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Japan: UN chief praises work of emergency responders in wake of deadly landslide

UN News Centre - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 21:47
The UN chief on Monday extended his condolences to the families of those who died in a landslide, which struck the Japanese coastal city of Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture, over the weekend.

Overwhelming American Victory: This Battle Cemented US Aircraft Carrier Superiority

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 21:05

Warfare History Network

Security, Asia

“You did a damn fine job there,” he said. “No matter what other people tell you, your decision was correct.”

Key Point: Ozawa had the majority of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fighting fleet under his command at the time, but his force of approximately 90 ships and submarines was still considerably smaller than the U.S. Navy’s 129 ships and submarines. He also commanded 450 carrier-based aircraft that would coordinate with 300 ground-based aircraft in the Marianas.

The Philippine Sea encompasses two million square miles of the western part of the Pacific Ocean. It is bounded by the Philippine Islands on the west, the Mariana Islands on the east, the Caroline Islands to the south, and the Japanese Islands to the north. In the summer of 1944 it was the battleground of two great carrier strike forces. One of these belonged to Japanese Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. The other belonged to U.S. Admiral Raymond Spruance, and its carriers were under the tactical command of Marc Mitscher. Ozawa had explicit orders to halt the steady advance of the U.S. 5th Fleet, to which Mitscher’s carriers belonged, across the vast Pacific Ocean toward Japan.

Ozawa had the majority of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fighting fleet under his command at the time, but his force of approximately 90 ships and submarines was still considerably smaller than the U.S. Navy’s 129 ships and submarines. He also commanded 450 carrier-based aircraft that would coordinate with 300 ground-based aircraft in the Marianas.

Ozawa’s strike force steamed east in two groups. The vanguard, comprising three small carriers, four battleships, and other vessels, plowed through the Philippine Sea 100 miles ahead of the main group, which was composed of six large carriers, a battleship, and a wide array of supporting vessels.

Ozawa’s strategy was simple. His vanguard would serve as a decoy to lure the U.S. carrier aircraft while the aircraft from the main group, reinforced with land-based aircraft in the Marianas, inflicted heavy damage in multiple attacks.

Ozawa had no intention of letting Mitscher land the first blow. Japanese carrier aircraft had greater range than U.S. carrier aircraft, and Ozawa planned to make the most of his advantage. In addition, Ozawa would be able to launch his aircraft into the wind. The U.S. carriers would have to turn around and sail away from the Japanese fleet to launch their aircraft into the wind.

The Trap Flops for Ozawa

What Ozawa did not know was that even before he launched his aircraft on June 19, Mitscher had derailed his plan by knocking out the Japanese ground-based aircraft in the Marianas more than a week earlier. Beginning on June 11, Mitscher had sent his aircraft against Japanese air bases on the islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian in the Marianas. Sweeps in the days afterward pummeled the targets repeatedly to ensure aircraft were destroyed and airstrips too damaged to use. When the battle did start, Mitscher would enjoy a two to one advantage in aircraft. Rather than Mitscher sailing into a trap, it was Ozawa who was sailing into one.

Following the American defeat at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. Navy had moved decisively toward establishing the world’s first carrier-centered navy, a force that would play a deciding part in the Allied victory at Midway in June 1942.

In revenge for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, U.S. carrier aircraft struck back in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The Japanese failure to win a decisive victory in the Coral Sea, coupled with their loss at Midway, only strengthened the Japanese dependence on the strategy of a defensive decisive victory.

Uncertainty Grows for the Japanese High Command

Meanwhile at Midway, Spruance, who had no earlier experience with carrier-launched aircraft battles, commanded Task Force 16, including the carriers Enterprise and Mitscher’s Hornet. Despite his inexperience, he was able to oversee an American victory, which included the sinking of four Japanese carriers.

The Americans leapfrogged their way steadily north through the South Pacific, and the Japanese worked to build up their navy, waiting and watching for an opportunity for kantai kessen, the battle they believed would lead to the destruction of American naval power and decide the rest of the war. That opportunity, they would finally decide, had come in June 1944 in the Philippine Sea.

By 1944, however, the Japanese high command feared its ability to fight and win such a kantai kessen battle was slipping away. Imperial Navy aircrews had suffered serious losses, especially of skilled pilots at Coral Sea, Midway, and during the Solomon Islands campaigns. These were losses they could not easily replace, while the United States could easily replace its losses.

By the summer of 1944, the Americans had worked their way north sufficiently that they were preparing to invade the Mariana Islands. The Marianas, situated 700 miles south of the Japanese home islands, controlled the sea lanes to Japan. The capture of the islands would give the United States control of these sea lanes and would also put the U.S. Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers within striking distance of the Japanese home islands. Japan had to prevent the loss of the Marianas and stop the American advance north.

Mitscher’s Task Force 58

Still looking for the decisive victory that might end the war in the Pacific, the Japanese began eyeing Mitscher’s Task Force 58. The task force comprised five attack groups, each composed of three or four carriers and supporting ships. The ships of each attack group sailed in a circle formation with the carriers in the center and the supporting ships sailing close to the carriers so they could add their antiaircraft fire to that of the carriers and help ward off any attacking aircraft. When under attack by torpedo aircraft, the task group would turn toward the oncoming aircraft to limit attack angles. In addition, the carriers would not take evasive action when under attack, which allowed more stable platforms for the antiaircraft fire of all the ships in the task group. Mitscher had introduced many of these tactics.

In June 1944, Task Force 58 was part of Spruance’s 5th Fleet. The ships at sea were designated Task Force 58 under Spruance and Task Force 38 under Admiral William Halsey. The six-month name changes and apparent shifting of personnel in this two-platoon system had some benefit in confusing the Japanese, who at times were unsure as to the actual size of the American force.

Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander of the Combined Japanese Fleet, had been killed in March 1944 when his plane crashed in a typhoon. He was replaced with Admiral Soemu Toyoda, a torpedo and naval artillery expert who had been opposed to war with the United States, a war he had considered unwinnable. Despite this belief, Toyoda continued to develop the attack plans that Koga had been working on, plans aimed at a decisive victory.

The Japanese Fleet Rendezvous in the Philippine Sea

On June 11, Mitscher’s carriers launched their first air strikes on the Marianas, and Toyoda became aware that the showdown in the Central Pacific was at hand. Japan had to save Saipan, and the only possible defense, he believed, was to sink the U.S. 5th Fleet that was covering the landing.

The Japanese fleet Ozawa commanded consisted of three large carriers (Taiho, Shokaku, and Zuikaku), two converted carriers (Junyo and Hiyo), and four light carriers (Ryuho, Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuiho). Ozawa’s fleet also included five battleships (Yamato, Musashi, Kongo, Haruna, and Nagato), 13 heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, 27 destroyers, six oilers, and 24 submarines. Ozawa commanded from aboard the Taiho, which was the first Japanese carrier to have been built with an armor-plated flight deck, which was designed to withstand bomb hits.

The commanders in the U.S. 5th Fleet had 956 carrier-based planes available to them. In addition, Ozawa’a pilots only had about 25 percent of the training and experience the American pilots had, and he was working with inferior equipment. His ships had antiaircraft guns, for example, but lacked the new proximity fuses, which provided a more sophisticated triggering mechanism than the common contact fuses or timed fuses did, as well as good radar.

The Japanese fleet rendezvoused June 16 in the western part of the Philippine Sea. Japanese aircraft did have a superior range at that time, though, which allowed them to engage the American carriers beyond the range of American aircraft. They could attack at 300 miles and could search a radius of 560 miles, while the American Hellcat fighters were limited to an attack range of 200 miles and a search range of 325 miles. Additionally, with their island bases in the area, the Japanese believed their aircraft could attack the U.S. fleet and then land on the island airfields. They could thus shuttle between the islands and the attack, and the U.S. fleet would be receiving punishment with only a limited ability to respond.

A Major Battle on the Horizon…

The American air raids on the Marianas continued through June 15, and U.S. ships began an additional bombardment of the islands. On June 15, three divisions of American troops, two Marine divisions and one Army division, went ashore on Saipan, and Toyoda committed nearly the entire Japanese Navy to a counterattack. Toyoda wired Ozawa that he was to attack the Americans and annihilate their fleet. “The rise and fall of Imperial Japan depends on this one battle,” Toyoda wrote.

The U.S. submarines Flying Fish and Seahorse sighted the Japanese fleet near the Philippines on June 15. The Japanese ships did not finish refueling until two days later. Based on those sightings, Spruance quickly decided a major battle was at hand. He ordered Mitscher’s Task Force 58, which had sent two of its carrier task groups north to intercept aircraft reinforcements from Japan, to reform and move west of Saipan into the Philippine Sea. Mitscher was aboard his flagship, the carrier Lexington, which Tokyo Rose would erroneously report on at least two occasions to have been sunk. Spruance was aboard the heavy cruiser Indianapolis.

Task Force 58 comprised five attack groups. Deployed in front of the carriers to act as an antiaircraft screen was the battle group of Vice Admiral Willis Lee (Task Group 58.7), which contained seven battleships (Lee’s flagship the Washington, as well as the North Carolina, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Alabama), and eight heavy cruisers (Baltimore, Boston, Canberra, Wichita, Minneapolis, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Spruance’s Indianapolis). Just north of them was the weakest of the carrier groups, Rear Admiral William K. Harrill’s Task Group 58.4. This group was composed of only one fleet carrier (Essex) and two light carriers (Langley and Cowpens).

“Let’s Do It Properly Tomorrow”

To the east, in a line running north to south, were three additional attack groups, each containing two fleet carriers and two light carriers. This was Rear Admiral Joseph Clark’s Task Group 58.1, which consisted of the Hornet, Yorktown, Belleau Wood, and Bataan, Rear Admiral Alfred Montgomery’s Task Group 58.2 (Bunker Hill, Wasp, Cabot, and Monterey), and Rear Admiral John W. Reeves’s Task Group 58.3 (Enterprise, Lexington, San Jacinto, and Princeton). These ships were supported by 13 light cruisers, 58 destroyers, and 28 submarines. The attack groups were deployed 12 to 15 miles apart.

Eight older battleships along with smaller escort carriers under the command of Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf remained near Saipan to protect the invasion fleet and provide air support for the landings.

On the afternoon of June 18, search planes sent out from the Japanese fleet located the American task force, and Rear Admiral Sueo Obayashi, commander of three of the Japanese carriers, immediately launched fighters. He quickly received a message from Ozawa, however, recalling the fighters. “Let’s do it properly tomorrow,” Ozawa wrote.

Later that night, the Americans also detected the Japanese ships moving toward them. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, alerted Spruance that a Japanese vessel had broken radio silence and a message apparently sent by Ozawa to his land-based air forces on Guam had been intercepted. A fix obtained on that message placed the Japanese some 355 miles west-southwest of Task Force 58. Mitscher requested permission from Spruance to move Task Force 58 west during the night, which would by dawn put it in position to attack the approaching Japanese fleet. “We knew we were going to have hell slugged out of us in the morning [and] we knew we couldn’t reach them,” Captain Arleigh Burke, a member of Mitscher’s staff, said later when discussing that request.

But after considerable consideration, Spruance denied Mitscher permission to make the move. “If we were doing something so important that we were attracting the enemy to us, we could afford to let him come and take care of him when he arrived,” Spruance said.

Carrier Commanders Spruance & Mitscher

This decision was far different from decisions Spruance had made at Midway. There he had advocated immediately attacking the enemy even before his own strike force was fully assembled with the intent of neutralizing the Japanese carriers before they could launch their planes, an action that he then considered the key to the survival of his carriers. He would also take considerable criticism for missing what some were to consider a chance to destroy the Japanese fleet.

Spruance’s decision to deny Mitscher’s request was influenced by orders from Nimitz, who had made it clear that the protection of the Marianas invasion was the primary mission of Task Force 58.

Spruance was concerned that the Japanese move could be an attempt to draw his ships away from the Marianas so a Japanese attack force could then slip behind it, overwhelm Oldendorf’s force, and destroy the landing fleet. Locating and destroying the Japanese fleet was not his primary objective, and he was unwilling to allow the main strike force of the Pacific Fleet to be drawn westward, away from the amphibious forces.

Spruance also may have been influenced by Japanese documents that had been captured in March and described just such a proposed plan: drawing American ships that were supporting an invasion away from an island and then sweeping in behind the fleet to destroy the invading force.

Spruance and Mitscher were different commanders. Though now commanding carriers, Spruance was still at heart a battleship man and, like most of the Imperial Japanese Navy establishment, he dreamed of a ship-to-ship confrontation. As the Battle of the Philippine Sea loomed, Spruance early on considered sending his fast battleships out to confront Ozawa in a night action and had only dropped the idea when his battleship commander, Admiral Lee, deferred. Lee had seen enough of night actions at Guadalcanal and the Solomons.

As for Mitscher, he was a carrier man. He sat on the bridge of his flagship watching the flight deck as planes were launched and could be seen using body language to help them off. He had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1910 and had taken an early interest in aviation, requesting a transfer to aeronautics in his last year as a midshipman. The request was denied, and he served on the destroyers Whipple and Stewart before being stationed on the armored cruiser North Carolina, which was being used as an experimental launching platform for aircraft. Mitscher trained as a pilot and became one of the first U.S. naval aviators on June 2, 1916.

As information about the Japanese buildup came in and the upcoming battle loomed, Mitscher said that what was coming “might be a hell of a battle for a while,” but added that he believed the task force could win it.

Search Planes At Dawn on June 19

At dawn on June 18, Task Force 58 launched search aircraft, combat air patrols, and antisubmarine patrols and then turned the fleet west to gain maneuvering room away from the islands. The Japanese also launched search patrols early in the day. Those planes pinpointed the American position, and one of the Japanese planes, after locating the task force, attacked one of its destroyers. The attacking Japanese plane was shot down.

At dawn on June 19, Ozawa again launched search planes and located the American ships southwest of Saipan. He then launched 71 aircraft from his carriers, which were followed a short time later by another 128 planes.

Among the U.S. fighters that would be sent up to confront them were a large number of F6F Hellcats, a Grumman aircraft that had been put into service in early 1942, eventually replacing the F4F Wildcat. The Hellcat had been engineered specifically to confront Japanese fighters when the Americans recovered an intact Zero during the fighting in the Aleutian Islands in 1942 and were able to engineer a fighter to succeed against it in combat. The Hellcat could outclimb and outdrive the Japanese Zero and was heavily armed. In addition, its pilot was protected by heavy armor plating, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a bulletproof windshield, which made it popular with the Navy pilots.

The American pilots who would meet the Japanese also had at least two years of training and 300 hours of flying experience as opposed to the Japanese pilots, who had at most six months of training and a few flying hours. They were faint copies of the pilots who had flown against the American base at Pearl Harbor and the American fleet at Midway.

A Great Fight In The Sky and In The Water

At 10 am, radar aboard the American ships picked up the first wave of Japanese attackers. American fighters that had been sent to raid Guam were called back to the fleet, and at 10:23 am Mitscher ordered Task Force 58 to turn into the wind. All available fighters were sent up to await the Japanese. He then put his bomber aircraft aloft to orbit open waters to the east to avoid the danger of a Japanese bomb strike into a hangar deck full of aircraft.

The approaching Japanese planes were first spotted by a group of 12 Hellcats from the Belleau Wood about 72 miles out from the American fleet where they had paused to regroup. The Belleau Wood planes tore into the Japanese planes there and were soon joined by other American fighter groups. Twenty-five of the Japanese planes were quickly knocked out of the sky, and then 16 more.

As the Japanese and American fighters dove at each other, machine guns blazing, 70 miles west of the American fleet, a few of the Japanese planes were able to break away and work their way through to the American ships. They attacked the picket destroyers Yarnall and Stockham, causing only a small amount of damage. But one Japanese bomber was able to get through the American defenses and scored a direct hit on the main deck of the battleship South Dakota. More than 50 of her crew were killed or injured, but the ship remained operational.

Only one Hellcat was lost in the fighting. At 11:07 am, radar detected a second wave of 107 Japanese aircraft approaching. American fighters met this attacking group while it was still 60 miles out, and 70 of the attackers were shot down before they reached the task force. Of those that did get through, six attacked the American fleet, nearly hitting two of the carriers and causing some casualties before four of that six were brought down. A small group of torpedo planes also attacked the carrier Enterprise and the light carrier Princeton, but all were shot down. Altogether, 97 of those 107 attacking Japanese aircraft were destroyed.

“Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”

A third attack consisting of 47 Japanese aircraft came at the American ships at about 1 pm. Forty U.S. fighters intercepted the attack group 50 miles out and shot down seven of the Japanese planes. A few again broke through defenses to attack the American ships but caused little or no damage. The 40 remaining Japanese aircraft fled the scene.

The Japanese fleet had also launched an additional attack, but somehow those planes had been given incorrect coordinates for the location of the American fleet and were originally unable to find the ships. Eighteen of those aircraft did finally stumble on some of the American ships as they were heading back to Guam and attacked. U.S. fighters shot down half of them while the remaining planes were able to attack the Wasp and Bunker Hill but failed to score any hits. Eight of these Japanese planes were also shot down. Meanwhile, the remains of this aborted attack force were intercepted by 27 American Hellcats as they were landing on Guam and 30 more were shot down. Nineteen others were damaged beyond repair.

“Hell, this is like an old-time turkey shoot,” said Lexington Commander Paul Buie,

creating the nickname, “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” which would later be pinned on the battle by the men who were fighting it.

The Japanese had lost 346 aircraft during the day’s fighting, while the Americans had lost 15 and, aside from the casualties on the South Dakota, had suffered only minor damage to their ships.

Submarines In The Water

The pilot with the highest score of the day was Captain David McCampbell of the Essex, who would go on to become the U.S. Navy ’s all-time leading ace with 34 confirmed kills during the war and would win the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. On June 19, he had downed five Japanese D4Y “Judy” carrier-based dive bombers. He would also notch two Zero fighters later in the day during an afternoon strike on Guam.

Lieutenant Alex Vraciu of the Lexington, the top-ranked Navy ace at the time with 12 victories, downed six Judys of the second wave in about eight minutes, and Ensign Wilbur “Spider” Webb, a recent transfer to fighters from bombers, attacked a flight of Aichi dive bombers over Guam, also downing six. Webb returned safely to the carrier Hornet, but the gunners aboard the Japanese bombers had shot his plane so full of holes that it was judged a total loss.

The destruction wrought in the air was not the only damage done to the Japanese that day. While the air battle was taking place, another battle was being fought above and below the surface of the sea.

At 8 am that day the submarine Albacore sighted a Japanese carrier group and began maneuvering to attack. The submarine’s commander, Lt. Cmdr. James W. Blanchard, selected the closest carrier to his position as his target. That carrier happened to be Admiral Ozawa’s flagship, the Taiho, the newest carrier in the Japanese fleet. As Blanchard gained position and prepared to fire, however, the Albacore’s fire-control computer failed, and he was forced to fire manually. Blanchard fired all six torpedoes in a single spread. Four veered off target. One of the remaining two was spotted heading for the Taiho by Japanese Warrant Officer Akio Komatsu, who had just taken off from the carrier. Without hesitation, Komatsu jammed his stick and intentionally dove his plane in front of the torpedo, detonating it and saving the carrier. But the remaining torpedo of the six struck the Taiho on its starboard side, rupturing two aviation fuel tanks. The Albacore was able to escape the ensuing depth charge attack with only minor damage.

Initially, the Taiho seemed to have suffered only slight damage, but gasoline vapors from the damaged fuel tanks soon began to leak into the hangar decks, creating a serious situation on the ship.

Meanwhile, a second American submarine, the Cavalla, attacked the carrier Shokaku, which was a veteran of the fighting at Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea. At about noon, the Cavalla fired on the Japanese ship, hitting her with three torpedoes and badly damaging her. One torpedo had hit the forward aviation fuel tanks, and aircraft that had just landed and were being refueled exploded into flames. Ammunition, exploding bombs, and burning fuel added to the chaos. The order to abandon Shokaku had just been given when an explosion on her hangar deck initiated a series of secondary explosions that blew the ship apart. She rolled on her side and sank taking 887 officers and sailors and 376 members of the 601st Naval Air Group to the bottom with her. There were 570 survivors, including the carrier’s commanding officer, Captain Hiroshi Matsubara.

Ozawa Retires Northwest to Refuel

The destroyer Urakaze made several attempts to destroy the submarine, but the Cavalla escaped with relatively minor damage. However, she did get a scare. Cavalla’s main induction line, which brought air into the engines when she was on the surface, had become flooded during the initial depth charge attack, which made the submarine very heavy. When diving to avoid the attack of the Urakaze, the additional weight took Cavalla nearly 100 feet below her maximum test depth. “We hoped the safety factor would keep the hull from imploding,” said a crewmember. It did.

Three destroyers continued to hunt the Cavalla, dropping 106 depth charges, but she was able to slip away. Meanwhile, aboard the Taiho an inexperienced damage control officer ordered that the ship’s ventilation system be operated at full blast to clear the growing fumes. Instead of clearing the air, however, the action allowed the gasoline vapors to spread throughout the ship. At about 2:30 am, those fumes were ignited by an electric generator on the hangar deck, and a series of large explosions followed. Taiho had become a floating bomb. Ozawa and his staff quickly transferred to the nearby Zuikaku, and shortly afterward the Taiho sank, taking down 1,650 of her 2,150 officers and sailors.

As darkness fell, Ozawa retired to the northwest to refuel, intending to attack again in the morning. He had received several erroneous reports of heavy damage done to the American ships and was also under the impression that many of his missing aircraft had landed in the Marianas. During the night Task Force 58 began to move west in order to be closer to the Japanese when dawn came.

For the Americans, the Worst Was Yet to Come…

As the sun finally edged over the horizon, American search planes were sent out but were unable to locate the enemy. A later search also failed to make contact. But, finally, at 3:40 pm an American search plane located the Japanese fleet 275 miles away from the task force, near the limit of the American fighters’ range. That range was advertised at 250 miles, one aviation commander said, “But with planning and luck we could get to 300.” In addition, because of the time of day that the Japanese ships had been finally spotted, any planes that took off from the American carriers would have to strike in the fading light of dusk and find their way back to the American carriers and land in the dark, something that was new to most of the American pilots. Mitscher, prodded by Nimitz in Hawaii, nonetheless opted to launch an all-out attack.

When he became aware of the American attack, Ozawa began pulling his ships back, hoping to get them out of the American planes’ range before they could close the gap. Aboard the American ships, a another message, perhaps a result of Ozawa’s retreat, arrived indicating the Japanese fleet was actually 60 miles farther out than previously believed. That put the Japanese at 335 miles, beyond even the Americans’ lucky range of 300 miles. Based on that information, further launches were cancelled, but the planes already launched were allowed to continue. Of these 240 planes, 14 returned to their carriers for various reasons. Of the remaining 226 planes, 95 were Hellcat fighters, 54 were Avenger torpedo bombers (only a few carrying torpedoes, the rest four 500-pound bombs), and 76 were Curtiss Helldivers and Douglas Dauntless dive bombers.

As the American planes approached the Japanese fleet, Ozawa was able to put up only 75 planes to protect his ships, and the American planes quickly overwhelmed these fighters. They swept through the Japanese defenses and attacked the fleet, quickly causing serious damage to several oilers and then hitting the carrier Hiyo, which was soon ablaze after leaking aviation fuel exploded. An abandon ship order was sounded, and she went down. Two hundred-fifty of the Hiyo crew were killed; Japanese destroyers in the area rescued the remaining 1,000 survivors.

Some of the American planes also bombed the large carrier Zuikaku and the light carrier Chiyoda, both of which were set ablaze, and heavily damaged the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruiser Maya. The converted carrier Junyo was also hit. Sixty-five Japanese planes were downed in the fighting as were 20 of the American aircraft. But for the Americans the worst was yet to come.

After the strike, which ended at about 6:45 pm, many of the American planes were already running low on fuel, and some had suffered enough battle damage that they were forced to ditch on their way back to their carriers. Darkness was falling. Despite the danger of submarine attacks on his ships, Mitscher fully illuminated his carriers and had his destroyers’ fire star shells to aid the pilots in landing.

“The effect on the pilots left behind was magnetic,” said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Winston. “They stood open-mouthed at the sheer audacity of asking the Japs to come and get us. Our pilots were not expendable.”

Sixty of the returning aircraft were still lost, many of them crashing into the sea as they ran out of fuel, but the majority of the flyers, 38 of the downed men, were eventually rescued.

Meanwhile, Admiral Ozawa received orders from Toyoda to cease fighting and withdraw from the area. U.S. forces briefly gave chase, but by June 21 the Japanese planes were out of range. The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot was over.

A Resounding American Victory

The Battle of the Philippine Sea had been a resounding American victory. The Japanese lost three carriers and two oilers sunk and had almost all of their aircraft destroyed. Six other ships had been damaged and an estimated 2,987 Japanese combatants killed. The Americans had one battleship damaged and 123 aircraft destroyed. The task force lost 29 airmen and another 31 men on the ships.

The Japanese losses were irreplaceable. They had spent the better part of a year building up their carrier strike force, and the United States had destroyed 90 percent of it in the fighting. The Japanese only had enough pilots left to form the air group for one of their light carriers, and during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 they used their carriers only as decoys.

The battle also added to the growing reputation of the American F6F Hellcat. With its powerful engine, greater speed, and firepower it had proved itself deadly, greatly outclassing the A6M Zero.

Spruance’s conservative battle plan, while not destroying all of the Japanese aircraft carriers, had resulted in an overwhelming American victory. It had severely weakened Japanese naval aviation forces by killing most of the remaining trained enemy pilots and destroying their last reserves of naval aircraft. Despite the lopsided American victory, though, many officers, particularly aviators, criticized Spruance for his decision to fight the battle cautiously rather than exploit his superior forces and intelligence more aggressively.

Spruance’s critics argued that he had squandered an opportunity to destroy the entire Japanese fleet. Admiral John Towers, a naval aviation pioneer and deputy commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, demanded that Spruance be relieved. The request was denied by Nimitz. Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the amphibious force during the Pacific campaign, and the Navy’s most senior commander, Admiral Ernest King, chief of naval operations, joined Nimitz in supporting Spruance. Despite what some called the chance of the century, Spruance had done what Nimitz had ordered him to do: he had remained and protected the invasion of Saipan.

A month after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, King and Nimitz visited Spruance at Saipan. During that meeting, King made a point of telling Spruance of his support. “You did a damn fine job there,” he said. “No matter what other people tell you, your decision was correct.”

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the last great contest between carrier strike forces ever fought. It was a victory that, among other things, brought the American B-29 within striking distance of the Japanese home islands, and in so doing shortened the war.

Originally Published October 9, 2018.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Belarus: ‘Full-scale assault’ ongoing against civil society amid massive human rights violations

UN News Centre - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 19:27
Belarus has witnessed an unprecedented human rights crisis over the past year, the independent expert appointed to monitor the country said on Monday, calling on authorities to immediately end their policy of repression and fully respect the legitimate aspirations of their people.

Un ethnologue au Mondial

Le Monde Diplomatique - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 19:15
La victoire, en Coupe du monde de football, de l'équipe de France a provoqué une sorte de mini-séisme sociologique. Jusqu'alors relativement distante à l'égard du phénomène football, la société française, toutes catégories sociales confondues, s'est soudain passionnée pour les victoires de son équipe (...) / , - 1998/08

Death From Above: The Pacific Theater Was Not Just Naval Battles

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 19:11

Warfare History Network


Bombers, especially, were crucially important aircraft. 

Key Point: The Japanese air raid consisted of a few medium bombers making several passes at night.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber crews of the U.S. 11th Bombardment Group spent the first three months of 1943 organizing on Hawaiian airfields and flying practice and patrol missions around the islands. By mid-April, with no strike missions and no contact with the enemy, the bomber crews were restless. But the morning of April 17 had a different feel—electric.

The group’s officers were still in a closed-door briefing while rumors buzzed about a bombing mission, their first. All that remained for pilots to tell their crews was when and where. When pilot Lieutenant Joe Deasy met with his crew and gave them the particulars, it was the first time they had heard of Funafuti. Twenty-three Liberators would fly to Canton Island, a pork-chop shaped atoll 1,900 miles southwest of Oahu, refuel, and continue 740 miles farther to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands group, more than 2,600 miles from Hawaii.

“We didn’t know where Funafuti was,” B-24 gunner Sergeant Ed Hess recalled. “When we saw the map, we griped about it being halfway to Australia.”

Airfield at Funafuti

Six months before, on October 2, 1942, 11 ships of the United States Navy entered Funafuti’s lagoon and landed a Navy construction battalion. The Seabees immediately began construction of an airfield and support facilities while Marines prepared defenses and set up antiaircraft guns. To build the runway, the Seabees bulldozed thousands of coconut trees and covered arable land with hard-packed coral. The airfield was completed before the end of the year.

On the long flight to Canton, the men ate sandwiches delivered to the flight line from Kahuku’s mess hall. They used their flak jackets for pillows and stole naps in the back of the airplane. A relief tube, or “piss pipe” as crewmen called it, was built into the side of the plane just aft of the left waist window; another one was installed behind the flight deck. There was a portable toilet that most men avoided, better to wait than use the “honey bucket” and have to wash it out after landing because “if you used it, it was yours to clean,” radio operator Sergeant Herman Scearce remembered. Even the piss pipe could be a nasty problem at higher altitudes where its flow could freeze and cause a messy backup.

