Tagged: WWII

The Battle of Kasserine Pass

With Montgomery approaching from Libya and Eisenhower closing in from Algeria, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had to do something. He constructed the Mareth Line to Heisman Monty, whom he knew would stop to deliberately attack. This allowed Rommel valuable time to deal with the Americans and Brits advancing from the west.
On Valentine’s Day, 1943, Rommel unleashed the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and the Italian Centauro Division against MG Lloyd Fredendall’s American II Corps at the Faid Pass in the Atlas Mountains. Fredendall was an excellent peacetime trainer and one of George Marshall’s favorites, but in combat he completely fell apart.
Fredendall liked to issue complicated orders over the radio using slang and code words only he knew. Also, he turned out to be a “chateau general” in the First World War style. Over the past two weeks he had an entire engineer battalion blast tunnels in the side of a narrow valley seventy miles behind the lines to serve as his headquarters, from which he issued orders and refused to leave. Fredendall was barely on speaking terms with the 1st Armored Division commander, Orlando Ward, who vehemently disagreed with Fredendall’s practice of scattering his tank regiments and ordering them around without telling him. Fredendall had even given one of Ward’s company commanders instructions directly.
But Fredendall shouldn’t bare the entirety of the blame, he was just emblematic of the problems that plagued all levels of the US Army in North Africa. When Rommel attacked, the inexperienced, uncoordinated and poorly led Americans immediately broke under the assault by German and Italian tanks. Rommel continued on through the Kasserine Pass. Fredendall ordered a general retreat, routing virtually the entire II Corps. Mass chaos erupted across American lines as soldiers abandoned all of their equipment and fled west as fast as they could drive, or run.
Fortunately, Fredendall’s superior British Lient Gen Kenneth Anderson countermanded him and ordered all units to stand and fight. Also, Eisenhower dispatched the senior American armor general in theater, the commander of the 2nd Armored Division MG Ernest Harmon, to be II Corps’ deputy commander. (Patton was busy turning Casablanca and Western Algeria into a logistics hub.) As soon as Harmon arrived at Fredendall’s headquarters, he was given command and Fredendall went to sleep. Harmon reorganized the 1st Armored Division and the managed to pull the II Corps back together into a semi-coherent defense. Finally, Anderson brought up experienced British infantry and massed American and Brit artillery to stop Rommel before he reached the big Allied supply dumps in French Algeria. After several days of hard fighting starting on 21 Feb, Rommel could no longer continue forward and withdrew back into Tunisia. By 27 Febuary 1943, the Battle of Kasserine Pass was over.
Although the battle was at best a draw for the Germans, or even technically a defeat, the US Army’s first contact with the German Wehrmacht (and the Italians for that matter) was embarrassing and ignoble. In a few short days, Rommel laid bare the flaws in American tactics, discipline, doctrine, leadership, training, and equipment. And with over 10,000 casualties, these were expensive lessons. The Americans would take the war with the Germans much more seriously from then on.

The Last Tokyo Express

By the end of December 1942, the Japanese had lost the battle of attrition against the US on Guadalcanal. The Japanese navy could no longer keep the Army supplied and they were losing many men each day to malnutrition and disease, and many more to relentless US Army 25th Infantry and Americal Division attacks.

But there was still 12,000 much needed troops on the island. The Japanese troops from Guadalcanal were needed to reinforce another series of fortified islands further up the Solomon Island chain. In the beginning of the New Year, the Imperial Japanese Headquarters decided to withdraw from Guadalcanal. Operation Ke commenced at the end of January 1943 and Admiral Mikawa’s Tokyo Express brought out all of Gen Hyakutake’s troops on the final runs from the island over the nights of February 1st, 5th and the 7th.

On the morning of 8 February 1942, the bloody six month Battle for Guadalcanal was over. Although 2 ½ more years of bloody fighting lay ahead, most of the post war Japanese leaders and virtually all Japanese historians consider the Battle of Guadalcanal as the point from which the war was essentially unwinnable for Japan. (On the contrary, most Americans consider the Battle of Midway the turning point in the Pacific.) The best Imperial Japan could muster met the best America could muster in arguably the most even sided contest of the War in the Pacific. Japan would not recover. The Jaanese would be on the strategic defensive for the rest of the war.

