The Battle off Samar

For two decades prior to World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy assumed any war in the Pacific would culminate in a decisive battle in the waters off the Philippines archipelago.

B0th navies built their fleets, their doctrine, their weapons, and their training around this assumption. And in late October, 1944, that battle was joined, the largest naval battle in history, The Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Spread over three days, and hundreds of thousands of square miles, it was a decisive defeat for the IJN. But on the 25th of October, one portion of the battle was very nearly a catastrophe for the US Navy, and only by the dint of extraordinary heroism and sacrifice was disaster averted.

In mid 1944, having consolidated the capture of the Marianas island chain, the Navy actually argued to bypass the Philippines, and instead invade Formosa.* But shipping and a shortage of available Army troops meant any invasion of Formosa would be delayed an unacceptable length of time. With the resources available, an invasion of the Philippines was practical. Further, GEN MacArthur strongly argued that the US had a moral obligation to fulfill his promise to return. The Philippine people, and all other Asian nations, he argued, would never forgive the US for a failure to attempt to liberate conquered peoples.

GEN MacArthur won the argument. The next objective in the Pacific would be his target. But President Roosevelt was loathe to place either MacArthur subordinate to ADM Nimitz, or ADM Nimitz under MacArthur. And so were sewn seeds of disunity of command.

Under Nimitz, VADM Halsey lead the Third Fleet in direct support of the invasion. But the actual invasion forces were under the US Seventh Fleet, which was under GEN MacArthur’s command.

The IJN plan to counter the invasion was, as so many of their plans, a complex one that divided the Japanese fleet into three forces, the Northern Force, the Center Force, and the Southern Force.

Northern Force was centered around the remnants of the Japanese carrier fleet. But the air wings of the fleet had been ground to a nub months earlier in the Great Marianas Turkey shoot, and so the force carried only a paltry 108 planes. It was, in actuality, a sacrificial decoy force, intended to draw Halsey and his stupendously powerful Fast Carrier Task Force away to the north.

The rest of the Japanese plan was for the Center force to pass north of Samar, and for the Southern Force to pass through the Surigao Strait, and for both to fall upon the lightly defended invasion forces at Leyte.

It didn’t turn out that way. The Center Force was attacked during the day of October 24th by Halsey’s carriers, and forced to turn back. The Southern Force, harassed by submarine and air attack was later annihilated in the Surigao Strait by waves of destroyer torpedo attacks and a masterful battleship and cruiser gun line in history’s last “Big Gun” naval battle.

The decisive victory had been won! Except, it hadn’t.

In the waters to the east of Samar, under the Seventh Fleet, three groups of small escort carriers were providing close air support to the troops ashore, and a Combat Air Patrol over the invasion fleet. Escort Carriers, known as CVE, were jokingly said to be Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable. Based on converted merchant hulls, they lacked many of the survivability measure of warships. Armed with a single 5”/38 gun on the stern, and with an airwing of about two dozen FM-2 Wildcat and TBM Avengers, they were well suited for their role supporting invasion forces.

Three groups of six CVEs were operated in support of the invasion, with the call sign “Taffy.” Taffy 3 was the northernmost group, under RADM Clifton A. F. Sprague.** In total, Taffy 3 had those six carriers, and an escort of three Destroyers (DD) and four Destroyer Escorts (DE).

At 0637 on October 25, 1944, a scout pilot from Taffy 3 was astonished to spot a massive Japanese force coming round Samar and headed right for Taffy 3. The Center Force, under ADM Kurita, turned back the day before, had countermarched and resumed its mission.  The thirteen fragile ships of Taffy 3 now faced a force of four battleships, six heavy cruisers armed with 8” guns, two light cruisers armed with 6” guns, and eleven destroyers.  Taffy 3 was doomed. No force could withstand such an onslaught.

Instantly, RADM Sprague made a series of decisions, every one of them correct. First, he called for help, especially from the other escort carrier groups. Second, he immediately turned away from the Center Force and ran as fast as his carriers could go. And third, he began launching every plane he could to throw at the Japanese. And fourth, he had his ships begin laying as much smoke as possible. While US ships used radar fire control, the Japanese fleet was still restricted to optical fire control.

