Political Football

Books-13Hours

It was about four years ago all this happened. The lead-up is by now familiar:

A trailer for a movie called Innocence of Muslims, described by Reuters as depicting the Islamic prophet, Muhammad “as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake” and showed him having sex, was uploaded to YouTube in early July, 2012, and an Arabic-dubbed version uploaded to YouTube on September 4, 2012. NBC News described the trailer as depicting Muhammad “as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser.” The film was supported by the U.S. pastor Terry Jones, who had previously angered Muslims by announcing plans to burn the Quran publicly. Reuters cited the broadcast of an excerpt of the trailer on Egyptian TV network Al-Nason September 8, on a show hosted by Sheikh Khalad Abdalla, as “the flashpoint for the unrest.” Prior to the 2011 revolution, Egyptian authorities periodically suspended al-Nas for “promoting religious or sectarian hatred.”

That Terry Jones is a controversial character is in no doubt—follow the above link. His trajectory through Christian advocacy is a trail of cultism, self-aggrandizement, and legal reverses. His announced plan to public burn a copy of the Quran, was troubling to many, including to me.

A sidebar here. People who know me have no doubt I have great disregard for so-called holy books. The Bible—yes, that includes the Jews, as well—is a horrid work of fiction, and the Quran, apparently the rantings of a seventh century desert illiterate, appears to be not a half-measure better. When I openly questioned the wisdom of burning copies of the Quran, I was challenged vigorously. Such desecration is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. My thinking was only slightly deeper. Yes, you do have the right to poke a stick at a hornet’s nest, but I would not advise it. I further pointed out that Terry Jones was the person poking the stick, but he was carefully positioned to not be one of those stung. His was a five-thousand-mile stick, and he was going to exercise his First Amendment right. And somebody else was going to die.

And it came to pass.

A train load of hype notwithstanding, the completed film appears to have been shown only once in its entirety, and then in a rented Hollywood theater to about ten people. In the mean time, movie trailers were posted to YouTube. And the shit hit the fan:

On September 11, 2012, a series of protests and violent attacks began in response to a YouTube trailer for a film called Innocence of Muslims, considered blasphemous by many Muslims. The reactions began at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cairo, Egypt, and quickly spread across the Muslim world to additional U.S. and other countries’ diplomatic missions and other locations, with issues beyond the offense at the movie trailer becoming subjects of protest. In Cairo a group scaled the embassy wall and tore down the American flag to replace it with a black Islamic flag.

On September 13, protests occurred at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, resulting in the deaths of four protesters and injuries to thirty-five protesters and guards. On September 14, the U.S. consulate in Chennai was attacked, resulting in injuries to twenty-five protesters. Protesters in Tunis, Tunisia, climbed the U.S. embassy walls and set trees on fire. At least four people were killed and forty-six injured during protests in Tunis on September 15. Further protests were held at U.S. diplomatic missions and other locations in the days following the initial attacks. Related protests and attacks resulted in numerous deaths and injuries across the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

All of this is not what this review is about. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi is about the attack on two United States diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September 2012. The book was written by Mitchell Zuckoff in collaboration with CIA operatives and CIA contractors who participated in the events. Four Americans were killed by hostile action, including American Ambassador Chris Stevens, communications officer Sean Smith, Global Response Staff operative Tyrone Woods, and GRS operative Glen Doherty. By all accounts, a significant number of attackers were killed by American forces. Beyond the gripping drama behind the attack and the response of the defenders, what makes this a compelling read is the political firestorm ginned up by opponents to the Obama administration, particularly then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama’s presumptive successor.

The deaths of four Americans and the propaganda industry that sprang from the attack vastly overshadow the saga that lies at the base. In that respect, some of the human drama may get lost in my retelling. For this I apologize.

Before launching into the details, I will list a few take-aways. I do this because some readers may not be interested in following the story to the end. Here is what you will get reading the book:

  • The attacks on the diplomatic compound and then on the CIA annex were carried out by an organized band of combatants and in no way were associated with any protests over the Jones video.
  • Implications made that Secretary Clinton was complicit in the deaths of these Americans are only possible through wildest stretches of the imagination.
  • The American compounds in Benghazi were in obvious danger prior to the attacks. There was an over reliance on a local militia called the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, which turned out to be ineffective at best and absent at worst when needed. The only way to have secured the safety of the Americans in Benghazi at the time would have been to close both compounds and evacuate the Americans. This was not recognized by those in Benghazi and in Washington, including at the State Department and within the United States Military.
  • There were no demonstrations outside the diplomatic compound. The first indication of aggressive action came at 9:45 p.m. on 11 September when several dozen armed men entered through a pedestrian front entrance, firing AK-47 rifles. The responsibility of securing that gate, locking it, was with an organization called the Blue Mountain Libya Guards.
  • The first indication that an assault was in progress came when Diplomatic Security Agent Alec Henderson heard gunfire and stepped over to look at an array of security camera displays.
  • Any assertion that inadequate American military response is to blame for the deaths at the diplomatic compound is absurd. Within 20 minutes Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith were dead. DS Agent Scott Wickland herded Stevens and Smith into a safe room and secured the door. Attackers did not know they were in there but poured diesel fuel about and set the adjacent rooms aflame. As the secure room filled with fumes from the fire Wickland attempted to lead Stevens and Smith to safety through an open window. For reasons unknown, Stevens and Smith failed to follow his lead and did not reach the window. Repeated attempts to locate Stevens and Smith inside the building by Wickland and by others were unsuccessful. They were dead when finally discovered hours later.
  • The diplomatic compound was never able to mount a defense on its own. Those Americans at the compound with combat training were unprepared for the attack and were unable to arm up in time. After torching vehicles and looting what was available, many of the attackers withdrew.
  • The CIA annex was made immediately aware of the attack on the diplomatic compound, less than a mile away. The annex housed a cadre of highly-skilled combatants, but they were slow to respond. Their ultimate response encountered only a few remaining attackers at the compound. These GRS operatives were the first to draw blood when they encountered some attackers lingering at the compound and some attempting to renew the attack. The GRS operatives were able to locate the body of Sean Smith, but not that of Chris Stevens.
  • All American forces at the compound withdrew to the annex and prepared for an expected attack.
  • GRS forces from the United States Embassy in Tripoli, several hundred miles to the west, were dispatched by way of a chartered jet. They arrived in time to participate in the defense of the annex. Keep in mind, Libya is about the size of Alaska.
  • The American GRS forces, including a number of contract operatives, were successful in defending against the attack on the annex. Well-armed, experienced, and well-trained, they thunderously dominated the fight against the jihadist militia that attacked the annex. No attackers were able to penetrate the annex compound.
  • Until the very last the fight at the annex was ridiculously lopsided. Americans, possessing superior weapons and firing from secure positions, took a heavy toll on attackers advancing against the compound walls. At most the attackers were able to inflict only survivable wounds upon the defenders.
  • The only American fatalities at the annex occurred at the very end. The attackers fell back, and from a secluded location a few blocks away, they fired five mortar shells. The first two shells obtained the range of Building C in the compound, and the remaining three shells hit the roof, occupied by several Americans, who were directing fire at the attackers. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed. This was as the sun was coming up on the morning of the 12th.
  • Libyan police and security forces drove away the remaining attackers, and the fight at the annex ended.
  • In short order on the 12th, all American diplomatic personnel were evacuated from Benghazi, abandoning the two compounds. In the meantime the body of Chris Stevens had been located by locals and taken to a Benghazi hospital. The bodies of the four Americans were flown out on a later flight. It had been 13 hours since the attack started.

My take: claims by such as Senator John McCain that American forces could have been rushed to the defense of the two compounds smack of empty-hat rhetoric. Further, any contention that Secretary Clinton withheld sending support are unfounded—to the knowledge of the author of the book and to the participants. For one, sending armed forces from place to place is not the job of the State Department, that’s what the Department of Defense does. It was the decision of commanders in the field and at higher levels in the DoD not to send combat troops to Libya.

For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, here are selected excerpts to put an edge to the narrative at this point:

Alec Henderson, the DS agent doing paperwork in the TOC, heard shots, too, along with an explosion. The DS agents were used to hearing gunfire and fireworks when the sun went down, but these sounded much closer than usual. Henderson stood from his desk and walked to the TOC window but saw only the sandbags stacked outside. As he returned to his desk, Henderson glanced at a large video monitor that simultaneously displayed a checkerboard of black-and-white images from roughly a dozen surveillance cameras scattered around the Compound. His focus narrowed to a square on the monitor that showed the feed from a camera pointed at the main driveway.

In a matter of seconds, the screen showed sixteen to twenty armed attackers rushing into the Compound through the front gate. At least two carried banners the size of twin bedsheets, one black and one white, both with Arabic writing.

Tearing himself away from the monitor, Henderson flipped the switch on the alarm system, which blared its warning siren from speakers throughout the Compound. A recorded voice repeatedly warned: “Duck and cover! Get away from the windows!” Henderson pressed the talk button on the public address mic and shouted: “Attention on Compound, attention on Compound! This is not a drill!” He released the button and the recorded voice and alarm resumed, sounding like a British police siren with its endlessly alternating “hi-lo” cadence.

Henderson grabbed his iPhone and called the nearby CIA Annex and the US Embassy in Tripoli. “Boss,” he told John Martinec, the chief DS agent in Tripoli, “we’re getting hit!”

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 86-87). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

13Hours-01

From the book

After clearing the Cantina and the TOC, Rone returned to the villa. He helped Jack and the Team Leader with the frustrating effort to get deep enough inside to see if the ambassador might yet be located.

Tanto and D.B. helped Alec Henderson collect and destroy classified material from the TOC, while Tig remained posted outside at the carport. Henry the translator, who’d come onto the Compound in the Mercedes SUV driven by the Team Leader, remained out of sight, hunched low inside the vehicle.

The time was somewhere around 11: 00 p.m. Sean Smith was confirmed dead, apparently from smoke inhalation. Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing. The main villa and the militia barracks still burned. But the attackers apparently had left, perhaps retreating to nearby streets and homes to regroup. The Americans had regained at least temporary control of the Special Mission Compound. The sound of gunfire had all but ceased.

To the uninitiated, it might have been tempting to imagine that the lull in the action meant that the fighting was over. The operators harbored no such illusions. To a man, they believed that their night and their enemies were just getting started.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 166-167). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Standing alongside Oz on the tower, Tig turned sideways to the wall as he unloaded his assault rifle toward the attackers. During a volley of incoming rounds, Tig felt the wind get knocked from his lungs.

“Aw fuck, I think I got shot,” he told Oz.

Tig doubled over in pain and let loose a stream of curses. He snaked his right hand inside his shirt, beneath his vest and armor, but didn’t feel any blood or find any holes in his skin. He concluded that shrapnel must have punched him like a heavyweight, then bounced off his protective gear. Tig’s side ached but he wasn’t seriously injured, so he resumed shooting, answering muzzle flashes with rounds of his own. With his helmet back at Building C, Tig knew that he was lucky the shrapnel hadn’t reached him eighteen inches higher.

As Oz continued to engage, an incoming round hit the top of the wall directly in front of him. Stone fragments flew into his face just below his night-vision goggles. A stream of blood flowed from the bridge of his nose. Stunned, Oz composed himself and realized that he wasn’t shot or seriously hurt. He wiped away the blood and returned to the fight.

An enemy round hit an exterior floodlight to the right of their tower position, shredding the bulb in an explosion of glass.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 215-216). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

13Hours-02

From the book

On Building C, after the second explosion Oz dropped down below the lip of the parapet, to replace the spent magazine on his assault rifle. As they’d planned, Rone never hesitated. He remained upright and fully engaged, increasing his rate of fire to mask the temporary loss of Oz’s gun.

Rone gripped the black machine gun with his meaty hands, holding the butt hard against his shoulder. With a deafening growl, the weapon ingested belt-fed rounds and spewed them with deadly intent into Zombieland. Rone’s thick biceps flexed as he moved left and right. Bullets and white smoke poured from the barrel. Rone kept shooting as Oz reloaded, defending the men on the buildings and towers to his left, right, and rear, protecting the men and women below his feet inside Building C. Exposing himself to fire, Rone delivered on his promise to “unleash hate” on the enemy attackers who were trying to kill them.

Then another mortar exploded. Rone stopped firing.

After two near misses, the attackers had adjusted their aim with devastating results. The third explosion was a direct mortar hit on the roof of Building C, halfway between Rone and Oz in the northwest corner, and Dave Ubben in the northeast corner.

Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi (pp. 259-260). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

And it’s all real-life combat, none of it is made up. “Rone” is Tyrone Woods, who was killed by the mortar shell. Glen Doherty had started the day in Tripoli, and he was in Benghazi just a few hours before he was killed.

My impulse to relate this review is driven by the firestorm swirling around the events of that day. Enemies of the administration, and particularly of Secretary Clinton, did not allow an egg timer to wind down before attempting to snag her with the consequences. Word I have is that $6.8 million has been spent by Congress attempting to skewer Clinton—to no avail. My ultimate driver, however, has been the steady dribble of bile-soaked rhetoric that continues to across my Facebook feed. Such as this.

Politics-ClintonBenghaziFacebook-01

There are a number of legitimate reasons a voter can use to not vote for Hillary Clinton. You can dislike what she has planned for her administration. You can dislike her for being an overbearing administrator, disregarding everybody’s ideas but her own. You can decide you prefer the vague positions staked out by Donald Trump to the hard realities you will likely face with Clinton. The Benghazi debacle was not Clinton’s finest hour nor that of the American government in general, but it nowhere approaches the callow insanity that imagined an excuse for a war costing thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars in debt, which FUBAR seems to have been largely forgiven by Clinton’s detractors.

Painful as it might be to her detractors, Clinton appears to be on the verge of an unprecedented victory while a nation watches a major political party self-destruct over such matters as the Benghazi witch hunt.

The book is a great read. Excerpts are from the Kindle edition. The movie is due for review as soon as I can get a copy. Keep reading. By then Clinton will likely be President.

I have made a number of assertions here, some which many readers will object to. Please respond, comment. I am prepared to defend my position with additional facts.

The Dirt On Drones

Drone Strike

Drone Strike

It’s so odd how all of this got started. The naming, that is. A drone is a male bee, and with bees the drones don’t seem to do much except to carry bee sperm to assist in the making of new bees. They don’t work, and, except early in their lives, they don’t fly. They mate with a queen bee in flight, and shortly after, they die. It would seem a drone is a useful, expendable, piece of hardware. But what likely got unpiloted aircraft to be called drones was the semblance of early such aircraft to the noisy, chunky drone bee.

Unpiloted aircraft have been in use since about 1849, when Austria used free-drifting balloons to attack Venice with bombs. We have gotten much better in the years since.

An early use of drone aircraft was target practice. Gunners needed something to shoot at, and towed targets did not always fill the bill. Some early drones were simply combat aircraft that had outlived their usefulness. They were fitted with remote control, and sent aloft to finish their lives testing guidance systems for missiles. In the past 35 years military drones have graduated to more sophisticated roles.

Backtracking a little, the first highly-successful drone combat vehicle was the German V-1, used in World War Two. It was a jet-powered aircraft with stubby wings and fitted with an 1870-pound warhead. In sophistication the V-1 was the aerial equivalent to the underwater torpedo. You launched it, it flew a prescribed course, it (sometimes) hit the target.

Following the war the United States and other countries completed the development of the concept, and a recent result was the Tomahawk. This is still in use, and has demonstrated remarkable utility. Launched from a submersible or from a surface ship, it can fly itself hundreds of miles, following a prescribed course to avoid terrain or hostile situations and can strike with pinpoint accuracy, thanks to the addition of GPS navigation. None of the Tomahawks now carry nuclear warheads, but they do offer a conventional warhead of 1000 pounds or a variety of submunitions.

I worked on two Tomahawk programs, neither of which went anywhere. Both made use of this drone’s ability to manage its own flight path, compliments of a load of sophisticated software.

One of these programs was called simply “Smart Weapons,” and for many months it paid the bills around our house. The idea was to equip the Tomahawk with a variety of imaging systems and send it off to locate and attack, on its own, enemy targets. These might be mobile missile launchers, armored vehicles, whatever was easily recognized as a military target. At the time I recognized that a mistake in the computer code could get a school bus recognized as a Scud launcher. And therein lies some concern regarding pilotless warcraft.

The notion that the Obama Administration has carried out drone strikes only when there is “near-certainty of no collateral damage” is easily disproved propaganda. America hasn’t killed a handful of innocents or a few dozen in the last 8 years. Credible, independent attempts to determine how many civilians the Obama administration has killed arrived at numbers in the hundreds or low thousands.  And there is good reason to believe that they undercount the civilians killed.

That’s it. Modern warfare has turned to extensive use of drone warcraft, and civilians are getting killed. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you want, but I have to wonder at this concern. In the interest of Skeptical Analysis, here is a reality check.

From the moment warriors started using missiles in combat, they started killing people they did not intend to kill. Pass over for a moment that through history non-combatants have been the target of war fighters. Sometimes the objective of a military mission was to wipe out an entire village, town, nation of people. As the use of missiles escalated, unintended consequences tracked upward.

Arrows (they are missiles) were not much of a problem, since you generally have a target in view before you let fly with an arrow. Then came long-range artillery, and gunners started firing over the hill, even over the horizon. Spotters were needed, but the gunner could never know for sure who was on the receiving end of the shell. In World War One the Germans shelled Paris from a distance of about 100 miles. To be sure, civilians were the target.

Came World War Two, and civilians were promoted to military targets. Generally, the pilots of these warplanes saw what they were aiming at and knew about the presence of civilians in the target zone. Sometimes mistakes were made, at least once with some irony. The United States Army Air Force was on a mission to bomb a Ford Motor Company plant in Belgium. Yes, an American company commandeered for Nazi war work. The bombardier made a mistake. He lined up on a park for his initial point and set his bomb sight to track it. He forgot to disengage the auto release, and the bombs released on the park, taking out a row of buildings adjacent to the park. It turned out this particular row of buildings was a major German Wehrmacht command center, only slightly reducing the embarrassment.

And my point is, seventy years have gone by, and we are suddenly concerned with civilian casualties. The difference being? The difference being that now there is no pilot risking his life to make these kinds of mistakes. And I think I know what the problem is.

Somewhere along the line somebody has decided that warfare is a sort of sport, and rules of fairness need to apply. When I read critiques of this country’s drone combat I’m unable to get past the implication that lack of chivalry lies at the base. Detractors hint at the anonymity involved in these transactions—as though warfare needs to be up close and personal. Critics may want us to ignore that lack of personal involvement has been a growing element in warfare for hundreds of years. Some examples.

The romantic image of fighter pilots going one-on-one contributes to their (deserved) heroic image. Two warriors face off in a boundless sky and do battle until one of them is dead. Truth is, it seldom happens that way. Most fighter-on-fighter kills are by ambush. Catch the enemy unaware, charge out of nowhere, guns and missiles blazing, then make a quick escape.

Navy sniper Chris Kyle has been maligned by detractors for killing people from ambush. I am guessing these critics have 1) never been in combat, 2) never talked to somebody who has been in combat, 3) never made a serious study of the history of combat. No soldier in his right mind wants a fair fight. What a soldier wants, what a soldier should want, is to win the fight.

And that’s where drones come in. Drones have been recognized for decades as an answer to pilot attrition, the scourge of air warfare. Not only does pilot attrition drain the priceless resource of trained and experienced warriors, its effect on the morale of combatants cuts into mission effectiveness. In the European air war of World War Two, missions into the German capitol of Berlin were euphemistically called “going downtown.” For many it was a one-way trip. Decades later, when I worked on software for the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW), they had a big poster boosting its potential. The poster headlined “No more going downtown.”

After all this, the implication—the claim—that drone strikes are inherently more deadly to non-combatants than piloted strikes doesn’t bear reason:

  • Both drone strikes and piloted strikes require prior and extensive surveillance to ensure the worth of the target. And also to minimize civilian casualties.
  • In the case of a drone strike, the operator can study the target at greater leisure before dispensing munitions. This is because the drone is often less obvious to defenders and is also more oblivious to counter fire.
  • A pilot, taking with him on his mission the 100% requirement to return to base, is eager to get in and out more quickly.

There are issues that skew the statistics differentiating drone strikes. A drone strike is more likely to be undertaken. Drones go places where pilots will not be sent. Drones get the dirty jobs. Drones strike deep into enemy territory, even into sovereign airspace. Miles from ground combat is where civilians reside, and these missions are more likely to be assigned to drones. Conceding a point: some missions would not be carried out without the benefit of drones. With drones removed from the equation, there would be fewer missions. There would be fewer enemy casualties. There would be fewer civilian casualties.

Finally, what inspired this dive into the morality of warfare:

Use of police robot to kill Dallas shooting suspect believed to be first in US history

Police’s lethal use of bomb-disposal robot in Thursday’s ambush worries legal experts who say it creates gray area in use of deadly force by law enforcement

[University of California at Davis law professor Elizabeth] Joh said she was worried that the decision by police to use robots to end lives had been arrived at far too casually. “Lethally armed police robots raise all sorts of new legal, ethical, and technical questions we haven’t decided upon in any systematic way,” she said. “Under federal constitutional law, excessive-force claims against the police are governed by the fourth amendment. But we typically examine deadly force by the police in terms of an immediate threat to the officer or others. It’s not clear how we should apply that if the threat is to a robot – and the police may be far away.” That, Joh added, is only one condition for the use of lethal force. “In other words, I don’t think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. And we need to develop regulations and policies now, because this surely won’t be the last instance we see police robots.”

Others are not so gracious. Much that has been said cites “lack of due process” and more:

Many noted the connection between potentially the first use of an armed robot in domestic policing and the deployment of such tools in active war zones. Defense technology expert Peter W. Singer wrote on Twitter, “this is 1st use of robot in this way in policing. Marcbot has been ad hoc used this way by troops in Iraq.”

[Marjorie Cohn, Professor Emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and editor and contributor to Drones and Targeted Killings: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues] said, “The same way that the Obama administration uses unmanned drones in other countries to kill people instead of arresting them and bringing them to trial, we see a similar situation here….As the technology develops, we’re going to see the increasing use of military weapons in the hands of the police, which is going to inflame and exacerbate a very volatile situation.”

“We can see that many of the weapons that are being used by the military are in the hands of the police,” she added. “This is a very volatile situation, very dangerous situation, and is only going to make the tensions worse and kill people and violate constitutional rights.”

Left-wing liberal that I am, I see little distinction between using a robot to blow up an individual posing a threat and rolling an M67 fragmentation grenade his way. Or bringing in a sniper. To be sure, Micah Xavier Johnson had not been arrested. He had not been charged with a crime. He did not receive his day in court, and no judge or jury passed sentence and handed down a death sentence. Whether this was the day or whether this was the instance for executive action, neither have bearing on the use of a robot to do the deed.

Once you have decided to take a human life, you have passed by all matters regarding the process.

The Ever-Diminishing List of Those Who Cannot Obtain Life Insurance at any Price

One of a continuing series

Over twenty years ago the East African country of Somalia dissolved into a morass of competing warlords, each seeming eager to outdo the other in the science of human exploitation. The United Nations went in, American troops went in. It was a disaster. A Blackhawk helicopter was downed, American soldiers were killed. Everybody pulled out, leaving Somalia to stew.

Recent developments in the region made Somalia ripe for religious fighters to move in and take over. The prize is now the souls of the people, on Earth or in Heaven, it does not seem to matter to these warriors. They will kill anybody who will not swear allegiance to God, their God. They have used Somalia as a base to spread the conflagration to neighboring parts of the continent:

On Saturday 21 September 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked Westgate shopping mall, the most upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack resulted in at least 67 deaths, and more than 175 people were reportedly wounded in the mass shooting.

The extremist Islamic group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident, which it characterised as retribution for the Kenyan military’s deployment in the group’s home country of Somalia. Many media outlets also suspected the insurgent group’s involvement in the attack based on earlier reprisal warnings it had issued in the wake of Operation Linda Nchi from 2011 to 2012.

Two ways to approach the situation suggest themselves. One is to contact al-Shabaab’s public relations guy and arrange to have their people meet with our people. An alternative is to cut out the middleman:

WASHINGTON — American aircraft on Saturday struck a training camp inSomalia belonging to the Islamist militant group the Shabab, the Pentagon said, killing about 150 fighters who were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony and prelude to an imminent attack against American troops and their allies in East Africa.

Defense officials said the strike was carried out by drones and American aircraft, which dropped a number of precision-guided bombs and missiles on the field where the fighters were gathered. Pentagon officials said they did not believe there were any civilian casualties, but there was no independent way to verify the claim. They said they delayed announcing the strike until they could assess the outcome.

It was the deadliest attack on the Shabab in the more than decade-long American campaign against the group, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and a sharp deviation from previous American strikes, which have concentrated on the group’s leaders, not on its foot soldiers.

Yeah, that will work, too. One would hope these eager disciples of God lacked just enough faith that they had their life insurance policies up to date. One could be disappointed. A review of recent history indicates it does not matter which:

Saturday’s strike was the most significant American attack on the Shabab since September 2014, when an American drone strike killed the leader of the group, Ahmed Abdi Godane, at the time one of the most wanted men in Africa. That strike was followed by one last March, when Adan Garar, a senior member of the group, was killed in a drone strike on his vehicle.

Where is MetLife when you need them?

Keep reading. There are going to be more of these.

Terminal Velocity

Forty years ago I worked for a company that made document processing systems, and we hired a new guy from Texas Instruments. His name was Clyde, and he was going to be my new boss. He had been working on the project at Texas Instruments called Paveway. He showed us this remarkable picture.

Yes, that’s a 2000-pound low-drag bomb making a direct hit on the driver’s side window of a 2-1/4-ton truck. How would you like to be the driver of that truck? In this case the bomb is a dud, but for the driver it would not matter.

Later I went to work for Texas Instruments, and I got to meet a number of the remarkable people who developed this weapon system. One was a guy named Art. Then ten years ago I was working on a contract job at Raytheon Corporation in Tucson, and there were some of these same people. Raytheon had purchased the Texas Instruments military component and moved it out west.

One of the people who moved to Tucson was Art. I don’t have to describe him. You have already seen the cartoon. Art would be a good stand in for Dilbert.

dilbert

Right down to the pocket protector.

Anyhow, it was Saturday, and I went in to work to get caught up. The work area was a large room about the size of a basketball court, and there weren’t many there that Saturday. But Art was there, working away on guidance and control software for Paveway. And that was so ironic. The news had just announced the untimely demise of al-Qaeda in Iraq mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He had been attending a meeting at a house north of Baqubah when an F-16 fighter dropped two guided bombs on the house. One of the bombs was a Paveway. The thought immediately, struck me: “Dilbert killed al-Zarquawi.” The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the pocket protector is mightier than the Kalashnikov.