The Sixth Army Surrenders

On the Eastern Front during World War II, the German Army had reached its high water mark in Oct 1942 with the Sixth Army assault to seize the Soviet city of Stalingrad. However, a tenacious and heroic defense by General Chuikov’s 62nd Army, and Marshall Zhukov’s counterattacks during Operations Saturn and Uranus, surrounded and cut off 290,000 Germans in Stalingrad. Hitler was consumed by the idea of capturing the city named after his nemesis and would allow no breakout. To accomplish this, he ordered General Paulus, the 6th Army commander, to stand his ground. He ordered Field Marshall Goering’s Luftwaffe to supply Paulus from the air. And finally he told Field Marshal Von Manstein to break through to the beleaguered German defenders. All of them failed in their tasks. Paulus lost 2/3s of his army trying to hold the ever shrinking “cauldron”, Goring could only supply 15% of what Paulus needed, and Manstein fought to within 35 miles of Stalingrad but could get no closer. On 31 January 1943, Paulus surrendered the remaining 90,000 skeletal and starving members of the 6th Army in Stalingrad to the Soviets. Most would die in the prison camps and only 5,000 would ever see Germany again. The surrender was a devastating and irreplaceable loss of men and material for Germany. For the rest of the war, the Germans would be on the strategic defensive in the East.

The First Battle of Arakan

More than anything the British did, the monsoon season of 1942 prevented the victorious Japanese from continuing their drive from Burma into Eastern India (today’s Bangladesh). The victories in Ethiopia and the Western Desert, and the stalled German advance at Stalingrad which precluded any German attack across the Caucuses Mountains, allowed formations to be transferred to India to fight the Japanese. The British and Indian Army in Bengal began to rebuild, and Field Marshal Wavell, the new Commander in Chief – India (He didn’t get along with Churchill and was fired from CinC – Middle East) knew the reorganized, but demoralized and unexperienced troops, needed a victory if they were expected to stop a renewed Japanese offensive into India, or advance into Central Burma. The capture of the Arakan Peninsula in Western Burma fit the bill: it was lightly defended, geographically isolated, and Akyab Island at its southernmost tip was perfect for extending air power over the Bay of Bengal and south central Burma. The task fell to Lt-Gen William Slim’s VVV Corps in southern Bengal. The attack would commence as soon as the monsoon ended.

The Indians struck first. In 1942, the Indian National Congress (INC), who wanted to cut all ties with Britain, was decidedly pro-Japanese (The decision was just pragmatic politics: For the first eight months of 1942, the Japanese were victorious everywhere, the British nowhere). The INC assumed that India was too large and too populated to be fully conquered by Japan and the Japanese would just oust the British, and put the INC in charge, leaving them be. (The Japanese trend of not doing so in Taiwan, the Philippines, Manchuria, China, Malaya, Indochina, Korea, and the Dutch East Indies notwithstanding.) In August, Mahatma Gandhi called for mass peaceful civil disobedience to disrupt the British in preparation for the expected Japanese advance into India after the monsoon. Gandhi might have called for peaceful disobedience, but INC did not respond peacefully. Gandhi’s message of “Do or Die” was taken in its most aggressive interpretation. Massive protests occurred across India but those in Eastern Bengal were decidedly violent and specific in their choice of targets. (Today, the “Quit India Movement” is considered “mostly peaceful”…) Indians attacked British and Indian Army and government facilities, including factories, roadways, and railways that supported the war effort. For the months of August and September, the mostly untried troops of Wavell’s India Command did battle with INC formations, guerillas, and their supporters, mostly in Eastern Bengal. The British and Indian troops slowly gained control and when the Japanese didn’t attack, the uprising lost steam. (The Japanese pulled troops from Burma to reinforce New Guinea and Guadalcanal.) The Quit India Movement delayed preparations for the Arakan Offensive by several months.

But training troops, defending coastlines, and fighting guerillas was tedious stuff, and the Arakan Offensive looked to be a sure victory. The peninsula was defended by only a single Japanese regiment, and Slim’s VVV Corps could put the entire 14th Indian Division plus supporting troops into the attack. Slim was an excellent trainer of troops, had literally created his own hundred ship “navy” to patrol the long coastline in case of Japanese amphibious attack, and did exceedingly well in the chaos of the uprising. So the commander of the British Eastern Army, Lt-Gen Noel Irwin, a toxic martinet who hated anyone more competent than he, decided to “let” Slim continue with the static duties and train new formations in Bengal. Irwin took command of the Arakan Offensive directly.

