The successful invasion of Normandy may seem predestined today, but it certainly wasn’t on the morning of June 6th, 1944. The Germans and the weather weren’t the only problems for the Allies. In many cases, the Allies were their own worst enemies. For every Ponte Du Hoc, there was a Vierville Draw; for every Pegasus Bridge there was a Merville Battery, if not more, many more. The question isn’t really how they won, but how did they not lose despite themselves? Laziness, greed, incompetence, ignorance, poor staff work, etc, these were obstacles that were far different than German machine gun nests, but had to be overcome nonetheless.
These are the D-Day stories we don’t like to talk about, because they are the stories we fear to repeat, those that we inflicted upon ourselves.
The disasters of D-Days started even before the final go ahead by Eisenhower. The airborne landings, though absolutely necessary, were catastrophic. The SOE Jedburgh Teams dropped in on the night of the 4th found that many of their supplies parachuted in with them were stolen before they could be recovered, undoubtedly by the French Resistance who were the only ones who knew they were coming. Most Jedburgh teams were reduced to the role of poorly equipped cut off infantry, not unlike the paratroopers that followed them.
Almost none of the pathfinders of the airborne divisions marked their drop zones, and if they did, it was usually in the wrong spot. Only the chaos of the actual jump masked it. History has recorded that chaos as a positive for spreading the German defenses out, but it wasn’t so for the paratroopers that night. Fra fewer made it into the fight than myth and legend tells us. The fire in Sainte-Mère-Église caused the destruction of an entire airborne company after a pilot mistook it for the lights of the drop zone. And Sainte-Mère-Église, celebrated as the first town liberated in France, was only secured after the Germans pulled out to more defensible terrain: terrain that 82nd Airborne was originally supposed to secure in the first place, but couldn’t because it lacked the men to do so. Almost another entire airborne company drowned when its jumpmasters pushed them out over the flooded area. Another group of twelve paratroopers, lost, broke into a wine cellar and were found drunk two days later. Another pilot flew so low that the parachutes of his charges couldn’t open and one soldier on the ground, cursing the pilot, noted that they sounded like “pumpkins splatting on the ground”.
The most celebrated unit in the airborne invasion was E/1/506 who fought D-Day with just 14 men, out of 140. More joined later, but that doesn’t change the fact that Captain Dick Winters had to seize the Breucourt Manor guns, a company if not a battalion objective, with just 11 men.
Even those paratroopers that didn’t hide or wander and took the initiative, weren’t immune to human fallibility. One enterprising German unit captured over 50 paratroopers by using their cricket against them. When the challenge of “one click” got a response of “two clicks”, the American was quietly taken prisoner. Another group of 19 Americans was taken prisoner behind Utah Beach and subsequently killed in the invasion bombardment. One can only imagine the stories that haven’t been recorded.
The invasion itself was an unmitigated disaster for the French population of that stretch of the Norman coast. De Gaulle’s refusal to address his people over semantics in Eisenhower’s draft undoubtedly caused thousands of casualties among French civilians who ignored Eisenhower’s pleas to evacuate the coast. For every French civilian who proudly waved the tricolor during the bombardment, dozens, if not hundreds were killed or wounded. In Caen, the Gestapo executed every French civilian in the prison. The Hotel D’Normandie in Ouisterham collapsed upon its inhabitants and those who survived were nearly all killed ten minutes later when their cover was struck by the bombardment.
As the bombardment continued, the movement at sea from the transfer points to the beaches was beyond chaotic, much of it self-inflicted. In their arrogance, the Americans refused British help with navigational aids marking the beaches, such as prepositioned midget subs that successfully guided British troops to the correct destinations. They relied on patrol cutters to guide the landing craft in, almost all of whom got lost. A coxswain bringing in the rangers to scale Pont Du Hoc got lost and the rangers arrived 30 minutes late, well after the first waves hit Omaha. The rising tide was almost lapping the base of the cliff by the time the rangers scaled the heights. That there were no guns at the top was all that prevented a greater disaster on the Omaha and Utah beaches below.
Of the first three waves to hit the beaches at Omaha and Utah, only a single company, A/1/116th of the 29th Division landed at the beach they were assigned, and they were massacred for it. Tens of thousands of pages of orders and timetables and millions of man hours: useless and wasted. 8 of the 16 landing craft that carried Omaha Beach’s duplex drive tanks refused to land the tanks directly on the beach, even though the swells would obviously swamp the tanks further out. That the DD tanks would never make the 5000 yard swim to shore was obvious to all. Thirty tanks and their crews were forced out of the landing craft because the sailors refused to deviate from the plan. Not a single tank made it more than hundred yards out to sea, most just drove off the ramp and sank.