The Navy garrison on Canton treated its overnight guests well. The Air Corps men ate a hot meal in the Navy mess hall and slept in clean barracks with fresh bed linens. Early the next morning, 23 refueled B-24 Liberators took flight for the final leg of the trip to Funafuti, and on the afternoon of April 18 the wisps of land of the Ellice Islands came into view.

The planes approached Funafuti’s coral airstrip from the southwest. The island, shaped like a long, narrow boomerang, curved from the southwest to its thickest part in the middle, then bent back toward the northwest. Long and graceful, Funafuti was about 50 yards wide at each end, about 700 yards wide in the middle, and seven and a half miles long. Waves broke along the eastern side, the dark blue water of the Pacific just beyond and to the right as the aircraft approached.

To the left of the island, in the middle of the boomerang, was a lagoon, its calm water a beautiful shade of light blue fading to green close to shore. Coconut trees covered the island from its lower tip, nearest the approaching planes, and ended at the airfield. The white coral runway cut straight across the leading edge of the boomerang, beginning just a few feet from the ocean, and it seemed to end in the ocean on the other side.

After landing, the aircraft were parked along the runway side by side. There were no taxiways and very few revetments or bomb proofs on Funafuti to shelter parked aircraft, though there were plans to add them later. If a plane was hit during a Japanese air raid, the planes on either side were also at risk. But the airmen on Funafuti were not worried about a Japanese attack because Funafuti was just a staging base; they were not going to keep the planes there long. Besides, the briefing officer back at Kahuku made it clear that the Japanese would not know they were there.

Dogpatch Express

Early on Monday, April 19, 1943, an officer stepped front and center on Funafuti’s outdoor stage before the assembled air crews. The men sat on felled palm logs arranged in rows like seats in a theater. Behind the officer was a map, and on the bottom right of the map was Funafuti. There was another island near the upper left corner, and beside the map was a separate, large, scale drawing of the second island, Nauru.

The officer tapped his pointer on targets and visual references on the map of Nauru. He described antiaircraft gun positions and what kind of fighter interception the men would face. When he was finished, a weather officer took the stage, describing the conditions expected through each part of the flight. Next, the operations officer gave the crews critical mission details, including engine start time and order of take off. Each man mentally calculated when he needed to be at the plane in order to preflight his equipment and be ready for engine start.

After the briefing, aircrews prepared their planes for the next day’s mission. Ground crews fueled each B-24 with 2,700 gallons of gas from tank trailers towed behind Cletracs, tracked vehicles similar to bulldozers. Flight Engineer Jack Yankus and Assistant Engineer Bob Lipe confirmed the fuel level and checked engine oil levels of their B-24, Dogpatch Express. Yankus, Lipe, radioman Herman Scearce, and gunners Hess, Elmer Johnson, and Al Marston cleaned and oiled the barrels of their machine guns and loaded them with ammunition, belts of .50-caliber rounds in a repeating sequence of two armor piercing, two incendiary, and one tracer. Scearce confirmed the radios were working properly and ready to go.

Bombardier Lieutenant Shorty Schroeder oversaw the bomb loading of Dogpatch Express. Eight 500-pound general purpose bombs were loaded in the plane’s bomb bay racks from bomb trailers pulled by a truck. Most of the bombs were fused to explode on impact; some were equipped with delay fuses. Once the plane was loaded, Yankus checked the landing gear for four inches of travel in their shock-absorbing struts because less could cause the gear to fail.

Taking Off Toward Nauru

After a fitful few hours of sleep, the crew of Dogpatch Express walked to their plane. Yankus made certain the ignition switches were off, then he and Lipe pulled the propellers through, counting six propellers at each engine, two full revolutions of the Liberator’s three-bladed prop. While Scearce rechecked his radio equipment, Yankus climbed aboard and fitted the pilot and copilot parachutes into the recesses of their seats, then reported to Lieutenant Joe Deasy that the plane was ready.

On the flight deck of Dogpatch Express, Deasy and copilot Lieutenant Sam Catanzarite completed their preflight checklist as pilots and copilots aboard 22 more Liberators on Funafuti’s moonlit runway completed their own. At engine start, four 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43 radial engines, 1,200-horsepower each, joined the motors of the other aircraft to produce a mighty harmony unlike anything Funafuti had ever heard before.

Before his takeoff roll, Deasy opened the throttles and held the brakes until engine manifold pressures reached 25 inches of mercury. When Deasy released the brakes, Catanzarite held the throttles to the stops so they would not creep back. Yankus called out speed as Dogpatch Express accelerated, slowly at first with its full bomb load. Deasy began to apply gentle pressure, pulling the yoke back, and the heavy bomber lifted off Funafuti’s dusty coral runway.

In the predawn darkness of April 20, the B-24s took off, each loaded with 4,000 pounds of bombs. One plane developed an engine problem and turned back to Funafuti, but the remaining bombers droned on toward a midday strike against Japanese positions on Nauru.

Nauru lies 26 miles below the equator, 1,000 miles northwest of Funafuti. Oval shaped with about eight square miles of territory, it is ringed by trees and a sandy beach on its perimeter. The interior of the island is almost solid high-grade rock phosphate, essential in metal alloys and used in bomb production. Phosphate mining, refining, and shipping facilities operated by the British on Nauru before the war were shelled by a German auxiliary cruiser in 1940 and seized by the Japanese in 1942. Far flung Nauru, with the unusual distinction of being occupied by the British and attacked by both German and Japanese forces already during the war, was about to be bombed by Americans.

“Man Your Guns”

The Liberators drew closer to Nauru and more than 220 air crew and observers were wholly and irrevocably committed. There was no way to avoid whatever was to come, no place to hide. Nauru lay just beyond the horizon, the distance closing at more than three miles per minute. The American bombers would reach their target at noon, each man keenly aware that the bright, beautiful day meant Nauru’s Japanese defenders would see the bombers approach with plenty of time to prepare their reception.

Scearce recalls sitting at his radio operator’s table behind copilot Catanzarite when navigator Lieutenant Art Boone leaned toward their pilot and said, “Joe, we’re one hour out.” Scearce glanced at his pilot, and from the right and behind him, he saw Lieutenant Joe Deasy swallow and take a breath before speaking to the crew through the interphone. “We’re 60 minutes from the target, boys. Man your guns.”

Scearce and Yankus unplugged their interphone headsets and moved toward the rear as they had practiced a hundred times before. They stepped into the bomb bay, Dogpatch Express’s four massive radial engines howling in unison, much louder than they had seemed from the flight deck. Moving along the narrow catwalk and indifferent to the thousands of pounds of high explosives just inches to their right and left, waist gunners Scearce and Yankus gripped the framework of the bomb racks as they went. The vibrating metal felt cool.

After Scearce and Yankus passed, Bob Lipe took his position in the top turret, just behind the flight deck, and rotated the turret clockwise, then back, out of habit. Ed Hess settled into the nose turret. Elmer Johnson, already in the aircraft’s rear section with Al Marston, stepped back from the piss pipe and stretched himself before jacking up the belly turret with the hand pump, just enough to release its safety hooks. Johnson opened a hydraulic valve and allowed the turret to slide into the wind stream beneath the plane. He glanced back at Scearce and Yankus, smiled, and made a diving motion, hands together as if he was on the high board at the YMCA, and then opened the turret’s hatch door, stepped into the turret, and folded himself into position.

Marston moved up the sloping floor toward the twin .50s in the bomber’s tail. There was an interphone jack box at every position, and each gunner plugged in, pulled on his interphone headset, and checked the jack box to make sure the switch was set to “INTER.”

Throat microphones around their necks, Yankus and Scearce glanced down and pushed their flak jackets flat with shuffling feet, standing on them for protection against gunfire from below. They pushed their wind deflectors out, swung open their windows and latched them overhead. Already Lipe, Hess, and Johnson had reported ready. Yankus and Scearce swung their machine guns into the air stream and charged their guns with an expert pull on the handle.

“Right waist gun ready,” Scearce said. “Left waist ready,” Yankus reported, then Marston called in from the rear. Joe Deasy recalled telling his crew, “Keep your eyes open, keep the chatter down, and call ‘em when you see ‘em. Hold your fire ‘til they’re in range.”

Zeros Attack

Hess swept the nose turret side to side. Lipe kept the top turret forward, mostly, rotating through 360 degrees, first right, then to the left, as often as his stomach could handle it. Al Marston shifted his eyes up and then straight behind the plane, scanning the sky from just below the twin rudders of his bomber, wind whistling to either side. Elmer Johnson rode below the plane, almost in his own world, the expanse of the ocean thousands of feet below. Scearce searched the sky, and behind him Yankus gripped his machine gun. Back to back they shared almost identical views, a beautiful bright sky, sun directly overhead, other B-24s nearby.

Deasy’s voice broke the interphone silence, clear and steady, “Eleven o’clock, got two coming in 11 o’clock high!” Scearce heard Lipe and Hess open fire from the top and front of Dogpatch Express. He and Yankus leaned forward, trying to see, fists gripping their guns, instinctively pointed where the men were looking.

“Two o’clock high, coming down fast, be ready, top.” Lieutenant Deasy’s voice was matter-of-fact, Yankus remembered, almost calming, though the words came quickly. The top turret opened up again. The first two Japanese planes, attacking head-on, had broken off to one side of Dogpatch Express. The Liberators had been modified by the Hickam Air Depot with tail turrets mounted in the nose, surprising the Japanese fighter pilots who expected to attack the weak, glass nose of unmodified D model Liberators. After their initial head-on pass, the Mitsubishi Zero fighters attacked from other angles.

Scearce’s heart pounded like a jackhammer. He could not see the Zeros yet. The nearest B-24’s top turret and left waist gunner blazed away, their tracers leading Scearce’s eyes above Dogpatch Express’s right wing, when a blur of gray flashed beneath the wing. Scearce reacted instantly, pushing his gun barrel low, squeezing the trigger. A two-second burst and the Zero was gone before Scearce heard its 14-cylinder Nakajima Sakae 12 engine scream past. Elmer Johnson in the belly turret then saw the Zero and squeezed off a burst.

Up top, Lipe spoke clearly, a nervous edge in his voice. “One, two more at two o’clock high  … out of the sun again!”

“Eight o’clock low, coming up! Another one at five o’clock,” Yankus and then Johnson called. Each man was part of a whole, a working team, and part of their machine. Dogpatch Express was now fully engaged, every gun hammering at the attacking fighters in turn. The .50-caliber machine guns pounded like angry fists beating hard and fast on a steel door. Hot, spent brass and gun belt links falling to the floor clinked like glass breaking around the waist gunner’s feet.

“We were all scared,” Scearce recalls. “We all prayed selfish prayers…God, just get me back on the ground again.”

“This is a Long Way From Gunnery School”

Scearce joined Johnson and Lipe, five .50-caliber machine guns blazing at a single Zero fighter, tracers spitting toward the Japanese plane in burning white lines. Lipe, in the top turret, sent a stream of gunfire into the belly of the Zero as it streaked overhead. From the left waist window, Jack Yankus saw Lipe’s tracers drill the unprotected bottom of the enemy plane. He watched it pitch forward, nose down, and lost sight of it as it plummeted straight down. A few seconds of strained quiet followed  while the men scanned the sky.

Scearce suddenly spotted a Zero “four o’clock high” and called out the position. Lipe swung around in his electrically powered turret. Scearce bent low, aiming high, waiting for the range to be right when Lipe opened up. Johnson swung left and strained to see the Zero. Scearce saw muzzle flashes through the Zero’s propeller; its twin guns seemed to be shooting straight at him. Squeezing the trigger, Scearce swung his gun down as the Zero passed. He saw tracers run through the Zero’s cowling and remembered that a .50-caliber bullet could knock a cylinder head off a Zero’s engine.

Nose gunner Ed Hess gave a quick burst from up front, swinging through 10, then nine o’clock as the fighter passed, and then it was quiet again. Scearce kicked some brass away from his feet, took a deep breath, and thought, “This is a long way from gunnery school.”

As the Zeros moved off, the crew was sure the other bombers were catching hell behind them. The twin 7.7mm machine guns of the Zero fighters were supplemented by menacing 20mm cannon mounted in each wing. The explosive round from the 20mm gun weighed more than a quarter of a pound, and hits by the Zero’s cannon could be devastating.

However, the Zero’s impressive armament belied the nimble fighter’s weaknesses. The Japanese plane sacrificed the added weight of self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection in favor of speed and agility, qualities that could serve the Zero well in combat with other fighters. As an interceptor of B-24 Liberators, however, with their armor protection, self-sealing fuel tanks, and 10 .50-caliber guns, the Zero was vulnerable, even fragile. Zero pilots pressing home an attack against a Liberator needed nerves of steel.

Dogpatch Express Bombing Run

Aboard Dogpatch Express, bombardier Lieutenant Shorty Schroeder was ready to take control of the plane for the bomb run, his bomb sight connected to the flight controls. The bombardier aimed his entire aircraft through the bomb sight.

The Japanese fighter pilots changed tactics as the bombers readied for their bomb runs, and the flak batteries on the ground below began sending their shells skyward. Nine Zeros circled at a distance, chasing one another’s tails in an oval, a racetrack pattern that advanced as the bombers sped forward. The Zeros fired their guns each time the circuit brought them to face the American bombers, but with his own plane’s right wing and engines between him and the enemy fighters Scearce could only watch, a white flash each time, a blink, and hope the streams of Japanese bullets missed.

Antiaircraft gunners now took their turn. Flak bursts filled the sky ahead, inky dark puffs drifting closer as the bombers approached. In the distance, a single Japanese plane idled along, out of range of the Liberators’ guns, holding the same altitude as the American planes, reporting it to the ground batteries below. The B-24s rushed unalterably, purposefully ahead.

There was no dodging the flak. Dogpatch Express held 7,500 feet altitude during the bomb run, level, steady, with no deviation from course. This was a bomber at its most vulnerable during a strike mission, 45 seconds that lasted forever, 45 seconds, it seemed, before the crew could breathe again. Flak bursts, like sinister potholes in the sky, caused the plane to shake and bounce as they exploded. Scearce was amazed anything flew through it. Spent flak pelted the plane like hail on a tin roof.

“We wanted to be small, very small,” Deasy remembered. They wanted the bomb run to end, the bombs to be away, but they also wanted the bombs to be on target. They did not want their trip to be wasted, did not want to have to do it again. Scearce noticed his knuckles, ghost white on the grips, and he forced himself to flex his hands as he watched the sky.

“Bombs Away!”

Behind the flight deck of Dogpatch Express there suddenly was a loud thump and a metallic clang, followed immediately by an evil hissing sound behind copilot Sam Catanzarite. Scearce heard navigator Art Boone say, “We’re hit!”

“Bombs away!” Schroeder reported, as the last 500-pound bomb fell from its rack. The plane seemed to leap in the air, free of its heavy burden. Deasy pushed the control yoke forward, nosing Dogpatch Express over, and put the throttles to the stops, getting the hell out of there fast.

The hissing slowed as Yankus traced the damage. Sunlight streamed through a hole just below the leading edge of the right wing. A piece of flak, a jagged shard of twisted metal three inches across, had come through the ship just behind Bob Lipe’s legs as he sat in the top turret. After cutting a compressed oxygen line, the bomb fragment had stabbed through the pilot’s seat. The Zeros harassed the trailing B-24s for half an hour more and finally turned away.

“How’d we do?” Deasy asked. There was a pause, a moment’s hesitation, before Yankus spoke. “Everything hit the water, sir.” Scearce had seen the splashes, too.

Scearce and Yankus swung their guns inside, locked the windows closed, and pulled the wind deflectors in tight to the sides of the plane. Bob Lipe stepped down from his turret, wiped his face on his sleeve, and looked up at the ugly hole in his plane’s skin. He hadn’t heard the impact. A few feet aft, and the flak might have hit the top turret. Ed Hess unfolded himself from the nose. Yankus steadied Johnson as he pulled himself from the belly turret and helped him jack it up and secure the turret inside the plane. Johnson stood and stretched, as he had before settling into the turret almost two hours before.

From the rear, they heard Marston say, “Fellas, I’m going to sit here a minute, watch our ass a little while.”

A Lonesome Return

Out of danger, the aircraft returned to a higher cruising altitude and continued toward Funafuti. Their targets, phosphate plants, gun positions, maintenance and barracks buildings, and runways on tiny Nauru, were so small that each plane had to make its bomb run alone. As a result, their return to Funafuti was staggered.

Since each plane had to find its own way, each crew needed a skilled navigator. There was nothing below but ocean, no point of reference except the sun. Navigators relied on dead reckoning, calculating position based on the previous position, taking into account time, heading, and drift. Errors in dead reckoning were cumulative, so each calculation increased the difference between the aircraft’s plotted position and its actual location. Because the aircraft were returning to a pinpoint island base hours away and burning limited fuel supplies, mistakes in dead reckoning could be deadly.

The “Navigator’s Information File” of the Army Air Forces advised: “In the Central Pacific celestial navigation is used in conjunction with dead reckoning on all missions. Many of the islands and atolls are plotted in error from 2 to 10 miles, usually eastward or westward. Interpretation of sun lines and fixes is important. Radio facilities are not always available in this area and you cannot always depend upon them because of local disturbances. Be careful when you use clouds for pilotage. Cumulus often builds up around islands, but shadows of clouds also look like land….”

Twelve hours after taking off, Dogpatch Express settled gently onto Funafuti’s dusty coral strip and Deasy taxied the bomber to a stop, guided by a ground crewman’s hand signals. On the ground again, the men of Dogpatch Express walked around their aircraft, checking it for damage. Some elevator fabric was torn away. There was the jagged flak hole behind and above the copilot’s seat, big enough for Yankus to put his fist through. Joe Deasy found the razor-sharp metal in his parachute pack where, its energy finally spent, it stopped less than an inch from the pilot’s spine.

“Brooks Didn’t Make it”

A ground crew corporal skidded up in a weapons carrier, wooden planks along its sides for seats, to take the crew of Dogpatch Express to the mess hall. There an intelligence officer debriefed them. He gathered information about enemy fighters, how many and what tactics they used, how aggressive they were. He made notes about the antiaircraft reception, bomb hits, fires started, what color the smoke was, and how far out the smoke could still be seen.

After their debriefing and after a few bites to eat, the men walked back to the flight line.  They counted 22 B-24s, all but one. Word got around about Lieutenant Russell Phillips’s crew. A burst from a Zero’s 20mm cannon had raked the side of Super Man, practically rolling the plane out of control.

Phillips struggled mightily to get back to Funafuti. There were hundreds of holes in his plane, plus the right rudder was half gone. Six men of Phillips’s crew were hurt, including Scearce’s good friend, Harold Brooks.  Brooks had been rushed from Super Man to the field hospital on Funafuti, rushed the short distance from the plane to the hospital, but only after the agonizingly slow flight of nearly six hours from Nauru.

Scearce returned to the tent that housed the enlisted men on his crew. He sat on his cot, untied his boots, and pulled them off. He lay down and stared straight up at the sloping canvas ceiling, turning his head when Jack Yankus stepped in. Yankus had lingered at the flight line with Dogpatch Express where he surveyed the severed oxygen line, checked for other damage, and got the latest news. Yankus said, “Brooks, uh … Brooks didn’t make it, Herman.”

A man injured on a bombing mission in the Pacific had hours to go, perhaps longer than any soldier in any theater of the war, before getting to a field hospital and a surgeon. There was little his crewmates could do beyond basic first aid, try to stop the bleeding, try to position the man correctly, give him morphine, maybe stop the pain. He would wait for hours, riding in his bomber back to a waiting ambulance and a field hospital.

Scearce responded weakly to Yankus, “That’s bad.” He sat up without looking back toward his friend, pulled his boots on again, and walked back to Dogpatch Express. At the plane, Scearce climbed through the open bomb bay and went to his gun position. He inspected his gun and decided against changing the barrel. Some gunners changed their barrels religiously, to be sure the gun would be straight and true for the next mission. A long burst from the .50s could generate enough heat to damage the barrel, but Scearce believed that a proper inspection of the gun was more sensible than frequent barrel changes. He would install a new barrel if and when the gun needed one.


The radioman got down on his knees on the floor of Dogpatch Express under the right waist window. In the silent, parked bomber he knelt for a moment on his flak jacket, still flattened on the metal floor. Kneeling there he scooped up spent .50-caliber machine-gun shell casings with both hands. He wondered whether Brooks had used his weapon, whether, just maybe, Brooks had gotten a burst into a Zero, possibly even the one that killed him.

Scearce dropped the spent brass into a galvanized metal bucket. After picking up the last few casings from the bottom of the airplane, he turned to check the left side and saw that Yankus had already cleaned up his area.  Scearce carried the bucket forward, dropped out of the plane through the bomb bay, and set the bucket of shell casings on the ground beside a tool cart. Maybe tomorrow the crew chief would empty the casings into the island’s waste dump.

After-Action Report: “Damage to Installations and Material was Heavy”

Intelligence information gathered from each air crew just returned from the Nauru mission was compiled and compared, and photos developed and analyzed, until an accurate accounting of the bombing results was completed. Maj. Gen. Willis Hale endorsed the final report, which was then sent to CincPac, the office of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Command.

The report described a highly successful mission: “All bombs dropped hit target except eight…. Damage to installations and material was heavy. Personnel casualties were extremely heavy. Large fires were observed in all bombed areas … a group of approximately twelve buildings in the center of the runway were destroyed…. Phosphate Plant #3 was completely demolished by at least two direct hits … at least three direct hits were made on Phosphate Plant #2 … this plant was completely destroyed. Six bombs destroyed at least three large warehouses, thirteen buildings, eleven small railroad cars, stock storage pile, two water tanks supplying plant … Diesel power plant, main plant elevator building, one water tank, five cisterns, seven buildings and water distillation plant badly damaged. A train of six 500-lb bombs burst in residential area. Large fires were started which were increasing in scope when last oblique photo was taken … most buildings in immediate area were destroyed. At least ten fragmentation bombs put out of action three machine gun positions and one heavy antiaircraft. At least fifteen motor vehicles were destroyed. Four two-engine bombers were completely destroyed, two of which burned … at least three one-engine fighter planes were destroyed.”

The report also described damage to American bombers, crediting all of it to attacking Japanese fighter aircraft, and noted that 12 airmen were wounded and one killed. The missing B-24, low on fuel, had landed at Nanumea, where it gassed up and made the hop back to Funafuti.

General Hale concluded his report, stating, “It is believed that this operation was the first successful attack against a valuable Japanese industrial installation since the raid on Tokyo. It was probably the longest offensive air operation of the war to date—the target was in excess of 3,200 miles by air from the home base of the attacking unit.”

After the attack, Nauru’s Japanese defenders rounded up their prisoners. These prisoners, 191 employees of the British Phosphate Commission, had been left behind when their colleagues evacuated ahead of the Japanese landing eight months before. Because they feared that the aerial bombardment was a precursor to an American invasion, an invasion that would never come, and because they would not risk the prisoners’ cooperation with the enemy, the Japanese executed them all.

The 11th Group crews on Funafuti prepared for another strike mission, but Dogpatch Express would not be in the lineup. Ground and flight crews spent the evening fueling and “bombing-up” undamaged airplanes for a raid against Tarawa atoll while repairs to planes damaged in the Nauru raid continued.

Repair and maintenance work on Funafuti was slow and improvised. As an advanced staging base, Funafuti was lightly equipped. The “72 hour kits” carried to the island in the bomb bays of the aircraft were adequate for three days’ maintenance, but repair to some of the damaged aircraft was beyond the capabilities of the base. The sheet metal work to Dogpatch Express was completed on Funafuti, but the severed oxygen line would wait until the plane returned to Oahu.

Life on Funafuti

A crew from Life magazine was on Funafuti, having accompanied the group on the flight from Hawaii via Canton. It seemed strange to the crewmen having the magazine people there because the airmen were not used to being newsworthy. But the Nauru raid was the first strike by American heavy bombers against a Japanese industrial target, and it seemed that the Air Corps wanted publicity for it. Besides chatting with officers, the Life crew toured the island in little groups, taking pictures and writing in notebooks while their officer escort pointed out Funafuti’s features.

The largest building on the island was the Missionary Church, a concrete structure with a wood-framed roof thatched with pandanus, the same plant natives used to weave mats. The church was built by the London Missionary Society on the west side of the island near the lagoon, almost even with the northeast end of the runway. It provided an easily recognizable visual reference for pilots. Native huts, about 60 of them in all, were on the lagoon side protected by the crescent curve of the island. The huts were rectangular, with corner posts of strong coconut trunks. Roofs were similar to the church, timber framed and thatched with pandanus. The sides of the huts were also thatched and made so they could be rolled up and tied open during the day. Gentle waves in the lagoon lapped at the beach, but on the eastern side, the ocean’s waves met the shore with noisy crashes and salty spray.

Funafuti was short on amenities, but the island did have the advantage of a friendly, cooperative native population, and the American servicemen at Funafuti were amused by the pretty, dark-skinned, and topless girls among the island’s several hundred natives. But the men were supposed to keep their distance from native women and “the novelty wore off soon enough,” Yankus recalled.

Many of the natives spoke English, learned from the London Missionary delegation. They were friendly. In fact, they had worked themselves to near exhaustion months before, helping men of the 5th Marine Defense Battalion, two companies of the 3rd Marines, elements of Navy Scouting Squadron 65, and a group of Seabees unload gear and equipment from their landing vessels.

A quirk of time and location had turned this place, an island paradise, into a wartime bomber base. As beautiful as it looked, like a Robinson Crusoe shipwreck setting, it was a sorry place for a military operation.

Each morning, the relentless equatorial sun heated aircraft and tools so quickly that it was difficult to work. Ground crews who serviced the several Marine Vought F4-U Corsair fighter planes and the Navy’s Kingfisher scout planes on Funafuti knew how critical it was to keep tools and equipment covered or put away because salt and sand were everywhere. In the afternoon, it rained, cooling things a bit, but the sun quickly cooked off the rain so that humidity joined forces with the heat to make working conditions miserable.

The coral runway built by the Seabees should have been as solid as concrete, but rain prevented the live coral used to build it from curing properly. The coral packed like gravel, rutted and dusty. When aircraft took off or landed, dust from the runway created storms of minute abrasive particles. The northeast to southwest orientation of the single airstrip offered no alternative if the predominantly easterly winds shifted to the southeast. In those conditions, pilots met a 90-degree crosswind, challenging enough with a heavy load on takeoff, but nerve-racking with low fuel, an engine out, or battle damage on the return.

Freshwater was provided by distillation units. The Marines and Navy men supplemented the water supply by catching rain runoff in barrels placed under the drape of their tents. In the middle of the island was a pond, really more of a swampy bog, that the Seabees had to partially fill when they built the runway, but the bog was of little practical use except to the island’s mosquito and rat populations.

The enlisted men of each bomber crew shared a tent. The canvas tents lacked floors and electricity and were equipped with cots. Officers were housed in a separate area, also in tents but with electricity from gas-powered generators.

Equipment for servicing bombers was barely adequate. Ground crewmen had two Cletracs, slow, tracked vehicles, more tractor than truck, for servicing aircraft. Cletracs were excellent for towing and parking aircraft but dreadfully slow for pulling gas trailers to refuel airplanes. A mess hall and barracks were planned, but for now the men made do with field kitchens and tents.

Eddie Rickenbacker on Funafuti

There was a one-room hospital on Funafuti, completed in November 1942. It had 40 field beds and was staffed by two doctors, a dentist, and 22 Navy corpsmen. They boasted that the famed World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker was among their first patients. Rickenbacker was one of seven survivors of an October 1942 B-17 crash in the ocean. Survivors drifted for weeks in their rafts before being rescued by a Kingfisher aircraft.

Rickenbacker and his men were taxied half an hour across water, lashed to the aircraft’s wing because the rescue made the plane overloaded for flight. The Kingfisher finally met a PT boat that took Rickenbacker the rest of the way to Funafuti.

There were a few bunkers for personnel, built by the Marines, but not enough for every man’s protection. There were shallow slit trenches and some holes where palm trees had been bulldozed down, but most of the island was too low for much digging. There were a few revetments for aircraft, but not enough to protect them all. The group’s best defense on Funafuti was secrecy, but there were only so many places from which B-24s could have attacked Nauru.

The Japanese may have sent a plane to follow the Americans as they returned, or they may have reconnoitered Funafuti undetected. The briefing officer on Kahuku who told the bomber crews bound for Funafuti that the Japanese would not know they were there had made no promise that the secret would last.

In fact, sometime during the night of April 20, just hours after the last B-24 returned, three twin-engined Mitsubishi aircraft took off from a Japanese air base on the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll with full bomb loads. The Japanese planes turned south-southeast, headed for Funafuti.

“Air Raid! Air Raid!”

Scearce made his way to his crew’s tent before curfew. An ordnance truck, a bomb loader with a small crane attached to the rear, was parked nearby. Scearce assumed that whoever used it last must have parked it near his own tent. Parking it in the shade of coconut trees in the crew quarters area would keep the vehicle and its steering wheel a little cooler than parking it beside the runway.

Inside the tent, the enlisted men of Dogpatch Express chatted quietly. They talked about Nauru and the coming strike against Tarawa. They speculated about their next mission and whether Lieutenant Schroeder would get his bombs on target next time. Conversation faded quickly because the men were exhausted; they had not slept much the night before.

Shortly after midnight, the air raid signal sounded. A shrill, piercing siren, 10-second blasts at five-second intervals, caused the men to stir. Marines ran from tent to tent, yelling “Air raid! Air raid!”

