Tagged: WWII

Operation Raincoat: the Assault on the Bernhardt Line

In early November 1943, the British Eighth Army reached the Gustav Line and the American Fifth Army reached the Bernhardt Line in Italy. The Bernhardt Line was essentially the Gustav Line’s gatehouse in the west that protected the Mignano Gap, the entrance to the Rapido and Gargliano river valleys which formed the Gustav Line’s main line of resistance on the western slopes of the Apennines Mountains. These valleys were dominated by Monte Cairo with its amazing fields of observation and Monte Cassino at the entrance to the Liri Valley. The Gustav and Bernhardt Lines were part of a larger series of extensive German defensive fortifications across Italy called the Winter Line that were intended to prevent the Allies from reaching Rome, 80 miles to the northwest.

Through these extensive fortifications were only three routes up the Italian boot: Route 5, the old Roman Via Valeria, which ran along the Adriatic coast and up which the British steadily pounded until they reached the Gustav Line. Across the Apennine Mtns was Route 7, the old Appian Way along the west coast of Italy but this route was blocked by Germans’ extensive flooding of the Pontine Marshes. And finally Route 6 which was further inland and traveled through the Mignano Gap, into the Liri Valley, and then to Rome. Route 6 was the only realistic route to Rome, and the Germans would make the Allies pay dearly for every meter.

After a two week pause, the US Fifth Army in Italy began, on 1 December 1943, Operation Raincoat – the assault against the Bernhardt Line, which was defended by the tough and experienced 15th Panzergrenadier Division, heavily fortified and determined to hold the Mignano Gap. The Camino hill masses which formed the pillars of the Mignano Gap were the last stop before Monte Cassino, the Liri Valley and the road to Rome.

The US Fifth Army during operation Raincoat was the epitome of the multinational and varied nature of the Allied armies in Italy. Gen Mark Clark’s command consisted of four US Divisions: the active duty soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division, and three National Guard divisions, the 34th from the Midwest, the 45th from Oklahoma, and the 36th from Texas. The Fifth Army also had the British Territorials of the 46th and 56th Divisions from London and the Midlands, the French Expeditionary Corps of French Foreign Legionnaires and French colonials from Morocco, North Africa and West Africa (including the ill-disciplined but very effective Goumiers), the lumberjacks, mountain men, commandos and ranchers from the elite and highly trained American-Canadian 1st Special Service Brigade aka “the Devil’s Brigade”, and even units of the resurgent Royal Italian Army, made up of Italians who actively resisted the Germans upon Italy’s surrender two months before.

The fighting was in the bitterly cold, windy, and rainy Italian winter. Mud covered everything. Allied soldiers struggled and fought up jagged cliffs, and slopes and trails so steep that they were impassable even to pack mules. Supplies were hauled up by rope or on the backs of men crawling through the mud, and the wounded were brought down the mountains the same way. German observation posts saw every movement of the Allied troops below and fire swept every conceivable approach. The fight was as much an engineers’ battle as an infantryman’s. One young engineer wrote,

“These things . . . constitute war and battle: rain and mud, cold and discomfort . . . of digging and of sleepless nights and tiring days, of being afraid and of being hungry, of repairing roads and of building bridges, of being lonely . . . of an endless number of little things…”

Mostly forgotten today, the fighting among the mountains and towns forming the Mignano Gap: Monte Camino, Monte Maggiore, Monte La Difensa, Monte Lungo, and Monte Sammucro and the hellscapes that were the towns of Mignano and San Pietro Infine was the largest land operation by Western Allies so far in the Second World War. Operation Raincoat lasted until mid-January 1944 when the Germans withdrew across the Rapido River. The 46 days the Fifth Army took to advance the 16 miles through the Bernhardt Line to the Liri and Rapido Valleys and the Gustav Line cost the Allies tens of thousands of casualties.

The worst was yet to come.

Bloody Tarawa

Nearing the end of the second year of the Pacific War, through hard fighting, tough decisions, and no small amount of luck, the Allies had survived Japan’s initial onslaught with just their pre-Pearl Harbor militaries, and began rolling back Japanese gains. But by November 1943, the losses at Pearl Harbor were replaced and the American economy was in full wartime production. Ships of all sizes, from the mighty Essex class aircraft carriers to the humble patrol torpedo (PT) boats were rolling off of America’s dry docks. In the Solomon Islands, Adm Halsey’s campaign to isolate Japan’s main base in the South Pacific, Rabaul, was about to come to fruition. On New Guinea, Gen MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area was battling across the island, aimed for his eventual return to the Philippines. Adm Chester Nimitz, who did not have a great working relationship with MacArthur, wanted to use America’s new found material superiority to open up a new front, with the objective of Japan itself. He would cut across the axis and beat MacArthur to Japan. The first target of the new Central Pacific Area was the Tarawa atoll, in the British Gilbert Islands, specifically the island of Betio.

The island of Betio was a small pork chop shaped mass of coral and sand about three miles long and a half mile wide. It was surrounded by a coral reef about 400 meters off shore. On it were 5000 elite Japanese marines of their Special Naval Landing Force, fourteen Type 95 tanks and dozens of coastal artillery pieces and machine guns. Up to this point in the war the Japanese generally would allow the Allies to land and then attack with a furious banzai charge as the Americans were organizing on the beach. Tarawa would be different.

