Behind the Saxon Shield Wall


Both sides looked alike, this Saxon Housecarl would have had a circular shield.

Norman poet Robert Wace described what the Norman infantry would have seen as they toiled up the slopes of Senlac Hill to attack the shield wall at its crest: `The English stood firm on foot in close ranks, and carried themselves right boldly. Each man had his hauberk on, with his sword girt, and his shield at his neck. Great hatchets were also slung at their necks, which they expected to strike heavy blows’.

The English regarded the wary Norman approach with mixed feelings. Many were arrogantly confident. Barely three weeks before they had decimated the Viking ranks at Stamford Bridge. Some of the Housecarls were still showing flesh wounds, battered and bruised from the fight. They were weary. Harold’s core bodyguard had travelled 190 miles from London to York, fought a battle and rode 260 miles south again to Senlac Hill. Having fought one pitched battle and about to embark on another, they were physically and emotionally past their peak. Nevertheless, being at the top end of society, they had most to lose. The traditions espoused by the Anglo-Saxon vernacular poem The Battle of Maldon made much of the Housecarl’s duty not to leave the field, even if his lord had fallen. Like the Thegns and other freemen warriors fighting for the earls, they were a unique and close knit warrior society and would fight to the death to repel the invader.

Standing behind them in the ranks, two to three men back, were three or four files of the Anglo-Saxon Fyrd. These were the men from the southern shires who had already been called out before in late June to oppose an invasion that never came. They were disbanded on the 8th September to gather a late harvest. By the end of the month they heard the king was battling the Vikings with the northern Fyrd, but there had been little time to reflect. Twenty days after they were stood down they were immersed in a rush of strange raiders whose hair was half cropped at the back and sides. Their women were raped, families butchered, houses set alight and their livestock killed. They were fearful yet burned with hatred, standing with their betters, pounding their swords rhythmically against their shields sustained by the bellowing chorus of Uit! Uit Out! Out! Robert Wace called them `a great assemblage of villainaille, of men in everyday clothes’. Many wore leather caps with a mix of old helmets, some with tough hide coats to offer some protection against sword cuts. This was an emergency, freemen had also been called up with the general Fyrd to protect their threatened shire.

The smell of burned villages was in the air. It added to a sense of unease. During the preceding spring a fiery comet had been seen streaking across the sky, night after night. What did it mean? The harbinger of doom or momentous change? Death and destruction had already come in its wake. The Normans had also unfurled a Papal banner. Relics and the bones of the Saints meant a lot to these simple folk. Was God with the Normans? Maybe so, but many abbots and deacons were also fighting beneath Harold’s standard.

Wace captured the atmospheric tension permeating the English ranks as the Normans perceptibly increased their pace, closing the final few metres to the shield wall:

`The English were to be seen stirring to and fro, were going and coming; troops ranging themselves in order; some with their colour rising, others turning pale; some making ready their arms, others raising their shields; the brave man rousing himself to fight, the coward trembling at the approach of danger’.

Both sides did not run at each other. Despite the storm of missiles exchanged between the shield wall and approaching mass, the men on foot were wary and looking for a potential opening on the opposite side. As they locked weapons and grappled the Normans recoiled from the shield wall. The professional English warriors at the front looked for exposed peripheries, and lopped them off with axe or sword. Only elite Housecarls wielded the two-handed Danish battle-axe. At four to five feet long, the lengthy haft gave range and power to the swing. The Normans quickly appreciated that such a weapon differentiated the quality warrior.

He could just as easily hook the unwary from their feet or entangle a shield and brain the man with the iron-capped spike at the end as swiftly dismember him on reversing the blade when he was down. Small throwing axes were accurately hurled, spinning end over end into the enemy line at 50 yards. Their swift approach was difficult to discern amid the melee and almost impossible to parry.

The Saxon wall depended upon tight interlocking shields and emotional bonding for its integrity. Warriors had implicit trust that the man to his left would jab and thrust across his front to the right. Crashing up against it unbalanced Norman foot soldiers who became momentarily vulnerable to spear and sword jabs, coming over the top of the wall. Axe-men needed space, and would trade this in concert with an accompanying sword man. One step back created an enticing opening into which an unwary Norman might plunge only to be despatched by the backward swing of an axe or a vicious accompanying sword thrust. An accomplished axe-man could wield his finely balanced blade and haft in a two-handed figure of eight sequence for some time. Skilled warriors did not expend energy hacking and slashing, they employed economical pre-practiced fighting sequences, cannily deducing any weakness on the opposing side. Spearmen jabbed at face level, forcing their opponents to raise their shield which temporarily blind them to attack from another companion. Spear points jabbing in unison outside the shield wall were difficult to penetrate. The integrity of the shield wall was all-important. `They were so densely massed’ described Norman Chronicler William of Poitiers `that the men who were killed could hardly fall to the ground’.

The shield wall had never faced armoured horsemen before. Harold’s astute hill crest siting did much to compensate for their weight and height advantage. Even so, the ground trembled as the great Norman Destriers rode up. To their surprise and consternation the Norman knights ricocheted off the pliable barrier. All they could do was ride alongside and try to barge an opening while defending and jabbing lances and swords across the top of the shield wall. Horses might be felled by an axe or tripped by spear jabs, riders dragged off their horses and despatched by axe and sword or dragged inside to be dealt with by the Fyrd. Breaking ranks was fatal to the Saxon defender. When the Bretons broke on the Saxon right the Fyrd rushed after them and were cut down to a man by the Norman horse. Conroy raiding sweeps of groups of ten to twenty knights were irresistible in the open.

Medieval battles rarely lasted more than an hour or so. Too much was at risk in an era more used to the skirmish or quick raid to gamble all on a deliberate battle. Exhaustion and the deaths of key Saxon leaders took their toll. Harold had already lost two brothers, an irredeemable political and socio-economic loss, when he was allegedly hit in the eye by an arrow. Wace describes how `in his agony he drew the arrow and threw it away, breaking it in his hands; and the pain to his head was so great that he leaned upon his shield’. True or not, Harold was cut down and dismembered in a frenzied attack by a group of Northern knights. Whether William had received a resupply of arrows is not known. The English had left their archers in the north. Tired and totally immersed in the melee of close combat it was difficult to hold a crumbling shield wall with missiles raining down in depth.

Even as the defeated English army was cut down straggling away from the field, chased by the merciless Norman horse, they retained their innate aggression. Housecarls fought on despite having lost their lords. As dusk fell pursuing Norman knights tumbled into an unseen ravine, the Malfosse or `evil ditch’. Immediately the retreating Saxons rounded on them, slaughtering them in large numbers. The hard fought battle had been close-run. Defeat was, however, total. Saxon survivors would never again enjoy society as they knew it before 14th October 1066.

German aviation technology


Arado Ar 232 Tausendfüßler or “Millipede” cargo aircraft.


Flettner Fl 282 Kolibri. The Germans did wonders in aviation technology at those times. They also introduced the first assembly lined manufactured rotor helicopter in the battlefield. Initially the Kolibri (Hummingbird) was first used for reconnaissance and airlift purposes but soon converted to battlefield use as well

Even before the rise to power by the Nazis in the 1930s, German technology had earned a reputation for precedent-setting breakthroughs. Furthermore, among American air power theoreticians, Gen Billy Mitchell would ultimately gain a reputation for prescience that was at times startling. So, a vignette about Mitchell in Germany in 1922 sets the tone for what was to follow.

In February 1922, Mitchell and his assistant Alfred Verville visited Germany, where fellow American air power pioneer (and some-time Mitchell rival) Benjamin Foulois enjoyed status as a military attaché assigned to The Hague with observer taskings in Berlin. Foulois had gained the confidence of a number of World War I German aviators, including Hermann Göring. As an American observer in Germany, Foulois sent substantial documentation back to the United States, but to his chagrin, he believed it was not properly leveraged to gain an early appreciation of post-World War I Germany.

During Mitchell and Verville’s visit to Berlin, Verville later recounted, Mitchell launched a diatribe one morning against what he likened as automobile engines for aircraft. According to Verville, Mitchell posited that somewhere a German scientist was already working on a new powerplant for use in the next war possibly two decades hence. Mitchell challenged Foulois, with his German contacts, to produce that German scientist.

Foulois arranged a meeting with some Germans, one of whom was an assistant to Hermann Oberth. Oberth explored early notional rocket technologies. One of his later assistants was a young Wernher von Braun, who would later credit Oberth with setting von Braun’s famous career path in rocketry that culminated in the successful Apollo program for NASA.

At the 1922 meeting with Mitchell, the German assistant agreed that “automobile-style” aircraft engines would give way to as-yet unperfected turbines burning kerosene. Discussions and demonstrations next depicted future rocket engines that would burn a mixture of alcohol and something the Germans called “liquid air,” Verville related. He also noted the Germans envisioned a range of 400km and speeds upward of 3,000 mph. As Mitchell’s assistant, Verville was possessed of significant aeronautical acumen. According to accounts, Verville recalled how Mitchell was clearly affected by what the Germans had said and demonstrated, but this early meeting apparently did not have any effect on American policy at that point. Yet history proved Mitchell’s powers of prediction largely correct when it came to the development of better aircraft powerplants, strongly influenced by German explorations.

The emergence of a renewed German military aeronautical capability in the early 1930s was initially masked by various subterfuges, ranging from the location of training fields far to the east, away from casual observation, to the duplicitous use of aircraft that had dual transport and bombardment capabilities. As the decade advanced, Hitler’s emboldened regime revealed more about its nascent air force. In the United States, developments in Germany initially prompted varied reactions. It has been estimated that as many as 75 percent of Americans at one time preferred isolation and noninvolvement in European confrontations in the years leading up to 1941. If postwar tellings of American history tend to make it seem everyone was united in the nation’s posture toward war, such solidarity was achieved only at the expense of Pearl Harbor. An active voice in the pre-war American milieu said European wars were inevitable and interminable, and not the province of Americans. Revulsion at the still-remembered horrors of World War I trench warfare influenced American isolationism. Ironically, the American population was composed largely of European expatriates and their offspring; émigrés who showed, by their very removal to the United States, a willingness to turn their backs on their former homes across the Atlantic.

The isolationists, including some prominent members of Congress and the media, did what they could to blunt the clearly interventionist desires of the Roosevelt administration. The ebb and flow of isolationist support in the United States changed in response to world events as well as actions by the US government in the 1930s and through nearly all of 1941.

Yet even during times of ambivalence toward Europe, some Americans were early observers of German rearmament. A knowledgeable celebrity vector into the new Luftwaffe was provided by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh; he made several visits to Germany in the 1930s, where he was apparently given wide access to new aircraft and organizations.

Lindbergh had an ally for his German forays in the person of Truman Smith, who was assigned as American military attaché to Germany from August 1935 to April 1939. Smith arrived in the midst of world-shaping events. As an army officer, he had first spoken with Hitler as far back as 1922, when the future German leader had no real power. Now Smith had the opportunity to facilitate information gathering on the burgeoning Luftwaffe – information that could inform American defense policy. Smith’s faculties for intelligence gathering and analysis are described by historian Dr. Richard P. Hallion:

Generally, American military intelligence limped along in the interwar years. Most talented officers gravitated towards combat commands, and those that chose intelligence went overseas with little training and few resources. No consensus existed on collection protocols, attachés often just submitting questionnaires to foreign contacts. One notable exception to this general pattern was Maj (later Lt Col) Truman Smith, a gifted and experienced infantry officer who arrived in Berlin as Military Attaché in August 1935. Smith, who blended a military intellectual’s insight with a combat officer’s instincts, quickly realized he faced challenges requiring immediate resolution: his office was receiving contradictory inputs on the state of German aeronautics; and the office’s air intelligence effort was at best sporadic, too-focused on preparation of an annual report that had but limited value.