The 4th Infantry Division’s entire assault wave landed a mile and quarter south of where they should have been due to their coxswains following a lost patrol cutter.
The landings on the beaches, at Omaha in particular, were horrific, and the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is tame in comparison. The entire bombardment over shot the beach defenses, despite spotter planes continually calling in “on target”. One British observer watched as an entire formation of B-17’s and B-26s drop their loads into the fields behind the beaches. “That’s a fat lot of use, all it’ll do is just wake them up.”
American and British intelligence missed the movement of the entire German 352nd Infantry Division into the beach defenses opposite Omaha until the 4th of June, and then decided not to tell the assault troops. Until the moment the ramps dropped, the men of the 1st and 29th Divisions expected to face the green conscripts of the 716th Division, not the tough and experienced 352nd battle hardened on the Eastern Front. One amazed German sergeant looking down on Omaha commented, “They must be crazy. Are they going to swim ashore right in front of our muzzles?”
One German private estimated he fired his rifle 400 times that morning, and hit someone more than half the time.
An entire LCI was destroyed when a single errant bullet struck a flamethrower tank and exploded. Men carrying a hundred pounds of equipment quickly found out that the weight doubled when it was soaked with sea water: something those who mandated the combat load would never have to experience. Many men drowned because they couldn’t get out of the water fast enough or were crushed when a swell pushed a landing craft violently forward. Most craft were stuck on a sand bar initially but as the tide rose they became increasingly stuck on the beach obstacles. The assault waves landed at low tide, but the rising tide became a problem: the landing craft and debris were inadvertently pushed into the mines.
Men who were too wounded to move forward quickly drowned. The flotsam and jetsam, and bodies, along the beach began to accumulate as the tide pushed it forward: crushing some, but forcing all into German fields of fire. An LCI was destroyed by mine, and became a plow as the tide pushed it forward onto the beach. The arrogant American refusal of the British offer of specialty engineer vehicles was paid in blood. Engineers got into fights with soldiers seeking scant cover behind beach obstacles they were supposed to blow, and in several instances detonated them anyway. Entire groups refused to move until the tide forced them to and there was at least one mutiny on the beach. Men spent hours digging in only to have the tide swallow them whole. Unwounded men got high on their own morphine, and waited for the water to end their existence before the Germans did.
On the relatively calm Utah, several men found a small remote controlled Goliath. They played around with the controller, amused by the little tank. Unbeknownst to them, it was packed full of explosives and they accidentally set it off, killing everyone watching.
On the British beaches, many troops landed, neutralized the beach defenses… and then dug in, awaited orders, and brewed tea. One unit even reveled in the fact that they were first British unit to brew tea in France. Lt James Doohan, the future Montgomery Scott of Star Trek, had to pull his pistol on his coxswain to get him to move toward the beach. Barrage balloons were set up on the beaches, which only acted as markers for German artillery. It would hours and dozens of casualties later before someone had the moral courage to cut them loose. Just off of Sword Beach, the Merville Battery was taken at great cost, then abandoned for fears of friendly naval gunfire, and subsequently reoccupied by the Germans. It wouldn’t be recaptured for another seven weeks. Allied bombers destroyed Caen, killing a thousand French civilians, and inadvertently turned it into a fortress for the Germans.
By noon, General Omar Bradley seriously considered sending troops from Utah to Omaha, or even pulling off of Omaha altogether.
Along the shingle on Omaha, one soldier wrote in his diary, “I prayed for the fourth time today, asking God, “Why do these things have to be visited upon men?”
Thankfully, some of those men persisted.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Out of every one hundred men in battle, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they the battle make. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others home.”
When teaching history, we tend to celebrate Heraclitus’ fighters and warriors. They make a good tale, but since they’re the only tales told, we also tend to ascribe their uniqueness to the mass. For every junior NCO or officer who led a few stalwarts up the hill on Omaha and cracked the German defense, there were a hundred down below just trying to survive. The stories of the others make us uncomfortable at best and embarrassed at worst. However, very little is ever learned in victory. And even worse, to ignore those stories does a disservice to the fighters and warriors that had to endure beside them. It also does a disservice to the system that produced them both as internal factors are almost always more important than external factors. The difference between a good unit and a great unit, between victory and defeat is sometimes as small as one or two more willing to fight. The fighters and warriors rose to the occasion despite themselves, their comrades, even those supposedly their betters.
As the memory of D-Day passes into history, to tell only 10% of the story is a travesty, and dishonest. One cannot fully appreciate their resilience unless you have something familiar to compare it to, that those stories are difficult to talk about should be immaterial. Those that didn’t live up to the almost impossible standards of conduct we set for June 6th 1944 nonetheless still showed up that day.