Scearce and his heavy-eyed crewmates halfheartedly swung their legs to the ground, assuming this was someone’s idea of a joke or maybe a drill. Then a Marine Corps antiaircraft battery opened fire, boom … boom  … boom … and the men knew immediately it was no drill. They scrambled in the dark to pull on flight suits and ran out of their tents. Now aircraft could be heard, but the direction was indistinct, there was just the sound of unsynchronized aircraft engines overhead. A familiar voice shouted, “Get in the hole!”

There was a shallow hole near the crew’s tent, and Scearce piled in on top of his crewmates. Falling bombs made menacing whistling sounds while explosions threw orange flashes about treetops and tents, casting silhouettes of men running. The smell was pungent, like sulfur or a spent shotgun shell.

Forty terrified villagers huddled inside the Missionary Church, praying that its concrete walls would save them. Marine Corps Corporal Fonnie Black Ladd ran into the church, calling for the people to get out, imploring them to get away from the church, to take cover elsewhere because the church was an obvious target for the Japanese.

A salvo of bombs stepped toward the hole containing the men of Dogpatch Express, its pattern of explosions growing louder and closer. Scearce held the sides of his helmet with both fists clenched, trying desperately to fit under it. Knees to his chest, teeth gritted, and eyes squeezed tight, Scearce knew the next one whistling toward them would be very close.

With a terrific whang the bomb hit the ordnance truck parked just a few feet away. Dirt and metal rained down. In the next second, a hissing cylinder landed in the crew’s tiny hole, right on top of Elmer Johnson. For a moment, the men of Dogpatch Express could hear nothing, then the sensation of sound returned with a shrill ringing, and the powerful stench of explosives filled their nostrils. Scearce’s mind raced: “This is it,” he thought. The metal cylinder continued to hiss, and the men did not move, afraid they could cause it to explode.

Assessing the Damage

The hissing weakened, and the whistling of falling bombs and their terrific explosions finally stopped. Voices were audible now, agonized screams, cries for help, shouts, men giving orders. The enemy aircraft could be heard again, leaving the island toward the north, toward Tarawa. There were crackling and popping and strange metallic groans; an aircraft was burning. In the dim light of early morning, with gray-black smoke stinging their eyes, the enlisted men of Dogpatch Express accounted for each other.

“It’s a damn fire extinguisher,” Johnson said. The cylinder that landed on him, the hissing object that the crew feared was a bomb, was instead the damaged pressure tank of a brass fire extinguisher blasted from the ordnance truck when the truck took a direct hit.

Men had jumped under the truck for cover. Scearce thought there were four. Parts of bodies were strewn about, and one man still lay under the demolished truck. Scearce could tell the man was a staff sergeant by his stripes, but could not recognize him because his face and the top of his head were gone.

Corpsmen rushed to help the injured while others fought fires. Casualties were lined up by the airstrip in the shade of planes’ wings. As bulldozers cleared debris, the worst of the injured were placed aboard a plane to be sent back to the U.S. mainland. Others went to a hospital on Fiji, 670 miles south. Some injured men refused to be evacuated, insisting on staying with their crews.

One Liberator was burned completely. Smoking radial engines lay on the coral runway, propellers bent and folded under as if they were made of rubber. The twin vertical tail planes seemed intact, though the rudder fabric was scorched away. The tail section stood on the coral, pitched forward, as if the plane were in a steep dive.

Other aircraft were holed by shrapnel, tires blown out, and plexiglass shattered. Some of the planes could be repaired, and some would be scrapped and used for parts to keep others flying. Bomb-loading equipment, radio gear, the mess area and tents were damaged, burned, or blown down by the concussion of bombs. The walls of the Missionary Church stood, but its roof was gone and its interior was gutted. A bomb had crashed through the thatched roof and exploded, bringing roof timbers and flaming, dried pandanus down into the building vacated by the villagers a moment before.

A young native man named Esau Sepetaina lay on his back as if resting, arms at his side, his chin, mouth, and left ear visible, but the rest of his head was smashed like a melon. He was the only native killed in the raid, and he died beside one of the few true personnel bunkers in Funafuti’s shallow earth, his feet just inches from the edge.

On to the Next Mission

On the morning after the air raid, Scearce, Lipe, Yankus, and Johnson stood with a handful of other men near the broken remains of the ordnance truck, watching helplessly as medical corpsmen lifted one of the dead men from the wreckage. They felt hollow, sick, and at the same time relieved it was not them. Beside the wrecked truck lay its splattered and torn seat and the vehicle’s battery, and beyond them a Life magazine photographer captured the scene on film.

On April 21, Dogpatch Express took off past the still smoldering remains of a sister aircraft. The bombers in the lineup for the next mission stayed behind, scheduled to hit Tarawa the next night. The long flight back to Hawaii, with its overnight stop at Canton, lacked the sense of purpose and anticipation of success that sustained the men on the way out. The return flight felt like retreat. The men felt beaten.

The Japanese air raid consisted of a few medium bombers making several passes at night. The enemy planes had traversed the island, back and forth, as if without concern about the three Marine Corps antiaircraft batteries. The Japanese took their time, working thoroughly and deliberately, taking advantage of a full moon’s light on Funafuti’s white coral runway. Their show of skill was sobering to the American bomber crewmen, particularly the men of Dogpatch Express, who had seen their bombs explode in the water just off the sandy beach of Nauru.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Phil Scearce originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Want to Understand Asian Geopolitics? Go Back to Genghis Khan

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 18:33

Warfare History Network

Security, Asia

The Mongols began besieging the more than one million residents of Beijing.

Key Point: The Mongols attacked the Xi Xia in 1209, first taking the border settlements north of the Yellow River.

In ad 1205, Mongol ruler Genghis Khan, having completed the unification of his Gobi Desert empire, began looking south toward China for further conquest. The ever-truculent Mongols had been a thorn in China’s side for more than 2,000 years. Their many raids were the main reason the Chinese had constructed a 1,500-mile-long Great Wall from the eastern coast on the Pacific Ocean to the very edge of the Gobi. Not without reason did the Chinese consider the Mongols barbarians—their very name meant “earth shakers.” At the head of a united army of fearsome nomads, Genghis Khan would soon make the earth shake again.

War With Xi Xia

Genghis’s first target was the western Chinese kingdom of Xi Xia. The Xi, known to the Mongols as the Tanguts, had emigrated east from the mountains of Tibet to the hilly grasslands centered on the Yellow River in the 7th century ad. The Mongols and the Xi, as wary neighbors, shared some of the same relatives; one of Genghis’s own stepdaughters was the wife of a Tangut chieftain. Family ties meant little to Genghis Khan. His father, Yesugei, had been poisoned by grudge-bearing members of a Tatar clan when Genghis, then called Temujin, was eight. Five years later, Temujin killed his own half brother Begter in cold blood after the two quarreled over some birds and minnows that Temujin had caught. “Apart from our shadows we have no friends,” he had been taught from the cradle. It was lesson he never forgot. After he had consolidated his power, Genghis Khan killed every male member of the Tatar clan that had killed his father—any boy taller than a wagon wheel was struck down.

The Mongols attacked the Xi Xia in 1209, first taking the border settlements north of the Yellow River. The 75,000 Mongol invaders faced an army of 150,000 Xi Xia troops near their capital at Zhongxing. The Xi Xia had stationed 100,000 armored pikemen and crossbowmen in large phalanxes in the center of the battle line, with 25,000 Tangut cavalry on each wing. The Mongols were not accustomed to being outnumbered. As nomadic warriors they traveled fast, in huge columns of superbly skilled cavalry, often separated by many miles but knit together by an intricate system of signal fires, smoke signals, and flags, and a gigantic camel-mounted kettledrum to sound the charge. They were used to coordinating their forces on small settlements or camps whose residents could not move with anything like the same speed or decisiveness. The Mongols were interested not in a fair fight, but a victorious one.

In the Xi Xia, however, they ran into an opponent who fought much the same way they did. The Mongols had taken extensive casualties in an earlier battle with the Xi Xia pikemen by charging their pike wall; they were determined to not repeat the mistake. The Mongol light cavalry rode parallel to the Chinese pikemen and crossbowmen, firing thousands of arrows into them while other Mongol forces fought with Tangut cavalry on the flanks. The Mongol and Tangut cavalry also rode parallel to each other, firing thousands of arrows and inflicting innumerable casualties on each side. Each side’s cavalry feigned retreat, but the other side wouldn’t fall for the ruse. Finally, the Mongols attacked the Tangut cavalry with their heavy cavalry. The Tangut cavalry broke and ran, leaving the huge phalanxes of the Xi Xia pikemen vulnerable to attack. The Chinese pikemen had formed a giant rectangle that faced in all directions, and they took repeated volleys of arrows that inflicted great damage while the Mongols themselves stayed mostly out of range of the Chinese crossbows. After the Xi Xia pikemen lost unit cohesion, the Mongol heavy cavalry attacked the remaining demoralized and exhausted Chinese from all sides to finish them off.

Besieging Zhongxing

The Xi Xia capital of Zhongxing presented a new problem for the Mongols, who had little experience in siege warfare. In an earlier siege of the walled city of Volohai, the Mongols had attempted a series of suicidal assaults with scaling ladders that failed, and they suffered heavy casualties in the fighting. Genghis offered to lift the siege of the city provided the residents gave the Mongols 1,000 cats and 10,000 swallows in cages. The puzzled citizens of Volohai quickly granted the request—and just as quickly lived to regret it when the animals fled back into the city with tufts of flaming wool tied to each of them by the Mongols. Soon, the whole city was ablaze. While the defenders were occupied with putting out the fire, the Mongols scaled the now undefended walls and massacred the inhabitants.

Genghis did not want to face a similar costly assault of the walls of Zhongxing. Instead, he decided to break the dikes on the Huang River and flood the city below. The plan backfired, however, when the Mongol camp itself was flooded and hundreds of troops were swept away by the raging waters. To make matters worse, the move left two feet of standing water for miles around the city, in effect creating a ready-made moat. The Mongols retreated into the surrounding hills but returned in force in 1210. Xi Xia Emperor Li Anquan, not wishing to face another siege, agreed to give his daughter Chaka to Genghis Khan as a wife and to pay tribute to the Mongols as a vassal state. Genghis demanded and received another 1,000 young men and women, 3,000 horses, and vast quantities of gold, jewelry, and silk. The Xi Xia later rebelled in 1218 and 1223 because they tired of providing the Mongols with so many men to fight in their wars of conquest, but these rebellions were brutally put down.

Routing the Jin

In 1210, an emissary of the newly installed Jin emperor, Prince Wei, appeared before Genghis and demanded his submission and a tribute paid to the Jin. An infuriated Genghis answered that it was the Jin who needed to pay tribute to him; he spat on the ground as a gesture of defiance. With his flank secured by the conquest of Xi Xia, Genghis was ready to attack the mighty Jin Dynasty. In 1211, 30,000 Mongol troops under Genghis’s greatest general, Subedei, assaulted the Great Wall. The Mongols brought up groups of archers who cleared an area of wall while other Mongols scaled the wall with ladders and took possession of sections of it. The Jin rushed in reinforcements and recaptured the lost sections of the Great Wall. Thousands died on both sides as the fighting continued back and forth for several days.

The Jin brought most of their army to back up the forces defending the Great Wall. What the Jin didn’t know was that Subedei’s attack was merely a diversion. Some 200 miles to the west, Genghis and a force of 90,000 Mongols were crossing the Great Wall at its end in the Gobi Desert. The Onguts, a tribe similar to the Mongols, were supposed to be guarding the western end of the Great Wall for the Chin, but they defected to Genghis and allowed the Mongols to cross into China unmolested. After Genghis’s cavalry poured into China, Subedei’s force broke off its attack and crossed over into China from the end of the Great Wall as well.

The Jin forces were now out of position and moved to cut off the Mongols from Beijing. Genghis’s cavalry caught close to 200,000 Jin troops on open ground near Badger Pass, where the Jin hoped to block the Mongols from advancing any farther. The Jin formed for battle with the pike phalanxes and crossbowmen in the middle and armored heavy cavalry on the flanks. The outnumbered Mongol heavy cavalry engaged in a hotly contested battle on the flanks with the Jin cavalry as the densely packed Jin phalanxes and their crossbowmen held off the Mongol horse archers. Suddenly, Subedei’s remaining 27,000 Mongols (3,000 had died at the Great Wall) showed up on the battlefield on the flanks and rear of the Jin army. The rout was on.

After the Jin cavalry was defeated, the Jin pikemen, half of whom were militia conscripts, broke and ran. They were cut down by the Mongol cavalry or trampled by their own terrified horsemen. Bodies stacked “like rotten logs” littered the ground for more than 30 miles. Genghis then separated his army into three forces that burned, pillaged, raped, and murdered the populations of 90 cities over the next six months. Despite the awful destruction, the Jin would not surrender. Genghis became frustrated by the enormous size and scope of a nation-state like the Jin. He entered into negotiations with the emperor and agreed not to attack any more cities. The Mongols had already captured well over 100,000 Chinese prisoners; to make a negotiating point, Genghis had them executed.

The Capture of Beijing

The next year the Jin moved their capital farther south, from Beijing to Kaifeng, and began rebuilding their armies. Genghis was angered by the move, which he considered a betrayal of trust, and looked for an opportunity to attack the Jin again. In the spring of 1213, the Jin attacked the Mongol-allied Khitan tribe in Manchuria. Genghis came to the aid of his Khitan allies and attacked the Jin armies in Manchuria, which fell back to their fortifications at Nankuo Pass. The Mongols were blocked from attacking Beijing by the well-fortified Jin positions at the pass and by the eastern sections of the Great Wall. The Mongols headed into the pass and then retreated. It was all a ruse. The Jin forces hurried to trap the fleeing Mongols, recklessly leaving their fortified positions to pursue them. The Mongols led the Jin forces into their own trap and destroyed most of the Jin army. Those Jin troops that had not pursued the Mongols fled their fortified positions and retreated to the Great Wall, with the Mongols in hot pursuit. The Mongols caught and destroyed the remaining Jin troops as they tried frantically to retreat through the Great Wall. The Mongols then passed through the open gates of the Great Wall.

The Mongols began besieging the more than one million residents of Beijing. Beijing was a tough nut to crack, with walls and moats that extended more than nine miles around the city, and was watched over by 900 towers. The city’s defenders had double and triple crossbow ballistae and trebuchet catapults that fired clay pots filled with naphtha-like incendiaries that exploded and set on fire whatever they hit. The Jin also introduced one of the first poison gas weapons in history, firing projectiles bound in wax and paper of 70 pounds of dried human waste, ground-up poisonous herbs, roots, and beetles packed in gunpowder. The projectiles were lit with a fuse and fired from a trebuchet, creating a deadly cloud of toxic fumes that killed or disabled anyone unfortunate enough to breathe in the poisonous dust.

The Jin also had clay-pot firebombs filled with incendiaries to throw from the walls and hot oil to pour down on attackers. The Mongols launched attacks against the walls with ladders, but lost dozens of men to the incendiaries and the hot oil. The Mongols then forced Jin prisoners to build and push forward siege engines and serve as human shields for the attackers. Jin soldiers would recognize family and friends among the captives and hold their fire. Many Jin prisoners were killed from missed crossbow fire aimed at the Mongols and from the bombs used to burn down the siege engines before they could get into the city.

The Mongols and their Chinese human shields dug trenches covered by cowhide up to the walls to undermine them, but the Jin dropped firebombs from chains onto the trenches that exploded with such force that they left only smoldering craters and no intact human remains. The siege dragged on for a year as starvation and disease began killing people on both sides of the walls, but the defenders, with more than a million people to feed, had the worst of it. Two Jin relief columns loaded down with food were intercepted by the Mongols, and some defenders in Beijing turned to cannibalism to survive.

In June 1215, the Jin commander escaped to Kaifeng, where he was executed by the emperor for leaving his post. The desperate people of Beijing then opened the gates of the city to the Mongols, who ransacked the city and massacred thousands in revenge for their ordeal. The city was set on fire. Thousands of girls ran to the city’s steepest walls and threw themselves to their deaths to escape the flames and the unwanted amorous attention of the Mongols. A year later, the ambassador of Khwarezm described seeing mountains of bones inside and outside of what had been the greatest city in the world.

The Death of Genghis, the Ascension of Ogedei

Despite the overwhelming victories, the Mongols were trapped in a long war of attrition in China. Rather than finish the conquest of the Jin, Genghis became sidetracked in 1217 in the destruction of Khwarezm (Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), an Islamic holocaust in which more than a million people were massacred by the Mongols. During the campaign to conquer Khwarezm, the Mongols brought in thousands of Chinese engineers, siege engines, and crews to help reduce Islamic fortifications.

In 1223, Genghis turned his attention back on the Jin. He sent a trusted general, Mukhulai, with 100,000 troops to attack Chang’an, which was defended by 200,000 Jin troops. Mukhulai became ill and died. As soon as this happened, the Xi Xia troops abandoned the Mongol army, which in turn caused the siege to be abandoned. Genghis then hunted down and killed the Xi Xia troops who had deserted his army.

Genghis himself died in 1227, probably from typhus, while planning yet another massive invasion of Jin. His son, Ogedei, ascended the throne and sent envoys to the Jin, who promptly had them executed. Meanwhile, Subedei was to conduct one last effort to conquer the Jin in 1231. The Jin armies all faced north to prevent Subedei’s 120,000 Mongols from crossing the Yellow River. Subudei sent a general named Tuli with 30,000 Mongols on an arduous journey across the western Chinese mountains of Sichuan and through Song territory into southern Jin territory.

The Jin panicked, thinking the Mongol force was much bigger than it was. The Jin repositioned the majority of their troops to the south and began pursuing the Mongols with a massive force of over 300,000 men. The Mongols retreated as planned into the Sichuan Mountains as the huge Jin army followed them. The Mongols fought a tenacious rearguard action with their archers in the rough mountain terrain, killing thousands of pursuing Jin. The Mongols led the Jin higher and deeper into the snow-covered mountains, where additional thousands froze to death or fell off the icy trails. The Mongols circled back through the mountain passes and destroyed the Jin baggage trains, adding starvation to the woes the Jin troops were already enduring.

Once Subedei had the main Jin army trapped in the mountains of Sichuan, he moved his 120,000 Mongols across the Yellow River against the much smaller Jin forces. The Jin belatedly realized their mistake and began desperately trying to get their main army out of the mountains to defend the capital. The Jin retreat turned into a rout as Tuli’s and Subedei’s forces massacred the entire Jin army without mercy on the open ground within sight of Kaifeng.

The Siege of Kaifeng

The Mongols had learned well from their Chinese prisoners how to conduct sieges. They built a 54-mile-long wooden wall of contravallation to hem in Kaifeng’s one million frightened inhabitants. In addition to the almost 150,000 Mongols conducting the siege, the Song sent 300,000 troops to help finish off their Jin enemies. For six days, the Mongol and Song armies assaulted Kaifeng’s wall but took thousands of casualties from a dreaded weapon called a ho pao, a long bamboo tube filled with incendiaries that could be lit with a fuse or thrown into siege engines from holes in the walls to explode with such force that it left craters in the ground and burned everyone in the immediate vicinity. Thousands of Mongol and Song Chinese troops died in assaults against Kaifeng’s stout walls.

It was clear to Subedei that a long siege was needed to reduce the Jin capital. Plague soon broke out in Kaifeng, and Subedei withdrew his forces to let the disease destroy his enemies while the Mongol and Song armies remained plague-free. Within a month, the Jin emperor committed suicide and the Mongol and Song armies broke into Kaifeng and began massacring the population. Ogedei ordered the massacre to be stopped and aid brought to the suffering people. Subedei wanted to massacre the entire Jin population and turn the farmland into grazing fields for Mongol horses, but Ogedei overruled him. Ogedei’s Chinese advisers had convinced him that the Jin population would provide lucrative taxes, craftsmen, and soldiers for future Mongol conquests. The Jin held out until 1234 before being overwhelmed by the combined Mongol and Song forces, ending the Jin dynasty forever.

In 1235, the Song sent their armies to occupy the Jin cities they understood would be given to them by the Mongols for their part in the war. Instead, the Song armies were repulsed by Mongol forces using many of the same weapons and methods to defend the cities that they had learned from the Jin. This started a 43-year-long war between the Mongols and the Song that would claim many more thousands of lives. In 1236, the Mongols captured the city of Xiangyang in Sichuan Province. The Mongols and the Song fought for control of Sichuan around the city of Chengdu until 1248, when the Mongols gained solid possession of the area. By 1248, the Mongols had killed hundreds of thousands of Song and reduced many Sichuan cities to rubble.

The Yuan Dynasty

In 1251, Mongke was elected Great Khan and decided to intensify the war with the Song Dynasty. In 1253, some 100,000 Mongols and their Chinese allies captured Dali and Yunnan and crossed through Laos to attack the Song Empire’s southern flank. The next year, the Mongols clashed with more than 100,000 Song troops and 1,000 war elephants near the Laotian border. The Mongol horses would not charge the elephants, so the Mongols dismounted and fired flaming arrows to kill or enrage the great animals, which became uncontrollable and randomly killed men on both sides. The battle degenerated into a chaotic hand-to-hand battle. Both armies virtually annihilated each other, and the Mongols withdrew into Laos with only 20,000 men. In 1257, Mongke made the mistake of invading Da Viet (North Vietnam) and lost most of the rest of his men and horses to disease in the intense tropical conditions.

In 1258, Mongke pulled together 300,000 Mongol and Chinese soldiers to face a massive army of over 400,000 Song Chinese troops under General Wang Jian in Sichuan. In 1259, the two sides met at the Battle of Diaoyucheng. During the battle, Mongke collapsed and died from cholera and dysentery. The battle ended in stalemate, with more than 100,000 dead on both sides, including Wang Jian. The new commanding Song general, Jia Sidao, collaborated with Genghis Khan’s grandson, Prince Kublai, and worked out a deal whereby the Song army would occupy Sichuan under Mongol authority. After the Mongol forces left Sichuan, Jia Sidao reneged on his agreement and reoccupied Xiangyang, returning Sichuan to Song control. In 1260, Jia Sidao took his army back into Song territory and established himself as prime minister with a new young emperor named Zhao Qi, who would serve as puppet ruler. Meanwhile, Kublai left Sichuan and took his army back to Mongolia to stake his claim as the new khan of the Mongol Empire. Later that same year, Kublai became khan of the Mongols and established the Yuan Dynasty in China, with himself as emperor.

A Five-Year Siege

In 1265, a Chinese allied naval force destroyed 100 Song ships in a river battle, and Mongol troops defeated the isolated Song army to regain control of part of Sichuan. The key to conquering the Song was capturing the twin fortress cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng. Both cities had thick walls with wide moats protecting the convergence of the Han and Yellow Rivers. In 1268, the Mongols built fortifications downriver from Xiangyang on the Han River to cut off resupply of the city by ship. Most Song ships were able to run by the Mongol forts and resupply Xiangyang and Fancheng. Chinese ships allied with the Mongols were brought in to block the passage between the Mongol forts. More than 20 miles of siege lines were built around Xiangyang and Fancheng on both sides of the Han River.

The Mongols and their Chinese engineers set up trebuchets and began firing incendiary clay bombs and exploding biochemical projectiles they had learned from the Jin at the siege of Beijing in 1215. The Song fired incendiary bombs and biochemical projectiles at the Mongols as well, causing great destruction and loss of life on both sides. The Mongols had to pull back after their wooden siege walls and trebuchets caught fire from the bombardments, leaving the Mongols with no cover, while the Song defenders took shelter behind the twin cities’ stout rock and masonry walls.

In 1269, Kublai Khan sent another 20,000 troops to replace those in the previous year’s fighting. More than 3,000 Song ships attacked the Mongol forts on the Han River in an effort to break the blockade, but 500 ships were sunk by Kublai Khan’s brilliant admiral Liu Cheng, who had defected to the Mongols. Mongol and Chinese troops clambered aboard the Song vessels and beheaded hundreds of Song soldiers and sailors.

The besieged Song tried several unsuccessful attempts to break out but were defeated each time with thousands of casualties. In 1271, 100 Song ships successfully broke through a boom across the Han River to bring 3,000 soldiers and much-needed supplies to reinforce Xiangyang. The siege dragged on with no real advantage for either side until Kublai Khan decided to send a Muslim engineer captured during the siege of Baghdad to China to build a giant 40-ton trebuchet that could hurl 220-pound projectiles more than 600 feet to breach the cities’ walls. After a few days, a breach was opened and Mongol troops stormed through to meet the Chinese defenders. For days, men fought and died in the vicious battle at the breach.

The Song were able to throw more soldiers into Fancheng to defend the breach from a pontoon bridge that connected Xiangyang across the Han River. The Mongols called off the assault on the breach and used their giant trebuchet to widen the breach and destroy the pontoon bridge. Incendiary bombs fired from the trebuchet struck the bridge and consumed it. With Fancheng cut off from reinforcements, the Mongols assaulted the widened breach. The disheartened defenders held on for several hours before resistance broke and the Mongols poured into the city and began massacring the inhabitants. The Mongols took the last 3,000 Song soldiers and 7,000 inhabitants to the walls facing Xiangyang and in full view slit the prisoners’ throats and threw them off the wall.

The Mongols then dismantled their giant trebuchet and repositioned it across the river facing Xiangyang. The first shot from the trebuchet forced a tower to collapse in a great crash as the Song inhabitants screamed in terror. Kublai Khan offered to spare the inhabitants and to reward the Song commander if he would surrender the city. Xiangyang was surrendered and the Song heartland was open to the Mongols. The siege had lasted from 1268 to 1273.

74 Years of Conquest

In 1274, the Mongols headed down the Han River, bypassing Song fortresses and emerging onto the flood plains of the Yangtze River. The Mongols now faced the impregnable fortress of Yang-lo. The Mongols sacrificed several thousand Chinese troops on a frontal attack on Yang-lo while most of the Mongol army, carrying a number of ships, bypassed the fort and crossed the river upstream. Then the Mongol and Chinese fleet came down the Yangtze and attacked the Song fleet from both front and behind. The Song boats were packed so close together on the river that incendiary bombs fired from Mongol catapults set much of the Song fleet on fire. Thousands perished in the flames. Fortress Yang-lo and the 100,000 cut-off Song troops surrendered the next day.

In 1275, Jia Sidao set out from the capital of Hangzhou at the head of 100,000 Song troops and another fleet of 2,500 ships in a last-ditch effort to stop the Mongol juggernaut. A massive cavalry and infantry battle took place on both sides of the river. The Mongols and their Chinese allies pushed back the Song army and boarded their ships from both ends of the river, beheading thousands of Song troops and capturing 2,000 ships. It was another overwhelming victory for the Mongols. Jia Sidao was later assassinated by a Song officer.

The city of Hangzhou refused an offer to surrender peacefully and was burned. As usual, the Mongols massacred the city’s inhabitants. On February 21, 1276, the boy emperor Zhao Xian came out of Hangzhou, bowed toward the north in obeisance to Kublai Khan, and turned over the capital and the rest of the Song Empire to the Mongols. The Mongol conquest of China had taken 74 years and claimed the lives of as many as 25 million Chinese from war, plague, and famine.

The ramifications of the Mongol conquest of China were felt for some time. The Ming, who overthrew the Mongols in 1368, became obsessed with improving and lengthening the Great Wall to close to 5,000 miles (including walls that backed up walls) to prevent another Mongol invasion of China. The Great Wall as it existed from the time of the Ming Dynasty was an expensive reaction to the Mongol conquest of China. In the end, the improved Great Wall did not save China. In 1644, a Mongol-like nation, the Manchu, conquered China and ruled the unhappy nation until 1911.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Steven M. Johnson originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Flickr.

Kidnapping the Desert Fox: Britain's Insane Attempt to Capture a Nazi General

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 18:11

Warfare History Network, Michael D. Hull

Security, Africa

The Commandos learned their bitter lessons and went on to serve in many World War II campaigns as a peerless special force—mentoring the U.S. Rangers and setting an example for other elite assault units in the years to come.

Key Point: His mission on this particular night was a hazardous one—to locate the headquarters of the commander of the German forces in North Africa, the legendary General Erwin Rommel.

One night in mid-October 1941, a British Army intelligence officer disguised as a Senussi Arab was dropped by parachute behind the German lines in the Italian colony of Libya.

He was Captain John E. “Jock” Haselden of the famed Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG), a specialized British force led by Lt. Col. David Stirling that conducted reconnaissance patrols and hit-and-run raids against enemy installations in North Africa. Bearded and weather beaten, Haselden wore tattered Arab robes and carried a staff while venturing out alone on his intelligence-gathering forays. Born and raised in Egypt and a former Cairo cotton broker, he was fluent in Arabic.

His mission on this particular night was a hazardous one—to locate the headquarters of the commander of the German forces in North Africa, the legendary General Erwin Rommel. Haselden was to lay the groundwork for a bold attempt—tied to a major offensive by the British Eighth Army—to either capture or kill Rommel and his cantankerous Italian field commander, General Ettore Bastico. For several months, Rommel had proved to be a skillful and formidable foe by outwitting and outmaneuvering the British during the seesawing Western Desert campaigns.

Based on radio intercepts of German message traffic, “Sigint” (Signals Intelligence) at the British Middle Eastern Command headquarters in Cairo had come to the conclusion that a remote village named Beda Littoria in the northern Libyan hump was the probable site of Rommel’s headquarters.

After burying his parachute in the sand, Captain Haselden trudged to the outskirts of the dusty village a dozen miles south of the Mediterranean coast, west of Derna and not far from the site of the ancient city of Cyrene, the birthplace of Hannibal, to verify the Sigint information. Stealthily, he trained his field glasses on stuccoed Italian colonial buildings clustered in olive and cypress groves and groups of German troops.