On 17 December 1942, the 14th Indian Division launched its attack. The Arakan Peninsula is actually two peninsulas: the Arakan in the east and the separate Mayu peninsula in the west. The Mayu peninsula is separated from the coast of western Arakan by the wide Mayu River and is itself split in two by the Mayu Range which runs along its length. The 14th’s plan was to conduct a frontal assault in two prongs: one down the Arakan Peninsula proper, and the other down the Mayu Peninsula to the west of the Mayu Range. A separate supporting advance well inland to the east by a long range penetration group, Orde Wingate’s Chindits, and another separate amphibious assault at the tip of the peninsula, were cancelled. The attack was initially very successful and the surprised Japanese fell back. Japanese intelligence in Burma was so bad that they didn’t know about the Quit India uprising, much less the preparations for the Arakan offensive.

Nevertheless the Japanese stopped the 14th’s advance just before the New Year. The 14th Indian Division was a new formation that was raised and trained in the flat deserts of Baluchistan. They were sent east when the Russian counterattack at Stalingrad made their presence in the Middle East superfluous. The steep and jungle covered spurs and draws of the Mayu Range took its toll on the troops that had never completed, or in some cases, started their jungle training. The delay gave the Japanese a chance to dig in.

By December 1942, Japanese advocates of the banzai charge-at-all-costs were mostly dead for obvious reasons. On Guadalcanal and New Guinea, they figured out that although banzai charges were glorious, they were also wasteful, especially on the defensive. The Allies on the Arakan Peninsula had an overwhelming numerical superiority. To stop Irwin’s four brigades, Col Kosuke Miyawaki had just a reinforced battalion on the peninsula, the rest were defending Akyab Island. The 14th’s pause allowed them to dig in.

When Irwin resumed the advance, his men ran straight into one of the soon-to-be iconic features of the Second World War: the Japanese log and earth bunker. Each bunker was dug deep, had a four or five foot thick roof, and was manned by 5 to 20 men with 3-4 machineguns and anti-tank guns. Each was impervious to artillery fire and mutually supported by two or three other bunkers. Between 7 and 13 January 1943, a single Japanese battalion stopped a two brigade attack east of the range and river at Rathedaung. West of the range, a lone company at Donbaik, defending a tidal stream between the mountains and the beach, massacred a two brigade assault. At high tide, the stream was impassable, at low tide, its banks rose seven feet. Moreover, whenever the Indians and British managed to penetrate the stream-line, the Japanese company commander just called artillery on his own position, which murdered the attackers in the open, while the defenders sat impervious in their bunkers. The offensive stalled with heavy casualties.

Far to the north in what might as well have been his chateau, Irwin threw thousands of barely trained reinforcements into the battle, with the same result. By March, the Japanese themselves were reinforced. Despite growing evidence of Japanese buildup on the west coast of Burma given by Slim’s homegrown Burmese intelligence network, Irwin demanded another assault. Irwin sent Slim down to the 14th Indian Division, not to take command, but just to make sure the division commander was doing as he was told. He returned with bad news.

Slim reported the division commander was overwhelmed. The 14th’s commander had to control nine disparate and geographically separate brigades instead of the usual three. Slim offered to take his HQs down to help but was refused. Even worse, the Japanese were ready to attack. Slim had learned the hard way in Central Burma that mountainous jungle is not impassable by properly trained troops. The Japanese could isolate the eastern prong whenever they were ready. Then they could easily cross the mountains and smash the flank of the western prong. Irwin disagreed and fired the division commander. Then on 29 March, he headed south and Inwin, the Eastern Army commander, took command of the division.

The Japanese struck less than a week later, and in just the manner Slim predicted. A British brigade was overrun and destroyed, three were cut off, and the front collapsed. Irwin summoned Slim and his other division headquarters, the 26th Indian, to take control of the battle, but by then the situation was unsalvageable. The 14th Indian Division was subsumed under the 26th’s headquarters, and everybody fell back to India with the cut off brigades abandoning their equipment. And again, the monsoon saved India from Japanese invasion, just as it had the year before.

Irwin blamed Slim and attempted to relieve him and the 26th’s Division commander for the lost battle. However, Wavell could see through his bullshit and relieved him instead. The failure to properly train killed many good British and Indian soldiers on the Arakan Peninsula, the Allied troops in Burma and India wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