Interestingly, al-Zarqawi was not killed immediately. Troops on the ground were ready to go in and pick up the pieces when al-Zarqawi emerged, dazed and moribund. But I began to wonder would it must have been like to be the target of a 500 to 2000-pound bomb that comes right at you barely over the speed of sound. Many have found out, and the answer is nothing. Those so targeted likely have no idea they are acting out the last seconds of their lives.

And that’s kind of too bad. In the recent case of Jihadi John here was a person who took obvious pleasure in working agony on people before ultimately killing them, not always in the most pleasant way. Yet, for him last week, the end came unbidden and unseen. He never got to know he was going to die. There is some injustice here. It is, however, an injustice I am willing to accept.

Keep reading, jihadists. And keep an eye on the sky. Dilbert is out there waiting for you.

The Black Sheep

I read this book over 40 years ago, even before the TV series starring Robert Conrad. The series was titled Baa Baa Black Sheep, and it was loosely based on the exploits of Marine Squadron 214 in the Southwest Pacific in World War Two.

BaaBaaBlackSheep-01

Marine pilot Greg Boyington wrote the book several years after the War. It’s the story of a war hero who wrecked his career as a Marine pilot through alcohol, gambling and general incorrigibility. He resurrected himself as a mercenary pilot for the Chinese prior to America’s entry into the war and, back in the Corps again, built his own squadron out of leftovers, going on to be coming America’s top fighter ace before being shot down and captured by the Japanese.

Boyington grew up in Idaho, and obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering before joining the Marine Corps. He began his career as a military pilot in 1938, entering light training in July. By 1941 he was in danger of being washed out due to mounting gambling debts. He had to verify on a monthly basis that he was making payments on his debts. By this time he was likely a certified alcoholic. A bad fitness report was due to block further promotions.

He resigned from the Corps on a secret agreement that would place him with a group of mercenary pilots flying against the Japanese in China. The group, the American Volunteer Group, was headed up by American general Claire Chennault, himself a cashiered Army pilot. The secret agreement was supposedly kept locked in a safe by Admiral Chester Nimitz. The horrible truth was that America and the Japanese were not at war, and this business of leasing American warriors out to the Chinese was to be officially “secret.” The secret was well-known to all, including the Japanese.

As a military pilot, Boyington was no stranger to foreign travel, but his initiation into Southeast Asia was an introduction into one of the pits of humanity at the time. After the war, despite having limited social standing and absolute no voice in foreign policy, Boyington became a public critic of SEA (Southeast Asia) relations. For this he pulled on his own observations and his own experiences in the region. His tales are sordid and filled with revulsion.

Come to think of it, a couple of spectacles I witnessed undoubtedly led me to volunteer, just to get away from the horrible place and the people in Kunming.

The first of these spectacles was a rather queer procession going by in front of our hostel. A ragged Chinese with feathers tied to his matted hair was being pushed along in front of this procession, which included an officer on horseback, a few soldiers, and some Chinese in rickshas. There were about a hundred in all, and most of these were on foot.

The procession stopped in the cemetery in front of our hostel while the officer got down from his mount and the people climbed out of the rickshas. The ragged man with the feathers was forced to kneel on the ground. These soldiers turned out to be a firing squad and in a few minutes sent a volley into the back of the poor devil kneeling on the ground. As he fell forward onto his face after the shots, the accompanying crowd broke into excited shouting, running up to kick and stab at the crushed form.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 79). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The crime that earned this unfortunate his treatment was thievery. Boyington observed that thievery was an established practice, there being a public thieves’ market, but this man had been caught before he got his booty to market.

The AVG was given an initial delivery of P-40 aircraft and supplies and no more. During the months Boyington was with the AVG the group received no replacements, in men or material.

P-40

Page 28

Somebody had seen a photo of a P-40 operating in North Africa with shark’s teeth painted on the engine cowling. That scheme was copied by the AVG, and the group became known as the Flying Tigers.

None of the Americans in the AVG had prior combat experience. Fliers from The First World War were all too old by this time. All were eager to get into the fight. Pilots’ basic salary was $665 per month, but there was a $500 bonus for each Japanese aircraft destroyed.

Going in, Boyington had been advised that they would likely come up against outdated transports and also that Japanese pilots wore thick glasses and had poor eyesight. He should not expect much from the opposition. This turned out not to be true. In his first encounter he learned the true worth of the Japanese opposition:

Soon I spotted a pair of Japs off to the side of me, so I added throttle and started to close in behind them. One of these two pulled almost straight up, going into a loop above my P-40 about the same instant I started my tracers toward the other. I knew that I had to break off firing and commence turning, or the Jap who was then above my P-40 would have me bore-sighted. Recollection of how I had been able to outturn the best of the United States Fleet pilots in peacetime practices probably gave me self-assurance. I really am not sure. The fact that I had learned to tighten my neck muscles in my intercollegiate wrestling days, retarding the blood from rushing out of my head, I had found extremely useful in simulated combat in the past. In those earlier days pilots had no squeeze suits, which were designed and worn later on for the same purpose I had been accomplishing with my neck muscles. But I soon found that little asset wouldn’t solve my problems against this much lighter Japanese aircraft. I discovered that even hauling back on my stick and turning with all my might, my neck muscles and breath locked, gave me no advantage whatsoever . As a matter of fact, I was sufficiently blacked out not to be able to see whether my burst had gotten the I-97 I had been firing on. I had pulled myself plumb woozy. All the time I was pulling this terrific “g” load, tracers were getting closer to my plane, until finally I was looking back down someone’s gun barrels. “Frig this racket,” I thought, and dove away.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (pp. 46-47). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He came back from the mission with a 7.7-mm bullet fragment in his arm. Eventually he was to begin a series of air victories that would take him, momentarily, to the position of the top American fighter ace.

There had been no turning this time. We worked methodically from the top down. I caught my first Jap just right, and he blazed into an inferno. Shortly afterward I heard someone scream over the radio: “This is for Cokey, you son of a bitch.” My sentiments were the same.

Pulling off to one side, I saw another safe shot. As I continued a steady burst into the fighter, pieces of his fuselage ripped off at point -blank range. In a second or so this plane also went on its way earth-bound, twisting crazily and burning like a torch.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 50). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

As had been  the case in his prior Marine Corps career, Boyington eventually ran afoul of officialdom in the AVG and broke his contract, hitching a ride into India and eventually making it back to the United States. From New York City he caught a train to Washington to inquire about rejoining the Marines. He was told to wait at home. For weeks he pulled a paycheck parking cars in Seattle before finally getting drunk enough to dictate a night letter to the assistant secretary of the Navy. By January 1943 he was on a transport ship leaving San Diego for the Southwest Pacific.

The genesis of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 214 and the Black Sheep is key to Boyington’s war time story. A major by now, he was stuck under an obnoxious commanding officer, a person he refers to as “Colonel Lard.” This personality eventually carried over into the TV series 30 years later. On TV Colonel Lard provided viewers with much mirth, but for Boyington in the Southwest Pacific and wanting to get into the war he presented a very real obstacle.

By rank, Boyington should have been a squadron commander, but there were no squadrons needing a new commander. In desperation Boyington created a squadron by “borrowing” a squadron designation that had gone temporarily unused, and he picked up some Marine fliers who were sitting around for their courts martial. Being 30 years old by that time, he picked up the name “Pappy” from his much younger pilots. They also figured they were a squadron of misfits, and they needed a name and an emblem for 214. Boyington solved the name issue:

Since my childhood the noises made by trains and motors of various types had played a little jingle with my thinking upon many an occasion. My recollection of these occasions when I had been pleasantly occupied with daydreams was most enjoyable. My childhood jingle was, “Baa Baa, Blacksheep, have you any wool, yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 139). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A 214 sergeant came up with the squadron shield from a cartoon.

The sergeant then handed me a worn sheet from the magazine he spoke about, and I immediately broke into laughter. The cartoon was two G.I.’ s on their hands and knees camouflaging themselves in sheepskins, and one G.I., in a black skin, was watching a ram approach the flock where the two were hiding, and the face looking out from under the head was saying: “Look, Joe, I’m not so sure I wanna go through with this or not.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 140). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Colonel Lard notwithstanding, the Black Sheep squadron soon began to make a name for itself. And Major Boyington began to rack up a string of air victories that pushed him to the heights of glory. No longer saddled with the outdated P-40s, he and the squadron were flying Chance Vought F4U fighters.

VMA 214 earned its keep escorting bombing missions northwest along the Solomon Island chain, advancing to new forward bases as the Japanese gave up island after island. Entering action in September 1943, by the end of the year Boyington was close to tying the American air victory record of Eddie Rickenbacker from The First World War. Continually pressed by war correspondents as to when he was going to tie Rickenbacker’s 27, Boyington began to avoid interviews, even as his squadron mates pushed for campaigns that would provide him openings for an additional kill.

On 3 January 1944 Boyington not only matched Rickenbacker, but he scored an additional victory to put him on top. He didn’t return from the mission. His wingman was killed in a battle close to the water and quickly afterward Boyington’s fuel tank exploded. He only saved himself by releasing his seat harness and pitching the F4U downward with explosive force. He either ejected through the canopy or else the canopy came loose from the force of the dive, and Boyington’s parachute opened right above his plane as it hit the water.

There were some harrowing minutes as he played hide and seek with Japanese pilots strafing him in the water. After the enemy ran low on fuel or ammunition and left, Boyington salvaged his life raft and contemplated his future for several hours floating about in the Saint Georges Channel. When a ship did appear it turned out to be a Japanese sub that surfaced nearby and took him prisoner.

Tales by American and other forces fighting the Japanese Empire are rife with horrible torture and summary executions. The Japanese Navy did not acquire that reputation, and consequently Boyington managed to survive the remainder of the war in captivity. With some other prisoners he was eventually transported to a prison near Yokohama. But not before surviving attempts on his life by friendly forces.

After being flown from Rabaul to Truk we landed on a field at Truk but did not merely come to a stop. It happened to be the roughest, shortest of landings, intentionally I know now, I have ever experienced or ever hope to. Immediately we were all thrown out of the plane, practically on our heads. We thought it was just some more rough stuff but, because we had edged our blindfolds, we could see that down the runway came a Navy F6F, spraying .50-calibers all through the Nip aircraft standing there in front of us. The piece of transportation we had just crawled out of went up before our eyes in flame and smoke, and so did nearly every other plane we could see around there. It was one of the best Navy Day programs I ever expect to see, the first task-force raid on the island of Truk.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 237). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A Japanese fighter pilot also landed quickly and escaped his own Zero fighter right before some American F6Fs shattered it before their eyes. The prisoners were taking cover in a slit trench, and the Japanese pilot was incensed that all the prisoners were still alive while his plane and others on the base were being destroyed. He threatened to shoot the prisoners, but another F6F interrupted him.

From January 1944 until that Christmas Boyington never another drink of alcohol. He also lost a lot of weight and was barely above 100 pounds before he obtained help from friendly prison workers in stealing food from the kitchen. He figured this was a cure his body was long overdue for. New Year 1945 was a time for celebration for the Japanese guards, and they shared some of their sake. Taking their offer, Boyington helped himself to a lot.

As a prisoner Boyington got to see different facets of the Japanese character. There were the guards who unleashed their sadism, from vicious verbal abuse to outright beatings for contrived reasons. Food was scant and of low quality, and one prisoner to Boyington’s knowledge succumbed just weeks prior to liberation.

All the while the mood of the prison guards revealed a menacing side. A history of the closing days of the war shows a militant faction that determined to continue the fight to the very last Japanese life, taking as many enemy with them as possible. That was not reflected at the lower ranks. As Japan’s situation became obvious, the guards recognized the coming doom. One explained to Boyington that he realized that the prisoner would, in a few weeks, become the jailer.

One Japanese officer showed Boyington an American magazine. In it was a photo of Boyington, along with the announcement that President Truman had awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Posthumously. Boyington was among a group of prisoners the Japanese had determined to keep off the books. They were not given P.O.W. status, and the Red Cross was not advised of their existence.

Against all orders, some of the jailers revealed world news to the prisoners. The prisoners knew when Germany threw in the towel in May 1945, and they showed the position of Allied forces nearing the Japanese mainland. Along this time the prisoners witnessed the first attacks on the main island.

After the New Year’s incident life seemed to go on much the same as before until the latter part of February 1945. Then all hell appeared to break loose over our peaceful country valley. It all started by hearing the distant wail of air-raid sirens, which we prisoners paid no attention to because we hadn’t dreamed this could be anything but a drill. But in a matter of some twenty minutes everybody in Japan came to the realization that this was no drill. Just twelve miles from our camp the large Jap naval base of Yokosuka was taking a thumping something terrific.

Dive bomber after dive bomber started down, the hills between the target area and our camp momentarily chopping each bomber from view, making it appear as though they were diving into the hills. But in a few seconds we saw them pull out about the same time we heard the ka-lumph of the exploding bomb. Even at this distance the noise from so many engines sounded much the same as a gigantic waterfalls— a steady roar. Obviously this was not a morale strike like the Doolittle raid; this was concentrated, and we knew that this carrier raid was the beginning of the end for Japan.

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 289). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The prisoners began to see the B-29s. Eventually B-29 attacks began to be a near daily routine, and the impact of the vast bomb loads both terrified the prisoners and also brought them a silent joy. Then one day they heard about the atomic bomb. A guard, whose family lived in Nagasaki, told them what one bomb had done to the city. The prisoners could not believe it. One bomb? There was no doubt. The end was near.

With the end came danger. Their jailer gave the prisoners a hammer, some nails and some lumber and advised them to nail shut the door to their cage. The Japanese Empire had surrendered, and the guards were getting drunk. And looking for revenge. The extra lumber and nails held out until the guards gave up trying to break down the door and eventually passed out.

Came daylight, and Navy fighters buzzed overhead. Some prisoners obtained a quantity of Japanese tooth power and made white paint. They wrote on the roof of one building in large letters “Pappy Boyington here!” A Navy plane circled and dipped its wings. It was the first news that Boyington was still alive.

With the turn of events, the prisoners were given better rations, vitamin pills and new clothing. American aircraft flew overhead and dropped relief supplies by parachute. It turned out that some prisoners were killed by the falling supplies. An American ship anchored nearby, and soldiers arrived in a Higgins Boat. Seventy years ago the war was over for Boyington.

Back in the United States Boyington’s life began to follow the downward spiral he had set it on before the war. Pressed into giving a series of War Bond speeches, he was never far from alcohol. He could see the trajectory of his life if nobody else could.

I had finished riding up the New York streets on the back seat of a Cadillac convertible like many before me, waving, nodding, and watching torn pieces of paper come down like snow. The police were busy holding back a mob of well-wishers. A middle-aged man with a thin face and graying at the temples broke through the line and grabbed me by the arm. A policeman grabbed him and started to put him behind the line, but I said: “Wait a minute. I think he wants to tell me something.”

He did: “Enjoy it today, my boy, because they won’t give you a job cleaning up the streets tomorrow.”

Boyington, Gregory (2013-08-07). Baa Baa Black Sheep (p. 327). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Discharged as unfit for duty. He finished up his military career at a hospital in Los Angeles.

He had been a champion wrestler in college, and he was able to find employment as a referee in professional wrestling. If the fans did not recognize it, he, all the wrestlers and the management knew that professional wrestling is nothing more than entertainment. During this period he remarried. He began writing this book in 1946 and eventually finished it in 1958. He did eventually get a job as a private pilot, and he consulted on the TV series that came out in 1976, but he expressed dissatisfaction with the TV presentation of the war.

At an aviation history symposium in 2002, members of the real VMF-214 were asked about the authenticity of the TV series. Retired Colonel Henry A. McCartney said the list of errors was too long to repeat. Boyington himself referred to the series as “… inaccuracies, hogwash, and Hollywood hokum,” though he did serve as technical adviser on the show, and had a cameo appearance. A 2001 History Channel documentary depicted some of these differences in greater detail.

Boyington died of lung cancer in January 1988 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, right next to boxing legend Joe Louis.

Bad Movie Wednesday

I was sure I would like this movie more than I actually did. A year ago I reviewed Chris Kyle’s book American Sniper, and found it to be a good read. The movie, directed by Clint Eastwood hit the full market audience this year, and after the DVD price dropped within my budget I ordered a copy from Amazon. I could have been warned by early reviews, but it became obvious after watching a few minutes the movie is not the book. Eastwood and possibly screen writer Jason Hall have attempted to make a literary work out of Kyle’s life story. Once you get past you’re not watching the book, the going gets easier.

Critiquing the DVD, my first complaint is this:

AmericanSniper-01

I wait months for the DVD, then I pay Amazon $12.99 plus tax, then I wait days for delivery and then wait all morning for the postman to arrive. Then I open the package and pop the disk into my player, and the first thing I see is a commercial message for a soft drink. I was hoping that by paying money up front that I could avoid the obligation of wading through an advertisement. I would hope in vain.

The opening scene evokes the opening lines of the book:

I LOOKED THROUGH THE SCOPE OF THE SNIPER RIFLE, SCANNING down the road of the tiny Iraqi town. Fifty yards away, a woman opened the door of a small house and stepped outside with her child.

The rest of the street was deserted. The local Iraqis had gone inside, most of them scared. A few curious souls peeked out from behind curtains, waiting. They could hear the rumble of the approaching American unit. The Marines were flooding up the road, marching north to liberate the country from Saddam Hussein.

It was my job to protect them. My platoon had taken over the building earlier in the day, sneaking into position to provide “overwatch”— prevent the enemy from ambushing the Marines as they came through.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 1). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

AmericanSniper-02

The movie is not quite like that. In the movie the woman takes a grenade from under her clothing and hands it to the boy to carry out and throw at the Marines. Kyle’s first long distance shot of the war kills the boy. The second kills the woman. In reality the woman was the only target.

AmericanSniper-03

There begins a flashback, in the movie and in the book, of life leading up to that moment. Kyle grew up in North Central Texas, the same as I did. Only our lives took different trajectories. My experience with the military was a stint in the Navy Reserve, starting my last year in high school. Home life for Kyle was somewhat more rigid than mine. Our family was not as overtly religious. Early scenes show a strict upbringing.

AmericanSniper-04

We see Kyle attempting a career as a rodeo performer, which career takes a downhill turn. Attacks on Americans by Muslim militants incite his ire, and the Navy SEAL service appears to be his way to address this need.

The Frogmen is a movie I saw at a tender age. I should have reviewed it first, but there’s still the opportunity. I will get a copy and cover it later this year. The movie came out in 1951 and dealt with men of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team, frogmen. Ten years after watching the movie I got to see these guys for real. Stationed briefly at Little Creek in Virginia I would rise at the traditional Navy reveille hour and watch them running in from the beach, shouting at the top of their lungs. They had been out running in the surf all morning while I was in my warm bunk. I get the idea these were not men in training. This was their daily routine. Kyle’s SEAL training as depicted in the film is a shadow of reality. It is brutal, designed to weed out all but the most capable and the most dedicated.

AmericanSniper-05

Activated in the SEALs and with a new bride, Kyle deploys to Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003. There the SEALs had the task of providing cover for Marine units as they pushed into enemy territory. SEALs would infiltrate first and set up. Then they would watch for and suppress ambushes by Iraqi troops. More often than not it was not enemy troops that were the hazard but irregular forces launching sneak attacks. The movie shows a typical situation: A car carrying explosives bears down on a Marine column moving up a narrow street. The Marines pepper the car with rifle fire but don’t hit the driver. Kyle kills the driver with one shot through the windshield. In the driver’s hand is an aptly-named dead man switch. When the driver dies his hand releases the switch, setting off the explosives.

AmericanSniper-06

The movie makes a lot of the hunt for Musab al-Zarqawi. This is complete fiction, and from this point on Eastwood and Hall have thrown the book aside, at least as far as the Iraqi war is concerned.

AmericanSniper-07

The story of al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, known as “The Butcher,” who tortures and kills with an electric drill is another Eastwood add-on. In the film Kyle engages an enemy sniper, known as Mustafa.

AmericanSniper-08

Mustafa is a constant menace, and in his final action Kyle takes him out with a shot of over a mile.

AmericanSniper-09

The final second in the life of the sniper Mustafa

It’s again an Eastwood embellishment.

WHILE WE WERE ON THE BERM WATCHING THE CITY, WE WERE also watching warily for an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa. From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability.

I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 139). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

A lot of reality is thrown away in this scene. For one thing it shows Kyle making a calculated kill shot. No sniper makes a calculated shot at this range. There are too many variables. It takes at least one throw-away shot to get the final offset, with a second shot to clean up.

Kyle’s long shot did take place in Sadr City, and he cites luck for his success on the first round.

We had no way of calling the convoy directly— to this day I don’t know exactly who they were, except that they were Army. But I put my scope on him and fired, hoping to at least scare him off with the shot or maybe warn the convoy.

At 2,100 yards, plus a little change, it would take a lot of luck to hit him. A lot of luck. Maybe the way I jerked the trigger to the right adjusted for the wind. Maybe gravity shifted and put that bullet right where it had to be. Maybe I was just the luckiest son of a bitch in Iraq. Whatever— I watched through my scope as the shot hit the Iraqi, who tumbled over the wall to the ground.

“Wow,” I muttered.

“You dumb lucky fucker,” said LT.

Twenty-one hundred yards. The shot amazes me even now. It was a straight-up luck shot; no way one shot should have gotten him.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 349). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The book is more of a story than the movie, and the book is not so much of a story as it is a narrative of the life of an American combatant. Kyle’s family life gets better coverage than his combat experience. Going off to war, leaving a young (and pregnant) wife behind, witnessing Hell on Earth and bringing those dark thoughts back home, it’s all too typical. His marriage did turn rocky during the period of his four deployments, but back home in Texas, out of the military and getting himself settled into a civilian career, Kyle seemed to be destined to success. Then inexplicably he was killed by a psychotic veteran he was trying to help. The movie concludes with scenes from the memorial tributes.

Air Ambush

AirAmbush-01

When I was in the Navy Reserve I was in a fighter squadron. As a kid I always had a fascination with fighter airplanes. Movies about World War Two were playing in the local theater, and the specter of two high-performance fighters dueling to the death in the sky had an enormous appeal on my young self. When the Korean war came alone there were now jet fighters, and these were even more cool. We lived on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River, and one day I heard the screech of jets in the sky over the flat lands beyond. I went out and saw two jets engaged in a mock fight just a few hundred feet up and across the river. They had their fun for a minute or so and then were gone.

All that is past me, but starting in 2005 The History Channel produced two seasons of Dogfights, consisting of recreations of combat using computer generated imagery (CGI) and created by Cynthia Harrison, Jason McKinley and Brooks Wachtel.

This episode relates the events surrounding Operation Bolo and the background behind the mission. Operation Bolo was the product of veteran combat pilot Robin Olds. He had become a fighter ace (5+ victories) in World War Two, flying P-38 Lightning fighters over Europe. By the time the Vietnam conflict came around his services were sorely needed.

The American military had become overly reliant on missiles. Fighters were being designed to attack multi-engine bombers, and fighting skills had been neglected. While our forces had enjoyed a victory ratio in excess of 7 to 1 in Korea, at the outset of hostilities in Vietnam this advantage had shrunk to around 3 to 1. Robin Olds was set to straighten things out at his base in Thailand. He placed emphasis on combat skills and tasked junior officers to come up with an aggressive program. One thing they came up with was Operation Bolo.

AirAmbush-02

This was 2 January 1967, and about this time American forces were bombing the stuffings out of North Vietnamese facilities. What we used a lot at the time were F-105 Thunderchief jet fighter-bombers. You might think looking at an F-105—with its sleek, rakish profile—that this was one daunting foe to go up against in the air. It was not. This was no fighter, especially when it was carrying an external load of bombs. Instead of “Thunderchief” it was typically call the “Thud.” Anyhow, the Thuds needed fighter protection. MiG-21 fighters of the North Vietnamese Air Force were having Thuds for lunch. The United States Air Force was determined to do something about the MiG problem.

The scheme was this: Lure the MiGs into an aerial fight with somebody who could take them on. What Olds did was to set up a flight of F-4 fighters to look like a flight of Thuds. They flew the same schedule typical of a Thud attack, following the same routes and duplicating standard Thud formations. They even equipped the F-4s with the QRC-160 jamming pods used by F-105s. The F-4s flew in multiple flights, arriving over the designated area above a cloud cover. The cloud cover was an advantage. The North Vietnamese could only track the incoming F-4s by radar, making the deception that much easier.

After a few minutes over the target area the MiGs began to pop up above the clouds (the cloud cover had delayed their take-off), only to discover F-4s instead of F-105s. The North Vietnamese pilots were distressed to no end. The news reports at the time described their distress. Intercepted radio traffic was telling: “They are F-4s, not 105s. I repeat, F-4s.” And, “I would like to come down now.” North Vietnamese pilots were trained to strictly follow orders, and by the time their ground control got a handle on the situation seven of the MiG-21s had been downed. The Americans lost none of the F-4s. Seven might not seem like a big bag for a combat mission, but at the time the North Vietnamese had only about 12 to 15 MiG-21s. The MiGs were not such a big problem after that, with North Vietnam being reluctant to risk its remaining fleet.

The Dogfights production features interviews with actual pilots involved in the combat, including Robin Olds in this case. They were fortunate to get the interviews, as the retired Air Force General died in 2007. There is some available footage of the actual events, but even better are the CGI sequences, which are remarkable in their realism. Contributing to the educational nature of the series are illustrations of the air tactics employed and comparisons of the opposing weaponry. Here is a graphic depicting an F-4 making an attack on a MiG-21. In this case the MiG is drawing a bead on an American fighter when the F-4 executes a hard right turn from above to get behind the MiG. Hint: The MiG did not go home that day.

AirAmbush-03

At the time the Air Force employed AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. We still use them, but new and improved models. Both are currently developed and manufactured at Raytheon’s facility in Tucson. The Sparrow is radar controlled. The Sidewinder uses passive infra-red tracking.

One thing brought out in recounts of the Vietnam combat was the unreliability of the Sparrow. Apparently primitive maintenance facilities in Thailand resulted in a high failure rate. A Sparrow shot was about 10% likely to score a hit on the target. A high percentage of the Sparrows, when launched, simply fell off the rail and dropped to the ground.

Sidewinders were mechanically more reliable. They typically launched successfully, but the model used at the time was adapted for taking down multi-engine bombers. A highly maneuverable fighter could dodge an oncoming Sidewinder by making a last-second maneuver. The Sidewinder, going several times the speed of sound, could not correct fast enough.

