Tagged: WWII

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.

The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raids: The Bombers Don’t Always Get Through

In the 1920s Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet stated that “The Bombers will always get through.” He expounded further by advocating that any military spending not on bombers was just wasted money. The British and American “bomber generals” were enthusiastic, even fanatic, advocates of Douhet. At the beginning of the Second World War, the British quickly learned by their experience with German high velocity anti-aircraft guns and improved interceptors the flaws in Douhet’s theory. Almost immediately, they abandoned daylight bombing raids in favor of marginally effective, but much safer, nighttime bombing. American bomber advocates ignored British experience, and in 1942, began a precision daylight bombing campaign.

Winston Churchill once said, “America will always do the right thing, once they try everything else.” And the bombing campaign over Europe was no exception. Armed with the B-17 Flying Fortress which was equipped with the Norden Bombsight, American bomber generals boasted that B-17s conducting precision daylight bombing could “put a bomb into a pickle barrel.” American accuracy would supposedly nullify the need to re-attack targets, and thus mitigate losses. In 1942, only six bomb groups were available and mostly attacked targets in France, well within fighter cover from England. With the liberation of North Africa and the invasion of Sicily complete by August 1943, more bomb groups were released to the Eighth Air Force in England for the bombing campaign over France and Germany. The American bomber generals then had enough bombers to attempt deep penetration raids into the German heartland.

In June 1943, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the “Pointblank Directive” for the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force to concentrate on the destruction of German fighter production. Moderate damage was achieved against the factories producing the new German Focker Wulf-190 fighter in July. But most German fighter squadrons were still equipped with the older Messerschmitt-109, and their production was concentrated in Regensburg. Moreover, American intelligence analysts concluded that the German aircraft industry’s critical vulnerability was the ball bearing, the entirety of whose production was located not far from Regensburg in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Allied planners conceived Operation Juggler to strike both Regensburg and Schweinfurt on the same day in sufficient force to cripple the German production of defensive fighters. Fighters could only escort the force as far as mid Belgium which meant that the bombers would fly unescorted to the targets for almost 2 ½ hours. Allied planners assumed that tight formations of numerous B-17s, each armed with ten .50 calibre defensive machine guns, would provide the overlapping fields of fire that would protect the bombers from the prowling German interceptors. Moreover, the first strike against Regensburg would then fly south over the Alps to airfields in North Africa to avoid fighters on the return leg. The second strike on Schweinfurt was supposed to arrive over target as the German fighters were refueling and rearming from the Regensburg raid, and would return to England while the return leg German interceptors were also refueling and rearming. If all went according to plan, only the Regensburg strike would have to fight to the target, while their return leg and both legs of the Schweinfurt raid were relatively fighter free.

All did not go according to plan.

Weather delays and fog over the English Midlands meant that the Regensburg raid, led by Colonel Curtis LeMay, departed well before the Schweinfurt raid which ensured that German fighters would have time to rearm and refuel to attack both raids as they crossed the Dutch coast. Also, the Regensburg bomber formation was so large that the escorting P-47s couldn’t cover all of the bombers. LeMay’s formation also had a weak spot in the rear where only two groups formed a defensive box, instead of the usual three. German tactics hitherto had been to take the formations head on to maximize time among the bombers, but the weak spot was too good to pass up, especially with the inadequate escort concentrated forward. By the time LeMay bombed Regensburg and turned south across the Alps (which worked perfectly: the Germans were completely surprised and few fighters bothered the Americans on the way to North Africa), the Regensburg Raid lost 24 bombers of the 146 that started out that morning.

The Schweinfurt Raid fared worse.