An escort carrier had a maximum speed of about 18 knots. Every ship in the Japanese force was at least 10 knots faster, and many were twice as fast. Sooner or later, the Japanese would be able to run down the carriers.

The escorting destroyers and destroyer escorts place themselves between the carriers and the oncoming armada. USS Johnston, under the command of CDR Earnest Evans, immediately turned to make a torpedo attack on the Japanese. Soon the destroyer USS Hoel joined, and the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts as well. All three would soon be sunk with heavy loss of life. But the combined efforts of these three ships and the others of the escort, the furious air attacks by Taffy 3’s planes and those of the other escort groups staved off complete disaster.

In the end, ADM Kurita’s heavy cruisers first slowed, then sank the escort carrier USS Gambier Bay.

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An 8-inch salvo from either Japanese cruiser Tone or Chikuma straddles the burning U.S. escort carrier Gambier Bay on October 25, 1944 during the Battle off Samar. The Japanese cruiser can be faintly seen in the center right of the photograph.

But the storm of fire from the escorts and the American planes cost the Japanese three heavy cruisers sunk, and three badly damaged. ADM Kurita, with victory within his grasp, took counsel of his fears. He recalled his force and attempted to make good his escape.

In just over two hours,the Japanese had inflicted 1000 fatalities upon Taffy 3, and sunk four ships.

But as historian Samuel Elliott Morrison notes his history of the battle, ADM Kurita’s failure was a very minor tactical victory when he should have inflicted a major operational defeat upon the US Navy. The IJN in October 1944 was a spent force. The role of the Center Force was a suicide mission. Had he persisted, he could have further battered Taffy 3, and far more importantly, he could have fallen amongst the invasion forces and done unimaginable slaughter to them.

While Taffy 3 escaped annihilation at the hands of ADM Kurita’s Center Force, it’s ordeal that day was far from over. Possibly the most fear inducing weapon the Japanese fielded in the war made its debut an hour later. For the first time, the Kamikaze corps would dive their planes to their doom, and their targets were the thin decks of the carriers of Taffy three. USS Kalinin Bay would suffer ghastly damage, and the USS St. Lo***, already badly damaged by gunfire, would succumb to a Kamikaze.

In the dark days of the summer and autumn of 1942 during desperate fighting in the Solomons Islands, US Navy ships, equipment, doctrine, leadership and training were often overmatched by their Japanese counterparts. Two years later, under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable, young sailors, many who had never been to sea before a few months before, performed magnificently, a feat of gallantry and bravery that has few, if any, rivals in US Navy history.

Should you be interested in learning more of this battle, I strongly recommend Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer, and Samuel Elliot Morrison’s The Two Ocean War.

*Now known as Taiwan

**In an historical oddity, the southernmost group was under RADM Thomas Sprague, no relation to Clifton

***USS St. Lo was originally commissioned USS Midway, but that name was “clawed back” for the CVB class carrier CVB-41. Sailors say it is bad luck to rename a ship.

The PCs, the little workhorses of the ASW fleet.

The US Navy in the years between World War I and World War II never had much of a budget. What they did have was a lot of ships built during the crash programs for World War I. Much expense and effort went into building small escorts for the convoy system to defeat the German U-Boat blockade of England. Among the ships built were small 110’ wooden subchasers and crude mass production 200’ Eagle Boats.

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Much of the fruit of the massive shipbuilding program came too late to actually serve in World War I. Many of the ships saw only the most limited commissioned service before being laid up in reserve.

In the 1930s, as war clouds gathered over Europe, the US Navy looked at what it would need to provide convoy escort to England. And it quickly realized the fleet of laid up boats from World War I were not suitable for modern operations.

What was needed was a small, relatively inexpensive ship that could be mass produced by smaller yards that were more accustomed to building merchant ships or fishing vessel, and not require too many skilled workers to built. It should have decent endurance, sufficient size to carry a modern sonar, and enough weapons to successfully engage a U-Boat, either submerged or surfaced.