Col Smith later said in a sworn statement that, “it was my function while I was Military Attaché in Berlin from July 1935 to April 1939 to keep abreast of the strength, organization, and training standards of the German armed forces, to keep myself advised of all economic, political, and military activities and trends that might have a bearing upon German capabilities and intentions of waging war.” Smith went on to say his findings were mostly the result of his own observations while in the field with German troops, or visiting German airfields, military installations, and factories producing war materiel. While Smith acknowledged inputs from Germans as well as US State Department representatives, his sworn statement’s explanation did not mention one of his correspondents by name: Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh’s publicized visits to Germany, where he was ostensibly treated with the cordial courtesies extended to a celebrity, prompted the American aviator to offer observations on Germany to Smith, Gen “Hap” Arnold, and publicly. Lindbergh, outspokenly isolationist in his views, has been called the only person opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s pre-war interventionist ambitions who had the charisma and presence to match and even outmaneuver the savvy Roosevelt on some levels. Nor did Lindbergh’s pronouncements only concern isolationism; in 1934 he was critical of the Roosevelt administration’s actions in canceling air mail contracts, and it seems evident Roosevelt did not take this lightly or with pleasure, coming from one with Lindbergh’s credentials.

Official correspondence from Smith to Lindbergh sometimes merged collegial chattiness with official business. In one 1937 letter sent just after the completion of Smith’s important assessment of the Luftwaffe, Smith offers Lindbergh the use of the official attaché automobile to facilitate future travel in Germany. The letter also politely scolds Lindbergh for sending Smith “certain data” via mail instead of diplomatic pouch, where the security of such information was expected to be greater.

A major document arising from the Smith–Lindbergh collaborations is the “General Estimate as of Nov. 1, 1937” submitted by Truman Smith, reporting on evidence of German air activities. Its opening paragraph picturesquely sets the tone: “Germany is once more a world power in the air. Her air force and her air industry have emerged from the kindergarten stage. Full manhood will still not be reached for three years.” The rest of the document is a straightforward analysis of the state of German air rearmament as perceived by Smith, and influenced by Lindbergh. “The astounding growth of German air power from a zero level to its present status in a brief four years must be accounted one of the most important world events of our time. What it portends for Europe is something no-one today can foretell and must be left as a problem for future historians.”

Smith emphasizes several reasons for the growth of the German Air Force at that time, including:

[t]he military aptitude of the German people … The technical and scientific skill of the race … The vision of General Göring who from the start planned a fantastically large Air Force and Air Industry and who at the same time possessed the energy to convert his plans into reality … The unified direction and execution made possible by the dictatorial nature of the German Government … The wise realization of the German air authorities at the start of their rearmament that other nations, especially the United States, were far in advance of them, both in scientific knowledge and technical skill. This humbleness of spirit has been one of the chief strengths of Germany. The old adage that self-dissatisfaction is true strength has never been better exemplified than in the German air development from 1933 to 1937.

Truman Smith expressed amazement at the size of the German aircraft industry at that time. He cited 23 “known airplane concerns with their 46 identified plants, having a potential annual plane production of probably 6,000 planes.” He also acknowledged:

There is every reason to believe that the plants identified only give a part of the picture and that the truth, could it be known, would show a still higher potential production. The scale of the German airplane motor industry is no less impressive. It is ever and again the size of this industry, which forces the foreigner, – and even the American who is accustomed to think in big terms, – to pause, ponder and wonder as to the future.

Smith’s 1937 analysis was prescient as it remarked on German aeronautical technology growth:

Behind this industry stands a formidable group of air scientists, with large and well-equipped laboratories and test fields, constantly pushing forward the German scientific advance. This advance is remarkable. The fact that the United States still leads in its air science and manufacturing skill must not be allowed to overshadow the German achievements between 1933 and 1937 and above all, not to lead to an underestimate of what Germany will achieve in the future.

An intriguing give-and-take characterized American and German aeronautical advances from the 1920s through the immediate post-World War II era. Airfoil research and rationale emanating from Germany’s Göttingen laboratories set the cadence in the post-World War I (and pre-Nazi) era. In 1932 America’s National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, forerunner of NASA) acknowledged German precedents in the development of wing airfoils. Soon, NACA’s extensive catalog of varied airfoils with traits suitable for different types of aircraft would be seen as the standard, but it owed much to the pioneering efforts of German scientists at Göttingen. Meanwhile, German rocket scientists and enthusiasts were early to recognize the encouraging work of American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard. Immediately after World War II, important German theory in wing shapes would once again augment the developments of the postwar NACA in the United States. Dr. George Lewis, Director of Aeronautical Research for the NACA, was predicting in 1936 that Germany would steal the march on state-of-the-art aeronautics unless the United States stepped up its investment in research and infrastructure.

Smith’s November 1937 report about German air power was blunt in its characterization of some other nations friendly to the United States: “[B]ecause on November 1, 1937 the American technical level, which is but one phase of air power, has not been reached [by Germany], is no ground for the United States to adopt the British policy of smugness. If so, we shall be as doomed to the same position of air inferiority with respect to Germany, as France now finds herself in and which Great Britain just as certainly will find herself in tomorrow – unless she realizes promptly her own shortcomings.” Clearly, Smith was sounding an alarm about current and impending German aeronautical prowess.

Smith’s 1937 report offered observations about the intentional defensibility of the German aviation industry:

The German air industry has been strategically located and each factory has been designed on tactical principles. Factories are located as far back from the frontier as possible and the new factories, while many, are relatively small. The principle of factory design is that there may be many separate and small buildings, each with separate powerplant and bomb and gas-proof chambers. Each is designed to operate as a complete airplane factory in time of emergency. This lay out of industry, which gives it great defensive strength against hostile air attacks, must be reckoned an important element of German air industry and air power.

Interestingly, the postwar United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) noted that the German electric power system, “except for isolated raids, was never a target during the air war. An attack was extensively debated during the course of the war. It was not undertaken partly because it was believed that the German power grid was highly developed and that losses in one area could be compensated by switching power from another. This assumption, detailed investigation by the Survey had established, was incorrect.” The postwar surveys concluded that the German electric power situation was precarious from the beginning of hostilities, and only declined as the war unfolded. Evidence has not been located to suggest conclusively that the USAAF’s disinterest in attacking German electrical power emanated from Smith’s 1937 report, but the apparent divergence merely suggests even an observer as prescient as Truman Smith may have misread some of the signs, or possibly been misled by his German hosts.

In November 1937 Smith enumerated Germany’s frontline combat aircraft in production as the Heinkel He 111 twin-engined bomber, considered “heavy”; the Dornier Do 17 bomber that he classified as “light”; and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. They would all be encountered in the skies over England less than three years later. The collaboration of Smith, Lindbergh and Smith’s assistant, Maj Albert Vanaman, came up with a remarkably accurate assessment of Luftwaffe strength in November 1937:

The actual November 1st strength of the German Air Force is probably from 175 to 225 squadrons. If we take a mean between these figures of 200 squadrons, we find Germany to at present possess 1,800 first line planes in units, 600 first line planes in reserve units or a total of 2,400 planes.” In his research, historian Richard P. Hallion has confirmed the accuracy of these educated estimates, noting: “at that time the Luftwaffe had 213 squadrons and an approximate first-line air strength of 2,356 planes.”

The seminal November 1937 report characterized the skills of German aviators: “The level of flying ability reached by the German air power still leaves much to be desired, both by our standards and theirs also. While good potential pilots, the Germans must still be rated as unrefined. However, they have made great progress since 1933. The present flying of units would be better still were it not for the air force expansion.” But, the report’s authors cautioned, any current and momentary German personnel performance difficulties “must not be allowed to obscure the certainty that these deficiencies will gradually cease to exist. If any foreign country feels self-satisfied in the matter of the superiority of its training, it will receive a rude awakening in the not too distant future.”

The November 1937 report judged German air power mature enough “where it must be given serious consideration as a powerful opponent of any single nation.” Citing “qualified officers” who had recently inspected the air forces of Germany, as well as of Great Britain and France, the report was blunt in its assessments: “Technically, Germany has outdistanced France in practically all fields. Germany is on the whole superior to Great Britain in the quality of her planes, but is still slightly inferior to Great Britain in motors, but rapidly closing the gap.” British and French air force training levels were judged to be better than those in Germany in late 1937, but during that year Germany was seen to reduce the gap in training with those countries.

Citing “a highly competent observer, well acquainted with both American and German air developments,” Truman Smith’s November 1937 report predicted that if the “progress curves” of both German and American air developments over the previous two years were replicated in the following two years, “Germany should obtain technical parity with the USA by 1941 or 1942.” The report makes an ominous observation: “If, however, America makes a single blunder, or if some important incident, whether political or a conflict of views within the armed forces, should slow down her present development, German air superiority will be realized still sooner.” Smith was succinct in his summation: “In November 1937 it appears that the development of German air power is a European phenomenon of the first diplomatic importance. The upward movement is still gaining momentum.”

Smith’s seminal 1937 report qualifies some of its attached lists of German Air Force units, strengths, and factory locations with the notation that secrecy made it difficult to judge if all such tallies were complete and up to date. Of interest is a map showing that German aircraft motor construction plants tended to be located deep in Germany and somewhat concentrated. This situation appeared corroborated later as the war unfolded, causing the USAAF to make a conscious decision about delaying a campaign against German aero engine production until sufficient aircraft were on hand to permit safe and recurring long-range missions to that part of Germany to cripple motor production, as would be seen later.

If Truman Smith did not readily name Charles Lindbergh at the time the November 1937 report was drafted, it is interesting to note that in the 1950s, while writing about his air intelligence activities in Germany two decades earlier, Smith gave “special reference to the services of Col Charles A. Lindbergh.”

Lindbergh’s access to German airspace in the late 1930s seems, in hindsight, surprisingly unfettered, unless Germany’s intent was that the American aviator should see many Luftwaffe fields as he transited the country in his own aircraft. In late October 1937, Charles and Anne Lindbergh flew from Germany to their residence in England, affording the opportunity to overfly at least six Luftwaffe airfields, at which Lindbergh observed and reported to Truman Smith the presence of various fighters, trainers, and Do 17 bombers. Over the following year, Lindbergh lobbied a number of American policymakers as he continued to express concerns over the growing might of German air power. He indicated concerns that France could not effectively defend against a German attack, and he expressed some doubt about Great Britain’s abilities at defense, although he gave the country higher marks than France. He presumed Russian aircraft construction to be effective, yet inferior to the manufacturing abilities of the United States. All of which, he told Joseph P. Kennedy, the US ambassador to Great Britain, suggested a European war could damage all combatants and lay Europe open to the spread of communism. Lindbergh also urged USAAC Gen Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in November 1938 to visit Germany to learn firsthand how the Luftwaffe and industry were developing.

As Germany expanded its grip on portions of the European continent by the fall of 1940, the availability of raw materials for aircraft construction – mainly aluminum and steel – appeared assured with access to Hungarian bauxite resources and Silesian aluminum plants and coal deposits. This was reported by Truman Smith in September of that year as he once again endeavored to provide an updated forecast of German aviation growth in the coming year. Using the information available to him, Smith posited in September 1940 that Germany would produce a minimum of 42,000 aircraft of all types between September 1, 1940 and September 1, 1941. German records indicate the number was closer to 12,000 for that time period. But if Smith’s estimates were based on capacity, he could not have known for sure the political and strategic decisions that went into the actual construction effort for that period.