The German fighters were rearmed and refueled and prepared for the second strike. After the morning’s melee, additional RAF fighters were tasked to escort close to the coast, while the longer ranged P-47s would take over in Belgium. But again the formation was too large, and although the defensive boxes were solid (because of prior rehearsals of large formations with the veteran bomber crews of the groups that had been in England for ten months at that point), the Germans just took them head on, as usual. Even worse, the P-47s arrived late and barely had time to engage the marauding Germans before they had to break off and return home. By the time the Schweinfurt Raid reached its target 22 bombers were shot down, mostly from the lead wing. When the bombers did unload on the Schweinfurt factories, only the lead wings’ were accurate; the smoke from their explosions obscured the target factories. Even Norden bombsights couldn’t see through smoke. The return leg saw German fighters focusing on the damaged bombers, forcing them out of formation for an easy kill. By the end of the raid, 37 bombers of the original 230 “maximum effort” were shot down.

German armaments minister Albert Speer reported to Hitler that ball bearing production suffered an immediate 34% loss in production and Me-109 production slowed for several months. However, extensive stockpiles of both covered the gap, and because there was no immediate follow up production returned to normal within weeks. The Americans claimed over 300 German fighters shot down but German records show just 27. The Eighth Air Force lost 60 B-17 bombers and 5 escorting fighters, and more than 100 bombers damaged, 55 so bad that they would never fly again and were scrapped for spare parts. At that rate of loss, it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to survive 15 missions much less than the 25 they needed to rotate back to the United States.

Douhet’s, and his American acolytes’ vision of unescorted deep penetration raids by heavy bombers was shattered. But as Winston noted, the Americans had to try again, just to be sure. Eventually, they would do the right thing and wait for a long range fighter escort to make that vision a reality.

The Invasion of New Georgia

Guadalcanal was declared secured on 9 February 1943, but the Japanese continued air raids on the island for several months afterwards. The Japanese raids were staged out of their main air bases at Rabaul on New Britain, and used the smaller airfield at Munda Point on New Georgia further down the Solomon chain as a convenient refueling point to and from Guadalcanal. The airfield made New Georgia the painfully obvious next major target for Adm Halsey’s South Pacific command.

The Japanese pulled all of its remaining troops in the southern and central Solomons back to New Georgia, and the smaller nearby Rendova and Kolombangara islands, in anticipation of the American assault. The American invasions of the evacuated islands in the Central Solomons were unopposed, and in one case, was met by the local Australian coastwatcher with tea in celebration. Nevertheless, the Japanese troops were much more effective concentrated in the New Georgia archipelago. The defense of New Georgia was one of the few instances where the extreme rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy did not affect combat operations. New Georgia was initially defended by Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces (marines) and reinforced significantly with Japanese troops of the 38th and 51st Divisions. Guadalcanal was the template, and the Tokyo Express began running supplies and troops to the island in anticipation of the American invasion.

Since the capture of Guadalcanal in February, the Munda airfield on New Georgia was subject to increased American air attack and naval bombardment in sort of a reverse to what the Japanese did to Guadalcanal. And with the same results: Munda Airfield wasn’t going to permanently cease operations because of bombardment any more than Henderson did ten months before. The invasion was so obvious the Japanese targeted the invasion fleet off Guadalcanal several times with air attack but took heavy losses in the process, with negligible effect on the fleet.

The initial landings in the New Georgia archipelago by US Marine Raiders occurred at the end of June 1943, and were tasked to capture an airfield at Segi, or survey a suitable location for one. The Raiders ended up coming to the assistance of a local coastwatcher, Donald Kennedy, whose exploits as an insurgent were legendary, if controversial, and it was his men who gave early warning of every Japanese air attack on Guadalcanal from Rabaul during the previous ten months. A Japanese battalion was ordered to shut him down once he was isolated on Segi Point.