AirAmbush-04

A comparison of the F-4 and the MiG illustrates the relative advantages of each. The MiG-21 was famous for being able to “turn on a single molecule of air.” F-4s defeated this ability by taking the fight into three dimensions, using its tremendous thrust advantage to climb rapidly and maneuver over the MiG.

AirAmbush-05

I’ve since talked to some fighter pilots, and one thing they are aware of is the physics involved. For one thing, you can’t shoot at an enemy plane unless you can get him in front of you. If you are along side the enemy, or if you are too close behind for a missile shot, you have to somehow back off and get behind. If you just cut power your airplane will become less maneuverable as you lose speed. One tactic to get behind an enemy, if you have the power, is to keep the throttle wide open, but pitch up. You lose some speed, but you don’t lose any energy (physics again). You trade speed for altitude. If you execute what amounts to a high barrel roll you come back down to the enemy’s altitude, but now you’re behind him, and you are back up to, or above, your original speed.

 

The CGI recreations of combat are stunning. There’s is better detail than you could have obtained from gun camera video. Here is shown an F-4 letting loose with two Sparrows. Pilots often fired these expensive assets in salvos to increase the possibility that one of them will hit a target.

AirAmbush-06

Some reality is sacrificed for viewer appeal. Here an F-4 is about to take down a MiG. The F-4 in this case was supposed to be nearly a mile behind the MiG.

AirAmbush-07

Again, great detail. The F-4 is executing a rolling maneuver, exposing all its external stores. Lighting and shadows are meticulously rendered in what was surely the expenditure of billions of computer processor cycles.

AirAmbush-08

The end of the day for a MiG-21. A Sparrow missile is coming up from behind.

AirAmbush-09

Camera footage from 2 January 1967. F-4s return from Operation Bolo after a victorious day.

AirAmbush-10

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridge at Remagen

BridgeAtRemagen-01

I’m also posting a review of the movie of the same name today, the 70th anniversary of the capture of the bridge at Remagen in Germany. The book is by Ken Hechler. He was an army war historian on the spot at the time, and he published The Bridge at Remagen in 1957. Last September he turned 100.

When as Historian of the European Theater in the 1945 summer I began to bring the German commanders and their staffs into our operation so that we might know their side of the World War II combat story, nothing more astonished me than their shock at the blow dealt them at the Remagen bridge.

Their reverses at Avranches, Utah Beach and in the Ardennes they could understand and even accept with no feeling that the results were other than the mathematically inevitable. But toward Remagen they had the demoralized view of men who feel lost because fate has mocked them and black magic fights on the other side. When the first Rhine bridge was lost, the Hitler Army reeled and its combat leaders became gutted of hope. This was the real significance of the Remagen episode, which was not a battle in any real sense but rather a military accident.

Until Remagen occurred there was always another barrier behind which this fraying army could dream of collecting itself and holding until some terms could be made. Thereafter the dream died.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 26-34). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

When Second Lieutenant Karl Timmermann woke up on the morning of 7 March 1945 he didn’t know he was going to make history that day. The day before he had been made commander of A Company of of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 9th Armored Division. He was the latest of a string of replacements, thanks to the Germans. He was in Stadt Mechenheim, about ten miles west of Remagen on the west bank of the Rhine River. Remarkably, he was also less than 100 miles from the place where he was born in Frankfurt am Main. His father had been on occupation duty in Germany following the end of the previous war and had gone over the hill, met a German girl, and had a son. After he got things straightened out with the army, Karl Timmermann’s father brought his family back to Nebraska.

Karl Timmerman

Karl Timmerman

Now the son was back in Germany as a conquerer, and the elder Timmerman’s prospects for grandchildren were dim. Second Lieutenant Timmermann was ordered to take his company and attack toward Remagen at a rate of ten miles per hour. This was before the days of modern roads. Take a look at this map from Google. On the left is Mechenheim, where A Company started at 0700. Their progress was to Fritzdorf, then to Birresdorf and then along the winding road into Remagen from the northwest.

BridgeAtRemagen-03

The image is larger than displayed in case you want to download it and get a better view.

There was trouble along the way. At Fritzdorf they encountered a German roadblock and overcame that. It was the last day for some German soldiers, but A Company got through without any casualties. Following that there were a number of bloodless encounters with German soldiers and civilians as Timmermann and his tanks passed through small villages along the road. The word got out and spread toward the east. The Americans were coming. As the German soldiers left the civilians put white flags out their windows. The war was over for them.

About ten o’clock in the morning of March 7, several breathless German soldiers ran down the Birresdorf-Remagen road and excitedly reported to Herr and Frau Allmang that the Americans were already in Birresdorf. “Get into the cellar and stay in the cellar. We’re crossing the Rhine. Good luck!” They ran down the road toward Remagen.

The father of the household, Joseph Allmang, calmed his wife, daughters and grandchildren, with these words: “Don’t get worried, now. You know, when I fought in France in 1918 it took weeks to get through the main line of resistance. If they’re at Birresdorf it will take many days before they get to the Waldschlösschen. Just calm yourself.” Before he finished speaking, the sound of Jim Burrows’ half-track was heard around the bend, and one of the Allmang girls, blonde Frau Annie Seegmuller, swept up the little grandchildren and dashed for the cellar. Frau Allmang followed, and the rest of the family, trailed by the still skeptical head of the household, took refuge. From a window they could see the first two half-tracks rumble past. Suddenly, Frau Allmang rose and said: “This is no way to greet our liberators.” Running upstairs, she took a tablecloth from the kitchen table and went out onto the lawn and waved it vigorously.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 1630-1639). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What happened next changed the course of the war.

Carmine Sabia squeaked along the road with his reliable half-track “Aibas.” Sabia tried to make a little noise with his machine gun because he did not like the deadly quiet of the pinewoods through which they were passing. He glanced up at the gaps in the trees which had been cut by machine gun and rifle fire. Suddenly in the distance Sabia saw the crest of a mountain looming over the top of the trees. The mountain was actually across the Rhine, but Sabia did not realize this at the time.

Up ahead, a reconnaissance car halted and the occupants told Penrod and Munch that they had been fired on. The two men moved on about fifty yards beyond the recon car. They could see that the road turned sharply toward the right. They cut through some woods on the right side of the road, working their way through the woods and back onto the road again where it turned right. Across the road was a clearing in front of the heavy woods. Near the road was a pile of brush and as they looked closer they could see an antitank gun hidden there, pointing almost directly at the half-track which they had left 150 yards up the road. They discovered that the gun was not manned. Suddenly, Penrod and Munch saw something which caused them to wave violently at the men in the column behind them.

Timmermann saw the excitement ahead as he left the Allmangs. He hopped into his jeep and raced forward. Rounding the bend in the road, he emerged from the woods and found himself confronted by a breathtaking view. Far below, the river wound through its narrow valley, and off to his right, clearly outlined against the sky, was the prize no man dared hope for—the Ludendorff Bridge, still intact, spanning the Rhine!

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 1656-1668). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In the mean time the Germans had made considerable preparations to blow the Nemagen and all other bridges over the Rhine. The Rhine was considered to be a formidable and historic barrier to invasion from the west. The last time an invader had pierced this defense was Napoleon over 100 years before. Then something happened. The Germans has prepared demolition charges for the bridges and a lucky strike by an American bomb on the Mülheim bridge at Cologne had destroyed the bridge prematurely. Thereafter, Hitler had ordered all demolition charges to be removed. No bridges were to be destroyed without a specific order.

That was the situation with the Ludendorff Bridge up until 7 March. On the 6th Major Hans Scheller was assigned to go to Remagen and take over the defense of the bridge. His duties were to include destroying the bridge before Allied troops could capture it. He arrived in Remagen for the first time about 11 a.m. on the morning of the 7th, about the same time American troops began to size up the prize just a few hundred yards away.

The sad situation for Major Scheller was he was thrown into an impossible situation, and he was later to pay with his life for the fumbling of people he worked for. At the time Major Scheller arrived, the explosives for the demolition had not arrived. When they did arrive they were not the military grade required for the job, and the quantity was less than had been ordered. Even as the Americans drew up plans for seizing the bridge, Scheller had his men place the available explosives, and he set up arrangements for blowing the bridge.

First, well in advance, a charge had been buried in the bridge approach on the Remagen (west) side of the bridge. When the Americans were observed approaching this charge was detonated, blowing a 30-foot hole in the ground. It was enough to prevent tanks from getting to the bridge, but it also served as an excellent defensive position for the American soldiers preparing to assault the bridge.

The demolition plan was well-thought out. The demolition charges on the bridge were to be electrically detonated from a box located at the tunnel entrance on the east side of the bridge. The wires leading to the detonators were housed in a steel pipe to protect them from sabotage and battle damage. The electrical connection was tested every hour to make sure connectivity was secure.

I have done this before. The electrical firing squibs require a certain amount of current flowing through them to detonate. You test the circuit by running a much smaller level of current through the detonators. If current flows, then the circuit is secure. It’s really just an Ohm meter test, but with careful consideration to ensure the minimum amount of current flows.

All of this was done. The Americans took up positions at the west end of the bridge about 1500 (3 p.m. Somebody in Remagen told the Americans the plan was to blow the bridge at 1600. This was not true. The Germans didn’t have a timetable for blowing the bridge. They made plans to blow the bridge immediately, and that time was now.

In the mean time German Captain Friesenhahn gave the order to blow the bridge. The tunnel was packed with soldiers and civilians taking cover from the fighting. Friesenhahn ordered everybody to cover their ears and to open their mouths. Then he turned the key on the detonator box. Nothing happened. This remains a mystery to this day. The circuit had been checked just minutes before and found to be intact.

A volunteer squad ran out onto the bridge and ignited a time delay fuse and then retreated. The explosives went off with a roar, but when the dust settled the bridges was still standing.

Under cover of smoke shells fired from the west bank Karl Timmermann and his squad worked their way across the bridge and began to secure the far side. Along the way Americans found and disabled several explosive charges. When they discovered the exposed detonator cable they cut it with gunfire at point blank range.

Taking a look at pictures of the bridge you will see towers at each end of the bridge. These were not part of the bridge, but they had been put in place in the previous war as defensive positions. Now at the east end of the bridge Sergeant DeLisio worked his way up one of the towers and routed the defenders holed up at the top, sending them back west across the bridge.

Alex Drabik, one of DeLisio’s assistant squad leaders, had not seen him go into the tower and started looking for his platoon leader. He asked several people on the bridge, but nobody seemed to know. He made up his mind that there was only one thing to do.

“Let’s go!” he shouted. “DeLisio must be over there on the other side all alone.”

Drabik took off for the east bank, weaving and wobbling. Just before he got across the bridge he jounced so much that he lost his helmet. He did not stop to pick it up but kept running at top speed until he became the first soldier to cross the Rhine.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 2274-2279). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Second Lieutenant Karl Timmermann quickly followed and became the first officer across, picking up the real glory.

When those in the tunnel got word that Americans were taking up positions on the east side of the bridge Major Scheller left the on a bicycle to seek reinforcements from nearby German units. He left Capatain Bratge in charge.

Confusion in the German rear ensured that no reinforcements arrived to help the defenders of the bridge. Americans quickly infiltrated over and beyond the 600-foot cliff and secured the east exit of the tunnel. They cut down a German on a motorcycle trying to get word to the German command. Others attempts were thwarted, as well. By nightfall those in the tunnel surrendered and were herded across the bridge and into captivity.

It was not the end of the battle, which went on for three more days in the vicinity of the bridge. The Americans patched up the bridge and began to bring tanks across on the night of the 7th. Within a week they had moved three divisions (about 16,000 men each) across the bridge. They also constructed a pontoon bridge and a treadway bridge on either side of the Remagen bridge. Then they halted all traffic on the bridge and attempted to repair it. It was too late. On 17 March a main bridge span collapsed into the river, killing 18 engineers on the bridge at the time.

The Allies had never figured on crossing the Rhine this early. British Field Marshal Montgomery had the first crossing planned for himself further downstream. It was called Operation Varsity, and it involved an amphibious crossing with the assist of the largest airborne assault of the war. It was carried out on 24 march, over two weeks after a sizable American force was already across the Rhine. Even in Operation Varsity Montgomery was upstaged by his military rival Georges S. Patton.

Patton toured the front to see what was happening. By then it was the 22nd and all the German exits over the Rhine in the Third Army’s area had been cut off. Back at headquarters after dark, he found that a record number of prisoners had been captured during the day—some 11,000 Germans—indicating the near-collapse and demoralization of the enemy. He was also told that elements of the 10th Armored had made contact with units of the Seventh Army, completely pocketing the German troops. It was a fantastic situation, inducing General Gerow, now commanding the Fifteenth Army, to wire Patton: “Congratulations on surrounding three armies, one of them American.”

“What are we waiting for?” Patton exclaimed.

He gave the signal to cross the Rhine as they were, without air support and artillery preparation, without airborne troops landing behind enemy lines, without even complete authority to do so. In the immediate wake of Patton’s orders, the 5th Division reorganized for assault across the river at Oppenheim, then began crossing two battalions at 11 P.M. on the 22nd with little, if any, difficulty. It got six battalions across by daylight with a total loss of 34 men killed or wounded.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 12898-12907). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The capture of the Remagen bridge was a terrible shock for the German command. By this time the German command was getting its fill of terrible shocks. The Soviets were hammering Germany from the east, and the Americans, British, Canadians and French were starting their romp into the homeland. The leadership of the festering Third Reich was typical. There were billboards put up throughout Germany proclaiming “Wheels Must Roll for Victory.” Cynical Germans were noting that “Heads Must Roll for Victory.” The Nazi leadership’s response to failure or even a hint of “defeatism” was the bullet or the noose. For the failure at Remagen scapegoats were needed. Adolf Hitler chose a  General Hübner for the job.

Major Scheller was an obvious choice. Also Captain Bratge was pulled in, even though he was now safely a captive of the Americans. Doomed also were a Lieutenant Peters plus Majors Herbert Strobel and August Kraft. After summary “trials,” which consisted of solely of the defendants standing before a seated panel that included Hübner and listening to insults being hurled at them, each of the four unlucky were led into the woods and serviced with a gunshot to the back of the neck. All of this on the orders of people who, themselves had but a few days left to live.

Field Marshal Walter Model, who set up the trials under Hitler’s orders, shot himself in the head in a forest on 21 April. Hitler serviced himself in the same manner in his bunker beneath Berlin nine days later.

From Wikipedia: The Allied capture of the bridge at Remagen was the beginning of the end for Model.

From Wikipedia: The Allied capture of the bridge at Remagen was the beginning of the end for Model.

Operation Varsity was immensely larger than the 9th Armored Division crossing at Remagen. Varsity was carried out at a point long identified as ideal for moving masses of troops and accomplishing important strategic objectives. Remagen, on the other hand, was a poor place to cross the Rhine. Once across, the troops fought for days to reach the Autobahn just a few miles to the east and into country that would permit movement of sizable forces.

However, Remagen drew scarce German resources from other critical battles, including Varsity. When Ken Hechler interviewed German brass in the summer following the end of the European war, most ranked the loss at Remagen up with the invasion at Normandy.

Karl Timmermann obtained the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest American military award below the Congressional Medal of Honor.

For extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy on 7 March, in Germany. Upon reaching the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine river, Second Lieutenant Timmermann, aware that the bridge had been prepared for demolition, and in the face of heavy machine gun, small arms, and direct 20 mm gun fire, began a hazardous trip across the span. Although artillery shells and two explosions rocked the bridge, he continued his advance. Upon reaching the bridge towers on the far side he cleared them of snipers and demolition crews. Still braving intense machine gun and shell fire, he reached the eastern side of the river where he eliminated hostile snipers and gun crews from along the river bank and on the face of bluff overlooking the river. By his outstanding heroism and unflinching valor, Second Lieutenant Timmermann contributed materially to the establishment of the first bridgehead across the Rhine river.

Others fighting at Remagen received comparable medals, including a number with the Silver Star. Timmermann survived the war, but within six years he was dead of cancer, having re-enlisted as a sergeant and serving briefly in the Korean conflict.

The bridge was never rebuilt. The town of Remagen never wanted the bridge in the first place. It spoiled the beauty of the river, which is what tourists came to see. If you go to Remagen today you will see the towers remaining, but you need to take a ferry to get to Remagen from the railway station on the east side.

As mentioned, my copy of the book is a Kindle edition. This copy does not suffer greatly from the defects I find in many Kindle books that are converted using OCR. I do note one glaring issue. The typesetter, either the original or a follow-up, seems undecided as how to form the German name Hübner. This occurs in a number of places. Emphasis is added:

The confidential efficiency report on General Hübner remarked, significantly, that he had “an unhealthy ambition which influences the effectiveness of his thinking.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, this trait, Hübner rose fast in the German Army. As a regimental commander, he not only had a good battle record but endeared himself to the high Nazis by making a number of recommendations on how the armed forces in the field could be infused with more of the Nazi spirit. Hitler personally had seen some of his reports, and had brought him to Berlin once before to help develop a corps of National Socialist “guidance officers.” Hübner also gave Nazi propaganda lectures at various headquarters; one of the lectures was described by a high-ranking German staff officer as “an oily and cunning threat against all officers who furthered ideas that were not 100 percent consistent with the official party line.”

Hubner received his divisional command on the Oder front in January, 1945, and shortly thereafter Hitler visited him at some length in the field. This was an unusual honor for Hübner, for Hitler rarely left his headquarters after being injured on July 20, 1944, in the bombing attempt on his life. The two men hit it off beautifully. Hübner said in later years that he immediately “succumbed to the demoniac power of this man. I was an absolute follower of Hitler. I had complete confidence in him and believed that he was Germany’s savior.” For his part, Hitler found an army man who considered Nazi loyalty the most important factor in military strategy. So Hitler did not have to look far when he sought a man who would exact swift penalties for the Remagen debacle.

Hechler, Ken (2009-03-25). The Bridge at Remagen: A Story of World War II (Presidio War Classic; World War II) (Kindle Locations 2959-2971). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This is understandable. I live near a street of the same name. Only the signs say “Huebner.”

Bad Movie of the Week

CombatPatrol-02

I’m sure I saw this when it first came out. It was in the days before VCRs and DVD recorders. I didn’t get to see it again until recently when I caught it on Turner Classic Movies and recorded it. In the mean time Clay Blair, Jr. came out with his book Combat Patrol in 1975. I read the book, and I recognized in it some of the events in the movie. I haven’t had a copy of the book for several years, and I held off doing a review of the movie until I could get another copy of the book.

I have the book now, so here’s the movie. It’s Operation Pacific from Warner Brothers in 1951 and starring John Wayne and Patricia Neal.

WarnerBrothers

OperationPacific-01

Opening scenes are from an early part of the war. In fact, all the action corresponds to what was going on in the December 1941 through 1942 period. First we see crew from the American submarine Thunderfish rescuing civilians from a Japanese-held island. In the opening days of the war with Japan, the Japanese Empire made rapid and far-reaching territorial gains, quickly capturing the Philippines, what is now Indonesia, much of New Guinea, plus Guam and Wake Island. Particularly around the Philippines and Indonesia the lives of American and European citizens were in question.

OperationPacific-02

So the Thunderfish crew are loading up some rubber rafts with children and two Catholic nuns, and they take them aboard in the middle of the night. Aboard the submarine in combat the children are a nuisance, adding some amount of comedy to a life and death situation as the boat is attacked with depth charges by a Japanese destroyer.

OperationPacific-03

It’s a disastrous mission. The Thunderfish has fired torpedoes into a Japanese ship, but the torpedoes did not explode. This was an actual situation that threatened the operation of our Pacific submarine fleet for the first two years into the war. The movie bears down on the issue of the non-exploding torpedoes. Combat Patrol tells of three critical problems that had to be resolved:

  • Torpedoes would hit the side of a ship but not explode.
  • Torpedoes would run under the target ship without hitting it.
  • The magnetic exploders usually failed. They were supposed to set off the torpedo if it ran under a ship. Most often they would not. Often, too, they would set off the torpedo when it was only part way to the target.

Early torpedo failures also cost at least one of our submarines. The torpedo ran in a circle and eventually came back to the submarine. The movie shows Commander John T. “Pop” Perry (Ward Bond) firing two torpedoes at a Japanese ship. Both explode half way to the target.

The Thunderfish returns to Pearl Harbor with its load of nuns and children, and Lieutenant Commander Duke E. Gifford (Wayne) heads off to a base hospital to check up on a rescued newborn baby. There he runs into ex-wife Lieutenant (j.g.) Mary Stuart (Neal). Some of (a lot of) the old flame is still there. You wonder why they ever broke up.

OperationPacific-04

Of course, there’s a slight problem. Four years out, Miss Stuart now has a new boyfriend. It’s Navy fly-boy Lieutenant (j.g.) Bob Perry (Philip Carey), brother of Commander Perry. Something’s going to have to give.

OperationPacific-05

But that has to wait. First there’s the problem with the torpedoes. Commander Perry has the idea to run some tests. But that’s going to have to wait until after the next combat mission. About this time viewers are getting a bad feeling about what’s going to happen.

Commander Perry does not survive the mission. The first ship they attack feigns surrender after the Thunderfish‘s torpedoes fail to explode. When Thunderfish approaches on the surface the Japanese ship unveils its guns and opens fire.

OperationPacific-07

 

Commander Perry is killed. That leaves John Wayne in command.

OperationPacific-06

They sink the Japanese ship by gunfire and by ramming and return to base. Duke is posted back stateside, but he elects to stay at Pearl Harbor and run some torpedo tests. They first look at the non-exploding detonators. They drop a torpedo warhead, with dummy explosives) on a steel plate. The detonator does not detonate.

OperationPacific-08

When I watched this as a kid at the local theater this was the part that made me the most uneasy. Anyhow, in the movie somebody suggests the problem might be the aluminum firing pin. In reality I don’t think there ever was such a thing as an aluminum firing pin.

OperationPacific-09

A few years after seeing this movie I found myself aboard a Navy ship studying how firing mechanisms work. You might think that a torpedo running full speed into the side of a ship would just explode, and you wouldn’t need to give it any help. Truth is, people who use explosive weapons go to great trouble to ensure they do not explode until they are supposed to explode. Aboard an expensive warship with a bunch of people around you don’t want to mess with something that will go off due to some minor mishandling.

So, any munition of any size has an elaborate firing mechanism. The main warhead will not explode if you just drop it on the sidewalk. Actually, you can drop an aerial bomb several thousand feet onto a concrete runway, and it will not explode. Big pieces of ordnance have elaborate firing trains to ensure safety and at the same time to ensure the main charge goes off when it’s supposed to go off.

Typically there’s a firing pin. It’s driven by a spring, and it’s aimed at a crush-sensitive explosive, such as fulminator mercury (see Mister Roberts). But the fulminator mercury is shock sensitive, and it could go off if you drop the warhead. So what you do is arrange it so that likely accidents do not result in the main charge going off. One way to do this is to incorporate a mechanism that keeps the detonator from setting off the main charge until the whole business is well on its way toward the enemy. This is typically done by incorporating something that interdicts the firing train until the moment of truth is almost on.

The small detonator charge is not enough to set off the main charge, so there is a booster charge. The booster charge is not shock-sensitive, but it is sensitive to the firing of the detonator. The firing pin strikes the detonator, which sets off the booster charge, which sets off the main charge.

In the case of World War Two torpedoes there was never any matter of an aluminum firing pin. Nobody would use such a thing. In 1943, well into the war, after many torpedoes had been fired into the sides of Japanese ships, after many of our submarines had been sunk following unsuccessful attacks, the Navy was finally convinced to test the damn detonators.

It was simple and straight forward. They fired torpedoes into the side of a rock cliff. The first two exploded. The third one was a dud. Some very stout-hearted men went into the water and put a line around the unexploded torpedo. They brought it ashore at Pearl Harbor and dissected it. The nose of the torpedo had been crushed before the firing pin could reach the detonator. This is the point at which the tests shown in the movie were carried out on a dock at Pearl Harbor.

Aerial bombs had long before solved this problem. The crushing of the nose of a bomb is not what initiates the firing. It’s the shock of the bomb hitting something hard that does it. The nose of the bomb makes contact with an immovable object, and the bomb experiences a short and intense deceleration. A spring-loaded weight in the fuse mechanism now moves toward the front the bomb, and that’s what released the spring-loaded firing pin. When the whole thing is properly designed the firing pin will contact the detonator before it’s crushed by the impact. The fact is that aerial bombs often have tail-mounted or mid-mounted fuses.

The movie shows the fuse tests at Pearl Harbor. Truth is the torpedo depth tests were performed much earlier, in 1942. They rigged up fishing nets and fired torpedoes into them, and they found the Mark XIV (mark 14) torpedoes ran on average 11 feet deeper than the set depth.

Regarding all these torpedo failures: These torpedoes and the firing mechanisms were developed by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) prior to the war. Because torpedoes were expensive ($1500 in those days) they never ran extensive tests.

After fixing the firing pin problem, the men of the Thunderfish head back out on patrol. There is remaining tragedy. At sea they trade movies with another submarine and later recover the movie they traded from the site of a submarine sinking.

OperationPacific-10

But Thunderfish does successfully sink the Japanese sub responsible, and the crew finishes up by rescuing young Bob Perry after he’s shot down.

OperationPacific-11

Duke brings his ex-wife’s boyfriend back safely, and at the dock he gets his reward. It appears the Giffords are going to be a family again.

OperationPacific-12

 

This movie contains some obligatory plot churn. That’s action that does not contribute to the story line, but is put in to provide maybe some atmosphere but which winds up burning off some film. We are treated to the scene of submarine sailors on shore leave getting drunk and unruly, crashing a luau and needing to be paroled by Executive Officer Gifford. That’s a few minutes of life the viewer will never get back.

The matter of the aluminum firing pin is a bit of fiction that could have been avoided. The actual circumstances make a more interesting story. Admiral Charles A. Lockwood was instrumental in getting the torpedo tests carried out, and he was a technical advisor for the movie.

Now that I have a copy of the book, I’ll be doing a review later this year. Keep reading.

Psychoanalyzing American Sniper

AmericanSniper-02

Monday night of this week CNN aired its special program Blockbuster: The Story of American Sniper. Director Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster hit American Sniper opened last month to record-breaking box office. The movie is based on the book of the same name, and it concerns the life and exploits of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. Anchors Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota hosted. Guests included Chris’ brother Jeff and Scott McEwen, co-author of the book.