The intrigue of life for an American in Germany in the 1930s was embraced by Truman Smith. His proactive efforts to quantify German military growth and strength provided a basic guide that appears to have subsequently informed target priorities after the United States became embroiled in the European war. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the isolationist counsel that Smith’s newfound friend Charles Lindbergh gave to all who would listen came on December 11, 1941 when Hitler, only days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, removed all ambiguity by declaring war on the United States.

For his efforts at creating a picture of German rearmament, Col Truman Smith was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The citation for that award summarized his contributions:

As Military Attaché to Germany during the fateful period from August 1935 to March 1939, Col Smith accurately reported Nazi Germany’s rapidly growing military strength and intentions and greatly facilitated the efforts of the United States Army to keep abreast of German organization, tactics, and equipment. His reports stimulated action and were in a measure responsible for the manner in which the Army developed its plans to build up the military strength of this country. Upon the return of Col Smith to the United States his intimate and expert knowledge of the enemy was of importance to the formulation of Allied strategic plans.

If Germany and Japan won early victories in part due to their stunning, decisive offensives, the air of invincibility the Axis powers projected in 1942 was sobering, and in need of studied evaluation. By 1942, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had shown the Luftwaffe could be thwarted, yet the depth and breadth of the German Air Force was far from mapped by the Allies at this early stage of the war.

Widening cracks in the French Empire


Disintegration of the French Empire continued inexorably over three wartime stages. From the Phoney War, through Vichy dominance in 1940–2, to the Free French ascendency cemented by de Gaulle’s triumphal return to Paris on 25 August 1944, life remained very hard for colonial subjects. The three stages thus shared one point in common despite the fact that French political leadership differed in each one. Throughout the war years, economic hardship, typified by foodstuff shortages and chronic price inflation, matched social exclusion and political repression in bearing more heavily on colonial lives than the progress of allied campaigns or changes at the top of the colonial tree.

French North Africa is a case in point. Typically discussed in relation to the aftermath of French defeat in 1940 as well as in terms of the outcome of Operation Torch, the French-ruled Maghreb was convulsed by other pressures entirely. From the economic impact of conscription in autumn 1939 through the foodstuff crises and urban public health scares that sapped French capacity to overcome the material consequences of metropolitan defeat, French North Africa’s war looked very different to the local administrators and wider populations that lived through it. Viewed in this way, the war years were most notable for the irreversible damage they wrought to economic stability and the hierarchies of colonial rule in North Africa. By the time General Maxime Weygand took over as Algeria’s Governor-General on 17 July 1941 French North Africa’s economic fortunes had declined precipitately. Fuel and foodstuffs were in short supply, the agricultural economy was profoundly disrupted, and average wages languished at subsistence level.

For all that, economic crises and limited sovereignty proved no barrier to the embrace of Vichy’s ‘National Revolution’ by colonial regimes enthused by the Pétainist cults of xenophobic ultra-nationalism, stricter social hierarchies, and a rural nostalgia flavoured with Catholic pro-natalism. Peasant values, large families, and veneration of conservative, often anti-republican institutions—the Catholic Church and the military foremost among them—came naturally to settlers and authoritarian administrators. Thus we find Jean Decoux, another Admiral catapulted to political prominence as Vichy’s Governor of Indochina, promoting Pétainist youth movements in French Vietnam, celebrating the cult of Joan of Arc (Vichy’s preferred symbol of patriotic self-sacrifice), and lauding the ‘magnificent’ fecundity of a settler couple from Tonkin whose twelve children holidayed near the Governor’s Palace in the Vietnamese hill station of Dalat. The air of detachment from reality was hardly surprising when the realities in question were so alarming: the dual menace of a Japanese takeover and an incipient Vietnamese revolution impelled by French inability to satisfy the most basic needs of Indochina’s peoples—for security and food.

Across the French political divide, it is easier to see why the senior Gaullists in London were determined to exploit the colonies when one remembers how few cards they had to play with their British patrons. And the British mission to the Free French National Committee was more than an intermediary. Not only did it relay Gaullist economic requests for funds, supplies, shipping, and other transport to the War Cabinet, it also filtered out such demands when they conflicted with the overarching priorities of the Anglo-American supply boards that controlled the circulation of goods between allied and imperial territories.67

Furthermore, British officialdom’s enduring scepticism about de Gaulle and Free France as rulers of a revitalized French Empire was writ much larger across the Atlantic.68 In February 1942 Maurice Dejean, foreign affairs commissioner in the French National Committee, articulated a widely-held view among Gaullist staff about the underlying reason behind the Roosevelt administration’s enduring coolness towards Free France. The answer, Dejean insisted, lay in a secret US-Vichy deal whereby Marshal Pétain’s regime agreed to minimize strategic concessions to Germany provided that the United States left Vichy’s empire alone. US recognition of de Gaulle was allegedly withheld as part of the bargain. The simpler reason for Washington’s derision of Free France was that Roosevelt loathed de Gaulle, a man he considered pompous, autocratic, and selfish. But Dejean’s conspiracy theory was less outlandish than it seemed. Roosevelt’s special envoy, Robert Murphy, agreed with Admiral Darlan in March 1941 to trade US foodstuff convoys to Vichy for the promise (quickly broken) to limit collaboration with Germany, particularly in North Africa. Murphy’s talks marked the beginning of a longer-term association that climaxed in the so-called ‘Darlan deal’. It left Vichy’s former premier at the head of government in Algiers in return for the regime’s acquiescence in Operation Torch, the US takeover in Morocco and Algeria after only seventy-two hours of fighting in November 1942.

De Gaulle’s supporters were incandescent, although far from surprised. Adrien Tixier and Pierre Mendès France, later ministers in the post-war Fourth Republic, spent their war years in Washington trying to win support for the General. By mid 1942 both men were at the end of their tether. The Americans did not understand what Free France stood for, they were hopelessly naive about the Vichy regime, and Roosevelt simply followed his instincts most of the time.73 In late August, after the US State Department once again refused to recognize the Free French movement as the legitimate voice of France, Dejean let rip again:

American policy continues to be the result of several diverse factors: wild romanticism, brutal materialism, economic imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-British and anti-Russian tendencies, Machiavellianism and puerility, the whole lot combining into something Messianic and unconsciously sure of itself.

Excluded from Torch planning, de Gaulle was even more incensed by American support of his new rival for leadership of the Free French, General Henri Giraud, in the limited handover of power that followed Darlan’s assassination in Algiers on 24 December 1942. The mutual incomprehension that characterized the Roosevelt–de Gaulle relationship only deepened when they met for the first time at the inter-allied conference in Casablanca in January 1943. Side-lined during the summit, de Gaulle’s attitude went from frosty to glacial as he watched the Americans fete the rather wooden and politically obtuse Giraud. When de Gaulle eventually came face to face with Roosevelt, members of the President’s secret service detail hid behind the meeting-room curtains, their tommy guns poised.77 Hardly the beginning of a thaw.

Operation Torch also cast a spotlight on the changing economic balance of power in the Maghreb as the US invasion force moved rapidly eastwards. Its supply needs took precedence over all else and the Americans’ dollar purchasing power placed the French North African franc under strain. After Torch, the Algiers authorities quickly negotiated a provisional franc–dollar exchange rate with the US Treasury Department. This was, in turn, supplanted at the Casablanca conference by a stabilization accord that pegged the value of the franc throughout French Africa at fifty to the dollar. Although the greater price stability that resulted was welcome to North Africans, the Casablanca economic agreements did not curb the overweening power of a local black market in which dollars reigned supreme to the detriment of rural consumers least able to obtain them.

It was no coincidence that, during the 1943–4 hiatus of transfers of executive power between Vichy and Free French administrations, the founding statutes of leading nationalist groups, including Algeria’s Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté and Morocco’s Istiqlal (Independence) movement cited poverty and economic exploitation as justifications for their anti-colonial platforms. Likewise, Messali Hadj’s Parti du Peuple Algérien, still the major force in Algerian domestic politics despite being banned outright since 1939, insisted that any ideological differences between Vichy and Gaullist leaders were eclipsed by their shared colonialism, a phenomenon epitomized by ruthless wartime economic extraction. Whether Algeria’s foodstuffs, minerals, and other primary products were shipped to Marseilles and thence to Germany or to Allied ports, the essential fact was that Algerians, denied any democratic choice over participation in the war, went hungry. Messali received a fifteen-year sentence of forced labour from a Vichy military tribunal on 28 March 1941. So he might have been expected to welcome the advent of a Gaullist provisional government in Algiers, the French Committee of National Liberation (FCNL). The nomenclature was telling. As Messali asked FCNL members on 11 October 1943, why should Algerians support French liberation when their own national freedom was denied?

Meanwhile, to the east, US forces moved into Tunisia over the winter of 1942–3. Local sections of the country’s dominant nationalist group, Néo-Destour (the ‘new constitution’ party) had been denuded by police harassment and long prison terms. Hoping that the party leader Habib Bourguiba and his followers would repudiate their erstwhile French persecutors the German authorities freed the Néo-Destour executive in January 1943. They were disappointed. Bourguiba denounced the Nazi occupation of Tunisia, thinking that his bravery might be rewarded by de Gaulle’s followers. This, too, proved a vain hope. Repression of nationalist activity resumed once Rommel’s forces were evicted. During 1944 the Free French re-imposed the ban on Bourguiba’s party and ignored Tunisia’s status as a protectorate with its own monarchical administration by enacting legislation that centralized political power under French authority. This signalled the beginning of Bourguiba’s turn away from France towards the cultivation of Arab and US opinion, a strategy pursued until Tunisia achieved its independence in March 1956.

North Africa’s political violence in 1944 was gravest in Morocco. The ill-advised FCNL decision to arrest the four leaders of the Hizb el-Istiqlal, Morocco’s foremost nationalist voice, on 29 January provoked rioting in Rabat, Salé, and Fez, the death of at least forty protesters, and the arrest of over 1,800 more. As urban disorder became endemic in Morocco even the Algiers authorities admitted that supply problems, iniquitous rationing, and consequent shortages had become inseparable from nationalist dissent. Perhaps inevitably, the nature and scale of Maghribi recruitment to the First French Army, which was meanwhile fighting northwards through Italy, Corsica, and southern France, deepened the animosity between the Gaullist imperial establishment and their nationalist opponents. To the former, these units confirmed the unity of purpose between France and its North African subjects, although the army’s cadres were progressively ‘whitened’ the closer they got to the French capital. To the latter, the large numbers of North African army volunteers merely indicated how desperate they were for a steady income. And it was a different story for Algerian conscripts among whom desertion rates climbed towards twenty per cent by July 1943 with some 11,119 out of 56,455 avoiding the call-up over the preceding six months.

The Free French were hard-pressed to conceal the signs of unrest in their newly-consolidated African empire. But the breakdown of colonial authority went furthest in the Indochina federation. Admiral Decoux’s faltering pro-Vichy government was isolated and broke. It was also threatened from three sides. For General Tsuchihashi’s Japanese military administration the bureaucratic convenience of leaving a bankrupt colonial regime in place became questionable. For the regime’s internal opponents, many of them loosely connected in a Communist-dominated coalition called the Vietminh, the implosion of French colonial authority enhanced the prospects for a rapid seizure of power. Finally, for the Americans it made sense to work with Vietminh guerrillas, the sole group capable of mounting any serious local challenge to the Japanese.