The main landings for “Operation Toenails” occurred on 30 June. The invasion force was built around a composite force centered on the US Army 43rd Division and included US Marines, Marine Raiders, and the 1st Commando Fiji Guerrillas, an elite unit of volunteer Fijians under picked New Zealanders. The initial landings, on the island of Rendova, Wickham Anchorage, and Viru Harbor in preparation for the main landings on 3 July, were chaotic to say the least. The highly trained “Barracuda Scouts” of the US 172nd “Blackhawk” Infantry Regiment, the regiment tasked with seizing Rendova, landed on the wrong island. The main body landed in the correct spot and expected no resistance based on the information the scouts gave them the night before. Fortunately, there were only 250 Japanese defenders on the island and the 172nd overwhelmed them. It set a costly precedent for the 43rd that led them to underestimate the Japanese to their front, at great cost, for the rest of the battle. At Viru, the landing depended on a column of Marine Raiders from Segi to march overland and attack the Japanese from behind during the landings. However, the Marines grossly underestimated the amount of time they’d need to make the march through the thick broken jungle and didn’t arrive until the 2nd. All three of the initial objectives were eventually secured, but the terrain rendered them ineffective for their proposed roles in future operations. They were simply too far away, not in distance, but in time necessary to traverse the unforgiving jungle to the main objective of Munda Point. Miscalculating the effects of the terrain would prove to be the defining feature of the Battle for New Georgia.

The two other regiments landed in the south coast of New Georgia Island on 3 July and in the north on 5 July. The two landings were not mutually supporting and were intended to surprise and overwhelm the Japanese. Moreover, the southern landing didn’t land at the beach closest to Munda, Lainana beach, again in an attempt to surprise the Japanese, but at Zanana beach three miles further away from Munda. The two beachheads were expected to link up on 7 July for an assault on Munda airfield on the 8th, but the Japanese isolated both beachheads. Furthermore, the farther the Americans got from the invasion beaches, the more difficult the logistics situation became due to the near impossibility of hauling the supplies over the rough and narrow jungle track. The three miles to Lainana beach took almost ten days and nearly depleted the division.

On the night of 6 July, the northern invasion force bumbled into the Tokyo Express bringing Japanese reinforcements to New Georgia in the Kula Gulf. Both sides managed to land their troops, the Americans just before the contact and the Japanese just after. However, the American task force was savaged by a spread of Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes, about the only remaining asymmetric advantage that the Japanese retained after the crucible that were the surface actions off Guadalcanal the autumn before. For the next two weeks, both invasion forces were isolated and attritted through a skillful Japanese defense. On 13 July the southern force captured Lainana beach which considerably shortened their supply line, but by then the damage was done.

The Tokyo Express continued to pour troops on to Kolombangara and New Georgia nightly and there was a very real threat that the American would be defeated in detail and thrown back into the sea. The Americans dug in but the Japanese seemed to be everywhere, with Japanese patrols attacking the lines and trail at will. The fresh Japanese troops would silently sneak into the exhausted American foxholes at night and slit the occupants’ throats. They called out individual commanders and reminded them they “weren’t in Louisiana anymore”, a reference to the training validation exercise the year before. The Japanese even managed to overrun the 43rd’s headquarters at Zanana beach.
The 43rd’s reports were bad but did not indicate disaster. They were reinforced by the 37th Infantry Division and only on a visit by the XIV Corps commander did the true situation emerge. Halsey’s Army Air Force commander happened to visit the island also, and being the ranking three star on the island immediately ordered the corps commander to stay and take charge. The he told Halsey that they’d need “at least another division”. Halsey sent three.

It wouldn’t have mattered had the Allied navies not secured the narrow waters and isolated New Georgia and Kolombangara. The US Navy again came off worse at the Battle off Kolombangara on 12 July, and it was up to air power and PT boats to stop the Tokyo Express for the next several weeks. The PT boats especially took serious casualties, including one boat cut in half by a Japanese destroyer – Its skipper was Lieutenant (junior grade) John F. Kennedy.

By early August, the tables were turned on the Japanese, and they were exhausted and weren’t getting the support they needed to continue. The US Navy finally caught the Tokyo Express by surprise in Vella Gulf on the night of 6-7 August which ended any hope of the Japanese continuing the fight for much longer. About the same time, the overwhelming number of Army and Marines on the island had slowly and painfully squeezed the Japanese Munda pocket. Sensing the inevitable, the Japanese evacuated New Georgia for Kolombangara on 20 August. The Americans would let them rot, and bypassed the island in September with the invasion of Vella LaVella. The Japanese stealthily evacuated Kolombangara in October.

