Blood, Guts And Rommel

Back when I was working I spent a lot of off time watching the History Channel. One of their prime airings was a program called Patton 360. Once retired, I had even more time, and I purchased the Season One on DVD. Here begins a continuing series.

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The first episode is titled, you guessed it, “Blood & Guts.” The phrase comes from a speech General George S. Patton sometimes gave. He told his soldiers, untested in battle, they would have no hesitation. When they experienced the blood and guts of their best friends, killed by the enemy, they would know what to do. His men later came to turn this around. They said, “His guts, our blood.”

Since this is an introduction I have loaded up on representative images. Someone possibly in the market for might be interested in knowing what to expect. First, expect to see a lot of CGI, computer-generated imagery. When Patton’s troops invaded the Atlantic Coast of North Africa in November 1942 photographers were not in a position to get all the action on film. Fact is, there’s not enough usable video from the world’s greatest armed conflict to make a decent video. A lot has to be elaborated off-line or even sketched in, as shown below. Here we see Patton’s troops headed for the Morocco Coast during the early morning hours of 8 November 1942. It’s all generated by computer.

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It’s the same with tank battles. Everybody’s too keen on keeping their heads down or too busy fighting the battle to take pictures.

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Flight 33 Productions at appropriate points in the narrative places related movie clips or still photographs. Here is apparently General Patton during the time of Operation Torch landings.

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Here is another screen shot showing Patton, and it’s obviously from a different time. It shows Patton with three stars on his helmet. He didn’t get his third star until he was sent in to take over from General Fredenall the following year.

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Often nothing works better than hiring some actors and recreating the action for the cameras.

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Flight 33 will often pump up actual footage, adding drama where it would otherwise be lacking.

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None of this is worth anything without the associated history lesson. I have previously reviewed Ladislas Farrago’s biography of George S. Patton. December will mark the 70th anniversary of Patton’s death in a vehicle accident in occupied Germany. These posts will recap his World War Two career.

He came from a wealthy Pasadena, California, family, and he married wealth. He was schooled at home until almost grown, resulting in some odd holes in his education. But he loved action.

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He chose a military Career and commanded the first ever American motorized assault during the Pancho Villa Expedition, engaging in real combat, said combat resulting in the killing of three of Villa’s men. By 1918 the United States was fighting The Great War in France, and he was 33 years old and commanding one of the first American armored engagements. He demonstrated exceptional initiative and gallantry and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

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Well known is Patton’s life long dream to command troops in a great battle, and Operation Torch was his first opportunity to do so. It was the beginning of a meteoric, rocky and so short conclusion to his life.

Patton 360 recaps the situation that brought American troops and General Patton to North Africa.

When America entered the war in December 1941 the British had already been fighting Germany, and later Italy, for over two years. It had been a battle of defense and retrenchment. Early ally France was knocked out of the War in June 1940, with German forces occupying the north half of the country and the remainder, including France’s dominions, ruled by a pro-German government based in Vichy, France. Earlier in 1941 German forces had attacked the Soviet Union and had enlarged their holdings into the Baltic and the Balkan states and into the Soviet Union almost to Moscow. See the map.

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Now, with American forces joining the fight, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the opportunity to take the offensive. The Americans saw the obvious. Why not just gather a huge striking force in England and attack across the English Channel into France, then drive on up north and take Berlin.

Sir Winston was not so enthusiastic. He had been fighting the Axis forces for two years and also had known military defeat in his earlier career. The Germans were not that soft a target, and the Americans were likely not as good as they thought themselves. Churchill recommended a softer entry.

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See the map. The African Mediterranean coast offered a much broader front. Germany could defend the Channel and North Sea coasts to the gunwales and was in the process of doing so. To the south was another matter. The south coast of France plus all of Italy and Greece were exposed to any force that could base out of North Africa. And North Africa was weakly defended.

The Brits had been pushing German General Erwin Rommel back and forth between Egypt and Tunisia since 1940. It was a stalemate that could be broken. The Western region was Vichy French territory, by no means up to Rommel’s military acumen. A strike here would force Rommel into a two-front defense and checkmate. Churchill’s Operation Gymnast became the Ally’s Operation Torch.

The Brits were to attack the Algerian Mediterranean coast, while the Americans were to strike the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It was to be the most significant military coup in war against Germany.

