Friday, March 30, 2012

The Battle of El Guettar 1943

Our artillery crucified them.
A message from an observation post of the U.S. 18th Infantry Regiment, 6:45 P.M., March 23, 1943.

While Monty was slamming his forces against the Mareth Line, General Harold Alexander, the commander of the 18th Army Group, ordered U.S. II Corps to make a thrust towards Gafsa, a middle-of-nowhere Tunisian town that had already switched occupants four times (the GIs even made a song called "The Third Time We took Gafsa"). Operation WOP it was called, and it reflected Alexander's contempt for the United States Army, especially in light of the recent debacle at Kasserine Pass. The GIs would merely put pressure on the Axis forces while Montgomery's Eighth Army did the real work.

At 11:00 P.M. on March 16, 1943, the American artillery barrage commenced. However, there was no resistance whatsoever, the enemy withdrawing the next morning, before any GI could lay hands on him. Then, at 12:30 that afternoon, Gafsa was back in American hands. "If any American officer ever had the will to win, that man is Lieutenant General George S. Patton," the folks back home, across the Atlantic Ocean, were told on the radio. "He certainly won the first round today... Apparently the Nazis saw him coming and ran."

Apparently the Nazis saw him coming and ran. Patton, the II Corps commander, was rubbed the wrong way by that fact. "You should have kept going until you found somebody to fight," he angrily told Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Division commander, later in the day. "I'd feel happier if I knew where the Germans were," he conveyed to the press. "As long as I know where they are I don't mind how hard they fight." The enemy kept seeing Patton and running away from him for five days, until II Corps had gained 75 miles, at the extremely cheap price of 57 casualties.

A GI gives cigarettes to Italian prisoners near El Guettar, Tunisia, circa March 1943.
The enemy had no intention of withdrawing forever, though. Field Marshal Albert Kesslring realized if the II Corps, advancing down Highway 15, made it to Tunisia's shores, the First Italian Army, still fighting at Mareth, would be trapped. Consequently, he sent 10th Panzer Division to counterattack before Patton continued his advance.

A cry went out from Hill 336, "Wop Hill": "Here they come!"
"They" were panzers, accompanied by infantrymen, advancing towards the U.S. 1st Division, across terrain that offered hardly any cover for them. The tanks fired while Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the late President and Rough Rider, called on his own guns to respond. The Americans' situation was made worse by a peril from the skies: Stukas, and the dive bombers were so close to the ground that pistols were fired at them. Indeed, as Roosevelt imparted to his wife, "I felt I could reach up my hand and grasp them."

While Ted Roosevelt was feeling that way, the 5th and the 32nd Artillery Battalions had their own worries. The previous night, they, along with other artillery units, moved forward to support the 1st Division's expected advance. Now, because of that move, the GIs had to contend with the very real of possibility that they and their guns might be captured. Of course, they did not intend to go down without a fight. Back and forth many an artillerymen went, bringing water and ammunition, while the cry of "Hitler kommt! Surrender!" was made by advancing enemy troops, part of a two-pronged assualt that targeted the American left flank. Eventually, the defenders were compelled to fire some rounds at point-blank range, disabled their cannons with grenades, and use their small arms to make a fighting retreat.

It wasn't just the artilleriests who were unlucky on the left flank but the 3rd Battalions of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments as well. The infantrymen could not withstand the Panzer attack... at first. Over Keddab Ridge they went before halting at a wadi, where one of the rare instances of World War II close-quarters combat took place. "Come on, you Hun bastards!" was the battlecry of Company K of the 18th Infantry as they showered their assailants with grenades. Suffering more than 60 casualties, the company would expend 1,300 of those projectiles.

Amidst this struggle, at an oasis near the wadi, General Allen, suggested by a staff officer to move his command post, replied, "I will like hell pull out, and I'll shoot the first bastard who does." Yet the fact remained that the GIs around Highway 15 were in quite a fix. Panzers fell on the 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion like a lion falls on its prey. One mauled company withdrew while another such unit resisted until all of its ammo had been expended. Like the Blitzkriegs of the past, the Germans exploited the resulting hole in the line, and it seemed as if the Americans would be outflanked... until the Panzers ran into Company A of the 601st, which opened a devastating volley of shells on them. Stuck in a boggy minefield after moving south and at the mercy of American artillery and tank destroyers, fire from whom was building up to a deadly crescendo, the Panzers fell back. "The men around me burst into cheers," Roosevelt attested. And with that, round one ended.

Round one ended. A message was intercepted that six German battalions planned on attacking again at four that afternoon, an hour's warning for II Corps. "Angriff bis 1640 verschoben" followed the initial conveyance 45 minutes later. Patton acted on this information, transmitting uncoded messages to his subordinates about the impending attack. Allen in turn acted on what Patton told him, ordering his signalmen, at 4:15, to let the Germans know that the Big Red One knew they were coming: "What the hell you guys waiting for? We have been ready since four P.M. Signed, First Division." "Terry," Patton, shaking his head, asked at Allen's command post, "when are you going to learn to take this damned war seriously?" Due to Patton's uncoded messages and Allen's heckling, the 1st Division's intelligence officer would recollect, "We couldn't read German mail for quite a long time after that."