The Rape of Nanking

In 1936, the League of Nations’ failure to prevent the Italian annexation of one of its members, Ethiopia, directly led to Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland and Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Between August and November 1937, nearly a million Nationalist Chinese and Imperial Japanese fought block by block and house by house for the city the Shanghai. Even though Shanghai was defended by Chiang Kai-Shek’s best troops, the Japanese were better trained and equipped, and their naval superiority allowed them to land anywhere on the coast they wished.
By the beginning of November, Shanghai was lost, and Chiang moved China’s capital to Nanking. Led by America, the Western nations were in talks to intervene to stop Japanese aggression, but the Japanese thought that the loss of Nanking would force the Chinese to surrender before that could happen. So to preclude Western intervention, Emperor Hirohito sent Prince Asaka to Japan’s Central China Area Army and ordered its commander Gen Iwane Matsui to immediately seize Nanking.
Matsui’s men made the 250 mile march in under a month. The speed of the Japanese advance and the incessant bombing by the Japanese air force prevented Chiang from consolidating a defense, and Matsui arrived outside the walls of Nanking on 9 December. The next day, he ordered his exhausted and worn, but so far victorious, troops for one last push, which he was sure would end the war. With the rising sun, Matsui’s entire army banzaied the Chinese defenses. Three days of brutal close quarters fighting and unremitting heavy artillery shattered the defending Chinese, who streamed back into Nanking. The jubilant Japanese followed close behind. And then the real chaos began.
Like all people who cannot see beyond the lens of race and ethnicity, the Imperial Japanese saw their adversaries as less than human. The Japanese had no ethical boundaries regarding the treatment of the Chinese civilians, and justified their increasingly brutal actions as if the Chinese somehow deserved it. In the six weeks after Asaka and Matsui overran Nanking, their troops engaged in both systematic and spontaneous mass acts of arson, murder, looting, rape, and other war crimes on a grand scale. Over 200,000 Chinese men, women, and children were killed, and afterwards, Westerners in the city were unable to find a Chinese female of any age who wasn’t under their personal protection who wasn’t raped multiple times.
Most Westerners fled the city before the final Japanese attack, but some did not. Those that remained formed the “International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone” ironically led by John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member. The Committee consisted of about 30 American and European missionaries, businessmen, and embassy staff. In anticipation of the fall of the city to the Japanese, they set up the Nanking Safety Zone in the Western end of the city, demarcated by Red Cross flags.
Rabe negotiated the Zone with Matsui through the radio on the American gunboat USS Panay, which the Japanese strafed and sank on 9 December while Rabe was on board. The survivors swam to shore, and the Panay Incident showed how far the Japanese would keep their word regarding the dealings with the West. Nevertheless, Matsui allowed the Safety Zone as long as there weren’t Chinese troops inside. The Japanese soldiers for all intents and purposes disregarded the Nanking Safety Zone, but fear of Western intervention prevented direct assaults on Rabe and the Committee members. It is through their accounts and photographs that we would even know of the Rape of Nanking today.
The Japanese did not believe that they would be held accountable for their actions, as long as they didn’t harm the Westerners. Small bands of Japanese soldiers roamed the city, looting, raping, and murdering along the way. All surrendering Chinese troops were taken outside the city and massacred. The worst incident occurred on 18 December, in the Straw String Massacre. The Japanese tied the arms of thousands of prisoners together, and laughed as the writhing mass frantically tried break free by ripping each other’s arms off as the Japanese slowly murdered them all for entertainment. 12,000 bodies were excavated later from “The Ten-Thousand-Corpse-Ditch” just outside the city. Ten of thousands more were murdered and thrown into the Yangtze River.
When the captured soldiers ran out, the Japanese continued with the civilians in the Safety Zone. Individual Committee members attempted to protect the Chinese, but they couldn’t be everywhere. Most times, the Japanese ignored them or even forced them to watch. The Japanese used the civilians as live targets on rifle ranges and bayonet courses. They forced the civilians to walk over mines to demonstrate their effectiveness, or doused them in petrol to see how long they would live before being consumed by the fire. Chinese were beheaded to prove the sharpness of their officer’s swords, or were buried alive for sport. Chinese corpses were piled high in the alleyways of the city. Mass graves were continually discovered for years afterwards.
The reports from Nanking convinced Chiang Kai-Shek that he was fighting for the very survival of his people, and his armies continued to fight the Japanese for the next seven years. But it would take a world war for justice to come to the people of Nanking. After Japan surrendered following the detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the separate Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal found Matsui and his subordinate commanders guilty of crimes against humanity. They were executed in 1946.
Asaka was not tried because he was a member of the Japanese Imperial family. As part of Japan’s surrender in 1945, MacArthur implied that the Japanese Emperor and his immediate family would not be tried for war crimes, and protected the Imperial family in order to prevent a bloody insurgency in post war Japan. Even in the 20th century (and the 21st for that matter), the aristocracy seems to have its privileges.