I previously reviewed the book, and I will be reviewing the movie once I get a copy. In the mean time some of the commentary from the CNN special can use some analysis—specifically remarks by Jeff Kyle and another guest, both warriors with battle experience. Note the following from the book:

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 219). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

That was the take-away some critics have of the film and the book. Is it necessary to dehumanize the enemy? Jeff Kyle and others agreed yes. You can’t be effective in combat without bringing your worst emotions to the front. Soften up, and you will soon be dead.

This got me to thinking. Is that really so? I had to reach back into personal experience, because I don’t have anything analytical to draw from. So a little personal history:

I served in the military, but I never witnessed combat. In any event, my grade, aviation ordnanceman, does not involve direct contact with the enemy. On an aircraft carrier an ordnanceman will assemble munitions and load them onto aircraft. It’s the pilots who have to go out and face the enemy. My service was during the most peaceful interval since the end of World War Two. Any ammunition I prepared was expended against practice targets.

Some of the people I met were combat pilots, and my brief conversations with them never revealed any passions regarding the enemy. Beyond that, I have viewed numerous interviews with combat pilots featured in war documentaries, and the tone has generally been that killing the enemy pilot was a job that needed to be done, both to win the battle and also to purchase another day on this Earth. There were exceptionsMax Aitken Jr. was “a fighter pilot with 601 Squadron, rising to Wing Commander with 16 victories in World War Two.” Interviewed for the documentary series The World at War, Aitken acknowledged he hated the enemy. His intent was to annihilate and to give no quarter.

Statements by the Kyle brothers and a few others to the contrary, this position is not universal. John McPhee also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the title “Sheriff of Baghdad.” He was an army sergeant major and a Delta Force sniper. His view of the movie is more nuanced than some of the hype being bandied about. His remarks are critical of Eastwood’s depiction of combat. My take: “Yes, combat is gritty, as depicted in the movie, but real soldiers do not conduct combat in the manner shown.”

I have talked to a number of World War Two veterans, and not much of the blood heat depicted by Kyle came through. It could be that these men mellowed with the decades since. It could be they kept a lot to themselves.

Back to personal experience. I like to say I received good advice from my father, one bit being, “Don’t get angry. It will spoil your aim.” In all truth, my father never gave such advice. But if the subject had ever come up, I’m sure this would have been the message. My own observation has been that anger has led to bad decisions. That is not the path to long life.

Kyle and others have advocated passion (hatred) as a survival tool. This is in contradiction to my previous statement. When is the time past for cool thinking and adrenaline stands between life and death? Again my studies of battle history give some indication. Examples:

In December 1944 the Germans attacked through the Ardennes, pushing a huge bulge into the Allied defensive line. American tank forces were rushed into battle to stem the German advance. One such unit had just unloaded from ships in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. A particular tank commander essentially drove his tank from the dock into the battle. In the fog and the mist, along a mountain road in the Belgium forest, his unit encountered German tanks advancing in the opposite direction. The American had never seen battle. The Germans were veterans with years of combat experience. The American gunner fired first. The shell from his gun struck the turret of the lead German tank and deflected downward, penetrating the hull and killing the driver. No amount of built up hatred could have produced this almost reflexive action. It had to be a matter of long training coupled with coolness in the face of crisis that won this first encounter.

Similar situations were found in the invasion of Normandy. The story of Sergeant Bill Randleman, who jumped into France in the darkness of 6 June 1944 with absolutely no combat experience, is indicative.

Slowly the adrenaline drained from Christenson’s brain, and the two men began backing away from the German position. They ran into Bill Randleman, who had a dead German at his feet. Randleman related that the moment he had gotten free of his chute he had fixed his bayonet. Suddenly a German came charging, his bayonet fixed. Randleman knocked the weapon aside, then impaled the German on his bayonet. “That Kraut picked the wrong guy to play bayonets with,” Christenson remarked.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 97). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What the American army had done was to take hundreds of thousands of civilians, put them into uniform starting in 1942, and train them for months until within two years they killed instinctively and without hesitation.

What I found after reviewing the histories of American’s two great military campaigns in World War Two, the European Campaign and the Western Pacific campaign, is that the Americans came to respect the German soldiers they faced and killed without hesitation. On the other side of the planet American soldiers quickly lost all respect for their Japanese counterparts, and they hated them and killed them with relish. I’m sure racial differences played a role. Beyond that, the Japanese Imperial Army distinguished itself with such absence of humanity that Americans ceased to consider them as human.

This appears to be a factor in the thinking of Jeff and Chris Kyle and some of the others involved in the CNN discussion. How can you accept as human people who throw acid in the faces of young school girls or shoot them in the face? Some, like McPhee have seen to get past this and to put the job first.

Death of the Luftwaffe

bodenplatte

I’m posting this on the 70th anniversary of the Luftwaffe’s Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate). It was the last major offensive of the German air force in World War Two.

The operation had been planned weeks, months, in advance. By the autumn of 1944 the Allied forces in the west had pressed to the borders of the Third Reich, and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces in the north and General Omar Bradley’s forces, including the Third Army of George S. Patton, were preparing to overrun German territory. By that time German Chancellor Adolph Hitler had lost all faith in his military commanders, and he was personally directing strategy. An attempt on his life by high-ranking military officers in July of 1944 had left him physically shaken and distrusting of all but his own will.

Hitler’s grand plan to forestall the inevitable was a major roll of the dice. He issued commands for a major ground offensive through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. He hoped to drive through Belgium and recapture the port of Antwerp, cutting off a major route of supplies of the Allies and simultaneously splitting their forces. His hope was that the Allies would then recognize their weakened position and enter into peace negotiations rather than continue the destruction of Germany.

It was recognized that Allied air superiority in the west would be a major obstacle to the ground offensive, and Bodenplatte was aimed at delivering a crippling blow with a preemptive strike. The operation would involve the preponderance of remaining Luftwaffe resources in the west.

The ground offensive, Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Operation Watch on the Rhine) got underway in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944. Bad weather in the area kept Allied air power from assisting Montgomery’s and Bradley’s ground forces. However, it also delayed the Luftwaffe’s strike until the first day of the new year. Operation Bodenplatte got underway on 1 January 1945, 70 years ago today.

By the autumn and winter of 1944 Allied fighters were no longer operating out of bases in England. Advances by ground troops had made possible the establishment of fields close to the front lines, in France as well as in Belgium and the Netherlands. Operation Bodenplatte was aimed at attacking these bases and destroying fighters on the ground.

If Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein was well-concealed from Allied intelligence, Bodenplatte was even more so. Even German air defenses were not informed. As a result, when the Bf 109 and FW 190 fighters crossed the German front lines that morning their own troops opened up on them, resulting in significant losses. 850 fighters started out, and one fourth were taken before the attack started. Upon reaching their targets and even after achieving complete surprise, the German fighters still faced a lop-sided fight.

After five years of war and heavy attrition, many of the newer generations of Luftwaffe pilots were very poor marksmen and lacked flight skills. There was a lack of experienced instructors, and many of the training units were forced to fly front-line operations in order to bolster the front-line Jagdgeschwader. Long-range Allied fighters exacerbated this situation by shooting down many training aircraft. By late 1944, there were no safe areas in which pilots could be trained without the possibility of air attack. Allied personnel who witnessed the attacks frequently remarked on the poor aim of the strafing aircraft, and many of the Luftwaffe aircraft shot down by Allied anti-aircraft fire were caught because they were flying too slow and too high. Aviation fuel supplies were also at a premium.

The plan called for the units to maintain strict radio silence and secrecy in order to maintain surprise. Maps were also only half complete, identified only enemy installations, and left out flight paths, lest the document fall into Allied hands enabling them to trace the whereabouts of German fighter bases. Most commanders were also refused permission to brief their pilots until moments before take-off. This created operational confusion. Commanders only managed to get across the bare essentials of the plan. When the operation got underway, many German pilots still did not understand what the operation was about, or what exactly was required of them. They were convinced it was just a reconnaissance in force over the front, and were happy to follow their flight leaders on this basis.

[Links deleted]

Seventeen fighter bases were attacked on the morning of the 1 January, and the Germans achieved their main goal of destroying large numbers of Allied aircraft on the ground. In the air was a different story. The History Channel’s Dogfight series features the story of the fight at a base called Y-29 at Asch, north of Liege in Belgium. The video is posted on YouTube and tells the story with interviews of American pilots and computer-generated reconstructions of the action.

The Battle of the Bulge was well under way nearby, and eight American P-47s took off at 0915 to provide ground support. At the south end of the field a flight of twelve P-51 fighters of the 352nd Fighter Group sat with engines idling. They had been denied permission to head out for a sweep, but flight leader Lt. Col. J.C. Meyer was itching for a fight.

As the P-47 flight formed up and headed east Lieutenant John Kennedy spotted flak bursts to the north over base Y-32. Then Lieutenant Mel Paisley called out that there were bandits at 2 o’clock low. They were Fw-190s, Germany’s new, high-performance fighter with a radial engine. This was the first time many of the American pilots had ever seen German aircraft in the air. Records indicate the Germans were equally surprised. One said, “Where the **** did all these Thunderbolts (P-47s) come from?”

The Americans jettisoned their bombs and went on the attack. One of the Americans who had previous experience in air combat was Paisley, and he was the first to draw blood. He turned into an approaching enemy fighter and dove. The German broke off and attempted to exit toward the east of the airfield, but Paisley got behind him and shot him down at low altitude. Captain Lowell Smith quickly took down another 190.

Smith spotted another 190:

“I then got on the tail of another Fw 190 and chased him 20 to 30 miles to the east. I was unable to overtake him. I fired several bursts at extreme range but observed no strikes. I broke off and returned to Y-29. Just north of the field, I was bounced by a Fw 190. I broke right and succeeded in out-turning him. We were below 500 feet when he snap-rolled and dove into the ground.”

John Manrho, Ron Pütz: Bodenplatte: The Luftwaffe’s Last HopeStackpole Books, p 244

P-47 pilot Bob Brulle was seeing air combat for the first time, and his lack of experience showed. He jumped a 190, and the German pilot flew right down to the flat Belgium landscape. Brulle got behind the German but was unable to get low enough to bring his guns to bear. He nearly expended all his 20 seconds worth of .50 caliber shooting over the top of the 190.

bodenplatte-05

However, Brulle did save some of his remaining ammunition and pursued the 190 along the tree tops. Finally, he noticed a puff of smoke from the 190’s engine and immediately concluded the German pilot had cut power to force Brulle past him.

Brulle matched the German’s action and pulled abreast of the 190. This is where air combat gets up close and personal. Brulle contemplated taking out his .45 and shooting the German pilot. However, a stand of trees forced the German to pull up, allowing Brulle to get his guns on him. With his last .50 caliber he raked the enemy plane. It bellied in at 350 miles per hour.

P-51s wait for permission to get into the fight.

P-51s wait for permission to get into the fight.

Interview with J.C. Meyer

Interview with J.C. Meyer

Meanwhile the P-51s at Y-29 had still been denied permission to enter the fight. Observing the flak to the north, flight leader J.C. Meyer ignored his instructions and orderd his pilots to take off. It was none too soon.

Meyer was in the process of bringing the P-51’s wheels up when he found himself nose to nose with a 190. He opened up and downed the enemy fighter. The 190 slammed into the runway in front of a Mustang that was taking off, forcing its pilot to take evasive action.

Wheels coming up, shooting down an Fw-190

Wheels coming up, shooting down an Fw-190

The remaining P-51s got into the air and joined the fight. Al Rigby quickly noticed a 190 that was tracking the flight leader. He shouted into his radio for the P-51 pilot to break left. When the flight leader broke left the German pilot followed, bringing him right into Rigby’s line of fire.

bodenplatte-04

The fight at Y-29 was at extremely low altitude and was fast and close up. Fighters dodged among slag heaps that jutted out of the flat country side. There was no room for error and little opportunity to bail out of a crippled plane.

Those on the ground at Y-29 got a ring side seat of possibly the only combat they were destined to see in the war. They cheered the action like fans at a football game. Sometimes their participation was more than called for. A P-51 pilot who pursued two German fighters low across the field was hit by AA and had to immediately loop around and park his plane on the grass.

No P-51s were lost in the air combat and only one P-47. The Germans lost 28 of their 61 fighters at Y-29. Twenty-eight pilots were killed or captured.

The tally for Operation Bodenplatte was in the Germans’ favor in terms of aircraft destroyed.

The results of the raid are difficult to judge given the confusion over loss records. It is likely more aircraft were destroyed than listed. The Americans failed to keep a proper record of their losses and it appears the U.S. 8th Air Force losses were not included in loss totals. When these estimates and figures are added to the losses listed in the table below, it is likely that the correct figures are 232 destroyed (143 single-engine, 74 twin-engine and 15 four-engine) and 156 damaged (139 single-engine, 12 twin-engine and five four-engine). Researching individual squadron records confirms the destruction of even more USAAF aircraft. This suggests at least a further 16 B-17s, 14 B-24s, eight P-51s, and at least two P-47s were destroyed on top of that total. A total of 290 destroyed and 180 damaged seems a more realistic summation than the conservative figures given by the USAAF, RAF, and RCAF. Including the 15 Allied aircraft shot down and 10 damaged in aerial combat, 305 destroyed and 190 damaged is the sum total of the attack.

However, for the Luftwaffe the outcome was grim to fatal.

The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing, while 70 were captured and 21 wounded including three Geschwaderkommodore, five Gruppenkommandeure, and 14 Staffelkapitäne—the largest single-day loss for the Luftwaffe. Many of the formation leaders lost were experienced veterans, which placed even more pressure on those who were left. Thus, Bodenplatte was a very short-term success but a long-term failure; Allied losses were soon made up. Lost Luftwaffe aircraft and pilots were irreplaceable. German historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote that it left the Germans “weaker than ever and incapable of mounting any major attack again”.

In the remaining 17 weeks of war, the Jagdwaffe struggled to recover from the 1 January operation enough to remain an effective force. In strategic terms, German historian Werner Girbig wrote, “Operation Bodenplatte amounted to a total defeat”. The exhausted German units were no longer able to mount an effective defence of German air space during Operation Plunder and Operation Varsity, the Allied crossing of the Rhine River, or the overall Western Allied invasion of Germany. Subsequent operations were insignificant as a whole, and could not challenge Allied air supremacy. The only service in the Luftwaffe capable of profitable sorties was the night fighter force. In the last six weeks of the war, the Luftwaffe was to lose another 200 pilots killed. Werner Girbig wrote, “it was not until the autumn of 1944 that the German fighter forces set foot down the sacrificial path; and it was the controversial Operation Bodenplatte that dealt this force a mortal blow and sealed its fate. What happened from then on was no more than a dying flicker”.

Bastogne

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the story of Easy Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Brigade during World War Two. I’m posting this on the anniversary of Easy Company’s call to action for the defense of Bastogne, 70 years ago. I have the book Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose, but it’s easiest for me to follow the narrative through the HBO mini series of the same name. The images are from the History Channel’s syndication release.

Episode five dealt with Easy Company’s participation in the invasion of the Netherlands as part of Operation Market-Garden. Following an unsuccessful attempt by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to capture a bridgehead over the Rhine River at Arnhem, the 101st Airborne Division settled into holding the ground captured. In critical action near the Rhine Captain Richard Winters led his men in a ferocious fight to thwart an attempt by German forces to penetrate Allied positions. It was the last time Winters fired his weapon in combat. On 25 November 1944 Easy Company was pulled out of the line as part of an operation that replaced the 101st with Canadian units. They were pulled back to Mourmelon-le-Grand in France after 69 days in the field.

Easy had jumped on September 17 with 154 officers and men. It came out of Holland with 98 officers and men. Lieutenants Brewer, Compton, Heyliger, and Charles Hudson had been wounded, along with forty-five enlisted men. The Easy men killed in action were William Dukeman, Jr., James Campbell, Vernon Menze, William Miller, James Miller, Robert Van Klinken. The company had taken sixty -five casualties in Normandy, so its total at the end of November was 120 (some of these men had been wounded in both campaigns), of whom not one was a prisoner of war.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 255). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The men got passes to nearby Reims, but they had grown so accustomed to fighting that they were soon barred from the town. Trips to Paris were parceled out. Winters went, enjoyed a hot bath at his hotel, rode the metro until it shut down for the night and then walked back to his hotel. He came back to Camp Mourmelon. Easy Company and the 101st enjoyed camp life for the first two weeks in December.

In the mean time German Chancellor Adolph Hitler, still reeling from the attempt on his life five months earlier, had taken over military planning from his generals, whom he no longer trusted. His grand plan was to launch a full court press against the Allied lines, score a decisive victory and secure an armistice, allowing him to concentrate on the very serious threat of Soviet forces pressing Germany from the east. The massive German assault hit against a weakly-defended area of the American line in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium beginning at 5:30 on the morning of 16 December. Within 24 hours Allied commanders had determined the intent of the German thrust, and one conclusion was that the Belgian town of Bastogne would be a key objective.

Easy Company played its part in this vast drama, thanks to the Transportation Corps and the drivers, mostly black soldiers of the famous Red Ball express. At 2030, December 17, Ike’s orders to the 82d and 101st to proceed north toward Bastogne arrived at the divisions’ HQ. The word went out to regiments, battalions, down to companies— get ready for combat, trucks arriving in the morning, we’re moving out.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 273). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The first many in Easy Company knew something was up was when their movie was interrupted. Episode five “Crossroads,” shows men watching Seven Sinners, with John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. The lights come on, a sergeant steps in front of the screen and announces the situation. All passes are canceled. Everybody is ordered to prepare to load up and move out.

The 101st loads up and trucks 109 miles to Bastogne. They leave without collecting extra ammunition, supplies or winter clothing. Along the way they encounter retreating American and grab ammunition and supplies from them. Then Easy Company moves into position in the woods to the north of town, on the east side of the road to Foy and Noville. There they dig in and prepare to hold off the Germans.

Band of Brothers page 9

Band of Brothers page 9

Episode six, “Bastogne” opens with Easy Company medic Eugene Roe patrolling the woods. He encounters dead troops, American and German, and retreats to his lines.

At dawn on December 20, a heavy mist hung over the woods and fields. Winters rose and looked around. To his left he saw a German soldier in his long winter overcoat emerge from the woods. He had no rifle, no pack. He walked to the middle of a clearing . Two men with Winters instinctively brought their rifles to their shoulders, but he gave them a hand signal to hold their fire . The Americans watched as the German took off his overcoat, pulled down his pants, squatted, and relieved himself. When he was finished, Winters hollered in his best German, “Kommen sie hier!” The soldier put up his hands and walked over to surrender. Winters went through his pockets; all he had were a few pictures and the end of a loaf of hard black bread.

“Think of this,” Winters commented. “Here is a German soldier, in the light of early dawn, who went to take a crap, got turned around in the woods, walked through our lines, past the company CP and ended up behind the Battalion CP! That sure was some line of defense we had that first night!”

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 281-282). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What appears to be some fiction is the romantic interest involving Private Roe and a nurse caring for the wounded in Bastogne. The two exchange names and personal information, but ultimately Roe returns to the aid station during a German air attack and finds it bombed out. He recovers the scarf the nurse had been wearing on her head, but she is nowhere to be seen again.

BandOfBrothersBastogne-02

Shortly after the 101st moved into Bastogne the Germans cut the road link back to the Allied lines, leaving the Americans with only the ammunition, clothing, fuel and food they brought with them. Immediately a heavy fog settled over the region, making resupply or any kind of armed support from the air impossible. A deep cold settled. It was a cold that veterans recalled when interviewed for the series over 50 years later.

The Germans have the big guns and are constantly on the lookout for targets. Any exposure of position brings death. Building a fire in the woods brings a sudden barrage of shells from the German guns. Enemy lines are close and ill-defined.

Heffron suggested a shortcut across a wooded area. Spina agreed. Heffron led the way. Suddenly he fell into a hole. There was a shout of surprise. Then a voice called out from under Heffron, “Hinkle, Hinkle, ist das du?” Heffron came barreling out of the foxhole and took off in the opposite direction, yelling, “Hinkle Your Ass, Kraut!” He and Spina got reoriented and finally found the E Company CP. (Spina, who recalled the incident , concluded: “To this day every time I see Babe, I ask him how Hinkle is feeling or if he has seen Hinkle lately.”)

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 283). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The situation for the men of Easy Company is not made brighter by their new company commander, a Lieutenant Dike. Dike keeps to himself when at the front line and heads back to the command post when serious combat erupts. The troops do not look forward to future adventures with this reluctant officer.

The story of “Bastogne” is a week of holding out in the cold and enduring artillery fire and probing attacks with ever diminishing supplies and ammunition. A break in the weather brings C-47 aircraft dropping supplies, but it also brings German air attacks. Relief comes the day after Christmas when General Patton’s Third Army breaks through the German encirclement. The battle becomes no less deadly, and attacks on German positions in Foy and Noville are yet to come.

Crossroads

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the story of Easy Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Brigade during World War Two. I’m posting this on the anniversary of Easy Company’s critical action against the German Army in Holland, 5-6 October 1944, 70 years ago. I have the book Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose, but it’s easiest for me to follow the narrative through the HBO mini series of the same name. The images are from the History Channel’s syndication release.

Operation Market Garden was British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s plan to punch into Germany through Holland and end the war in a few weeks. It was a risky operation, and a number of missteps produced a devastating defeat for the British 1st Airborne in Arnhem and left the combined American and British forces holding a narrow salient into Holland, terminating at the Rhine River, just short of the Arnhem bridge. The American 101st Airborne Division had jumped into Holland on 17 September, just north of Eindhoven to capture strategic bridges in the area. Following the ensuing debacle the division was moved north.

The Island was most like World War I in its stagnated front. Easy spent nearly two months there, in daily combat. It sent out almost 100 patrols. It repelled attacks. It fired an incredible amount of ammunition. It took casualties. But when it was finally relieved, it turned over to the relieving party front-line positions that had hardly moved one inch.

The company moved onto the Island on October 2, by truck, over the magnificent bridge at Nijmegen (still standing) that had been captured by the 82d on September 20 at 2000. Once over the Waal, the trucks took the men some 15 kilometers, past dozens of camouflaged British artillery pieces, to the village of Zetten. They arrived at night, to relieve the British 43d Division. The 506th regiment was taking over a stretch of front line that had been held by a full division. It was over 6 miles in length. The 2d Battalion was on the right (east) end of the line, with Easy on the far right with the 501st PIR to its right. Easy had to cover almost 3 kilometers with only 130 men. British soldiers met the company in Zetten and escorted the leading elements to their new positions. “What’s it like up here?” Webster asked. “It’s a bloody rest position, mate,” was the reply. The numerous craters from 105s and 88s looked fresh to Webster, who doubted that he was being given straight scoop. After a three-hour march, the patrol reached its destination, a clump of houses nestled beside a huge dike. The Lower Rhine was on the other side of the dike, with a kilometer or so of flat, soggy grazing land between it and the dike. The area was littered with dead animals, burned houses, and empty machine-gun belts and ammo boxes. This was no-man’s-land. To cover his assigned section of the front, Winters put the 2d and 3d platoons on the line, along the south side of the dike, with the 1st platoon in reserve. He did not have sufficient troops to man the line properly, so he placed outposts along the dike at spots that he calculated were most likely enemy infiltration points. He kept in contact with the outposts by means of radio, wire, and contact patrols. He also sent three-man patrols to the river bank , to watch for enemy movement and to serve as forward artillery observers. He set up his CP at Randwijk.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 218-220). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The fifth episode of Band of Brothers opens with Captains Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon being summoned to Colonel Robert Sink’s office to organize a rescue of British airborne troops still stranded north of the Rhine following the 1st Airborne’s withdrawal the previous month. Winters is then ordered to complete some paperwork. It’s an after action report on the events of 5-6 October. As Winters hacks out the pages on a typewriter he recalls the events.

From the video: There is a commotion, and a scouting party barges into a forward command post with a wounded soldier. The Germans have attacked with a small party. Winters responds by taking a patrol to scope out the situation. In the dark they work their way along a dike. In the mean time the Germans are making a ruckus up the road, firing an MG 42 down the road at no target in particular. This screen shot shows Easy Company troops sneaking up on the Germans.

BandOfBrothersCrossroads-01

When he was 200 meters from the road, Winters stopped the patrol again and moved forward alone, to scout the situation. As he neared the road— which was raised a meter or so above the field— he could hear voices on the other side. Looking to his right, he could see German soldiers standing on top of the dike by the machine-gun position, silhouetted against the night sky. They were wearing long winter overcoats and the distinctive German steel helmets. Winters was about 25 meters from them, down in the drainage ditch. He thought to himself, This is just like the movie All Quiet on the Western Front.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 223). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

It was a ridiculous situation for the Germans. They had infiltrated south across the Rhine into territory occupied by the Americans, and they were preparing for a major attack. What later turned out to be a squad of SS troops were standing around by and on the road and firing a machine gun. Winters went back to his men and organized an attack. The video shows Winters assigning specific targets to the riflemen. You, first on the right. You, second on the right. And so on. A mortar is also set up and machine guns. At Winter’s signal the riflemen open up, and Germans begin to fall. Winters and the riflemen retreat under protective fire from the machine guns, and the mortar fires two effective rounds into the German position. The Americans hastily pull out with tracer bullets flying overhead.

Stepping back , Winters gave the order, “Ready, Aim, Fire!” in a low, calm, firing-range voice. Twelve rifles barked simultaneously. All seven German riflemen fell. Christenson’s machine-gun opened up; he was using tracers and could see he was shooting too high, but as he depressed his fire Muck and Penkala dropped a mortar round smack on the German machine-gun. Sergeant Boyle was “astounded at the heavy, accurate fire that we delivered at the enemy.” He later told Lipton he thought it was the best shooting he had ever seen.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 224). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

At this point the Americans received their only fatality in the operation:

As the patrol waited for the reinforcements, Sgt. William Dukeman stood up to shout at the men to spread out (as Gordon Carson, who recalled the incident, remarked, “The men will congregate in a minute”). Three Germans hiding in a culvert that ran under the road fired a rifle grenade. Dukeman gave a sigh and slumped forward. He was the only man hit; a chunk of steel went in his shoulder blade and came out through his heart, killing him. The survivors opened up with their rifles on the Germans in the culvert and killed them in return.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 225). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Next it’s daylight, and Captain Winters is alone, trying to size up the situation:

While waiting for the remainder of the platoon to come forward, Winters went out into the field between the two lines to be alone and to think things through. Three facts struck him: the enemy was behind a good solid roadway embankment, while his men were in a shallow ditch with no safe route for withdrawal; the enemy was in a good position to outflank the patrol to the right and catch it in the open field; there was nothing south of the bank to stop the Germans from moving down the road unmolested to the 2d Battalion CP at Hemmen. Under the circumstances, he decided he had no choice but to attack. It was now full daylight.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (p. 225). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

What follows is one of the most remarkable actions by Easy Company in the war. Captain Winters orders his men to fix bayonets and to prepare for a charge. He throws out a red smoke grenade and takes off running while the rest wait for the smoke. Winters reaches the top of a dike and comes upon a young German soldier, who he shoots and kills. He then begins firing his M-1 into the mass of SS troops who have been loitering in an open space beyond the dike. The remainder of the Americans charge forward, reach the top of the dike and open fire. Ultimately artillery fire is called in, and the German formation is wiped out.