Anyway, the Germans still launched their assualt, albeit at 4:45, five minutes behind schedule. An American officer would later make note of how they advanced: "The men walked upright, moved slowly, and made no attempt at concealment or maneuver. We cut them down at fifteen hundred yards. It was like mowing hay." Such fire failed to affect that complacency. As another officer wrote, "Eerie black smoke of the time shells showed that they were bursting above the heads of the Germans. There was no running, just a relentless forward lurching of bodies." Some German infantrymen found shelter on a reverse slope of a hill, or so they thought. American artillery zeroed in on the slope and let them have it. Brigadier General Clift Andrus, the 1st Divisions chief of artillery, witnessed the ensuing slaughter: "The battalion broke from cover and started to run for another wadi in the rear. But none ever reached it." All the while, Roosevelt, Patton, and Allen, were observing the fight from a trench on Hill 336. Patton turned to Roosevelt. "My God," he said in a low voice, "it seems a crime to murder good infantry like that." The Battle of El Guettar was over.

The 10th Panzer Division had been the bane of many an opponent, in Poland, in Russia, in France, in Tunisia. All the more sweet that it had been defeated by a relatively green outfit, the 1st Division. "The Hun," Eisenhower forecasted, "will soon learn to dislike that outfit." While the Americans did make some errors, the battle was, in the words of Patton's deputy, Omar Bradley, "The first solid, indisputable defeat we inflicted on the German army in the war."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Valley Forge 1777-78: The Drillmaster

The preservation of Order at all Times is essentially necessary. It leads to Victory, it Secures a Retreat, it saves a Country.
General Horatio Gates to Friedrich von Steuben, March 25, 1778.

He woke up at three in the morning, tired. He had been at his desk, working on the next day's lessons well into the previous night, with the only the light of a candle to help him. Now, he had to contend with his appearance; it was a big day for him, and he wanted to look his best. His hair was powered and braided according to the customary fashion of his time by a servant of his, and he donned his uniform, all the while still making sure that everything he was supposed to be as only an officer of the "Lace Wars"--the term modern-day historians use to describe the conflicts of the eighteenth century- could. After that, he smoked a pipe and drank some coffee, reviewing what had written the evening before. Finally, he went outside, mounted his steed, and left.

It was March 19, 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben was about to returned to what he loved most: soldiering. Only this time he was not merely a cog in a great machine like he had been in the Prussian army of Frederick the Great but the man responsible for turning the George Washington's Continental Army to a force that could stand up to the Redcoats and their Hessian mercenaries.

“Eighteenth-century warfare,” notes military historian Michael Stephenson, “seems exotically formalized, strangely balletic, and ‘unreal’ by modern standards.” Yet under that surface appearance of formality and unrealism were practical measures that took into account the limitations of technology.

The most significant influence was the gun the men carried: the musket or firelock. It was very inaccurate. The muzzle velocities of today’s firearms range from 2,400 to 4,000 feet per second. Back then, they ranged from 600 to 800 feet per second. A superb marksman could hit a target at 100 yards, but more than 20 yards from that point the bullet would start to drop around five feet. At 200 yards, a ball would have perhaps a 50/50 chance on hitting an opponent; at 300, the possibility was out of the question.

Thus, the tactical doctrine of Europe’s armies in the Age of Reason called for (A) a faster loading and firing process and (B) a densely packed formation of infantrymen, the logic being that the greater number of infantry—and therefore muskets—within a certain area, the greater the firepower; and the greater the windage, the distance between the ball and the barrel, the higher the rate of fire (while less windage would mean more accuracy, it would take longer to ram the bullet down barrel). “Battles will be won through superior firepower… the infantry that can load the fastest will always defeat those who are slower to reload,” Frederick the Great, the military genius of his day, proclaimed. Indeed, it was this mentality that made the Prussian army deemed the greatest army of the eighteenth-century.

Still, in the chaos of combat and even the serenity of the parade ground, there was waste: “Powder is not as terrible as believed,” French Marshal Maurice de Saxe stated in his RĂªveries on the Art of War (1757). “Few men in these affairs are killed from in front while fighting. I have seen whole salvoes fail to kill four men.”

Artillery was deadly, too. Like the musket, it wasn’t very accurate, but it had a much longer range, of course. Solid shot, cannonballs that didn’t combust, were fired to ricochet two or more times like a tennis ball before it finally rested. For a six-pounder artillery piece, the first bounce, or “graze,” would have been at 400 yards; the second, 400 yards after that; and the last, about 100 yards before it hit the ground, rolling to a halt. Stephenson gives a vivid description of eighteenth-century artillery: “Lacking accuracy itself, it was a beast of omnivorous and indiscriminate appetite, guzzling, like some Cyclops, the herds of men conveniently marching in dense formation towards its greedy muzzle.”