Off to one side, Haselden could see a villa and an official building that the Italians called the Prefettura. Parked around it were about 20 Afrika Korps communications trucks, while a steady stream of vehicles disgorged and retrieved officers and dispatch riders. The British officer gasped when he spotted General Rommel striding out of the Prefettura and driving off in a command car. Haselden had hit the jackpot; apparently Beda Littoria was indeed the headquarters of the “Desert Fox.”

Haselden hastily stole away into the desert and linked up with a LRDG patrol two days later. He was whisked back to Cairo with his information, and plans and preparations were drawn up. By mounting a raid on Rommel’s headquarters, the British hoped to wreak chaos in the command system of the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies. The operation was likely to prove one of the most daring special force missions of World War II.

The British Commandos assigned to carry out the mission had come to the Mediterranean theater as part of the “Layforce” contingent led by Lt. Col. Robert E. “Lucky” Laycock, commander of Commando operations and the elite Special Boat Section there. One of his units was the 11th (Scottish) Commando, which had practiced night landings from submarines using rubber dinghies and lightweight canvas canoes called folbots.

The idea for the raid on Rommel’s headquarters 250 miles behind enemy lines had been formulated in the autumn of 1941 by temporary Lt. Col. Geoffrey Charles Tasker Keyes of the 11th Commando, the 24-year-old son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes. A decorated hero of the Boxer Rebellion and the Zeebrugge and Dover naval actions in World War I, Sir Roger had been chosen by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to direct all Commando operations from Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations headquarters.

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A brave, competent officer and the youngest lieutenant colonel in the British Army, Keyes led the planning for the upcoming raid—code named Operation Flipper—and insisted on leading it personally. Simultaneous actions to support the November 16-17 British offensive codenamed Operation Crusader were to be undertaken by the LRDG and the Special Air Service. The initial objectives of the Laycock-Keyes force were to attack the Italian forces’ headquarters at Cyrene and destroy telephone and telegraph services; hit the Italian intelligence center at Appollonia; cut communication lines around El Faida, and assault the Afrika Korps headquarters at Beda Littoria and Rommel’s villa west of the village.

Colonel Laycock, himself a gallant veteran of special operations in Libya, Rhodes, and Crete who would later win the Distinguished Service Order and lead Commandos and U.S. Rangers in the invasion of Salerno, voiced reservations about the planned mission. A London-born former subaltern in the Royal Horse Guards, he reported, “I gave it my considered opinion that the chances of being evacuated after the operation were very slender, and that the attack on General Rommel’s house in particular appeared to be desperate in the extreme. This attack, even if initially successful, meant almost certain death for those who took part in it. I made these comments in the presence of Colonel Keyes, who begged me not to repeat them lest the operation be canceled.”

Laycock tried several times to persuade Keyes to detail a more junior officer to lead the raid, but he refused. “On each occasion,” said Laycock, “he flatly declined to consider these suggestions, saying that, as commander of his detachment, it was his privilege to lead his men into any danger that might be encountered—an answer which I consider [was] inspired by the highest traditions of the British Army…. Colonel Keyes’s outstanding bravery was not that of the unimaginative bravado who may be capable of spectacular action in moments of excitement, but that far more admirable calculated daring of one who knew only too well the odds against him.” Despite his misgivings, Laycock agreed to accompany the raiding force as an observer.

On the night of Thursday-Friday, November 13-14, 1941, after a three-day voyage from Alexandria, two 1,575-ton Royal Navy submarines, HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman, carrying 60 Commandos, stood off the coast of Djebel Akhdar, 20 miles west of Appollonia, Libya. Periscope observations were made of the planned landing area. From a small cove on the shore, Captain Haselden, who had been designated to guide the raiders to Rommel’s headquarters, sent a prearranged signal out to the submarines. As soon as his blinking lights were spotted, the vessels flashed back a recognition signal.

But things began to go wrong from the start. The Commandos had been trained to disembark from submarines in calm waters, but a gale was howling on the Libyan coast that night. Rough seas hampered the operation. Instead of the estimated 90 minutes, it took seven hours to get 28 men and Colonel Keyes, the operational commander, ashore from the slippery deck of the first submarine, the Torbay.

When the Talisman neared the shore to disembark her Commandos, she touched bottom. In the resulting turmoil, seven landing boats with 11 men were swept overboard. Several were never seen again. A few men managed to scramble ashore, but the Talisman withdrew with many members of the raiding force still aboard.

Early in the morning of November 14, Keyes assembled his men in Haselden’s cove, a dozen miles from Beda Littoria. All were wet, chilled to the bone, and critically short of vital weapons and equipment. The little force was considerably understrength for its mission. Keyes was furnished with directions and an Arab shepherd as his guide, while Haselden slipped away to get ready for the second part of his assignment—to blow up a German communications outpost on the same night that Keyes’s team hit Rommel’s headquarters.

Colonel Laycock, meanwhile, decreed that under the circumstances the Commandos’ objectives must be curtailed. It was agreed that only two of the four planned attacks would be undertaken—on the communications systems at Cyrene and the German headquarters at Beda Littoria. The plan to hit Rommel’s villa was dropped.

Laycock stayed at the landing site to coordinate operations while Keyes, Captain Robin Campbell, his second in command, and the 28 Commandos set off at nightfall on November 15 for a grueling trek to their objectives. Rain poured for 48 hours, and the raiders were soaked as they splashed through ankle-deep mud, slipped on greasy rocks, and picked their way over rock-strewn sheep tracks and a 1,800-foot ridge in the darkness. Their Arab guide refused to go farther as the weather deteriorated, and morale began to flag. But Keyes’s stolid resolve kept his men moving forward. By the night of November 16, the column had reached a small cave about five miles from Beda Littoria.

The Commandos spent the rest of the night and most of the following day there. Keyes stayed on the beach through the night to meet any men who might have managed to get ashore from the second submarine. The hideout was odorous and uncomfortable, but the raiders found shelter from the torrential rain and cold that had plagued them almost continually since coming ashore. They lit a fire to warm themselves and dry their clothing, cleaned their Sten submachine guns and .38-caliber pistols, and groused about the absence of the blazing sunshine that reputedly bathed the southern Mediterranean shore.

On the afternoon of November 17, Colonel Keyes made a short reconnaissance foray then briefed his men at 6 pm. He divided his small force in two, sending one half off to detonate a communications pylon near Cyrene while the rest listened to his detailed plan for the assault on Rommel’s headquarters. Then, with blackened faces and wearing plimsolls (sneakers), they set off on the final stage of their mission.

The raiders bided their time during the waning daylight hours and moved forward in darkness to a ridge just above Beda Littoria. Pushing on, they reached the outskirts of the village around midnight and crept forward stealthily toward the German headquarters in the Preffetura, an austere, two-story building standing away from the main village. Keyes and Sergeant Terry were in the lead, about 50 yards ahead.

Suddenly, one of the Commandos tripped over a tin can, setting off frenzied barking from neighborhood dogs and a scream from an Arab villager. When two Italian soldiers emerged from a hut to investigate, the quick-thinking Captain Campbell shouted to them in fluent German that they were an Afrika Korps patrol. The disgruntled Italians went back into their hut.

By this time, Colonel Keyes had cut through the wire surrounding the headquarters building. The rain that had hampered his men now yielded a dividend, confining the enemy sentries to their tents, except one. Keyes dispatched him quietly with his fighting knife, and the rest of the force joined him, carrying enough explosives to wreck both the Prefettura and a nearby power plant.

With a covering party blocking the approaches to the building and guarding the exits from neighboring structures, Keyes, Campbell, Sergeant Terry, and three other ranks crept forward through the security fence. But the mission was about to turn into a fiasco. Keyes, Campbell, and Terry planned to sneak into the Nazi headquarters. Keyes hoped to climb through a window or find a back door but a quick investigation revealed no easy access. So the raiders took the bull by the horns.

Captain Campbell pounded on the front door and demanded entry in his fluent German. When a sentry eventually opened the door, Keyes jammed his revolver in the startled soldier’s ribs. But the brave, well-trained German grabbed the muzzle and backed Keyes against a wall. The colonel struggled to draw his knife while the enemy soldier shouted an alarm. The element of surprise was lost. Campbell shot the struggling German over Keyes’s shoulder, and the colonel flung the door open.

The six British raiders dashed inside, and the next few minutes brought a chaos of Sten-gun and pistol fire, shouts of anguish and alarm, slamming doors, and running feet on stone steps. A duty officer had aroused sleeping Germans. A man came clattering down the stairs, but Sergeant Terry chased him off with a burst from his Sten gun.

The raiders checked one of many rooms off the main hall and found it empty. Then a door on the left side of the hall started to open. A light shone inside, and the Commandos could hear the occupants moving about. Keyes kicked the door open wide to see about 10 Germans in helmets frozen in shock. After the colonel emptied his Colt .45 automatic pistol into the room, Campbell appeared at his elbow and said he would toss a hand grenade in. Keyes shut the door while Campbell pulled the pin, reopened it, and the grenade and a burst of Sten-gun fire went in.

The grenade exploded with a loud crash, but some of the surviving Germans fired back at the raiders. A single shot hit Keyes just above the heart. Campbell and Terry quickly carried him outside, and he died within a few minutes. An eerie silence then fell upon the Prefettura and every light went out.

Captain Campbell stole back into the house to check for further signs of enemy activity and then ran around to the rear of the building where the covering party had been left. The Commandos were there, crouching in the darkness, but they heard no password and thought that Campbell was a German. A Sten gun round smashed his shin bone. He ordered his men to withdraw and leave him behind. The raiding party was left without an officer.

Sergeant Terry took over. He brought up enough explosives to demolish the Prefettura but discovered that the fuses were rain-soaked and unusable. The only damage that the raiders could inflict now was by dropping a grenade down the breather pipe and blowing up the main generator and by destroying some Afrika Korps vehicles. Terry and the other survivors then withdrew, hoping that the enemy would tend their wounded. Several Commandos had been captured by Germans alerted to their assault.

By the following evening of November 18, the 22 survivors reached Colonel Laycock at the shore. Then followed several frustrating hours while their signals to HMS Torbay—surfaced 400 yards out—were unacknowledged. Belated return signals to the exhausted Commandos were incomprehensible, and no boats came in to fetch them. So, just before dawn the following morning, Laycock and the survivors filed into a wadi to lay low for the day and plan how to get to the British lines. But hostile Arabs and then Italian troops attacked them. Laycock ordered the men to split into small groups and disperse before an inevitable and more serious assault came from the Germans.

All of the Commandos except two were eventually seized by the Germans or shot by Arabs. Colonel Campbell was carried off to a German prison camp, where he was well treated but had to have his shattered leg amputated.

Colonel Laycock and Sergeant Terry managed to get clear of the wadi and spent 41 wearying days trekking across the desert toward the Eighth Army lines. They were given food by friendly Senussi tribesmen, and water was not a problem because it rained almost every day. They reached the British lines on Christmas Day. Captain Haselden also managed to get away from the wadi and linked up with an LRDG patrol. After a rest, Laycock was flown back to England to take command of the Special Service Brigade. The intrepid Haselden, who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, was killed in a raid on Tobruk in September 1942.

Operation Crusader, the big offensive by Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham’s Eighth Army for which the Keyes raid was a diversion, had meanwhile got underway. One hundred thousand men, more than 700 Cruiser and Matilda tanks, and 5,000 artillery units, armored cars, trucks, and personnel carriers rolled forward during the weekend of November 16-17.

A masterpiece of deception, Crusader was a wide-scale armored sweep toward besieged Tobruk from the south while British Commonwealth infantry forces pinned down Axis positions on the Libya-Egypt frontier. The Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were driven back to Benghazi with severe losses, and the British kept up the pressure through December.

Rommel was forced to abandon Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, and fall back to defensive positions at El Agheila. But the Desert Fox quickly recovered. The gallant General Cunningham, who had defeated the Italians in Ethiopia but who lacked a grasp of armored warfare, suffered a nervous breakdown. He was soon replaced by the vigorous, self-confident Lt. Gen. Sir Neil Ritchie. From Operation Crusader until the climactic Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, the desert war continued to rage back and forth.

While it was a daring operation carried out with heroism, the raid on Rommel’s headquarters had turned into a costly and unnecessary disaster. British intelligence was correct that the Prefettura in Beda Littoria had been used by the general, but only briefly. It was only by chance that Captain Haselden had spotted him there; Rommel was making a routine visit to the Afrika Korps quartermaster general’s staff, which had taken over the building.

The Desert Fox had long since shifted his lair to a location much closer to the front lines. In fact, and unknown at the British intelligence offices in Cairo, Rommel was not even in North Africa at the time of the raid. He had been flown to Rome two weeks before to rest and celebrate his 50th birthday.

Toward the British raiders who had sought to capture or kill him, Rommel reacted with characteristic chivalry. He defied Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s newly issued directive ordering the immediate execution of captured Commandos and arranged for Colonel Keyes to be buried with full honors. The German general’s chaplain conducted the ceremony as Keyes was laid to rest beside four Afrika Korps soldiers killed in the raid. Rommel gave a funeral oration and, in an unprecedented soldierly gesture, pinned his own Iron Cross on the Briton’s body.

The young colonel was subsequently gazetted on June 19, 1942, and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. A memorial service in London’s Westminster Abbey was attended by some of the Commandos who had survived the doomed raid. Colonel Keyes’s remains were later reburied at the Eighth Army cemetery in Benghazi.

The raid served to point up flaws in the training and tactics of British Special Forces units. Eighteen months after the raising of the Commandos, and despite the fighting spirit displayed in Beda Littoria, there was still much to be learned. Inadequate planning and faulty intelligence were stressed as the Combined Operations chiefs critiqued the mission.

The Commandos learned their bitter lessons and went on to serve in many World War II campaigns as a peerless special force—mentoring the U.S. Rangers and setting an example for other elite assault units in the years to come.

Frequent contributor Michael D. Hull has written on numerous topics for WWII History. He resides in Enfield, Connecticut.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Michael D. Hull originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Tallinn: This Town Was Nearly the Soviet Union's Grave

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 17:33

Warfare History Network

Security, Eurasia

The Soviets lost nearly their entire navy, and therefore the whole war, at Tallinn.

Key Point: 

Early in World War II, a bitter joke circulated within the Soviet military. It ran, “What is the first thing Russia does when war is declared? It scuttles the fleet!” The joke referred to sad events in Russian naval history. In 1855, after the Crimean War, Russia lost the right to maintain a fleet in the Black Sea, and in 1904-1905 during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, Russia lost two out of its three fleets. In 1941, the Soviet Union, born out of old Imperial Russia’s ashes, almost lost its Baltic Fleet.

Containing the Soviet Fleet

In 1940, without firing a shot, the Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. Along with territorial acquisition, this move was a major coup in projecting Soviet naval presence westward. Besides taking in the tiny navies and merchant marine fleets of the three states, the Soviet Red Banner Baltic Fleet acquired a number of important naval bases on the Baltic Sea. Chief among them was Tallinn, capital of Estonia and a major port city. A chain of several other bases, including a large one at Riga, the Latvian capital, extended farther west along the coast.

On June 22, 1941, mutual expansionist policies inevitably brought Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union into armed conflict. Lacking capital ships in the Gulf of Finland, which rated a low priority, the German Marinekommando Nord fleet consisted mainly of torpedo boats, minesweepers, and submarine flotillas, augmented by the small but skilled Finnish Navy. In contrast, its opponent, the vastly superior Soviet Baltic Fleet, was composed of two battleships, four cruisers, and 15 destroyers plus numerous smaller craft and submarines.

The rapid pace of the German invasion of the Soviet Union took the Soviet High Command by surprise. As German troops briskly pressed eastward through the Baltic States, the Soviet naval bases began falling like dominoes. The escaping Soviet naval vessels were being pushed farther east into the Gulf of Finland. By mid-August 1941, Tallinn had become the westernmost Soviet naval base on the Baltic Sea.

Just days before hostilities began, the German Kriegsmarine and its Finnish allies had begun laying extensive minefields in strategic locations in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans and Finns relied heavily on mines to negate the Soviet advantage and to protect their own shipping lanes. East of Tallinn, in the immediate vicinity of Cape Juminda, was a heavily mined area of the Gulf of Finland. This major minefield was designed to interdict Soviet operations between their Kronstadt base on Kotlin Island near Leningrad and the rest of the Baltic Sea. Overall, more than 2,000 mines were in place in Juminda waters.

From the opening of hostilities, the Soviet Navy lost the initiative despite its numerical and qualitative superiority. Its losses began to mount steadily, mainly falling prey to mines. Hardly a day went by without a ship sunk, often with all hands. Aggressively led German and Finnish light forces effectively cowed the Soviet naval presence in the Baltic.

On the landward side, Red Army forces were led by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who possessed the highest Soviet military rank but was not a capable military tactician. His paramount attribute was complete political reliability and unquestioning obedience to the instructions of Premier Josef Stalin. Despite his best efforts, Voroshilov was completely unable to shore up his crumbling front.

Driving toward Leningrad, German Army Group North brushed aside the Soviet Eighth Army, the closest Soviet formation to Tallinn. No plans to defend the city from a land-based attack were prepared before the war, and it was too late now. On July 22, the Germans struck at the juncture of the X and XI Rifle Corps of the Eighth Army. As a result of this action, the X Rifle Corps was cut off from the rest of the army and fell back to the vicinity of Tallinn. On August 5, the Germans cut the Tallinn-Leningrad railroad and reached the coast of the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn now lay 200 miles behind the German lines.

The Defense of Tallinn

Responsibility for defending the city and the naval base fell to the commander of the Baltic Sea Fleet, Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs. The Red Army forces available for defense were woefully insufficient, consisting mainly of the depleted X Rifle Corps and the 22nd NKVD (Secret Police) Division, which had performed guard and escort duties in the Baltic states before the war, shuttling prisoners to the horrific gulags.

To supplement the Army troops, any sailors who could be spared from the ships were formed into naval infantry detachments to fight on land. In addition, all naval shore facilities were swept of nonessential personnel, and they were placed in naval infantry detachments as well. These measures produced more than 10,000 sailors to bolster the city’s defenses. Additionally, several militia regiments totaling close to 4,000 Latvian and Estonian communists and volunteers joined the defenders. There was no time to train the sailors and militia units in infantry skills, and they suffered appalling casualties in the subsequent fighting. Initially, there were not enough rifles to arm them, and the weapons had to be flown in from Kronstadt.

Because of the weakness of the ground forces, artillery became the backbone of Tallinn’s defenses. Ships anchored in Tallinn’s harbor provided fire support for ground units. Numerous naval spotter teams were placed with the ground units to facilitate fire control, but frequent communication difficulties made the massive naval gunfire often ineffective. Still, on many occasions, all that prevented German breakthroughs was the tremendous volume of fire provided by the cruiser Kirovand her destroyer escorts. Additional fire support came from large-caliber shore batteries, some mounting 305mm guns.

As the Germans came closer and closer, the Red Air Force lost its airfields as well, with most of the surviving aircraft flying east where they joined in the defense of Leningrad. A small number of older Ilyushin I-16 fighters belonging to the Soviet Navy continued operating for a time from a tiny landing strip jammed between a fishing village and the water’s edge. Eventually, they followed their Air Force counterparts eastward, and Tallinn was left without air support.

On August 21, the Germans breached the defenses of the city itself. Despite valiant efforts, the dwindling Soviet forces could not hold them back. Tallinn’s harbor was now within range of German field artillery, and Soviet ships began taking hits. This caused the ships to frequently change positions, reducing the effectiveness of their fire and further weakening the land defenses.

The Red Army Evacuates

Despite the gravity of their situation, nobody at the headquarters of the Baltic Sea Fleet, including Admiral Tributs, dared to ask Voroshilov for permission to evacuate the city. Punishment for being labeled a “panic-monger” was very real, often carrying the death penalty. Finally, on August 25, Tributs went over Voroshilov’s head and submitted a carefully phrased request for instructions to Chief of the Navy Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov. The last portion of the report stated, “The harbors and piers are under enemy fire. The Military Council … is requesting your instructions and decisions concerning the ships, units of the 10th Corps and fleet shore defenses in case of enemy breakthrough into town itself and the pullback of our forces to the sea. Embarkation on transports in this eventuality would be impossible.” Tributs’s concern mirrored Admiral Kuznetsov’s own misgivings, and he took this matter directly to the high command. After much deliberation, permission to evacuate Tallinn and break through to Kronstadt was finally granted late on the evening of August 26.

With permission granted, the Soviets began frantic planning for the evacuation of over 200 ships and close to 40,000 military personnel and civilians. The ships gathered in Tallinn’s harbor were a hodgepodge of both warships and support vessels ranging in size from massive civilian passenger liners converted into transports to the heavy cruiser Kirov, destroyers, submarines, and tugboats.

Fortunately, while waiting for final orders, senior Soviet commanders had already put together contingency plans for evacuation. Now these plans had to be finalized and last-minute corrections made. At the same time, special teams began destroying military equipment that could not be evacuated. The city’s utilities and other infrastructure were also rendered inoperable to deny their use to the enemy.

Three Routes of Retreat

There were three routes of retreat to Kronstadt through the Gulf of Finland, which is only 20 nautical miles wide in some places. The northern route, close to the Finnish shore and under the enemy air support umbrella, was immediately ruled unacceptable even though it was almost completely free of mines. According to intelligence reports that the British government passed on to its Soviet allies, there were no German capital ships in the Baltic Sea or the Gulf of Finland. Lacking their own intelligence sources, the Soviet commanders still classified the British reports as unconfirmed and unreliable. Without any concrete data about the German surface fleet, Soviet admirals allowed for the possibility of German warships attempting to interfere with the run to Kronstadt.

The southern route would have taken the fleet along almost 200 miles of coastline occupied by German forces. Orders arrived from Voroshilov’s headquarters expressly forbidding Tributs to evacuate his fleet along this route. Ostensibly, these categorical instructions stemmed from the fact that this route would expose the fleet to treacherous and shallow waters and fire from German shore batteries. Several senior officers headed by Rear Admiral Yuriy F. Rall argued that this channel already had been successfully navigated by more than 200 ships. German artillery fire that could be brought to bear on the fleet would be conducted mainly by field artillery, easily countered by the heavier and more numerous guns of the Soviet naval vessels. Even a shore battery mounting 150mm guns captured by Germans at Cape Juminda was no threat to the Soviet ships.

The real reason for denying the southern route was Soviet mistrust of the Latvian and Estonian crews of numerous transports carrying evacuees and equipment. This paranoia was fed for two reasons. There was an incident in which a converted transport captained and crewed largely by Estonian civilian sailors had been intentionally run aground on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland so that the crew could defect to the Germans. It was also feared that the crews of Soviet naval vessels, given an opportunity, might defect to the Germans.

Therefore, the Soviet high command ordered the evacuation from Tallinn to proceed along the middle route, even though it was thickly sown with German and Finnish mines. The Germans and Finns had been mining the waters of the middle route even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Axis sailors had been amazed at the apparent Soviet passivity.

Planning the Evacuation

The mission was made further hazardous by the dearth of minesweeping vessels. Obsessed with powerful warships, the Soviet shipbuilding industry had severely neglected the production of support vessels, and the Soviet Navy entered the war with a pronounced shortage of minesweeping capability. To further aggravate the problem, those minesweepers that were available were often used in capacities for which they were not designed, especially as transport ships. Admiral Rall and his staff estimated that almost 100 minesweepers would be necessary to adequately lead the Baltic Fleet during the breakout from Tallinn. Instead, only 10 modern minesweepers were available. They were supplemented by 17 older and slower converted trawlers and a dozen converted Navy cutters.

This small number of minesweepers was tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of shepherding more than 200 vessels to safety. The civilian transports, including 22 large ones, were divided into four convoys, each closely guarded by a few small naval vessels and led by older trawler minesweepers. The naval force was split into three elements: the main force, the covering force, and the rear guard. Ten modern minesweepers were allocated five each to lead the first two combat elements, particularly safeguarding the Kirov.

According to plan, the civilian and military convoys were to leave Tallinn on a staggered schedule. The Soviets were well aware of the danger posed to the convoys by mines off Cape Juminda, and they developed a schedule to allow the ships to traverse the minefields during daylight hours.

The evacuation route was divided into two portions, from Tallinn to Gogland Island, roughly in the middle of Gulf of Finland, and from Gogland to Kronstadt. The first section presented the most danger because of the minefields off Cape Juminda and the lack of air cover. Reaching Gogland Island by nightfall, the fleet would be within range of air cover based at Leningrad and Kronstadt. In addition, a task force of ships from Kronstadt was organized and stationed at Gogland to assist in any rescue and recovery efforts.

The whole operation would require very careful timing. Under relentless German pressure, Soviet ground units were barely holding the line on the outskirts of Tallinn. Admiral Tributs and his staff realized that some of these troops would have to be sacrificed and abandoned to fight hopeless rearguard actions, allowing the majority of forces to embark aboard ships. To avoid a panicked retreat to the harbor, the forward units were not informed about the pullback until the afternoon of August 27. Barricades were erected in the streets for the last-ditch defense. But as they observed NKVD troops manning barricades, many people came to realize that the barricades went up not to halt the Germans but to prevent a panicked rush to the harbor.

Chaos at the Pier

By 8 pm, the withdrawal began in earnest under a protective barrage of naval gunfire. Instead of an orderly retreat, the embarkation immediately deteriorated into complete chaos. The Soviet defenders could no longer hold back the Germans, who continually shelled the harbor. Several transport ships, with shells falling around them, were forced to leave their embarkation stations without picking up their designated units and evacuees.

Crowds of soldiers, sailors, and civilians were surging back and forth along the piers, storming the gangways of waiting transports. People were trampled underfoot in the maddened rush to the ships. The scene was punctuated by exploding German artillery shells and backlit by the burning city. “The whole town appeared to be engulfed in flames; burning and exploding,” recalled Admiral Tributs in his memoirs.

While several transports cast off largely empty, the majority of vessels were overcrowded. Writer Nikolai G. Mikhailovskiy, attached to the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, recalled, “The staterooms are filled to overflowing. People are standing, sitting and lying down in the narrow corridors and on decks. Many, coming off line after sleepless nights, settled on deck. One had to step over them in order to get from one point to another … The whole shore is aflame. It is strange that during a bright sunny day the harbors are darkened by smoke. Signals relayed by flags are impossible to see. The searchlights shine brightly. Only they can penetrate this incredible darkness.”

As the transports filled up, they cast off and slowly moved to their staging areas off Naissar and Aegna Islands across the bay from Tallinn. In many cases, people desperate to get aboard continued clinging to the gangways, often forcing the crews to cut the gangways in order to get clear of the pier. Over 23,000 troops, including more than 4,000 wounded and several thousand civilian evacuees, were taken aboard. Despite Vice Admiral Yuriy A. Panteleyev’s claim in his memoirs that not a single platoon was abandoned to the enemy, almost 10,000 more men were left behind on Tallinn’s piers.

The wind continued picking up throughout August 27, creating choppy seas and further exacerbating the chaotic embarkation. Because of these delays, the first convoy did not sail until noon on August 28, a full 12 hours behind schedule. The naval and civilian convoys stretched in a line more than 15 miles long. Owing to deployed minesweeps, which required slow speeds to be effective, the convoys crept along at under 10 knots.

Bombs from the Air, Bombs in the Sea

Things quickly began to go wrong. Less than one hour into the voyage and several miles east of Aegna Island, one of the minesweeping trawlers leading the first convoy hit a mine and disappeared under the waves within seconds. The appearance of a mine in waters considered to be safe shocked everyone. The most likely explanation for this tragedy was that the heavy winds and waves generated by the previous night’s storm tore loose the moorings of a mine and the gulf’s current carried it into the midst of the Soviet ships. This loss was the forewarning of swarms of loose mines that were to plague the Soviet convoys for the next two days.

Undeterred, the convoy sailed on. German bombers appeared overhead and cautiously attacked the strung-out convoys. The Soviet Navy ships, spaced along the line of civilian transports, put up a spirited antiaircraft barrage and managed to keep the German planes at bay for a time.

Around 6 pm, the first civilian convoy arrived off Cape Juminda and its minefields. The nightmare began. At 6:05, a large explosion went up at the head of the convoy. The transport Ella, a passenger ship converted into a military transport, hit a mine and began to sink. The tugboat S-101, following in her wake and herself overloaded with evacuees, moved in to assist and hit a mine as well, virtually disintegrating. Of more than 1,000 passengers and crew aboard Ella, most of them wounded, fewer than 100 people were subsequently rescued. No one was saved from S-101.

German aircraft now renewed their attacks. Shortly after Ella went down, the icebreaker Voldemarswas hit by a bomb and sunk with significant loss of life. The large transport Vironia, a converted liner, was damaged by two near misses. Its upper decks, thickly packed with evacuees, were swept by steel fragments, tossing people aside in disfigured heaps and throwing overboard many passengers, both alive and dead. The rescue vessel Saturn moved in and took the damaged transport in tow. Several minesweepers, desperately attempting to keep the 200-meter channel clear, hit mines themselves and went down in quick succession.

Under relentless air attacks, Soviet ships were forced to maneuver to avoid the bombs. This compelled them to leave the narrow channel cleared by the minesweepers. Several naval vessels went down as if chasing each other to the bottom of the gulf. One of them was Saturn, leaving the practically immobile Vironia bobbing in the water.

