Operation Plunder was Field Marshal Montgomery’s plan to cross the Rhine River that he had been working on since October, 1944, after the failure of Operation Market Garden. Operation Varsity was the airborne component of that plan. Operation Varsity was the last and most successful airborne operation of the war.
Operation Varsity called for the US 17th Airborne and the British 6th Airborne Divisions to make a daylight drop on the east bank of the Rhine to seize German artillery positions and bridges over the Issel River. The two divisions landed simultaneously making Varsity the largest single airborne drop in history.
Operation Varsity had complete operational and tactical surprise. Varsity commenced 13 hours after Operation Plunder, had complete air superiority, perfect weather, and was supported by masses of dedicated artillery from tubes safe on the west bank of the Rhine. Finally, the airborne troopers only faced two understrength, undertrained, and underequipped German divisions.
Despite a miss drop with most of an American airborne regiment landing in the British drop zones, both airborne divisions secured their objectives by early afternoon on 25 March. However, they took horrible casualties in the process. 97 planes were shot down; and of the 16,000 Allied paratroopers who took part in Operation Varsity, 3,000 were killed, wounded or captured in the battle. Operation Varisty was the final and most successful Allied airborne operation of the war.
Unfortunately, “success” in this case is also relative. Operation Varsity was the only brigade sized or larger airborne operation of the war that actually accomplished its objectives. Contrary to what the fanboys will tell you, all airborne operations of World War II were either A. A complete and miserable failure (North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Market Garden) or B. A miserable failure that accomplished limited objectives and was saved only through the herculean efforts on the part of its paratroopers (Normandy and Southern France) with Varsity on the east bank of the Rhine the exception that proves the rule… and even that is debatable.
In September 1944, the US 81st “Wildcat” Infantry Division seized the seemingly unimportant Ulithi Atoll during the Peleiu campaign. Just six months later, the Ulithi Atoll was the largest US naval anchorage outside of the continental US, including Pearl Harbor.
The Ulithi Anchorage was built by three Seabee battalions between October, 1944 and February, 1945, with the first aircraft landing on the Ulithi ten days after the Wildcats captured it. The Seabees constructed six airstrips with full maintenance facilities, an aviation tank farm, a seaplane base, and pontoon piers, that stood up to a typhoon, for dozens of ships. Whole islands of malarial ridden swamp were paved over for the facilities. A landing craft base was constructed and eleven water purification and distillation units set up around the islands with a 5000 gallon water tower. A fleet recreation center took up a large portion of the atoll and was a major project for the Seabees. By February, Ulithi could house and entertain 8000 men and 1000 officers, boasting two bandstands, a 500 seat chapel, 1200 and 1600 seat theaters, massive beverage refrigerators, and numerous baseball diamonds and sports fields. The islands were covered with “quonset huts for storage, shops, mess halls, offices, and living quarters, and building roads, supply dumps, and necessary facilities to supply water and electricity to all parts of the island”. The Seabees completed the work in just 4 1/2 months. In February and March 1945, Ulithi was the staging base for the largest amphibious operation of the Pacific War: Operation Iceberg, the Invasion of Okinawa.
On 22 March 1945, the last of the 180,000 men of the US Tenth Army were loaded on transports. The final ships bearing the US 1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions, and US Army’s 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th Infantry Divisions departed the atoll on the 1400 ships of the US Fifth Fleet that afternoon for the trip to Okinawa. The waters around Ulithi Atoll on 22 March 1945 was the largest concentration of fighting ships the world had ever seen — before or since.
Okinawa was the last stop before the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. The Battle for Okinawa was the second largest naval battle of the war, second only to Battle of Leyte Gulf in October. The US Navy took more casualties in it than in any other battle of the war, including Pearl Harbor. The invasion of Okinawa was second largest amphibious operation of the war, with the Invasion of Normandy just squeaking ahead. Okinawa was the largest land battle in the Pacific and had a higher casualty rate than the largest American battle of the war, the Battle of the Bulge.
Today, both Okinawa and Ulithi are mostly forgotten.
In early March 1945, German forces in France and the Low Countries were flooding back across the Rhine with American forces in close pursuit. Hitler intended to use the swift, deep, and wide Rhine River as a moat to stop the Allies while he concentrated on defeating the Russians in the East. He ordered all of the bridges blown before they were captured by the Americans.