Needless to say, the results of this gunnery, from both muskets and cannons, were gruesome. Patriot Peter Brown recalled one such incident during the Battle of Bunker’s Hill: “One cannon cut off 3 men in two on the neck of land.” On the British side, Corporal Roger Lamb of the 23rd Foot recorded that during the advance to Saratoga “a man, a short distance on [my] left, received a ball in his forehead which took off the top of his head” The stress of combat was bad enough with the cacophony of battle and the perception of danger—the enemy advancing, or about to unleash a potentially devastating volley—but to withstand the sanguinary nature of battle and not flee required rare courage indeed.

Where did this courage come from? There was religion, ideology, esprit de corps, fear, adrenaline, a desire for glory, rum… and discipline. Thus drill served two purposes—one practical, concentration of firepower, and one psychological: to sufficiently suppress individual thoughts and feelings, and impress mindless obedience. As military historian Paul Lockhart writes,

Drill did not inoculate soldiers against the horrors of the battlefield. But it helped. Troops who had been exercised on the parade ground, day in and day out, for months at a time, were more likely to respond to their officer’s commands in the heat of battle without thinking about the awful carnage around them.

These factors partly explain why it was imperative that the Continental Army be uniformly trained. So far, drill was haphazardly enforced: “Each Colo Exercised his Regt according to his own Ideas, of those of any Military Author that might have fallen into his hands,” von Steuben would complain to the Continental Congress’s Board of War. Another reason why the Americans needed discipline was that Washington thought so. For all the erroneous claims that the American Revolution was won by partisan tactics, Washington preferred “conventional,” European-style warfare. To him, and many of his fellow officers, the rifle-toting partisans from Virginia and Pennsylvania had an obdurate individualism (a notable slogan of theirs was “Don’t Tread on Me”)—they detested discipline, and they ran counter to the European way of war. Also, having fought in the French and Indian War and quelled the Jacobite Rebellions, anti-guerrilla tactics were nothing new to the British Army. And fighting formally would win respect from across the Atlantic. Besides, Lockhart notes, “A successful war of posts [guerrilla war] required patience and stamina, qualities that the Americans generally had not exhibited.”

The Baron de Steuben’s job was to make Washington’s dream come true. It was not going to be easy. After all, how can one man, no matter how well-trained he is, train an army, and in three months at that? Hence Washington, taking von Steuben's advice, promulgated in his General Orders of March 17 that a "model company"—a unit of 100 men from every brigade that would be attached to Washington's headquarters guard as a stop-gap measure—be formed. Steuben, of course, was going to teach the company, and when he believed they were sufficiently trained he would disband it, sending all the men back to their brigades so they could take teach their comrades what they had learned. They must be, Washington added, at the Grand Parade on the morning of the 19th.

On that Thursday morning, von Steuben, his right hand grasping his Prussian Army silver-headed swagger stick (Exerzierstock), facing this company and using his notes, commenced with the basics, treating the company as if they had never seen combat before. First in order was the technique of marching, which was far more complicated back then that it is today. Steuben had the men disarm, stack their weapons, and stand in a long, single-rank line. Then, he selected twenty men to teach, the remainder of the unit observing the Prussian instructing their comrades on the "Position of the Soldier"; he had to be erect, have his shoulders back, his head bent a little to the right so the left eye was aligned with the waistcoat buttons (or where they would be if he did not have a waistcoat), and chest forward; feet were to be almost touching each other while the toes were to be spread. The Baron gave his students an example by doing the position himself.

Now it was their turn. Von Steuben praised the ones who deserved it, cussed out, teased, and, of course, criticized the ones who didn't. Even when Steuben played the part of the disciplinarian, the environment was hardly devoid of humor, both teacher and students occasionally enjoying a good laugh.

Baron von Steuben at Valley Forge by an unknown artist. While he did spend time on the use of the bayonet, von Steuben focused more on the art of maneuvering and marching.

This lesson was followed by dressing ranks. The men had to have their heads face either to the left or right so as to make sure he was precisely in line with the man next to him; eventually, the line became so straight that it seemed as if it was the product of a gigantic ruler.

Anyway, with that accomplished, it was time for marching. Every man had to walk at the same speed and step the same way, 75 paces a minute, 28 inches per rate of movement. It was nothing the men had ever done before; they were used to the British practice of 60 paces a minute. "Slow Time is a Medium between what was in our service slow and Quick Time," Henry Beekman Livingston wrote on March 25. "Quick Time is about as Quick as a Common Country Dance."

There was one more thing to do before the company was dismissed. The men had to be taught to turn left and right at right angles and to the rear by turning 180 degrees on the heels. After that, the men were given a break. They all went back to their respective campsites and probably told their comrades what had happened thus far.

Class was back in session in the afternoon. First, they reviewed what they had learned earlier that day; then the company broke down into squads to practice wheeling- an action in which an entire line of infantry would advance while simultaneously swinging like a door, by far the most difficult of what Steuben taught them; and finally, dinner being imminent, the training program on the Grand Parade ended. Of course, the men of the model company eased the boredom of many a fellow patriot when they returned to their brigades.

