I posted this earlier on my blog, but XBrad elbowed me to cross-post over here too:
Recently I discovered Ray Harris’ The History of World War II Podcasts. Thought I’d mention his excellent work as there are a few readers out there who’s focus is in that direction… and a good number of us who really need to diversify our military history!
Ray’s approach is somewhat different than other podcast series on the subject. Instead of touching upon several different aspects of the war, he takes the listener through major events or campaigns providing both a macro- and micro-viewpoint. For example, over the span of six episodes Ray covers the Dunkirk evacuation. He addressed the rather sticky situation between allied Britain and France, the failures and successes in German high command, all the while detailing the daily operations in the port and on the beaches.
He devoted a full episode to the destruction of the French fleet in 1940. As I’ve mentioned before I am rather familiar with that topic, having written my thesis on Operation Catapult. I found Ray’s coverage well rounded and complete for the allotted time slot.
Currently he is working through the Battle of Britain. The last few episodes have covered the opening actions in that air-battle – three days at a time. Beyond just the standard trip through the Battle of Britain – Hurricanes, Spitfires, Me 109s, radar, Fighter Command, Goering, the Blitz, perhaps a bit about tactics, and then “the Few” – Ray’s approach walks us through the changes with strategy and tactics, all the while pinned against the backdrop of two nations at war. The listener is not lost in the weeds discussing the aircrews and aircraft, but not held too high aloof considering the national leaders making grand decisions.
Since we’re on an Engineer kick, we might as well talk about one of the more impressive feats of engineering during World War II.
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the defense of US possessions in the Pacific took priority. Among the many outposts of America that were to be defended, and late serve as a springboard for attacks on Japan, were installations in Alaska, then a territory of the US. There was no overland route to resupply our forces there. The only method of supply was via ship. This method was thought vulnerable to Japanese surface raiders and submarines, and further imposed requirements on the already strained shipping available. Accordingly, the US entered into an agreement to build a road from British Columbia, through the Yukon to Alaska.
Construction began in March of 1942 on a route that would stretch almost 1400 miles. Incredibly, by October of that same year.
Now, this wasn’t exactly a modern superhighway. It was in the vernacular of the day, a “pioneer road.” Most of the road was a simple dirt scraping through the forested wilderness. Many stream crossings were simple fords, or at best, expedient log bridges. Travel along the route would be possible for 2-1/2 ton 6×6 trucks, but your family car would be helplessly bogged down. Nevertheless, a road route was now available to support the buildup of forces in Alaska, as well as to support the transfer of airplanes to the Soviet Union for Lend-Lease.
As soon as the route itself was finished, improvements along the most troublesome parts of the route began, principally replacing fords with bridges and grading some of the worst steep spots. Gravel roadbed was laid along many stretches, particularly those areas that had been subject to permafrost, and other troublesome sections of road were replaced with “corduroy” road. Corduroy road is a roadbed of logs laid spanwise across the roadbed to support vehicles to prevent them from sinking into a quagmire of mud. It if from this bumpy surface texture that the pants take their name.
Under the agreement signed with Canada, immediately following the war, the road was transferred to Canada, and has been improved and paved almost continuously since then. It is still the only road route from America’s lower 48 to Alaska.
Demographics meant that the Army in World War II would draft large number of African Americans. Policy dictated that they would serve in roughly proportion to their population in the US, about 10 percent. Ergo, roughly 10 percent of the Army in WWII would be comprised of African Americans. But the policy of barring blacks from serving in combat units (with the exception of a relative handful of all black units) meant that supply and support services such as the Engineers would have disproportionately large numbers of black units. Again, the near ban on black combat units meant that divisional engineer combat battalions would be white, so those general service engineer regiments and separate battalions were often all black units. The majority of engineer general service regiments (EGSR) tasked with the construction of the Al-Can Highway were Negro units. Comprised mostly of unskilled laborers (due to poor literacy in the pre-war black population), they still managed to operate every bit as well as the all white EGSRs they served alongside.