Around 6:30, with the Soviet convoys floundering in the minefields in full view of Cape Juminda, a German battery, well-camouflaged in the wooded terrain, opened fire on the Soviet ships. However, its 150mm guns were no match for the ships’ heavier armament. One of the destroyers closed in and laid down a thick smoke screen, while Kirov replied with several volleys of its nine 180mm main guns. It was unknown whether the German battery was destroyed, but it fell silent.

More Casualties to Mines

There was no safety anywhere. Just before 10 pm, the submarine S-5, closely following Kirov on the surface, hit a mine and disappeared under the waves. Shortly thereafter, Kirov caught a mine in the right paravane, forcing the cruiser to stop. While a welder was lowered almost to the water’s surface to cut loose the metal pole with a torch, another mine became entangled in the left paravane. Valuable time was lost cutting loose and replacing both paravanes. While this was going on, the destroyer Gordiy, escorting the cruiser, hit a mine and lost mobility. It was eventually able to get moving again and limped to Kronstadt on its own.

Shortly after Gordiy was damaged, the venerable Yakov Sverdlov, originally commissioned in 1913 as Novik and lending its name to a class of destroyers, went down. Enjoying a distinguished combat record in World War I, this ship held a special place in Tributs’s heart as the only vessel the admiral had ever commanded. He witnessed the Sverdlov’s demise from Kirov’s bridge: “At 20:47 hours, suddenly a column of fire and smoke 200-250 meters high burst out from under Yakov Sverdlov’s body and settled down hissing, burying the surviving crew members … only several dozens of men were saved.”

As more and more ships sank or became disabled, the convoys lost cohesion and became intermingled. Naval detachments, moving on a nearly parallel course to the civilian convoys, often passed by the vulnerable and defenseless transports without providing fire support for them.

In the gathering darkness, lookouts were posted on the ships’ bows to spot mines. At about 10 pm, a mine exploded near the destroyer Minsk, the flagship of Rear Admiral Pantelyev. The explosion reverberated through the destroyer, bursting seams in multiple compartments and leaving the vessel inoperable. Pantelyev ordered another destroyer, the Skoriy, to render assistance. The majority of Pantelyev’s staff officers transferred to the other destroyer. Skoriy hardly had time to cast off and attempt to take Minsk in tow before also striking a mine, breaking in two, and sinking in front of stunned onlookers.

The slaughter continued. The frigate Tsiklon went down, falling prey to a mine. Only 15 minutes after Skoriy was lost, another destroyer, Slavniy, was soon damaged but remained afloat and continued moving under its own power. Shortly thereafter, the destroyer Kalinin, with Rear Admiral Rall aboard, hit a mine and began slowly sinking. As the destroyer Volodarskiy was transferring wounded crewmen from the Kalinin, it hit a mine as well and went under. Admiral Rall, suffering from a concussion, was taken aboard a cutter. The destroyer Artyom also went down.

The toll of noncombatant vessels was also high. The damaged transport Vironia hit a mine and sank. Even a near miss from an exploding bomb would create havoc on ships overflowing with evacuees. The fate of immobilized wounded men, swathed in bandages and plaster and often trapped below decks in compartments blazing with fire or filling with icy water, was particularly terrifying. The ships of the first civilian convoy experienced particularly heavy casualties.

The Convoy Recuperates

As the convoys doggedly continued eastward, many of them had to navigate through floating debris fields and spreading oil slicks of destroyed and damaged vessels. In many instances, unable to stop, they mowed under the survivors bobbing in the water among dead bodies. Whenever possible, though, every effort was extended to rescue the survivors. Still, hundreds perished, succumbing to wounds and exposure. Hundreds more were plucked from sure death in cold water, desperately clinging to whatever pieces of debris that would float. In one truly miraculous instance, a sailor was rescued after clinging to a floating mine for hours.

Throughout the day there were multiple false sightings of German submarines. Every time a phantom periscope was spotted on the surface, one or two destroyers or sub chasers would dart out and drop depth charges. Despite multiple claims by Soviet eyewitnesses, no German submarine operated in the area at the time.

Worried about attacks by German and Finnish torpedo boats as well, the Soviet ships twice opened fire on a group of unidentified small vessels racing toward the fleet. Because of the lack of coordination and communication, the torpedo boats thought to be enemy vessels turned out to be a Soviet detachment returning from screening and scouting north of the main channel. The friendly fire incident resulted in one Soviet torpedo boat taking a direct hit and disintegrating.

With darkness falling, it became impossible to navigate the mine-studded waters, and Admiral Tributs ordered all ships to halt where they were. Even though this went against accepted naval doctrine, the halt at least eliminated the possibility of ships running into stationary mines. German aircraft disappeared with nightfall as well, and now the only danger lay with floating mines cast adrift in the waves. On most ships men lined up along the sides, armed with poles for pushing away the mines. In many cases volunteers took turns jumping into the water to guide the mines away from the ships with their bare hands.

During the halt, almost no crewmen were able to rest. Those not directly standing watch or dealing with floating mines were frantically conducting whatever repairs they could. Small cutters darted from ship to ship assessing damage. The scope of the disaster began to take shape. The destroyer force, representing the bulk of Tributs’s naval contingent, was cut in half. Admiral Rall’s rearguard force ceased to exist, and he was injured. Of the main force, only one destroyer and one frigate still accompanied the Kirov. Even worse, a significant number of the priceless minesweepers had been lost.

Abandoning the Transports

At dawn on August 29, good weather meant the return of marauding German bombers. Having moved clear of the minefields, the naval vessels, now unencumbered by mine sweeps and paravanes, raced ahead at more than 20 knots. Around 5 pm, Kirov’s group arrived at Kronstadt. Its hasty departure left the virtually defenseless transports at the mercy of German aircraft, which appeared around 7 am.

While significant numbers of German planes pursued the departing warships, especially concentrating on Kirov’s group, the majority of Luftwaffe aircraft fell upon the defenseless civilian transports. Beset by German dive-bombers, most transport captains gave up any hope of reaching Kronstadt. At most, they hoped to reach Gogland Island and disgorge their human cargo before German bombs could send them to the bottom of the gulf.

Shortly before 8 am, the large transport Kazakhstan, loaded with almost 5,000 soldiers and civilian evacuees, was damaged by bombs. Its captain, N. Kalitaev, was tossed overboard by the shockwave. Severe panic ensued aboard, with people jumping into the water. After heroic efforts, however, the crew of the transport managed to make minimal repairs and keep the ship afloat. After being thrown overboard and suffering a concussion, Kalitaev was rescued by a submarine and delivered to Kronstadt on the evening of August 29, a full day before Kazakhstan limped in. Arrested by the NKVD and accused of cowardice and abandoning his post, Kalitaev was promptly shot despite multiple testimonies of his innocence.

Under a rain of German bombs, the transports continued their race to Gogland. On many ships the soldiers desperately attempted to keep German aircraft at bay with rifle and pistol fire. As the hours ticked by, transport losses mounted to include Naissaar, Ergonautis, Balkhash, Tobol, Ausma, Kalpaks, Evald, Atis Kronvaldis, Skrunda, and Alev.

Several damaged transports managed to limp to Gogland and run themselves aground, disembarking their passengers. German aircraft easily found the immobile transports and finished them off. By the end of the day the burned-out hulks of transports Vtoraya Pyatiletka, Ivan Papanin, Lake Lucerne, and floating workshop Serp-i-Molot smoked on Gogland’s beaches. Still, despite tragic losses, more than 12,000 people were offloaded on Gogland Island and eventually shuttled to Kronstadt and Leningrad. But before they were taken off the island, German aircraft made several low-level passes, strafing the survivors with machine guns and dropping bombs. Scores of people who thought themselves safe died on this tiny speck of land.

As the transports were being pounded into oblivion by German aircraft, scores of smaller vessels slipped by Gogland Island and headed to Kronstadt. They continued the struggle until the afternoon of August 30. The Tallinn breakout was over.

A Success or a Disaster?

Events at Tallinn were comparable to the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk over a year earlier. At Dunkirk, 338,000 Allied soldiers escaped the Germans. This was accomplished under British air cover and over a much shorter distance, 20 miles compared with 200 at Tallinn.

The results of the Tallinn breakout are disputed as simultaneously a success and a disaster. Despite the loss of more than 11,000 evacuees, including roughly 3,000 civilians, almost 17,000 people, mostly evacuated ground troops, reached Leningrad and joined in the defense of the city. The Kirov was saved, along with the destroyers Minsk and Leningrad. Of the original 10 destroyers, five were lost, mostly of the old Novik class. The guns mounted on Kirov and the destroyers assisted in the defense of Leningrad, and the majority of the smaller naval vessels made it back as well. The real losses were among the civilian vessels, with more than 40 of them, including 19 large transports, sunk.

The Soviet government offered little official comment about the events. To this day, virtually no declassified information exists on the evacuation of Tallinn.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Victor J. Kamenir originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Providing Poland With the M1 Abrams Would Help Secure NATO’s Eastern Flank

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 17:11

Dan Goure

M1 Abrams, Europe

Helping frontline nations such as Poland acquire the means to operate as a stand-in force is of vital importance to the Alliance’s deterrence mission.

NATO’s 2021 summit in Brussels came and went without much fanfare, largely overshadowed by the Biden-Putin meeting that immediately followed. Yet significant steps were taken with respect to enhancing the Alliance’s security. Chief among these was a clear statement by the Biden administration of its support for NATO. Washington also reaffirmed the importance of the Article V commitment to respond to an attack on one Alliance member as an attack on all.

The summit’s communique stated the Alliance’s determination to strengthen and modernize the NATO force structure both now and, in the future, to ensure deterrence. In addition, the communique put members on record that they would build a flexible, agile, and resilient force architecture “with the right forces in the right place at the right time.”

But for what contingencies? While the NATO summit discussed a range of threats to allies’ security, it made clear that the primary focus of NATO’s deterrence and defense mission was Russia. In this context, the communique noted the significant growth of the military threat Moscow poses to the free and democratic nations of Europe.

“We reaffirm our commitment to respond in a measured, balanced, coordinated, and timely way to Russia’s growing and evolving array of conventional and nuclear-capable missiles, which is increasing in scale and complexity and which poses significant risks from all strategic directions to security and stability across the Euro-Atlantic area,” the communique stated. “We will continue to implement a coherent and balanced package of political and military measures to achieve Alliance objectives, including strengthened integrated air and missile defence; advanced defensive and offensive conventional capabilities.”

The 2021 summit also reaffirmed the importance of NATO 2030, the Allies’ plan to ensure that NATO remains strong politically, militarily, and technologically through the next decade. Recognizing that more than strong words were necessary, the members directed the secretary-general to make concrete proposals for implementing a more robust capability to respond to a range of threats.

In response to this directive, the secretary-general commissioned a Reflection Group in 2019 to propose concrete actions that the Alliance could undertake to meet objectives identified in the NATO 2030 document. The Reflection Group called on the Alliance to focus its military investments on portions of Alliance territory under threat from Russia. In particular, it concluded that NATO should do more to strengthen defenses along its eastern flank. In its final report, the Reflection Group recommended that “NATO must maintain adequate conventional and nuclear military capabilities and possess the agility and flexibility to confront aggression across the Alliance’s territory, including where Russian forces are either directly or indirectly active, particularly on NATO’s eastern flank (emphasis added). Non-U.S. Allies need to step up their efforts to ensure that their financial commitments and military contributions match NATO’s strategic needs and can deliver an effective balance between U.S. commitments and the development of other Allies’ capabilities.”

NATO has taken important steps to strengthen its capabilities along its eastern flank to deter Russian aggression. The presence of NATO forces in the area has been enhanced by the deployment of multi-national groups in frontline nations. Notably, fighter aircraft from different NATO countries are providing routine air policing above the Baltic states.

The United States has significantly enhanced its military presence along the eastern flank, including around the Baltic and Black Seas. In November 2020, Warsaw and Washington signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that provided for the stationing of U.S. forces and military equipment on Polish territory. These include the rotational presence of an armored brigade combat team (ABCT), prepositioned stock for an additional ABCT, key enablers such as long-range fires and drones, and the forward element of the newly reactivated V Corps.

NATO members on the front line with Russia—the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania—have taken concerted steps to enhance their capabilities to confront the threat posed by improving Russian conventional forces. The Baltic states and Poland have each met or exceeded the NATO defense spending goal of two percent of their GDP. All have sought to replace their aging Soviet-era equipment with modern Western systems that also provide enhanced interoperability.  

Poland, the keystone to the defense of NATO’s eastern flank, has undertaken a long-term, multi-billion-dollar program to modernize its military. Poland has acquired the Patriot air and missile defense systems and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System long-range rocket artillery platform. Most recently, it signed a contract for fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets.

U.S. and NATO forces along the eastern flank are the equivalent of the stand-in force Commandant David Berger envisions for the U.S. Marine Corps. They will be operating from the start of a conflict within the engagement zones of Russian long-range anti-access and area denial capabilities. They must be able to withstand an initial blow, slow down the advance of Russian forces, and strike critical targets.

To pose the kind of deterrent that would dissuade Russia from military adventurism, Poland needs to finish modernizing the remainder of its tank fleet before Russia can achieve an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces. Poland’s army still operates some five  hundred obsolete Russian-designed tanks that are more than thirty years old. The Biden administration should encourage and support a Polish effort to acquire the M1 Abrams tank.

This action would have several benefits. First, it would substantially improve Poland’s capabilities for high-end heavy combat. When it comes to conventional war, even in the twenty-first century, tanks matter. Second, it would send a further signal to Moscow that Washington intends to back up its words in support of NATO with deeds. Third, it would support interoperability between Polish and U.S. forces and improve sustainment for the Polish military.

Helping frontline nations such as Poland acquire the means to operate as a stand-in force is of vital importance to the Alliance’s deterrence mission. Providing Poland with a version of the M1 Abrams tank and encouraging its industry to be involved in sustaining U.S. and Polish Abrams tanks would be a significant statement of NATO’s commitment to the defense of its eastern flank.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.

Image: Reuters.

No Stimulus Check For You: Not Every Parent Is Eligible for the Child Tax Credit

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 16:33

Trevor Filseth

Child Tax Credit,

One of the criticisms of government assistance—both the Child Tax Credit in previous years and the last three rounds of stimulus payments—is that it is often not means-tested strictly enough.

Here's What You Need to Remember: Children who provide at least half of their own financial support—child actors, for instance—are not eligible for the credit.

Starting on July 15, roughly thirty-six million American households will receive the first of six Child Tax Credit payments. Each month from July until December, eligible families will receive either $250 or $300 per child per month, depending on the child’s age. At the end of the six-month period, the families will have received half of the total tax credit; the other half can be deducted from a family’s taxes when it comes time to file in April 2022.

Around 92 percent of all American families will be eligible for the Child Tax Credit. However, this means that just under one in ten families will not receive it. This is largely because of the income restrictions included with the tax credit, but there are a number of other, less common reasons a family might be ineligible, too.

Making Too Much Money

One of the criticisms of government assistance—both the Child Tax Credit in previous years and the last three rounds of stimulus payments—is that it is often not means-tested strictly enough. For instance, in 2011, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, then worth $18 billion, was able to claim $4000 in Child Tax Credit assistance for his four children.

The updated Child Tax Credit payments, passed in March 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, have partially addressed this problem. Prior to the legislation, the upper income cut-off for Child Tax Credit payments was $400,000 for couples and $200,000 for single parents. The March bill reduced it to $150,000 for couples and $75,000 for single parents.

If a person makes more than this amount, then they might still receive a partial credit, but the payment amount will be substantially decreased.

Other Disqualifications

Parents who share joint custody of their children cannot both qualify for the credit; one or the other must be eligible. Along the same lines, children must live with the receiving parent for at least six months out of the year.

Additionally, both the recipient and the dependent must be U.S. citizens, although if one parent is a non-citizen, the family as a whole is still eligible for the credit.

Children must have either a social security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to receive the credit. Children with only Adoption Taxpayer Identification Numbers are not eligible.

Finally, children who provide at least half of their own financial support—child actors, for instance—are not eligible for the credit.

A Note to Non-Filers

The IRS is basing its payment scheme based off of the 2019 and 2020 tax returns for families. This means a family that received the Child Tax Credit in 2020 will likely receive it again this year, if their children are still below the age of eighteen.

The reliance on previous tax returns means that the IRS does not know to send the credit to non-filers. However, non-filers are still eligible for the credit; they simply have to register on the IRS’s website, using a portal specially created for this purpose. The payment will be sent out, even if a recipient does not ordinarily make enough money to pay taxes in the first place.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters

Un ethnologue au Tour de France

Le Monde Diplomatique - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 16:30
Cyclisme et football, sports éminemment populaires, passionnent de plus en plus le public dit « cultivé » : étudiants, enseignants, cadres, artistes, créateurs... Pourquoi un tel engouement ? / Société, Sport - 1997/08 / , - 1997/08

These Elite Soldiers Gave the Axis Powers Chills

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 16:00

Warfare History Network

Security, Europe

U.S. Army Rangers were some of America's finest soldiers in the Second World War.

Key Point: They were members of the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion, recruited earlier that month in Northern Ireland from among the 34th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division. Their leader was a lean, young West Pointer from Arkansas named William Orlando Darby. He marched resolutely ahead, setting an example for his men to keep up the pace.

On a June morning in 1942, a battalion of American soldiers stepped down from a train at Fort William in the northern highlands of Scotland. Bagpipes of the Cameron Highlanders’ band sounded the call to battle, and the Americans were greeted by Lt. Col. Charles Vaughan, a burly, ruddy-cheeked British Army officer. Radiating enthusiasm and goodwill, he welcomed the Americans to Scotland and told them he would lead the way to Achnacarry Castle, site of the British Commando training depot.

The GIs slung their rifles and packs, formed a column, and followed the band up a hilly road. Heartened by the skirling of the pipes, the Americans strode toward misty blue hills in the distance. The road grew steeper and feet began to drag after the first mile or two. On the Americans marched, mile after mile, as their packs seemed to grow heavier and sweat trickled down their backs.

The band played louder, as if to encourage the GIs, and Colonel Vaughan marched steadily ahead. Feet began to blister and the Americans groused to themselves, but they dared not fall out. They were all volunteers and had made a choice for action with a new, elite unit.

They were members of the U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion, recruited earlier that month in Northern Ireland from among the 34th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division. Their leader was a lean, young West Pointer from Arkansas named William Orlando Darby. He marched resolutely ahead, setting an example for his men to keep up the pace.

On the column marched through a picture-book landscape of forested mountains, tangled undergrowth, lakes, and cold streams plunging down steep glens. The Camerons’ bagpipers skirled, and the weary Americans struggled on. At last, after 14 miles, the ancient turrets of Achnacarry Castle came into view, and then its vine-clad walls and emerald lawns. They had made it.

Colonel Vaughan praised the GIs on their marching and, with an impish grin, promised them more of the same in the future. The Americans rested and then toured their new home where they were to undergo training with the legendary British Commandos.

Set in a remote glen between Loch Arkaig and Loch Lochy, the Inverness-shire castle had served for centuries as the seat of Lochiel, chieftain of the Cameron Clan. Once a refuge for Bonnie Prince Charlie, it was now the finest infantry training center in the world, due largely to the untiring efforts of Colonel Vaughan, nicknamed the “Laird of Achnacarry” and “Rommel of the North.” Darby’s Rangers made their quarters in British bell tents and were invited to use a nearby icy stream for bathing. They had to get used to unappetizing British Army food—bully beef, beans, porridge, fish, and plum pudding—and endless quantities of tea. The Americans chafed, but when they complained, Colonel Vaughan would tell Darby, “It’s all part of the training, William, it’s all part of the training.”

The Rangers began their training without delay, and the Commandos did all they could both to make them feel at home and to find out what sort of men they were. At the depot were also Free French and Dutch soldiers, as well as Commando veterans of the ill-fated Norway and Lofoten Islands campaigns, numerous hit-and-run raids on the European coasts, and some who had escaped from Singapore and Somaliland.

Colonel Vaughan’s personality dominated the depot. A former drill sergeant in the crack Coldstream Guards and an officer in World War I, he had served as deputy commander of No. 4 Commando during the Norway raids in March 1941. He was tough but fair, and exacted maximum effort from his trainees. Vaughan and Darby quickly grew to like and respect each other, although some of the Britons harbored doubts about the stamina of the Americans.

William Darby was born on February 11, 1911, in Fort Smith, Ark., where he had a typical small-town childhood. He was a Boy Scout, part-time delivery boy, churchgoer, and avid reader. In high school, he displayed a flair for leadership and also seemed to be a born salesman. Friendly and willing, he was a handsome youth with blue eyes, a high forehead, a firm jaw, and a ready smile.

Young Bill decided on a military career, but it was not easy to secure appointments to the U.S. Military Academy in the 1920s. The Darbys persuaded their local congressman to recommend their son as a second alternate candidate. The young man eventually won a nomination and was admitted to West Point on July 1, 1929.

Darby became an enthusiastic member of the Long Gray Line. He was an exemplary cadet and a conscientious student, showing a fine balance of mental ability, leadership, and personality. He became a cadet company commander in his first class year, and was active in soccer, the glee club, 100th night shows, and as hop (dance) manager. When he graduated on June 13, 1933, with a bachelor of science degree, he stood 177th in a class of 346. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery.

Darby served with the 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, the only horse artillery regiment left in the Army, and fulfilled assignments in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Iowa. He gained experience as a troop leader, took school courses, and was rated as a superior young officer on his efficiency reports. In October 1940, at the age of 29, he was promoted to captain.

Early the following year, Darby was chosen to learn about amphibious warfare by taking part in a joint Army-Navy training operation in Puerto Rico. In November 1941, he was assigned to duty in Hawaii, but after the Pearl Harbor attack, he was reassigned as aide to Maj. Gen. Russell P. Hartle, commanding the 34th Infantry Division. The division sailed for Northern Ireland in January 1942. Early that May, Darby, itching for action, requested a transfer. It was turned down, but his chance was coming.

While the division had been training in Ulster, General George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, had visited the Achnacarry depot and decided that an American commando force should be formed. It would be called the “Rangers,” after the famous hit-and-run raiders led by Major Robert Rogers in the French and Indian Wars preceding the American Revolution. Marshall wanted U.S. troops to gain combat experience before the eventual Allied invasion of continental Europe. Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of British Combined Operations, agreed to allow the Americans to train under his Commandos in Scotland.

Almost 2,000 Enlisted Soldiers Volunteered to Serve As Rangers; 575 Were Chosen

General Lucian K. Truscott, Jr., implemented the project and authorized Hartle to raise the first American commando unit. Darby was assigned to it, and the 1st Ranger Battalion was activated on June 19, 1942. Notices were pinned on bulletin boards at the American camps in Ulster inviting GIs to sign up for adventure and a hardy life in the new Rangers. Darby set up a headquarters in Carrickfergus, 20 miles north of Belfast, and spent almost two weeks interviewing officer volunteers and about 2,000 enlisted men. Only those in good physical shape with athletic ability, stamina, and good judgment were chosen.

The original 1st Battalion comprised 575 officers and men organized in a headquarters company and six line companies. Truscott and Hartle took a special interest in the new unit. The volunteers ranged in age from 17 to 35 years and came from all parts of the United States. There were few regular soldiers and Darby was the only regular officer. The first Rangers included a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a bull fighter, a lion tamer, a wrestler, a professional gambler, a jazz trumpeter, a burlesque stagehand, a hotel detective, a Hollywood screenwriter, a church deacon, cowpunchers, American Indians, and a Cuban who was a machine-gun expert.

They were a tough bunch, but Colonel Vaughan’s grueling 12-week training course at Achnacarry was a rude awakening for them. They marched, ran, and climbed over the moors, up cliffs, and across frigid rivers as charges exploded in the water and live rounds were fired at them. Darby pushed them on, and Colonel Vaughan told the Americans, “It’s all in the mind and the heart.” After an unimpressive first 10 days, according to a British instructor, the fledgling Rangers “got with it.” They mastered a tough assault course, crawled across rope bridges, scaled cliffs, and paddled across the lochs while instructors fired machine guns at them.

They learned to kill with a twist of rope, a knife, or their boots or bare hands. They trained to fire a weapon accurately on the run, march 14 miles in just over two hours, build shelters from tree boughs, make a cooking fire that gave off little smoke, and to butcher and cook a doe in the woods. Some trainees even cooked and ate rats.

Most important, the Rangers learned the value of stealth and surprise in combat. The Commando training was rigorous and realistic (40 recruits were killed at Achnacarry during the war). The Americans adopted the Commandos’ methods and added some of their own. They specialized in night fighting, sleeping by day and rising at nightfall. They sat for an hour in darkness to adjust their eyes, and learned that you can hear distant sounds better if you stick a bayonet in the ground and put your ear to it.

After the Rangers completed their course, they were sent to a bleak island in the Hebrides for the “most miserable part of the training.” They endured driving rains, cold nights, and Royal Navy rations. There was some inevitable brawling between the Americans and British servicemen in the inns, the most notable being a 48-hour donnybrook during a leave in Oban. The Rangers did not fight with the Commandos, who by now were their comrades in arms, but there was resentment among the British because the Americans were paid twice as much. Some Britons were sure that all Rangers were paroled convicts. Eventually, the Americans were happy to move into civilian billets in Dundee.

Some of the Rangers received their first taste of action when 50 of them, led by Captain Roy Murray, took part as observers in the bloody, ill-fated raid on the French port of Dieppe by Commandos and Canadian infantry in August 1942. Sniping from a stable, Corporal Franklin Koons was the first American soldier to kill a German in ground action in World War II. He was later awarded the Military Medal by Lord Mountbatten. Another Ranger, when captured at Dieppe by the Germans, was asked how many more there were like him in England. “Three million, all as tall as I am,” he replied. When the survivors of the raid returned to England, a Ranger pronounced, “Commando training is real battle life insurance.”

Of the Americans who went to Dieppe, one British officer observed, “Everyone liked them and enjoyed their company.” That month, Darby was promoted to lieutenant colonel (temporary).

Darby’s 1st Ranger Battalion officially went into action for the first time in Operation Torch, the November 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa. The Western Task Force, commanded by Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., comprised infantry units and elements of Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon’s 2nd Armored Division. The Central Task Force going ashore at Oran was led by Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall and included the 1st Infantry (“Big Red One”) Division and Darby’s Rangers. At Algiers, the landing force included a British infantry division, a U.S. regimental combat team, and three British Commando units.

A total of 107,000 Allied troops took part, landing along the French North African coast from Algiers to Casablanca. After rehearsing for a major landing, Darby’s battalion had sailed from Glasgow aboard Royal Navy ships and joined a convoy from the United States.

The Central Task Force’s objective was the coast between Oran and Arzew. The plan was to land the 1st Division with the 16th and 18th Infantry Regimental Combat Teams at Arzew Bay and the 26th Infantry Regiment west of Oran. The Rangers were to land at Arzew, 30 miles east of Oran, and capture two coastal batteries, thereby ensuring for the Allies the port of Arzew and the naval base at Mers-el-Kebir.

Rangers Carried Rifles to Make Them Indistinguishable From Their Men so as not to Attract Enemy Snipers

A haze veiled the North African coast as the Rangers and Commandos began to land at 1 am on November 8, 1942. Colonel Darby led his men through the surf and up a steep cliff path. He had decided to split the 1st Battalion and attack the two batteries simultaneously. Four companies under his command would hit the larger Batterie du Nord on a hill overlooking Arzew Bay, while the other two companies under his executive officer, Major Herman Dammer, attacked the smaller Fort de la Pointe at the harbor’s edge. The Rangers were tense and ready for action.

Colonel Darby wondered how the Vichy French defenders would respond to an attack by Americans and gripped his trusty Springfield rifle. All Ranger officers carried rifles to make themselves indistinguishable from their men and not present special targets to enemy snipers.

While Darby led his four companies toward the Batterie du Nord, the Dammer force disembarked from five landing craft and converged on the harbor fort from two directions. All was quiet ashore as the Rangers stealthily cut through a barbed wire fence, overpowered a curious French sentry, and poured into the fort. After 15 minutes and a few quick shots, the Americans captured the batteries and a 60-man garrison. Even the wife of the post adjutant was captured.

Darby’s force trekked four miles from its landing beach over bluffs, along a coastal road, and up a ravine behind the Batterie du Nord. The Rangers had to seize the fort swiftly, otherwise they would be caught in Allied naval gunfire which was scheduled if the position was not captured. The Rangers cut through barbed wire and, supported by fire from light machine guns and trolley-borne 81mm mortars, dashed across open ground to seize the fort. Several men pushed Bangalore torpedoes into the muzzles of the fort’s big guns, others tossed grenades into ventilators, and still others barged through the main entrance, shooting a sentry. Sixty French defenders came out with their hands raised.

Major Dammer, meanwhile, radioed that he had taken his objective. Darby was jubilant. The action had cost only two dead and eight wounded through token resistance, and the Rangers had acquitted themselves admirably in their baptism of fire. At 4 am, four green Very lights shot into the sky from the Batterie du Nord to inform elements of the 1st Infantry Division five miles out to sea that the forts at Arzew would not hamper their landing. As planned, the signals were supposed to be followed by four white star shells. These, however, had been lost during the Rangers’ landing.

Colonel Darby grew nervous; he did not want his men endangered by naval gunfire. Eventually, he persuaded a Royal Navy forward observer party to signal a British destroyer, and she in turn transmitted the message to the American forces. Maj. Gen. Terry Allen had already started moving his 1st Infantry Division units when he saw the green flares, and by dawn the 16th and 18th Regimental Combat Teams were ashore.