The Japanese knew of Betio’s importance in the central Pacific and spent over a year fortifying the island. Eschewing the wasteful immediate banzai charge against the initial landing, they fought in bunkers and pillboxes while the Marines struggled exposed on the beach and in the heavy surf. Their heavy coastal artillery would sink the support ships while the Japanese marines swept the beaches clear with interlocking fields of fire and pre-sighted artillery and mortars. The tanks would counter attack any breakthrough. The Japanese aim was to transfer to the defense the qualities of surprise, tenacity, focus, and ferocity that made their attacks so formidable. It nearly worked.

The US Second Marine Division would lead Operation Galvanic, the assault on Betio. Over the last year the division recovered, and then were reinforced, refitted, and retrained after its eight month fight on Guadalcanal. At 0610, 20 November 1943, 200 ships of the US Navy shelled and bombed the tiny island to little effect. The Japanese were simply dug Into the coral too deep. At 0900, the initial landing force started toward the beaches and the Japanese finally responded with their coastal artillery which sank or severely damaged several ships. The casualties among the sailors were almost as large as the Marines’ over the next several days. The Marines’ assault unfortunately began 30 minutes late, which allowed the Japanese to get to their fighting positions after the bombardment. Even worse, the assault began during an abnormally low tide.

The “Alligator” amphibious tractors managed to make it over the reef and onto the beach, but the subsequent waves in Higgins boats could not. With the initial wave pinned down behind a sea wall, the follow on waves of Marines were forced to wade in waist deep water 400 meters through intense Japanese fire. The casualties were enormous. The seawall was scant cover and to climb over was to court instant death. Throughout the morning Marines were steadily massacred by the dug in Japanese. But nevertheless, they persisted. Fortunately, the Marines were the product of free men in an open society and had spent the last year living, working, training and fighting together. They didn’t lie there, blame others, and wait for their superiors to do something. The junior leaders would win this fight. Individually and in small groups, they hammered then cracked the Japanese defenses. Corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants chose, in defiance of all logic and safety, to rally what Marines they could, and painstakingly maneuvered to engage the Japanese with flamethrowers, satchel charges, grenades, bayonets, rifle butts, helmets and fists. An observant beachmaster used the abnormally low tide to move supplies and men to the beach underneath the long pier which stretched over the coral reef to the beach. Many contemporary accounts attribute the final breakout to the efforts of a single tank “Colorado” from Red Beach 3, which finally allowed the Marines to move inland.

Over the next 77 hours, 4760 Japanese and 1700 Marines and Sailors were killed, with 2000 more Americans wounded.

The initial outcry in America due to the losses was enormous. However, like the Colorado spewing fire and lead at bunkers overlooking the beach, Nimitz cracked the Japanese outer ring of defenses in the Central Pacific. His subsequent offensives over the next 21 months were like a lance aimed straight at the belly of Japan. Finally, the lessons learned from the landing on Tarawa would be invaluable and used to great effect in subsequent amphibious operations, particularly the landings in the Marshall and Palau Islands, and even Italy and France.

The Invasion of Leros

In September 1943, the British occupied the Italian held Dodecanese Islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Germans saw this as an attempt to force neutral Turkey to side with the Allies. In a lightning swift air, ground and naval campaign, the Germans retook most of the islands, including the largest, Rhodes. In spite of Allied air and naval superiority everywhere else in the Mediterranean, the British had 5000 badly needed troops trapped on the island of Leros. Prior to the German offensive, that the Axis could trap Allied troops anywhere in the Mediterranean Sea in late 1943 was considered unfathomable.
 
The German hold on the area was so secure that several evacuation attempts resulted in severe losses to British aircraft and ships. On 12 November 1943, the Germans landed and captured the entire garrison. The prisoners included the trapped entireties of the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Boat Squadron, and almost all of the veteran, elite, and storied British raiding forces from the campaigns in North Africa and the Aegean.
 
After the war, the evacuation of the trapped British soldiers on Leros would be the ultimate objective for the protagonists in the Alistair MacLean novel, “The Guns of Navarone” whose ending was much more palatable for American and British audiences. The novel was made into the blockbuster 1961 movie of the same name starring Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Gregory Peck. These fictionalized versions of the events in the Aegean in late 1943 gave a new meaning to the phrase, “Based on a True Story”.

Pope John Paul II

Just a little over a month after he was elected Pope of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City, Pope John Paul I died in his bed on 28 September 1978. Two weeks later on 16 October the Second Papal Conclave of 1978 elected Pope John Paul II after two days of deliberations. Pope John Paul II was the greatest Roman Catholic Pope of the modern age.

Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland, he was the son of a Polish Army noncommissioned officer and attended university in Krakow where he studied history and languages until the Nazis closed it down in 1939. By 1941, his entire family was killed by the Germans, but Wojkyla survived by taking jobs in factories that got him exempted from the random detention and execution of Polish civilians. He spent his free time studying at an underground seminary while protecting and hiding Polish Jews from the Nazis.