So, we’ll be posting more historical stuff about the Army of World War II. Many of the terms readers are familiar with today didn’t exist back then. Remember, there wasn’t even a Department of Defense back then. There were two cabinet level Departments, the Department of the Navy, and the Department of War.
The War Department was of course the office of the Secretary of War, but it was also the office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, or CSA (which during the period we’ll be discussing was GEN George C. Marshall). The CSA in the days before the war was the senior officer of the Army, but he was outside the chain of command. The SecWar gave the orders directly to commanders in the field (though as a practical matter, he transmitted them via the CSA). The CSA wasn’t so much in charge of the troop units, but rather with the institutions of the Army, such as the various arms and services. The arms were the Coast Artillery, Field Artillery, Cavalry, and Infantry. These arms were established by law. Similarly, the various services such as the Quartermaster Corps, Signal Corps and Ordnance Corps were established by law. Each of these branches was led by a Major General, and ran that branch’s center and school. Each branch established its own training and doctrine, and developed its own equipment, and ran the school establishment that served as each branches repository of corporate knowledge. The CSA also ran The Army Staff, which was responsible for the personnel (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Plans and Training (G-3) and Supply (G-4) policy of the Army as a whole. The Army Staff likewise was outside the chain of command.
In an era when the wartime mission of the Army was seen as one of continental defense (or a single expeditionary force, such as in Mexico in 1917 or France in World War I), having the SecWar serve as the direct superior of the field forces wasn’t impractical. But Marshall and the staff foresaw that the coming world war would be different. The Army would likely have to fight in multiple theaters spread across the entire globe. Few Secretaries had the military background to effectively manage such a wide spanning endeavor.
Americans traditionally loathed the thought of a national general staff on the lines of the continental powers, preferring to keep a far greater degree of civilian control over the Army. But Congress finally recognized the need to centralize control of field forces under a uniformed commander in Washington. The Secretary would still be his superior, and responsible for overall policy and strategy. But the actual command would be vested in a general. But not just yet. A law was passed permitting the formation of General Headquarters, US Army. But the law restricted GHQ to plans and training until such time as the Army actually entered the war. Marshall was finally in the chain of command, sorta. In the interim, the Chief of Staff of GHQ, LTG Leslie McNair assumed responsibility for training of all troop units in the entire Army.
After Pearl Harbor, Marshall was determined to get a better grasp of the reins of the Army. He needed to reduce the influences of the branch chiefs, and cut back on the number of people that theoretically had the right to demand an audience form him. There was already the autonomous Army Air Forces, run by Hap Arnold, with its own Air Staff. Marshall in turn transformed GHQ into The Army Ground Forces, and simultaneously formed the Services of Supply (later renamed the Army Service Forces). This three legged stool was the stable platform that built the wartime Army.
Most of our posts that look at the Army in World War II will focus on the ground forces, and thus AGF.
AGF was what today would be called a “force provider.” That is, AGF didn’t command the troops in the field. Instead, it created, equipped, trained and prepared for deployment the troops that the various theater commanders would command in battle.
We’ll examine the creation and command of theaters of war later.
The T-34/85 was perhaps top on the list of medium tanks during World War II. With a diesel engine and 85mm gun, the T34/85 compared well against the contemporary American M4 Shermans. While the German Panther tanks could beat it one-on-one, the T34/85 were rolling out of the factory at a rate of 1,000 a month!
I liked the living historians (what we call reenactors in high-brow discussions) hanging on the side of the tank. Sort of conjured up thoughts of Kursk or Berlin.
But I bet the guy in white ended up with a hefty dry-cleaning bill.
Best remembered for World War II service, the T34/85 remained in service well beyond 1945. Like the M4 Sherman, the T34s saw action in Korea and in other places the Cold War ran hot. Several countries retained T34s right up to the lifting of the Iron Curtain.
The T34/85 running laps was one of two on display at the event.
The political officer ordered me to say that – Craig.
Second video from the American Wartime Museum open house.
This one captures a demo by reenactors depicting Marines encountering a bunker on patrol. The team demonstrated some of the weapons used during World War II in order to combat enemy bunkers. Mortars, small arms, a bazooka, a tank, then a flamethrower….