None of these three alternatives appealed to de Gaulle’s supporters, of course. Without the resources to intervene independently in Indochina and unable to ‘turn’ Decoux’s government their way, de Gaulle’s provisional government newly installed in liberated Paris could do little. Observing the situation in Vietnam, the Gaullist military attaché in Nationalist China conceded that the Indochina Federation had become ‘a no man’s land’ for the major allied powers. None dared intervene decisively lest they antagonize one another or, far worse, trigger the Japanese takeover they all feared. It was the Vietnamese who seized the initiative. By December 1944 Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh’s leading strategic thinkers, had established the National Liberation Army of Vietnam, which operated from ‘free zones’ in the far north. Choosing to overlook the Vietminh’s ideological leanings, the US and British special services—the OSS and SOE—offered training and equipment for sabotage attacks on the Japanese.

Three months later the Japanese struck back. The American re-conquest of the Philippines in early 1945 had alerted Japan’s Supreme War Council to the possibility of similar US amphibious landings in Indochina. These might be supported, not just by the Vietminh but by Decoux’s government as well. Tokyo therefore presented the Governor with an ultimatum: place his administration and the French colonial garrison under Japanese command or face the consequences. Decoux’s ‘non’ spelt the end of French rule—albeit temporarily. Japanese units swept through Hanoi on the night of 9 March, killing scores of French bureaucrats and troops, and interning those unable to make a fighting retreat northwards to China. A puppet regime under Emperor Bao Dai was set up in Hue, Vietnam’s imperial capital. Parallel monarchical regimes were re-established in Laos and Cambodia, which reverted to its pre-colonial title of Kampuchea. All three promptly declared ‘independence’ from France under the approving gaze of General Tsuchihashi’s occupation forces. From taxation systems to school curricula, symbols of French colonial power were hastily removed. Kampuchea’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk even restored the Buddhist calendar and urged his subjects to abandon the use of Romanized script.

The limits to this independence soon became tragically apparent in northern Vietnam where the new authorities under Premier Tran Trong Kim could not prevent heightened Japanese requisitioning, which destabilized the local rice market. Chronic price inflation made food of any kind unaffordable for the poorest labourers and their families. Famine took hold. It was especially devastating in the Red River Delta and two densely-populated provinces of northern Annam. Village populations collapsed. Some locked their doors, resolved to die together as a family. Others became famine refugees begging on the streets of local towns and cities. One Hanoi resident described the scene: ‘Sounds of crying as at a funeral. Elderly twisted women, naked kids huddled against the wall or lying inside a mat, fathers and children prostrate along the road, corpses hunched up like foetuses, an arm thrust out as if to threaten’.

Starvation dominated North Vietnamese politics by early 1945. The faction fighting among the French colonial rulers was at best an irrelevance, at worst an act of shocking insensitivity. Not surprisingly, the combination of Japan’s military coup and the tragic shortcomings of its new surrogate authorities in Indochina enhanced the Vietminh’s legitimacy as a popular resistance movement. For the Western Allies, impatient to secure victory over Japan, as for Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians facing Japanese exactions and resultant food shortages, the Vietminh counted for more than the French as spring turned to summer 1945.

UOR – The Jackal


Supacat’s Jackal 2 in all its glory represents over 7 tons of armoured reconnaissance vehicle; note the vital V-shaped hull at the front designed to reflect mine or IED blasts away from the crew. Armoured plates on the sides also offer the occupants some protection from small arms. The ability of the Jackal 1 and 2 to tackle almost any terrain meant that the vehicle soon won favour with British troops serving in Afghanistan.

The Coyote Tactical Support Vehicle (TSV (Light)) is based on a 6x6 derivative of the Jackal.

Factory fresh, the Coyote is essentially a 6×6 derivative of the Jackal.


The American 6×6 Cougar mine-resistant infantry mobility vehicle. Depending on its configuration it is known as the Mastiff and the Wolfhound protected patrol vehicles in British army service. The British also used the 4×4 version dubbed the Ridgeback.

The Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) thrown up by the British army’s deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in the provision of a plethora of new military vehicles. Force protection became the primary focus for armoured vehicles, rather than the more traditional mechanised warfare role. While offensive battle groups still played their part, getting forces from A to B and conducting patrols unscathed in the face of a mounting IED threat became a greater priority. In total some 2,700 vehicles were supplied to the British army during the period November 2008 to April 2011 consisting of 18 different types.

UORs saw the successful provision of such force-protection vehicles as the Jackal, Mastiff and Ridgeback to the front line in Afghanistan, followed by the Panther and Springer. The Husky 4×4 and wolfhound 6×6 were part of the deliveries, while the tracked Viking was replaced by the newer armoured Singaporean Kinetics Warthog. Notable among them was the Jackal, which provided off-road mobility, firepower and armoured protection for reconnaissance and convoy security duties. This served to complement and support the British army’s fleet of Mastiff/wolfhound 6×6 (US Force Protection’s Cougar – British integration work was carried out in Coventry by NP Aerospace), the 6×6 Pinzgauer Vector (LPPV), Panther 4×4 command vehicle and the Husky 4×4.

The Ministry of Defence announced the purchase of 130 new weapons-mounted patrol vehicles in mid-2007 under an UOR for Iraq and Afghanistan. The Jackal I high-mobility weapons platform designed by Supacat and manufactured by Babcock/Devonport Management Ltd (DML) at their facility in Plymouth delivered a much-needed boost to the existing greatly maligned WMIK fleet (weapons Mounted installation Kit – initially installed on Land Rover Defenders), offering more firepower, a better range and crucially all-terrain mobility. The vehicle was fitted with a range of heavy firepower (including a .50 calibre machine gun or an automatic grenade launcher and a general purpose machine gun), as well as carrying a crew of four with their personal weapons.

Drawing on operational lessons, the £74 million follow-on order for about 110 state-of-the-art enhanced Jackal 2 and more than 70 Coyote Tactical Support Vehicles was awarded to Supacat in early 2009. The latter is based on a 6×6 derivative of the Jackal. Both vehicles were bought as part of the Ministry of Defence’s £700 million Protected Patrol Vehicles package. While Babcock secured the contract for the Jackal I, Supacat was the prime contractor for the Jackal 2. The company has a long history of supplying military vehicles, but is perhaps best known for the compact Supacat 6×6 All-Terrain Mobility Platform (ATMP). This is now in its third generation with over 200 currently in service with the world’s airborne and special forces.

In part thanks to the ATMP Supacat has made itself a leader in high-mobility transporter technology. Its first customers for its High Mobility Transport vehicles (HMT – known as the 4×4 Jackal and 6×6 Coyote in British service) were the world’s special forces. Operational requirements in Afghanistan soon meant that it filled a much wider capability gap. While Jackal I was essentially the HMT 4×4 with bolt-on armour and an armoured bathtub arrangement for the driver compartment providing protection against mine and IED blasts, Jackal 2 evolved increasingly into a true armoured vehicle with much of the armour as an integral part of the vehicle itself. Additional steel plating protects the passenger seats. The upgrade also saw engine enhancements that pushed its gross weight up to 7.6 tons. To ensure a 360-degree fire arc for the main armament the weapons cupola was raised.

Jackal 2, with its bigger engine, an extra body length of 14in and an extra crew seat, was a much better vehicle than its predecessor and was aimed at providing extra space for much-needed equipment. Speed was important in Afghanistan and with its 6.7 litre Cummins engine (replacing a 5.9 litre) and top speed of 80mph (130km/h) on roads and 55mph (90km/h) cross-country it ensured that it had a better chance of dealing with trouble at its own pace, quickly and effectively.

With the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) having assumed responsibility for security across the country in 2013 there was concern about what would be left behind. The British armed forces had 137 bases; in central Helmand by this stage there were just 13. In addition, British troop levels were reduced from 7,900 to 5,200 as Task Force Helmand slowly wound down. British Forces HQ in Afghanistan relocated from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion. Task Force Helmand had been based at Lashkar Gah since 2006 when Britain first increased its involvement.

There was speculation that many of the vehicles procured under UORs might be abandoned or gifted to the Afghan army. Many of them were acquired to meet particular operational conditions, not least to provide protection in the unending war against Taliban IEDs. This idea was not taken up by the Ministry of Defence and 99 per cent of vehicles were to be returned to Britain.

As a result, an £11 million site was established in Afghanistan to process equipment ready for its homeward journey. Vehicles such as the Coyote, Foxhound, Husky, Jackal, Mastiff and Panther all have to be bio-washed in a process that can take up to 24 hours. According to the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation, once this process was completed 2,700 vehicles were returned – 200 more than announced to Parliament. In early 2013 Lord Astor told the House of Commons that the Ministry of Defence was seeking to recover around £4 billion of inventory, the equivalent of 6,500 20ft containers and about 2,500 vehicles. On top of this, 400 tonnes of brass cartridge cases and 100 pallets of ammunition were retrieved. Likewise, 300 tonnes of lithium batteries were salvaged.

Constant instability in neighbouring Pakistan meant that the Ministry of Defence could not rely on the southern transit route to Karachi and the Arabian Sea, so sought to secure a northern line of communication through the Central Asian republics and Russia. After much horse-trading, which involved gifting surplus British equipment, three transit agreements were reached with Uzbekistan. These allowed the movement of non-warlike stores and motorised armoured vehicles by rail as well as the movement of war-like stores and personnel by air in return Uzbekistan got surplus Leyland DAF trucks and Land Rover spares after it was decided they were unlikely to be used for human-rights violations or internal repression.

Despite all this activity, Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan’s security continued. In October 2013 7th Armoured Brigade assumed responsibility for Task Force Helmand under Operation Herrick 19.

British Military Vehicle Deliveries

90 CVR(T), Coyote and Springer August 2009

119 Husky, Mastiff, Jackal and Vixen September 2009

8I CVR(T), Husky and Jackal October 2009

66 Jackal, Ridgeback and Vixen November 2009

105 Jackal, Wolfhound and Vixen December 2009

222 Jackal, WMIK and Wolfhound January 2010

260 Husky, Jackal, Mastiff, Wolfhound and Vixen February 2010

Posted in AFV

Afghanistan – NATO Takes Charge


A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter takes off from FOB Bostick in eastern Afghanistan’s Naray district .


A local gives this 45 Commando WMIK Land Rover Defender a cautious wave. Although unarmoured, these vehicles were able to lay down a heavy rate of fire and were actually liked by their crews as they offered 360-degree visibility. Many men were not so keen on being battened down inside the later range of armoured vehicles that were deployed to Afghanistan.

Mopping up operations continued well into the New Year, with the Coalition determined not to repeat the mistakes of the battle for Tora Bora. The next area to be subject to a search-and-destroy mission was the Sha-i-Kot Valley (also the scene of heavy fighting against the Soviet army in 1987).

Local defenders, while expecting renewed attacks from the Coalition, did not anticipate it happening so soon. In late February 2002 their strongholds were softened up by fighter-bombers, using 3,500 precision guided munitions, B-52H bombers dropping over 250 bombs and Hercules gunships spraying the area with gunfire.