Such a routine continued for the subsequent few days. The Baron wrote his new lessons the night before; woke up by 3:00 A.M.; arrived at the Grand Parade six hours later; and- the most important of all, obviously- he commenced teaching the model company, going over what it had learned the previous day, breaking it down into squads, and giving it a new lesson to tackle. All of this happened, once again like the first day, in the morning and afternoon. The regimen was equally trying for von Steuben's staff, as William North, who joined his staff in 1779, relates: "There was no waiting for a tardy adie-de-camp, and those who followed wished they had not slept. Nor was there need of chiding. When duty was neglected or military etiquette infringed, the Baron's look was quite sufficient." "After three or four days on the Parade," Lockhart notes, " the company was able to march, wheel, and change front with a precision and speed not yet seen in Continental troops."

This precision and speed resulted in Washington, on March 22, to write in his General Orders that, due to the "happy Effects" of von Steuben's training program on the model company, no brigade commander should have the "new Regulations" (what Washington called the Baron's doctrine) had been put on paper. The whole Continental Army would begin to receive these "happy Effects" on the 24th.

On that day Washington imparted to his subordinates the green light. "At nine oclock precisely all the Brigades will begin their exercise, each regiment on its own parade, and the Inspector General [von Steuben] will attend the exercise." "Steuben was no longer a mere volunteer, drilling a single company of men," adds Lockhart. "He was now responsible for training all of the Continental infantry at Valley Forge. Washington's order put him temporarily above all other officers in the army, making him answerable to Washington alone."

Steuben was no longer a mere volunteer, drilling a single company. He was now responsible for training all of the Continental infantry at Valley Forge. A daunting task, indeed. How was he to do it? Fortunately, for the Baron, he had his staff, "sub-inspectors," who had the job of acting as a sort of liason officer for the Baron and the brigade inspectors, Steuben's helpers in every brigade. Also, there was a lesson plan:

  1. The sub-inspectors would impart to the brigade inspectors the new lesson. A squad of 20 men would be chosen from every brigade. Company commanders must do the same, by squads.
  2. Larger formations would then train. Every officer had to take part and would be taught by the brigade inspectors as if they were enlisted men.
Meanwhile, in a world without any sort of computer technology, the clerks would no doubt be undergoing virtual torture. "Our Time is short, and we have much, too much to do," Horatio Gates wrote the Baron; "therefore, we should only attempt to do that which is most for our present Benefit." Their "present Benefit," not the men who had to write all the regulations. Once they had been to von Steuben's headquarters and written down what the men would be taught next, the brigade inspectors would go to their units and have the human copiers put the information down word for word.

As for the Manual Exercise, the way a soldier had to handle his musket, it was virtually nonexistent. In European armies, the it was unnecessarily complex, and the Baron consequently simplified by a huge margin. When he first met the model company, the Baron was not at all pleased with the exercise's influence: "The only part which retained a shadow of Uniformity was the least Essential of all, the Manual Exercise, as it was nearly an Imitation of that Established by the English Army. The most Essential part which is the March & Maneuvring step was as varied as the Colour of our Uniforms." The downplaying of the exercise is just another example of von Steuben's pragmatism when he had to train an army in such a short period of time.

Like the model company, the army was first instructed on how to march properly. The men initially had to march forward ("direct step") in "common time" and "quick time"; what followed was the "oblique step," in which the line had to move diagonally while still retaining its cohesion. There was no music, no muskets, and, on the Baron's orders, not a word was spoken; nor was anybody allowed to "stir their hands, blow their noses."

What did the men think of all this strictness and the training regimen? Although there was complaining, that is hardly unnatural for any soldier to do. There morale improved greatly. "Discipline flourishes and daily improves under the indefatigable Efforts of Baron Steuben- who is much esteem'd by us," wrote Colonel Alexander Scammell of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. The same thing could be said for the officers, who also recognized practicality of the Baron's program. As John Laurens, Washington's aide-de-camp, wrote, "The Officers in general seem to entertain a high opinion of him, and he sets them an excellent example in descending to the functions of a drill-Serjeant."

Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston, who commanded a New York regiment, was one of those approving officers:

He is now teaching the Most Simple Parts of the Exercise such as Positition and Marching of a Soldier in a Manner Quite different from that, they Have been heretofore used to, In my Oppinion More agreable to the Dictates of Reason & Common Sence than any Mode I have before seen.

So was Colonel Scammell:

The Baron Steuben sets us a truly noble example. He has undertaken the Discipline of the army & shows himself to be a perfect Master of it, not only in the grand manieuvres, but in every Minutia. To see a Gentleman dignified with a Lt Genls Commission from the great prussian Monarch, condescend with a grace peculiar to himself, to take under his direction a Squad of ten or twelve men in Capacity of a Drill Serjt, & induce the Officers & men to admire him and improve exceeding fast under his Instructions.

When the training was finished, Steuben had every reason to be proud of his accomplishment:

My Enterprize Succeeded better than I had dared to expect, and I had the Satisfaction, in a month's time, to see not only a regular Step introduced in the Army, but I also made maneuvers with ten and twelve Battalions with as much precision as the Evolution of a Single Company.