Craig here. XBrad opened the door (and threatened to push me through it) with regard to heavy howitzers noting the Republic of China use of what is basically the US M-1 240mm howitzer of World War II vintage. There’s a bit of irony finding those howitzers defending the shores of Taiwan. To appreciate such, let me discuss the background of those big old howitzers.
By the close of the American Civil War, heavy howitzers faded from the seacoast batteries of most nations. The United States retained a rather effective seacoast defense weapon known as the Columbiad which combined the ballistics of guns and howitzers. But most nations turned to higher velocity, direct fire rifled breechloading guns. Almost alone among major powers, the Americans produced several large-caliber mortars for coast defense.
During the “First War of the Twentieth Century,” the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Japanese laid siege to Port Aurthur (now in Manchuria, mainland China). Firing on the Russian far east stronghold were batteries of relatively new breech-loading rifled artillery, to include some of these big boys:
These large siege guns not only caused great damage to the Russian defenses, but also worked over ships in the port. The 28cm (11-inch) howitzers were products of the great German armaments manufacturer, Krupp. Designed for use in the defenses of Tokyo, the Japanese reallocated the howitzers when the Russian fleet ceased to be a threat after the battle of Tsushima. And these big howitzers did a job on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur.
European observers watched this development with great interest. In the years before World War I, all the great powers produced their own heavy siege howitzers. Although these could pull double duty as seacoast weapons, most of the continental powers looked for something to reduce the reinforced concrete fortifications on land. Of this “generation” of heavy guns Schneider, the French armaments manufacturer, produced a 280mm howitzer marketed for the Russians who were then re-arming. A few of these weapons ended up in French service during World War I.
When the US entered World War I, planners saw the need for a heavy howitzer to work over the German defenses on the western front. Furthermore, the Ordnance Department saw a need, beyond the wartime requirement, for a new heavy howitzer for mobile coast defense batteries. After some negotiation, the Army struck a deal with Schneider for license production of a 240mm version of their howitzer. Schneider built one example in France and shipped it to the US. And the French also sent engineers to the US to help start the production. Yet the project never picked up momentum. Only the original French gun was on hand at the time of the Armistice.
But with the mobile coast defense requirement in mind, the M1918 9.5-inch (240mm) howitzer project continued after the end of hostilities. Eventually a few rolled out of the factory. And only with a wink and a nod, we might call this “mobile.”
And I’ll start the unsubstantiated rumor the entire outfit was cleared for air-drop….
Only took six hours for the crew to set up this beast. And in action she looked intimidating.
The M1918 could throw a 346 pound shell over 17,000 yards. State of the art for that day. Only one problem… when the first M1918 went to the range for proofing, the cannon blew up! And follow-up corrections failed to resolve many of the gun’s problems. Only after a long gestation were 330 examples produced. Some of these guns went to Hawaii where concrete pads allowed wide traverse and coverage of potential enemy approaches.
But for the most part, the Army shunted these howitzers to the storage yards. I’m not certain, but don’t think any were even offered up as Lend-Lease in 1940.
With America’s entry into the next world war, clearly the M1918 was a dated design. So back to the drawing boards went the Ordnance Department. The main drawback to the M1918 was (duh!) mobility. In the inter-war period, experiments to match the M1918 to high-speed towed carriages and even self-propelled platforms failed. But lessons learned projected into a new design, as XBrad highlighted – the M1 240mm howitzer.
Regardless of what you downsize, big cannons are just… well big. The Army tried several different carriages, but finally settled on a two load arrangement. In the picture above the barrel, with recoil system, is on a six wheel trailer. A similar trailer transported the carriage. The concurrently developed M1 8-inch gun used the same carriage and transport. The M1 240mm howitzer weighed 64,700 pounds in action and fired a 360 pound shell to over 25,000 yards. The M1 8-inch gun weighed 69,300 pounds and pushed a 240 pound shell to 35,600 yards (with a 90 pound super charge).
These battery mates saw heavy action in the Anzio beachhead in 1944, firing counter-battery against the German railway guns.