On 2 March 2002, Operation Anaconda launched 1,200 American troops and 1,000 new Afghan government troops under General Zia Lodin against the Shah-i-Kot Valley, supported by an armada of warplanes. The key to the operation was to prevent al-Qaeda forces from fleeing into Pakistan, so heliborne assault troops were used to block the escape routes. However, Anaconda stirred up a hornet’s nest. The column pushing up the valley road came under intense rocket and mortar fire and stalled, while one of the heliborne forces was accidentally landed in the midst of al-Qaeda defensive positions and suffered twenty-eight wounded. Air power proved crucial in helping clear the valley, though a further 1,000 Afghan government soldiers with armoured personnel carriers and tanks had to be called in. Few al-Qaeda dead were found and the enemy was either buried under the mountains or once again escaped.

Following Tora Bora and Anaconda, the American special forces conducted Operation Full Throttle on 14 June 2002, in the foothills of the Spin Ghar Mountains. This was in response to the Taliban regrouping north of Kandahar. Although Mullah Omar and bin Laden had gone to ground, these forces were thought to be under Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani and Mullah Barader. In particular, Osmani – formerly the Taliban’s 2nd Corps commander – had assumed the role of acting Taliban military chief in November 2001. Full Throttle was followed by Operation Anvil, which succeeded in capturing Osmani, but he subsequently escaped to Pakistan.

NATO assumed control of ISAF in 2003 and expanded its area of responsibility from Kabul to encompass the country’s southern and eastern provinces three years later. This meant bringing the 12,000 American and other Coalition forces in the region under NATO control. It gave ISAF responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan, with around 40,000 troops. The upshot of this was greater integration in the south with the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom. However, the two operations continued to be directed separately, the rationale being that ISAF had a stabilisation and security mission, while OEF was overtly counter-terrorism.

While numerous countries provided contingents for peacekeeping in Afghanistan, the only notable numbers beyond Britain and the US were from Germany, Canada and the Netherlands. By early 2009 there were 56,420 foreign troops in Afghanistan of which 24,900 were American and 8,300 were British. The ANA totalled 79,300, though the Afghan government and UN agreed in 2008 to boost the ANA to 122,000 troops by 2011. It would eventually grow to 350,000.

The HQ of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, under British direction, took control of ISAF in May 2006 for a nine-month period. This coincided with ISAF’s move south and the arrival of additional British troops in Helmand province for three years. Taliban activities soon made it clear that British numbers and equipment were insufficient to contain the threat. This forced the British Ministry of Defence hurriedly to procure more armoured vehicles for deployment in Afghanistan during the first half of 2007.

The British public really woke up to the country’s involvement when the 3 Para Battle Group deployed to Helmand province to help the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) with security and stability in 2006. Sending just 3,000 men, of whom only a third were fighters supported by just six heavy lift helicopters, seemed over optimistic at best. This force would eventually expand threefold.

At the behest of the regional governor 3 Para found itself divided up into penny packets to bolster the wholly ineffective Afghan National Police and the ANA. The British platoon houses acted like honey pots attracting Taliban from around the province. The civilian PRT members were redundant in the face of an escalating ground war. Nevertheless, in Helmand and elsewhere bravery and tenacity coupled with superior NATO firepower soon persuaded the Taliban that they could not win a stand-up fight. Instead, they began to wage a brutal and effective improvised Explosive Device (IED) campaign.

NATO-led ISAF was almost completely reliant on the goodwill and cooperation of neighbouring Pakistan. Around 75 per cent of all non-lethal supplies required by the 130,000 ISAF troops came via the Pakistani port of Karachi and were then trucked north. For this road traffic there were essentially just two key crossing points over the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

NATO-ISAF supply routes were highly vulnerable, a fact not missed by the Taliban. Convoys had little or no security and the Pakistani Police claimed that it was impossible for them to provide 24-hour protection. As a result, NATO civilian supply lorries were regularly targeted in Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and the southern province of Baluchistan from the summer of 2008 onwards. In the border areas the Taliban regularly hijacked lorries, kidnapped the drivers and stole their cargos. In the Khyber tribal region militants wrecked or seized numerous NATO transport vehicles.

American troops took considerable steps to secure Afghanistan’s Kunar province to the north of the Khyber Pass. This was in response to insurgents filtering through the Pech and Kunar valleys towards Kabul. American Marine, Mountain and Airborne units established a string of bases in the Pech, Waygal, Shuryak, Chowkay and Korengal valleys. There were rumours that elements of the 9/11 attacks were planned in the Korengal. Similarly, there were rumours that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri used this route regularly to transit in and out of Pakistan. It was far easier to cut off ISAF’s supply routes through Pakistan than to cut off the insurgents.

NATO and the US were highly critical of the Pakistani army’s reluctance to tackle militants in North Waziristan following operations in South Waziristan. For some time both the US and NATO were demanding that Pakistan assert full control of all the tribal areas along the volatile Afghan border. It was here that foreign jihadists were trained to fight for al-Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. In addition, North Waziristan provided sanctuary for militants conducting attacks right across Pakistan.

The Pakistani government came under increasing pressure from Washington to crack down on the unrest and lawlessness that was blighting supply convoys in the border regions. The different Pakistani militant groups, including the Taliban, had the ability to strike with seeming ease. Pakistan was like a powder keg, forever just one step from a spark that would blow the whole thing to pieces. The country was caught between a rock and a hard place. Its foreign allies and partners were constantly exhorting it to greater efforts in the war on terror both at home and abroad. Internally, its competing religious and political groups were constantly straining the very fabric of the beleaguered state.

In the meantime, the US and NATO were making rods for their own backs. The Taliban, normally largely dormant during the winter, escalated their campaign largely in response to US special forces conducting operations throughout the winter months against its leadership and logistical routes. In addition, missiles fired from US drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (principally the aptly named Reaper) regularly killed Afghan and Pakistani Taliban inside Pakistan. This created an anti-American backlash and culminated with tribal leaders in North Waziristan vowing revenge on the US.

In southern Pakistan the road runs from the city of Quetta to Chaman through the Khojak Pass and across the border up to Kanadahar, which sits astride Afghanistan’s great ring road. To the north the road runs from Islamabad through Peshawar to the Khyber Pass and over the border to Jalalabad and on to Kabul. Militants were able to cross the border via the innumerable mountain footpaths, many of which were developed during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Taliban claimed they set up a special unit to target ISAF supply convoys inside Pakistan and that this strategy would not cease until the supply routes had been completely cut. The Taliban scored a notable propaganda coup when they filmed themselves with seized American Humvee motor vehicles in November 2008, which had been destined for American forces across the border in Afghanistan.

ISAF claimed its operations remained unaffected by the destruction of these vital supply convoys, but behind the scenes it was seeking alternatives in order to reduce its reliance on ever-unstable Pakistan. Clearly, ISAF could not sit idly by while the Taliban strangled it. However, the only real alternative was that supplies were brought into northern Afghanistan via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This was not a viable option, as all supplies first had to be flown in to intermediate countries rather than be shipped by sea.

In June 2010 around a dozen militants walked into a vehicle depot just 6 miles outside islamabad and shot up twenty lorries setting them on fire. The attackers quickly escaped in two cars and on motorbikes, leaving behind millions of dollars worth of destruction and seven dead and four wounded. Alarmed at the complete lack of security, local truckers closed the grand trunk road between Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar before the police managed to move them on. The Pakistani government refused to step up security despite the Taliban publicly acknowledging they were targeting the trucks and tankers. It was also alleged that Pakistan’s intelligence and security forces were deliberately looking the other way to encourage the attacks to punish NATO for the border violations and American drone attacks.

Battle of Dennewitz, (6 September 1813)

SNM128732 The Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813, 1842 (oil on canvas) by Wetterling, Alexander (1796-1858) oil on canvas 156x233 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Swedish, out of copyright

SNM128732 The Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813, 1842 (oil on canvas) by Wetterling, Alexander (1796-1858)
oil on canvas
© Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
Swedish, out of copyright

The Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813 – Alexander Wetterling


The Battle of Dennewitz, fought during the 1813 campaign in Germany, took place just south of Berlin, between the (French) Army of Berlin, under Marshal Michel Ney, and the (Allied) Army of the North, under the Crown Prince of Sweden, formerly one of Napoleon’s marshals, Jean-Baptiste- Jules Bernadotte. It was Napoleon’s second attempt to seize Berlin during this campaign and was as unsuccessful as Marshal Nicolas Oudinot’s first attempt, which ended at the Battle of Grossbeeren.

The Army of Berlin consisted of IV (under General Henri-Gatien Bertrand), VII (under General Jean Reynier), XII (Oudinot) Corps, and the III Cavalry Corps (under General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi de Casanova), about 58,000 men with 199 guns. The Army of the North consisted of III (Friedrich Graf Bülow) and IV (Friedrich Bogislav Graf Tauentzien) Prussian Army Corps, General Ferdinand Winzegorode’s Russian corps, and Baron Stedingk’s Swedish corps, around 120,000 men. Of these, around 43,000 Prussians were involved in the battle, although reinforcements were close to hand, some of which were committed at the end of the battle.

The terrain consisted mainly of open fields covering gently undulating hills with some small woods. The banks of the Ahe brook that ran through both Dennewitz and Jüterbog were marshy and could only be crossed at the bridges at Dennewitz, Rohrbeck, and Jüterbog.

On 5 September, Ney’s army commenced its march on Berlin, moving toward Zahna and Jüterbog. Oudinot made contact with the Allied outposts almost immediately and brushed them aside. Tauentzien fell back to Jüterbog. Receiving news of the French movement, Bülow marched off to support Tauentzien.

The next morning Bertrand clashed with Tauentzien’s shaky militia at Dennewitz, gaining the crossing there. The Prussian militia delayed Bertrand long enough for Bülow to arrive. Tauentzien’s cavalry covered the withdrawal of his infantry.

That afternoon, Bülow engaged Bertrand, who had now crossed the Ahe and deployed, and Reynier, who had drawn up to the south of the brook. Attack was followed by counterattack in what constituted some of the bitterest fighting of the fall campaign. Charles Antoine Morand’s artillery of Bertrand’s corps threw back the first Prussian assault made by General Heinrich von Thümen’s brigade. A brigade under Ludwig, Prince of Hessen-Homburg then forced Morand to retire. Reynier’s Saxons then came into action along a line from Göhlsdorf to Dennewitz.

Knowing that the Swedes and Russians were moving to assist him, Bülow decided to make a further determined effort before any more French reinforcements arrived, sending in General Karl von Borstell’s brigade. He captured Göhlsdorf, but could not make any further headway against Reynier.

About 3:30 P. M., Oudinot arrived. He immediately attacked Göhlsdorf and recaptured it. Bülow’s men were exhausted, the reinforcements were still some way off, and his artillery failed to silence Ney’s. Victory was at hand when Ney ordered Oudinot from his left to his right, which Oudinot did despite remonstrations from Reynier. This gave Bülow the opportunity to counterattack and regain Göhlsdorf. The Prussian assaults on Bertrand ended when they ran out of ammunition, but just after 5:00 P. M. fresh Russian artillery broke him with salvos of canister fire. Finally, Russian and Swedish troops then threw back Reynier. Ney’s army was devastated, losing 22,000 men, 53 guns, 412 wagons, and four standards. The Prussians lost around 10,000 men.