BandOfBrothersCrossroads-02

Americans charge the SS troops

A surprised SS soldier's last moments

A surprised SS soldier’s last moments

Only, the actual events were even more interesting than the dramatization. When Winters first saw the SS soldier he quickly pulled a grenade and threw it. The German also threw a grenade. Both men went for the ground to avoid the grenade blasts. The German grenade exploded harmlessly, and Winters stood up with his rifle. He had realized he forgot to take the tape off the grenade handle before he threw it. He knew his grenade would not explode. The German did not know this, and Winters caught him still on the ground. As the German stood up Winters killed him with his M-1.

In the video all of this is a flashback while Winters is filling out the after action report. The German attack that Easy Company thwarted had been a diversion for a major attack in another area, an attack that killed the Second Battalion commanding officer. Winters is promoted to executive officer of the Battalion and leaves Easy Company for good.

Winters’ ultimately replacement to command Easy company is Lieutenant Fred Heyliger, also known as “Moose.” Unfortunately Moose does not last long. While Winters and Moose are walking along a railroad track at night a nervous sentry challenges them and opens fire. Moose is badly wounded and is evacuated to the rear. The replacement for Moose turns out to be a terrible choice, one that will eventually spell much grief for Easy Company in the coming Battle of the Bulge.

This episode starts with Easy Company being given a rescue mission. It’s Operation Pegasus, and Lieutenant Heyliger leads it. The plan, carried out successfully is to cross the Rhine in three stages until all the British troops are brought back safely.

Cornelius Ryan mentioned this operation in his book A Bridge Too Far, but Band of Brothers has a more thorough account:

The men crossed with pounding hearts but without incident. They leaped out of the boats and moved forward. Gordon had the machine -gun on the left flank; he set it up and prepared to defend against attack. Cpl. Francis Mellett had the machine-gun on the right flank. Private Stafford was at the point for the column seeking contact with the Dutch underground, Heyliger immediately behind him. Stafford moved forward stealthily. There was no firing , no illumination. This was enemy territory, completely unfamiliar to the Americans, and it was pitch black. “The absolute quiet was almost petrifying to me,” Stafford remembered. Stafford took another cautious step. A large bird flew up not more than a foot away from his face. “I am positive my heart stopped beating,” Stafford recalled. “I flipped off the safety on my M-1 and was about to fire when Lt. Heyliger calmly said, ‘Easy.’” They continued on and shortly met the British troops. The first one Stafford saw “hugged me and gave me his red beret, which I still have.” A British brigadier stepped forward and shook Heyliger’s hand, saying he was the finest looking American officer he had ever seen. Heyliger motioned for the British to move in column to the boats, urging them to keep silent. But they just could not . Pvt. Lester Hashey recalled one saying, “I never thought I’d be so glad to see a bloody Yank .”

Lieutenant Welsh, who was in charge down at the boats, grew exasperated with the Brits who kept calling out, “God bless you, Yank,” and told them they would all get killed if they didn’t shut up. The British got into the boats; Heyliger pulled his men back in leapfrog fashion; soon everyone was ready to shove off. Gordon was the last one back, and in the trailing boat crossing the river. “There was a certain amount of excitement and urgency,” he said, and he was certain the Germans would sink them all any moment. But they were never spotted. By 0130 the entire party were safely on the south bank and crossing noman’s-land on the way to the American front line behind the dike.

Ambrose, Stephen E. (2001-10-26). Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (pp. 246-247). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Richard Winters was soon promoted to major, and he served the remainder of the war in command of Second Battalion. The action on 6 October was the last time he fired his weapon in combat.

September Tragedy

No recounting of the Second World War would be complete without threading through the tragedy of Operation Market-Garden.

ABridgeTooFar

Cornelius Ryan was born in Ireland and was a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph during the war:

He initially covered the air war in Europe, flew along on fourteen bombing missions with the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), and then joined General George S. Patton‘s Third Army and covered its actions until the end of the European war. He transferred to the Pacific theater in 1945, and then to Jerusalem in 1946.

[Some links deleted]

His earlier major works included The Longest Day, the story of the Normandy invasion, which was published in 1959 and subsequently made into a blockbuster movie. Ryan died in 1974, the year this book was published. I’m just going to review the book. The movie is a good account of the story, and I will touch on some movie highlights during this review.

This is a dreadful story. I read it first over 30 years ago, and I dreaded covering it again. It is a tale of immense human suffering and loss. It is also a tale of possibly the greatest feat of arms in recent history. It was 70 years ago today.

On 17 September 1944 American and British parachute divisions jumped into occupied Holland, and simultaneously British tank forces, waiting at the Dutch-Belgium border pushed northward into German defenses. The battle lasted ten days.

The movie starts out like the book. Using news footage from the war it recapitulates the events that brought the German and the Allied forces to this point. British, American, Canadian advanced into France from the Normandy coast and pushed the occupying Germans north at a dizzying pace, joined quickly by French forces. The German army in France was crushed and retreated north in vast disarray. Then, as forces under British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery advanced north into Belgium, the attack stalled. Our forces had over stretched supply lines that ran all the way back to the beaches in Normandy. With sufficient material resources there was nothing stopping us from advancing on into the heart of Germany.

The movie shows Dutch citizens awakened in the night by a strange sound. They could not go outside until daylight, else the Germans would shoot them. But some did. And some peeked out windows. They saw the Germans retreating. The Allies were coming.

But this was not to be. The Belgian port city of Antwerp had been captured but not the channel that ran to the North Sea. Lack of command decision allowed the Germans to occupy Walcheren Island, now part of the mainland where Middleburg is. Look at this from Google maps. I have added a note on top of the jagged black line that is the Belgian-Dutch border. It would be long weeks before the Germans could be pushed out of there, and until then the Allied supply channel was sucking air.

AntwerpMap

But Montgomery had a plan, and he easily sold General Dwight Eisenhower on it. Montgomery wanted to push north along a single road through Eindhoven and Nijmegen and across the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland. American, British and Polish paratroops would seize needed bridges along the way. This is delta country, crossed by a multitude of rivers and canals, any one of which would stop a tank advance. And here is where the tragedy began to set in. Allied troops reached the Dutch border about the second of September.

The Dutch, seeing these developments, were sure liberation was at hand. Resistance fighters began to pull out weapons that had been hidden from the Germans for years. People bought out supplies of orange cloth, the Dutch national color. Dutch Nazis started running for cover. Train stations were crowded with Nazis heading for Germany.

The frantic flight of Dutch Nazis and German civilians had been triggered by the Reichskommissar in Holland, the notorious fifty-two-year-old Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and by the ambitious and brutal Dutch Nazi Party leader, Anton Mussert. Nervously watching the fate of the Germans in France and Belgium, Seyss-Inquart on September 1 ordered the evacuation of German civilians to the east of Holland, closer to the Reich border. The fifty-year-old Mussert followed suit, alerting members of his Dutch Nazi Party. Seyss-Inquart and Mussert were themselves among the first to leave: they moved from The Hague east to Apeldoorn, fifteen miles north of Arnhem.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 119-123). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

But the British didn’t come. For two weeks there was no movement. Weapons went back into hiding. People took down orange banners. And waited. The Germans regrouped and built up their forces. Even the military amateur Adolph Hitler saw the obvious and for once took correct action:

HITLER’S CRUCIAL MEASURES were already underway. On September 4 at the Führer’s headquarters deep in the forest of Gör-litz, Rastenburg, East Prussia, sixty-nine-year-old Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt prepared to leave for the western front. He had not expected a new command.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 287-289). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

By ordering Von Rundstedt to replace Field Marshal Model , Hitler was making his third change of command of OB West within two months— from Von Rundstedt to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to Model, and now once again to Von Rundstedt. Model, in the job just eighteen days, would now command only Army Group B under Von Rundstedt, Hitler said. Von Rundstedt had long regarded Model with less than enthusiasm. Model, he felt, had not earned his promotion the hard way; he had been elevated to the rank of field marshal too quickly by Hitler. Von Rundstedt thought him better suited to the job of a “good regimental sergeant major.” Still, the Field Marshal felt that Model’s position made little difference now. The situation was all but hopeless, defeat inevitable. On the afternoon of September 4, as he set out for his headquarters near Koblenz, Von Rundstedt saw nothing to stop the Allies from invading Germany, crossing the Rhine and ending the war in a matter of weeks.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 366-373). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Rundstedt began to get things straightened out. The Dutch saw all of this happening, and resistance agents alerted the Allies. The warnings went unheeded.

From 2 September it took until 10 September for Montgomery’s command to decide on the Market-Garden operation. It was to be in two parts. The Garden part was the land operation. The Market part was an assault by the American 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne. The British would put their 1st Airborne Division on the north side of the Rhine at Arnhem to capture the major bridge across the river. This was to happen a few hours after the the start of the land drive.

Three days in the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade was to drop south of the river and help secure that end of the Arnhem bridge. Action was to commence on Sunday, 17 September. There were seven days available for planning and staging. Immediately there were touches of sanity. Many saw dangers:

  • This was to be a major advance into Germany along a single road for 60 miles. The operation would be vulnerable to flank attacks along the entire length of the road.
  • Roads in Holland were typically elevated above the surrounding terrain. Traffic on the roads would be highly visible targets. Surrounding ground was boggy and would not support heavy vehicles. Advancing vehicles had to stay on the road.
  • The loss of any critical bridge would halt the entire advance. The British troops north of the Rhine at Arnhem would be left stranded.
  • All supplies would have to come up the single road. Shortages were bound to develop.

These caused worry to many experienced officers, enlisted, as well. However, Montgomery’s prestige was such that nobody with the power to act saw fit to make a stand. Nobody wanted to rock the boat. Nobody wanted to be the person who called off a major Montgomery operation. The general who was to command the operation expressed early doubts:

After Eisenhower’s departure, Montgomery outlined the proposed operation on a map for Lieutenant General Browning. The elegant Browning , one of Britain’s pioneer airborne advocates, saw that the paratroopers and glider-borne forces were being called upon to secure a series of crossings— five of them major bridges including the wide rivers of the Maas, the Waal and the Lower Rhine— over a stretch approximately sixty-four miles long between the Dutch border and Arnhem. Additionally, they were charged with holding open the corridor— in most places a single highway running north— over which British armor would drive. All of the bridges had to be seized intact if the armored dash was to succeed . The dangers were obvious, but this was precisely the kind of surprise assault for which the airborne forces had been trained. Still, Browning was uneasy. Pointing to the most northern bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, he asked, “How long will it take the armor to reach us?” Montgomery replied briskly, “Two days.” Still intent on the map, Browning said, “We can hold it for four.” Then he added, “But sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 1113-1121). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The cancer of indecision became embedded in the operation and continued to plague it to the last. Besides ignoring warnings from the Dutch resistance, the Brits ignored their own intelligence. A low-level fighter reconnaissance mission brought back photos of German tanks in the Arnhem area.

Even as Montgomery and Smith conferred, across the Channel startling evidence reached British I Airborne Corps headquarters. Earlier in the day, fighters of the R.A.F.’ s specially equipped photo-reconnaissance squadron returning from The Hague had made a low-level sweep over the Arnhem area. Now, in his office, intelligence officer Major Brian Urquhart took up a magnifying glass and examined five oblique-angle pictures— an “end of the run” strip from one of the fighters. Hundreds of aerial photographs of the Market-Garden area had been taken and evaluated in the previous seventy-two hours, but only these five shots showed what Urquhart had long feared— the unmistakable presence of German armor . “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Urquhart later recalled. “There, in the photos, I could clearly see tanks— if not on the very Arnhem landing and drop zones, then certainly close to them.”

Major Urquhart rushed to General Browning’s office with the photographic confirmation. Browning saw him immediately. Placing the pictures on the desk before Browning , Urquhart said, “Take a look at these.” The General studied them one by one. Although Urquhart no longer remembers the exact wording, to the best of his recollection , Browning said, “I wouldn’t trouble myself about these if I were you.” Then, referring to the tanks in the photos, he continued, “They’re probably not serviceable at any rate.” Urquhart was stunned. Helplessly he pointed out that the armor, “whether serviceable or not, were still tanks and they had guns.” Looking back, Urquhart feels that “perhaps because of information I knew nothing about, General Browning was not prepared to accept my evaluation of the photos. My feeling remained the same— that everyone was so gung-ho to go that nothing could stop them.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 1976-1989). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

And that is just about it for the story of the failure of Market-Garden. Almost as a miracle, in the seven days from 10 September to 17 September all resources were gathered, and a huge attack force was put together. It was Sunday, and the weather was perfect. British forces were massed in Belgium along the Dutch border. They were going drive northward into Holland along a single road to Valkenswaard and on to Eindhoven. Here is another Google map.

Eindhoven

That looks simple enough. But take a look at the road.

N69

That’s a view of N69 today, 70 years after the British attack. After 70 years of rebuilding war-torn Europe, after 70 yeas of modernization, after 70 years of new highway construction and the addition of super highways that would put the old German Autobahn to shame, this is what that stretch of road looks like today. I am guessing it looked even worse in September 1944.

The movie shows General Brian Harrocks addressing his XXX Corps prior to the attack. Everybody is cheerful. Spirits are high. The weather is just smashing. They are are about to set off for a fine afternoon of invading Holland.

Hundreds of guns are pre-sighted along the advance route, and at the appointed time we see in the movie as the gunners get down to the business of killing Germans. The 155 mm howitzers open up. The British gunners can’t see their targets. It’s all mathematics and gunnery science. The shells fly off into the air, above tree tops and buildings on their way to predetermined points on the ground.

In the movie we see the Germans waiting. They are not on the road. They are concealed in trees long the route. They know for sure the British are coming. Some know for sure they are about to die. And they do. Shells burst among the German positions, and Germans start dying by the dozens. The Germans are brave troops. They don’t run. They hold their positions.

The idea in a situation like this is that the British shells won’t kill all of them. Eventually the British will come down the road, and those still alive will kill the British. And that’s what happens. British tank crew and ground troops who had a few minutes before had been cheering with their commander now die a horrible death as the lead tanks are hit by anti-tank guns, and the column is raked by machine gun fire. British tank guns and field artillery take aim at the now-revealed German survivors, and British troops wade into the trees to kill and flush out the Germans. In the movie the action is over in a few minutes.

In actual practice the British advance is stopped short of its first objective. A day out of the schedule is lost in the first few hours of fighting. Things are already going badly.

Ryan’s book gives a good account of the airborne offensive, said account being extremely well-staged but largely papering over many details in the movie. The combined parachute and glider offensive was costly from all possible sources. Accidents spilled glider troops into the air when their craft split open while being towed. Gliders collided and crashed. Accidents and problems with tow plans caused a number of gliders to be cut loose prematurely. Remarkably the seven-day preparation for the offensive also included a well-organized sea rescue, and hundreds of troops were pulled from the water.

German anti-aircraft had been attacked by fighters prior to the invasion, but the Germans had kept many units carefully concealed and unveiled them only when the airborne assault began. Not shown in either this movie or in the HBO series Band of Brothers is the heroism of the transport pilots. There is a history.

The Normandy invasion just three months before had been the first combat for many of the air crews. They became separated in a fog bank when crossing the coast into France, and German gunfire completely unnerved the pilots. Many jettisoned their airborne troops at too high a speed and too low an altitude. Very few troops landed in their assigned zones. Following this debacle, after the airborne troops were rotated back to England, commanders held a meeting with the survivors of the air crews and the troops. The air crews were advised to face the troops and to appreciate they had let them down in the operation.

In Operation Market-Garden the air crews made up for their past failings. There were instances of pilots continuing on to the assigned drop zone with one and sometimes with two engines on fire (the C-47 has only two engines). Some pilots held off for the correct drop point even knowing they would not be able to escape their doomed planes. At least one plane circled back over the drop zone to get all troops and equipment onto the assigned zone. Three grim stories of mid-20th century warfare stand out in the history of Operation Market-Garden:

  • The fight for control of the Arnhem highway bridge
  • The desperate stand of Major-General Roy Urquhart‘s 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek, west of Arnhem
  • The amphibious crossing of the Waal River and the capture of the bridge at Nijmegen by Major Julian Cook’s men of the 82nd Airborne.

The Arnhem bridge disaster flowed down from the decision on the 1st Airborne’s landing area. The nearest suitable place was eight miles west of the bridge in the region of Oosterbeek. Other areas were unsuitable for parachutist and especially for gliders. Those that were suitable for landing would take the transports over German guns after the drop.

British parachute troops given the choice would have preferred to jump into Arnhem. Higher command threatened to bring charges of homicide if any such operation were carried out. The movie shows General Browning pointing out the Oosterbeek area, “over here on this other map.” General Urquhart registers surprise and dismay.

But not in the book. Ryan has Urquhart suggesting the place. In any event, a few hundred crack troops pushed through German resistance and made it piecemeal to buildings facing the north end of the bridge. Then the Germans cut them off, and they was never any connection between these men and the remainder of the division after the first day. General Urquhart, trying to make contact with the contingent at the bridge got cut off by German forces and had to hide out for over 24 yours, completely out of communication with the rest of the world, and particularly out of communication with his troops.

The movie depicts an incident that reflects the close action in this battle:

Running ahead of Urquhart and Lathbury were two other officers, Captain William Taylor of the Brigade’s headquarters staff and Captain James Cleminson of the 3rd Battalion. One of them called out suddenly but neither Urquhart nor Lathbury understood his words. Before Taylor and Cleminson could head them off, the two senior officers came upon a maze of intersecting streets where, it seemed to Urquhart, “a German machine gun was firing down each one.” As the four men attempted to run past one of these narrow crossings, Lathbury was hit.

Quickly the others dragged him off the street and into a house. There, Urquhart saw that a bullet had entered the Brigadier’s lower back and he appeared to be temporarily paralyzed. “All of us knew,” Urquhart recalls, “that he could travel no farther.” Lathbury urged the General to leave immediately without him. “You’ll only get cut off if you stay, sir,” he told Urquhart. As they talked, Urquhart saw a German soldier appear at the window. He raised his automatic and fired at point-blank range. The bloodied mass of the German’s face disappeared. Now, with the Germans so near, there was no longer any question that Urquhart must leave quickly.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 4341-4349). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The men at the north end of the bridge held out days longer than required and inflicted severe casualties on German attackers. While they were there they prevented German use of the bridge, and forces seeking to reinforce the battle against the 82nd Airborne in Nijmegen had to cross the Rhine using a makeshift ferry upstream of the bridge.

In the end the Germans prevailed in Arnhem and took the survivors prisoner. In sharp contrast to German war atrocities earlier in the war and even in the coming weeks near Bastogne, the German troops who vanquished this small British force greatly admired the courage and fighting ability of the Arnhem contingent.

At one point the German’s advanced under a flag of truce and suggested surrender negotiations. One British officer offered his apologies. They were unable to handle any more prisoners.

General Urquhart’s gallant stand fared only slightly better. He had been required to hold 48 hours before being relieved by the British XXX Corps coming up the road from the south. Relief never came. Polish troops landed south of the river, but only a few were able to cross into Urquhart’s area. The Germans relentlessly compressed the Brits in Oosterbeek while the British drive stalled just a mile or so south of the bridge.

Nine days after jumping north of the Rhine, Urquhart had to withdraw his surviving troops south across the river. Even this was a disaster. The operation was carried out in the best of conditions for such an operation, in the middle of the night and in heavy rain and fog, but still the Germans managed to destroy half the rescue boats in the first crossing. Many troops made it to the south side by swimming the swift Rhine, 400 yards wide at that point.

Urquhart brought about 10,000 men north of the Rhine. Ten days later he had about 2000 back within British lines to the south. The rest were dead, taken prisoner by the Germans or else hiding out in the countryside, many of them aided by the Dutch.

In the movie Major Julian Cook is played by Robert Redford. Possibly nobody else could do the job. Tactical missteps coupled with lack of resources kept the Americans from capturing the impressive highway bridge over the Waal River north of Nijmegen on the first day. After that German defenses had a lock on the north end.

Look at a map. From the outskirts of Nijmegen to the German border to the east is just a short hike. The area was crawling with Germans.

German General Wilhelm Bittrich was in charge of German operations in the battle, and he ordered General Walter Model not to blow up any of the bridges. Bittrich had in mind a future counter attack. Contrary to these orders, the Germans blew up the Son Bridge north of Eindhoven and had wired the Waal bridge for destruction as well. American troops, aware of the fate of the Son bridge, did not dare to attack across the Waal bridge.

An amphibious assault across the river was the only answer. Everybody thought it was crazy, and the improbable thing is that it worked. But at a cost.

The movie shows the assault originally scheduled to begin at night. That did not happen. Boats needed for the crossing were way back down the supply chain, down that narrow road into Belgium. Ryan never mentions a nighttime schedule. Major Cook’s troops were to start across at eight in the morning. Tank guns were to fire smoke shells to shield Cook’s troops during the crossing.

The boats had not arrived by eight. The start time was pushed back to 1 p.m. Then to 3 p.m. Air support was scheduled for 3 p.m. and those planes had already taken off, but the boats had not arrived. As it was, the boats came just in time for the troops to unload them from the trucks, assemble them, and carry them over the levee and down to the water for the 3 p.m. crossing.

The tanks fired smoke shells, temporarily giving Cook’s troops some cover. Then the tanks ran low on smoke shells, and the wind blew the smoke away. Tank and field artillery assisted Cook’s men, and air support was much appreciated.

Even so, the river crossing was Medal of Honor territory from start to finish. There were not enough boats for all of Cook’s men to cross in one wave. The plan was for three waves. The first wave lost about half its boats. Each boat was delivered with only two oars. Men in the boats who were carrying rifles used them as oars. Cook, a devout Catholic was in the lead. He had joked prior to the assault. He would, he said, stand up in the lead boat and strike a George Washington pose. In reality he rowed, and with each stroke he yelled, “Hail Mary” (first stroke), “Full of grace” (second stroke). All the way across the wide river. Amazingly, men began to reach the far side.

Even more amazing, boats that reached the far side unloaded their men and cargo and headed back across to bring more troops and equipment. For those who survived the crossing there was no hesitation. All across the river they had watched as those beside them had been cut down by German bullets or blown apart by artillery shells. Survivors immediately charged the German positions behind the dike north of the river. They were in no mood to take prisoners.

Captain Moffatt Burriss had no time to think about the shrapnel wound in his side. When he landed he was “so happy to be alive that I vomited .” He ran straight for the dike, yelling to his men to get “one machine gun firing on the left flank, another on the right .” They did. Burriss saw several houses back of the dike. Kicking the door of one open, he surprised “several Germans who had been sleeping, apparently unaware of what was happening.” Reaching quickly for a hand grenade, Burriss pulled the pin, threw it into the room and slammed the door.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6174-6178). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Germans behind the dike were quickly overwhelmed, and Cook’s brigade turned toward the bridge, itself.

Sickened and exhausted by the crossing, their dead and wounded lying on the beach, the men of the first wave subdued the German defenders on the dike road in less than thirty minutes. Not all the enemy positions had been overrun, but now troopers hunched down in former German machine-gun nests to protect the arrival of succeeding waves. Two more craft were lost in the second crossing. And, still under heavy shellfire, exhausted engineers in the eleven remaining craft made five more trips to bring all the Americans across the bloodstained Waal. Speed was all that mattered now. Cook’s men had to grab the northern ends of the crossings before the Germans fully realized what was happening— and before they blew the bridges.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6184-6189). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

There was also a railway bridge, and it presented a disaster for the German defenders. The Americans got to the north end of the bridge and about that time the British on the south end attacked. The German defenses completely disintegrated, and German soldiers, some discarding their weapons, fled north across the bridge. The Americans were ready, and it was a slaughter.

Caught out in the open in the bridge 250 German troops were killed outright. At the north end of the highway bridge the Americans started searching for hidden demolition charges. On the south end the Brits prepared to send tanks across. Meanwhile General Heinz Harmel prepared to blow the highway bridge. He wanted to wait until it was loaded with British tanks. A tank column started across the bridge.

Standing next to the engineer by the detonator box, Harmel scanned the crossing. At first he could detect no movement. Then suddenly he saw “a single tank reach the center, then a second behind and to its right.” To the engineer he said, “Get ready.” Two more tanks appeared in view, and Harmel waited for the line to reach the exact middle before giving the order . He shouted, “Let it blow!” The engineer jammed the plunger down. Nothing happened. The British tanks continued to advance. Harmel yelled, “Again!” Once more the engineer slammed down the detonator handle, but again the huge explosions that Harmel had expected failed to occur. “I was waiting to see the bridge collapse and the tanks plunge into the river,” he recalled. “Instead, they moved forward relentlessly, getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer.” He yelled to his anxious staff, “My God, they’ll be here in two minutes!”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6295-6301). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The bridge was captured. A massive, carefully concealed charge was located. It had been painted to match the bridge girders and had been shaped to fit neatly in place in the bridge structure. Nobody has ever determined why the attempt to detonate it failed. It is suspected a Dutch saboteur was the hero:

Many Dutch believe that the main crossing was saved by a young underground worker, Jan van Hoof, who had been sent into Nijmegen on the nineteenth by the 82nd’s Dutch liaison officer, Captain Arie Bestebreurtje, as a guide to the paratroopers. Van Hoof is thought to have succeeded in penetrating the German lines and to have reached the bridge, where he cut cables leading to the explosives. He may well have done so. In 1949 a Dutch commission investigating the story was satisfied that Van Hoof had cut some lines, but could not confirm that these alone actually saved the bridge. The charges and transmission lines were on the Lent side of the Waal and Van Hoof’s detractors maintain that it would have been impossible for him to have reached them without being detected. The controversy still rages. Although the evidence is against him, personally I would like to believe that the young Dutchman, who was shot by the Germans for his role in the underground during the battle, was indeed responsible.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 6401-6407). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

With the capture of the bridge came tragedy and additional controversy. After British tanks rolled across to the north side of the Waal, the column halted. They could go no further. The road ahead to Arnhem was several feet above the surrounding ground, completely exposed and unshielded by any cover. Infantry would be required to support the tanks on this drive, but no troops could be spared. All were either too far back in the column or else were committed to defending assets already captured.