The disasters of D-Day are reminders that soldiers, sailors, and airmen are human and are subject to the same human fallibility as any other. Leaders, and historians, tend to fall into the assumptions that subordinates always followed orders, the plans were always perfect, and that luck was always in their favor. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Errors happen. Humans break, sometimes easily.
Egos have killed more people than bullets and shells.
But the fighters and warriors succeeded despite those working against them, even their own.
On 1 June 1944, the BBC broadcast the first lines from Paul Verlaine’s 1866 poem “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”)
“Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” (“Long sobs of autumn violins”).
The lines were a message to the French Resistance that the Allied invasion of France would begin in less than two weeks.
Two days later on 3 June, in the pouring rain, 150,000 men of the six assault divisions, the US 1st, 4th and 29th, the British 3rd and 50th, and the Canadian 3rd, and three airborne divisions, the US 82nd and 101st, and the British 6th finished moving into their staging areas all along the southern coast of England. The next day, they would load the LSTs and troop transports, and in the case of the airborne divisions, wait in huts on airfields next to the gliders and planes that would take them across the channel to Normandy. 800,000 more soldiers would take their place and wait their turn to cross in the coming days. On the afternoon of the 4th, Gen Eisenhower postponed the invasion at least one day due to weather. Many of the soldiers would not disembark and had to stay on their ships in the choppy seas and six foot swells.
That night, in the poor weather, the first Allied troops to invade Normandy parachuted in. Three teams from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and three teams from the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) landed in order to mark the drop zones for the pathfinders and airborne forces that were scheduled to arrive the next night.
100 miles and world away in Normandy, the German commanders took a look at the poor weather and the low tide, and were convinced that the Allies would not invade. And if they did, it would be farther up the coast at Pas De Calais. Rommel, the Army Group commander on the Atlantic Wall, departed on a drive back to Germany to spend some leave with his wife for her birthday on June 5th. His corps and division commanders prepared to depart for a map exercise at the chateau at Rouen, and they planned to be away from their HQs for the next few days.
In the early morning of 5 June, 1944, Gen Eisenhower met with his 14 most senior staff members and commanders to make the final decision whether or not to go ahead with the invasion of France in June. Group Captain James Stagg, the senior meteorologist on the staff, briefed that 6 June’s weather would briefly clear but the conditions would be still be well below what was thought to be the minimum necessary for safe and successful operations. Eisenhower looked around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion. It was most definitely not a vote. Seven wanted to go, and seven wanted to postpone until later in the month when the moon and tides were synced again.
After a long moment (Everyone in the room would describe it later as the longest moment of their lives), Eisenhower simply said, “Ok, let’s do it”, and stood up and walked out of the room. One of his last official acts was authorizing the 6 June 1944 Order of the Day for release. Known today as the “Great Crusade” speech, one copy was issued to over 175,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the assault force that night.
Within 20 minutes of “Ok, let’s do it”, 5000 ships, 12,000 aircraft, and 200,000 men began their journey across the English Channel. The ships first rendezvoused at “Area Z”, known colloquially as “Piccadilly Circus”, before heading south to Normandy. Operation Neptune, the invasion of Normandy, and a component part of Operation Overlord the invasion of France, was the largest amphibious invasion of Europe since the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C.
Eisenhower went on to say that the next 24 hours were the most difficult of his life because now that decision was made he could no longer affect anything, and could do nothing except wait. To pass the time for those 24 hour he received reports, drank coffee, smoked five packs of cigarettes, played draughts with his aide, briefed reporters (!) on the next day’s events so they could start their stories, and wrote a short speech accepting responsibility if the invasion failed. That evening, he met with member of the 101st Airborne at their staging areas. A few chatted with Eisenhower, the far bigger crowd was around Kate Sommersby, Eisenhower’s driver and former model.
At 7:30 pm, the BBC broadcast the next lines to Verlaine’s poem:
“Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). They were a code to the French Resistance that the invasion would begin in 48 hours, and that that they should begin sabotage operations, particularly the rail network.
At 8:30 pm, Churchill sent a coded telegram to Stalin simply stating, “Tonight, we go”.
About an hour later he wished his wife a good night, who told him not to worry. He shot back, “Do you know that when you wake up tomorrow morning, 20,000 men may be dead?”
At exactly 11:00 pm, Eisenhower, with his aide, and driver, watched the first C-47 transports carrying the 101st take to the sky.
“Well, it’s on. Nothing can stop it now.”
