mistaken for heavy cruisers, and wanted to save the Kirishima for Henderson Field. He would a heavy price for that mistake.

The Washington passed through the wreckage of the two destroyers to the cheers of the survivors in the water, and engaged the Kirishima and her escorting cruisers “at body blow range”.

The Washington wasn’t one of the old venerable pre-war battlewagons that took a pummeling at Pearl Harbor. She was one of the new fast battleships built to keep up with the aircraft carriers. Moreover, because “bigger is better” in America, she was designed around 16” guns instead of the late 1930’s standard of 14”. This upgrade caused all sorts of problems. For example, the first time the Washington fired its main batteries in gunnery without the warning bell, the concussion literally blew the surprised captain’s pants off his body, and put thirty men in the sick bay for busted ear drums and broken bones from being thrown against the bulkheads. However, nothing on the planet could stop a sixteen inch shell headed in whatever direction it was fired in. Even though in the holy trinity of speed/firepower/armor in ship design, armor took a back seat for the Washington, her speed and firepower more than made up for it. The Washington was specifically designed to sail quickly into harm’s way and hit first at long range, which her big guns and powerful radar allowed.

And Willis “Ching Chong” Lee was America’s foremost expert in exactly that.

Lee got his nickname from his fondness for being stationed in China in the 20s and 30s, and loved to sit on the bridge and trade bawdy stories with the enlisted men and junior officers. But it was just a cover to endear himself with the crews: Lee was America’s master of gunnery in the age of radar. He saw everything in terms of math. He literally wrote the book on radar fire control, and was friends with the guys who wrote the technical manuals in both fields. He flattened the Washington’s fire control so the radar plot officer could talk directly to the guns, which cut targeting time down considerably. Everything was based on the radar picture. Lee’s dedication to this new-fangled technology would pay dividends that night.

When Lee could finally ascertain exactly where the South Dakota was after her mishap, he unleashed the Washington’s full fury on the Kirishima. The nine giant phalluses on the Washington tore into Kondo’s centerpiece. The Kirishima attempted to fire back several times, but gunnery reliant on the Mark One Eyeball was in the past. The Washington pulverized the Kirishima with deadly accurate main and secondary fire before the Kirishima could even bracket. Kondo quickly called a destroyer over to transfer his flag and evacuate as many sailors as possible. The burning Kirishima capsized three hours later.

The shaken Kondo still had two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a swarm of destroyers, Lee had but the Washington. However, the Washington was given the attributes of an avenging spectre. She was out in the darkness, and no one would knew where she was until, if they were lucky, giant splashes appeared out of nowhere before the massive killing blows arrived. The biggest and baddest m*******a in the Sound was out there somewhere, and the Japanese had no idea where she would appear. The thought broke Kondo – He ordered his ships back north.

The next morning, the American PT boats and marauding destroyers would have their way with the beached transports. A few days later, Vandegrift was replaced by MG Alexander Patch of the US Army’s Americal Division to continue the fight on Guadalcanal, just over three months since the Marines splashed ashore. The US Army would drive Hyakutake and his starving troops off the island. It was only a matter of time before Guadalcanal was secured. The Marines held just long enough for the US Navy to figure out its business. Though there would still be clashes in Ironbottom Sound, and vicious barroom brawls for months between the sailors of the Washington and South Dakota, the Japanese would never again seriously threaten the sea lanes around Guadalcanal.

When informed of the results, President Roosevelt said specifically of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, “It would seem that the turning point in this war has at last been reached.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Friday the Thirteenth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they neither could, nor felt like taking prisoners.

The Second Battle of El Alamein: Operation Supercharge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

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