Historian Samuel Elliot Morrison called the operations on New Georgia “the most unintelligently waged land campaign of the Pacific war”.

The Battle of the Ruhr and the Dambusters Raid

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur “Bomber” Harris wanted to make sure the German people understood that elections had consequences.

Harris was Douhet’s most dedicated acolyte. Giulio Douhet was an influential interwar Italian airpower theorist that coined the term “the bomber will always get through.” Douhet felt that breaking the enemy’s civilian’s will to fight through strategic bombing was the key to future military victory. Harris was determined to shape the RAF into Douhet’s ideal. If it would have been up to him, Britain would have produced nothing but heavy bombers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Harris launched the RAF bombers at Germany… and they were promptly shot down by the German 88s. And the ones that got through were wildly inaccurate. British Bomber Command was forced to switch to ineffective night time bombing. By any objective measure, Douhet’s concept of strategic bombing was a complete failure between 1939 and 1942. Directly attacking civilian targets just hardened civilian resolve. But Harris didn’t care, even when confronted with the negligible morale effects of the Luftwaffe terror bombing of the British Isles. He just blamed “distractions” such as the British Army or short range fighters for pulling resources from building bombers. He believed he could break the German people if he just had more. In 1944 and 45, Harris would have his planes, and he would turn the destruction inflicted by the Germans on London and Coventry at the height of the Battle of Britain into a random Tuesday over Germany by the end of the war. But he didn’t have enough bombers in 1943, and even worse, most of those bombers were American.

Fortunately for German cities in 1942, the British bomber industry was still not producing enough for Harris. But the American Eighth Air Force was finally engaged in Harris’ bombing campaign in force. However, the Americans believed that attacking German industry was the key. With the Norden bombsight (which “could drop a bomb in a pickle barrel”), they believed they had the accuracy to do so. After all, the Eighth Air Force was bombing by day, while the British Bomber Command was still mostly flailing about at night.

By early 1943, the Americans were slowly becoming the senior partner in the war and were steadily gaining influence in strategic decisions. Marshall agreed to the British insistence on invading North Africa and Southern Europe instead of an immediate cross channel invasion, but as a compromise, Bomber Command had to switch to an American lead attacking industrial targets in Germany. Albert Speer had finally convinced Hitler that Germany needed to ramp up war production in late 1942. The Americans wanted to stop it. Harris would have to wait a bit.

For a decade, Hitler’s National Socialists had protected the German people from the effects of their policies. Hitler felt that Germany lost the First World War because the blockade forced a collapse of the civilian will to fight, not from military defeat. He vowed not let it happen again. Even the effects of the war on the economy weren’t felt in the early years. The losses of civilian workers to the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were offset by imported slave labor. And any dip in consumer goods was made up by the outright looting of occupied countries. Many a German child received a slightly used pair of shoes for Christmas; don’t mind the smell of piss and Zyklon-B. Life was much better in Germany in 1941 than in Britain with its severe rationing. But the German economy couldn’t keep with the losses on the Eastern Front. By late 1942, Speer ramped up production of war material significantly – the German economy literally doubled in 1942. And no more so than in Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.

The Ruhr was Germany’s industrial center because it sat on top of Germany’s industrial center of gravity: the vast coal fields that powered the country and the economy. Up to this point Allied bombers were terror bombing civilian targets, striking synthetic oil factories, or military targets such as u-boat pens and aircraft factories. The intelligence officials wouldn’t figure out the importance of the Ruhr’s coal for several months and the Combined Bomber Offensive didn’t directly target coal (and more importantly: the railroad stations critical to transporting it) until November. So in March 1943 the Combined Bomber Offensive initial objectives for the Ruhr campaign were ammunition factories, synthetic oil plants, iron works, hydroelectric dams, and steel mills, and because Bomber Harris was still in charge of the RAF, the workers who manned them.