These big guns followed the allied advance through Europe and also served in the Pacific.
But the “system” was not mobile enough for the desires of US planners. Once again, someone figured to put the big cannons on tracked carriers. Based on the M26 Pershing Medium (originally Heavy) tank chassis, the T92 240mm Howitzer Motor Carriage and the T93 8inch Gun Motor Carriage made an appearance in 1945. Despite orders for several hundred, and designation of “limited standard,” only a handful rolled out before the end of the war.
Even in the face of air power lessons-learned during World War II, the Army still figured super-heavy artillery had some place in 1946. In particular, the Ordnance Department considered the newest technology in regard to counter-battery, interdiction, and coast defense. After all, everyone was giddy about the “atom” in those days. So out came the T1 240mm Gun.
And not quite so happy with that caliber, the Army turned to the T71 280mm which eventually became the M65 280mm Atomic Cannon.
Or for those who like the ‘splodie fast forward to the 9 minute mark:
While the new carriages (based off some German heavy gun and railway carriages) were more mobile than the World War II types, the mushroom cloud effect sort of made that irrelevant. A few dozen of these entered service, but soon the Army turned to rockets and missiles that offered a little better range (well with the exception of that Davy Crockett thing). So by the 1960s the “big guns” of the field artillery were 8-inch howitzers and 175mm guns.
But consider the turn about here. The Armies and the cannons change, but from one century to another there are still those big howitzers placed to defend a Chinese coastline.
But because it was produced in small numbers, I really hadn’t seen any pictures or video of it before. So I went looking. And lo and behold, it turns out, there are still some M1s in use.
Taiwan (the Republic of China) has long faced the problem of defending the Taiwan Strait from potential invasion from mainland China. Especially vulnerable are several small islands in the strait that are within easy range of small landing craft. Kinmen (Quemoy) and Matsu Islands have been the scene of several artillery duels and much sabre-rattling over they years. And even today, the ROC uses several slightly modified 240mm M1s in purpose built seacoast positions as coast artillery.
The M1 itself is a rather conventional split trail carriage mount. The ROC has modified the mount to fit on a rail that can be moved into concrete bunkers to avoid counter-battery fire.
There’s a long history of using traditional field artillery pieces in the coast artillery role. The primary difference in employment is the method of fire-control. Coast artillery has the benefit of firing from pre-surveyed positions, but has the challenge of trying to hit rapidly moving and maneuvering targets. Attack aviation has rendered seacoast artillery obsolete. Mostly. There are still a handful of places where well trained, well equipped coast artillery can have a valuable role to play.
On this day, February 23, in 1945, at around 10:20 in the morning a group of Marines raised this flag…
… at the top of Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. Staff Sergeant Lewis Lowery, marine combat photographer, captured the marines moments later.
The team included Corporal Charles W. Lindberg, Platoon Sergeant Ernest I. Thomas Jr., Sergeant Henry O. “Hank” Hansen, Private Gene Marshall (sometimes disputed as Raymond Jacobs), and Private First Class James Michels.
That flag belonged to 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment. As the flag went up, everyone around and even off shore realized the significance – attaining the highest point on the bitterly contested island. Observing the flag, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal indicated the desire to secure the flag as a trophy. The commander of 2nd Battalion had other ideas in mind, and sent one of his men to secure a second flag, which could then be impressed as the Secretary’s trophy.
So later that day, another group of Marines unfurled this flag on the top of the mountain.
Capturing the moment, photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped this photo.
Six marines – Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon H. Block, Private First Class Franklin R. Sousley, Private First Class Ira H. Hayes, Private First Class Rene Gagon, and Pharmacist’s Mate John Bradley – appear in the photo and footage. Only three of which, Bradley, Gagon, and Hayes, survived the battle.
Of course the photos and film went on to become iconic, symbolizing the American spirit in the drive against the force of Imperial Japan and foretelling of the victory to come. The images stirred the last great War Bond drive to push the war effort to a successful conclusion. More so, the event became a fixture in American history, appearing in movies and print.