Darby’s force captured more French officers and men, and Dammer’s soldiers cleaned out snipers in the harbor area. Sniping went on for three days, and when a French 75mm battery began firing at an Allied ship in the harbor, the Rangers stormed it. With Arzew in Allied hands the fighting moved inland. A Ranger company joined the 16th Infantry along the coast, while the rest of the 1st Ranger Battalion stayed in Arzew. Colonel Darby even acted as mayor of the town for a while.

He was pleased with his men. Several hundred prisoners had been taken and the Ranger losses were light, a total of four killed and 11 wounded. The training in Scotland had paid off. Darby said his men “hit the ground, fired their weapons, crawled or ran forward without deliberate or conscious thought … each Ranger knew his job, and anticipated events.”

When the 16th and 18th Regimental Combat Teams met stiff opposition at the villages of St. Cloud and La Macta, the Rangers went to assist. Lieutenant Max Schneider’s E Company commandeered a squadron of half-track personnel carriers and attacked a French 75mm battery at La Macta. The defenders threw up heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but the Rangers, aided by supporting fire from a British ship offshore, captured the village. At St. Cloud, Company C, led by Lieutenant Gordon Klefman, encircled the village, charged across a field, and pushed the defenders back. Klefman was mortally wounded, and his last command was: “Keep going! Keep going to the right and don’t worry about me.” The French surrendered around midafternoon.

When the fighting around Oran and Arzew ended, the Rangers felt they deserved a rest, but Colonel Darby disagreed. He thought they needed more training, so for almost three months they practiced night fighting, speed marching, mountain climbing, and amphibious landings. Darby devised a way for his men to maintain contact in the dark by using flashlights with pinpoints of different-colored light. The soldiers groused, wondering if they were going to spend the rest of war in training.

Darby’s Battalion Moved Swiftly and Silently in the Darkness, Covering 14 Miles in Just 2 Hours

Then, on February 1, 1943, the battalion was ordered to stand by for action. The Allied command in central and southern Tunisia needed information about the movements of German troops retreating from Tripolitania, particularly the identification of German and Italian divisions. Darby’s men climbed aboard 32 C-47 transports at Oran and flew to the Youks-les-Bains airfield near Tebessa. German planes bombed the airfield as the last truckload of Rangers left for the Tunisian front.

The trucks hauled the soldiers to a French outpost 20 miles west of their objective: a German-supported Italian strongpoint guarding the Sened Pass, where the road to the coast (at Sfax) runs between the Majoura and Biada Mountains. The Rangers were to raid three enemy positions in the Sened area, capture prisoners, and inflict as many casualties as they could, making the enemy think that Allied strength was greater than it actually was.

On the night of February 11, 1943, Darby’s battalion marched across the boulder-strewn slopes of the central Tunisian mountains toward Sened. Their faces were blackened, their boots saddle-soaped to prevent squeaking, and their dogtags taped down. They moved silently and swiftly, guided in the darkness by their red and green pinpricks of light. They bivouacked at dawn in a bowl between two peaks, having covered 14 miles in just over two hours.

When the sun rose, Captain Roy Murray pointed out to the section leaders the Sened Pass six miles away across a plateau. “We have got to leave our mark on these people,” he said. “They’ve got to know that they’ve been worked over by Rangers. Every man is to use his bayonet as much as he can. Those are our orders.”

The Rangers hid among the rocks during the day, and after dusk they moved down the slopes. The moon was bright. The Americans could hear enemy tanks and trucks rumbling along the road through the pass. The Rangers filed across the plateau around midnight. The moon set, and the desert became dark. The Americans scrambled silently up a rocky hill toward the Italian strongpoint, and at 2 am the companies formed a skirmish line.

Darby, his blackened face glistening with sweat and his uniform tattered, used a radio set to monitor his companies’ progress. As his men moved to within 200 yards of the enemy position, the Italians sensed danger and opened fire. Blue tracers crisscrossed over the Americans as they crawled forward on their bellies. Fifty yards from the wire, A Company on the left flank was fired on by a machine gun. The Rangers heard nervous sentries calling, “Qui va la? Qui va la?” (“Who goes there?”).

A 47mm cannon began raking the ground in front of the Rangers and then other guns opened up. Darby’s men crawled forward until they were below the Italian guns. The Americans tossed hand grenades and screamed and shouted. They scrambled up the final slope, blasting with rifles and Tommy guns, and jabbing with bayonets. Corporal James Altieri lost his footing and slipped into a slit trench occupied by an Italian soldier. The American whipped out his commando knife and jerked it into the man’s belly. He screamed and fell. Warm blood spurted over Altieri’s hand, and he turned away and vomited.

It was a brief but brutal melee as the Rangers went after the enemy swiftly and without mercy. “We swarmed over the remaining centers of resistance,” Altieri reported later, “grenading, bayoneting, shooting, screaming, cursing, and grunting. The remaining Italians never had a chance. We worked them over furiously, giving no quarter. It was sickening, brutal, inhuman.”

Six supporting mortars hammered the Italian position. Bedded down for the night, most of the enemy had been surprised. Many streamed from their tents, some tried to mount motorcycles and ride away, and others begged for mercy. The Rangers cleared the hill and captured 11 soldiers of the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment. The Americans destroyed six cannon and a dozen machine guns and gained useful information from the prisoners about enemy dispositions in Tunisia. More than a hundred Italians lay dead at the Sened Pass, while Darby lost only one man dead and 18 wounded.

Their mission accomplished, the Rangers rounded up their captives and prepared to withdraw. The 18 wounded Americans were placed on improvised stretchers slung between rifles. The Ranger code decreed that wounded were to be left behind after a raid if they were likely to delay a withdrawal, but Colonel Darby had no intention of adhering to the rule. The battalion formed two columns and made its way down the ravines in the dark. The men took turns carrying the wounded, and what little water remained was given to them. Dirty, weary, hungry, and thirsty, the Rangers struggled on, with Darby encouraging them: “Keep pushing, keep pushing!” He feared that they might be cut off by enemy tanks. The Americans made their way to the cover of mountains 12 miles away, and eventually to the French outpost, now guarded by British armored cars.

Darby was again proud of his men. They had defeated both the enemy and the inhospitable desert and had earned from the Italians the nickname “Black Death.” General Fredendall awarded the Silver Star for gallantry to Darby, four of his officers, and nine enlisted men.

On February 14, 1943, German panzer columns punched through the American lines in the Kasserine Pass area, sending the inexperienced U.S. II Corps reeling. The Rangers covered the corps’ withdrawal, and British Guards and armored units went to the rescue. Eventually, the U.S. 1st Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions were able to regroup and stabilize the lines. For several weeks Darby’s Rangers patrolled, took 30 prisoners, and defended the Dernaia Pass until the Battle of Kasserine was over. On March 1, the Rangers were ordered to the village of La Kouif for rest and refitting.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., had taken over and shaken up II Corps, which was expanded and ordered by the British First Army to mount an offensive to divert enemy reserves from the Mareth Line and to seize airfields from which the hard-fighting British Eighth Army could be supported. The British were making the main Allied effort in Tunisia. The II Corps was to capture Gafsa and then move toward Maknassy to threaten the enemy line of communication from Gabes. The Rangers were to spearhead the 1st Infantry Division by clearing concealed enemy positions in the mountains east of El Guettar on the road to Sfax.

Facing Nearly 2,000 Enemy Troops, the Rangers Were Outnumbered Nearly 4-to-1

At La Kouif, meanwhile, Colonel Darby had become sick and periodically delirious. His executive officer, Major Dammer, made plans for the march to Gafsa. The Rangers moved out on the night of March 13, 1943. Darby, not about to miss a fight, left the hospital and rejoined his unit, though still sick and doped with sulfa. His men dug foxholes at Gafsa and waited in the olive groves while American armor and artillery units moved up. The 1st Armored Division rolled into the northern battlefront over the rutted track leading to Maknassy, while the southern front was left to the Big Red One and the Rangers.

Darby’s soldiers strapped on their light packs and strode out toward the mountains. They scrambled up the slopes in the dark and in two hours approached El Guettar. No lights showed in the town on that night of March 18, although they believed there were 2,000 enemy troops there. The Rangers would be outnumbered four to one. Scouts approached the town warily, and reported that it was empty. The enemy had withdrawn to the heights because of the advance of II Corps. The Rangers occupied the town.

Darby was now ordered to seize the pass at Djebel el Ank so that General Allen could anchor his Big Red One’s left flank on the mountain that separated the areas east and southeast of Gafsa into two battle arenas. The Rangers would attack the pass as a spearhead for a battalion of the 26th Regimental Combat Team.

As the 1st Division moved more men, guns, and ammunition forward on March 19-20, Ranger patrols scouted the peaks overlooking El Guettar for possible flanking routes to Djebel el Ank. After sundown on March 20, Darby’s men left El Guettar and headed westward toward Gafsa. Accompanied by their attached engineers and infantry, they climbed steep rocks and a mountain track. It was 12 miles to the pass at Djebel el Ank. The moon shone brilliantly and then disappeared. Mortar tubes and their bases clanked, but the hard-breathing Rangers moved silently. As the sun began to rise, they reached a plateau overlooking Italian positions.

At 6 am on March 21, Darby’s men opened fire on the rear of the Italian emplacements. Rifles cracked, machine guns clattered, infantry mortars thumped, and shells boomed in the valley. Gray smoke wafted across the mountains. A German 88mm gun opened up on the Rangers’ silhouetted command post, and Darby sent two squads to silence it. The Rangers then formed a skirmish line and, howling American Indian war cries, dashed down toward the Italians.

Running, crouching, and jumping from boulder to boulder, the Americans knocked out one enemy gun position after another, while other Rangers attacked up the valley to clean out strongpoints. The Rangers charged the Italians without cover, but were stopped by a fortified machine-gun nest. It was now 8 am, and they had no mortar rounds left. Then the engineers arrived and one of their 81mm mortars blasted the position. The defenders were overrun, and the 26th RCT arrived at Djebel el Ank at 10 am.

The Rangers mopped up and took 200 prisoners, a motley group of Italians in ankle-length overcoats. The Germans had pulled out and left them two days before. Many of the Italians were persuaded to surrender by the 1st Ranger Battalion’s Roman Catholic chaplain, Father Albert Basil, who wore the green beret of a British Commando. At 2 pm that day, Colonel Darby reported to the 1st Division that the valley was in American hands.

The Rangers held the heights as the Battle of El Guettar raged for 21 days. Several companies went down to the plain to support two battalions of the 18th Infantry Regiment, which were cut off from the rest of the Big Red One. The Rangers, in turn, were almost cut off, but they did not yield an inch to the Germans.

Darby’s force was eventually relieved by elements of the U.S. 9th Infantry Division on March 27; its primary task in Tunisia was completed. General Allen issued a glowing commendation to the Ranger Battalion for its actions at El Guettar, the first significant American victory in North Africa, and a year later the unit was awarded a coveted Presidential Unit Citation. Darby received the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership and “extraordinary heroism.”

Next came Operation Husky, the July 1943 invasion of Sicily. Three U.S. divisions spearheaded by Rangers were to land on the south coast of the Mediterranean island and drive northward across the western part to the port of Palermo. Four British Eighth Army divisions and Commandos would land on the southeastern tip and advance northward up the east coast to Messina.
The Rangers had grown by now. Darby commanded the 1st and 4th Battalions, Major Dammer led the 3rd, and a fourth—the 2nd Battalion—was training in the United States. Before the invasion, the Rangers underwent more amphibious training at Algiers and Bizerte.

At dawn on July 9, 1943, the invasion force, comprising 130 Allied warships and 324 vessels laden with troops and equipment, put to sea. The ships rendezvoused in the Tunisian channel and steamed eastward to Sicily. Shortly after midnight on July 10, the British and American assault troops began clambering into landing craft as they rocked in the choppy seas.

Major Dammer’s battalion splashed ashore near Licata on the flank of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. The landing was initially unopposed, but then enemy machine guns and 47mm guns opened up on the Americans from the rocks overlooking the beach. Dammer’s men scrambled to the enemy positions and seized them one by one.

As Darby’s battalions headed for the beach at Gela, the Italian defenders switched on six searchlights and fired depressed antiaircraft guns toward the landing craft. Red and blue streaks of fire flew into the boats, and seasick Rangers vomited and groaned. An Allied rocket ship fired back and hit an ammunition dump in the town. Twenty-eight assault boats hit the beach, and Darby’s soldiers jumped out, ran across the beach, and hugged the seawall. Supported by mortar fire, the Americans then pushed into Gela. The 1st Battalion swung to the left and the 4th to the right, leaving the town center to an engineer battalion. Warily and with grenades ready, the Rangers moved through the darkened streets toward a fort on the town’s flank. Darby called for the cruiser USS Savannah to shell the citadel, and then his men captured it.

German fighter planes strafed the Americans, and a Ranger sergeant managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt 110 with his Browning Automatic Rifle.

Around 7 am, six Italian tanks clanked into Gela. Rangers worked their way onto rooftops and tossed sticky grenades down on the tanks. Others fired rocket launchers at point-blank range, threw grenades, and even tried dropping 15-pound blocks of TNT. The Rangers also used a 37mm antitank gun that was hauled frantically from one street corner to another, taking potshots at the tanks.

Fighting Against Snipers, Pillboxes, and 18 Tanks, Darby’s Men Began to get Desperate

Colonel Darby spotted an Italian tank rolling along the main street toward the city square. His driver swerved his jeep into an alley, and Darby swung its machine gun around and fired a belt of rounds at the tank. The bullets bounced off harmlessly. Darby then sped off in the jeep to find the antitank gun, hitched it to the jeep, and dashed back to the square. Bareheaded and with his sleeves rolled up, he helped Captain Charles Shunstrom hastily wheel the gun into position. They fired several shells and flamed the tank. Bazooka rounds knocked out the second tank, and a pole-charge dropped from a building demobilized the third. When the other tanks were also hit, the Italians withdrew. The gallant and quick-thinking Colonel Darby was awarded an oakleaf cluster to his DSC.

The Rangers fought on that morning against snipers and pillboxes. Around noon, 18 big German Tiger tanks rumbled into the town for a second counterattack, and things looked desperate for Darby’s outgunned men. He called for support from chemical mortars and the Navy. Shunstrom used a captured 77mm gun against the enemy tanks, and 12 of them were blasted out of commission. Then a battalion of Italian infantry approached. The Rangers let them advance to within about 2,000 yards and then poured 4.2-inch mortar rounds into them. The Italians fled. By late afternoon Gela had quieted down, and the weary Rangers were able to liberate a supply of cognac and champagne from a restaurant.

Two days after the landings, Darby’s men advanced northwest from Gela to attack San Nicola. The spearheading Rangers and the Big Red One fought for 50 sleepless hours, through bombings and tank and artillery attacks, before pushing northward to assault the fortress of Butera perched on a 4,000-foot hill. With artillery support, two platoons under Captain Shunstrom managed to take the citadel, which could have been held against a division.

Major Dammer’s battalion, meanwhile, had captured Licata and Port Empedocle and moved on to other objectives. Allied reinforcements were landing from the sea and air. The British Eighth Army battered its way northward against the main enemy force, while Patton’s Seventh Army swung eastward along the road from Palermo.

As Darby’s Rangers slogged through the dusty little towns and villages, they perfected the art of house-to-house fighting. Virtually every stone house was a fort that had to be stormed. Darby tried to even the odds for his men by getting hold of half-dozen 105mm self-propelled howitzers and later forming the 18-gun Ranger Cannon Company.

His leadership became an Army legend, and his concern for his men never flagged. “His optimism and confidence were the source of the Ranger spirit which translated into ‘it can be done,’” reported Dammer. Captain Murray, who had led the Rangers at Dieppe, said, “Darby believed he could lead anyone into combat and bring him back safely.” Darby refused to leave his Rangers, turning down the offer of a full colonelcy and command of a combat team in the 45th Infantry Division.

By August 17, 1943, the Allies had secured Sicily. The hard-fighting Rangers’ uniforms were in tatters, their shoes worn thin, and most of their gear was ready for salvage. Only their weapons and morale were still in good shape.

There would be little respite for them before their next assignment: the Allied invasion of mainland Italy. That September, the Eighth Army crossed the Straits of Messina to the Italian toe and started pushing up the long peninsula. Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army landed on the west coast below Salerno at dawn on September 9. The main Allied landing was set for the beaches 15 miles below Salerno and 45 miles south of Naples.

Darby led a mixed U.S.-British force of Rangers, Commandos, U.S. paratroopers, gunners, tank units, and engineers ashore. Their assignment was to seize and hold the scenic Sorrento Peninsula west of Salerno. The force was to capture strategic passes overlooking the Naples plain and ease the way for British and American units when they moved up through Salerno and Nocera. The Rangers were to observe German concentrations in the Naples plain for the naval gunners and prevent the enemy from mounting a flanking attack on the Salerno beachhead through the 4,000-foot Chiunzi Pass.

“We Have Taken up Positions in the Enemy’s Rear, and We’ll Stay Here Till Hell Freezes Over.”

The Rangers went ashore in darkness at the fishing village of Maiori, a dozen miles west of Salerno. They overran a loosely organized panzer reconnaissance company and, with the 4th Battalion holding the beachhead, the 1st and 3rd Battalions marched six steep miles to the Chiunzi Pass. By 8 am, they had dug in on both sides of the pass road. A paratroop regiment and British Commandos held the other passes near Nocera and Chiunzi. Colonel Darby radioed Allied headquarters, “We have taken up positions in the enemy’s rear, and we’ll stay here till hell freezes over.”

His men pinpointed enemy targets for Allied artillery and naval batteries. One observer spotted Germans issuing ammunition in a park near Nocera and called in a barrage from a Royal Navy battleship. One 15-inch salvo touched off a series of huge explosions.

The Rangers and British observers used a stone-walled farmhouse near the crest of the Chiunzi Pass, nicknaming it “Schuster’s Mansion” after Captain Emil Schuster, who had set up a medical aid station there. Targeted by naval gunfire, the Germans repeatedly bombarded the pass, but the command post was sturdy enough to withstand hundreds of direct artillery and mortar hits. The Rangers’ mission would have been a routine one if the main Allied force had arrived on schedule, but it took three weeks before the main drive could get started through the gap to Naples. Darby’s men were out on a limb for 21 days, lacking enough field guns for adequate defense and outnumbered by the enemy at least eight to one.

Nevertheless, they held on, beating back seven large-scale attacks by German mountain troops and Waffen SS units. The Americans huddled in foxholes hacked in the mountainsides and withstood relentless mortar and artillery barrages. Strung along a nine-mile front, the two Ranger battalions deployed four half-track howitzers against the deadly enemy 88mm guns. ‘We held on by our fingernails,” said one Ranger. “We were spread so thin that we had a hell of a time stopping the Germans. But we did, thanks to our speed, versatility, and rugged training. When the Germans came up the hill, we’d all rush over to plug the gap and let them have it.” Four- and seven-man patrols crept out at night to probe the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses and to bring back prisoners for interrogation.

Meanwhile, the 4th Battalion had captured Amalfi, swept across the Sorrento Peninsula, and occupied Castelammare on the Gulf of Naples.

Shot at from all directions, Darby’s men clung to the Chiunzi Pass. They were exhausted, but the price was high: Many had contracted malaria in Sicily, and some Ranger units suffered up to 30 percent casualties. The wounded were trucked down to Maiori, where Royal Army Medical Corps doctors performed surgery 24 hours a day in a monastery chapel. Italian nuns and nurses tended the wounded soldiers. The survivors at the pass ran short of food, water, and ammunition.

Finally, the Allied forces broke out of the Salerno beachhead and stormed up Highway 18 toward Salerno. The Rangers were then able to pull out of the Chiunzi Pass and head for Castelammare. They pushed rapidly past historic Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, followed airborne troopers into Naples, and fell asleep in the botanical gardens. They went into bivouac, but just as they were beginning to relax, they were ordered back into the mountains. After action at Venafro, near Cassino, they returned to Naples for the 1943 Christmas season.

Darby tried to lift his weary men’s spirits with good food, wine, whiskey, dances, movies, and USO shows, and Father Basil returned to conduct Masses for them, at the same time good-naturedly fining them for their soldierly profanity. With the start of the new year, the Rangers began intensive training at Pozzuoli for a new operation, the Allied invasion of Anzio. Supported by engineer, mortar, and airborne units, the three battalions were to land directly in front of Anzio, burst into the town, and sweep out to occupy a half-moon of beachhead territory.

At midnight on January 22, 1944, Darby’s men disembarked with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division from British ships south of Nettuno and rode landing craft to the pier at Anzio. Darby’s 1st and 3rd Battalions landed unopposed, and the 4th followed. The Rangers fanned out through the town, and some moved on to Nettuno. Darby set up a command post in the Anzio casino. Enemy resistance was scattered and by dawn the Rangers had carved out their beachhead. On the left, the 3rd Battalion linked up with the Scots Guards of the British 1st Infantry Division. Darby’s men patrolled while Allied reinforcements poured ashore and German resistance stiffened. The enemy counterattacked, but the Rangers and the British held firm.

On the night of January 28, Darby’s force was relieved by a British reconnaissance unit, and the Americans marched back to an assembly area near Nettuno. Something big was coming up.

For a week, General John P. Lucas, commander of the U.S. VI Corps, had consolidated the Anzio beachhead. But he was a cautious officer, more interested in putting the harbor into operation and building up strength than in breaking out and mounting an offensive. General Clark prodded him to get moving, and by January 29 Lucas felt ready. While the British 1st Armored Division made the main effort toward Albano, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, spearheaded by two Ranger battalions, was to take the town of Cisterna di Littoria on the Appian Way, thereby cutting strategic Highway 7. Darby was ordered to infiltrate his two battalions into the town during the night of January 29, with the other battalion clearing the road for armor and infantry the following morning.

Leadership of the Rangers had been diluted. Darby and Major Dammer were assigned to force headquarters, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions were now led by Major Jack Dobson and Major Alvah Miller, respectively. Darby had misgivings, believing that the Rangers’ combat effectiveness had been weakened.

The Rangers arrived at an assembly area at San Antonio before dawn on the 29th. Due north about eight miles was Cisterna, a cluster of stone and cement houses on the Appian Way. It was about four miles outside the beachhead in enemy territory, but the front was fluid and there were no signs of German concentrations. Actually, the enemy had gathered considerable strength in Cisterna in readiness for a counterattack on February 2.

The Rangers spent January 29 in bivouac, resting, cleaning and oiling their weapons, sharpening bayonets and trench knives, and getting haircuts. After a quick supper at nightfall they were ready to move out. Riflemen carried extra bandoliers of ammunition and hand grenades stuffed in their pockets, while the mortar crews carried three rounds for each weapon. There was a plentiful supply of sticky grenades and bazookas, but the machine guns were left behind. The Rangers were accompanied by a tank destroyer company, a cannon company, and the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion.

The Germans Had No Idea the Rangers had Crept Silently Past Their Defenses

In good spirits, Darby’s Rangers strode out for a seven-mile hike to the line of departure. It was a cold and moonless night. At midnight, the three battalions and accompanying troops reached a road junction about four miles from Cisterna. Darby called a final conference with his subordinate commanders, and at 1:30 am, the soldiers started for Cisterna. They moved in a column through deep irrigation ditches leading northward. The Rangers crept silently past German sentries. There was no gunfire and no challenges.

The Americans plodded on, listening to orders barked at nearby enemy machine-gun positions. There was no sign that the Germans knew their defenses were being breached.

While the 1st and 3rd Battalions moved through the ditches, the 4th Battalion on the left flank ran into determined resistance from farm buildings, emplacements, and a roadblock. Half a dozen medium tanks rolled up to support the battalion, but all night it had a running fight. By dawn, the 4th was still short of its objective, Isola Bella.

About two miles from Cisterna, the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, moving single-file, lost contact and were strung out for a mile and a half. Major Miller was leading the 3rd Battalion when a German tank suddenly loomed around a bend and opened fire. The Rangers returned fire immediately, but the leading Americans were killed or wounded, and Miller died. The tank was demolished with a sticky grenade, and the battalion hastened to catch up with the 1st.

The Rangers thought they had surprised the Germans, but it was really an ambush. When they climbed out of the ditch to deploy for the assault on Cisterna, the Americans were blasted on all sides from snipers, machine guns, mortars, and howitzers. Darby’s force had run into the crack Hermann Göring Panzer Division and the 4th Parachute Division. Tank guns swung toward the Rangers, who by now were surrounded. They broke up into small groups and fought until they dropped. There was no pulling back.

As the sun came up, the Rangers found themselves exposed in front of Cisterna, where enemy snipers and mortars picked them off from farmhouses. Major Dobson, leading the 1st Battalion, was seriously wounded. The Americans demolished several German tanks with bazookas and sticky grenades, but more armor and enemy infantry appeared. Some of the Rangers hurled themselves onto the tanks, exploding them—and themselves—with sticky grenades. Others used bazookas to blast off the tank treads while riflemen shot the crews that emerged. But it was a losing battle, and Darby’s men were being slaughtered.

At 8:30 am, the 1st and 3rd Battalions radioed back that they were surrounded and had suffered heavy casualties. They fought desperately against heavy odds for five hours. The 4th Battalion tried to push through to them but was held up at the hamlet of Femina Morta (Dead Woman). Colonel Darby listened with frustration to the calls for help, but his headquarters at Femina Morta was also surrounded.

Outnumbered 10 to 1, the 1st and 3rd Battalions fought on, making every shot count. Around midday, German tanks overran them. The Americans still fought, but with their ranks depleted and ammunition running out, they had no choice but to try to escape or surrender. Darby listened to a sergeant send the last message from the 1st Battalion: “Some of the fellows are giving up. Colonel, we are awfully sorry. They can’t help it, because we’re running out of ammunition. But I ain’t surrendering. They are coming into the building now!” Another message said, “They’re closing in, but they won’t get us cheap!”

The fighting continued that afternoon, but the Germans began rounding up the Rangers. Eight made a dash for the irrigation ditch, but shells and sniper fire bracketed them. Only two Rangers managed to get through the German lines. Of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, only six men escaped from Cisterna.

On January 31, a regimental combat team fought its way up to the 4th Ranger Battalion, and together they cleared the enemy from Femina Morta.

Although the gallant action at Cisterna had helped to save the Anzio beachhead from counterattack, Darby blamed himself for the disaster. The Germans had seen his men coming, and Darby believed that the outcome would have been different if he had been with the forward columns. When told that his men could not pull back because they were cut off, Darby had “put his head down on his arm, and cried … he broke down,” reported his jeep driver, Sergeant Carlo Contrera.

The destruction of the 1st and 3rd Battalions at Cisterna was the result of faulty Allied intelligence and good planning by the Germans. A captured German officer stated later that the town had been reinforced on the night of January 29. A Polish deserter from the German Army had tried to explain to the Rangers about the enemy buildup, but no one could understand him, and he was evacuated to the rear.

Before their ranks were broken up and they were ordered home for a long and well- deserved rest, Darby’s surviving Rangers had been awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the blue-and-gold Presidential Unit Citation, a number of Distinguished Service Crosses, and British, French, and Russian decorations. They were proudest of their citations for teamwork.

Darby himself had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart with two clusters, the Croix de Guerre, the Soviet Order of Kutuzov (third degree), and the British Distinguished Service Order.

Only 87 of the Original 500 Rangers Remained

He said of his men, “They had done their duty, had fought to the limit of human endurance, and almost inevitably—as with other groups of soldiers in history who had taken the long chance by raiding into enemy-held territory—they had met their fate…. In this war, the Rangers had asked only for the opportunity to fight…. They were proud soldiers, confident warriors, and evidence that the spirit of battling against any odds lives strong among the American nation.”

By Darby’s count, there were only 87 remaining out of the original 500 Rangers who had trained at Achnacarry. Officers and men became instructors at several Army camps, and new Ranger battalions carried on the gallant tradition forged by Darby’s original units.

In the great Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Lt. Col. James E. Rudder’s 2nd Ranger Battalion distinguished itself by scaling 100-foot cliffs under fire at Pointe du Hoc to destroy German guns that could have threatened Omaha Beach and Allied ships in the English Channel. The 5th Ranger Battalion fought gallantly in France, Belgium, and Germany, and the 6th Battalion served in New Guinea and the Philippines, where it spearheaded the drive on Manila and rescued American prisoners from behind Japanese lines.

Colonel Darby was slightly wounded by a bomb fragment on the night of February 15, 1944, and was relieved. He was given command of the battered 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division, which had fought in the bloody Anzio Campaign for two months. In April 1944, Darby was sent home and assigned to the Operations Division at the War Department. He supervised training programs, was reunited with the survivors of Cisterna, and visited many bases to assess the quality of troops being trained for overseas duty. But he disliked staff work and repeatedly asked for an assignment in a combat theater.

In March 1945, Darby was sent on a 90-day tour of the European Theater to evaluate air support of ground units. Then he made his way to Italy to visit the 10th Mountain Division, where he succeeded Brig. Gen. Robinson E. Duff as assistant commander when the latter was wounded and evacuated. The division was campaigning east of Lake Garda in northern Italy to try and head off Wehrmacht units retreating into Austria.

Late on the afternoon of April 10, 1945, Darby was standing with a small group of officers outside their command post at a hotel in the town of Torbole. Suddenly, a round from a German 88mm antiaircraft gun exploded 30 feet from the group at the side of the hotel. All the officers were hit by shell fragments, and Darby received a dime-sized fragment in his heart. Two medical corpsmen laid him gently on a cot, but he died two minutes later. The U.S. Army had lost one of its outstanding combat leaders of World War II.