After being removed from command of the 7th US Army after the invasion of Sicily for slapping two American soldiers, FDR gave Patton a second chance. In February 1944, he was given command of the 3rd US Army, which was part of the follow on troops for Operation Overlord after the beachheads were secured. Although Patton gave speeches to his troops all of the time, his most iconic speech was given in preparation for the upcoming invasion of France. He gave this speech many times, but the canonical and iconic version was given to the 6th Armored Division on 31 May 1944. This is the speech that George C Scott immortalized in the 1969 film “Patton”. Scott’s version was significantly shorter and less profane.
Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Men, this stuff that some sources sling around about America wanting out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit. Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. You are here today for three reasons. First, because you are here to defend your homes and your loved ones. Second, you are here for your own self-respect, because you would not want to be anywhere else. Third, you are here because you are real men and all real men like to fight. When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
You are not all going to die. Only two percent of you right here today would die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men. Yes, every man is scared in his first battle. If he says he’s not, he’s a liar. Some men are cowards but they fight the same as the brave men or they get the hell slammed out of them watching men fight who are just as scared as they are. The real hero is the man who fights even though he is scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire. For some, it takes an hour. For some, it takes days. But a real man will never let his fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood. Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base. Americans pride themselves on being He Men and they ARE He Men. Remember that the enemy is just as frightened as you are, and probably more so. They are not supermen.
All through your Army careers, you men have bitched about what you call ‘chicken shit drilling’. That, like everything else in this Army, has a definite purpose. That purpose is alertness. Alertness must be bred into every soldier. I don’t give a fuck for a man who’s not always on his toes. You men are veterans or you wouldn’t be here. You are ready for what’s to come. A man must be alert at all times if he expects to stay alive. If you’re not alert, sometime, a German son-of-an-asshole-bitch is going to sneak up behind you and beat you to death with a sockfull of shit!
There are four hundred neatly marked graves somewhere in Sicily. All because one man went to sleep on the job. But they are German graves, because we caught the bastard asleep before they did. An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!
We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we’re going up against. By God, I do.
My men don’t surrender. I don’t want to hear of any soldier under my command being captured unless he has been hit. Even if you are hit, you can still fight back. That’s not just bull shit either. The kind of man that I want in my command is just like the lieutenant in Libya, who, with a Luger against his chest, jerked off his helmet, swept the gun aside with one hand, and busted the hell out of the Kraut with his helmet. Then he jumped on the gun and went out and killed another German before they knew what the hell was coming off. And, all of that time, this man had a bullet through a lung. There was a real man!
All of the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters, either. Every single man in this Army plays a vital role. Don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. Every man has a job to do and he must do it. Every man is a vital link in the great chain. What if every truck driver suddenly decided that he didn’t like the whine of those shells overhead, turned yellow, and jumped headlong into a ditch? The cowardly bastard could say, ‘Hell, they won’t miss me, just one man in thousands’. But, what if every man thought that way? Where in the hell would we be now? What would our country, our loved ones, our homes, even the world, be like? No, gawdamnit, Americans don’t think like that. Every man does his job. Every man serves the whole. Every department, every unit, is important in the vast scheme of this war. The ordnance men are needed to supply the guns and machinery of war to keep us rolling. The Quartermaster is needed to bring up food and clothes because where we are going there isn’t a hell of a lot to steal. Every last man on K.P. has a job to do, even the one who heats our water to keep us from getting the ‘G.I. Shits’.
Each man must not think only of himself, but also of his buddy fighting beside him. We don’t want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats. If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards. The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the gawdamned cowards and we will have a nation of brave men. One of the bravest men that I ever saw was a fellow on top of a telegraph pole in the midst of a furious fire fight in Tunisia. I stopped and asked what the hell he was doing up there at a time like that. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, Sir’. I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little unhealthy right about now?’ He answered, ‘Yes Sir, but the gawdamned wire has to be fixed’. I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No, Sir, but you sure as hell do!’ Now, there was a real man. A real soldier. There was a man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty might appear at the time, no matter how great the odds. And you should have seen those trucks on the road to Tunisia. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they rolled over those son-of-a-bitching roads, never stopping, never faltering from their course, with shells bursting all around them all of the time. We got through on good old American guts. Many of those men drove for over forty consecutive hours. These men weren’t combat men, but they were soldiers with a job to do. They did it, and in one hell of a way they did it. They were part of a team. Without team effort, without them, the fight would have been lost. All of the links in the chain pulled together and the chain became unbreakable.
Don’t forget, you men don’t know that I’m here. No mention of that fact is to be made in any letters. The world is not supposed to know what the hell happened to me. I’m not supposed to be commanding this Army. I’m not even supposed to be here in England. Let the first bastards to find out be the Goddamned Germans. Someday I want to see them raise up on their piss-soaked hind legs and howl, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s the Goddamned Third Army again and that son-of-a-fucking-bitch Patton’.