After the war, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and spent the next 30 years in the difficult position of an outspoken Roman Catholic in a country dominated by Communism. His unpretentious demeanor and wise counsel earned him the nickname “Uncle” which his parishioners and peers used until he was elected Pope in 1978, when he took the name John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, and one of the youngest and healthiest. He had a worldly view that contrasted greatly with previous popes. Pope John Paul II spoke eight languages fluently and was the most widely traveled pope in history. He spent much energy repairing relations with the other world religions and was the first Pope ever to pray in a mosque. Pope John Paul II was not against contraception for health reasons i.e. to prevent the spread of HIV, and routinely affirmed Catholicism’s stance that evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. He publicly apologized for many of Roman Catholicism’s historical sins, and the first ever papal email was sent apologizing for the church sex abuse scandals.

Despite this, Pope John Paul II was hated throughout much of the world due to his staunch and outspoken nature against totalitarianism. He specifically decried Apartheid in South Africa, the Mafia in southern Italy, Latin and South American dictators, Socialist Liberation Theology, and was the one of the few world leaders with the courage to call the fighting in Rwanda what it was: genocide. He was a consistent opponent of war in general, but more importantly, Pope John Paul II was the world’s moral leader against Communism.

He survived numerous attempts at humiliation (a favored tactic of socialists) and two actual assassination attempts, one of which was bankrolled by the KGB, due to his voracious anti-communism. His homilies and sermons on the evils of Communism and Socialism gave hope to hundreds of millions of oppressed people around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Most historians agree with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom said that without Pope John Paul II there would have been no Solidarity, and without Solidarity there would not have been the Fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in the Vatican on 2 April 2005. On 8 April 2005, four million people packed into Rome, St Peter’s Square, and the Vatican to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. His funeral is the single largest gathering in the history of Christendom. It was attended by over 90 heads of state, and in a historical anomaly, was attended by the spiritual leaders of 14 of the world’s largest religions, including Islam, Judaism, the various Protestant denominations, and Eastern Orthodoxy. It was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury attended Catholic Mass since the 16th Century, and the first time the Patriarch attended a papal funeral since the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches a thousand years before.

He was canonized St. John Paul II on 27 April 2014.

Black Thursday: The Bombers Don’t Always Get Through… Again

On 14 October 1943, the Eighth United States Army Air Force launched Mission 115, the second raid on Schweinfurt, Germany to destroy the production of ball bearings, a key bottle neck in the German wartime economy. Nearly 350 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the US 91st, 92nd, 305th, 306th, 379th Bomb Groups made the raid. Because of the distance to Schweinfurt from their bases in Great Britain, there were no escorting fighters for a portion of the raid.
 
Like the previous raid on Schweinfurt in August, this was also a disaster. 60 B-17s were shot down by Luftwaffe fighters and flak defenses around the city, 17 more were so damaged they were scrapped, and 125 more were damaged. Most bombs fell on massive sheets of cloth spread on farm fields which were painted to look like factories from the air. Those bombs that did actually hit their targets only disrupted German production of ball bearings for six weeks. On-hand stocks easily kept up with the demand during that time.
 
The Eighth Air Force was crippled for the next four months and did not resume serious operations until new Merlin-engined P-51 Mustang long range fighters could provide escort to the bombers all the way to the target and back. The idea that a heavy bomber could adequately defend itself against determined defensive fighter attack was found to be wanting, once and for all. Douhet’s theory that bombers could win the war all by themselves exemplified by the quote “the bomber will always get through” was relegated to the dustbin of history… Well, at least until a new shinier version was proposed in 1947… and 1973… and 1999…

The Uprising at Sobibor

By the summer of 1943, Operation Reinhardt, Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” to his identity politics’ first victim, the Jews, was almost complete: nearly two million Jews in the General Government (German occupied Poland) were killed in industrialized ethnic extermination. National Socialist bureaucrats and technocrats led by SS wunderkind Reinhard Heydrich devised a plan in 1942 to exterminate “non-desirables” as efficiently as possible in order purify Germany of the so-called “untermensch” or “sub-humans”. To this end the National Socialists established three major death camps and an entire support system to liquidate the Third Reich’s Jews and political opponents, Sobibor being the least well known of its murderous sisters: Belzec and Treblinka. By mid-1943, the Jews of Germany and the General Government had almost completely disappeared. Victims had to be sought from elsewhere. In order to maintain the “quotas”, trains full of Jews from as far away as the Netherlands were packed off to the extermination camp at Sobibor in eastern Poland. The National Socialists were running out of Jews to murder in their occupied territories.

The trains from the west arrived with less frequency, and the Jews of the Sonderkommando knew their turn was soon. The Sonderkommando was composed of healthy and skilled Jews taken from the masses of those on the way to “the showers” who could assist the Nazis in running the camp under pain of death. They were sorters of the deads’ possessions, the burners and buriers of their bodies, and the labouers who performed the menial tasks of the camp under the watchful eyes of its Ukrainian guards. (As for the Ukrainians, they had to make a choice between the socialism of Stalin, which starved 8 million Ukrainians to death in 1937/38 or the socialism of Hitler which would murder just as many later in 1941-43.) With no choice but to comply or be killed, the Jews of the Sonderkommando survived to the best of their ability. In the spring of 1943, a “kapo” (a forced Jewish guard that the Nazi’s used to divide the Jewish community) arrived at Sobibor on a train from the recently closed death camp at Belzec, and confirmed what the Sonderkommando at Sobibor suspected: once the camp was closed the Jews who were forced to assist in its administration were killed.