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Success was almost without precedent. American forces left East Coast ports and sailed across the Atlantic completely undetected. Likewise British forces left England, passed through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar and approached from the north.

Patton’s target was Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. The target was too large to be taken head on. Patton sent forces to capture an airfield at Port Lyautey to the north, at the same time stormed the beaches at Fedala, just up the coast from Casablanca, and further down the coast at Safi with another landing party. It was not known how the defending French forces would react. They had been allies until two years before. Would they fight, or would they pitch in with the Allies again?

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They chose to fight. Vichy General Charles Noguès thwarted an attempted coup by General Antoine Béthouart and alerted French defenses of the impending attack. French Navy ships from the port of Casablanca engaged the American fleet in a lopsided gun duel. “A cruiser, six destroyers, and six submarines were destroyed by American gunfire and aircraft.” The uncompleted French battleship Jean Bart fired its one working turret and was pulverized by the American Battleship USS New York and American warplanes.

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The one significant tank battle came off as American Stuart tanks faced off with French Renault tanks on the road up from Safi to Casablanca. The matter was settled when an American plane stood off from the battle and directed naval gunfire into the French formation.

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When Patton’s men finally stormed the Kasbah at Fort Lyautey on 10 November, following a punishing attack by carrier based planes, the French in Morocco gave up.

It was a masterful achievement that paid manifold on the investment. Look at a map.

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The Brits were in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Germans and the Italians held all of the northern coast. To supply its eastern forces Britain had to sail supply ships around the southern tip of Africa and up through the Suez Canal, or else they had to run the gauntlet between Sicily and the African Coast. The bottom of that neck is littered with British ships from 1940 through October 1942. Taking the western coast completely turned the situation around. North Africa could be supplied at will from England and also from America, since by about that time the Battle of the Atlantic was being decided, and the Atlantic was becoming an Allied pond.

The Germans responded by forcing the hand of the Vichy government in France. Rather than turn their French based navy over to the Axis, and also rather than turning the ships over to the Allies, the French scuttled their ships in southern French ports.

It was the end of Rommel in North Africa. Pinched between Allied armies to his west and to his east, the, now Field Marshal, was replaced by General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, and he never returned to Africa. His army was unable to execute a successful withdrawal from Tunisia and in May 1943 was largely taken prisoner by the Allies. Rommel had just a few months left to live. He took poison in October the following year after being implicated in the plot to kill German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

The second installment details Rommel’s defeat.

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I previously reviewed Desmond Young’s biography Rommel. George Patton was an admirer of Rommel and his military skills. He longed for a battle that involved the two of them on opposite sides. It was never to be.

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American forces did not fare as well against Rommel as they did against the French. Their first encounter with German forces came in February 1943 at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. But Patton was not there. He was being kept in Morocco to participate in planning for the invasion of Sicily. General Fredenall was in charge at Kasserine, and his leadership qualities contributed to a horrendous American defeat.

To be sure, American forces were vastly out gunned in this first battle. They were unable to hold the vital gap in the mountains and withdrew 60 miles, leaving behind destroyed and captured equipment and soldiers, including Patton’s son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel John K. Waters. Also left behind were hundreds of American dead.

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American commanding General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw the problem and replaced Fredenall with Patton, promoting him to Lieutenant General. But Patton never got to face Rommel across a battlefield. Terribly ill, Rommel had been invalided back to Germany by the time Patton’s forces stymied German counter thrusts at Maknassy and el Guettar. Suffering command failures within his own staff, Patton replaced one commander and shifted forces between the two battles, eventually forcing the Germans to give up the push.

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The final battle came at Hill 609, the Germans’ last defensive line near the Tunisian coast. Following capture by the Americans, there was nothing left for the Germans to do but to pull out what forces they could, leaving behind 270,000, including nearly all of the Italian troops.

The program features many surviving participants, showing then and now photos.

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This program was released in 2009, and for many of these veterans it may have been their last interview. These heroes were in their late teens and early twenties in 1943, making them now in their nineties. These are precious voices that will soon be forever stilled.

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It’s not called the History Channel for nothing. The program features reputable historians, giving additional credence to the stories.

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Also included are current experts from the military.

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There are eight more episodes in Season One. Coming up next, Patton gets a big piece of the action in Sicily and proves himself to be a tremendous asset to the war effort. He also demonstrates his darker side, which trait gets him sidelined for a year as the war rages on without him.

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