On May 1, word reached Valley Forge of the alliance between France and the United States. In observance of this new friendship, Washington called for a Grand Review to take place five days later—an exposition of the “new” Continental Army trained along European lines. The intention of the Grand Review was to assure Louis XVI that his bets on an American victory were not misplaced. It was also a form of self-satisfaction on Washington’s part, vindicating his proponents and showing his opponents that they were in error. The details, of course, were left to von Steuben.

The morning of May 6 found the men attending a church service outside. Then a cannon blast rent the air—the signal that the maneuvers had begun. The men formed into columns and started marching to the Grand Parade. As the fifers played their fifes and the drummers beat their drums, the men of the Continental Army marched like what they were supposed to be—an army, the way von Steuben had taught them. Having reached their destination, they made parallel lines of battle, both of which were two ranks deep. Then 13 artillery pieces fired three salvos. Next, the infantry began to perform the feu de joie in recognition of the new Franco-American alliance. On the far right row of the first line of battle, the two soldiers raised their muskets to the heavens, firing them. Their comrades adjacent to them did likewise, one row at a time, until the musketry display reached the left flank. Once the men on the far left had discharged their muskets, the process was renewed in the line of battle to their rear—only this time it was left to right. The demonstration was repeated, going back to the line in front. This performance went on for three more times as the powder smoke built up around them until they couldn't be seen by the audience at all. It was flawless, with no one accidentally firing his weapon when he was not supposed to—perfect fire discipline.

The spectators loved the review. Among them was Washington’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens:

The order with which the whole was conducted, the beautiful effect of the running fire which was executed to perfection, the martial appearance of the Troops, gave sensible pleasure to every one present…The plan as formed by Baron von Steuben succeeded in every particular, which is in a great measure to be attributed to his unwearied attention and to the visible progress which the troops have already made under his discipline…Triumph beamed in every countenance.

Washington’s dream of a European army had been achieved. All that was needed now was an opportunity for the Continental Army to show what they had learned to His Majesty's troops.

Further Reading:

Lockhart, Paul Douglas. The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron De Steuben and the Making of the American Army. 1st ed. [Washington, D.C.]: New York, NY: Smithsonian Books; Collins, 2008. Print.
Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Mareth Line 1943

We will roll up the whole show from the south.
General Bernard Law Montgomery to Field Marshal Harold Alexander.

"Contrary to the Desert Victory mythology," notes Rick Atkinson in his book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army at Dawn, "pursuit after Alemain was hardly 'relentless.'" True, the battle had been a great, important victory for the Allies, but the British Eighth Army failed to exploit their success, sticking to the Mediterranean coast instead of its Axis enemy like glue. Still, it left both Eighth Army and its commander, General Bernard Law Montgomery, extremely arrogant. That is, until the British faced the Mareth Line.
 A trench of the Mareth Line.

A heavily fortified defensive position stretching from the sea to the Matmata Hills, the Mareth Line was constructed by in the 1930s by a France afraid of being attacked by their Italian neighbors in Libya. Now, ironically, those same Italians were manning those same defenses that the French had erected to keep them from grabbing Tunisia, and the First Italian Army, which was composed of 50,000 sons of Germany and 35,000 sons of Italy and under the command of General Giovanni Messe, was ordered by Commando Supremo, the Italian high command, to defend Mareth "to the last."

The British, of course, planned on obliging their enemy. Monty's original plan seemed (and would turn out to be) foolish in the extreme: the flanking movement by the New Zealand Corps would take backseat to the assualt of XXX Corps, which would pound the Mareth Line head on until it punched a hole that X Corps would exploit. Montgomery thought his enemy, outnumbered in everything from manpower to tanks, could not withstand the might of his army; hence, such an emphasis on outflanking his opponent was considered unnecessary.

Some preliminary operations on March 16, 1943, was a sign of things to come. Ten miles from the coast, 6th Grenadier Guards and 3rd Coldstreams assailed an enemy sailent on a grouping of hills called the Horseshoe, which, according to intelligence, was supposedly "lightly held." That peice of information was dead wrong; the German 90th Light Division had 6,500 men in that salient, soldiers of the Fatherland whose fierce resistance finally compelled the Guardsmen to retreat. In the words of an Eighth Army officer, that night attack was "the most damnable thing."
Zero Hour: The Mareth Offensive, 1943 by Jack Chaddock.

And more damnable things were to follow. Four days later, while Monty was enjoying his past triumph at Alemain by watching the movie Desert Victory on an army blanket that acted as an improvised screen, Eight Army, after an artillery barrage that expended 36,000 rounds, launched the main assualt in the night. Infantrymen "thug patrols" laid the scaling ladders they were carrying over Wadi Zigzaou; tank crews dropped fascines- dense bundles of sticks that had been in use since the wars of the Middle Ages of yore- on the wadi to facilitate their machines' crossings; Tommies helped their comrades climb the banks; and tape was laid to denote a safe path through the minefields. While all these measures worked, none could cope with mother nature.