“Never in this war have I known a more gallant, heroic officer,” Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott notified the War Department. Colonel Darby’s West Point obituary read, “He lived up to every tradition at West Point and became, through his qualities, one of the finest soldiers.” Original Rangers also paid tributes to their leader. “Bill Darby was a man of destiny, and he knew it,” said Walter F. Nye. “Everything he did had a purpose.” William S. Hutchinson wrote, “Darby had a vision beyond price, the first essential for any great public service, military or other. He saw the march of history ever struggling upward. His faith persuaded others.”

Darby, who was posthumously promoted to brigadier general, had been in the thick of every action his men had fought. He was always up front. One officer recalled arriving at Sorrento and asking a Ranger where he could find Colonel Darby. The soldier grinned slowly and replied, “You’ll never find him this far back.”

Michael D. Hull has written numerous biographical accounts of World War II commanders. He is also a contributor to the forthcoming Eisenhower Center for American Studies World War II Desk Reference.

Originally Published December 26, 2018

This article by Michael D. Hull originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Flickr.

With This Cannon, the Soviet Union Brought Warfare into Space

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 15:33

Alex Hollings

Space, Europe

Although the Americans canceled their MOL program in 1969, the Soviet effort continued, reaching even further beyond America’s canceled program with plans to equip these space stations with the world’s first ever cannon in space.

In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Americans have taken to assuming that victory for the United States was assured. From our vantage point in the 21st century, we now know that the Soviet Union was, in many ways, a quagmire of oppression and economic infeasibility — but in the early days of mankind’s effort to reach the stars, it was the Soviets, not the Americans, who seemed destined for the top spot.

On October 4, 1957, it was the Soviet Union that first successfully placed a manmade object in orbit around the earth, with Sputnik. Less than a month later, the Soviets would capture another victory: Launching a stray dog named Laika into orbit. While the dog would die as it circled our planet, Laika’s mission seemed to prove (at least to some extent) that space travel was possible for living creatures. On September 14, 1959, the Soviet space probe Luna II would be the first manmade object to land on the moon, but the Soviet’s greatest victory was yet to come.

When the Soviets were winning the Space Race

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union once again affirmed to the world that they were the global leader in space technology, launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit where he remained for 108 minutes before reentering the earth’s atmosphere.

To the Americans, these early victories in the Space Race were about far more than international prestige. Each victory for the Soviets not only represented a greater lead in securing “the ultimate high ground” for the Soviet military, they also served as proof of the validity of the Soviet Communist economic and political model — making the Soviet space program as much an ideological threat as it was a military one.

Despite assuming an underdog status in the early days of the Space Race, however, the U.S. leveraged its post-World War II industrial and economic might to begin closing the gap created by these early Soviet victories, launching their own satellite less than four months after Sputnik. America’s first astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, would follow behind the Soviet Gagarin by less than a month.

America’s come-from-behind victory

By 1969, America’s technological prowess, coupled with a massive influx of spending, would secure victory for both the U.S. and, in the minds of many, its capitalist economic model. On July 20, 1969, two former fighter pilots, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, triumphantly landed on the moon.

Just like that, the Soviets went from leading the way in orbital space to lagging behind, and in the midst of an ongoing nuclear arms race, the Soviets saw this shift as a significant threat. Furthering their concern were reports of the American Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, which was intended as an early space station from which crews could conduct orbital surveillance, or even mount operations against Soviet orbital bodies.

In response to the MOL program, the Soviets poured funding into Almaz, which was an early space station design of their own. Hidden behind a public-facing civilian space station effort, the program called for a number of military-specific space stations in orbit around the earth, each capable of conducting its own high-altitude reconnaissance. Although the Americans canceled their MOL program in 1969, the Soviet effort continued, reaching even further beyond America’s canceled program with plans to equip these space stations with the world’s first ever cannon in space.

The Soviet Space Cannon: R-23M Kartech

The Soviets were not mistaken when they considered America’s MOL program a threat. In fact, within the corridors of the Pentagon, a number of plans and strategies were being explored that would enable the Americans to spy on, capture, or otherwise destroy Soviet satellites.

It was with this in mind that the Soviet Union decided they’d need to equip their space stations for more than just taking pictures of the earth below. Instead, they wanted to be sure their orbital habitats could fight whatever the Americans threw their way.

The decision was made to base this new secret space cannon on the 23-millimeter gun utilized by their supersonic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder. For its new purpose as the world’s first true space cannon, the Soviet government looked to the Moscow-based KB Tochmash design bureau responsible for a number of successful aviation weapons platforms.

Engineer Aleksandr Nudelman and his team at KB Tochmash changed the design of the cannon to utilize smaller 14.5-millimeter rounds that could engage targets at distances of up to two miles with a blistering rate of fire of somewhere between 950 and 5,000 rounds per minute (depending on the source you read). According to reports made public after the fall of the Soviet Union, the cannon successfully punctured a metal gas can from over a mile away during ground testing.

The cannon was to be mounted in a fixed position on the underbelly of the Soviet Almaz space stations, forcing operators to move the entire 20-ton station to orient the barrel toward a target. The weapon system was first affixed to a modified Soyuz space capsule, which was then dubbed the “Salyut” space station, and launched in 1971. By the time the Salyut was in orbit, however, interest in these manned reconnaissance platforms was already beginning to wane inside the Kremlin, as unmanned reconnaissance satellites seemed more practical.

The only cannon ever fired in space

While American intelligence agencies were well aware of the Soviet plan to field military space stations, it was still extremely difficult to know exactly what was going on in the expanse of space above our heads. Under cover of extreme secrecy, the Soviet Union successfully completed a test firing of the R-23M on Jan. 24, 1975 in orbit above the earth. There was no crew onboard at the time, and the exact results of the test remain classified to this day. Uncomfirmed reports indicate that the weapon fired between one and three bursts, with a total of 20 shells expended. In order to offset the recoil of the fired rounds, the space station engaged its thrusters, but it stands to reason that the test may have been a failure.

In fact, any footage of the test firing of the weapon was lost when the Salyut 3 platform was de-orbited just hours later, burning up upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. When the Soviet Union designed an upgraded Almaz space station for future launches, they did away with cannons in favor of interceptor missiles — though the program was canceled before any such weapons would reach orbit.

This article first appeared at Sandboxx News.

Image: Wikipedia.

Diversity and Inclusion Barriers in Peace and Security are Slowly Breaking

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 15:00

Alexandra B. Hall

Culture, United States

The path to true equality in the national security and policy space is a long road, but with commitments and accountability mechanisms, WCAPS is setting an example for a way forward

Just over a year ago, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and national protests for racial justice, many organizations began to take a hard look at how their structures and systems perpetuate, or at minimum contribute to, racial inequalities.

In the national security and peacebuilding spaces, Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security & Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) drew together leaders across the international peace and security space committed to change in their field. On the latest episode of the Press the Button podcast, Shalonda Spencer, the Executive Director of WCAPS, and Maher Akremi, the project lead for OrgsInSolidarity, spoke with co-host Michelle Dover about the progress made thus far to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the barriers that remain.

In response to an outpouring of support for systemic change, the OrgsInSolidarity initiative created a community of organizations dedicated to advancing twelve commitments to achieve their goals. Leaders across the peace and security space signed on to these through a joint statement. But, before this work could truly make progress, they needed to understand the field. The OrgsInSolidarity team surveyed the community and released their results in a Baseline Survey Report, published last month. The survey, titled Standing Against Racism and Discrimination, sheds light on the reality of the work it takes to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While the answers remain anonymous, Akremi says, “the anecdotes are really honest.” For instance, when asked how issues of discrimination are addressed within organizations, Akremi remembered, “one of the answers was literally—the blatant is punished, the subtle is ignored.” Spencer notes that the benefit of these surveys is not only that organizations can learn from each other, but that they are a useful form of accountability for staff and leadership, and can spur conversation.

When asked about his biggest takeaway from the survey, Akremi notes that a year is “a long time for [organizations] to sustain their efforts.” He explains that for some organizations, “entropy is taking hold, and in a lot of ways, people are burning out because it's hard to always be trying to work on these issues.” From this, Akremi learned that “we have to redouble our efforts, we have to stay engaged because one year doesn't fix these problems, one year makes organizations better, one year makes individuals better, but it does not change [the] field, it does not change systems.”

Spencer points out that “organizations have to be honest with themselves as far as work, culture, and the racial discrimination issues that they may have.” The biggest thing she has learned is that creating more equitable workspaces “takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of effort, but most of all it really takes honesty.” Individuals and organizations must ask themselves hard questions to do this transformational work because it takes a lot of time to permanently fix the systemic roots of these problems.

To help maintain momentum, OrgsInSolidarity has thirteen working groups tackling several issues, from confronting racism and white supremacy to supporting safe workplaces and more diversity at the leadership level.

Moving forward, Spencer’s goals in the next five years are to connect domestic and international policy, grow WCAPS within the United States and its international chapters, and “network with women who are on the ground, fighting on these issues, that we don’t often think about.” Her hope is this work will also help increase the number of women of color in the international and government policy space, building on the legacy of WCAPS founder Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins. Despite the challenges that remain, Spencer is hopeful. “More organizations are creating spaces for these conversations to happen about racial equity,” she said, “[and] we're…hoping that we can continue to do this work alongside with them.”

The entire interview with Shalonda Spencer and Maher Akremi is available here on Press the Button. Visit WCAPS and OrgsinSolidarity to learn more about their initiatives and become a member. You can find their Baseline Survey Report here.  

Alexandra B. Hall is the policy associate and special assistant to the president at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Image: Reuters.

The Child Tax Credit: All Your Options on How to Get This Stimulus Payment

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 14:33

Ethen Kim Lieser

Child Tax Credit,

Available exclusively on, the Child Tax Credit Eligibility Assistant allows parents to answer a series of questions about themselves and their family members that will determine whether they indeed qualify for the credits.

Here's What You Need to Remember: For those who are looking for more options regarding their credits, make sure to check out the Child Tax Credit Update Portal, which, according to the IRS, will allow them to “choose to, unenroll, or opt out from receiving the monthly payments so they can receive a lump sum when they file their tax return next year.”

The Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service are urging potentially eligible families to take advantage of a newly launched online tool that can help them determine whether they qualify for the expanded child tax credits.

These new recurring monthly payments, approved under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, will begin heading out to eligible parents beginning on July 15 and will continue till the end of the year.

Available exclusively on, the Child Tax Credit Eligibility Assistant allows parents to answer a series of questions about themselves and their family members that will determine whether they indeed qualify for the credits, which amount to as much as $3,600 per year for a child under the age of six and up to $3,000 for children between ages six and seventeen. Broken down further, that’s a $250 or a $300 direct cash payment for each child every month.

“This new tool provides an important first step to help people understand if they qualify for the Child Tax Credit, which is especially important for those who don't normally file a tax return,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement.

“The eligibility assistant works in concert with other features on to help people receive this important credit. The IRS is working hard to deliver the expanded Child Tax Credit, and we will be rolling out additional help for taxpayers in the near future. Where possible, please help us help others by distributing CTC information in your communities,” he added.

Another tool that is particularly useful for those who generally don’t file a federal tax return is the Non-filer Sign-up Tool, which will give the IRS the necessary information, such as an address and bank account and routing numbers, to properly issue the child tax credits.

This tool was “developed in partnership with Intuit and delivered through the Free File Alliance … (and will provide) a free and easy way for eligible people who don't make enough income to have an income tax return-filing obligation to provide the IRS the basic information needed,” according to the IRS.

For those who are looking for more options regarding their credits, make sure to check out the Child Tax Credit Update Portal, which, according to the IRS, will allow them to “choose to, unenroll, or opt out from receiving the monthly payments so they can receive a lump sum when they file their tax return next year.”

“The Update Portal is a key piece among the three new tools now available on to help families understand, register for and monitor these payments,” Rettig noted in a statement.

“We will be working across the nation with partner groups to share information and help eligible people receive the advance payments,” he added.

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

Aggression: The Key to American Air Superiority Over Europe

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 14:00

Warfare History Network

History, Europe

The popular conception of the struggle in the air over northern Europe during World War II is of squadrons of sleek fighters racing over the German heartland to protect contrailed streams of lumbering bombers stretching beyond sight.

Key point: Thanks to the introduction of better fighters and the use of aggressive, realistic offensive fighter doctrines, American airmen attained—not the air superiority they sought, but—total air supremacy over the whole of western Europe.

The popular conception of the struggle in the air over northern Europe during World War II is of squadrons of sleek fighters racing over the German heartland to protect contrailed streams of lumbering bombers stretching beyond sight. This is as it was during the second half of America’s air war against Germany, but it was as far from the truth as it is possible to get at the start of that great aerial crusade. It took until late 1943—nearly two years after the United States entered World War II—before the United Kingdom-based Eighth Air Force mounted strategically significant bombing missions against targets in occupied northern Europe. The fault for this lay partly in the availability and slow development of the equipment, but it is also a fact that the two men at the top of the Eighth Air Force command structure stubbornly clung to old and discredited theories that stunted the effectiveness of the strategic-bombing effort and cost thousands of their countrymen their freedom or their lives.

In the beginning, the fighter was a short-legged creature whose role of protecting the bombers was eclipsed by its role of guarding friendly territory and installations. The difference, which is crucial, was the product of technology—range and the power of aircraft engines—and intellect. Until late 1943, surprisingly late in the war, the use of the fighter as an offensive weapon was stunted by the defensive mind-set of the “pursuit” acolytes of the interwar decades.

The pursuit airplane had evolved over the fixed battlefields of Western Europe during World War I. Pursuit aircraft had been developed to prevent enemy reconnaissance airplanes from overflying friendly lines and to protect friendly observation airplanes from enemy pursuits while the observers overflew enemy lines. The pursuit was conceived as a tactical and a defensive weapon, and it was limited to these roles both by conception and by the technologies of the day.

The Army Air Corps

Between the world wars, the development of American pursuit aircraft was hobbled by budgetary restrictions that for many years slowed or obviated altogether the creation of new technologies or even methodical experimentation with new tactics. The U.S. Marine Corps did advance the use of the single-engine pursuit as a nascent close-support weapon to bolster the infantry, but the interests of various intra-Army constituencies prevented similar advances in what had come to be called the Army Air Corps. To the degree that it developed at all, the Air Corps saw increasingly heavy and longer ranged bombers in its future. And, as the limited available research-and-development dollars were expended on speedier bombers, the pursuits of the day were increasingly outranged and outrun.

Inevitably, American bombers of the late 1930s were designed to be “self-defending” because they could fly much farther and at least somewhat faster than could the pursuits of the day. The pursuits, which were being developed at a much slower pace, were relegated to a point-defense role—guarding cities, industrial targets, and air bases. When World War II began, the Air Corps—shortly to be renamed the Army Air Forces—was divided into two distinct combat arms, fighters and bombers. And, by virtue of the fighter’s stunted development, there appeared little chance that the two would spend much time working together.

As soon as the Army Air Corps was pulled into World War II it became focused on the defense of American coastal cities, several Caribbean islands, bases in Greenland and Iceland, and on the strategically indispensable Panama Canal. There were few airplanes of any type to devote to these defensive missions, and those that were deployed defensively also had to serve as on-the-job trainers for hundreds of the raw young pilots emerging from the Air Forces’ burgeoning flight schools.

Through the first half of 1942, all of the very few pilots and airplanes that could be spared from the defense of the U.S. coasts and sea lanes were rushed to defend Australia and the South Pacific. Dozens of precious airplanes and pilots were lost in the pathetic defense of Java, in the Netherlands East Indies, and many more were lost in the early defensive battles around Port Moresby, New Guinea, but Army Air Forces’ training commands were able to catch up with combat and training losses as well as with the heavy burden imposed by the formation of new fighter, bomber, and other-type groups. And better fighters with a higher probability of survival began to reach operational air groups.

Committing to American Air Power

Fortunately, the United States could afford to be a bit late off the mark in her war against Germany. German efforts in 1940 to bring Great Britain to her knees all had failed miserably and, by the end of 1941, the bulk of Germany’s air and land forces were mired in a frightful war of attrition deep inside Russia. The British had the situation in northern Europe reasonably well in hand, though they would have collapsed had not vast infusions of weapons and supplies from the United States sustained them. British forces in Egypt and Libya were teetering on the edge of defeat, but there was little the United States would be able to do for many months to influence the outcome—assuming the British held on that long.

So, while the Army Air Forces devoted the bulk of its limited expendable resources to defensive measures against Japan, new air groups were created, and new and better combat aircraft began rolling off newly created assembly lines. Finally, in the spring of 1942, it was decided in high Army Air Forces’ circles to commit American air power to northern Europe. At first, the commitment would be little more than a meager show of force masking an advanced combat-training program overseen by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Only later, when training bases and factories in the United States had caught up with the planning, would the U.S. Army Air Forces take on a strategic air campaign against the German industrial heartland.

Brigadier General Ira Eaker arrived in England on February 20, 1942 to establish the headquarters of the new VIII Bomber Command. He opened his headquarters at High Wycombe, England on February 23, 1942, but the VIII Bomber Command had no combat airplanes to its name; they would not be available for several months. Rather, it fell to Eaker to argue with his British hosts in favor of an independent role for the forthcoming Army Air Forces in Europe. The RAF and the British government wanted America’s commitment to the air war in Europe to be subordinate to or an adjunct of the British Theatre air war. The Americans, however, felt they deserved an independent role, and it was Eaker’s job to win the British over to this viewpoint.

The American notion was strongly bolstered—in argument, at least—by the fact that the Army Air Forces had developed over many years a theoretical strategic air doctrine that was quite different from the RAF’s experience-based strategic doctrine. The Americans favored and had equipped their bomber force to wage a precision daylight-bombing campaign against industrial targets hundreds of miles inside enemy territory. The RAF was the only other air force in the world that had developed long-range, four-engine, heavy bombers, but its doctrine—the result of bloody experiences early in the war—favored “area” bombing at night. Doctrinal arguments aside, the British victims of the Nazi Blitz of 1940-1941 were less squeamish than their American Allies about bombing German civilians. Besides, the RAF had few long-range heavy bombers to its name, and thus felt it needed to co-opt the promised infusion of American heavies.

For the time being, Eaker’s arguments with the RAF hierarchy were moot. There would be no American air-combat units in the United Kingdom for several months, and then there would not be enough of them to make a dent in Hitler’s Fortress Europa for many more months.

A Symbolic Commitment between Allies

The first VIII Bomber Command unit to arrive in England—on May 10, 1942—was the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group, which was equipped with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers. This was a symbolic commitment, for the 97th had been activated in February 1942 and thus had not had time to be adequately trained to fly combat missions over heavily defended European targets. It would be months before the 97th saw any live action.

Around the time the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group became the first nominal combat unit to join Eaker’s VIII Bomber Command, Brig. Gen. Frank “Monk” Hunter arrived in England to establish the headquarters of his VIII Fighter Command, also at High Wycombe. Unlike Eaker, Hunter, a rather flamboyant World War I ace, quickly came to terms with British beliefs and aspirations regarding the employment of forthcoming American fighter groups. The RAF had opted for powerful, short-range, point-defense fighters that could defend friendly air bases and attack nearby enemy air bases, and its doctrine appeared to have proven itself during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Hunter, who had spent most of his career arguing the point-defense case for the U.S. Army’s fighters, was eager to augment the British fighter plan.

On June 10, 1942 personnel of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 31st Fighter Group arrived in England by ship. After being outfitted with British Spitfire fighters, the green American fighter group was to begin rigorous advanced combat training overseen by a number of the RAF’s leading Battle of Britain aces. As with the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group, the 31st Fighter Group was not expected to begin combat operations for several months.

On June 18, 1942 Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz arrived in England to establish the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force at High Wycombe. Spaatz was one of the handful of Army Air Forces officers with the moral authority to win an independent role for American air units over the forceful arguments of Britain’s top military and political leaders. Leaving the training of pilots and aircrews to Eaker and Hunter, Spaatz set out on a political path to forge an independent role for American air units. It was Spaatz’s brief from his superiors to integrate and modulate the projected American daylight air offensive with—but not subordinate it to—Britain’s night-bombing effort.

The Army Air Forces’ first combat mission against a German-held target took place on July 4, 1942. Six American-manned RAF-owned Douglas A-20 light attack bombers accompanied six RAF-manned A-20s in an attack on several German airfields in the Netherlands. Two of the American A-20s were downed by flak, seven crewmen were killed and one was captured, two failed to reach the target, and a fifth A-20 was severely damaged. The U.S. Army Air Forces could not have asked for a less auspicious or more humiliating inauguration of what would become the greatest aerial offensive in the history of the world.

The very first U.S. Army Air Forces fighter mission over Occupied Europe took place on July 26, 1942. As part of their training syllabus, six 31st Fighter Group senior pilots joined an RAF fighter sweep to Gravelines, a French town on the English Channel. German fighters challenged the American and RAF Spitfires, and the 31st Fighter Group’s deputy commander was shot down and captured.

31st Fighter Group Joins the RAF for a “Big Show”

The 97th Heavy Bombardment Group had to wait until August 17, when a dozen B-17s, with General Eaker along as an observer, conducted an afternoon raid against railroad marshaling yards near Rouen, France, 35 miles from the English Channel. Escort for the bombers was provided by four RAF Spitfire squadrons. The results of the mission were negligible. One B-17 was damaged by a German fighter, but there were no losses and no injuries.

Two days later, on August 19, the entire 31st Fighter Group joined with the RAF for a “big show” across the Channel, the tragic invasion rehearsal at Dieppe. While completing four 12-plane missions over the beaches during the day, pilots from the 31st were officially awarded two confirmed and two probable air-to-air victories.

The 31st Fighter Group continued to fly fighter-sweep missions over coastal France, but it was awarded only one probable and no confirmed victories before it was withdrawn from combat operations in October to prepare for its upcoming role in the invasion of French Northwest Africa. Meanwhile, on September 12, 1942 the RAF’s three independent Eagle squadrons—fighter units composed entirely of American citizens who had enlisted in the Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force—were absorbed into the VIII Fighter Command as the new 4th Fighter Group.

Thanks to the withdrawal and diversion of other VIII Fighter Command groups for the North Africa Campaign, the 4th Fighter Group, which was outfitted with Spitfires, was the only operational American fighter unit in northern Europe until May 1943. Already endowed with experienced combat pilots, including a number of aces, from its RAF days, the 4th did about as well during its first six months of combat service as did RAF Spitfire units that took part in similar fighter-sweep missions. Between September 1942 and mid-April 1943, the 4th Fighter Group was awarded credit for 15 confirmed victories over France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The essence of the U.S. Army Air Forces campaign over northern Europe between October 1942 and the spring of 1943 was that, for practical purposes, there was no air campaign. The diversion of most of the small Eighth Air Force—fighters and bombers—to North Africa left the VIII Bomber Command and the VIII Fighter Command virtually no assets with which to wage any sort of offensive battle.

”The 4th Fighter Group was as Predatory a Fighter Unit as Ever Fought in a War”

From October 1942 until May 1943, only the 4th Fighter Group remained operational in the United Kingdom. The handful of other fighter groups that had reached the British Isles by October 1942 had been diverted or, in the case of the 78th Fighter Group, stripped of its airplanes, which were needed as replacements by groups in North Africa. Between early October 1942 and the end of April 1943, 4th Fighter Group pilots accounted for just 16 German airplanes. (Between mid-March and April 8, the 4th was withdrawn from combat so it could transition from Spitfires to Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. The group’s first aerial victories in the P-47—and the P-47’s first victories, ever—were scored on April 15 over the Belgian coast.)

As was to emerge in time, the paucity of aerial victories—even the paucity of aerial encounters—had less to do with the scarcity of American-manned fighters than it did with American fighter tactics. The 4th Fighter Group was as predatory a fighter unit as ever fought in a war. In better times, with better tactics, it became one of America’s premier fighter units. But during the period it flew as the only American fighter unit in operation in northern Europe—and for several months beyond—it attained negligible results because it was hobbled by idiotic tactics.

The immediate culprit was Maj. Gen. Monk Hunter, the commander of the VIII Fighter Command, but it must be said that Hunter was a product of his training and, to a degree, poor technology. Both of these factors obliged him and his eager fighter pilots—Hunter was eager, too—to work apart, virtually in a separate war, from the Eighth Air Force’s other combat arm, the VIII Bomber Command. Indeed, the doctrines that defined bomber and fighter operations were so far apart as to obviate direct cooperation.

The bombers had been built and the bomber crews had been trained to attack enemy targets without protection from fighters. Even as late as 1942, non-German air strategists honestly believed that wars could be won by bomber campaigns alone. Since the mid-1930s, Americans who accepted this outlook had developed what they called the self-defending bomber. That innovation, however, had more to do with the fighter technology of the 1930s; fighters of the day possessed neither the range nor the speed required to protect modern bombers. Fighter technology improved, but by mid-1942 the concept of the self-defending bomber had taken on a life of its own. It was believed that Germany could be bombed into submission by long-range self-defending bombers that were capable of flying—without fighter escort—to industrial targets anywhere in western or even central Europe. There was no offensive role for fighters.

As with most self-fulfilling prophecies, fact came to match belief. In 1942, American heavy bombers (and their British counterparts) had the range to strike targets in distant Berlin and beyond. The British had attempted daylight raids against Berlin early in the war, but they had been trounced by German fighter and antiaircraft-gun defenses. So they had switched to night “area” raids, nominally against industrial targets but, in reality, against whomever or whatever their bombs happened to strike.

Terror Bombings

The U.S. Army Air Forces, on the other hand, had developed qualms against “terror” bombings. And besides, America’s leading bomber enthusiasts believed strongly in the efficacy of both their precision daylight-bombing doctrine and their self-defending heavy bombers. Moreover, American fighters of the day, though powerful and powerfully armed, still lacked the range to accompany the bombers all the way to the nearest point in Germany and back.

Denied a role in escorting bombers to distant targets, and blinded by an outmoded and actually quite silly doctrine he had helped develop in the 1930s, Monk Hunter opted to send his meager fighter assets on “fighter sweeps” over those areas of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands that were within the meager operational range of the one fighter type that was then in his hands—the immensely heavy (7 ton) and short-ranged Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

It must be said that it was not Hunter’s fault that he had inadequate airplanes (forget that there was only one group flying!), and he was not alone in his misperception of the role of fighters in World War II. The VIII Fighter Command’s failure to make a dent in the German fighter force—fewer than 20 confirmed victories in seven months—also goes to the role to which the Army Air Forces both aspired and had been relegated by 1942.

The key to every decision Allied commanders made in 1942 and 1943 was the projected invasion of France. At first, when the United States entered the war, it was hoped that the invasion would take place in mid-1943. By the late summer of 1942, however, the North Africa Campaign—and a huge number of other factors—made it clear that D-day was going to be delayed until mid-1944. As the first symbolic raids and sweeps were undertaken over northwestern Europe by Eighth Air Force fighter and bomber units in mid-1942, there were two full years to achieve preinvasion goals from the air. North Africa threw the margin into a cocked hat. If luck held, it would be mid-1943 before the strategic-bombing campaign could be resumed, and then only one year would be left for cracking the vast array of German objectives that would have to be overcome before the invasion could safely commence.

The primary role of American and British air power in Europe from mid-1942 until the invasion was to be the defeat of the Luftwaffe. Operation Pointblank, the specific plan by which the Allies were to accomplish this feat, was promulgated in May 1943 following acceptance of the common goal by the RAF and the U.S. Army Air Forces. The defeat of the Luftwaffe was of primary concern to the Allies because, at heart, it was constituted as a tactical ground-cooperation air force; it had been developed in its entirety to support German Army ground operations. Its bombers, for example, were light or medium models, and its bomber crews were trained to support ground troops at close or medium range. The Luftwaffe had no long-range capability—no strategic capability whatsoever; its role was tactical and, at most, operational. (This is precisely why the Luftwaffe alone was unable to overcome the RAF as a strategic objective during the Blitz; it was too lightly built to undertake a purely strategic mission.) As a superb tactical air force, however, the Luftwaffe was an enormous potential threat to an invasion fleet or a fledgling toehold on the soil of France.

Operation: Pointblank

In order to assure a safe landing by tens of thousands of Allied soldiers from thousands of ships, two things had to happen in the air before the invasion began—or could begin. The Luftwaffe had to be whittled down in strength and it had to be pushed as far back from the English Channel and North Sea coasts as possible. By forcing German tactical and operational air units to operate at the extremity of their ranges and in the smallest possible numbers—and only by doing so—could the mid-1944 invasion foreseen in mid-1942 be reasonably assured of success?

The goal of Operation Pointblank was to be accomplished in two ways: first, by simply shooting down German airplanes wherever they could be induced to fight and, second, by destroying Germany’s ability to build airplanes. To accomplish the latter, the destruction of the German aircraft industry and related targets, the British and Americans opened the Combined Bomber Offensive. The RAF would undertake night “area” bombing attacks against the German aircraft industry and the U.S. Army Air Forces would undertake daylight precision-bombing attacks against the same or similar targets.

Conceptually, the simultaneous Anglo-American program of aggressive (but, alas, short-range) fighter sweeps over the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts was aimed at engaging the Luftwaffe fighter wings in a battle of attrition that over time would destroy the bulk of whatever reduced numbers of fighters the shattered German aircraft industry managed to produce. Further, by destroying German fighters, the Allies hoped to induce the German aircraft industry to switch over from the production of tactical bombers to the increased production of replacement fighters, which were less likely to hurt the invasion forces.