In early March 1945, all of the Rhine bridges were destroyed except one, the Ludendorff railroad bridge in the German town of Remagen. 75,000 much needed soldiers of the German 15th Army were still on the west side of the Rhine, and the US First Army was still 20 miles away, so the bridge was left standing to allow them to escape. On the morning of 7 March 1945, reconnaissance elements of TF Engeman of Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division pushed to the Rhine River near Remagen in an attempt to find sites for a possible assault crossing in support of Field Marshal Montgomery’s Rhine crossing operation farther north.
When the scouts crested the ridge outside of town, they were surprised to see the bridge intact and thousands of civilians and soldiers attempting to cross into Germany. They called up the commander of their supporting tank company, LT Karl Timmerman. (All ground scouts eventually realize they need tanks to stay alive. That “snooping and pooping” shit in jeeps and armored cars only works in the movies. You ALWAYS end up fighting for good information)
LT Timmerman took one look at the bridge and ordered his scouts and tanks to attack. He radioed the situation to his commander and requested support. Within ten minutes, Timmerman’s company was attacking; within 20 minutes, TF Engeman; within the hour the rest of Combat Command B; and by the next: the entire 9th Armored Division. In less than two hours, 8,000 soldiers were assaulting Remagen. Before midnight, five divisions of the US First Army were converging on the Ludendorff Bridge, much to the consternation of Eisenhower and Montgomery’s planners. (Omar Bradley sarcastically asked Ike’s operations officer “What the hell do you want us to do, pull back and blow it up?”)
The Germans attempted to blow the bridge with Timmerman’s troopers on it but although some of the charges detonated, most didn’t. American artillery fire cut some wires, TF Engenan’s engineers hastily cut more as they crossed, and slave laborers sabotaged some of the explosives, which were industrial grade, and those that exploded were incapable of demolishing the bridge. Timmerman managed to get 120 troopers across by nightfall. The small bridgehead was very exposed but tank fire from across the river broke the only German counterattack that day.
As engineers tirelessly worked through the evening and night to repair the bridge enough for it to support the weight of the tanks, every soldier in Combat Command B who could hold a rifle crossed into Germany. At dawn on 8 March, there were 9 tanks and 800 soldiers on the east bank. By noon, the entire 9th Armored was across, and within 72 hours 25,000 men of six divisions were inside Germany.
Hitler belatedly threw everything the Germans had left at the bridgehead, including V2 rockets and what remained of the Luftwaffe, but to no avail. The attacks on the Ludendorff Bridge were the last gasp of the Luftwaffe. Most of the American air defense artillery was cannibalized to provide infantry replacements, but every remaining gun in the First Army protected the bridge. Of the hundreds of Luftwaffe sorties, only a single bomber managed to drop its payload near enough the bridge to do damage.
The Americans were across the Rhine in force and nothing could keep them from driving into the heart of Germany. When Stalin learned the Americans were across the Rhine, he authorized a resumption of the Soviet offensive. Stalin halted it along the Oder River in late January because he did not believe the Allies had the ability to force the Rhine and he refused to invade Germany proper alone. That was no longer the case on 7 March. From the moment the Americans crossed the bridge, Germany was doomed.
All because a 23 year old 1st Lieutenant decided to attack.
After the capture of Rome in June 1944, the US 5th Army and British Eighth Army raced north and ran into the German Gothic Line across the northern Apennines Mountains. Through October and November, they ground their way through the miles deep German defensive belts, suffering tens of thousands of casualties. Like Monte Cassino the year before, the key to the position was Monte Belvedere which controlled Highway 64, and the gateway to the Po Valley and the cities of Bologna, Parma and Modena. The key to Monte Belvedere was Riva Ridge whose artillery controlled all approaches. The Germans easily fought off three previous determined assaults there and considered the southern face of the ridge impossible to scale.
This was particularly true at the time because the best mountain troops in the Mediterranean theatre, Gen Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps, were withdrawn and sent to France. But after two years of intense mountain training in the Colorado, America’s only mountain division, the 10th Light Infantry (Alpine) arrived in Italy just after Christmas 1944. They entered the line in late January 1945, and with the 1st Brazilian Expeditionary Division were told to seize the approaches to the Po Valley. The 10th was assigned the difficult task of seizing Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.