On 14 October, 1943, the Sonderkommando of the Sobibor Death Camp rose up against their jailers and torturers. A Soviet-Jewish Red Army prisoner of war who survived the extermination at Minsk, Lieutenant Alexander Perchesky led the attempted mass escape at Sobibor. The original plan was to silently kill the 16 National Socialist SS overseers, and while the Ukrainian guards were confused, walk out the main gate with all 600 Sonderkommando, and escape into the forest. What actually happened will never be known. Perchesky and his Jewish confederates killed eleven SS administrators and seized the camps armory, but they could not execute their plan. The SS were mostly killed silently but eventually the guards were alerted, and many of the Sonderkommando were killed in the ensuing confusion. Most Jews in the camp were unaware of the plan. Nonetheless, their situation was dire enough that they participated at the moment of decision. 300 of the 600 remaining Jews of Sobibor escaped into the nearby forest, where many joined Polish and Jewish resistance groups. Unfortunately, most, but not all, escapees were subsequently recaptured and shot by the SS and their lackeys.

The Escape from Sobibor was such a stain on National Socialist honor that the chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed. He wanted the camp as anonymous as the 250,000 victims were that passed through. The buildings of Sobibor were bulldozed and pine trees planted over top. The gas chambers were torn down and a road built on their foundations. By 1944, there was no sign the Death Camp of Sobibor existed.

Like every atrocity, victims survive. Some went on and fought in Polish and Soviet partisan units, some just fled. The survivors emigrated to America, Brazil, and Israel, and were instrumental bringing their German National Socialists and their Ukrainian enablers to trial. The Uprising at Sobibor was the greatest mass escape in the history of the Holocaust.

The Munich Agreement: “Peace in our Time”

In 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s foreign policy sought to unite all ethnic Germans under the National Socialist flag. In March of that year, he had united Austria and Germany in the Anschluss. Hitler’s next target was the Sudetenland, then a part of Czechoslovakia, which contained a sizable German minority. However, the amalgamation of the Sudetenland was just an excuse for the conquest of Czechoslovakia, which stuck into Germany like a lance into the belly of the Third Reich.

The rugged mountains and hills of the Sudetenland were key to Czechoslovakia’s defense against invasion from Germany. The Czechoslovakian Army was every bit comparable to the contemporary Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. The Czech Army of 1938 was based on a quick mobilization while the professional army held extensive fixed fortifications in the rugged terrain through which German troops would have to pass. (The regular army was already fighting German Freikorps in the Sudetenland). Also, the Czechoslovakian Army had arguably the best tank designs of 1938, the Skoda Works’ Lt vz 35 and 38 tanks, far superior to the German PzI and PzIIs. Even with Germany’s strategic advantages, a German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 would have been a hard fight, and one that Germany was not guaranteed to win. Had the Czechoslovakians been allowed to resist, or even threaten resistance, the Second World War would have turned out quite different. However, the Czechoslovakians were not part of the negotiations.

Hitler promised the Sudetenland would be his “last territorial demand”. The Soviet Union sided with Czechoslovakia but were also not part of the negotiations. Great Britain and France sought to appease Hitler and Germany. Though France recognized Hitler’s plans for European domination, her perceived weak financial and military situation demanded that Britain also stand in defiance of Germany. On 30 September 1938, eleven months before the start of the Second World War, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement which gave Germany the Sudetenland in exchange for peace.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain immediately flew back to London. At Heston airport (now Heathrow) he proclaimed he had secured “peace in our time” and waved the document for all to see.

After the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was fair game for all her neighbors. In October, Hungary was given most of southern Slovakia by Germany, and in November, Poland seized small Polish enclaves in northern Moravia and Slovakia. The Soviet Union rightfully viewed the Munich Agreement as a betrayal of Czechoslovakia, which was confirmed when Hitler seized the rest of the country six months later. In Stalin’s eyes, Great Britain’s and France’s policy of appeasement showed that they could not be relied upon to fight if Hitler decided to demand Soviet territory. The Soviet Army in 1939 was a wreck as a result of the purges of the officer corps in 1937/38 and would not be able to resist. As a result, the Soviet Union began negotiations with Nazi Germany for a non-belligerence treaty which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939.

Emboldened by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Allied fecklessness, Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 which began the Second World War. More than 60 million soldiers and civilians died over the next six years in the most destructive war in human history.

The Invasion of Italy

On 3 September 1943, General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army crossed the Straits of Messina and invaded the toe of Italy in Operation Baytown. There was very little German and no Italian resistance. Montgomery correctly predicted that the Germans would withdraw from the toe and heel of the Italian boot. However, when Allied planners acted on this and reduced Baytown to just four battalions, Montgomery vehemently protested and due to his stature in Britain, increased the force size to two full divisions. Critical shipping and landing craft that were in desperate short supply in the Mediterranean theater was diverted to Baytown at the expense of the other invasion of Italy at Salerno, Operation Avalanche.

Operation Avalanche landed at Salerno six days later, supposedly to cut off escape of the Germans opposite Monty, and “then seize Naples for the ports, establish airbases around Rome and, if feasible, farther north”. But the only Germans in front of Monty were engineers which blew bridges, mined roads, cut abatis, and slowed down the already cautious British Eighth Army. The Eighth Army wouldn’t see a German for days. The loss of shipping to Baytown meant that only three divisions made the landing at Salerno, and not the six required by the original plan (and what was used in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily). The deficiency was expected to be made up by defecting Italian units as Avalanche was timed to coincide with the armistice with Italy.