Order of battle Allies

3 Korps: Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow 3rd Bde: Hesse-Homburg: 2nd E Prus Grenadier battalion, 3rd E Prus IR, 4th Res IR, 3rd E Prus LW IR, 1st Hussars. 4th Bde: Thuemen: 4th E Prus IR, 5th Res IR, Elbe IR, E Prus Jaegers, Pommern Kurassers. 5th Bde: Borstell: 1st Pommern IR, Pommern Gren bn, 2nd Res IR, 2nd Mark LW IR, Pommern Hussars. 6th Bde: Krafft: Kolberg IR, 9th Res IR, 1st Mark LW IR, 1st Pommern LW Cavalry. Cavalry Reserve: Oppen Bde. Treskow: Brandenburg Dragoons, Koenigin Dragoons, W Prus Uhlans. Bde. Malzahn: 2nd Pommern LW, 4th Kurmark LW, 2nd Kurmark LW, 2nd W Prus Dragoons. Bde. Cossacks: Bychalov II Pulk, Illowaisky V Pulk. Artillery 3: 12-pdr Foot (Prus-2 batteries), 12-pdr Foot (Russian-2 batteries), 6-pdr Horse (Prus-3 batteries), 6-pdr Foot (Prus-4 batteries). 4 Korps: Bogislav Friedrich Emanuel von Tauentzien: lightly engaged. Swedish Corps: not engaged.

French Empire Commander: Marshal Michel Ney

IV Corps: General of Division Henri Gatien Bertrand 12th Division (French): Charles Antoine Morand: 1st Bde. Belair (Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Toussaint. 15th Division (Italian): Achille Fontanelli: 1st Bde. St Andre, 2nd Bde. Moroni, 3rd Bde. Martel. 38th Division (Wurttemberg): Franquemont: 1st Bde. Stockmayer, 2nd Bde. Spitzenberg. Cavalry IV: 24th Lt Cav Bde. Jett: (Wurttemberg & Poles). Artillery IV: 12-pdr Foot (2 batteries), 6-pdr Horse (3 batteries).

VII Corps: General of Division Jean Reynier 24th Division (Saxon): Lecoq: 1st Bde. Brause (Guards, Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Mellentin (Grenadiers). 25th Division (Saxon): Sahr: 1st Bde. Bosch (Grenadiers, Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Rissel. 32nd Division (French): Pierre François Joseph Durutte: 1st Bde. Devaux (Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Jarry (Lt inf), 3rd Bde. Lindenau (Wurzburg), 4th Bde. Zoltowski (Poles). Cavalry VII: Saxon Bde. (Hussars, Lancers). Artillery VII (Saxon): 12-pdr Foot, 6-pdr Horse (2 batteries). XII Corps: Marshal Nicolas Oudinot 13th Division (French): Michel Marie Pacthod: 1st Bde. Bardet (Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Cacault. 14th Division (French): Guilleminot: 1st Bde. Gruyer (Lt inf), 2nd Bde. Villeret. 29th Division (Bavarian): Clemens von Raglovich: 1st Bde. Beckers, 2nd Bde. La Traille. 29th Lt Cav Bde. (Westphalian & Hessian): Wolff Artillery XII (Bavarian): 12-pdr Foot (2 batteries). III Cavalry Corps: General of Division Jean-Toussaint Arrighi de Casanova 5th Lt Cav: Jean Thomas Guillaume Lorge: 12th Lt Cav Bde. Jacquinot, 13th Lt Cav Bde. Merlin. 6th Lt Cav: Fournier: 14th Lt Cav Bde. Mouriez. 4th Heavy Cav: Jean-Marie Defrance: Bde. Avice (Dragoons), Bde. Quinette (Dragoons). 8th Lt Cav (Poles): Kruckowiecky:

References and further reading Hofschröer, Peter. 1993. Leipzig 1813: The Battle of the Nations. London: Osprey. Leggiere, Michael V. 2002. Napoleon and Berlin-The Napoleonic Wars in Prussia, 1813. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

The Relief of Wake Island 1941



Vice Adm. William S. Pye, whose decision to abandon the relieve of Wake Island resulted in his eternal hatred by the U. S. Marine Corps. Pye’s appointment as temporary CINCPAC shocked Layton, who vividly recalled the admiral’s Dec. 6 prediction. Others noticed that Pye, after having dismissed the Imperial Japanese Fleet threat out of hand, had now done a complete about face and seemed to be particularly gun-shy about engaging it, especially when he read any intelligence report containing the words “Japanese carrier.” Even so, Pye did not countermand Task Force 14’s mission. He also allowed a diversionary attack on the Japanese-held Marshall Islands by the carrier Lexington to continue.

Admiral Kimmel, soon to be relieved by Nimitz, had given plenty of thought to Wake Island even before December 7. The previous April he had surmised that the little atoll might serve as bait to bring Japanese naval forces out into the open, “thus offering us an opportunity to get at naval forces with naval forces.” On Wednesday, December 10, Kimmel approved an audacious plan to deploy all three of his carrier task forces far to the west, where with a little luck they might ambush the Japanese fleet and troopships he expected to converge on Wake. Saratoga, en route from California, would be placed under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. She would be the nucleus of a task force (No. 14) that would reinforce Wake, while evacuating the wounded and civilian workers. A detachment of the 4th Marine Defense Battalion, with ammunition, weapons, and supplies, would embark in the seaplane tender Tangier. (Though the initial plan did not call for the abandonment of Wake to the enemy, the option was there; Captain Charles H. McMorris, Kimmel’s chief war planning officer, had written on December 11 that the Tangier could take the island’s entire population of 1,500 aboard: “She would be crowded to an extreme degree, but I believe it could be done.”) Lexington (Task Force 11, Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, Jr.) would conduct a diversionary raid on the enemy airfield on Jaluit in the Marshall Islands, and then head northwest to join Fletcher if needed. Enterprise (Task Force 8, still under the command of Admiral Halsey) would cruise west of Johnston Island and be ready to raise steam and support her sisters if the engagement should develop into a major battle. With the various cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries attached to the three flattops, the expedition involved substantially all of the naval power (except submarines) available to Kimmel after the calamity of December 7.

From the start, the rescue mission was plagued by an almost unbelievable series of delays, variously blamed on weather, refueling mishaps, and submarine scares. The hard truth was that the American carrier groups were not yet accustomed to operating at sea in wartime conditions, and were climbing a steep learning curve. Heavy seas slowed the progress of the screening destroyers. Refueling while underway in any kind of weather was an art yet to be refined. Bogus submarine contacts were rife. (In one of the Enterprise’s early war cruises, Halsey had signaled his task force: “We are wasting too many depth charges on neutral fish. Take action accordingly.”) Entries in the CINCPAC war diary dwell on those problems throughout December. December 12: “Task Force Twelve was still unable to fuel at sea and it was decided to bring the Lexington group into Pearl Harbor to accomplish this.” December 12 again: “The Saratoga was being delayed by the effect of rough weather on her escort of three 1200-ton destroyers.” December 13: “The arrival of Saratoga was still further delayed by weather.” She was four hours from Pearl when a faulty report of a Japanese midget submarine skulking in the harbor forced her to hang back: she did not put in until the morning of December 15.

Fletcher sent the Tangier, an oil tanker, Neches, and a division of destroyers on ahead, with the intention of overtaking them when Saratoga was fueled up. The carrier put to sea on December 16 and raised steam for the northwest, overtaking her companions the next afternoon. The task force crept along at the regal pace of 13 knots, the maximum speed of the Neches. The weather had been fair for days, but on December 22, when the task force was still 600 miles from Wake, the wind rose to 20 knots and a white-capped cross swell kicked up. Fletcher had received orders from Pearl to refuel at specified coordinates, so that the Lexington group could rendezvous if necessary. The underway fueling process was long and painstaking, with all the usual profanity-laced pratfalls of near collisions and broken fuel lines, particularly when the destroyers came alongside the heaving deck of the Neches. Ten hours passed and the task force made barely any westward progress at all, and by that time the battle for Wake Island was near its end.

In a sense, the entire world was watching. The stubborn defense of Wake Island had been a balm to the wounded spirits of the American people, who seized upon every new shred of censor-approved news from the embattled atoll. President Roosevelt had hailed their actions. The newspapers and radio networks had relished reporting (and embellishing) the gallant stand of the “Pacific Alamo.” “Wake Island’s indomitable little garrison of United States Marines still clung tenaciously to the scarred and battered atoll Friday night after beating off two more Japanese onslaughts,” the Associated Press reported on December 19. Asked by Pearl Harbor for a list of needed supplies, Commander Cunningham was said to have replied: “Send us more Japs!” He had said nothing of the kind: the quote was a misreading (possibly deliberate) of the meaningless verbal “padding” used in radio communications to throw enemy codebreakers off the scent. When the report was picked up by a shortwave radio on Wake, the defenders were not amused. “More Japanese were absolutely the last thing we needed,” Lieutenant Kinney observed. Cunningham thought the tone taken at home was all wrong; it adopted a Hollywood swagger that belied the atoll’s dire predicament. “The picture conjured up by the radio reports was as far removed from reality as Wake was from Pearl Harbor,” the commander later wrote. “We were doing our best, and we were proud of it, but our best seldom included that disregard for sanity that marks so many romantic visions of the thin red lines of heroes. . . . We wanted to live.”

Kimmel had been formally relieved of command on December 17, the same day Nimitz was named as his successor. But Nimitz was not due in Hawaii for another week. During the brief interregnum, the caretaker CINCPAC would be Vice Admiral William S. Pye, commander of the Battle Force (that is, the battleships, now largely out of action). Pye was less confident than Kimmel in the prospect of success of the Wake relief mission, and far more chary of the Japanese. The command situation at Pacific Fleet headquarters was now very confused. Pye listened with one ear to Kimmel’s former staff, but he also continued to rely on his old Battle Force staff, made homeless by the heavy damage to his flagship California. Pye recruited Rear Admiral Milo S. Draemel, chief of the destroyer flotilla, to serve as his temporary chief of staff-and Draemel, in turn, brought several of his destroyermen into the headquarters. The result, in the words of a radio intelligence officer, “was confusion superimposed upon disaster.” The fate of Wake (and the carriers converging on Wake) was Pye’s most pressing business; but he was mindful that he was only keeping the seat warm for Nimitz, and seems to have felt a heavy obligation to deliver the carriers safely into the hands of the new boss.

Moreover, Pye was being urgently reminded by Washington that Hawaii itself was exposed, and what business did the fleet have in supporting a distant outpost with little military value, when the main American stronghold was thought to be vulnerable? The cruel reality, as Pye, Kimmel, and the Washington admirals all understood and had conceded, was that Wake was a “liability.” Sooner or later, Japan would seize it. Though the ostensible aim of the expedition was still to reinforce the garrison and air group on Wake, the fallback plan was to evacuate the atoll completely and perhaps inflict punishment from the air on the Japanese invasion forces. Most important of all was not to lose any of the precious remaining aircraft carriers, even if the 1,500 men on Wake had to be abandoned to the enemy. That was Pye’s bottom line, as he would soon reveal.