If you have not read “Flags of our Fathers” or watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. The story of the men before and after Iwo Jima is just as important as the actual event.
Over the years the background details of the story were debated and disputed. Some elements became more lore and legend. Some even charged the photograph and original film footage were staged. At times, the controversy behind the story became a convenient prop for those wishing to discount the significance of the event. And like any symbol of value, sometimes the image has been warped to other purposes.
But none of the dispute or re-direction takes away the fact that on this day in 1945, a group of Americans placed a flag up on a hostile mountain in the name of freedom.
I often find myself re-reading the better volumes in my library of military history, considering some works as “classics” in the genre. One of those I’m in the process of re-reading is Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald.
MacDonald wrote the book as a combat memoir of his service in the last eight months of the war in Europe. As such he covers at a small unit level three major phases in the American effort in northwest Europe – stalemate along the Siegfried Line, the Battle of the Bulge, and final drive in to Germany. When first arriving at the front, MacDonald commanded I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, in 2nd Infantry Division. After recovering from a wound suffered in the Battle of the Bulge, he took command of G Company in the same regiment. He wrote Company Commander shortly after World War II, as his first major publication.
The book appears on most professional development reading lists for good reason. What stands out in MacDonald’s writing is his evolution as a combat leader. Early in the book, he tells of his fears in a frank manner – shaking from fear, and being aware of that fear showing through in his voice. For his first operational mission he wrote, with emphasis, talking to himself:
Be calm. Be business-like. This is the same as maneuvers. Give some orders. Start things moving. you’re going to have a look at the German Army.
MacDonald took over a veteran company. In fact, veteran is actually an understatement, as the regiment had seen action from the Normandy Peninsula across France to the Siegfried Line. As a new company commander MacDonald sought to inspire confidence, but grappled with his own inexperience:
I must give these men confidence in me despite the fact that they know I’m inexperienced…. I must keep that confidence. I must! I must!
“Scared, Captain?” Sergeant Savage asked.
“A little,” I admitted. I took a long, slow drag on my cigarette.
“We all are,” Savage said. “We always are.”
In the first chapters of the book, MacDonald depicts the wearisome duty along the line. The narrative discusses day-to-day action defending a relatively inactive sector, with occasional enemy probes, artillery bombardments, or other harassing fires. Particularly well accounted are the relief operations as MacDonald’s company rotated into or out of the line.
MacDonald spends several pages recounting the confusion in the opening hours and days of the Battle of the Bulge. The 2nd Infantry Division maneuvered onto the northern shoulder of the German penetration on December 16-17, 1944. There, MacDonald’s company played a key role delaying the German advance, buying time for the division to secure a better position along Elsenborn Ridge. For those who have not read the book, I will not act the spoiler. But one of the men attached from the support company to MacDonald’s, Richard E. Cowan, received the Medal of Honor by holding his position against near impossible odds. MacDonald received the Silver Star for his own actions. But readers do not hear much of that. MacDonald proudly noted accolades from his regimental commander – “Nice work, Mac.”
A few days later, MacDonald received a wound to his leg. Not until March did he return to the regiment, and then reassigned to Company G. Arriving near the Remagen Bridge area, soon MacDonald led the company over the Rhine and back into action. The narrative continues through a series of offensive movements against crumbling German defenses; followed by non-tactical movements to other sectors; where the company again moves forward against weakened defenses. The combat actions stand out as interesting tactical vignettes on their own. MacDonald provides, again in rather frank language, the factors weighing on his decisions and his thought process.
MacDonald concludes the book describing the celebration on V-E Day in Czechoslovakia, accompanied by a young woman shouting “Dobri! Dobri!”
I suddenly realized that i could light a cigarette once again in the open and not be afraid of drawing enemy fire, and it did it. It was a simple thing, but it gave me a wonderful feeling that life was worth living again.
In my humble opinion, what makes Company Commander a classic is the narrative tightly focused at the company level. MacDonald rarely discusses the “big picture” and never plays up his role as more than an average company commander doing the job. He could have inserted pages upon pages of background information, explaining the strategic and operational settings. As the author or co-author of many histories (Many readers will recall Time for Trumpets, perhaps MacDonald’s best known work) of the campaigns in which he fought, MacDonald had the credentials to do so.