After Mussolini was ousted in July, King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio professed Italy’s continued dedication to the “Pact of Steel” made with Germany, but simultaneously had agents secretly meeting with the Allies. After much cloak and dagger skullduggery, the armistice was signed on 3 September and announced on 8 September. The BBC broadcast followed by Badoglio’s radio confirmation was the first the Italian army had heard about the armistice, and they were paralyzed. The “sound of armistice” was said to be “the ringing of phones” as stunned Italian commanders sought instructions from their superiors. Though also surprised, the Germans were quicker to react. Field Marshal Albert “Smiling Al” Kesselring, a German Italophile of the highest order, dismissed previous concerns of Italian treachery but prudently planned for it. On the evening of 8 September, he, like a scorned lover, turned his newfound hatred of the Italians into immediate action. German units across the Italian peninsula disarmed and detained nearby Italian army formations and crushed those that resisted.

The timing of the Italian armistice had serious repercussions for the Allied landings at Salerno. No longer would the American and British troops confront its Italian defenders, who were most likely to surrender or even assist the invaders, but the Germans. The veteran German 16th Panzer Division quickly took over the defense of the Salerno beaches. The 16th Panzer was a veteran of the Eastern Front and was withdrawn from Stalingrad after losing all of its tanks. It was reconstituted with a full complement of replacements and new equipment, and placed in the German strategic reserve. Slated for the Battle of Kursk, it was redeployed to Italy to oppose the Husky landings on Sicily but didn’t arrive in time. The 16th Panzer was arguably the freshest, best equipped and best trained panzer division in the Wehrmacht at the time. And they were waiting in the captured Italian positions overlooking the Salerno beaches for an Allied invasion they knew was imminent. The invasion arrived the next morning.

On 9 September 1943, Gen Mark Clark’s Fifth Army landed on two sets of invasion beaches near Salerno, which were separated by the Sele River. Clark was advised to land both of his corps north of the river, but decided against this to increase the chances of capturing the Germans to the south. He wrote to his wife that he expected “a pursuit, not a battle”. The northern corps, the British X Corps, landed just south of Salerno and initially fared well. The corps commander opted for a pre-invasion bombardment which was highly effective due to Italian deserters which pinpointed every artillery position, headquarters’ building, and machine gun nest. To the south the 36th Infantry Division’s MG Fred Walker declined the pre-invasion bombardment in order to surprise the defenders and limit Italian casualties. As a result, the guardsmen from Texas landed directly into the teeth of the German defense.

Twelve hours before, the division celebrated the armistice, and expected to be met by Italians on the beach with “wine and opera tickets”. Instead they were met with barbed wire, MG42s, 88s, and PzIVs, with predictable results. The 16th Panzer surprised everyone, including the British, and nearly threw the invasion back into the sea despite only assuming the defense hours before. That they didn’t was solely due to prodigious Allied naval gunfire support. There were no airborne landings the first day because Matthew Ridgeway’s 82nd Airborne Division was tasked with the abortive Operation Giant II, where the division was supposed to reinforce Italians defending Rome from German attack. The operation was cancelled at the last minute (transports were in the air) because it was rightfully recognized to be a suicide mission. (Giant II is a great story, and a cautionary tale about politics overruling military realities. Fortunately sensible minds prevailed, but only just, and only after a covert commander’s reconnaissance. I really need to do a post on it.) The only unqualified success on the first day was LTC William Darby’s Ranger regiment and Brigadier Laycock’s Commandos which landed northwest of the British X Corps. The Rangers and Commandos quickly occupied the mountain tops to the north of the invasion where they could observe the roads to the north, down which Kesselring’s reinforcements would have to arrive. And arrive they did.

Kesselring concentrated all of his considerable might on Salerno: six veteran German divisions to Clark’s two British and one American, but it would take a few days. In the meantime it was a race between reinforcing the confused and shallow Allied lodgment, which was far too long for the troops available, and massing the necessary counter attack force, under the guns of the invasion fleet, to throw them back into the sea. Fortunately for Kesselring, the Germans mostly had air superiority. Allied aircraft, though more numerous, had to fly from a few small escort carriers in the bay or from far off Sicily. The Luftwaffe attacked the invasion fleet numerous times each day, including one of the first uses of a guided bomb, and increased the confusion on the beach. Clark expected to take the Montecorvino Airfield on the first day, and forward base his fighter cover from there. However, the airfield was swept by German direct fire and unusable for the next two weeks.

Clark had further issues, especially command. He quickly activated the VI Corps in Walker’s area to help sort out the confusion, adding a three star general to the beach, and then landed his own headquarters there in the south. With the gap between the southern American beachheads and the British in the north, Clark only really had control of VI Corps, which only had control of one division, Walker’s 36th. So the poor men of the 36th had three echelons of command controlling just them (proto-SETAF) and the confusion that generated. Clark did have a few battalions of the US 45th Infantry Division for a reserve and he committed them to the Sele River gap to connect the British X Corps and US VI Corps, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

George Patton, essentially relieved of command for slapping a soldier in Sicily, was asked by Eisenhower to review the Avalanche plan. After just minutes looking at the plan’s graphics, he stated, “As sure a Jesus lives, the Germans will counterattack down the Sele River.” And they did.