British infantrymen show how they used the ladders to scale Wadi Zigzaou,
March 27, 1943.
She had the muddy Zigzaou, which many a Valentine tank got stuck in, blocking the path for the rest of the tanks. Fascines, set aflame by the exhaust, burned in the darkness, making the tanks an even clearer target for the enemy to see. Although four tanks managed to surmount the wadi, the number was only four tanks, insufficient to support the British troops on the mile wide and half a mile deep toehold they had gained on the other side.

The next day found the Tommies at the mercy of the Italian artillery; however, they did not hunker down, continuing instead to take pillbox after pillbox from the enemy, hoping that the tanks could ford the wadi more successfully that night unlike the last one. Mother nature had another trick of her sleeve: poor weather for Allied aircraft, making the Royal Artillery the only help they received, help that proved ineffective. As it turned out, only one crossing out of an intended three was made on the wadi.

Still, on the 22nd, it did allow 42 Valentines to cross, but that was it since their tracks put the bridge out of commission. Once again, the cloudy heavens prevented any aerial aid. Despite all this, Montgomery was still optimistic, which he conveyed to his superior, Field Marshal Harold Alexander that day: "My operations progressing well. Suggest you announce that my operations are proceeding satisfactorily and according to plan."

The German counterattack at 1:40 P.M., a mere hour and 55 minutes after Monty sent this message, made such a claim even more questionable, indeed, a bunch of "bunk." Onward came 30 tanks and two infantry battalions of the 15th Panzer division, destroying Valentine after Valentine, overcoming one British position after another, and making the combat so personal that when the weather sufficienlty improved and the Allied pilots did take to the skies, they felt helpless lest their bullets cause victims of friendly fire. "More fascines!" was the war cry of the shirtless Indian engineers who were desperately trying to fix the sole crossing as shells rained down upon them, splashing into the water and wetting their uniforms. When darkness was total, the brigehead had been virtually eliminated. To the rear the Tommies went, which was noted by correspondent Jack Belden: "Crowds of men wounded and unwounded flitted like wraiths through the haze. Some crawled. Some stumbled. Some marched erect."

A Royal Artillery peice bombards the Mareth Line.

"What am I to do, Freddie?" was the question the humbled Montgomery asked his chief of staff, Brigadier General Francis de Guingand after he was told by XXX Corps commander, General Oliver W.H. Leese about the failed operation on the very early morning of March 23. Studying the map, Monty decided what he was to do. He made the Kiwis the men who would deliver the primary, crushing blow, something he should have done in the first place. At 4:30 A.M., the New Zealand Corps was given new orders. The roles were now reversed: XXX Corps would be playing second fiddle to the New Zealanders. While Leese would distract the Axis in the front with three of his divisions, the Kiwis would receive reinforcements, not just in terms of more forces but also in terms of a new commander, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks.

The new plan went into effect at 3:30 on the afternoon of March 26 when bombers dropped their payloads on the Axis, whose positions were made easier targest courtesy of blue and red smoke shells the Royal Artillery fired. At four, the major bombardment commenced, and also by the that time, mother nature seemed to switch sympathies for a moment, sending in a sandstorm that made it hard for the defenders to see anything. Fifteen minutes later, it was the infantrymen's turn, the Maoris among them screaming as they rode the tanks.

A wounded Tommy shares a cigarette with a German prisoner during the Battle
of Mareth, March 1943.

Messe was not caught off guard by this attack. Even before Monty had changed his plans, the Luftwaffe had informed him of the Kiwis' movement, and, thanks to the breaking of the enigma code, the British were aware that their opponent was ready for them. To deal with this threat, Messe dispatched the 164th Division, followed by the 21st and- once it had eliminated the toehold at Zigzaou, of course- the 15th Panzer Divisions. Nevertheless, a successful night attack by the New Zealanders on March 21 presented a priceless opportunity to strike the enemy from behind, possibly destroying the First Italian Army and making the battle for the Mareth Line even more decisive than Alamein. But that was not to be; cautiousness and inaction took precedence.

The British were paying for this folly with their blood five days later, and it was tough fight. On one hill, there were so many German casualties that a British officer stated it was more he "had seen in a small area since the Somme in 1916." Gurkhas of the 4th Indian Division, "not unlike hounds finding the scent," sniffed out droves of victims. A retreating enemy was bombarded by stones thrown by Maoris who had run out of ammunition. The British gained four miles into the Tebaga Gap, the pass the attackers had go through to outflank the defenders, for there were no others in the forbidding Matmata Hills.

Fortune frowned the following day. Both sides raced for the road junction of El Hamma, the Germans getting their first, and only eleven German antitank guns, as "crudely effective as a dropped portcullis" in Atkinson's words, held up the advancing horde of His Majesty's troops for more than 24 hours three miles south of the junction. When they finally outflanked the Mareth Line, Messe had already withdrawn his forces and was heading toward Wadi Akarit to the north. The Battle of Mareth was over.