Harris believed, correctly as it turned out, that if workers were worried about where to live, they wouldn’t be very effective in the factories (he never really gave up on trying to break German civilian will). He made sure part of the Ruhr campaign was to “dehouse” its German workers, preferably with them still inside. One of the quickest ways to “dehouse” German workers wasn’t to bomb their houses, but flood them. And the Ruhr was packed with dams.

Dams were difficult targets. And in the early war, damn near impossible to damage (hehe). The accuracy wasn’t there and the bombs weren’t big enough. The logical solution was a torpedo but the Germans emplaned heavy torpedo nets. And to actually hit a dam with a bomb dropped from a level bomber such as Lancaster or B-17 required a stroke of luck equivalent to hitting the lottery. And if it did, a 500 lb bomb would just take a small chuck out of the reinforced concrete, and then most certainly above the waterline. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The British pioneered a concept of “skipping” bombs like a rock into the dams and over the torpedo nets. It didn’t work: the bombs either bounced off before they exploded, or if they did explode on the dam, the untamped explosion did little damage, and again, the damage was always above the waterline. There had to be a better way.

There was. After extensive testing, British scientist Barnes Wallis found that they could skip bombs in to a target with a “backspin”. When the skipped and backspun bombs hit the target they bounced off and sank directly to the base of the dam (a concept not unfamiliar to basketball players). There the specially produced bombs would explode like a depth charge, and smash the structural integrity of the dam. The problem was that to backspin the bombs the bombers had to drop the specially designed bombs at a specific angle, a specific height, a specific speed, at a specific distance from the dam and at a specific, very low altitude. Any deviation resulted in a failure to backspin, a premature detonation, or even a bomb that bounced back up into the bomber. Moreover, this had to be done at night, without fighter interference, and down the narrow winding trench-like valleys. But if everything happened perfectly, the dams could be destroyed. If.

The mission to destroy the Ruhr Valley dams was given to No 5 Group of Bomber Command who handpicked a squadron from their best bomber crews. The elite crews were comprised of men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, led by 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. Gibson and 617 Squadron practiced for weeks at night with inert bombs on British dams. (Imagine that risk assessment.) On the night of 16-17 May, 1943, Gibson and 617 Squadron flew Operation Chastise against the Moehne, Scorpe and Eder Dams.

617 Squadron attacked in three waves. Unfortunately the first wave successfully infiltrated but alerted the anti-aircraft crews around the numerous German airfields near the Dutch coast. The second and third waves suffered several planes shot down or damaged so badly they had to return before they even reached their targets. The first wave successfully breached the Moehne Dam but only after one bomber was destroyed by its own bomb and several missed attempts whom then drew flak away from the three successes. The Eder Dam was undefended by flak batteries, but only because the winding and narrow “trench run” (where do you think George Lucas got the idea?) lured the Germans into a false sense of security. Moreover, the valley was filled with thick fog and there was a hitherto unknown church steeple just before the release point, which required even more difficult split second precision maneuvering in order release the bomb properly. But since the valley was undefended the planes just kept doing practice runs until they felt confident enough to release their bombs. One aircraft made six practice attempts. The bomb of the last run by the last aircraft breached the Eder Dam. The aircraft that attacked the Scorpe Dam failed to breach its massive earthen ramparts. One aircraft diverted to Scorpe’s secondary target, the Ennepe Dam but due to the fog ended up attacking the Bever Dam. In any case both dams were structurally sound in the morning.