Such a small ship would also be useful in peacetime as a training ship for reservists and Midshipmen.

The Navy in the 1930s didn’t have enough money to buy a lot of ships, but they could afford to build a prototype or two. Eventually the Navy settled on a 173’ ship powered by diesel engines. Armed with two 3”/50 guns (or one 3”/50 and one single 40mm””), three to five 20mm guns, depth charges and the Mousetrap anti-sub rocket, the ships became known as the PC-461 class. Such modest warships, while commissioned vessels, rated only their hull number as their name.

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The PCs were not really open ocean escorts. Instead they were intended to protect coastal convoys. They were, however, capable of crossing oceans, provided they could be refueled underway.

By the time the US entered World War II in late 1941, the Royal Navy had for the most part come to grips with the worst of the U-Boat menace to the North Atlantic convoys. The Kreigsmarine suddenly had a whole new array of fat, easy targets to attack, namely US shipping along the eastern seaboard, and throughout the Caribbean Sea. The PC program was barely started, and not enough were on hand to provide escort for these coastwise convoys. As production ramped up, however, PCs and their little brothers, the newly built 110’ wooden SCs began to escort convoys from New York to the shores of Venezuela.  While few PCs actually sank U-Boats, they did drastically reduce losses of merchant shipping.

As even more became available, PCs and SCs began to deploy overseas to the Mediterranean theater and to the Pacific theater to serve as escorts for amphibious convoys, and for general service in support of naval operations in those theaters. The PCs were far too slow to serve alongside the dashing fast ships of the carrier task forces, but in virtually every invasion of the war, they stood by to render service. One popular use was as control craft to shepherd landing craft to their proper beaches during an assault. 

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In the Pacific theater, several were modified with a cut down superstructure to serve as barge busters interdicting Japanese landing craft supporting isolated garrisons.

The crews of the 362 PCs eventually built were virtually all reservists enlisted or conscripted for the duration of the war, both their officers and men. Many had never been to sea in any fashion before reporting aboard their tiny ships and placing them into commission. After commissioning, the raw crew would have the barest of work-ups at a training center, then sail off to war.

Indeed, some were pressed into active service even before their training had been  completed. And that brings us to this:

The Navy rejected reports 72 years ago that Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Claudius sank a German U-boat off the Louisiana coast during World War II. In fact, Officials criticized his depth-charging tactics and sent him to anti-submarine school so he could learn how to do it the right way.

It turns out the Navy — not Claudius — was off target.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert set the record straight Dec. 16, when they posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit with combat “V” to the patrol coastal skipper. His son, Herbert Gordon Claudius Jr., received the award on behalf of his father.

Wartime service aboard the smaller combatants was always tiring, usually uncomfortable,* and quite often dangerous. Many served in the most tedious roles, with little recognition from the media, the public, or even their own service. Their mission as escorts was overshadowed by the massive Destroyer Escort program that replaced the PC program. They were certainly not nearly as photogenic as a sprinting fleet destroyer, or a heavily gunned cruiser with a bone in its teeth. And nothing like the glamor of aviation was attached to them. And yet, at virtually every invasion, they were on hand to undertake any mission assigned.

 

*PCs had a reputation as lively sea boats, and tended to roll quite a bit. Regular Navy sailors were aghast at their rolling. But the crews that manned them were usually so green that they didn’t realize just how bad they were compared to other ships.

The Battle of the Bulge

Seventy years ago today, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany launched the Ardennes Counter-offensive. Germany, being pushed back to its borders on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, was on the ropes. The massive Soviet armies were poised to strike into the heart of Germany, while in the west, the Allies had only two major obstacles to overcome before reaching the industrial Ruhr and Saar.

Hitler still saw the Soviets as the greater threat (reasonably enough). He reasoned that if he could split the British and American allies, he could either buy enough time to shore up the Eastern Front, or conceivably bring the British and Americans to the peace table. A delusion, to be sure, but that was the vision that informed his thinking.