The battle could perhaps best be described as a qualified Allied victory, a victory that could have been more successful but was a success nonetheless. Eight Army suffered 4,000 casualties; the Axis, 7,000 prisoners, 75 percent of whom were German. "It was the most enjoyable battle I have ever fought," Monty would remember. Maybe so, but it could have been even more enjoyable.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Clash of the Ironclads 1862

There will be other battles, but no more such tests of seamanship and manhood as the battles of the past.
Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"The rumors were true" is what the sailors aboard the five Union ships guarding the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads, Virginia probably thought as the late U.S.S. Merrimack, now the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia, approached from Norfolk. First the Virginia went for the Cumberland, an already outdated vessel dating to the 1840s, ramming and sending her to a watery grave. Then, she went for the Congress, with an outcome exactly the same as the fate of the Cumberland: the Congress took a journey to the bottom. The Minnesota, Roanoke, and St. Lawrence were spared... for the time being, the Confederates hoped. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, March 8, 1862 would go down as the worst day in U.S. Naval History.

The Yankees, however, had their own trick up their sleeves: their own ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Arriving that night at Hampton Roads, she had not even been tested to see if her performance was satisfactory. In other words, she would have to prove her worth fighting the Virginia.

The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads by L. Prang & Co., 1886.
"We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota's boilers was being taken to shore for repairs," remembered a Virginia midshipman; but the "boiler" brought out a cannon and fired it. "You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see in a man," a Monitor crewmember recalled, "and there was surprise all over the Merrimac [the Yankees still referred to it by its original name]." It was March 9 now, and the titanic struggle clash of the ironclads had just begun.

Suffice it to say the battle was a draw, both beasts thrusting and parrying, the shots from one unable to penetrate the other's armor plating. While the Virginia had the most guns, the Monitor was more manuverable; hence, the Monitor circled round and round its opponent. At one point the Virginia ran aground, and with the Monitor moving in for the kill, many of the crew thought this was end of their vessel; fortunately for the Confederacy, it got out of its fix, although an officer aboard noted she was "as unwieldly as Noah's Ark" with engines hardly running. The Rebels and Yankees tried to ram their way to victory, but the attempts were failures. After two hours of this, the battle ended, both sides believing themselves the victor. The amount of casualties for the opposing sides were not and still have not been determined.

"This day saw the completion of a revolution in naval warfare begun a generation earlier by the application of steam power to warships." historian James M. McPherson notes. "Doomed were the graceful frigates and powerful line-of-battle ships with their towering masts and sturdy oak timbers." The first step towards the modern navies of the 21st Century had been taken.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inauguration

That was a sacred effort.
Frederick Douglass.

On March 4, 1865, right before the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner focused the lenses of his cumbersome camera on the president. As it would turn out, the picture would be the only one of Mr. Lincoln, his face blurred due to the primeval technology of the day, speaking to a crowd. However, what is arguably the most interesting part of the event is what Lincoln conveyed to his audience.

What Lincoln spoke to. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the audience had
"force sufficient to have struck terror into the hearts of Lee's army (had the umbrellas
been muskets)."

It just so happened that, as the president began one of those superb orations in the tradition of Cicero, the sun finally surmounted the barrier of the overcast sky. As a black naval mechanic by the name of Michael Shiner recalled in his diary later that day, "As soon as Mr. Lincoln came out the wind ceased blowing and the rain ceased raining and the Sun came out and it became clear as it could be and calm." It seemed that the president was divine, which was perfectly fitting for the theological rhetoric of his speech:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it -- all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war -- seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"

What Gardner took.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Among the crowd was the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When he entered the East Room of the White House during the inaugural reception that night, Mr. Lincoln, in a volume so "that all aroung could hear him," said, "Here comes my friend Douglass." "I am so glad to see you." Lincoln said as he shook Douglass' hand. "I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?"

"Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you."

"No, no, you must stop a little Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?"

"Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Enrollment Act of 1863

Three Hundred Dollars or Your Life
One of the many headlines in Democratic newspapers.

"In America conscription is unknown and men are induced to enlist by bounties." wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. "The notions and habits of the people... are so opposed to compulsory recruitment that I do not think it can ever be sanctioned by their laws." However, as the American Civil War took its toll on Northern manhood, Congress passed the Enrollment Act of 1863 on March 3 of that year. Many in the ranks of the Union Army felt that the new legislation would grant them a reprieve. As Edwin Weller of the 107th New York wrote his father later in the month, "We were all glad when we heard of the passage of the Conscript Law and only hope they will enforce it. Let a lot of those home guards, as we call them, come down here and go through what we have and they will not croak quite so much about the Army and why it does not do more." Unfortunately for Weller and Union troops of like mind, it did not work out that way.

In America conscription is unknown and men are induced to enlist by bounties. In the words of historian James McPherson, conscription was "a clumsy carrot and stick device to stimulate volunteering. The stick was the threat of being drafted and the carrot was a bounty for volunteering." McPherson also adds that the "half-billion dollars paid in bounties by the North represented something of a transfer of wealth from rich to poor." This change was helped by "bounty jumpers," men who enlist, obtain their money, desert, change their identity and go to somewhere else in the North, and then begin their enlistment anew. It became more organized than that; "bounty brokers" would get half of the bounty as payment for helping their client find the best place for him to volunteer. To many, the bounty was a better example of the Lincoln Administration's villainy than the Enrollment Act.