But he didn’t. Instead he provides one of the best combat memoirs of World War II. Nearly every page offers a quote worth remembering or some story to recall:
I called for a repeat of the barrage, and when battalion said “Roger,” I knew we had won.
On this day in 1944, a massive armada began landing US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel on the islands of Kwajalien Atoll, in the central Pacific Ocean. Allies used the code name “Flintlock” for the operation. Over the next seven days, the force dislodged, and for all practical purposes annihilated, the Japanese garrison and gained control of the world’s largest coral atoll. As result, the US drive across the Central Pacific gained another base, extending land-based air coverage out towards the next objective – the Marianas Islands.
A landing force mostly comprised of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division landed on Kwajalein Island (on the southeast tip of the atoll in the map above) with the objective of an airfield there. Meanwhile the 4th Marine Division landed on the large island concentration of Roi-Namur in the north to secure Japanese facilities, including another airfield, there. The somewhat seasoned 7th Infantry had seen prior service in the Aleutians, but was making its first landing in the warmer Central Pacific. Flintlock was the 4th Marine Division’s first landing (first of four within the next thirteen months!) Both groups committed just over 20,000 combat troops each. Defending the Atoll were about 8600 Japanese.
Initial landings on December 31 occupied lightly defended minor islands in the Atoll, to secure landing craft passages for the main landings and to provide firing positions for divisional artillery batteries. The main landings started on February 1. After some confusion with landing craft, the Marines secured the beaches at Roi Island and moved inland with deliberate speed. Remarkably within 27 hours the Marines had secured the major islands in the north, at the cost of 195 killed and 545 wounded.
Observers described the Army’s landings in the south as nearly flawless, among the best conducted in the entire Pacific War. Terrain constricted movement, and the 7th Division slugged through several pillbox defense complexes over the next few days. By February 4, save some mopping up, the island was in American hands. The Army division lost 177 killed and 1037 wounded. The two forces completed Flintlock with a few additional landings, but by February 8, garrison troops arrived to convert Kwajalein into a major new American base. Of the entire Japanese garrison (including some Korean laborers), only 265 surrendered.
The “lessons learned” from Operation Flintlock are many in number. But three deserve discussion here, as they pertain to military operations (and other endeavors) today as they did then.
First, prior to the operations, the Marines and Army troops practiced… and practiced… and practiced. The 7th Infantry setup mock Japanese bunker complexes on Oahu, Hawaii based on experience at Tarawa. These drills paid off during the landings, as the troops moved off the beach, and proceeded to reduce enemy defenses. Smart, directed training offered a substitute for experience in the Kwajalein landings.
Second, coming behind the long running campaign at Guadalcanal and the nearly disastrous battle of Tarawa, the US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps proved rather adaptable. Instead of differing doctrine changes to those back in the states, commanders and staff in the combat zone worked out new ways to work around enemy defenses. Naval ships moved closer inshore to provide gunfire support, and in heavier quantities than before. Aviation assets learned to provide pinpoint close air support. The services learned beachhead traffic management. Logisticians defined “combat loading” procedures. And the list goes on. In short, the Americans “learned” in the field and applied those lessons directly to the next action. This aspect of the “American way of war” continues to this day, with a force which time and time again proves adaptable to the situation.
Lastly, flying in the face of nearly two-hundred years of inter-service rivalry, the Army-Navy-Marine team worked as … well … a team! At Kwajalein, a Navy Admiral in charge of the operation brought a ground force under command of a Marine general which included a full Army Division (and then some). Flying long range cover for the entire operation were some fourteen squadrons from the Army Air Forces (gotta work in the USAF somehow here!). Flintlock was a true joint operation.
I would encourage those interested in this early “joint” operation to read the Army “Green Book” covering the campaign or Volume VII of naval historian S.E. Morrison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Marshall’s book, while important, is like many of his works – a labor to read!