Operation Winter Tempest

The Soviet encirclement of Paulus’ German Sixth Army Stalingrad doomed the German troops in the city and its outskirts. However, Hitler ordered the city held and the Luftwaffe supply it by air, as had happened for similar, albeit smaller pockets the year before. Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein’s Army Group Don was tasked to break through to Stalingrad.

Manstein knew that his men could not reach Stalingrad. Hitler’s refused to release most of his armored reserve, and much of what was released was sent to Tunisia. Although theoretically Manstein had the entirety of Army Group Don for the attack, only one Panzer corps was readily available to participate. The only hope of saving the Sixth Army was for Paulus to attempt a breakout at the same time. Paulus however would not do so without Hitler’s permission. At best, all Manstein knew he could do was get close enough, and then appeal to Hitler to give Paulus permission.

Army Group Don launched Operation Winter Storm/Tempest/Thunderstorm (whatever the hell historians want to call it these days) on 12 December 1942. The attack made excellent initial gains but the Soviets were massing troops for Operation Saturn, the encirclement of Army Groups B and Don, and shifted forces to the Stalingrad perimeter opposite Manstein. The Soviets then launched Operation Little Saturn to just cut off Manstein. With much shifting of troops Manstein stabilized the front but could not get any closer to Stalingrad.

Manstein was just 30 miles from Paulus, but might as well have been 300. The Sixth Army only had enough fuel to advance 20 miles, and its infantry was starving and frozen. The Luftwaffe’s ability to deliver more fuel and food took a body blow when Soviet troops in the Little Saturn offensive overran the two primary airfields from which the transports flew to Stalingrad. Moreover, an actual winter storm hit the area and the blizzards grounded all aircraft. Even if Paulus was allowed to break out, by the third week of December, it was no longer possible.

Manstein ceased offensive operations on 23 December 1942, sealing the Sixth Army’s fate in Stalingrad.

The Cockleshell Raid

 The raids by Italian frogmen in the Mediterranean were the stuff of legend in commando circles in 1942. The British didn’t have any similar capability: the Italians were just too far advanced in the technology of underwater demolition. However, the British were quite skilled in the use of small boats to conduct similar type raids, which they had been doing for the last two years in the Aegean. After the disastrous raid on Dieppe over the summer, the British Combined Operations decided they had to up the ante and start small boat raids on German ships in France.
In late October 1942, the innocuously named Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment (one of the forerunners of today’s Special Boat Service) was given the mission to sink German ships at Bordeaux. The Royal Marine commandos would be transported by submarine to the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, where they would then paddle upstream to the port in special canoes code named “cockles”, and then plant mines on the ships.
The cockles were semi rigid collapsible kayaks that could fit through the torpedo doors of the British submarines. Each could carry two men and about 200 lbs of equipment. On the night of 7 December 1942, 12 men in six cockles of the RMBPD paddled from the HMS Tuna for the 70 mile trip up the Garonne River to Bordeaux. However, the mission started poorly.
One cockle was inadvertently torn pulling it from the submarine, so two men had to immediately swim back before the Tuna departed. All five remaining crews braved the heavy surf for the ten miles to shore. However, one cockle disappeared and their men were never seen again. Another capsized and the two commandos were dragged close to shore. They were told to make their way home by any means possible, but they died of hypothermia before that could happen. And then one cockle became separated. When that crew made landfall in the morning, they were spotted and captured by the French gendarmes. Only 12 hours into the mission, only two cockles remained.
For the next four days, the commandos paddled by night and hide on shore during the day. On the moonless night of 11/12 December 1942, the four remaining commandos placed limpet mines on eight different vessels in the harbor including a minelayer, a large cargo ship, and small ocean liner. The men then sank their cockles, and set off on foot for neutral Spain. Two were arrested by French gendarmes and turned over to the Germans. All of the captured raiders were immediately executed under Hitler’s “Commando Order” (That they be treated as spies, even in uniform). But two men did make it to Spain, and eventually back to Britain via Gibraltar in 1943.
The next morning the time delayed fuses went off, damaging five ships and sinking one. Unfortunately, the explosions came as a surprise to the Special Operations Executive team (the forerunner of the fun parts of MI6) that were in an apartment down the street. The SOE team spent the last several weeks infiltrating the port defenses to accomplish the same thing.
Even three years into the war, the Allies’ alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and special operations units still needed figure out how to coordinate with each other.
Some things never change. It;s probably for the best though.

Popski’s Private Army

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Tassafaronga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fundamental things apply / As time goes by…

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

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

I think I’ll play it again.