Sadly, while American fighters were being assiduously avoided by the crack Luftwaffe fighter units within their meager range, the “self-defending” daylight heavy-bomber groups charged with attacking strategic targets deeper inside France, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany were being butchered. While the German fighters were sidestepping needless and avoidable attrition simply by ignoring the American fighter sweeps, the bombers were locked in a one-sided form of attrition that did not bode well for their survival.

American Fighters Down 7 German Airplanes

Beginning in April 1943, the 4th Fighter Group’s new P-47 Thunderbolts were joined over the Channel and North Sea coasts by the Thunderbolts of the 78th Fighter Group—and another P-47 unit, the 56th Fighter Group, was in training in England. Despite the doubling of assets, the results remained abysmal. Meanwhile, losses of American heavy bombers continued to rise. Major General Ira Eaker, who had replaced Spaatz as Eighth Air Force commander when the latter went to North Africa, continued to champion the self-defending bomber, but he also alibied that there were not yet enough heavies available in northern Europe to make the strategy efficacious. However, in April 1943, after scores and then hundreds of unescorted “self-defending” bombers had fallen and thousands of American airmen had been killed or captured, Eaker finally did ask Monk Hunter to provide fighters for escort duty to the extremity of their range—going into the Continent (penetration), and coming out (withdrawal). The bombers would be on their own a good part of the way, but some protection at the margins apparently was deemed to be better than none at all. From May 4 onward, nearly all VIII Fighter Command sorties were devoted to escorting the bombers.

Seven German airplanes were downed by American fighters over northern Europe in May 1943, and 18 fell in June (seven in one day, June 22). Action during the first three weeks of July was sluggish, but an extremely aggressive new commander, Maj. Gen. Frederick Anderson, had just taken over the VIII Bomber Command on July 1, and he needed some time to make his aggressive new policies bite. On July 24, Anderson’s VIII Bomber Command opened “Blitz Week” with the first of hopefully daily appearances over Germany. Weather shut down bomber operations on one of seven consecutive planned mission days, but the other six days saw strikes aggregating just over a thousand bomber sorties against 15 targets all over northern and western Germany. Claims by bomber gunners were, as always, extravagant—330 victory credits were awarded—but there is no doubting that the German fighter forces were worn down somewhat, at least operationally, by the unrelenting appearances by the bombers.

The American escort fighters put in fewer claims by far, but the fact that their claims were closer to reality made them startling in their own right. In July 1943, American fighter combat produced 38 victory credits, of which 33—nine and 24, respectively—were scored during just two Blitz Week missions. Not coincidentally, the two missions in question were not only bomber-escort missions—they were the first nominally long-range bomber-escort missions ever flown by Eighth Air Force fighters.

On July 28, 1943 the 4th Fighter Group significantly increased the range of its P-47 fighters in an experiment with auxiliary fuel tanks. In so doing, its pilots took the Germans by surprise by flying much deeper into enemy territory than they ever had before. Nine German fighters were downed in what for the Germans was an unexpected melee around the American heavy-bomber stream. Two days later, on July 30, all three P-47 groups were able to use for the first time what the pilots referred to as “bathtub” belly tanks. The 115-gallon tanks—which were designed for use in long-distance ferry flights—were not pressurized, and they gave the pilots a lot of problems, but they did add 150 to 200 miles to each Thunderbolt’s operational range. Until then, the heavy fighter could barely reach Antwerp. With the tanks, the P-47s could make it well into the Netherlands. Thus, on July 30, when the target was the Focke-Wulf assembly plant in Kassel, Germany, more than two hundred VIII Bomber Command B-17s and B-24s took part in a mission that was covered to the greatest depth ever by friendly fighters.

An Incredible 24 Confirmed Victories in 1 Day

On the watershed July 30 mission, the 56th Fighter Group gave the bombers penetration support, the 78th Fighter Group provided early withdrawal support, and the 4th Fighter Group provided late withdrawal support. That meant that the 78th Fighter Group’s P-47s would be with the bombers quite soon after the heavies came off the target. The overall tactical plan was simple—protect the bombers and drive away the German fighters. The surprised German pilots either attempted to ignore the P-47s as they drove their fighters into the bomber stream, or they were sucked into dogfights at the expense of attacking their primary targets, the bombers.

There it was—24 confirmed victories in one day, on a single mission. The tactics and technology had changed, and American fighters had knocked down as many German airplanes in one mission as they had been able to in dozens of fighter-sweep and even escort missions in the preceding two months. In a short time, the large numbers of sturdy, reliable, streamlined, auxiliary fuel tanks that were shipped to or manufactured in England forever changed the tenor of the daytime air war in Europe. Indeed, the routine commitment of American long-range fighter escorts in mid-1943 changed the substance of war in the air as profoundly as the routine use of flimsy reconnaissance aircraft had transformed ground warfare in 1915.

The Germans knew there was no profit in attacking American fighters for the sake of engaging in dogfights that could go either way once they were joined. Fighters, per se, were no danger to the Third Reich. Bombers were. Bombers were a threat to everything—home, loved ones, and German morale and equanimity. American bombers, if they were allowed to get through to their targets, were an especial danger to the Luftwaffe itself, for they had shown a propensity to concentrate on the German industries from which German fighters and bombers emerged—ball bearings, machine tools, and airplane factories themselves. German fighters would never attack American or British fighters unless there was an overwhelming opportunity to win. But bombers had to be attacked, no matter where or when they appeared over Germany or her satellites. And, so, if the American fighter enthusiasts wanted to destroy the Luftwaffe at least in part through a strategy of attrition, they had to tie their fortunes to those of the bombers. To do that, better or much-improved fighters needed to emerge from the American industrial behemoth, better escort tactics needed to evolve, and better operational ranges needed to be achieved by the fighters.

The VIII Fighter Command’s three P-47 groups were credited with 58 German airplanes in August 1943, all of them during bomber-escort duty. In stark contrast, the American P-47s flew 373 fighter-sweep sorties over France on August 15 and did not see a single German airplane. Despite the numbers and mounting pressure from his superiors in Washington to adopt changes, Hunter continued to argue vehemently in favor of his discredited fighter-sweep tactic. In this, Hunter continued to be supported by the Eighth Air Force commander, Eaker, who remained a strong supporter in his own right of the self-defending bomber.

The ‘Aggressive’ William Kepner

Eaker was very close personally to the Army Air Forces chief, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, so his job was secure. But, though Hunter was also an old friend of Arnold’s, he had become an annoying relic. Hunter was replaced as head of the VIII Fighter Command on August 29 by Maj. Gen. William Kepner. A fighter pilot’s fighter pilot, Kepner was, in a word, aggressive. Moreover, his outlook was in full accord with the reality of the air war over northern Europe. He simply wanted to do whatever worked.

The VIII Fighter Command’s tally continued to rise, but the early escort tactic—stay with the bombers—quickly became ossified. Eaker eventually became an escort advocate, but next he refused the counsel of his escort commanders. As the range of their airplanes increased—especially after the introduction of the long-range Lockheed P-38 Lightning in late 1943 and the development of the North American P-51 Mustang—the fighter men thought they should range ahead of the bombers to break up Luftwaffe fighter formations before the bombers were molested—in other words, to go over to the offensive. Eaker, however, gave in to the wishes of his seriously demoralized bomber men, who wanted to see their escorts close up—an effective but nonetheless defensive mind-set. As a result, the fighters remained only marginally effective, and bombers and their crews continued to fall in record numbers.

At length, despite Eaker’s obstructionism, the Eighth Air Force forced the Luftwaffe to abandon its forward bases and defend the German heartland. This fit the preinvasion plan—move the German fighters far back from the invasion beaches—but the highly concentrated German defensive fighter effort (heavily augmented by improved antiaircraft protection) downed yet a higher percentage of bombers even while providing more fruitful hunting for the American fighters. The deadly spiral persisted until, at last, Eaker was replaced on January 6, 1944 by Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, who was brought in from the Mediterranean.

Doolittle and the new theater air commander, the redoubtable Carl Spaatz, immediately gave the Eighth Air Force fighters their offensive head. Thereafter, aggressive roving (“freelancing”) American fighters often dispersed the German fighters before the American bombers arrived on the scene. It was Bill Kepner and Fred Anderson, working together under Doolittle and Spaatz, who finally broke the back of the German fighter force, the one by shooting it down over Germany and the other by making a shambles of the German industrial base, especially the aircraft industry.

American Air Supremacy

The strategic air campaign leading up to the invasion was long and bloody. In the end, there was only one fair way to measure the success of Operation Pointblank and its many related phases and strategies: How much opposition was the Luftwaffe able to muster over the beaches and invasion fleet when Normandy was invaded on D-day, June 6, 1944?

On D-day itself two German fighters appeared over the invasion beaches. Two. No German fighters rose to challenge the hundreds of fighter-escorted transport aircraft that dropped three airborne divisions behind the Normandy beaches, and no German fighters or bombers—not one—attacked the invasion armada or landing force. On June 6, 26 German airplanes—fighters and light bombers—were destroyed over France by U.S. Army Air Forces fighters, but none of these came within sight of the Normandy coast. The Luftwaffe never meaningfully contested the invasion or any of the subsequent Allied land campaigns in Europe. By the time the invasion began, American bomber losses had dropped to negligible proportions, and the Luftwaffe had been virtually driven from the skies over its own homeland.

From mid-1944, thanks to the introduction of better fighters and the use of aggressive, realistic offensive fighter doctrines, American airmen attained—not the air superiority they sought, but—total air supremacy over the whole of western Europe.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. Originally Published April 16, 2019.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A Stimulus Check Petition is Gaining 50,000 Signatures a Week

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 13:33

Trevor Filseth

Stimulus Payments,

Polling has indicated that four in ten Americans’ wages are lower now than they were in 2019, underlining the idea that the economic recovery is still far from over.

In March 2020, after Covid-19 lockdowns caused thousands of businesses to close their doors, Stephanie Bonin, a Colorado restaurant owner, started a petition calling for recurring stimulus checks. Bonin’s suggestion, echoing proposals made by legislators on Capitol Hill, was a recurring payment of $2,000 per month to all American adults throughout the pandemic.

The proposal in question had been advocated before—around the same time, it was put forward by Humanity Forward, a universal basic income (UBI) advocacy group, and it is difficult to tell who came up with the idea first. However, the petition quickly gained outsized attention as millions of people signed; its current tally sits at 2.45 million signatures—gaining roughly 50,000 in the past week alone. If the current trend continues, the petition will pass 2.5 million signatures next week.

The petition has been peripheral to the actual stimulus debate in Washington. However, while it probably has not affected any policy decisions, it has exposed a deep undercurrent of support for further stimulus payments. Nor is it the only place that this support has become apparent. According to one survey, 90 percent of Americans believed that the stimulus check gave them a noticeable economic benefit. In a separate Data for Progress poll, 65 percent expressed their support for another stimulus measure.

The moral case for another stimulus check is clear-cut. The U.S. unemployment rate is still at roughly 6 percent, far higher than its pre-pandemic level. Polling has indicated that four in ten Americans’ wages are lower now than they were in 2019, underlining the idea that the economic recovery is still far from over.

For these reasons, the stimulus payments are popular. More than sixty members of the House of Representatives, and more than twenty senators, have indicated their support for a fourth stimulus payment, although there is disagreement on what form such payment would take. The issue of recurring stimulus checks, in particular, has been taken up by progressive Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

However, eighty out of five hundred and thirty-five is not a majority, and both Republicans and moderate Democrats have opposed the extra spending that a stimulus bill would entail. So, in all but words, has President Joe Biden, who has scrupulously avoided addressing the stimulus issue, pushing instead for a more traditional bipartisan infrastructure bill. While a second, larger spending bill is also in the works, it does not contain a stimulus, either. Barring an extreme event—such as a deadlier strain of Covid-19, forcing Americans back into their homes—another stimulus payment seems very unlikely.

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.

Image: Reuters.

Armenia Can Stop Iran’s New South Caucasus Foothold

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 13:11

Wes Martin

Armenia, Iran, South Caucasus

Were the Nakhchivan corridor to run through Iran, it hands Tehran still yet more leverage and integration into the global economy.

With the exception of tragedy, trains rarely stir the international media. But when a new rail-line could hand one of America’s greatest threats renewed clout in a region currently closed to it, that should change. Particularly when that country has a new hardline leadership on the cusp of power.

Formerly a hanging judge, Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi will be the least trustworthy of his recent predecessors. More ruthless and zealous in his revolutionary Islamist conviction, the distinguishing feature of his career was his role in a “death commission” that oversaw the secret executions of 30,000 thousand political prisoners in 1988. But though struggling under the weight of sanctions and isolation, Iran and its new leadership may soon be thrown a lifeline in the South Caucasus. Perhaps bizarrely, Armenia may inadvertently cast it to them. With renewed influence with Yerevan, America must prevent this at all costs.

Some geographical and historical context is necessary. Last autumn, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a conflict over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. The result was a return of internationally recognized lands to Azerbaijan that had been occupied since the two nations went to war as the USSR collapsed. Another consequence of their ceasefire agreement was the re-opening of transit routes between and within one another’s countries.

This is of grave importance to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. For Yerevan, its thirty-year occupation had left it isolated and reliant on Russia, with neighboring Azerbaijani Turkish borders closed to it. For Baku, it means the reopening of a transit line that runs twenty-six miles across Armenia’s southern border with Iran, reconnecting Azerbaijan with its long-isolated exclave Nakhchivan. However, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—until recently in the midst of a post-conflict crisis election—has said he will never entertain the idea of the Nakhchivan corridor, in spite of its explicit mention in the ceasefire agreement.

Few realize there could be an alternate rail line south of the border, through Iran, that mirrors the one envisaged in the ceasefire agreement. This would weaken Armenia’s hand in post-conflict negotiations; it should be cause to exercise caution.

Re-establishing direct connection is of great symbolic importance to Azerbaijanis, and therefore figures highly in any geostrategic calculation. Traveling to or from Nakhchivan currently entails a lengthy circumvention through Iran on poor roads—or freighting through Georgia and Turkey to the enclave. Up until now, the most logical line was to run it where it once was; and was assumed possible with the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute.

But this calculation is changing due to Armenia’s intransigence. Within some circles in Baku, it is leading to consideration of this alternate Iranian route. Not only would this cut Armenia out of the future regional economy but it would hand Tehran renewed influence where it had recently been lacking.

Last autumn’s conflict blindsided Iran’s leadership in a region it believes is part of its domain. Russia and Turkey, allied respectively to Armenia and Azerbaijan, emerged as the key external power brokers. Tehran, waking up, has been touring the region post-war to re-establish its presence. The rail line will be that fix.

Regional connectivity, long stymied by the dispute, is the key to prosperity in the South Caucasus. Handing a critical role within that infrastructure to a malign actor to obstruct at will—or at least threaten to—delivers them undue leverage. For a regime known to move against rational economic incentives, this bodes ill. But if it is Azerbaijan’s only feasible option, Baku will take it.

Then there are the wider ramifications. The South Caucasus sits along the so-called middle corridor for freight between the Asia-Pacific and Europe. Infrastructure on both sides of the continents is ready to be connected. The final Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan jigsaw piece, whether it runs through Armenia or Iran, would form the fastest link. Were it to run through Iran, it hands Tehran still yet more leverage and integration into the global economy.

That is why America must impress upon Armenia to step up—for its own economic future and regional security. After being initially side-lined in the conflict’s resolution, Washington has recently managed to broker the first diplomatic breakthrough since the cessation of hostilities: Azerbaijan released fifteen Armenian detainees and, in return, Yerevan handed over maps detailing mines it had laid in one of the seven districts Azerbaijan reclaimed during the conflict.

But more importantly, the Biden administration has broken with precedent and officially recognized the Armenian genocide—much to Turkey’s ire. It risked worsening relations with a NATO ally to do something for Armenia from which Washington would gain nothing. Armenia will therefore listen.

In theory, Pashinyan shouldn’t take too much convincing: the corridor is after all in Armenia’s interest. Despite losing the conflict, he has touted the links now possible as a transformational opportunity. Hopefully, his previous denial of the Nakhchivan corridor was to mitigate against electoral attacks from an opposition crying traitor. With his election victory secured, he now has a mandate to make perceived concessions for Armenia’s future good.

Still, with the specter of Iranian influence possible through potential miscalculation, Washington would do well to remind him why the Nakhchivan corridor is in his interest. 

Colonel (Retired) Wes Martin has served in law enforcement positions around the world and holds an MBA in International Politics and Business.

Image: Reuters.

Not Filing Tax Returns Is No Reason to Miss Out on this Stimulus Payment

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 13:00

Trevor Filseth

economy, Americas

One of the IRS’s stated priorities has been to ensure that government assistance programs, including stimulus checks and the newly increased Child Tax Credit, are made available to all Americans who qualify for them.

Here's What You Need to Remember: The agency announced Wednesday that it has partnered with civil society organizations, including churches, community organizations, and nonprofits to assist people with filing their taxes in twelve major cities. The assistance programs will be conducted over two weekends, from June 25–26 and again from July 9–10.

The years 2020 and 2021 have been unusual years for the Internal Revenue Service. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans lost their jobs, thousands of businesses were closed. The IRS, like all government agencies, was forced into remote work, complicating its ability to process tax returns submitted in the spring and summer of 2020. In addition to its normal duties, the agency was also tasked early on with sending hundreds of millions of stimulus checks out to American families—a task it largely succeeded at, albeit with some minor missteps. 

One of the IRS’s stated priorities has been to ensure that government assistance programs, including stimulus checks and the newly increased Child Tax Credit, are made available to all Americans who qualify for them. A primary issue of concern has been “non-filers,” Americans who, usually because they do not make enough income to be taxed on it, do not file their tax returns. Due to the fact that these Americans’ stimulus and Child Tax Credit payments are tied to tax returns —which are used to determine who is eligible based on income, as well as to determine what address to send the payments to—non-filers are often difficult for the IRS to send payments to. This is an especially significant problem because non-filers, by virtue of their lack of income, are in the most urgent need of assistance. 

To reach non-filers, the IRS has launched a number of programs. The agency’s website has an online portal assisting non-filing Americans to claim the Child Tax Credit, as well as the $1,400 (or possibly the earlier $1,200 or $600) stimulus checks. The credit’s advance payments will begin on July 15, imparting a sense of urgency to the IRS’s outreach. 

In addition to this, the agency announced Wednesday that it has partnered with civil society organizations, including churches, community organizations, and nonprofits to assist people with filing their taxes in twelve major cities. The assistance programs will be conducted over two weekends, from June 25–26 and again from July 9–10. The IRS has advertised the events on its website, and provided guidelines for what attendees should bring to each session—encouraging attendees to bring their Social Security information for themselves and their children, mailing and email addresses, and, if signing up for direct deposit, bank account information.

The events will be held in Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Washington, DC. 

Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest. This article first appeared earlier this year.

Image: Reuters.

These Anti-Tank Rifles Gave German Panzers Nightmares

The National Interest - Mon, 05/07/2021 - 12:33

Warfare History Network

History, Europe

The Mark 1 Boys initially fired a .55-caliber (13.9x99mm) steel-cored AP (armor-piercing) projectile with a muzzle velocity of around 2,500 feet per second, which was changed to a lighter bullet with a velocity of 2,900 feet per second in the Mark 2 load.

Key point: The ATR wasn't the best, but it did an important job during the early stages of the war.

When the first tanks appeared in World War I, they were relatively lightly armored and protected the crews only against small-arms fire. In addition, much of the armor was riveted. Projectiles striking the exterior of the armor could pop off rivet heads or flake armor from the internal surfaces, creating fragments that would fly around the vehicle interior, causing injuries or death. In fact, British tank crews had to wear protective goggles and chain-mail masks to guard against fragments made by bullets striking close to their open vision slits.

The Imperial German Army’s first attempt to give the infantry a man-portable antitank weapon resulted in the company Waffenfabrik Mauser AG creating and manufacturing the first antitank rifle in 1917. This was the Mauser Tank-Gewehr Model 1918, essentially a standard Mauser bolt-action rifle on steroids, firing a huge 13.2mm round and equipped with a bipod. A very unpleasant brute to fire, the T-Gewehr’s most impressive feat was that it was being fielded to frontline infantry within nine months of the tank’s first appearance on the battlefield.

Setting the Stage for the Boys ATR

The Mauser set the stage and ushered in the age of the antitank rifle, or ATR. Most major combatants, with the notable exception of the United States, fielded these weapons during the interwar years and through the beginning of World War II. Countries such as Finland, Switzerland, and Japan went the big-bore route, utilizing 20mm weapons. The Germans and Poles used 7.92mm weapons firing steel- or tungsten-cored small projectiles at incredibly high velocities. To the tanks of the 1930s, these weapons were a potent threat. By 1942, they were hopelessly outclassed.

The British Mark 1, Mark 1*, and Mark 2 Boys Anti-tank rifles were typical of the breed. Originally to be dubbed the Stanchion Rifle, instead the weapon received its name from the designer, Captain H.C. Boys, the Assistant Superintendent of Design for the British Small Arms Committee. Captain Boys died only a few days before his weapon was adopted into British military service in 1937, and the antitank rifle was renamed in his honor. It was often misspelled as Boyes.

An Ox of a Rifle

The Boys had a three-foot-long barrel, was 631/2 inches long overall, and weighed 36 pounds. This particular weapon was a repeater, a bolt-action that was fed by a five-shot detachable box magazine mounted atop the weapon in a fashion similar to the famous Bren light machine gun. Empty cartridge cases were ejected from the bottom of the action rather than the top. Just the loaded magazine weighed some 2.6 pounds, and weight does not endear any weapon to the infantryman.

The Mark 1 Boys initially fired a .55-caliber (13.9x99mm) steel-cored AP (armor-piercing) projectile with a muzzle velocity of around 2,500 feet per second, which was changed to a lighter bullet with a velocity of 2,900 feet per second in the Mark 2 load. Later, an even more effective tungsten-cored APCR (armor-piercing composite rigid) was developed, which boasted a muzzle velocity of well in excess of 3,000 feet per second. This load proved capable of penetrating 20mm of armor plate at 300 yards.

“Charlie the Bastard”

The early production Boys Mark 1 had the circular muzzle brake, which vented gases in all directions. Fired from an otherwise good low-profile position, the rifle regularly kicked up a blast of dust and debris that could give the operator’s position away. Later designs featured a flat harmonica-style muzzle brake, which vented all gases to the sides to correct this problem and had the added benefit of being easier to manufacture.

The harmonica-shaped (Mark 1*) muzzle brake or “recoil reducer” helped tame the weapon’s massive kick. In addition, the barrel itself recoiled an inch against a heavy shock absorber mounted in the butt. The improved later version of the .55-caliber Boys Mark 1* not only had the flat muzzle brake, but also simpler fixed sights and a Bren gun bipod to simplify its manufacture. The butt plate itself was heavily padded with rubber. A front bipod and rear grip were also fitted. Still, recoil was quite significant, causing Australian troops who were issued the Boys to nickname it “Charlie the Bastard.”

First Action in Finland

The first combat action for the Boys was actually with Finnish forces during the 1939-1940 Winter War against the Soviet Red Army. Great Britain sent 200 examples of the Boys to Finland. In the hands of the Finns, the Boys reportedly proved adequately effective against the early Soviet tank designs. Tanks such as the T-26 and BT-5 had thin armor and a distressing tendency to catch fire easily. The Finns were impressed enough with the Boys to later purchase another 200 of the weapons from the Germans, who had captured many of them during the campaign of spring 1941 that ended with the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. The Germans renamed them Panzerbuchse Boyes.

Later, the very first German tanks of World War II to be destroyed by British ground forces fell to a Boys. The 1st/5th Leicesters, who had been sent to aid in the defense of Norway after the German invasion of the neutral country, made a stand at the village of Tretten. Platoon Sergeant Major John Sheppard was commanding a small subunit guarding the right flank of a British position when he noticed German tanks approaching on the far side of the Laagen River. Taking up the unit’s .55-caliber Boys, which he had never used before, Sheppard assumed a steady prone position and proceeded to precisely and methodically smack each tank with three AP rounds, knocking out two of them and making the rest back off out of sight.

“A Terrifying Weapon”

The success of the Boys, or lack thereof, was also noted during the German invasion of France in May 1940. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the German tanks in use at the time were small, lightly armored Mark I and Mark II panzers, the former originally intended as nothing more than a training vehicle, the Boys was not a decisive factor in the infantry’s defense against armor.

Sergeant Edward Doe of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps was not impressed by the Boys: “The Germans had brought the tanks in and they were blasting … I actually fired the Boys anti-tank rifle for the first time in my life—a terrifying weapon. To even fire, you had to hang onto it like grim death because it would dislocate your shoulder if you didn’t. I fired at a tank coming over the bridge that wasn’t blown—and I couldn’t miss it from about 50 yards away. An officer was right beside me, and I saw this hit the tank and all it had done was to just about knock the paintwork off. It made a noise like a ping-pong ball. The officer who was beside me said to me, ‘Leave the blasted thing there, Doe—get the hell out of it.’”

Sergeant William J. Gilchrist of the Irish Guards had considerably better luck with the Boys. A later report confirmed, “France/Belgium 1940: Boulogne 23rd May 1940. Sgt. Gilchrist was in personal charge of an Anti-Tank Rifle which protected the rear of the Battalion during its withdrawal into Boulogne on the 23rd May. For two hours this NCO, with a few men, succeeded in holding their post at a street corner, thus enabling the remainder of the Battalion to move on unmolested. Although under extremely heavy machine-gun fire he showed the greatest contempt of danger and continued to keep his anti-tank gun in action. He was instrumental in hitting and setting on fire an enemy tank, thus blocking a street down which the enemy were trying to move. Later in the action he himself was wounded but refused to leave his Anti-Tank Rifle until it, and the Bren guns supporting it, became jammed through over firing. Throughout the whole action Sgt Gilchrist showed courage and bravery of a very high order and set the finest example to the remainder of his Platoon.”

65,000 Manufactured During the Course of the War

After losing so much war material at Dunkirk and facing the possibility of a German amphibious invasion, the British were desperate to reequip their armed forces in the shortest time possible. New and improved weapon designs were neglected for the moment; industry concentrated on pouring out as many current weapons from existing assembly lines as possible. Thus, obsolete and obsolescent designs such as the Boys and the 2-pounder antitank gun continued to be produced in great numbers despite their disappointing performance. Approximately 65,000 Boys weapons were manufactured during the war.

The Boys was quickly rendered ineffective as an antitank weapon by rapid improvements in German tank armor. In North Africa, however, it still proved somewhat effective against lighter vehicles and some Italian tanks, such as the Fiat light tanks and the thin-skinned machine-gun-armed Carro Veloce L3/35 tankettes. In one single engagement in the desert, the 7th Hussars knocked out five of these CV tankettes in rapid order with their Boys antitank rifles.

In the North African campaigns the Boys also found use against bunkers, machine-gun nests, and against infantry at long range. In the stony Western Desert, where the ground was often too hard to yield up good foxholes, infantrymen were forced to make fighting positions of piled stones known as sangers. The impact of the large .55-caliber bullets striking these sangers often produced casualties among enemy infantrymen from splinters and rock fragments. This trick was used again to engage German paratroopers fighting amid the rubble of Monte Cassino during the Italian campaign.

“Noted For its Uselessness”

As in Western Europe, the ordinary Commonwealth desert infantryman did not give the Boys rave reviews as an antitank weapon, as attested by one Australian account. “The Italians counterattacked with nine tanks and hundreds of infantrymen. Private O.Z. Neall knocked out three Italian tanks with his Boyes anti-tank rifle, a feat that astounded everyone —the Boyes rifle was noted for its uselessness.”

The British Universal or Bren Gun Carrier was a small, fully tracked, open-topped light armored vehicle that was mass produced during World War II and used by Commonwealth forces on all fronts. A total of some 113,000 of these carriers was manufactured, and they can be likened to an armored, tracked equivalent of the American jeep. In addition to the Bren gun, early models were also armed with a Boys ATR to provide some limited anti-armor defense.

In addition to the Universal Carrier, the Boys antitank rifle was also frequently used to supplement the machine-gun armament of numerous other light armored vehicles. These included the Morris CS9 Light Armored Car and Morris Light Reconnaissance Car, the Lanchester 4×2 and 6×4 armored cars, the Humber Light Reconnaissance Car, and the World War I-vintage Rolls Royce Armored Cars. As the war progressed, some attempts were made to improve the Boys. The Mark 2 was a shortened, lightweight version intended for use with airborne troops, but it was just as ballistically ineffective as its predecessors, and the recoil was even more brutal than the full-size model. A taper (or squeeze) bore barrel was tried to increase muzzle velocity in the same manner that the Littlejohn Adapter tried to extend the useful life of the 2-pounder gun, and experiments were also conducted with the .55-caliber cartridge casing necked down to fire a .303 bullet at extremely high velocity. However, by that time the Boys was already being retired.

Replaced by the PIAT

With the advent of improved infantry antitank weapons utilizing the very effective high- explosive shaped charge warhead, the Boys quickly disappeared. In English and Commonwealth service it was replaced by the PIAT, Projector Infantry Anti-Tank. Essentially a spring-loaded spigot mortar, the PIAT was also rather despised by its users owing to its nasty spring recoil and short range, but its powerful warhead could penetrate some four inches of tank armor.

Although the Boys antitank rifle rapidly became obsolete during World War II, it served its purpose as a stopgap defense against marauding Axis armor.

Originally Published in 2018.

This article by Bob Cashner originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Flickr.