With Germans in control of the surrounding countryside there was no way tanks could make it the remaining ten miles to the bridge at Arnhem and the British troops there. The sluggishness of the ground forces is considered to be a major scandal of this operation. We had just witnessed General George Patton’s dash across France in the preceding month, and we expected to see the same kind of aggressiveness from the XXX Corps. This was not the way this unit operated in Operation Market-Garden, and at their feet is laid a large part of the blame for the operation’s failure. In the end this section of the Highway to Hell was not captured until after General Urquhart’s survivors had been evacuated to south of the river.

Support for the evacuation came not from the Arnhem road, but from a thrust to the west, north of Nijmegen through the village of Oosterhout and then north to the river at Driel. Initial contact between Garden (ground) forces and Urquhart’s division was accomplished by the expedient of some brave officers and men heading out through German territory east of the Arnhem road and barreling through before the Germans could react.

From the book

From the book

Bitterness among Urquhart’s survivors was intense. Many shaved for the first time since jumping in to make a good face when they confronted the XXX Corps after the breakout.

Perhaps because so few were expected to escape, there was not enough transport for the exhausted survivors. Many men, having endured so much else, now had to march back to Nijmegen. On the road Captain Roland Langton of the Irish Guards stood in the cold rain watching the 1st Airborne come back. As tired, filthy men stumbled along, Langton stepped back. He knew his squadron had done its best to drive up the elevated highway from Nijmegen to Arnhem, yet he felt uneasy, “almost embarrassed to speak to them.” As one of the men drew abreast of another Guardsman standing silently beside the road, the trooper shouted, “Where the hell have you been, mate?” The Guardsman answered quietly, “We’ve been fighting for five months.” Corporal William Chennell of the Guards heard one of the airborne men say, “Oh? Did you have a nice drive up?”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8090-8096). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

General Urquhart refused to meet with General Thomas of the XXX Corps:

On the road to Driel, General Urquhart came to General Thomas’ headquarters. Refusing to go in, he waited outside in the rain as his aide arranged for transportation. It was not necessary. As Urquhart stood outside, a jeep arrived from General Browning’s headquarters and an officer escorted Urquhart back to Corps. He and his group were taken to a house on the southern outskirts of Nijmegen. “Browning’s aide , Major Harry Cator, showed us into a room and suggested we take off our wet clothes,” Urquhart says. The proud Scot refused. “Perversely, I wanted Browning to see us as we were— as we had been.” After a long wait Browning appeared, “as immaculate as ever.” He looked, Urquhart thought, as if “he had just come off parade, rather than from his bed in the middle of a battle.” To the Corps commander Urquhart said simply, “I’m sorry things did not turn out as well as I had hoped.” Browning, offering Urquhart a drink, replied, “You did all you could.” Later, in the bedroom that he had been given, Urquhart found that the sleep he had yearned for so long was impossible. “There were too many things,” he said, “on my mind and my conscience.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8073-8082). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The numbers tell of the disaster that this campaign was.

  • Total Allied casualties, dead, wounded, missing: more than 17,000
  • British: 13,226
  • Urquhart’s force, including the Polish brigade: 7,578
  • RAF: 294
  • American: 3974
  • 82nd Airborne: 1432
  • 101st Airborne: 2118
  • American air crew: 424
  • Germans at Oosterbeek: 3300, including 1300 dead
  • General Model’s troops: 7500 to 10,000, including about 1/4 mortality

Dutch civilian deaths were comparatively light considering a lot of the combat was fought in built up areas, and many civilians remained in place to provide intelligence and material support to the Allies in addition to tending to Allied and also to German wounded. The movie and the book end on the same note. The Germans were furious at Dutch complicity in the Allied effort, and in reprisal they ordered Arnhem completely evacuated. The city was not reoccupied by the Dutch until Allied forces moved in on 15 April 1945.

The movie ends with a scene of Dutch civilians, including children, trudging across the countryside, along an elevated road against a red sky. The operation left American Airborne troops in charge of protecting the road from Nijmegen up almost to Arnhem. This section was called The Island due to its elevation above the surrounding ground.

The HBO series Band of Brothers includes the actions of Easy Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment during this part of the operation. I’m reviewing that video in addition to the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, on which it is based. This episode of Band of Brothers includes the rescue of over 100 of the British 1st Airborne troops who eluded German capture and hid out north of the Rhine until late October.

During the battle Dutch railway workers staged a strike to hamper German operations. In reprisal, the kind of thing that continued to be the Germans’ undoing right up to the very end, the Germans cut off food shipments to Holland, and more than 15,000 Dutch civilians starved to death before German forces in western Holland capitulated in the final days of the European war. What some may not be aware of are some people we all know who were there:

Because Market-Garden was considered an all-British operation, few American correspondents were accredited to cover the attack. None was at Arnhem. One of the Americans attached to the 101st was a United Press reporter named Walter Cronkite, who landed by glider. Cronkite recalls that “I thought the wheels of the glider were for landing. Imagine my surprise when we skidded along the ground and the wheels came up through the floor. I got another shock. Our helmets, which we all swore were hooted, came flying off on impact and seemed more dangerous than the incoming shells. After landing I grabbed the first helmet I saw, my trusty musette bag with the Olivetti typewriter inside and began crawling toward the canal which was the rendezvous point. When I looked back, I found a half dozen guys crawling after me. It seems that I had grabbed the wrong helmet. The one I wore had two neat stripes down the back indicating that I was a lieutenant.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 2800-2807). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Actress Audrey Hepburn was a girl of just 15 living in Arnhem at the time of the battle. She was active in the Dutch resistance.

By 1944, Hepburn had become a proficient ballet dancer. She had secretly danced for groups of people to collect money for the Dutch resistance. “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances”, she remarked. She also occasionally acted as a courier for the resistance, delivering messages and packages. After the Allied landing on D-Day, living conditions grew worse and Arnhem was subsequently devastated in the fighting during Operation Market Garden. During the Dutch famine that followed in the winter of 1944, the Germans had blocked the resupply routes of the Dutch already-limited food and fuel supplies as retaliation for railway strikes that were held to hinder German occupation. People starved and froze to death in the streets; Hepburn and many others resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes and biscuits. One way young Audrey passed the time was by drawing; some of her childhood artwork can be seen today. When the country was liberated, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration trucks followed. Hepburn said in an interview that she fell ill from putting too much sugar in her porridge and eating an entire can of condensed milk. Hepburn’s war-time experiences sparked her devotion to UNICEF, an international humanitarian organisation, in her later career.

As mentioned, this was Ryan’s last major work published before his death, and it’s an astounding monument to writing research. The story concludes with a one-page section:

“In my— prejudiced —view, if the operation had been properly backed from its inception, and given the aircraft, ground forces, and administrative resources necessary for the job— it would have succeeded in spite of my mistakes , or the adverse weather, or the presence of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Arnhem area. I remain MARKET-GARDEN’S unrepentant advocate.” —FIELD MARSHAL SIR BERNARD MONTGOMERY, Memoirs: Montgomery of Alamein, p. 267

“My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.” —BERNHARD, THE PRINCE OF THE NETHERLANDS, to the author.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II (Kindle Locations 8159-8164). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

And that’s 76% into the book. The remainder includes 10% of the book devoted to telling of the survivors, presumably ones interviewed by Ryan. The remainder comprises acknowledgements and a comprehensive index.

I have the same trouble with my Kindle copy that I have with a lot of Kindle books that have been restored from print. At the time this book came out in 1974 little if any composition was being done on computer. Only printed copies remain for these books to be converted to the electronic. This operation seems to be primarily performed by OCR, optical character recognition. This process works well when it works, but sometimes human guidance is required and lacking.

For example, words in the book that are hyphened over a line break still retain their break and their hyphen, even though the Kindle reader places the sentence breaks at other points and typically does not break words using hyphens. I read through these difficulties and resist the urge to get a Kindle editor and rework the text.

Besides Robert Redford as Major Cook, the movie has Sean Connery as General Urquhart and many other film industry notables you should know. Gene Hackman is Polish Major General Stanisław Sosabowski. Anthony Hopkins is Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, whose men held out for so long at the Arnhem bridge. Read the book. See the movie regardless whether you have time to read the book. This important piece of military action does not get a lot of attention in the 21st century. Quite frankly, when it turned out to be such a flop and such an embarrassment to Britain’s favorite field marshal, the American and British press found other things to write about.

The ISIS Crisis

You say ISIL, I say ISIS. Let’s call the whole thing off.

Posted on Facebook

Posted on Facebook

So what’s the deal with ISIL (formerly known as ISIS)? I know a few days back I spent a little electronic ink making light of this group most famous for shooting prisoners in the back and cutting off heads:

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel lightly put it “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.” He is speaking of ISIS, Islamic State in Syria, which can most generously described as a bunch of frat boys with Kalashnikov rifles.

Since then things have gotten serious. They have cut off another American head, and even President Obama is paying attention:

Our objective is clear: we will degrade and ultimately destroy Isil [ISIL] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.

He came on live TV and announced that we are mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. We have to take these comments seriously. This is the man who runs the 82nd Airborne and the Fifth Fleet. And this time he wasn’t wearing his tan suit.

He had, apparently, been reading my blog. What the president said Wednesday night is essentially what I said in my previous post:

  • You really have to get control of the surrounding territory. ISIS cannot be allowed to make new conquests. This goal is feasible in principle. To advance toward anywhere in Iraq they are going to have to take to the roads. This has not been a good idea for an advancing army for the past 70 years. We can do this in Iraq, but Syria remains a problem.
  • ISIS is fighting battles, and fighting consumes resources. You need to keep ISIS engaged and continue to drain it. Again, Syria is a problem. In Syria ISIS is up close to its supply of captured weapons (Syrian army plus other insurgent groups) and also to its supply of purchased and donated weapons.
  • You are going have to keep ISIS from obtaining additional funding. ISIS gets money from donations and also from countries willing to pay ransom for hostages. When this money heads toward an arms purchase it should be tracked and confiscated.
  • You are going to have to put pressure on nations and individuals that provide aid to ISIS. ISIS may be immune to military attack, but their outside friends are not. Arms that are seen heading for ISIS can be confiscated. You are going to lose some friends with such high-handed tactics, but these are not the friends you want to keep.
  • Make sure ISIS has nothing to sell. If they produce some oil, do not buy it. If somebody buys it, confiscate it. Lose some friends, defeat ISIS.
  • Bottle them up. We are talking, at least for the coming five or more years, of an army of occupation. Nobody in, nobody out. ISIS does not yet have an airline. If it does, then make sure it has no airfields.

Mr. Obama is particularly taking on the Syria issue squarely. He has, for all practical purposes, authorized air attacks within Syrian territory, and as I write this American reconnaissance aircraft are flying Syrian airspace, identifying fat targets. Call that dicey.

Here is what flying reconnaissance and staging strikes into Syrian territory is. It’s an act of war.

An act of war? No! Can’t be. Just ask Secretary of State John Kerry, no stranger to acts of war, himself. He says this is not going to be a war. Call it what you want, Mr. Secretary, Syrians are going to die.

It’s not as though we have not done this before in the past few years, omitting Iraq and Afghanistan:

  • Panama
  • Libya
  • Lebanon
  • Grenada
  • Serbia
  • Pakistan
  • Sudan
  • Somalia
  • Yemen

And Syria:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama sent special operations troops to Syria this summer on a secret mission to rescue American hostages, including journalist James Foley, held by Islamic State extremists, but they did not find them, the Obama administration said Wednesday.

Officials said the rescue mission was authorized after intelligence agencies believed they had identified the location inside Syria where the hostages were being held. But the several dozen special operations forces dropped by aircraft into Syria did not find them at that location and engaged in a firefight with Islamic State militants before departing, killing several militants. No Americans died but one sustained a minor injury when an aircraft was hit.

[Emphasis added]

For the time being, the president has sent in an additional 475 ground troops to Iraq, bringing the total in country to 1600. Does anybody out there still know how to spell Gulf of Tonkin?

Anybody reading this who gets the idea I’m saying we should stay out will need to think again. Refer again to my previous post. I think what these ISIL (formerly ISIS) yokels are doing is absolutely abhorrent, and they have lost their right to live on this planet. Being safely past 70 and no longer subject to military service I can safely take that position and allow troops now alive to possibly forfeit their futures in order to fulfill my preferences. I do expect my tax bill to see a slight bump.

There is somebody out there who is and has long been way out in front of both me and the President of the United States on this matter:

[Senator John] McCain argued “we need more” troops on the ground in Iraq “to help the Iraqi army rebuild its capabilities.”

Overall, McCain said, he “would favor” most of the plans outlined by the president in his speech. However, he also argued it was incorrect for Obama to suggest his strategy to fight ISIS would be similar to military operations in Yemen and Somalia. McCain said ISIS was a far more dangerous opponent than the groups the U.S. has battled in those countries.

“The president doesn’t really have a grasp for how serious the threat of ISIS is,” McCain said.

Full disclosure: I did not vote for John McCain when he ran for president in 2008. I voted for the other guy and have never regretted it. That said, I have long been an admirer of McCain. Anybody who has put himself in harm’s way and has suffered the hospitality of the North Vietnamese for six years deserves our country’s and my thanks. In addition to that, among the supposedly loyal opposition McCain often comes across as the least crazy.

Still crazy, however. I tend to lend small credence to many of McCain’s remarks:

“Now we know what happens when we left Iraq. Now we know the consequences,” McCain said. “I hope that all those people that called me all of the names that I am not going to repeat here would render an apology because I was right! Because I said if we leave Iraq completely then, we risk the great danger of it deteriorating.”

 

When the senator from Arizona keeps insisting he is always right I have just two words in response: Sarah Palin.

Summer of the Warrior

The first day of August, 1944, 70 years ago today, Lieutenant General George S. Patton was given command of the United States Third Army in France. For the next 31 days Patton and the Third Army made history. This is about the book Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago. The movie Patton is based on this book and also Omar Bradley‘s memoir A Soldier’s Story. I will review the movie in a separate post.

PattonOrdealAndTriumph

Shortly after sunset on November 7, 1942, the British Broadcasting Corporation began to sneak into its programs beamed to French North Africa a cryptic message made up of just two words: “Robert arrive” . . . “Robert is coming!” All BBC broadcasts to the Axis-occupied countries had been spiked with such laconic signals, and “Robert arrive” was but one of a score of coded messages inserted into the programs on this Saturday night. The uninitiated listener, though thrilled or intrigued by the melodrama of such clandestine communications on which he was permitted to eavesdrop, did not know what they portended. Even the growing underground army of men and women fighting the Nazis on the secret fronts of the war could not make head or tail of them unless certain specific messages were directly beamed to them in codes to which only they had the key.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 52-59). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Twenty-one months before taking over the Third Army Patton had entered the war with the combined American and British invasion of North Africa. It was not Patton’s first war. It was in the First World War that Patton began to make his name with tanks. Tanks were late to the war and so was Patton. The First World War officially kicked off 100 years ago this month, but the United States did not throw its hat into the ring until April 1917. Patton went over General Pershing and finagled to get into the fight.

As soon as he made up his mind to become a tanker, he plunged into the task. His specific assignment was to train and command two battalions of tanks, which were to form the first brigade of the Tank Corps. Nothing in his experience and training qualified him for these new duties. Therefore, he started from scratch by going to the British tank school at Bovington in England and the French tank school in Chaplieu to learn the trade before he would teach it. Patton went to every operation he heard about in which tanks were expected to be used to observe them in action. He was not impressed with the 30-ton British Mark VI heavies; and he rejected out of hand the ponderous French St. Cheumonds and feeble Schneiders in which, as he put it, “many valiant Frenchmen were roasted and from which few Germans were killed.”

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 1252-1258). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Patton’s task in the African invasion, Operation Torch, was the assault on the Atlantic coast. It was in this effort that he began to find his feet in the modern world of war, and his aggressiveness and successes earned him notice in the upper command. After the conquest of Morocco, against French forces at that, he took on the job of “proconsul” of the defeated country, a task for which he was completely unsuited. Following failures of American leadership in the continuing North African campaign Patton was brought in to replace the ousted Major General Lloyd Fredenall, and he again showed his worth as he brought discipline to dispirited American troops.

This is where the movie begins, and it is also where the movie begins to feed in drama to spice up reality. The movie shows Patton in command of a decisive action against an attacking German tank force. In reality the situation was a bit more complicated. The encounter is known as the Battle of El Guettar, and the movie shows Patton setting up an ambush of against a German tank unit. The Germans are driven back, and it’s a great victory. Except that the Battle of El Guettar was much more drawn out and involved multiple Allied units, including British. It is likely Patton was not actually present on the battle field. During this time he was was heavily engaged in planning for Operation Husky, the conquest of Sicily.

One spark of truth in the movie may be the death of Patton’s aide Richard Jensen, reported in the book as killed in Tunisia. Anther bit of truth, a bit that needed little dramatizing, was a Luftwaffe attack on Patton’s headquarters. Farago’s book does not bring up this incident, only Patton’s feud with Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham, which dialog was worked into the attack scene:

But on April 3rd he became embroiled with another of his British bosses, Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham. In his situation report of April 1st, Patton’s G-3 had complained about “total lack of air cover for our units” which allowed the Luftwaffe to “operate almost at will.” Coningham immediately shot back, now complaining in turn about Patton’s nerve to complain, and hinting rather broadly that Patton was using the air force “as an alibi for lack of success on ground.” He went on to hurt Patton where he was the most sensitive, questioning the quality of his troops. “If sitrep [situation report] is earnest,” Coningham wrote, “it can only be assumed that II Corps personnel concerned are not battleworthy in terms of present operation.”

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 4319-4324). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Historian Alan Axelrod‘s Patton: A Biography, summarizes the scene almost as depicted in the movie:

During this time, he reported to British Army commander Harold Alexander, and came into conflict with Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham about the lack of close air support being provided for his troops. When Coningham dispatched three officers to Patton’s headquarters to persuade him that the British were providing ample air support, they came under German air attack mid-meeting, and part of the ceiling of Patton’s office collapsed around them. Speaking later of the German pilots who had struck, Patton remarked, “if I could find the sons of bitches who flew those planes, I’d mail each of them a medal.”

[Some links deleted]

George Patton’s journey to this juncture in his career followed a winding trajectory. His father, George Patton, had been born in poverty, the son of a Confederate general, killed in action. His widowed mother married Confederate Colonel George Hugh Smith, who soon left his new wife and moved to Mexico and finally to California. There, he sent for his wife and the children, and George Patton’s fortunes began to improve. George Patton became a successful lawyer.

But by the time George III was born, this fabulous grandfather—remembered in the annals of the Valley as “the foremost pioneer and sterling citizen,” for whom Mount Wilson, Wilson Lake, a school and an avenue were named in Pasadena —was no longer around. He died on March 11, 1878, at his Lake Vineyard ranch house, not far from an old mill which Zalvidea had erected in 1812.

His place in the Patton home was taken by Colonel Smith. The old cavalryman-turned-lawyer was extremely fond of his stepson George II and doted on George III, a frisky, tow-headed lad who, under his mother’s tutelage, could ride a fast horse virtually before he could walk.

The Pattons lived on the big ranch in a rambling one-story adobe house shaded by tall cedars and fragrant eucalyptus trees. But there was nothing rustic about their life. This was the stylish household of a cultured and affluent family. It was run with an iron hand by Diana Callahan, the stern and tidy housekeeper, who ruled over half a dozen Mexican servants. The cook, a delightful Cockney named Ellen Stevens, was imported from England, where she learned to make the most succulent roast beef and fluffy pudding in the household of Lord Roberts. Young Georgie and his sister, Anne Wilson (Nita) Patton, were in the care of Mary Scally, their governess. She spent her days in frantic but futile efforts to catch up with her rambunctious young charges.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 872-882). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

One of the privileges of wealth was lack of formal education. George S. Patton did not attend school until he was 12. This told on him when he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Arithmetic was another of his weak points. He had passing marks in Dr. Clark’s school, but flunked his math test in his plebe year in West Point. Trained by his father to memorize everything verbatim, he found the problems in Smith’s Algebra hard to tackle.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 917-919). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Patton’s education was a mile wide and a foot deep. At the age of seven he could not read, but he recited long passages from such classics as the Illiad, read to him by his father. He traveled to France prior to World War One, and he could speak French, but badly. Patton carried this background into a peacetime military career between the wars and finally into his final war.

No secret was the rivalry between General Patton and British General (later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery. The two were poles apart in major respects. In battle Patton was aggressive and tenacious, known to be quick on his feet. And Patton was coarse, where Montgomery was a smooth talker. To many Montgomery’s major shortcoming was his vast store of caution. Where the difference ended was ambition. Both Patton and Montgomery were exceedingly self-centered, and they refused to share the spotlight.

Patton’s plan for the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 was scrapped in favor of one put forward by Montgomery. Patton wanted to advance along the north coast of the island and take the port city of Messina, across the narrows from the Italian mainland. This could have the effect of trapping large numbers of Germans and Italians, leaving them no recourse but to surrender. Patton’s plan had the drawback that, since Allied forces were striking from the African coast to the south, a northern landing would be more difficult. Montgomery sold his own plan, designed to give him all the glory. He would land on the southeast coast of the island and advance northeast to Messina. Patton and American General Omar Bradley would protect Montgomery’s left flank in the island’s interior, effectively baby-sitting Montgomery’s operation.

A big problem with Montgomery’s approach was geography. Look at a map. The huge volcano of Etna lay along the left side of Montgomery’s advance, producing a choke point that the Germans blocked. Thus thwarted, Montgomery demanded and received the route along the western side of the mountain, taking that area away from General Bradley.

Patton, feeling frightfully vindicated, disobeyed orders, and launched an attack straight north to Palermo on the coast, where he had proposed to start to begin with. In short order he achieved this objective, and the movie shows Patton entering Palermo as a conquering hero, cheered by crows of Italians, apparently glad to see the end of the war for them and also the end of the Germans. His aid, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Codman shows Patton a message from British General (later Field Marshal) Harold Alexander, commander of all forces in the operation, reminding him he is not to take Palermo. Patton tells Codman to send a note to Alexander: “Ask him if he wants me to give it back.”

Next Patton’s forces headed east along northern Sicily and entered Messina hours ahead of Montgomery in a gigantic clash of egos that had the effect of neglecting the fleeing German forces. While most Italians on the island capitulated, the main German force was able to withdraw across the narrow strait onto the mainland.

Patton’s star burned brightly in the Sicily, and he became an American hero, known world wide and overshadowing the equally vain Montgomery. However, in the Sicily campaign Patton’s inner demons came to the surface, and on two occasions he physically abused soldiers he considered to be cowards. Theses incidents soon came to light, and Patton’s career was put on hold as Eisenhower pulled him from the active campaign to keep him out of the public eye.

The campaign on the Italian mainland proceeded without Patton’s participation while Patton, himself, drifted in limbo for months. The invasion of the western European coast was scheduled for 1944, and Patton saw this as his last opportunity for greatness. Instead of being brought in on the planning for the invasion, Patton headed up a phony army in England designed to dupe the Germans into thinking the invasion would be near the Belgium border instead of Normandy.

“Fortitude” was based on the fiction that the campaign would begin with an attack on southern Norway launched from Scottish ports in mid-July, about 45 days later than the initially designated real D-Day. Arrangements to simulate preparations for the attack on Norway included the formation of a nonexistent British force called the “Fourth Army,” apparently commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Thorne. At the same time, an imaginary American force consisting of 12 divisions was conjured up with dummy troops, contrived radio traffic (conducted with purposeful indiscretion), and make-believe exercises, for the operation directed against the Pas-de-Calais.

Patton was a major fixture in “Fortitude.” The Germans had already learned to respect and, indeed, fear him. He was, in fact, the only American general to impress them at all and whose name meant anything to them at this stage. They assumed that the American forces in the main invasion effort would be led by him and, therefore, the main effort would be where he would appear. (Later, when he was conspicuous by his absence in Normandy in June and July, the Germans did retain substantial forces—their entire Fifteenth Army—in the Pas-de-Calais area in the expectation that Patton would land there with Armeegruppe Patton, as he appeared in German intelligence and situation reports.)

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 6792-6802). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The ruse worked, by this means and others, and Hitler and his high command kept reinforcements from the battle on the Normandy coast for precious weeks while the Allies secured their position and got ready to punch into the interior. It was at this point General Eisenhower brought in Patton.

Allied forces landed on the Normandy coast on 6 June, and for weeks afterward they fought mile by mile to gain sufficient advantage to push through the German defenses. In late July a massive bombing attack shattered the German line in the area of St. Lo, and Patton’s Third Army was scheduled to enter the fight:

“Gentlemen,” he began, “we’re scheduled to become operational officially at 1200 on 1 August. I want to thank you all for your long endurance and faithful service while we were waiting for this great opportunity. I am convinced that you’ll be equally good now that we start moving.”

He paused, puffed on the cigar, squinted his eyes, and said:“Now, gentlemen, doubtless from time to time there will be some complaints that we are pushing people too hard. I don’t give a good Goddamn about such complaints. I believe in the old and sound rule that an ounce of sweat is worth a gallon of blood. The harder we push, the more Germans we’ll kill, and gentlemen, the more Germans we kill, the fewer of our men will be killed. Pushing means fewer casualties. I want you to remember that.

“There’s another thing I want you to remember. Forget this Goddamn business of worrying about our flanks. We must guard our flanks, but not to the extent that we don’t do anything else. Some Goddamned fool once said that flanks must be secured, and since then sons of bitches all over the world have been going crazy guarding their flanks. We don’t want any of that in the Third Army. Flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us.

“Also, I don’t want to get any messages saying, ‘I’m holding my position.’ We’re not holding anything! Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and are not interested in holding anything, except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him and kick the hell out of him all the time.

“Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. We have one motto, ’L’audace, I’audace, toujours l’audace! “ Remember that, gentlemen. From here on out, until we win or die in the attempt, we will aways be audacious.”