In the early morning of 13 September 1943, Kesselring’s newly formed Tenth Army under Heinrich von Veitinghoff (we will hear his name again), assaulted Clark’s perimeter with a main effort down the Sele valley to split the Fifth Army and defeat both corps in detail. Entire Allied battalions vanished as if blown away in a fiery crimson mist. Clark seriously considered evacuation, at very least of the 36th to the British side of the beachhead. Clark’s boss, British Gen Harold Alexander, angrily ceased it immediately after he flew down to the fleet lest it affect morale. Clark sacked the VI Corps commander. But angry generals weren’t going to stop the Germans.

The only reasons the German offensive on “Black Monday” the 13 of September didn’t reach the beaches was simple American firepower, and the tenacity of small units of Allied troops with their backs to the wall. B-17s in a rare tactical strike bombed the Sele plain, and the US light cruisers USS Philadelphia and Boise with their quick firing 6” guns melted the paint off their barrels, and then fired them til they drooped and could no longer guarantee accuracy. Moreover, much to the chagrin of the Germans, entire companies of the 36th and 45th unexpectedly fought to the last round as their compatriots to their flanks broke and fled. This random phenomenon of American resilience would confound the Germans for the entire war. On the 36th’s left flank was the infamous “Burnt Out Bridge” over the Sele River which had it fallen would have doomed the American side of the beachhead. Firing over open sights, two battalions of American artillery stopped the Germans cold from penetrating a hasty defense consisting of cooks, bakers, mechanics, staff officers and various and sundry rear echelon personnel who found themselves as infantry, leavened by a few recently arrived tank destroyers.

The Germans tried a final time to break Avalanche on the 16th but ran into reinforcements hastily brought in from other areas of the Mediterranean. The entirety of the 45th was eventually landed, giving Clark a two-division American corps. The 82nd Airborne, off the hook for Giant II, was parachuted inside the beachhead perimeter or landed by boat and sent directly into the line. Admiral Cunningham of the British Mediterranean Fleet packed his battleships with troops from Libya and Malta and used his ships life boats to row them ashore.

Clark had won the race to reinforce the Salerno beachhead before Vietinghoff reduced it, but just barely. The battle was a near run thing, to steal a quote from Wellington. Kesselring requested two panzer divisions from Rommel’s army defending Italy north of Rome and was denied by Hitler. Had they been approved, there is no doubt among historians of the Italian campaign of the Second World War that the Allies would have been thrown back into the sea.

Monty continued his stroll up the boot and didn’t link up with the Clark fully until 20 September. After the failed counterattacks at Salerno, Vietinghoff retreated to the prepared fortifications on the Volturno Line, in order to further delay the Allied advance.

Kesselring planned to make the Allies fight up the entire Italian peninsula to keep them as far from Germany as possible, for as long as possible. The Allies established the beachhead at Salerno but would not secure Naples until 1 October, and would not secure Rome until nine months later on 5 June 1944.

The Black Sheep

After spending a year in the American Volunteer Group aka “The Flying Tigers” Gregory Boyington was reinstated in the US Marine Corps at the rank of major. He spent the first six months in the South Pacific in various staff jobs, culminating as the commanding officer of an F4F “Wildcat” Fighter squadron for just a month. In August 1943, the squadron was ordered back to California to be reequipped with new F-4U “Corsair” fighters, and Boyington knew that he if he left the South Pacific, he would be replaced and never fly in combat again. At 31, he was significantly older than most combat pilots, especially fighter pilots. So the squadron left, and he was thrown into the replacement pool on Espirtu Santo, the US Navy’s main supply and personnel depot in the South Pacific.

The impatient Boyington rounded up all of the unassigned fighter pilots on the island and convinced his higher headquarters to form them into a squadron under his command. (They were not all misfits awaiting court martial as per the TV show. They were a mix of brand new LTs and orphaned veterans from disbanded squadrons, which the Marines seemingly did at random.) In August 1943, VMF-214 was activated, but had no mechanics or support and few administrative personnel. Moreover, Boyington only managed a few planes scrounged from the depot level maintenance on the island. One night he gathered his 27 pilots together to come up with a name. They agreed on “Boyington’s Bastards” due to their situation. A few days later, a Stars and Stripes reporter commented that he couldn’t print that, and suggested “Black Sheep”. It stuck. Cool names were nice but Boyington needed planes, equipment and people if the Black Sheep were to fight the Japanese. Boyington was given just four weeks before they were sent forward.

In August 1943, the Allied Operation Cartwheel, the isolation of Rabaul, was entering a critical phase. MacArthur was closing in on New Britain to the west, and more importantly for Boyington and VMF-214, the US Army invaded Vella Lavella and Arundel in the Northern Solomons. Once captured, these islands would provide airfields in support of the invasion of Bogainville, thus finally ejecting the Japanese from the Solomon Islands that started with invasion of Guadalcanal about a year before. The Japanese desperately tried to stall their inevitable capture in order provide time to prepare Bougainville for defense, where they planned to make a stand.