Pye felt blind. He had no way of knowing the location of the big Japanese carrier force that had hit Pearl on December 7, and feared it might be lying in wait for the American carriers. In attempting to ambush the Japanese, the Americans might themselves be steaming into an ambush. Pye’s intelligence staff estimated that most of the force, perhaps four out of six carriers, had returned to Japan for refueling and replenishment, but that was little more than conjecture. There was also the danger posed by land-based bombers operating from bases in the Marshall Islands. There were concerns about the battle readiness of the carriers: antiaircraft drills on the Lexington had been alarmingly bad. Could the carriers defend themselves against air attack, even with sufficient notice? On the 20th, Pye and Draemel gave serious consideration to ordering Task Force 14 back to Pearl, but relented in the face of hot-blooded dissent from the CINCPAC war planning chief, Captain McMorris. In notes recorded that day, however, Pye laid the groundwork for his pending decision to abandon Wake. He also radioed Admiral Brown and the Lexington group, directing him to abandon the raid on the Marshall Islands and divert north to rendezvous with Fletcher. Brown’s staff was incensed, and there was mutinous talk on the bridge about tearing up the orders and throwing them into the sea; but Brown obeyed. On the 21st, Pye informed Admiral Stark, the chief of naval operations, that the Wake operation was continuing but that American carriers would not approach closer to the island than 200 miles.

Pye’s doubts seeped into his radio transmissions to Task Force 14. The CINCPAC’s instructions were vacillating and irresolute, and tended to eat away at Fletcher’s confidence. On December 21, Fletcher was ordered to steam with full speed for Wake, and launch planes at a range of 200 miles. That order was quickly countermanded, and he was told instead to send the Tangier at peak speed to embark the garrison and bring them to safety. Not an hour had passed before that order was also revoked.

Conditions on Wake were growing desperate. On December 20 (the 19th in Hawaii), Cunningham reported that his remaining fighter planes were “full of bullet holes,” and it could only be described as a “miracle” that they had not been shot down in air-to-air combat. The island was short of critical equipment and supplies, from radar sets to fire control instruments to provisions to ammunition of every caliber. The 3-inch antiaircraft batteries were no good against high-altitude attacks, and in any case the 3-inch ammunition would last only another day, maybe two. Airstrikes continued almost daily. Intra-island telephone communications were a mess, the cables having been shredded by bomb damage. Crews worked dawn to dusk each day improving the island’s defenses-digging foxholes and bunkers, filling sandbags, distributing ammunition, throwing branches over gun emplacements-but the casualty list was long and growing longer, and long rows of cots were crowded into makeshift hospitals in empty magazines. Even the “healthy” men were exhausted and sleep-deprived, and there were increasing signs of dysentery. Morale was not enhanced by a ludicrous message from Pearl Harbor, received on the 17th, asking how long it would take to finish dredging the lagoon. Were the admirals totally ignorant of the situation on Wake?

Keeping the marine fighters in the air had required heroic efforts, but without replacement planes or at least additional parts, it was inevitable that Wake would soon have no air defense left at all. On December 14, a bomb struck a Wildcat in its revetment, destroying the tail section but sparing the engine. Lieutenant John Kinney decided to attempt an engine transplant from the destroyed plane to another in which the engine was running very rough. Without a proper engine hoist or maintenance hangar, the operation took nine hours of backbreaking effort. But that same night another plane crash-landed after veering off the runway to avoid a gaggle of civilian onlookers. That left three airworthy planes. By the second week of the war, the shortages became critical, and the flying aircraft had become Frankenstein’s monsters-rattling, bullet-ridden, patched- over amalgamations of parts scavenged from the wrecks scattered over the airfield. On December 20, two planes were capable of getting off the ground.

That day and again on the 21st, the island was attacked by single-engine Aichi Type 99 “Val” dive-bombers, which were known to be a carrier-type plane. On the second day, the Vals were accompanied by Zeros. In the aerial melee, one of the Wildcats was shot down and the other crash-landed and was judged a loss. The island now had no air defenses at all.

When Cunningham reported the appearance of the carrier planes, Pye worried that a Japanese carrier task force was covering the approach of a new invasion flotilla. In fact, the dive-bombers had flown from two of the six carriers that had hit Pearl Harbor and were now retiring toward Japan; it had been an opportunistic, hit-and-run raid, and would not be repeated. But a second invasion force was en route, this time covered by four heavy cruisers. The warships remained carefully out of range of the shore guns, while sending a force of about 1,000 Japanese marines in on landing barges. The landings began at 2:35 a. m. on December 23 local time (December 22 in Pearl Harbor). That night the invading force quickly swept through the islands, cutting the defenders off into isolated pockets. The marines put up a gallant defense, and claimed the lives of 700 to 900 attackers, but their positions were gradually overrun. At 2:50 a. m. on December 23 local time, Commander Cunningham notified Pye: “Enemy apparently landing.” With superior numbers, the invaders gradually advanced across the islands, and at five in the morning Cunningham signaled: “The enemy is on the island. The issue is in doubt.”

With those dispatches in hand, Pye huddled with his staff. He asked the war plans chief, Captain McMorris, and his acting chief of staff, Admiral Draemel, to put their recommendations into writing. Both agreed that it was too late to save Wake, either by reinforcement or evacuation. But they differed sharply on the question of whether to send the American carriers to attack the enemy fleet. Fletcher’s Saratoga group was still 425 miles from Wake, with the destroyers still struggling to refuel in a bumpy cross-swell, but it was still possible for the Sara to make a high-speed run toward Wake and launch her attack planes the following morning. Brown’s Lexington group was near enough to join the fray from the south, and Halsey’s Enterprise group could have been placed in position to cover the subsequent withdrawal.

In a strongly worded memo, McMorris counseled Pye to push on with the attack. American forces in the vicinity were probably stronger than the enemy’s, and to withdraw without offering battle would be “unduly cautious.” While it was true that the exact composition of the Japanese forces (the carriers, especially) was unknown, it is often necessary to accept odds in battle, and “The enemy cannot have superior forces in all directions.” To retreat would also “tend to destroy service and public confidence.” He concluded: “It is an opportunity unlikely to come again soon. We are in great need of a victory.”

Draemel’s assessment endorsed Pye’s more cautious mind-set. The Saratoga force’s fueling situation was a major problem, and would risk putting American ships within striking range of superior forces without means of escape. “Are we willing to accept a major engagement, at this distance from our base, with an uncertainty in the fuel situation?” His answer was no: “There are no reserves-all our forces are in the area of possible operations. . . . The general situation dictates caution-extreme caution.”

Pye had heard enough. At 9:11 a. m. on December 22, he called all three carrier groups back to Pearl Harbor. The order was received with heavy resentment. Men in the task forces sobbed openly. Commander George C. Dyer, executive officer of Admiral Brown’s flagship, later charged that “Admiral Pye had had a scare, apparently visualizing the Japanese fleet all over the Pacific Ocean.” Commander Edwin Layton, the Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, echoed the point: “To lose to an enemy that fought you, and fought you well, was one thing. But to lose because your own admiral was a ‘nervous Nellie’ was another.” On the Saratoga’s flag bridge there was loose talk of ignoring the withdrawal order, and some thought Fletcher should have imitated Horatio Nelson’s famous gesture at Copenhagen, when he raised his scope to his blind eye and exclaimed that he could not read the signal ordering him to disengage the enemy fleet. The marine airmen on Saratoga, who had been ready to fly to Wake to relieve their colleagues, threatened to climb into their planes and go. Rear Admiral Aubrey “Jake” Fitch, whose flag flew on the Saratoga, was forced to withdraw to his cabin so that he would not overhear any of the mutinous talk on his bridge. Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, in Pearl Harbor, exclaimed: “By Gad! They used to say a man had to be both a fighter and know how to fight. Now all I want is a man who fights.”

For many in Hawaii, both military and civilians, that was the single worst day of the war. The cancellation of the Wake relief operation coincided with ominous news from the Philippines: Japanese transports were pouring troops onto the beaches of Luzon and Leyte without opposition, and MacArthur had fled Manila. The United States had no realistic hope of sending reinforcements or supplies to the Philippines; they would probably be abandoned and conceded to the enemy, as Wake had been.

In Hawaii, the specter of invasion seemed very real to civilians and servicemen alike. Carroll Robbins Jones, age seven, who lived in Honolulu, overheard her mother crying that the island was going to be “taken over.” Carroll got on her knees and “confessed to God all my sins and prayed for Him to make me good, thinking somehow my confession and promise of goodness would help end the war.” Robert Casey, a Chicago Daily News correspondent who had been in Paris during the Nazi Blitzkrieg eighteen months earlier, studied the faces of the civilian residents of Honolulu, and was reminded of the expressions he had seen in France in May 1940. “The parallel was sickening,” he wrote. The trauma of defeat had left many officers, even those with sterling records, in a dazed torpor. It was a poorly kept secret that the fleet surgeon, beset by men verging on psychological collapse, had dosed them “with whatever they used for tranquilizers in those days.”

Defense of Wake Island 1941



The Battle of Wake Island (8-23 December 1941) was a fight in which the American defenders, primarily U. S. Marines and civilian contractors, held off a Japanese invasion force for fifteen days. Only after the Japanese doubled the size of their invasion force were the outnumbered Americans forced to surrender.

For two desperate weeks, the little garrison on Wake Island had held out against relentless Japanese sea and air attacks. The atoll was one of the most remote places on earth, a V-shaped tendril of sand, scrub, and coral rock, 2,300 miles from Oahu, 2,000 miles from Tokyo, 600 miles north of the only slightly less godforsaken atolls of the northern Marshall Islands and the Japanese airfields from which the daily bombing raids had come. Wake and its two small sister islets of Wilkes and Peale, comprising about three square miles all told, were remnants of the partly submerged rim of an ancient volcano. They encircled a shark-infested, cobalt blue lagoon, too shallow and thickly strewn with coral heads to accommodate ships of any draft. With a peak elevation of 20 feet, the islands were so close to the sea that ships might pass within a dozen miles and never know they were there. They had no palm trees, no freshwater sources, produced no food other than fish, and were populated only by flightless birds, hermit crabs, and rats that had deserted some visiting ship decades or possibly centuries earlier. A primitive scrub clung to the parched coral soil. Waves broke across a fringing coral reef, and the din of booming surf was Wake’s everlasting background music. The sound was not unpleasant but very loud, so much so that men had to raise their voices to make themselves heard, and (perilously) the engines of approaching airplanes could not be detected until they were immediately overhead.

Wake’s sole value was as a way station, a link in the chain of islands connecting the United States to Asia through the axis of Oahu, Midway, Guam, and the Philippines. It had been annexed in 1899, first to serve as a cable relay on the transpacific telegraph, later as a coaling station and a refueling stop for the Pan-American China Clipper Service, whose big four-engine passenger seaplanes landed in the lagoon twice a week. In January 1941, the navy had constructed a 4,500-foot crushed-coral airstrip, and had been working with what little manpower and material resources were on hand to improve defensive installations and ground support facilities for aircraft. The lagoon’s small sea-channel was being dredged and coral heads dynamited with the intention of developing an anchorage for large ships. About 1,000 civilian construction workers were converting the Pan-Am facilities on Peale Island into an expanded air station. Two military camps, each with barracks, offices, and storehouses, stood at opposite ends of Wake. A garrison of 450 officers and men of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion was stationed at the shore batteries and defensive works along the southern beaches of Wake and Wilkes islands; many of those men were quartered in tents. The atoll’s entire air force consisted of the twelve F4F-3 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron 211 (VMF-211), which had flown in from the carrier Enterprise four days before the war.