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 7864-7880). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This is practically the speech that opens the movie, and it was the policy that carried the Third Army to a stunning victory and carried its commanding general to the highest reaches of history. The Third Army drove around the western and the southern perimeter of the major German force and pushed north to meet up with Montgomery’s British and Canadian forces pushing down from the north and the east. In a few short weeks the destruction of German forces was nearly complete. In the vicinity of Falaise the allied forces trapped the main body of the German defenders, and Hitler’s “to the last man” directives prevented their escape until it was almost too late. Destruction in the Falaise Pocket was enormous, though incomplete:

The failure to close the Falaise-Argentan gap and annihilate the Germans inside the pocket released thousands of enemy troops for subsequent battles. Even today nobody can account for all the Germans who managed to escape. On August 23rd Hitler ordered OB West to send him a report on the divisions that had succeeded in escaping from the pocket, but the report, if it was ever submitted, has never been found. On August 20th, in its daily report, Army Group B claimed that “approximately 40 to 50 per cent of the encircled units succeeded in breaking out and joining hands with the II SS Panzer Corps.” Later estimates ranged from 20,000 to 80,000 men, the first figure presumably too low, the latter almost certainly too high. The Allies did not take too many prisoners out of the pocket, probably fewer than 50,000, and only 10,000 German dead were counted on the battlefield when the pocket was closed at last on August 19th.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 9300-9306). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Those German forces that did escape were now disorganized and at the end of their morale. To the west Montgomery’s forces chased the Germans quickly to and beyond the Belgium border. Patton’s army bypassed Paris, which was evacuated by the Germans by 25 August, and raced north toward Metz on the German border. The summer of the Warrior was over but not the hardships, the destruction and the glory what were to continue eight more months.

By the end of August the Allies were still feeding their forces through the beach head at Normandy. The port of Cherbourg, though captured, was useless, having been destroyed by the Germans. Other major ports on the northern French coast were unavailable, still in the hands of German forces with orders not to surrender. The Allied drive was running out of gas.

Patton’s drive to the German border was stymied by the mechanizations of his rival Montgomery. Halting at the Dutch border in Belgium, Montgomery hatched a plan to push through the Netherlands and into northern Germany. Eisenhower was quickly sold on the idea, which required giving practically all available supplies to Montgomery and stopping Patton in his tracks. In the Event, Montgomery’s plan failed for reasons I will discuss in a following post, and Patton’s army was still slugging toward the eastern German border in the middle of December when a new crisis brought him to the forefront again.

Hitler, optimistic beyond all reality, figured on knocking the western forces (Montgomery and Bradley) out of the war by splitting them with a drive through the Ardennes Forest region of Belgium and on to the sea. Without detection the Germans massed a tremendous force at the critical point and attacked on 16 December. In the west American forces were rushed into place to halt the Germans, and the American 101st Airborne Division was surrounded in the Belgian town of Bastogne. The paratroopers were holding out, but Eisenhower needed somebody to break through the German perimeter. Patton committed his army to the task and set into motion one of the remarkable feats in modern combat.

He pulled his forces out of a winter battle in the east, turned them north and plunged into the Germans besieging Bastogne. Patton was in the headlines again, and his place in history was now permanently sealed.

The Battle of the Bulge, as this action was called, lasted for a month, and was the largest battle ever fought by American forces. And the most costly, as well.

By February 1945 Patton’s army was again rolling forward, and by the time hostilities ended the first week of May he was in Czechoslovakia.

Again, Patton reverted to proconsul of a conquered land, and again his lack of people skills became his undoing. He was widely criticized for appointing ex-Nazis to key positions in the civil administration, but he insisted these people were necessary, as they were the only ones with the experience necessary to carry out the tasks. He (rightly) considered the Soviets to be the future enemy of America, and his public denunciations gained his dismissal from his post. He had a few weeks to live.

In December he was involved in a road accident in Germany and died a few days later.

Patton was buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in Hamm, Luxembourg alongside other wartime casualties of the Third Army, per his request to “be buried with my men.”

Farago’s biography is considered the definitive work on Patton, but I don’t give Farago high marks in basic geography. I’m not intimate with places in North Africa, Sicily and Western Europe, but I do know my own back yard:

But just when Patton was convincing himself that his faux pas at Hawaii had apparently been forgotten and forgiven, his career took a turn for the worse–with a kick upstairs. He was made a full colonel on schedule–on July 1, 1938. But the command that went with the promotion turned out to be the 5th Cavalry at Fort Clark. Situated near Bracketville in the Texas Panhandle, it was the country’s most somnambulent Cavalry post, where superannuated officers, given their colonelcy as a parting gesture, were usually allowed a pleasant last fling before retirement.

Farago, Ladislas (2005-05-03). Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Kindle Locations 2019-2023). Westholme Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Of course, Bracketville is where John Wayne staged his battle of the Alamo, and it’s not in the Texas Panhandle. As is Fort Clark, it’s just a few miles west of San Antonio, where I now write this.

The Summer of 44

ww2-111

From Business Insider

This summer is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy. American, British and Canadian forces invaded northern France on 6 June 1944 against fierce resistance from the Germans, who had occupied the country since the spring of 1940.

Prior to the invasion there was much trepidation on the part of the Allies. An operation of this sort on this scale had never been attempted. From our viewpoint anything could go wrong. At the worst the invading forces could be driven from the landing points and forced back across the English Channel.

The invasion was predicated on achieving surprise to the extent the Germans did not know the exact location of the landing zones. The Germans were required to spread their forces to cover all the European coast from Spain to Denmark. The Germans felt sure the invasion point would be somewhere in France, but they could not know with absolute certainty. In fact, the Allies devised a ruse that involved soldiers learning Norwegian at Berlitz language schools with the idea that spies would report this information back to Berlin. American General George S. Patton headed up a phony army in northern England, complete with dummy weapons and vehicles for German reconnaissance planes to spot. There was a great attempt to keep the Germans thinking the invasion would come across the narrowest part of the Channel, at the Pas de Calais.

Even with all these precautions, the greatest hazard to a successful invasion was considered to be a massive German counter attack once the invasion area had been identified. This was the thing that kept Operation Overlord commander General Eisenhower awake nights. Possibly British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well.

I previously posted an assessment of the situation in the spring of 1944. As it turned out there was never any worry. The battle had been won with victory over the German U boats the previous year and with the suppression of the Luftwaffe in the months preceding the invasion. What this meant was that troops and supplies for the invasion could reach England from America with comparative safety. Additionally, German counter attacks would be thwarted by the Allies’ superiority in the air over the battle region. The coast of Normandy was hundreds of miles from the German homeland, its industrial base, and supplies to Wehrmact troops would have to be transported to the battle area over roads and rail lines under the guns of Allied fighter bombers. German troops, scattered across France, would also have to move to the battle along such routes. In the event, Allied air superiority turned out to be the ultimate trump card. Viewed in hind sight, the issue was never in doubt.

Corey Awar has posted in Business Insider a reporte from a captured German officer that details the crushing weight of Allied air power in the battle:

American G.I. John Frankemolle was guarding a group of captured German soldiers in Europe during World War II when an intelligence officer handed him an interrogation of prisoner of war (IPW) report. The officer told Frankemolle to keep the papers to himself and give it back to him after reading it — but that was the last time the two ever saw each other.

Awar tells the story behind this remarkable document and provides facsimiles of both pages:

Nazi SS combat troops were Hitler’s most diehard and elite soldiers, still notorious for their wartime atrocities. But this officer’s account reveals that he and his comrades fought hard — but suffered from waning morale in the months following the Allies’ successful D-Day invasion of the European mainland on June 6, 1944.

You can find the full document [attached]. But here are the highlights of a jarringly intimate glimpse into the enemy camp during World War II.

 

I have transcribed the text so readers can appreciate the view from a defeated army. I have also inserted annotations to explain some of the terms and abbreviations:

SPECIAL IPW REPORT
THE ODYSSEY OF GOETZ VON BERLICHTNGEN

Note: This is in substance a translation of an account written by a staff officer of the 17 SS PGR Div [panzergrenadier division] in the presence of one of our interrogators. PW [prisoner of war] officer had lost his diary at the time of his capture, and inaccuracies in the report should be considered mistakes of memory.

On 7 June 44 the 17 SS Pz Gren Div [Panzer Grenadier Division, German term for motorized infantry] received orders to leave the marshalling area in THOUARS (P 02) [Thouars, France] and to move to the invasion front in NORMANDY. Everyone was in a good mood and eager to see action again – happy that the pre-invasion spell of uncertainty and waiting had snapped at last. In some minds there was a gnawing doubt that perhaps this was only a repetition of the DIEPPE incident in which the Allies withdraw after a German show of force. Perhaps the GOETZ VON BERLICHINGEN would even be too late to get into the scrap.

Our motorized columns were coiling along the roads towards the invasion beaches. Amidst this rumpling of motors and grinding of vehicle tracks the Panzer Grenadier was in his element again. Then something happened that left us in a daze. Spouts of fire flicked along the column and splashes of dust staccoteoed the road. Everyone was piling out of the vehicles and scuttling for the neighboring fields. Several vehicles already were in flames. This attack ceased as suddenly as it had crashed upon us 15 minutes before. The men started drifting back to the column again, pale and shaky and wondering that they had survived this fiery rain of bullets. Had that been a sign of the things to come? This had been our first experience with the “JABOS” (Fighter bombers). The march column was now completely disrupted and every man was on his own to pull out of this blazing column as best he could. And it was none too soon, because an hour later the whole thing started all over again, only much worse this time. When this attack was over, the length of the road was strewn with splintered AT [anti-tank] guns (the pride of our Division), flaming motors and charred implements of war.

It dawned on us that this opponent that had come to the beaches of NORMANDY was of somewhat different form. The march was called off, and all vehicles that were left were hidden in the dense bushes or in barns. No one dared show himself out in the open anymore. Now the men started looking at each other. The first words passed. This was different from what we thought it would be like. If things like this happened here, what would it be like up there at the front? No, this did not look like a feint attack upon our continent. It had been our first experience with a new foe – the American.

During the next few days we found out how seriously he was going about his business. Although now we traveled at night only and along secondary roads rimmed with hedges and bushes, we encountered innumerable wrecks giving toothless testimony that some motorist had not benefited from the bitter experiences we had had. After about 5 days we moved into our assigned sector E of PERIERS (T 52). The Div Staff, to which I belonged, crawled into a small village, obviously intent to have as many trees, sunken roads and as much other cover about as possible. But now the “JABO” plague became even more serious. No hour passed during the daytime without that nerve-frazzling thunder of the strafing fighters overhead. And whenever we cared to look we could see that smoke billow from some vehicle, fuel depot or Am [ammunition] dump mushrooming into the sky. The common soldier began to think. What would all this lead to, and what was being done about it? Where was the Luftwaffe, and why had it not been committed during the past few days? If he asked his superiors about it, they shrugged their shoulders and remarked that German planes would make their appearance at the opportune moment. But that moment never came. Instead, bad tidings reached us from the front, and all around us ambulances were carting away the victims of the strafings. And when the soldiers became more insistent in their queries, they were finally told that the Luftwaffe was operating in adjoining sectors where the situation was even more serious than ours. This excuse calmed them for a while until contact had been made with these adjoining sectors and the soldiers found out that the absence of air power there was just as conspicuous. And there the men had been told that the German planes were operating in our sector. And to make things even worse, the American Arty [artillery] became stronger by the day, and the naval guns were tearing into our lines while it was impossible to get back at them. Complaints became more frequent that Arty Am [artillery ammunition] stores were running low, that weapons needed replacements, that communications were cut. The hope of driving the Americans back into the channel had already given way to a hope of being able to hold our own against the invaders. And then came the great American breakthrough in the direction of COUTANCES (T 25). The way of the cross for the German soldier had begun.

At first the retreat in our sector was orderly. We started leapfrogging back. The divisional staff was able to hold for 8 days in LOZON (T 36). But our regiments had been depleted to such an extend that we could not count on any effective resistance. Under heroic efforts and with terrible losses we were able to hold a small sector NW of MARIGNY (T 36) for 8 days. The divisional staff, which during this time was in LE LORY (R 35) was mostly out of contact with its component units. And thus it came that, after an annihilating bombing carpet laid by approximately 2000 heavy bombers on 26 July on our and neighboring sectors our Div only survived in name. The divisional staff was separated during the ensuing flight and cut off from its trains. Even though some dispersed fragments of the units were reclaimed on the road back, only few bedraggled remnants arrived in the MERZIG (Q 29) reforming area. No human account ever could describe the hardship, the sacrifice, the misery the men of this division alone experienced. No one who finished this retreat still alive will ever forget this Gathsename, because each village, each road, even each bush seared into his brain the memories of terrible hours, insufferable misery, of cowardice, despair and destruction. All these towns of CERISY LA SALLE (T 35), ST DENIS (T 34), GRAVAY (T 24), VILLEDIEU (T 33), ST MARTIN LE BOUILLANT (T 42), MORTAIN (T 51), DOMFORT (T 80), LA FERTE MACE (U 00), CAPROUGES (Z 19), ALENCON (Z 38), MORTAGNE (Q 61), LAIGLE (Q 74), VERNUEIL (R 75), NONANCOURT (P23), DREUX (R 33), ST GERMAIN EN LAYE (R 84), MONTMORENCY (S 05) (where for the first time German planes were sighted on the occasion of a propaganda flight), GHATEAU THIERRY (S 86), EPERNAY (T 25), CHALONS SUR MARNE (T 54), ST MENEHOULD (T 95), VERDUN (U 26), ETAIN (U 47), CONFLANS (U 66), GRAVELOTTE (U 75), and many others, are monuments of a massacre which no other division could have experienced before. Still the old fighting spirit glowed here and there a little, as in MORTAIN, where KG FLICK, attached to 2 SS Pz Div DAS REICH for the purpose of a counter attack, succeeded in penetrating the town, or in [Page torn here – most likely St. Menehould] the following incident took place: the 17 SS Div was to hold a sector 20 Km wide. This was to be done with remnants of the 49 and 51 SS PG Brigade which were put under control of the Div. The Div Staff scouted around for a while without being able to locate these Elms [elements] (it had not been known at that time that these Brigades had already fled across the MOSSELLE). When Maj KONRAD of the staff called up the 7th Army Hq and aprised [sic] it of this fact the Army CG replied: “If you have no other troops to employ in this sector, then hold it with your divisional staff”. The divisional staff obediently deployed over the 20 Km sector, but withdrew when the American spearheads were withing 5 Km distance. But this was just the wind in the dying embers. Higher Hq soon saw this, and, in order to keep the name of the division alive it went into the reforming area MERZIG. Here all means were employed to get the division back up on its feet. Every available officer of the divisional staff, including the (then) Divl [divisional] commander Standartenfuehrer (Col) DEISENHOFEN, went out cruising the METZ area with instructions to gather troops. The officers would start at road crossings and shangai [sic] every passing soldier who did not have a ready answer to the inquiry after his destination. In one instance I was directing traffic into the divisional area. The army men, not quite satisfied that they were being impressed into an SS unit, circled the area until they hit another road, only to run into me at the road junction again, and I re-directed the men into the divisional area, Rather amused at the merry-go-round. When AT guns were needed and officer with a few prime movers on hand would set up shop at a road crossing and wait for passing guns, the crews of which were not quite certain about their destination or attachment. The horses would be unhitched, the crew piled into the waiting prime movers, and the caravan proceeded into the reforming area.

And that is the history of the 17 SS PZ Gren Div GOETZ VON BERLICHINGEN up to my capture (1 Nov 44).

This was not the first time Germans had come up against American soldiers, and besides, American soldiers were a minority of the invasion force. Germans had first encountered American soldiers at the Battle of Kasserine Pass and had beaten them. Afterwards it had been down hill all the way for Germans facing American forces in Sicily and Italy. However, this was the first time this German force had faced American troops and equipment, and it was the first time fighter bombers had been employed against the Wehrmact to such effect. The German Army, which had used blitzkrieg war four years before against the Poles, were now seeing the masters of this type of warfare directed at themselves.

The German defeat in France was costly for Allied forces. Our casualties were equal to or more than those of the defenders. However, the defeat was crushing and absolute. Anybody, including German commanders, watching the progress of the campaign could see the end of the Third Reich was just a matter of time.

Winston Churchill, writing in his anthology The Second World War highlights the realization at the upper reaches of the German command:

In the last week of June the British established a bridgehead across the river Odon south of Caen. Efforts to extend it southward and eastward across the river Orne were repelled. The southern sector of the British front was twice attacked by several Panzer divisions. In violent conflicts the Germans were severely defeated, with heavy losses from our air and powerful artillery.1

Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). Triumph and Tragedy (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 439-442). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The referenced footnote tells the rest of the story:

1 These attacks were the result of Hitler’s instructions at the Soissons conference. On July 1 Keitel telephoned Rundstedt and asked, “What shall we do?” Rundstedt answered, “Make peace, you idiots. What else can you do?”

Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). Triumph and Tragedy (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 677-679). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

It was unfortunate for both sides this advice was not followed. Soldiers and civilians died by the thousands. Great cities and small villages were wiped off the face of the planet. German infrastructure was almost completely obliterated. At the conclusion came the inevitable result. The few at the top paid with their lives, all for the purpose of satisfying their personal vanity.

I have modified the images of the original document to make them more readable. Here are page 1 and page 2.

Day of Days

BandOfBrothers-small

This is the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. To commemorate I am posting several items relating to the events and the people.

Two years ago I noted the 70th anniversary of the formation of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Stephen E. Ambrose wrote the book Band of Brothers, which chronicles this remarkable unit, from its beginnings at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, to the end of the war, which found the surviving members along with replacements biding their time at a bivouac area in Austria. David Frankel and Tom Hanks directed the HBO mini series of the same name.

In this review I will run episode two of the TV series along side the corresponding chapter in Ambrose’s book. The TV episode, second in the series is titled “Day of Days.” I am also posting this day a review of the book and the movie The Longest Day. The book is by Cornelius Ryan, who also authored the script for the movie. A comparison of the separate presentations of D-Day shows the modern production achieves more realism and better captures the horrors of the night drop into occupied France by American paratroopers. Ryan’s book and the movie deal with all aspects of the invasion, while Band of Brothers only tells the story of the 506th.

In episode two, the lead up the invasion has a new commanding officer taking over Easy Company after its previous commander, Captain Sobel has been cashiered for complete lack of combat leadership ability, and Lieutenant Richard Winters has been restored as a platoon leader. The new company commander is Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, the “exact opposite” of Sobel, and an excellent commanding officer. He was, however, never to see combat. During the drop into France his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed, killing all aboard as others in the 506th watched.

Prior to the invasion men of the 506th and other allied troops trained fiercely in England. There were numerous parachute drops, including night drops. There was some loss of life. Men trained for all possible combat operations—attacking a machine gun emplacement, destroying a bridge. And they were learning how to kill. Not only were they learning how to kill, they were learning to kill. These were almost to a man people who had been civilians only two years previously and had never seen combat. It was necessary the first time they encountered an enemy soldier to kill without hesitation. They learned well.

General Maxwell Taylor was the commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Division, and he told the men, “Give me three days and three nights of hard fighting, then you will be relieved.” It turned out the “three days” were to be stretched a bit. Taylor also told Sergeant Don Malarkey’s platoon to fight with knives until daylight, “and don’t take any prisoners.” [Band of Brothers, page 64] There’s more to be told about the treatment of prisoners on D-Day, and I will post a separate item about that.

Other setbacks and tragedies of differing degree came to the front during the invasion lead-up. The original schedule for the invasion was June fifth, but high winds over the Channel made the seaborne invasion chancy, and the whole thing was put off for 24 hours. The men of the 506th were preparing to march to their C-47 transports when they got the word.

Sergeant Bill Guarnere got hold of a letter meant for another trooper and learned his brother had been killed in the fighting at Monte Cassino in Italy. He prepared to go into battle with a burning hatred for Germans.

To relieve the tension, Lieutenant Raymond Schimtz challenged Richard Winters to a wrestling bout. Winters had been a college wrestling team member in a previous life, and he tossed Schmitz easily. Unfortunately the toss resulted in some broken bones, and Schmitz missed out completely on the invasion.

During the flight to the drop zone Private Roy Cobb was wounded by an exploding shell and flew back to England with the returning plane.

Late on the fifth of June the word came that the invasion was on, and the men of the 506th prepared to meet their fate, and the Germans. It was a mournful scene as depicted in the TV show and in real life. The re-enacting of the scene is featured in the series trailer.

By the afternoon of June 5, the wind had died down, the sky cleared a bit. Someone found cans of black and green paint. Men began to daub their faces in imitation of the Sioux at the Little Bighorn, drawing streaks of paint down their noses and foreheads. Others took charcoal and blackened their faces.

At 2030 hours the men lined up by the planeload, eighteen to a group, and marched off to the hangars. “Nobody sang, nobody cheered,” Webster wrote. “It was like a death march.” Winters remembered going past some British antiaircraft units stationed at the field, “and that was the first time I’d ever seen any real emotion from a Limey, they actually had tears in their eyes.”

[Band of Brothers pages 64 – 65]

A C-47 is really a military version of the Douglas DC-3, dating back to the 1930s. There are still some in operation today, and in my early years I flew on one or two of these. Somehow the HBO producers scraped up a quantity of these vintage craft, or look-alikes, and staged a magnificent takeoff scene, with C-47s rolling down the runway, one after the other and slowing filling the sky.

I am dead sure the scenes of the flight over the Channel and into the drop zone involved mock-ups and some computer animation. It is, however, so real the viewer with any nerves at all is will experience the tension and the tragedy of the events.

Men were stuffed onto the transports. They all had to jump, one after the other, out the same door. Parachute drop procedure involves two lights, operated by the pilot. The red light alerts the men, who stand up, hook their static lines to an overhead wire and begin a systematic equipment and readiness check. And then they wait. When the green light comes on there is no hesitation. The goal is to clear the door in the minimum time possible. Lives and the success of the mission depend on it. There are other reasons.

Look at the map:

From Band of Brothers

From Band of Brothers

The Cotentin Peninsula juts up into the English Channel, pointing right at the south coast of England. The Village of Saint-Mere-Eglise is just a few miles from Utah Beach, one of the American Army’s landing zones. the aim of the parachute drops was to disrupt German counter attacks on the landing troops, and also to neutralize heavy guns firing on the seaborne invasion. Allied intelligence indicated the German plan was to attack invaders immediately where-ever they landed, and the paratroopers had orders to attack any German units observed moving toward the invasion beaches. The objective of the 506th was Saint-Marie-du-Mont.

From Band of Brothers

From Band of Brothers

The transport planes left the south coast of England and approached the Cotentin Peninsula from the west. The plan was to drop the troops and have the empty planes to continue flying eastward to the coast and then back to England. It was shortly after midnight on the morning of the sixth when the flights crossed the French coast and encountered a cloud bank. The loss of visibility caused the pilots to add separation between their planes, and the result was they were unable to regroup after exiting the clouds. Only the lead aircraft had instrumentation for locating the drop zones. The HBO video depicts a deadly reception from German gunners on the ground with the destruction of a number of the transports.

The pilots were in combat for the first time and felt the need to complete their mission as quickly as possible. Instead of maintaining a slow drop speed, the pilots gunned the plans, and many troops bailed out at 150 mph. And often very low to the ground. The red lights were on, and many troops were screaming for the red light to come on. It was hell in the air. The ground could not be that much worse. Many drops were at 250 feet. Some troops were killed, and for days most carried bruises from the hard opening shock of their parachutes and from the rough landings. Almost all lost their spare equipment when their leg bags, added as a last minute inspiration, tore loose, never to be seen again. The video shows the descent of Richard Winters, and the DVD set includes information on the shooting of the scene. Winters wrote up the account of his drop a few days after the event, which lasted just a few seconds:

We’re doing 150 MPH. O.K., let’s go. G-D, there goes my leg pack and every bit of equipment I have. Watch it, boy! Watch it’ I-C, they’re trying to pick me up with those machine-guns. Slip, slip, try and keep close to that leg pack. There it lands beside the hedge. G-D that machine-gun. There’s a road, trees–hope I don’t hit them. Thump, well that wasn’t too bad, now let’s get out of this chute. [Band of Brothers, page 71]

The video sequence was staged in a darkened studio with actor Damian Lewis playing the part of Winters and descending on a fake parachute suspended by cables. Others had experiences similar to Winters’.

The low altitude drop may have been beneficial in some cases, since it provided less exposure to German gunfire. On the ground there was an initial loss of cohesion. Often the first person a man encountered was not of his own unit. Even so, Americans joined up with each other and first became defensive, figuring out where the Germans were and avoiding hostile fire. When they had formed into groups they quickly went on the attack.

Possibly Bill Randleman was the first of the 506th to draw blood. When he hit the ground he immediately got free of his parachute. Then he fixed his bayonet to the end of his rifle just in time to encounter a German soldier coming at him with a bayoneted rifle. It was like a training exercise to Randleman. He expertly parried the German’s first thrust and speared him.

For the remaining of these former civilians killing came easy that morning. Bill Guarnere joined up with a group of paratroopers in time to encounter German soldiers coming down a road in three horse-drawn wagons. Bill opened up with his Thompson machine gun and never batted an eye. Some Germans escaped, but a few were taken prisoners. When other Germans opened fire the prisoners attacked, and the Americans dispatched every one of them.

The video shows Winters’ initial encounter with radioman John Hall from D company, but this appears to be fiction adopted for television, as this incident does not appear in the book.

Winters did lose his weapon in the drop and had to scrounge, first a German rifle, then an M-1 from a dead GI. This kind of grim encounter was common enough. American troops are seen coming upon dead paratroopers, one hanging from a tree, still in his parachute harness. The Americans grit their teeth and take weapons and ammunition from their fallen buddies.

In the early morning hours of D-Day Winters and his collection of troops met up up with others at a makeshift 506th headquarters, where Winters was given the assignment of neutralizing a German 105 mm gun position that was firing toward Utah Beach. This was real-life drama from the history of the invasion. It also makes for some of the best combat footage of the video.

With the death of Lieutenant Meehan Winters became the de facto commanding officer of Easy Company. He took 12 men and assaulted the gun position, manned by 50 elite German troops. His group set up a deadly field of fire and drove enemy troops from the nearest 105. They received reinforcements and continued the process until all four guns were overrun. They disabled the guns and then withdrew, having killed 15, wounding “many more” and having taken twelve prisoners. Four Americans were killed (including Hall) and two wounded.

Winters received the DSC, while others received Silver and Bronze Stars. This action is still being taught at West Point as how to assault a fixed position.

As the Day of Days drew to a close Winters climbed aboard a tank, newly arrived from Utah Beach and headed out. The video shows darkness finally settling on the battle-proven troops as they end their longest day by polishing off some French wine and Army rations. Winters was not known to be a drinker, and his men thought he might be a Quaker. He had his first drink that night and informed the troops that he was not a Quaker.

The men are shown enjoying their victory, complaining about farts in the back of their truck and making jokes. They do not dwell on those they have lost that day and will never see again. They have a long journey ahead of them, and many enjoying the jokes that night will never see home again.

D-Day Personal Perspective

I’m posting a number of items today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion during World War 2. Besides this you may want to read historical accounts by Cornelius Ryan (The Longest Day) and Stephen E. Ambrose (Band of Brothers) and the fictional account in the movie Saving Private Ryan. This is my personal perspective, gathered by reading a few historical books and watching some documentary videos. Here is some background.