We want to get the hell over there. The quicker we clean up this gawdamned mess, the quicker we can take a little jaunt against the purple pissing Japs and clean out their nest, too. Before the gawdamned Marines get all of the credit.
Sure, we want to go home. We want this war over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home. The shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler. Just like I’d shoot a snake!
When a man is lying in a shell hole, if he just stays there all day, a German will get to him eventually. The hell with that idea. The hell with taking it. My men don’t dig foxholes. I don’t want them to. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving. And don’t give the enemy time to dig one either. We’ll win this war, but we’ll win it only by fighting and by showing the Germans that we’ve got more guts than they have; or ever will have. We’re not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we’re going to rip out their living gawdamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket. War is a bloody, killing business. You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!
I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I am holding my position.’ We are not holding a gawdamned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s balls. We are going to twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all of the time. Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. We are going to go through him like crap through a goose; like shit through a tin horn!
From time to time there will be some complaints that we are pushing our people too hard. I don’t give a good Goddamn about such complaints. I believe in the old and sound rule that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood. The harder WE push, the more Germans we will kill. The more Germans we kill, the fewer of our men will be killed. Pushing means fewer casualties. I want you all to remember that.
There is one great thing that you men will all be able to say after this war is over and you are home once again. You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you WON’T have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, ‘Well, your Granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.’ No, sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, ‘Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a-Goddamned-Bitch named Georgie Patton!’
Biak Island, off the northwest coast of New Guinea, was the next step in MacArthur’s relentless march towards the Philippines. The island’s airfields blocked access to Geelvink Bay, which was required to continue the advance across New Guinea. Furthermore, the capture of Biak would put all of northwest New Guinea in range of Allied airpower. The Japanese knew this and planned on holding the island at all costs. The Japanese commander on the island, Col Kuzume Naoyuki, developed new tactics based on the experiences of previous battles. He knew the Americans would expect a Tarawa-like defense of the beach and plan for it. Therefore he had his troops defend inland, and ambush the unsuspecting Americans and Australians on their way to the obvious objective on the island: the three large airfields.
On 27 May 1944, the US 41st Infantry Division, consisting of National Guardsmen from the Pacific Northwest, had an unopposed landing after a furious bombardment by the US Navy. They naively assumed the bombardment destroyed any Japanese, and confidently headed inland. They walked right into Kuzume’s elaborate ambushes in depth consisting of pillboxes, honeycombed into the hills, supported by platoon strongpoints, forward supply depots in caves, minefields, pre-sited artillery and mortars, and tank counterattacks. The Guardsmen were initilly tore apart. The remains of the lead battalion could only be extracted from the kill zone by amtraks and tanks, and then only at night.
The “Sunsetters” were veterans of the two year long march across New Guinea, but this was the worst action they had seen. Every Japanese position had to be taken by close combat, and every Japanese position was inside the kill zone of a supporting position. Kuzume’s “cave defense” slowed the Allied advance across the island to a crawl. Even worse for the attackers, he forced his troops to abandon the suicidally wasteful banzai charges brought about by a perverted Bushido code that saw cowardice in any withdrawal. Kuzume made the Sunsetters pay for every yard they gained as his men slowly fell back from prepared fighting position to prepared fighting position all the way to the western end of the island.
It took the entire division until August to secure Biak using flamethrowers, satchel charges and bayonets. It would then take six more months to reinforce, rebuild, retrain, and refit the division.
Kusume’s defense was a taste of what was to come. His effective reforms became the standard Japanese island defensive tactics for the rest of the war. The Japanese fought for Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Anguar, Peleliu, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa using Kusume’s methods and techniques.
After four months of stalemate in the shell hole ridden, malaria infested marshlands of the Anzio/Nettuno lodgment, Gen Mark Clark’s Fifth Army was ready to break out. To the south, the Eighth Army smashed through the Gustav Line and brushed aside the Senger Line (aka Hitler Line, which had a quick name change once it was so easily pierced by the Canadians) and were driving into an increasingly desperate German Tenth Army, the last obstacle separating the Fifth and Eighth Armies.
As part of Operation Diadem, the Fifth Army launched Operation Buffalo to tie down German troops and cut off the Germans fighting to the south. All of his troops were making good progress. On 25 May, 1944, MG Lucian Truscott’s US VI Corps, consisting of the US 3rd, 34th and 45th Infantry and US 1st Armored Divisions were within striking distance of their objective: the Valmatone Gap and Route 6. The capture of Valmontone would cut off the German Tenth Army to the south and ensure its destruction.