To ensure that law would be executed, Congress established the Provost Marshals Bureau, which would send provost marshals to all congressional districts. There, they would sign every male citizen or immigrant trying to become one, aged 20 to 45 years of age, and have them sign up for the draft. These potential soldiers were separated into two classes:

  • Class one- 20-25 year olds.
  • Class two- married men over 35.
Until virtually every member of the first class was in uniform, the second class would be drafted. That would hardly ever happened during the course of the war.

In the first draft of July 1863, 20 percent of the men who had registered, selected by lottery, were told to report for duty. For the subsequent drafts, each district was given a quota by the War Department. Fifty days were allotted to the districts to fulfill the demand for manpower by trying to get volunteers; if that did not succeed, then the lottery and draft would be used. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of conscription was essentially nil. Most draftees would either try to find a new home out West, in Canada, or away from any sort of civilization; learn that the quota had been met and have to return home; manage to persuade the authorities that they could not take up arms because they had to take care of a loved one; claim to aliens; pretend to be insane or have a disease; mutilated themselves; pay a commutation fee of $300; or hire a substitute.
An illustration in Harper's Weekly, 1863: Resumption of the draft - inside the Provost Marshal's office, Sixth District [New York City]- the wheel goes round. A blindfolded man is drawing the draftees' names.

It was the fee and the substitution that disappointed soldiers like Weller and would become one of the most sorriest chapters of the conflict.

Three hundred dollars is, of course, a lot of money today; but in the mid-19th Century it had even more value. Indeed, it was about yearly salary of an unskilled worker. Not surprisingly, it seemed to many that the poor were the ones who would have to fight while the rich would not. "We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More" became "We Are Coming Father Abraham, Three Hundred Dollars More." Yet that was not necessarily the case. With the help of cash given to them by the local governments, their bosses, and draft insurance organizations, many of the lower class were able to evade the draft. Nevertheless, Congress abolished commutation in July 1864.

But substitution, an evil that was not new to American history even then (it was used during the American Revolution as well as in the militia), was not. The substitutes were in their late teens or immigrants who had yet to try to become citizens, and they had agreed to become so due to the money they would receive. Once again, employers and localities came to the rescue of the working class by gathering sufficient finances for the hiring of a substitute.

Conscription only strengthened the Union army by 120,000 men, 76,000 of whom were substitutes while 46,000 were actual draftees, but it did hardly anything to contribute to Northern victory. The men who were the most responsible for winning the war were the men who had enlisted in those patriotic days of '61 and '62, those veterans whose experience caused them to be worthy opponents of the Rebels, at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and beyond.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jisaburo Ozawa

Ozawa was probably the most courageous officer in the Imperial Navy. He... interpreted Horatio Nelson in terms of the Samurai code and lived accordingly.
A First Mobile Fleet carrier captain.

Amidst all their setbacks, at Midway, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and, most recently, in the Marshalls, Japan was still determined to fight on against the American onslaught. On March 1, 1944, the First Mobile Fleet was created by Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa. Despite the name, there was never a second, and, as historian Barrett Tillman has written, "Apart from few other assets, Ozawa commanded a force ill prepared for a major engagement."

Vice Admiral Jisaburo "Gargoyle" Ozawa.
History is typically written by the victors, and the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, is no exception. In light of the failures Mars had bestowed upon him, first at the Philippine Sea, then at Leyte Gulf, Ozawa has been painted as one of those incompetent Japanese commanders who had far more tenacity than military ingenuity. Tall and, it was said, ugly ("Gargoyle" people called him), brains were one of the key characteristics he brought to the table.

If that was not enough, he brought considerable experience in the Imperial Japanese Navy as well as a knowledge of his American opponent. After graduating from the naval academy in 1909, Ozawa specialized in torpedoes and became a captain of several warships. In 1930, he visited the United States, seeing its might just as Yamamoto and Kuribayashi had. Seven years later, he became the Combined fleet chief of staff, a position he held to the following year. While World War II was just beginning in Europe, the innovative Ozawa was one of the leading proponents of uniting all the carriers under a single command, advice that Isoruku Yamammoto took and got the vast majority of the credit for. Then, in the eastern portion of the globe, war clouds started gathering.

With such a tense relationship between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan, Ozawa took command of the Southern Expeditionary Fleet, the conquerer (once war was declared, of course) of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. In the aftermath of the disaster at Midway, he replaced Vice Admiral Nagumo, and in that position and in reaction to the fast carrier task force of his enemy, he created the First Mobile Fleet.

Seven days after that fleet was born, Admiral Mineichi Koga, the commander of the Combined Fleet, (Yamammoto had died the previous year, one of the many casualties of the war) promulgated Operation Z, which envisioned that the ultimate battle between the American and Japanese naval forces would take place in New Guinea, the Palaus, and the Marianas. The road to the Battle of the Philippine Sea had begun... and the First Mobile Fleet's baptism of fire.