For three weeks the mountaineers of the 10th conducted tedious nighttime patrols to determine routes to the German positions at the crest of the mountains. They discovered nine, all of which required some sort of vertical ascent using ropes or free climbing. They would have to do this without their specialized mountaineering equipment which sat in a warehouse in Boston awaiting transport. Nonetheless, on the night of 18-19 February 1945, the reinforced 1st Battalion 86th Infantry scaled the sheer and icy cliff faces (with 80 lbs packs) of Riva Ridge underneath the noses of the complacent German defenders. By the morning of the nineteenth, the Americans seized the ridge and neutralized the German artillery. This allowed the remainder of the division to make the equally arduous assault on Monte Belvedere the next night.
For the Americans on Riva Ridge, seizing it turned out to be the easy part: the Germans immediately counterattacked and would not let up the pressure for weeks. Fortunately, 10th Mountains’ logistics personnel worked ingenious miracles supplying the combat troops at the top of the ridge, without which Riva Ridge would fallen to a German counterattack the next day following the assault.
Climb to Glory!
On 19 February 1945, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th US Marine Divisions of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith’s Task Force 56 landed on the island of Iwo Jima in the Bonin’s island chain south of Japan. They were to secure Iwo Jima’s three airfields. Because the island was about halfway between the Japanese Home Islands and the B-29 airfields in the Mariannas, Iwo Jima was planned to be used for an emergency landing field, though it was rarely used as such. Nonetheless Iwo Jima was a perfect staging area for the invasion of mainland Japan, scheduled for the upcoming autumn. For the next five weeks, 70,000 Marines and Navy personnel fought 22,000 Japanese defenders under Lieut General Tadamishi Kurabayashi for control of Iwo Jima.
Kurabayashi copied the tactics of ambush and interlocking fields of fire from impenetrable pillboxes that worked so well for the Japanese on Peleliu five months before. But unlike Peleliu, the Japanese had a further advantage: the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima was much easier to tunnel through. Kurabayashi’s troops spent almost a year digging in and connecting every pillbox, artillery position, and mortar, machine gun and sniper pit by tunnel. Furthermore, the entire southern portion of the island was dominated by the dormant volcano Mt Suribachi from which Japanese spotters could observe every inch of the island. Virtually the entire Japanese defense was underground and the three day American pre-invasion bombardment was especially ineffective.
The Marine’s first waves landed unopposed and subsequent patrols failed to find the defenders. Many thought the bombardment killed them all. They could not have been more wrong.
The Japanese only opened fire when the second wave crammed itself onto the beach, just as the assault battalions began to move off. The two waves of Marines crowded on the beach took enormous casualties from hidden Japanese positions.
Kurabayashi forbade wasteful banzai charges, but the Japanese took full advantage of the mobility afforded by the extensive tunnel system. Thousands of Marines were killed or wounded from “cleared” Japanese positions that were suddenly reoccupied after the Americans moved on.
After a grueling four day fight for the southern part of the island, the Marines captured Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The event was immortalized by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo of the flag raising on the summit of the volcano. (The famous picture was actually of the second flag raised on the Mt Suribachi. The first was about an hour before but of a much smaller flag.)
Unfortunately, the hardest fights for the island were still to come. Kurabayashi’s main defensive line was further north protecting the second and third airfields on the island. The Marines were forced to clear every square foot of the island.
The only tactic that was effective against the dug in Japanese was an armored frontal assault. The Marines lead with tanks, especially the Sherman “Zippo” flamethrower tank, which forced the Japanese to attack — they had no way to stop the tanks short of physically assaulting and overrunning them. The dismounted Marines would fight off the now exposed Japanese, and then clear the Japanese positions with tank main gun rounds, satchel charges, and flamethrowers. Once the Japanese were cleared or dead, a bulldozer then sealed the inevitable connecting tunnel. The entire operation was usually under fire from supporting Japanese positions and artillery. The Marines did this until the last organized Japanese resistance ended. That occurred when the remaining defenders, out of food, water and ammunition, launched a final banzai charge led by Lieut General Kurabayashi himself (in defiance of his own orders) on 25 March 1945.