On 11 September, VMF-214 moved from Espirtu Santo to the Munda airfield on New Georgia with their recently acquired Vought F4U-1 Corsairs. The Corsair was a new fighter designed with the Japanese A6M “Zero” in mind. It is essentially an F4F Wildcat upgraded with a bomber engine that gave it power enough to outmaneuver the Zero. The Corsair’s “gull” wing design was needed to keep the massive propeller off the ground. However, the giant engine also blocked the view of a carrier during the landing, so the Navy didn’t want it. The Marines, operating mostly from island airstrips took them all. (The Navy opted for the similarly capable F6F Hellcat, which didn’t have the carrier landing difficulties the Corsair did.)

Even with the edge the Corsairs gave Boyington and the Black Sheep, their first missions were busts. “Gramps” Boyington (As he was known to his men since he was a decade older than the next oldest pilot in his squadron) was worried they were going to be disbanded. The Marines were notorious for reassigning personnel from a squadron that didn’t perform; that’s how he got most of his pilots. But their luck changed on 16 September over Ballale. The Black Sheep scored 11 confirmed air-to-air kills, five of which were Boyington’s, and another nine probables over the island. The press immediately ran with the story: The maverick leader of a cobbled together squadron scoring so many victories in one day was great print. But the name “Gramps” had to go: although his men called him that until the end of the war, the press dubbed him “Pappy” which history remembers him by.

For the next 84 days, Pappy Boyington and the Black Sheep operated as far forward as Admiral Bull Halsey allowed, on airfields abandoned by the Japanese or off of makeshift strips cut from the jungle by Seabees hours before. During the island hopping of that first month, many were technically behind Japanese forward bases. Though the Black Sheep took almost 40% casualties in that time, they mixed it up with the Japanese over Bougainville daily. Their adversaries knew Boyington and several of the higher scoring Black Sheep by name and called them out over the radio. They’d respond with taunts and challenges for the Japanese to come up after them. By late-October, the Japanese quit responding and wouldn’t even take off to engage a fighter sweep unless they significantly outnumbered the Americans. Halsey found a kindred spirit in the hard drinking and hard fighting Boyington and visited the squadron on his tours of the front. Boyington and the Black Sheep’s greatest victory was their fighter sweep over Bougainville on the 17th of October. The 25 pilots of the squadron circled the Kahili airfields taunting the Japanese to come up and fight. Sixty proud Japanese pilots responded, and twenty didn’t return. The Black Sheep suffered no casualties.

The squadron was pulled off the line for rest and recuperation soon thereafter, and it was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by Halsey. To celebrate, the entire squadron including ground personnel took a week of leave at the historic and posh Australia Hotel in lovely downtown Sydney. From all accounts it was a party of epic proportions from which the hotel never recovered.

Afterwards, the Black Sheep flew from Vella Lavella until the invasion of Bougainville in November. They then flew from the strip at Torokina just off the beach, with the ground Marines fighting just a few hundred yards away. From Torokina, single engine fighters could finally reach Rabaul. Boyington and the Black Sheep led the first fighter sweep of Simpson Harbor since the Australians left 20 months before. On 3 January 1944, Boyington tied Eddie Rickenbacker’s record for total kills during the First World War, 26. His record tying kill preceded him back to base where the press waited for him to land. Unfortunately he never showed up. Pappy Boyington was shot down on his way back and captured by a Japanese I-boat. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Boyington always joked to the others not worry about him, “even if he was on fire with 30 Japs on my tail… I’ll meet you in San Diego for New Years and we’ll have a drink.”

True to form, the Marine Corps brass disbanded VMF-214 four days after Boyington was shot down, and the pilots of The Black Sheep were sent into the replacement pool.

After the war, that drink came four months early. On 29 August 1945 Boyington was liberated from his Japanese prison and flown back to the United States. On 21 September, he was met by 21 of his former subordinates and they had another epic party; this time at the elegant St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The get-together was chronicled with a spread in October’s edition of Life magazine.

In their short three months of combat operations under Boyington, VMF-214 had nine aces, a combined 97 Japanese planes killed and another 203 more probables and damaged. The Black Sheep had the most kills in the shortest time of any Marine Corps or Navy fighter squadron up to that point in history.

Case White. The Failure of the Interwar Theories

On 1 Sep 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the north, west and south. The Germans invaded with 1.5 million soldiers against Poland’s 300,000, though Poland had 1.6 million still mobilizing in its reserves. This three pronged attack made Greater and Lesser Poland untenable, so Poles did what they’ve done for a millennium: delay until they could make a stand along one of the various river lines that bisected the country. Or failing that form a redoubt in the Carpathian Mountains along the Romanian border. They chose the Warta River first but because the French insisted that Poland not mobilize before hostilities commence, in order to “not provoke” the Germans, the Germans broke through that on 6 Sep.

The battle for Poland was a bit more evenly matched than the German propagandists, and the historians that took them at face value, suggest. The German Army that invaded Poland was 1.5 million strong but of the 60 or so German divisions that participated, only five were Panzer, and five more motorized. The vast majority were still foot and horse bound. Additionally, the German tanks of the panzer divisions were mostly obsolete, even by 1939 standards. Of the 2500, most were PzI or PzIIs, little better than machine gun carriers. Only about 1000 were the better Czech Pz35 or Pz38s, or the PzIII or PzIVs. The Poles had 800 tanks: about half obsolete Polish Tankettes, Brit Mk6s, and French Ft-17s, but the other half were the Polish 7TPs or French R35s which were equivalent of the German armor. The difference was in how these resources were used, though not as how you might have learned.