Even with massive numbers, the Allies in the West couldn’t be strong everywhere. And so, accepting an operational risk, the Allies, pausing before their next attacks, decided to hold the Ardennes forest with only the lightest screen of troops, mostly green units in need of some experience, and depleted units still reconstituting after the trials of the Huertgen forest and other battles.

In great secrecy, the Germans managed to build a massive force for the attack.  From north to south, the 6th Panzer Army, the 5th Panzer Army, and the 7th Army were to attack through the heavily forested Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, and swing north to capture the critical logistical port of Antwerp. Denied the flow of material through Antwerp, at best the Allies would be stalled until spring. At worst, they might suffer a political rift and seek a separate peace.

Armchair historians are fond of pointing out that the Allies should not have been surprised by the German choice of the point of attack. Indeed, the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940 to envelop the French and unhinge their defense.

And while the Allies did twig to a coming German counterattack, they guessed wrongly as to German intentions. The Allies best guess was that the Germans would launch a spoiling attack against the northern arm of the Allies, namely against Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, to forestall his next planned offensive.

But there were good reasons why the Allies were willing to accept risk in the Ardennes. First, it’s a forest. It has a very limited road network. It was poor terrain for a mechanized offensive, whether for the Allies heading east, or the Germans heading west. And while the Germans had been able to move fairly rapidly through the Ardennes in the spring of 1940, with fair weather, they faced atrocious weather conditions in the winter of 1944. The choice to attack in bad weather was deliberate, as Allied tactical airpower was grounded. But that also meant the road conditions were so bad that German forces, already relatively lacking in mobility, were even less capable of rapid movement.

And the Germans, who had recently expertly used forests as stout defenses, soon learned that American soldiers too could capitalize on them to hold up rapid movement.

And Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges and Patton, who had spent twenty years between the wars studying and planning a war of maneuver, realized the key concept of a penetration of lines. If you can hold the shoulders of a penetration, you can halt it. Any penetration that overextends itself without reducing the shoulders invites being cut off and destroyed. And the greater mobility of the Allied armies convinced them that they could respond to any attack fast enough to both reinforce the shoulders and to blunt the main thrust.

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There are many, many valid criticisms of the Allied response to the German attack. Poor communication, disunity in command, being caught off guard. The failure to actually cut off and destroy the Germans once the thrust had been halted.

But at the end of the offensive, the Germans never even reached the Meuse, let alone Antwerp. For all the massive efforts, all they had gained was some trees.

The Germans losses were particularly troublesome. They suffered about 100,0o0 casualties. And every casualty they suffered in the Ardennes was a man not available to man the Siegfried Line, a defense where they might have inflicted even greater losses on the Allies. As far as Bradley and Patton were concerned, the farther west they killed a German, the better.

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest battle of the war for the US Army, indeed in its history. Over 600,000 men fought the battle, and 19,000 were killed, with 47,0000 wounded, and another 23,000 missing or captured. Some of the most desperate, bitter fighting in history occurred at the Losheim Gap, Eisenborn Ridge, Bastogne, St. Vith, and scores of other sleepy villages.

An entire Green Book is devoted to the history of the Battle of the Bulge, and makes some of the most compelling reading of the history of the entire war. You can read it here online or download it as a pdf.

The courage and fortitude of the average American soldier in the battle shines honor upon the nation and the service. Seldom have such feats of arms been equaled.

World War II- Mobilization on an Industrial Scale- The Creation of a Division

From the Napoleonic Era through the end of WWII, the basic model of large scale land warfare was of the mobilization army. That is, a small professional army in peacetime would vastly expand in time of war by means of conscription of a major swath of the military aged male population. The standing army would provide the framework upon which to build new units, and the command structure of corps, armies and theater headquarters.

For most of this era, the regiment was the standard formation raised. Roughly 1000 men strong, and virtually all of it infantry, as little as a few weeks of drill would suffice as training before a conscription regiment was considered fit for duty.

But by the time of the beginning of World War II, the US Army had evolved its doctrine to embrace combined arms, especially the integration of infantry with artillery as a team. Further, advances in motorization, signals, and engineering, coupled with a shift to the division as a standing permanent formation, as well as being the primary tactical formation, meant that rather than simply raising regiments, the Army would focus on raising divisions, training them as a single unit, and once trained, deploying that entire division overseas to a theater commander as an integrated tactical unit.