That night, Clark’s operations officer told Truscott to cease Operation Buffalo and begin Operation Turtle. The main differences were a shift in the main effort, and the mission of the 1st Armored Division. In Turtle, the main effort shifted to the 34th and 45th’s drive into the Alban Hills. Once they broke through, “Old Ironsides” would turn north and drive on Rome instead of Valmontone, while the 3rd ID would continue on alone. Truscott knew about Turtle, his staff had planned it, but that plan was based on the main German strength at Valmontone, not in the Alban Hills. By executing Turtle, the 34th, 45th and 1st AD would be attacking directly into the teeth of the only occupied and entrenched units of the Caesar C Line, while leaving Valmontone to the “hodge podge” of units the Germans had holding the door open for the Tenth Army. Truscott knew that the 3rd ID would never make it there by itself, and even if it did, it would not be able to hold Valmontone from a concerted counterattack when the Germans attempted to break out. He also recognized the vainglorious insanity of capturing Rome at the expense of letting the German Tenth Army escape. He initially refused the order, and demanded to talk to Clark first. But Clark “was not available” to speak with him, and he was told to execute. In a decision he would regret for the rest of his life, Truscott complied.
On 2 June, the Caesar C Line collapsed but by that time some 70,000 German troops of the Tenth Army had already fled north. Almost all of them escaped through the Valmontone Gap within sound of the 3rd ID’s guns. Those veterans formed the hard core of the defenders on the next set of fortifications, the Gothic Line. The Gothic Line, north of Rome, proved to be more formidable than the Gustav Line. The Allies would try to breach it for a long seven months, nearly twice as long as the Gustav Line. The Allies incurred tens of thousands of casualties in the process and didn’t breakthrough until April 1945.
On 3 June, Hitler ordered Rome an “open city”, and its occupiers retreated to the Gothic Line. Clark victoriously entered The Eternal City on 4 June, 1944, like a triumphant ancient Roman consul. He would have his front page headlines for exactly one day. On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, and operations in Italy would be relegated to the back pages of Clark’s beloved newspapers for the rest of the war.
Clark’s decision to seize Rome at the expense of destroying the German Tenth Army is one of the great “What ifs?” of the Second World War. If the Tenth Army was destroyed, the Allies would have pushed through the Gothic Line in August. (Assuming, of course, the Germans didn’t reinforce Italy, but then those troops would have to come from somewhere.) Northern Italy was a historical playground for armies because there’s no defensible terrain. There was nothing to stop the Allies from pushing into Croatia and Slovenia, linking up with Tito, and then pushing into Austria, Hungary, and Romania months before the Soviets, as Churchill envisioned. The Germans would have reacted, but again, those troops had to come from somewhere, and operational reserves for the Germans were a zero sum game by the end of 1944.
“Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”, though.
After the successful capture of Sicily, the hard charging Seventh Army Commander, LTG George S. Patton, was easily the most popular American general after Eisenhower. He drove his troops hard and beat Monty to Messina. However, Patton unexpectedly gave up command of his army and was relegated to be the viceroy of Sicily. He went from commanding 100,000 men to less than 5000 a few months later. To put it mildly, civil military relations was something he was not very interested in, and everyone knew it. Very few people knew why the change occurred. The Germans assumed he would command the invasion of France since he was America’s most effective general and not fighting in Italy.
Eisenhower privately wished Patton had Mark Clark’s job. But during the Sicilian campaign, Patton visited two field hospitals where he slapped soldiers suffering from PTSD and called them cowards. At Eisenhower’s request, the press sat on the story for months. In late November the story broke and the American press called for his head. Patton assumed his career was over.
On 9 December 1943, FDR and Gen George C. Marshall were returning from a marathon series of conferences with the Soviets, British, and Chinese in Tehran and Cairo. They stopped in Sicily on the way home. On the tarmac to meet them stood Eisenhower and Patton. While standing there, FDR said that Gen Marshall would stay in Washington and Eisenhower would command the Allied invasion of France. A few seconds later in an offhand comment, he mentioned that Patton would have an army command in France. For the next five minutes, Patton continued the small talk next to the plane but then excused himself.
He walked behind a maintenance building, looked around to see if no one was watching (someone was) and then cried like a baby in joy for two full minutes.
By the evening of the 17 May 1944 it was clear to Field Marshal Kesselring that the Gustav Line had been irreparably breached. He ordered his troops to fall back to the “Hitler Line” at the far north end of the Liri Valley, where he hoped to replicate the tenacious defense of the Gustav Line.