The island was declared secure, and the US Army’s 147th Infantry Regiment took over from the Marines. The 147th was an Ohio National Guard unit from Columbus Ohio, lost from the 37th Infantry Division when that division “went triangle” (Four to three regiments per division) in 1942. Starting on Guadalcanal, the 147th spent the rest of the war cleaning up after the Marines, and Iwo Jima was no different. About 1500 Japanese were still living in the tunnels and fighting on the desolate island after the Marines departed. The last two Japanese defenders didn’t surrender until 1949.
The Battle for Iwo Jima was the bloodiest and most bitterly contested amphibious operation of the Second World War. The Americans suffered 30,000 casualties including 7,000 killed in action. All but 200 of the 22,000 Japanese fought to the death. Of the 82 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to Marines in the entire War in the Pacific, 27 were awarded for actions on the small island of Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz said of the Marines who fought there:
“Uncommon valor was a common virtue”.
Early in World War II, at the height of “The Phony War” on the Western Front between Great Britain and France, and Nazi Germany, the Battle of the Atlantic raged between German U-boats and pocket battleships and British and French shipping and escorts. In December 1939 the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sank several British merchantmen, rescued the survivors and transferred them to the German tanker Altmark for transport back to Germany.
During the long cruise to Germany, the Altmark violated Norwegian national waters to escape the pursuing British destroyer HMS Cossack. The Norwegian Navy interred the Altmark but refused to let the crew from the Cossack search it for the prisoners. First lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill radioed the captain with some of the best common sense rules of engagement ever, to search it anyway.
“Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat undertakes to convoy Altmark to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard on board, and a joint escort, you should board Altmark, liberate the prisoners, and take possession of the ship pending further instructions. If Norwegian torpedo-boat interferes, you should warn her to stand off. If she fires upon you, you should not reply unless attack is serious, in which case you should defend yourself, using no more force than is necessary, and ceasing fire when she desists” -Winston Churhill
The Norwegians backed off but the German crew of the Altmark prepared to repel boarders. The Cossack pulled along side and forcibly boarded and captured the Altmark killing eight Germans and wounding 15 others. It was the last naval action in history with the recorded use of the cutlass. The Cossack’s crew searched the ship, yelling “Anyone Englishmen here?” When the captured merchant seamen answered “yes”, the captain of the Cossack coolly replied, “Well, the Navy is here”.
The Altmark Incident convinced both the British and German governments that neither side would respect Norwegian neutrality. The British invaded Norway on 8 April to cut off Germany’s much needed supply Swedish iron ore and to open up a supply route to the Finns who were fighting Hitler’s ally, the Soviets. The Germans invaded Norway on 9 April to secure U boat bases on the North Atlantic.
In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.
Dresden was a Baroque German city and dubbed the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Central European mystique was rivaled only by Vienna and Prague. In early 1945, it had little military significance and fewer anti aircraft defenses. 900,000 civilians, mostly refugees fleeing Soviet atrocities, swelled the city.
On the night of 12-13 February 1945, 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers struck the city with incendiaries solely to break the German civilian will to continue the war. The mission was the brainchild of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a disciple of Giullo Douhet, the influential Italian pre war air centric strategic bombing enthusiast who believed that ground troops were obsolete. By late 1944, the “thousand bomber raids” of the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force were having significant economic impact on Germany’s ability to carry on the war. Harris wanted to go further and “break the will” of the German people. That “the Blitz” on London and other British cities did not do so in 1940 was of no concern to him: the Germans just simply didn’t drop enough bombs. Harris saw no need for ground troops and that air power alone could win the war. According to Harris, every day that his bombers supported ground attacks was “another day in the life of Nazi Germany.”
The bombing of Dresden on the night of 12/13 February 1945 created a firestorm that demolished the city. A “firestorm” is a fire that burns so hot it consumes oxygen at such a furious pace that it creates a tornado-like windstorm around the fire to feed it. The firestorm demolished 90% of Dresden’s inner city and killed upwards of 40,000 German civilians… in one night.
It was the largest single loss of life in the shortest period of time in the war. The two atomic bombs dropped months later on Japan weren’t nearly as destructive.