Not so for the Moehne or Eder Dams. Their destruction unleashed Biblical floods on their respective valleys. And the rising water was felt far downstream. The bomb damage assessment aircraft that flew the next morning reported only the tops of trees and steeples peaking above the water. Most German civilians reached safety before their towns were destroyed, but 1600 were killed, mostly Soviet prisoners of war used as slave labor who were locked up and couldn’t escape. The devastation to the towns and farms was complete though. The “Dambusters Raid” knocked out hydroelectric power to the Ruhr Valley for two weeks, and Speer estimated that coal production dropped by 400,000 tons because of the raid. It would have been more had the RAF followed up with additional conventional attacks on the repair parties. Speer’s “Operation Todt”, a Reich-wide quick reaction repair and construction system, gave the German infrastructure a resilience that American and British planners didn’t expect. The Raid’s greatest effect was on local food production, British civilian morale, and the thinning of the limited German manpower and resources which could be dedicated elsewhere. Every German anti-aircraft crewmember, fireman, or Todt member was one less fighting on the Eastern Front. Every 88 aimed skyward was one less aimed at a Russian tank and ditto for the fighters prowling the Dutch, Belgian, French and German airspace.

The three month Battle of the Ruhr was a “catastrophe” (in the German Armaments Inspectorate’s own words) for the German economy, nearly a million tons of lost production, and more importantly, halted Speer’s upward surge of German economy. By the end of 1943, nearly 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, 10,000 defensive fighters, and almost a million men were dedicated to defeating the Allied bombing campaign. This came at a price though: 50% of all Allied bomber crews were killed in action, and 25% wounded or captured, a 75% casualty rate.

The End of the Desert War

On 7 April 1943, the Americans and British of Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force, advancing from the west met Montgomery’s Eighth Army advancing east, forcing the Germans and Italians into a pocket ringed by mountains around Tunis. A month of hard fighting pushing the passes commenced. However, with both the American capture of Bizerte and the British capture of Tunis on 6 May, the Axis forces in North Africa were doomed. Allied air and sea superiority, mainly operating from Malta, cut off all paths of escape for the Rommel’s Panzer Armee Afrika. (Though Rommel was recalled before that could happen and he turned over command to GenLt Hans-Jürgen von Arnim.) On 13 May 1943, 270,000 of the best and most experienced, not to mention irreplaceable, German and Italians troops surrendered to Allied forces in Tunisia. This was the largest surrender of German troops so far in the war (Only 90,000 surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad, although the German casualties there were much higher).

The Allies were not prepared for the large amount of prisoners. General Eisenhower would remark, “Why didn’t some staff college ever tell us what to do with a quarter million prisoners so located at the end of a rickety railroad that it’s impossible to move them and where guarding and feeding them are so difficult?” In spite of the difficulties, they were cared for and transported, and most would end up in prison camps in the continental US.

In the two and half months since the American rout at Kasserine Pass, the U.S. Army came of age in the mountains and passes of Tunisia. The hard lessons of basic discipline, warfighting, and soldiering dearly paid for by their fathers and grandfathers in the Philippines, Mexico, and on the Western Front in the Great War were relearned at the cost of much blood, treasure, and time in North Africa. The US Army that made the Run for Tunis was a very different animal than the peacetime army that landed in Morocco and Algiers six months before during Operation Torch. Moreover, the Tunisian campaign solidified the military senior leadership that, for the next two long years, would lead the Allied armies on the difficult road to Germany. They would become household names by the end of the war: Eisenhower, Alexander, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Patton, Bradley, Horrocks, Harmon and Juin, among many others.

The War for North Africa was over and the War for Sicily and Italy began.

The Battle of Attu

On 11 May 1943, the 17th Infantry Regiment of the US 7th Infantry Division invaded the Aleutian island of Attu which had been occupied by the Japanese a year earlier. The rocky terrain, fanatical resistance, and arctic weather conditions caused thousands of casualties on both sides. On 29 May 1943, the 1200 remaining Japanese defenders banzai charged their attackers and broke through the American lines. The Japanese attack was only stopped after vicious hand to hand combat with the regiment’s rear echelon troops. The Japanese secretly withdrew from the nearby island of Kiska shortly thereafter. The Battle of Attu was the only battle fought on US territory in North America during the Second World War.