Despite the terrible pounding they were receiving from the Poles on Pt 593, the Fallschirmjaeger initially refused to leave Monastery Hill, a position they had occupied and defended for five months, in conditions and battle that many veterans compared unfavorably to Stalingrad. They wanted to make the Poles storm the Monastery proper, which they were obviously going to do at dawn on the 18th. However, Gen Senger, their corps commander, would have none of it. He needed them on the Hitler Line.
About midnight on the night of 17/18 May 1944, the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger Division reluctantly pulled off of Monastery Hill. Some escaped up the Liri Valley, but many were captured by the British or execueted by the Poles of the Kresowa Division.
Both the British and the Poles intercepted Senger’s heated radio transmissions to the Fallschirmjaeger telling them to abandon the monastery. Suspecting a trap, the Poles ordered the 12th Poldolski Lancers, a cavalry outfit that had left their horses and armored cars at the bottom of the mountain, to recce the monastery before they attacked. In the predawn hours of 18 May 1944, the troopers painstakingly infiltrated their way through the wire, minefields and tortured terrain, where they found the Monastery abandoned. Its only occupants were thirty seriously wounded German soldiers.
The lancers raised a make shift regimental pennant over the abbey followed closely behind by a Polish flag. At 10:15 am, the regimental bugler, Cpl. Emil Czech, sounded the Hejnał Mariacki from the Monastery to signal to the entire valley that it was in Polish hands. The Hejnał Mariacki, or Call of St. Mary, is played every day at dawn, noon, and dusk off the city walls of Krakow. It commemorates the sacrifice of a lone polish trumpeter in the 13th century who spotted a Mongol force trying to sneak into the town. From the bell tower of St Mary’s cathedral, he sounded the Hejnał Mariacki to warn the town of the approaching danger. The call cuts off abruptly because the trumpeter was shot in the throat with an arrow.
The trumpet echoed down the valleys and could be heard as far away as the Eighth Army Headquarters. The horrifying German and Soviet propaganda that the Poles were unwilling to fight the Germans in 1939 was finally laid to rest. That afternoon, the Poles made contact with the British advancing up the Liri Valley.
The Germans continued to fight on for Colle Sant’Angelo and Point 575 on the north wall of the Liri Valley for another two days, mostly because the Poles weren’t taking prisoners. But with the fall of the Abbey, their fate was sealed.
The Fourth, and final, Battle of Monte Cassino was over.
By 16 May 1944, the French Expeditionary Corps had broken the Gustav Line in the Aurunci Mountains and outflanked the Germans in the Liri Valley. But what German soldiers could not do, Italian civilians did. The victorious Goumiers sought out every remote mountain village and plundered and abused the “infidels” as they believed they were entitled to as spoils of war. Over the next four days, the Moroccans raped over 7000 men, women, and children ranging in ages from 11 to 86. 800 Italians were murdered. Italy would remember this as the “Marocchinate” or “The Time of the Moroccans”. Though the Germans were confused by the unexpected French delay, they were appreciative, had the French continued, Monte Cassino would have been isolated.
To the French right but far to their rear at the mouth of the Liri Valley, the entire British 78th Infantry Division of the British XIII Corps was across the Rapido and pushing further up the south wall of the valley. One by one, positions systematically fell to the British, Indians, and Canadians as the Germans looked over their shoulders for the French advancing through the mountains behind them. The British were about to do what had almost never been done before in history: proceed up the Liri Valley with Monte Cassino in hostile hands. But that was because the Germans in the Abbey and its surrounding points had more pressing problems than the valley below them; they were clinging to Monastery Hill by the slimmest of margins.
It took two days, under constant fire, for the Polish II Corps to organize the replacements, assign them to the assault battalions, and clear assault lanes through the Fallschirmjaegers’ newly placed minefields. But on the night of 16 May, the Carpathian Division conclusively overran Pt 593 and the expected German counterattacks were defeated. In the after action review Polish junior officers and NCOs credited its capture to their quadruple issue of grenades. Moreover, the Kresowa Division broke through to the Liri Valley from Monte Cairo north of Monte Cassino, where Juin would have broken through in January had Clark supported him. The Germans on the Monastery Hill were not surrounded, but only just so.
When the sun rose of the 17th, the Poles, like the Benedictine monks before them, began to make the monastery defenders’ lives a living hell from Pt 593.
The Germans were caught completely by surprise with Operation Diadem. They believed the Allies were going to make an amphibious landing north of Rome, and they positioned their reserves accordingly. Subsequently, many key commanders and staff officers from units on the Gustav Line were in Rome on pass. Both Gens. Vietengoff and Senger, the repective German army and corps commanders at Cassino, were receiving medals from Hitler when the battle started. In fact, all of the German preparations on the Italian peninsula were in accordance with Allied intentions, as per their deception plan, Operation Nonton. Even worse, German planners made a critical assumption that turned out to be grossly naive: that if the Allies attacked the Gustav Line, they would only attack at Monte Cassino. Much to their later consternation, the Germans reinforced the area around the Monastety at the expense of the rest of the front.