First, let us take a quick look at the Army’s triangular infantry division. The division consisted of a headquarters, three Infantry regiments, a Division Artillery of roughly regimental size, and the Division troops, with such diverse units as the Engineer Combat Battalion, the Medical Battalion, the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, Quartermaster, Ordnance, and Signal companies, and a Military Police Platoon.

All total, the division would have a strength of just over 14,000 officers and men. And virtually the entirety of the divisions men would be draftees with absolutely no military experience. The division would have to train them both in the most basic of military skills, then for the specialty the Army intended for them at an individual level, and finally, once some semblance of individual skills had been imparted, begin training the component units as units.

A couple months before a division was activated, the head of Army Ground Forces, LTG Leslie McNair, would sit down with the head of Army personnel and pick the future Division Commander, the Assistant Division Commander, and the Division Artillery Commander; that is, the three general officers of a division, one Major General, and two Brigadier Generals. Those officers would be sent to a short course at the Army’s Command and General Staff School to be indoctrinated on the organization, training, and tactical employment of the division

Concurrently, a cadre of about 1300 officers and senior NCOs would be selected from an existing division to form the skeleton of the new division. For instance, the Division staff, the commanders of the various regiments and battalions, and key positions in their staffs would be named. This cadre would also undergo training in anticipation of the division’s activation, but with more an emphasis on how to train the draftees that would shortly come into their charge.

The great majority of divisions raised for the war were infantry divisions McNair’s AGF laid out a standard training schedule that divisions would follow. Lasting roughly one year, at the end of a crawl-walk-run approach to unit training, AGF would have produced a division that it could release for embarkation overseas to a theater commander.

The broad overview of the training schedule looked like this:

17 weeks of basic and advanced training
    13 weeks of unit training
    14 weeks of combined arms training and large-scale exercises
    8 weeks of final training

The first 17 weeks would be devoted to what today we would call Initial Entry Training. Rather than conducting basic training at another post and then joining the division, here the division bootstrapped its own basic training course, over about 8 weeks, and then conducted what amounted to Military Occupational Specialty training for the many, many different jobs in the division.

The 13 weeks of unit training would quickly build from the team to the battalion level. Examples might start small, such as the rifle squad in the defense, then quickly grow to an entire company live fire attack course.

Fourteen weeks of combined arms training was where the division’s regiments began integrating with the supporting divisional artillery battalions, forming the Infantry/Artillery team that was the heart of the division’s combat power. See also this link.

The final 8 weeks of training ideally saw the entire division maneuvering as a single unit, and exercised not just the combat troops, but also the logistical elements of the division. And of course, as larger and larger units maneuvered, the staffs and headquarters of those units became more familiar with how to best employ them.

The Chief of Staff of the Army, GEN George Marshall, was a great believer in large-scale, force on force maneuvers. During unit and combined arms training, the various companies, battalions and regiments of a division could square off against one another. Eventually, the division would conduct maneuvers against another division going through its own mobilization and training.

Having completed its year long training schedule, the division would continue training at various levels until such time as it was alerted for embarkation and deployment.

Two other major ingredients were needed for the division’s recipe. One was equipment. The other was a post, or cantonment for the troops to live and train on. Personnel turbulence would also have a major effect on a division’s ability to constitute itself and train for deployment.

The common perception today is the the US simply produced vast quantities of all the material needed for war. And to be sure, the US did pull off a miracle of manufacturing. But in the early stages of mobilization, the production of equipment was not yet vast enough to equip units as they were activated. Typically, as a division was planned for activation, the Quartermaster Corps would begin planning to issue all the thousands of different pieces of equipment a division would need, from uniforms to rifles, to trucks, artillery pieces, signal wire for field telephones and untold other numbers of items.

But as noted, rarely was the production of war material sufficient to fully equip a division. Usually, a division would be issued roughly half the equipment its tables of organization called for. That limited allocation would at least allow the division to begin training.