The American Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden’s rail yards the next night but the damage was already done. Because of Dresden, Churchill would call off Harris’ Bomber Command’s nighttime area “terror bombings” of civilian targets.
The bombing of Dresden tarnished the sacrifices of the American and British bomber crews and the real economic and military impact the bomber campaigns had during the war. Harris would escape war crimes charges (because the Allies won) but public opinion would force him to emigrate to South Africa after the war
The first American B-29 bomber raids against Japanese industry began soon after Saipan was captured. They were tentative at first, about one a month and used different mixes of ordnance. By mid January, XX Air Force planners, led by a young “iron major” Major Robert McNamara (JFK and LBJ’s future Secretary of Defense), devised a campaign for the most effective way to destroy Japanese morale and the war making capability of the home islands in preparation for an invasion of Japan in late summer.
McNamara was instrumental in establishing an entire school for the study of statistics at Harvard from which up and coming young Army Air Corps planners graduated. McNamara’s reliance of statistics permeated every part of the plan in preparation for the invasion. The timing, targets, routes, formations, ordnance etc. were mathematically planned down to the last detail for an effective and efficient “reduction of Japan”. Major General Curtis LeMay, the XX Air Force commander, briefed the plan to his superiors and famously summed it up, “If you kill enough of them, they will stop fighting.”
It was brutally effective. The plan’s focus on incendiaries devastated Japan’s primarily wooden cities. The morale of the Japanese population was crushed but only because there was little response from the now defunct Japanese air force, and the shock at the scale of the raids. For years the Japanese ministry of propaganda had fooled the Japanese people into thinking they were winning the war. But no amount of official lying could cover up the loss of Saipan, a Japanese home territory, and the B29s that appeared in the skies with increasing frequency.
On 27 January 1945, 68 B29s bombed Tokyo and reduced 15% of it to ash and rubble with the loss of only six planes, despite the lack of escorting fighters. McNamara’s plan was deemed successful and implemented in full. Every city in Japan, no matter the size, was targeted. A new raid launched every seven days until the end of the war. 500,000 Japanese civilians would die in the campaign and over five million displaced into the countryside.
Patton’s counterattack towards Bastogne was not only predicted by Hitler’s Ardennes planners, it was relied upon. As Patton’s 3rd Army attacked north, his lines would have to be taken over by Lieutenant General Patch’s 7th Army to the south. The 7th Army was already overextended from the Saar Valley down to the “Colmar Pocket” along the Swiss border. This presented an opportunity for the Germans to break through the thinly held lines and force Eisenhower to choose between the encirclement and destruction of the 7th Army, or the German recapture the Franco-Teutonic city of Strasbourg (it changed hands between France and Germany a few dozen times over the last 1500 years. Both countries considered it national territory).
Eisenhower could be counted on to choose to maintain the continuity of the front and withdraw from Strasbourg. This would be a national disaster for France (they couldn’t give up the city again to the Germans) and would almost assuredly force De Gaulle to withdraw France from the Allied Coalition. In any case, it would open up Patton to attack and destruction from behind. Operations North Wind and Dentist nearly succeeded on all accounts.
On 1 January 1945, the Germans launched Operation North Wind to destroy the 7th Army and seize Strasbourg. And on 15 January they launched Operation Dentist to assault into the 3rd Army’s rear area and defeat what they thought was the Allies’ most dangerous general – Patton. As expected, Eisenhower ordered a withdrawal of all troops from Strasbourg to shorten the lines, and the French ignored him and planned on fighting alone for the city. De Gaulle even threatened to stop Allied supplies from arriving in French ports and from traveling along French roads and railways. He also secretly began organizing the French resistance to “fight the new invaders”, the Americans and British. Fortunately hard fighting by the vastly outnumbered US VI Corps, which defended against attacks on three sides, held long enough for reinforcements to arrive from the Ardennes.
The VI Corps’ unexpected stand precluded the Allied abandonment of Strasbourg and allowed Eisenhower to avert France’s withdrawal from the Allied nations. (Eisenhower would say in his memoirs that De Gaulle was his biggest challenge of the war.) By 25 January both offensives were defeated. Strasbourg, Patton, and the coalition of Western Allies were saved. In hindsight it seems a foregone conclusion, but early January 1945 was one of Eisenhower’s most stressful times of the war.