German Chancellor Adolph Hitler launched the war in Europe with an unprovoked attack and invasion of Poland. Only Great Britain and France intervened. The remainder of the world sat by, almost in silence. None of the smaller European countries wanted to provoke the wrath of Germany, and the United States and other American nations did not want to get involved in yet another European mess. All this turned out to be pointless, as the German Army continued its attacks on one European nation after another. France was knocked out of the war after barely nine months and accepted partial German occupation. Only Great Britain, which included all of the British dominions (Australia, Canada, India, South Africa) continued to actively defy the Nazis. This meant that England was remaining principal battleground in the war to oppose Hitler.

England was not conquered as France had been. German tanks could not ford the English Channel. Hitler offered peace. The newly-installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Hitler he could take his peace and stuff it. England would fight on:

“However matters may go in France or with the French Government or other French Governments, we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people…. If final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains—aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede…. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.” I ended: “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). Their Finest Hour (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 3353-3363). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Churchill was supremely defiant:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Hitler made plans in the summer of 1940 to invade England. It was called Operation Sealion. There was still the messy issue of the Channel. The German army would have to move all those men and all those tanks across the Channel. This was rightly deemed an impossible task as long as the British Air Force was in a position to resist. So the first goal was to smash the RAF. In this endeavor the German Wehrmact met its first serious setback. The RAF defeated the German Luftwaffe decisively, and Hitler had to call of his invasion plans. He had other, more urgent considerations.

Hitler had invaded Poland only after gaining the partnership with his most bitter rival, the Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. The two were intractable foes. Nazism had come to power in Germany largely on its opposition to Communism. It is likely Hitler and Stalin personally despised each other. From the get-go a main goal of Hitler was the domination and destruction of the Soviet Union. The Stalin had similar plans, only In 1939 he did not possess the wherewithal to fight Germany. Stalin had just finished an exhaustive purge (murder) of the Soviet Army leadership, and it would take a few years to build back an effective military.

Although right up to 1944 Winston Churchill kept England in readiness to repel a German invasion, this never was a serious consideration on the part of the Wehrmact after 1940. The only planned invasion was in the opposite direction. All concerned viewed such an invasion as impossible given the circumstances. The Brits did not have the resources for such an undertaking. Churchill bided his time and made trouble for Hitler in all other means possible. The remaining means turned out to be to attack Germany’s ally, Italy, in North Africa, and to fight the Germans that Hitler sent to help.

Churchill and Great Britain received tremendous relief in the summer of 1941 when Hitler launched his long-planned assault on the Soviet Union. In England Churchill was now looking at Hitler’s backside, as the Germans quickly became complete engrossed in a futile war in the vast Russian heartland. Churchill’s wildest dreams came true in December of that year with the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen when the Japanese Empire attacked the United States and Hitler (for whatever reason) declared war on the United States. The invasion of Europe began to appear feasible.

When Churchill and President Roosevelt met in December 1941 the invasion of Europe was a prime topic of discussion. But where and when? The American Army was favorably compared in size to the Portuguese Army at the time. It would take time to build it up. And there was the problem of transport. Great Britain had been losing shipping to the German Navy faster than it could construct new craft.

The Germans were vulnerable in North Africa. A combined British and American invasion of Northwest Africa was feasible and turned out to be very effective. It was still not time to strike across the Channel, but an attack on the Continent was critical. Despite the Wehrmact’s early setbacks, it was still viewed as a threat to the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union were knocked out of the war the Allied advantage over Germany of a two-front war would be lost. The Allies had to engage the Germans on the Continent.

Italy was the logical choice. Churchill favored this route for reasons explained elsewhere, but the American contingent of the alliance held to the original plan of a cross-Channel attack even as Churchill cooled to the idea and voiced opposition. While the Allies met great  success in Sicily and finally mainland Italy (Italy capitulated and dropped out of the Axis alliance), plans went on for a two-front invasion of France.

The primary objective in the American mind was the cross-Channel attack. An invasion through southern France by the Mediterranean Coast was planned for the same time. This turned out to not be possible, and the reason was lack of shipping. There was not enough in the European Theater (mostly in the Mediterranean at the time) for two invasions at once. America’s war in the Pacific drew heavily on shipping resources, as well.

Optimistically the Allies considered they could invade France in 1943, but this was quickly seen as unrealistic. America was still building up its army, and the required shipping was still under construction in the United States. May 1944 was scheduled for the invasion.

In the mean time the Allies won two significant (and vital to the success of the invasion) battles. The first was the Battle of the North Atlantic. Look at a map. England is a large island off the coast of the European Continent. At the time only about 44 million people lived in England, Scotland and Wales combined (1931 population figures). England had to import a lot of stuff needed for the war effort. The Germans determined to put a stop to that. From the beginning of the war the German Navy (mainly submarine craft) sank enormous quantities of British shipping). Spring of 1942 was the absolute low point for the Brits. When the Americans entered the way they possessed none of the British experience in dealing with German submarines, and the German Navy quickly began to sink American coastal shipping regularly, often under the watchful eyes of Americans partying on the East Coast while leaving their city lights on to provide target illumination for the German submarine skippers.

From then on the Americans and the Brits combined forces in the war against German submarines, and in the spring of 1943 the U-boats were scourged by the allied onslaught. By the end of the war 90% of the German submarine crews had perished. By the time American began shipping men and supplies for the Channel invasion the German Navy had ceased to be a serious threat.

The second big victory came in the air. In 1942 American bombers began to arrive in England and late that year the 8th Air Force initiated a program of “daylight precision bombing.” It was daylight but not all that precise. Losses to the bomber flights were often appalling, sometimes in the double-digit percentages of the aircraft participating. But it did have an effect. The Germans could not ignore the Allied bombers. They had to respond, and response had a terrible price. Fighters had to be drawn from other air operations (including the war with the Soviet Union) to fight the Allied bombers. Additionally, the war against the bombers was costly. My figures are that five German fighters were lost for each allied bomber. While losses to the allies were onerous  (50,000 American aircrew), the Allied air forces persevered. Shortly the Luftwaffe was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Each time an experience German pilot was killed he had to be replaced with a trainee. Allied attacks on German shipping and petroleum production so strapped the Luftwaffe that training flights had to be curtailed. Furthermore, German bomber production almost halted. The Luftwaffe was in a downward spiral and was slowly being crushed.

The result of these two side victories was that when spring of 1944 came there was little opposition from the German Navy, and invasion supplies in England were plentiful. Also on the day of the invasion the Luftwaffe could only muster two aircraft to oppose the landing. Other aircraft had been pulled back from the coast to avoid constant raids from Allied planes.

American General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in command of Operation Overlord, the code name given for the cross Channel invasion. He and others agonized over the possibility of failure. I tend to think their concerns, founded in good sense, were overly pessimistic. Here were the chief concerns:

  • It was a large, seaborne invasion. Nothing like this had ever been attempted. Nobody knew what unforeseen problems would crop up.
  • The Germans knew we were coming. The coast from Denmark to Spain had been or was being heavily fortified.
  • The invasion area would be limited in size. This would allow the Germans to attack it from three sides.
  • Sea conditions in the Channel were dicey and no port facilities would be available to support the invading force.

Here’s what the Allies had going for them:

  • The Germans did not know the exact point of the invasion. They had to defend the coast from Denmark to Spain. The Germans were forced place expendable troops at the shore to act as a trip wire. Effective fighting forces had to be held in rear areas, safe from air attack, until the point of invasion was identified.
  • The Allies held complete air superiority. Allied fighters and bombers stood ready to interdict German reinforcements, which would be forced to move by road or by rail (especially vulnerable to air attack).
  • The chosen invasion point (the Normandy Coast) was a long way from the German homeland. All vital war supplies for the Wehrmact in Normandy would have to come over 200 miles by rail or road.
  • Germany was running out of oxygen. Although war production was up, it was up because it had to be. It was produce or perish. The Wehrmact was still deadly, but it was bleeding to death. All that was necessary was to keep it bleeding.

Additionally there were two other deciding factors the Allies could not count on absolutely:

  • An Allied plot to fool the Germans into thinking the Normandy Invasion was a ruse and that the real invasion point was at the Pas de Calais worked perfectly. German commanders held critical reinforces up north for weeks while the Allies broadened and reinforces their bridge head.
  • Hitler was on our side. Possibly no single person contributed more to the German defeat than Chancellor Adolph Hitler. Since his early successes in 1939 he had become so full of himself, and the Wehrmact command staff had become so intimidated by him that few dared to counter his foolish dabbling in military affairs. Before the war had ended in the order of a million German troops had been forced to surrender due to Hitler’s “to the last man” directives. He was about the last to recognize that the Pas de Calais was not the intended invasion point, and his was the commanding voice.

In the event, the invasion was a satisfactory surprise. The Germans knew we would attack. They did not know exactly where (Normandy was a prime candidate). They did not know when. The first the Wehrmact knew the jig was up was when airborne forces began landing in the first minutes of June sixth.

The first to hit were British commandos in the “Pegasus Bridge” assault. Six gliders landed at two vital bridges (one of the six landed at a third, wrong, bridge), and commandos killed or captured the defenders. Next, paratroop pathfinders began to land and to mark landing points. It was a deadly business, and the Germans executed one or more of those they captured. Then the American 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions and the British 6th Airborne began to land behind the invasion beaches to interdict German reinforcements. Scattered and fierce fighting erupted in the pre-dawn hours as these troops headed for their objectives and caught responding German soldiers by surprise. The German command still had not come to grips with what was about to fall upon them.

The Germans were not dummies. All this activity pointed to an invasion. But some were still not sure. Cornelius Ryan tells about the coming of the dawn. German Major Werner Pluskat was apparently the first to get the bad news:

WHAT’S HAPPENING?” yelled Major Werner Pluskat into the phone. Dazed and only half awake, he was still in his underwear. The racket of planes and gunfire had awakened him, and every instinct told him that this was more than a raid. Two years of bitter experience on the Russian front had taught the major to rely heavily on his instincts. Lieutenant Colonel Ocker, his regimental commander , seemed annoyed at Pluskat’s phone call. “My dear Pluskat,” he said icily, “we don’t know yet what’s going on. We’ll let you know when we find out.” There was a sharp click as Ocker hung up.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (p. 116). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Pluskat was a seasoned soldier and a credit to the Wehrmact. He did not allow himself to be consoled by his commander’s condescending response. He dressed for battle and went to the beach:

Quickly Pluskat positioned himself before the high-powered artillery glasses which stood on a pedestal opposite one of the bunker’s two narrow apertures. The observation post couldn’t have been better sited: It was more than one hundred feet above Omaha Beach and almost directly in the center of what was soon to be the Normandy beach-head. On a clear day, from this vantage point, a spotter could see the whole bay of the Seine, from the tip of the Cherbourg peninsula off to the left to Le Havre and beyond on the right. Even now, in the moonlight, Pluskat had a remarkable view. Slowly moving the glasses from left to right, he scanned the bay. There was some mist. Black clouds occasionally blanketed out the dazzling moonlight and threw dark shadows on the sea, but there was nothing unusual to be seen. There were no lights, no sound. Several times he traversed the bay with the glasses, but it was quite empty of ships. Finally, Pluskat stood back. “There’s nothing out there,” he said to Lieutenant Theen as he called regimental headquarters. But Pluskat was still uneasy. “I’m going to stay here,” he told Ocker. “Maybe it’s just a false alarm, but something still could happen.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (pp. 118-119). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

He was there when the dawn came:

Behind him in the bunker his dog, Harras, was stretched out asleep. Nearby, Captain Ludz Wilkening and Lieutenant Fritz Theen were talking quietly. Pluskat joined them. “Still nothing out there,” he told them. “I’m about to give it up.” But he walked back to the aperture and stood looking out as the first streaks of light began to lighten the sky. He decided to make another routine sweep.

Wearily, he swung the glasses over to the left again. Slowly, he tracked across the horizon. He reached the dead center of the bay. The glasses stopped moving. Pluskat tensed, stared hard.

Through the scattering, thinning mist the horizon was magically filling with ships— ships of every size and description, ships that casually maneuvered back and forth as though they had been there for hours. There appeared to be thousands of them. It was a ghostly armada that somehow had appeared from nowhere. Pluskat stared in frozen disbelief, speechless, moved as he had never been before in his life. At that moment the world of the good soldier Pluskat began falling apart. He says in those first few moments he knew, calmly and surely, that “this was the end for Germany.”

He turned to Wilkening and Theen and, with a strange detachment, said simply, “It’s the invasion. See for yourselves.” Then he picked up the phone and called Major Block at the 352nd Division’s headquarters.

“Block,” said Pluskat, “it’s the invasion. There must be ten thousand ships out here.” Even as he said it, he knew his words must sound incredible.

“Get hold of yourself, Pluskat!” snapped Block. “The Americans and the British together don’t have that many ships. Nobody has that many ships!”

Block’s disbelief brought Pluskat out of his daze. “If you don’t believe me,” he suddenly yelled, “come up here and see for yourself. It’s fantastic! It’s unbelievable!”

There was a slight pause and then Block said, “What way are these ships heading?”

Pluskat, phone in hand, looked out the aperture of the bunker and replied, “Right for me.”

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (pp. 173-174). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Morning had come.

The Allies’ worst fears materialized mainly at Omaha Beach. While British, Canadian and other American forces met their morning objectives for the landing, on Omaha the American 1st Infantry Division (battle veterans) and the American 29th Infantry Division along with nine companies of Army Rangers ran into a prepared German defense that had not been softened up by bombardment. 2499 American troops were reported killed on D-Day, with only about 100 of these listed for Utah Beach, the other American beach.

By Robert Capa from Google Images

By Robert Capa from Google Images

Famed war photographer Robert Capa went ashore on Omaha in the first wave, and obtained some of the most dramatic images of the event. In his book, Images of War, Capa describes his short stay on Omaha Beach:

I finished my pictures, and the sea was cold in my trousers.

Reluctantly, I tried to move away from my steel pole, but the bullets chased me back every time. Fifty yards ahead of me, one of our half-hurnt amphibious tanks stuck out of the water and offered me my next cover.

I sized up the situation. There was little future for the elegant raincoat heavy on my arm. I dropped it and made for the tank. Between floating bodies I reached it, paused for a few more pictures, and gathered my guts
for the last jump to the beach.

Now the Germans played on all their instruments and I could not find any hole between the shells and bullets that blocked the last twenty-five yards to the beach. I just stayed behind my tank, repeating a little sentence from my Spanish Civil war days, “Es una cosa muy seria. Es una cosa muy seria.” — (This is a very serious business).

The tide was coming in, and now the water reached the farewell letter to my family in my breast pocket. Behind the human cover of the last two guys, I reached the beach. I threw myself flat and my lips
touched the earth of France. I had no desire to kiss it.

Jerry still had plenty of ammunition left, and I fervently wished I could be beneath the earth now and above later. The chances to the contrary were becoming increasingly strong. I turned my head sideways and found myself nose to nose with a lieutenant from our last night’s poker game. He asked me if I knew what he saw. I told him no and that I didn’t think he could see much beyond my head. “I’ll tell you what I see,” he whispered, “I see my ma on the front porch, waving my insurance policy.”

Robert Capa, Images of War, page 109

 

What must it have been like for the German soldier, suddenly finding himself at the anvil point of the war. I have imagined the shock of a number of the defenders. They went to bed on Monday night, the fifth of June. Maybe they dreamed of home. Maybe they dreamed of the French wine they had for dinner. Maybe they dreamed of a French girl. The next night they went to bed in England. Or not at all.

The reactions of the French have been depicted in various fictional accounts, reenactments, and memoirs. Although many French were about to die, there was general jubilation at first sight of the invasion.

Jim Alley crashed into a wall behind a house, one of those French walls with broken glass imbedded in the top. He was cut and bleeding in several places. He backed into the corner of a garden and was in the process
of cutting himself out of the harness when someone grabbed his arm. It was a young woman, standing in the bushes.

“Me American,” Alley whispered. “Go vay, go vay.” She went back into her house.

Alley found his leg pack, got his gear together (thirteen rounds of 60 mm mortar ammunition, four land mines, ammunition for his M-1, hand grenades, food, the base plate for the mortar and other stuff), climbed to the top of the wall, and drew machine-gun fire. It was about a foot low. He got covered with plaster before he could fall back into the garden.

He lay down to think about what to do. He ate one of his Hershey bars and decided to go out the front way. Before he could move, the young woman came out of the house, looked at him, and proceeded out the front gate. Alley figured, “This is it. I’ll make my stand here.” Soon she returned. A soldier stepped through the gate after her. “I had my gun on him and he had his on me. They recognized each other; he was from the 505th. 

[Band of Brothers, page 75]

The invaders signaled French civilians to stay away from the fighting. Even so, many like lawyer Michel Hardelay could not stay away. He listened to the warnings on his radio. This was strictly forbidden by the German occupiers. He could be imprisoned for listening to BBC. This morning the Germans were the least of his worries:

“This is London calling.

“I bring you an urgent instruction from the Supreme Commander. The lives of many of you depend upon the speed and thoroughness with which you obey it. It is particularly addressed to all who live within thirty-five kilometers of any part of the coast.”

Michel Hardelay stood at the window of his mother’s house in Vierville at the western end of Omaha Beach and watched the invasion fleet maneuver. The guns were still firing, and Hardelay could feel the concussion through the soles of his shoes . The whole family— Hardelay’s mother, his brother, his niece and the maid —had gathered in the living room. There seemed no doubt about it now, they all agreed: the invasion was going to take place right at Vierville. Hardelay was philosophical about his own seaside villa; now it would most certainly come down. In the background, the BBC message, which had been repeated over and over for more than an hour, continued.

“Leave your towns at once, informing, as you go, any neighbors who may not be aware of the warning…. Stay off frequented roads…. Go on foot and take nothing with you which you cannot easily carry…. Get as quickly as possible into the open country…. Do not gather in large groups which may be mistaken for troop concentrations….”

Hardelay wondered if the German on horseback would make his usual trip down to the gun crews with the morning coffee. He looked at his watch; if the soldier was coming, it was nearly time. Then Hardelay saw him on the same big-rumped horse, with the same bouncing coffee cans that he always carried. The man rode calmly down the road, turned the bend—and saw the fleet. For a second or two he sat motionless. Then he jumped off the horse, stumbled and fell, picked himself up and ran for cover. The horse continued slowly on down the road to the village. The time was 6: 15 A.M.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (pp. 189-190). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The reaction of Alphonse LeNaux, mayor of Colleville-sur-Orne reflected the mood:

In many places along Sword there was even a bank holiday atmosphere. Here and there along the seafront little groups of elated French waved to the troops and yelled, “Vive les Anglais!” Royal Marine Signalman Leslie Ford noticed a Frenchman “practically on the beach itself who appeared to be giving a running commentary on the battle to a group of townspeople.” Ford thought they were crazy, for the beaches and the foreshore were still infested with mines and under occasional fire. But it was happening everywhere. Men were hugged and kissed and embraced by the French, who seemed quite unaware of the dangers around them. Corporal Harry Norfield and Gunner Ronald Allen were astonished to see “a person all dressed up in splendid regalia and wearing a bright brass helmet making his way down to the beaches.” He turned out to be the mayor of Colleville-sur-Orne, a small village about a mile inland, who had decided to come down and officially greet the invasion forces.

Ryan, Cornelius (2010-02-09). The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (p. 226). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

By the end of the day the Allies were ashore on all five invasion beaches. The cost had been high. The action had been pitiless, with thousands killed on each side. It was just the beginning. The Normandy campaign would see 29,000 Americans killed, 11,000 British, 5000 Canadian and 30,000 Germans (210,000 listed as “missing”) 12,200 French civilians would be killed or missing before it was over.

But it was over. Werner Pluskat was correct in his first assessment. “[T]his was the end for Germany.”

It was the first week in June 1944. Before the year was out Erwin Rommel, commander of the Normandy defenses, would be dead, forced to take poison by the Nazis. Within the next 12 months Nazi Germany would disintegrate completely. President Roosevelt would be dead. Mussolini would be dead. Hitler would be dead. Himmler would be dead. Goebbels, his wife and his children would be dead. Martin Bormann would be dead, as would be several prominent Wehrmact commanding generals, some by suicide. Hermann Goering and other top military leaders would be in prison, facing a death sentence. A terrible European nightmare was coming to a grisly end.

American Sniper

AmericanSniper-02

Screen shot from the movie

It’s been over a year since former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and a friend were murdered by a troubled veteran.

Kyle’s book American Sniper came out in 2012. Work has started on a movie based on the book, to be released by Warner Brothers.

My own military experience (reserves) did not involve any combat experience, but since my earliest memories are of The Second World War I have developed an interest in the history of the war. Some years ago I checked out William Craig’s book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad from the library. A major topic was the sniper wars in the ruined city. The book told the story of Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev. The 2001 movie of the same name featured Jude Law as Zaitsev. Combat snipers are a particular asset in certain battle situations, and their use in combat makes for a story of high drama.

Chris Kyle was born in Texas and lived an adventuresome live as a youth, so it was natural he would be attracted to the military. He saw the Navy SEALs as maybe the highest development of the warrior breed, and his book gives a good account of the SEAL training regimen. He also gives us the background of the program.

One of the movies I watched as a kid was The Frogmen. It came out in 1951 and told about men in the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). These guys would launch from rubber rafts strung along the side of speed boats, and they wore aqualungs and infiltrated Japanese coastal facilities and did dirty work against the enemy. The Japanese had their own frogmen, and the movie showed American and Japanese frogmen fighting it out underwater with knives.

Later when I was in the real Navy I had a chance to see some of these people in action. I was with a group that collected at the Little Creek training base in Virginia, and I recall seeing UDT trainees running in from the beach each morning at sunup. While we had been cozy in our bunks these guys had been out swimming in the ocean and running on the beach, shouting all the time. It was pretty sure we ship-side sailors did not want to tangle with these people anywhere, anytime.

By 30 years ago the UDT corps had morphed into the SEALs (SEa, Air Land force), and have traditionally been given some of the toughest strike force assignments. It was into this hell that Chris Kyle launched himself and where he succeeded while 90% of applicants fail. I recently acquired the Kindle edition of the book.

Chris had a life-long passion for firearms, and sniper training put him on the track of becoming the most lethal killer in American sniper history. In four deployments to Iraq he is confirmed to have killed 160 enemy combatants. His actual lethal shot count is likely much higher—as high as 255. If this is the case, then he surpassed Zaitzev’s claimed 225. As remarkable as this count is, Kyle’s longevity is even more so. Historically in modern warfare an sniper’s life expectancy is a few weeks. In combat involving modern forces, a sniper gets a lot of attention and becomes the focus of an intense eradication effort.

Kyle relates that his first shot was the one and only woman he killed, and this was with great reluctance:

I watched our troops pull up. Ten young, proud Marines in uniform got out of their vehicles and gathered for a foot patrol. As the Americans organized, the woman took something from beneath her clothes, and yanked at it.

She’d set a grenade. I didn’t realize it at first.

“Looks yellow,” I told the chief, describing what I saw as he watched himself. “It’s yellow, the body—”

“She’s got a grenade,” said the chief. “That’s a Chinese grenade.”

“Shit.”

“Take a shot.”

“But—”

“Shoot. Get the grenade. The Marines—”

I hesitated. Someone was trying to get the Marines on the radio, but we couldn’t reach them. They were coming down the street, heading toward the woman.

“Shoot!” said the chief. I pushed my finger against the trigger. The bullet leapt out. I shot. The grenade dropped. I fired again as the grenade blew up.

Kyle, Chris; McEwen, Scott; DeFelice, Jim (2013-10-15). American Sniper: Memorial Edition (p. 3). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Killing came easier for Kyle after that. As combat intensified his dedication to his task absorbed his attention. He took great satisfaction in annihilating enemy combatants.

During his four tours Kyle was involved in combat in Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and a few other locations. He was particularly deadly in the weeks-long campaign in Ramadi and was dubbed “The Devil of Ramadi.” The enemy put a bounty on his head.

Something obvious from reading Kyle’s account is a major deviation for traditional sniper tactics. In combat against a professional foe a prime rule is to change position after each shot. The enemy will be prepared to deal with snipers, and once they locate one his hours are numbered. If another sniper doesn’t kill him the job will be done with artillery or aerial bombs. In the book Kyle describes the tactics of the Iraqi combatants, and it’s obvious that, with few exceptions, these are basically hot-head civilians playing soldier against a professional force.

The book does not detail other sniper operations in Iraq, but news accounts give some insight into the hazards of the occupation.

Sharpshooting is not the professional snipers’s principal asset. It’s concealment. A big part of a successful sniping operation is setting up a concealed position that gives the shooter a good view of critical areas of the battle. After that it’s not all about the first shot but the second one and any that follow.

A news account from several years back told of a young soldier recruited off the mean streets of New Jersey. He developed into an effective marksman and was put to work as a sniper in Baghdad. He was initially successful but was killed after a few days. He set up on a roof top, shooting through a gap in a parapet. Staying too long in one position, he was eventually identified and killed by an enemy sniper.

Kyle tells of begging off on killing a teenager sent out to retrieve the weapon of an enemy he had killed. An Army shooter showed no such reluctance. Again it was in Baghdad. Some insurgents engaged American forces with gunfire, and the Army sniper put one of them down. The insurgents needed the man’s weapon and sent a kid to get it. The American sniper shot him after he picked up the weapon.

Kyle was wounded twice by enemy fire and suffered numerous other injuries. In one day two associates were shot, both eventually fatal. He was also exhibiting obvious signs of combat fatigue, and his family life was beginning to crumble. He left the service in 2009 with two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars, plus assorted other military honors. He eventually became president of Craft International, a firm that provides tactical training for military and police.

He became involved in a program to rehabilitate returning veterans, and in this endeavor he met his end. He and Chad Littlefield took Marine veteran Eddie Ray Routh to a shooting range at the Rough Creek Ranch-Lodge-Resort near Glen Rose, Texas. Routh killed both Kyle and Littlefield with a handgun. No explanation was given as to why a veteran suffering from a mental condition would be allowed access to firearms. My take is this was a case of two professional soldiers operating outside their area of expertise.

The death of Chris Kyle did not put to rest the litigation with former SEAL Jesse Ventura. In his book, without explicitly naming Ventura, Kyle recounts the former governor made disparaging remarks about current SEAL activities, and Kyle decked him in a barroom fight. Ventura denied the encounter ever took place and sued Kyle for defamation. One might think that Kyle’s untimely death would have put an end to the suit, but Ventura has continued the litigation, this time against the Kyle estate. The issue has not been resolved as of this date.