That one bad assumption played right into the strengths of the various national armies. Along the coast, American tenacity and firepower, in the form of massed artillery, close air support, and naval gunfire, steadily reduced the strongpoints blocking their way. In the Auruncii Mountains, mountain expertise and espirit de corps allowed the Frenchmen, in particular the Goumiers, to negotiate terrain that no German ever considered passable. Entire platoons of Goumiers free climbed cliffs, draws, and stream banks, and they did it with 25kg packs. German positions were consistently outflanked and French troops seemed materialize out of the ground.
Along the Rapido River, the British penchant for preparation and organization to be “just so” was exactly what was needed for that most demanding and exacting of offensive operations: contested river crossings. By the night of 13 May, the 8th Indian Division had a solid bridgehead across the Rapido at San Angelo, in almost the exact same spot where the Texans of the US 36th Division were massacred four months before. That night they would pass a Canadian armored brigade over the river. It would soon push into the Liri Valley: treading where no Ally had treaded before.
Along Snakeshead Ridge, the Poles took horrendous casualties attacking the prepared and reinforced Fallschirmjaeger positions. They recklessly threw themselves into “the amphitheater” formed by the imposing heights that formed its rim: Point 593, Albaneta Farm and the Monastery. Despite neither cover nor concealment, they made great gains, on both slopes of Monstery Hill. They captured Cassino town and almost reached the Liri Valley north of the Abbey. The 3rd Carpathian Division even captured Pt 593, several times. However, most Polish maneuver battalions were at 50% strength by the end of the second day of fighting. Pt 593 needed to be consolidated to prevent its recapture, but unfortunately, the Green Devils immediately recognized the nature and importance of the Poles’ main objective and continued to feed its defense. A desperate final counterattack on the night of 13 May of just 14 remaining able bodied troops, led by the remaining instructors from the German parachute school, regained the crucial objective from its final seven Polish defenders.
The battle was coming down to whose mules could feed the battalions in the assault zones the fastest. The critical logistics calculus was changed not by the Poles, but by the British advance. Their bridgehead across the Rapido and into the Liri Valley allowed artillery to fire onto the hitherto protected German assembly areas and “forming up points” on the reverse slopes of the Albaneta Massif and Monte Calvario. For the first time in the battle, the Germans on Monte Cassino were receiving fire from directions and in areas they had not previously experienced. The limited German reserves were thrown at the Canadians and Indians pushing up the Liri Valley to fix their fires and protect their concentrations.
But the Germans also knew they would not hold Point 593 for long if the Poles held the gains they made. The Polish assault battalions were within meters of cutting off the star fort. They were temporarily spent and their gains exposed, but the Polish sense of duty and resilience would see them through. They burrowed into the shattered terrain and four months of dead bodies and awaited their mules and comrades. Gen Anders himself went to his support units for volunteers. Thousands put down their wrenches, typewriters, and ladles, picked up their rifles, and headed up the mountain. Even Private First Class Wotjek, the ursine ammo handler of 22 Artillery Company and II Polish Corps’ mascot, followed his comrades up the hill after they volunteered to fight as infantry. One way or another, the next attack would be the last.
At 2230 on 11 May 1944, 1667 artillery pieces opened fire on German positions along a 20 mile front stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Abbey at Monte Cassino. The Germans were shocked and did not suspect an Allied attack, much less the largest offensive by the Western Allies so far in the Second World War. Thirty miles to the north, the Brits, Canadians, and Americans of the US 5th Army began near suicidal fixing attacks to tie down German troops at the Anzio/Nettuno beachhead. More night attacks all along the Gustav line followed immediately behind the two hour artillery barrage. The National Guardsmen of the US II Corps attacked across the open fields of the Tyrrhenian coastal plain. The British XIII Corps began a series on contested river crossings over the Rapido and its tributaries. In the Aurunnci Mountains, Moroccan goumiers and Tunisian tirailleurs pushed up narrow passes, or used grappling hooks, ladders, and free climbed their way up and forward into the German defenses.
All of these attacks were expected to fail.
But even in failure, they would accomplish their mission in drawing German reinforcements away from the decisive operation: the Polish II Corps’ assault into the minefields, barbed wire and devastated terrain of Monastery Hill, Cassino town and, most importantly, over Snakeshead Ridge at Monte Calvario, better known to Allied planners as Point 593.