But while a partial allocation might be enough to begin training, it was usually only sufficient to train at the individual and small team level. A division however, is more than a collection of small teams. It was a carefully designed tactical formation, a weapon that was more than the sum of its parts. It was designed to be wielded as an entire formation, and as such, it needed to train at all levels, from the individual up through and including the entire division. But putting the entire division through its paces was clearly impossible without its full complement of equipment.

Of course, the division’s Quartermasters would attempt to draw the rest of the division’s equipment as training went along. The hope was that by the time regimental and divisional level training took place, the full allocation of equipment would be on hand.

It rarely worked so smoothly. First, even as the Army was struggling to mobilize divisions, industry was still struggling to ramp up production of military equipment. Worse, just about the time the fruits of that production star
ted to come forth, Lend Lease came upon the scene, and much of what the Army had planned for was suddenly diverted to Britain, Russia, China, and other Allied nations.

Even as divisions trained on what little equipment they had, changes were afoot. New models of equipment or entirely new types were introduced into service, meaning that a division would have to completely retrain on new equipment. One example is the basic rifle of the Army. M1 Garand production was slower than hoped, so prior to 1943, virtually all the divisions created trained throughout their mobilization with the M1903A3 Springfield rifle. Only when they were alerted for embarkation for overseas service would they receive M1 rifles.

The production of equipment and the mobilization of divisions did not often align, and neither did the mobilization of divisions, and the need for divisions to deploy. Early deployment of US forces, particularly before our entry into the war in December 1941, were usually regimental sized and limited to the Western Hemisphere for the defense of advance bases in places such as the Caribbean. Early campaigns such as the invasion of North Africa in Operation Torch employed divisions that hadn’t fully completed their training. Worse, not having the full complement of their equipment, they were forced to strip other divisions in training of what little equipment they’d managed to gather. That had a knock on effect of delaying the training of those units. It would be well into 1943 before a division could reasonably expect to have a complete divisional set of equipment for the final phases of its training.

Simply keeping people in the division during training was a struggle. One of the key concepts of the Army in WWII was that we would field a small overall number of divisions, but they would be kept at full strength through individual replacements once committed to combat operations.

But even before deployment, indeed, throughout training, a division would face a drain on its manpower. The cadre that first formed the core of a division had come from another division, further along in the training pipeline. Eventually, our division in training would be tasked to calve off 1100 or so of its most experienced officers and men to form the cadre of yet another division. This large-scale turnover in often key personnel was often a significant blow to the training of a division. And it wasn’t the only drain on manpower. Throughout the Army, volunteers were sought for special programs, such as Airborne training, special units, transfers to the Air Corps, and large numbers of the brightest enlisted men to attend Officer’s Candidate School (OCS). New draftees would be sent to bring the division back up to strength during its training, but the need to train those draftees at the individual level while simultaneously trying to train the units at higher levels was a challenge. Turnover of a quarter of a division’s personnel was not uncommon, and as much as half in some cases.

We will describe the challenges of providing a post and associated facilities for raising and training a wartime division in a later post.

In spite of the challenges facing a division commander when tasked to raise a division for service in World War II, the Army, and LTG McNair’s Army Ground Forces had devised a well thought out program that did allow the Army to raise and train divisions rapidly. Some divisions were better trained than others when deployed, but that was often more a matter of the talents of the commanders than of the training program devised. The division making process was successful enough that of the five US divisions committed to the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, arguably the single most important day of the war, three had never before been in combat.

Have a Coke and a Warbird

Someone in the FB group pointed me to Machine Age Chronicles which featured advertisements for Coca-Cola and pictures of combat aircraft used in World War 2.

During the Second World War Coca-Cola released a gallery of US warplane posters. They were all painted by the American artist William John Heaslip who was famous for his aviation related advertisements. The prints were 33cm x 38cm and probably spruced up the bedroom of many American boys.

I did a quick post on vintage aviation advertisements and one of those was indeed Mr Healys work.

Here are some of them:

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I’m hoping these bring back back some good memories for the readers.