The Germans used a form of JFC Fuller’s Breakthrough theory called Blitzkrieg or Lightning War but in Poland it hadn’t come to fruition yet. The short version of Blitzkrieg is the armor punches a hole and surrounds the enemy while supported by airpower, and the infantry and artillery reduce the pocket. This is precisely what did NOT happen in Poland. JFC Fuller envisioned massive armored columns smashing through lines and continuing on. Even a casual perusal of the various panzer commanders’ memoirs, particularly Guderian, Von Luck and Manstein, show that in Poland the panzers smashed through the lines… then ran out of fuel or broke down. The vehicles were not reliable enough and supply systems could not keep up. These highly touted panzer breakthroughs devolved into immobile columns subject to the very effective French 37mm anti-tank gun or French artillery, which the Poles had oodles of, or being cut off and surrounded by counterattacks of mobile Polish cavalry brigades (whom rode to battle on horses but fought on foot… just like the German cavalry). The panzer divisions, almost universally, had to wait for the German infantry to break through to them so they could get some fuel and spare parts, and then continue on. (It’s a credit to the Wehrmacht that they figured this problem out by the campaign in France the next year).

Though the panzer portion of Blitzkrieg was a complete failure, the infantry were having much more success. Blitzkrieg’s mission style orders and the Wehrmacht’s reliance on machine guns and mortars at the very lowest level meant that German squads and platoons were consistently outfighting Polish companies and battalions. Furthermore, if there was a particularly tenacious strongpoint, they had the help of the Luftwaffe or German air force which had control of the air.

The Luftwaffe had 2500 planes to about 700 Polish planes. In the beginning, the Poles knew this but made the mistake of saving their strength for a massive aerial counterattack. Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish air force’s command and control in the first days of the war, so for the next month Poland’s air force was destroyed in uncoordinated penny packet counterattacks. Although the Poles shot down 40% of all German planes in theatre, they couldn’t prevent the real war winner for the Germans: Luftwaffe close air support of the infantry divisions.

As the infantry fought toward the cut off panzer divisions, the Luftwaffe shifted its supporting attacks from the immobile panzers, to the much more successful foot bound infantry, if only to save the panzers more quickly from Polish anti-tank guns. This went on for about a week in Sep 1939, until the Poles were fully mobilized to a strength of 2 million and prepared to defend the hills and forests of Masovia along the Vistula River, particularly the traditional fortress city of Warsaw. There they would hold out and wait for France and Great Britain’s promised attack from the west.

The Brits and French attacked and failed.

The French were big fans of Fuller also, and after the defensive fortifications of the Maginot Line were built, they built tanks with a vengeance. The nice thing about starting production late was you produced the latest models. The H35, Char B1 bis, the S35, the R35, AMR 35, Char D1 and D2, were all either equivalent or superior to the PzIIIs or PzIVs, and the French had more, many more. To great fanfare and in the largest and most literal expression of JFC Fuller’s Breakthrough Theory, the French launched their Armored Leviathan at the Germans on 8 Sep 1939… and promptly ran into large fields of inexpensive German mines. The French tankers were stuck. At least the Germans had infantry traveling with the panzers in trucks, the French didn’t even have that. They were completely flummoxed by the mines and had no way forward. So they went home.

The British launched their own offensive against the Germans, but they used bombers. The Brits were big fans of the Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet. Douhet’s theory is basically Fuller’s theory applied to bombers and he believed “that the bombers will always get through”. Douhet envisioned heavy bombers protected by on-board machine guns that would rain death upon the enemy’s cities. This would continue until the population’s will was broken and they sued for peace. To Douhet, land power was obsolete. The British Bomber Command launched its bombers against Germany the day after Britain declared war… and were promptly shot down by German anti-aircraft guns. The German 88mm, which was designed with Douhet in mind, was especially deadly. When the British tried flying lower to avoid them, they were shot down by the magnificently made Swedish Bofors 40mm or Swiss Oerklion 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The British Bomber Command took so many losses in the first weeks of the war that if it continued they wouldn’t have any bombers by November, so they switched to ineffectual nighttime bombing. The Poles were on their own for a while.

But this wasn’t war ending because by 9 Sep, the Poles outnumbered the Germans and were holding their own along the Vistula and in the Carpathians. They even launched a large counterattack at Bzura and repulsed the initial German attacks on Warsaw. Unfortunately on 9 Sep the German propaganda minister Josef Goebbels announced to the world that the Germans had reached Warsaw. The German people thought they had won and were jubilant. Goebbels ran with it. Poland had no way of contradicting Goebbel’s message. The British, French, and Soviets all soon believed Poland was lost. This absolved the Brits and French from any further assistance, and on 11 Sep, 1939 Stalin decided he’d better invade Poland before the Germans took it all.

On 19 Sep 1939, ten days after the Poles were supposedly defeated by the Germans, Soviet forces crossed the Polish frontier from the east, and made defense along the Vistula pointless. On 25 Sep, the Polish government announced the evacuation of the country. The last Polish army unit only surrendered on 6 Oct – a month after the war had supposedly been lost.

Fuller and his disciples: the Germans and French with their tanks, were defeated by unarmored fuel trucks, exposed supply lines, and inexpensive mines; Douhet and his disciples: the British with their bombers, were defeated by simple anti-aircraft guns; and Poland was defeated by bad diplomacy, information operations, mission command, and close air support.