At noon on December 8 (local date), just hours after the raid on Pearl, Wake was attacked by thirty-four G3M medium bombers operating from the island of Roi in the Marshall Islands. They glided in from the south, under the clouds, at altitude 1,500 feet. No one saw or heard them until less than a minute before the first bombs fell. Four of the Wildcats were patrolling at 12,000 feet, but did not spy the enemy bombers 10,000 feet beneath them. Two more planes had been ordered into the sky but had not yet taken off. Eight new blue-gray marine fighters, two thirds of Wake’s entire air strength, were parked almost wing to wing on the edge of the strip. They were not properly dispersed because there was very little room on the cramped airfield to disperse them. The G3Ms roared overhead in a tight “Vee-of-vee” formation and dropped their sticks of 60-kilogram fragmentation bombs with lethal accuracy: they fell directly among the parked aircraft and adjoining machine shops. At the same time the Japanese gunners strafed the pilots and ground crews who were caught out in the open. Dozens of men were cut down in their tracks as they ran across the airfield. The attack unfolded very quickly; the bombers were there and then they were gone. They banked left to attack Camp 2 and the Pan-Am Terminal on Peale Island, wiping out several of the buildings and facilities in that area, and killing ten Pan-Am employees. Then they banked left again and raced away to the south. Neither the marine antiaircraft gunners nor the four planes in the air were able to react in time, and the attackers made a clean escape.

Wake’s senior officer, Commander Winfield Scott Cunningham, learned of the attack when a line of bullet holes walked across the ceiling of his Camp 2 headquarters. He leapt into his pickup truck and raced down the main road to the airfield. There, through a shimmering heat haze, he saw the charred hulks of eight precious Grummans, “flames licking over them from end to end.” Two large aviation fuel tanks had taken direct hits and detonated, and drums of gasoline along the airfield perimeter were ablaze. Oily black smoke boiled up from the fires and carried away to leeward. Tents had been shredded by machine-gun fire: the aerial gunners had missed nothing. Strewn across the hard-packed coral surface of the airstrip were “broken bodies and bits of what had once been men.”

As in the Philippines and Malaya, the initial Japanese airstrikes had come quickly, over a shockingly long range, and were conducted much more skillfully than the Allied airmen had expected. “Our planes on the ground were like targets in a carnival shooting gallery, stationary targets that could not shoot,” wrote one of the surviving pilots, Lieutenant John Kinney. Seven of the eight Wildcat fighters at the airfield were destroyed; the eighth was badly shot up but by a heroic patch-job was made airworthy. That left just five fighters to contest the ensuing waves of airstrikes. The strafing and bombing had taken a terrible toll on both the air and ground crews. Of VMF-211’s fifty-five men on the ground, twenty-three were killed and eleven wounded. Not a single aircraft mechanic escaped injury. The squadron had suffered more than 50 percent casualties in the first few minutes of combat.

Cunningham and his officers correctly guessed that the attack had come from Roi or one of the other airstrips of the northern Marshall Islands. Assuming the Japanese bombers would not fly at night, they worked backwards to deduce that another attack would fall the next day at midday. Pilots and mechanics, including several walking wounded, worked on repairing damage to the five serviceable planes. Bulldozers borrowed from the civilian contractors dug crude revetments in which to park those survivors. The remaining aviation fuel tanks were dispersed far away from the airfield. The wounded were transported to the Camp 2 hospital on the back of trucks. The Pan-Am seaplane, anchored in the lagoon, had been hit several times, but luckily none of its vital systems was beyond repair. The company asked for and received Cunningham’s permission to send the plane to Hawaii with as many of its employees as it could carry. (To Cunningham’s disgust, all of the company’s non-white employees were left behind.) For the sake of morale and common decency, the dead had to be removed from the field before they were swarmed by the island’s rapacious crabs. Burial details held back the crustacean horde until a dump truck arrived and transported the bodies to Camp 2, where they were placed in a refrigerated storehouse alongside ham hocks and sides of beef.

As anticipated, the next day’s air raid arrived shortly before noon, but this time the twenty-seven attacking G3Ms bombed from high altitude, about 12,000 feet. Again the bombing was alarmingly accurate, leaving many of the remaining buildings of Camp 2 in smoking ruins. An antiaircraft battery at Peacock Point was knocked out, and the fire control equipment for one of the 5-inch shore guns was damaged. All of the surviving Wildcats were in the air to receive the enemy, and managed to send one of the Japanese bombers flaming into the sea. The marine antiaircraft batteries also opened up and shot down one of the attacking planes, and another was observed with smoke trailing as it fled to the south. The airstrip suffered no serious damage, but as Lieutenant Kinney observed, “The destruction in the vicinity of Camp 2 was devastating. Barracks buildings, both civilian and navy, were riddled, machine shops and warehouses flattened. The most devastating aspect of that day’s raid, however, was the damage done to the civilian hospital at Camp 2. All of the wounded from the first day’s attack were there when the bombs started falling again. The hospital took at least one direct hit, probably several, and quickly burst into flames.” The patients and medical corpsmen were moved into two empty magazines, dark and airless chambers where at least they could count on some protection against bomb shrapnel.

The besieged garrison dug in for a long campaign, with grim hopes that the navy would come to the rescue. Airstrikes continued almost daily, usually arriving about midday. The pilots and mechanics, lacking maintenance manuals, spare parts, and tools, did their best to keep their handful of Wildcats flying by cannibalizing parts from the wrecked planes at the airfield. From about ten each morning, four fighters patrolled the skies above the atoll. On the 10th, they shot down two enemy bombers, and the antiaircraft gunners put up plenty of flak that appeared to damage two more. But the twin-engine Mitsubishis dropped a bomb directly onto a Wilkes Island storage shed that held 125 tons of dynamite (used by the civilian engineers to dredge the lagoon’s sea-channel). The colossal blast dismounted one of the antiaircraft guns, destroyed a searchlight truck half a mile away, and detonated all of the marine ammunition (both 3- and 5-inch) within a quarter mile. Range-finding equipment for one of the shore batteries was destroyed. Casualties, surprisingly, were limited to one killed and four wounded, but the garrison was so small that it could hardly afford to lose a man.

At three in the morning on December 11, marine lookouts detected faint silhouettes moving on the southern horizon. “They were like black ghosts slowly moving around out there on the ocean,” recalled Sergeant Charles Holmes. Studying them intently in the light of a half moon, the observers soon concluded they were a column of ships. Commander Cunningham was alerted. Some hoped that they might be friendly ships, a relief force from Pearl Harbor, and a few of the civilian contractors actually ran down to the beach with bags in hand, hoping to be among the first to be taken on board. Either Cunningham or the marine garrison commander, Major James Devereux, decided to keep the searchlights dark and hold fire until the ships had closed to within close range. (Both men claimed credit for the decision, leading to hard feelings after the war.) If the column included cruisers (as it did) their guns would probably be of larger caliber and longer range than Wake’s 5-inch shore guns. If so, the enemy could elect for a long-range artillery duel in which the Americans would be gravely disadvantaged. Devereux gave strict orders not to fire, but rather to “Stand quiet till I give the word to do anything.” As the ships advanced, anxiety grew among the marines: those suspenseful hours before dawn were harder on the nerves than actual combat. “We were scared to death,” Corporal Bernard Richardson later confessed. “We could see what was going to happen to us. We seemed to be surrounded . . . we could see that we were about to get it.”

The invasion force had sailed two days earlier from Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, under the command of Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka. There were thirteen ships in the column: six destroyers, three light cruisers, and four transports carrying 450 troops. Kajioka brought his ships directly in, close under the southern beaches; he apparently assumed the shore guns had been knocked out of action by the airstrikes of the past three days, and had no inkling that he had been spotted and was being led into an ambush. At 5 a. m., with the blue glow of dawn breaking in the east, and the column about four miles off Peacock Point, the cruiser Yubari, Kajioka’s flagship, turned port and ran parallel to Wake’s southern beach. Her companions followed astern. A few minutes later, the cruisers opened fire. From that range the shells came in at a low trajectory, rumbling and whining in the ears of the American defenders. No direct hits were scored on any of the beach guns, still hidden beneath camouflage netting, and the marines remained snug in their bunkers and foxholes, but two oil tanks in the vicinity of Camp 1 were set ablaze. The Japanese transports hung back, and began transferring the landing parties into their boats.

At 6:15 a. m., when it seemed to the marines as if they had been waiting for hours, Major Devereux gave the word to open fire, and the 5-inchers on shore came to life. Battery A, at Peacock Point, opened up on the Yubari. The first salvo sailed high but struck a destroyer farther south; the gun crews depressed the elevation and scored four quick hits on Yubari at range 5,700 yards. Smoke boiled out of ugly holes torn in the flagship’s starboard side, but she was fortunate in that all of the shells had struck above the waterline, and she could still make way at diminished speed. She turned south and fled for safety. Battery L, on Wilkes Island, commanded by Lieutenant John A. McAlister, had a clear field of fire on almost the entire column, but aimed its first salvo at the first and closest of three destroyers advancing in a single column at range 7,000 yards. That was the Hayate, and she was soon to be no more.

The battery’s targeting equipment having been ruined in the previous day’s bombing run, McAlister had to find the range by the time-honored technique of firing and spotting the splashes made by the falling shells. With help from another position connected by telephone, Battery L “walked” its successive splashes toward the target. The Hayate charged into the teeth of those hostile salvos and turned port to bring her entire broadside to bear. The spirited approach only exposed the brave little “tin can” to the full brunt of Battery L’s next salvo, which struck home amidships and touched off her magazine. A jolt, a white flash, a thunderclap, and the Hayate was torn apart-her bow floated one way, her stern the other, each section bobbing pitifully on the sea, and then both quickly sank, taking 168 men down with them. The battery’s crew let out a full-throated cheer. “Knock it off, you bastards, and get back on the guns!” bellowed Platoon Sergeant Henry Bedell. “What do you think this is, a ball game?”

McAlister trained his guns onto the Oite, the next destroyer in the column, already turning south to flee. She laid down a smoke screen to conceal her retreat, but Battery L managed to land two hits on her upper works. McAlister lobbed several shots at two transports, much further to the east. Though the range was nearly two miles, he scored one hit on the Kongo Maru. Finally, McAlister trained his weapon on one of the light cruisers and struck her after-turret; she ran for safety, smoke trailing behind her. “Nothing could bother Battery L this morning,” Commander Cunningham later wrote gratefully. “Battery L was red hot.”

On Peale Island, Battery B took aim on the second column of destroyers, running north to pass west of the atoll, and scored a hit on the Yayoi, topsides near her stern. The Japanese gunners responded quickly and with great accuracy, landing shells close to the battery on every side and severing a fire control cable to a nearby spotting tower. “Their deflection was perfect from the very first but since they too were firing flat trajectory weapons, they found our low lying position difficult to hit in range,” Lieutenant Woodrow M. Kessler explained. “At first their shells burst with greenish-yellow picric acid blobs in the lagoon directly in front of us. Then they went over us to land on the north beach. Then they split the straddle and we were in the middle of their pattern. It was unbelievable to see so many shell bursts in the battery position and yet to suffer no casualties.” Taking local control of the gun, the crew fired several more salvos, eventually scoring a second hit on the Yayoi and possibly one on the Mutsuki. The destroyers turned south, blowing plenty of smoke as they went. Now the entire task force was on the run. At 7 a. m., Admiral Kajioka cancelled the landing and signaled a general retreat back to Kwajalein.

Soon the retiring ships were beneath the southern horizon, but the marines were not yet finished with them. The four remaining flyable F4F Wildcats had been circling high above the atoll, remaining at altitude to receive any Japanese airstrikes that might arrive in coordination with the invasion fleet. “Well, it looks as if there are no Nips in the air,” radioed the VMF-211 commander, Major Paul A. Putnam. “Let’s go down and join the party.”

The Grummans streaked south in chase. Being fighters and not bombers, they were not designed to sink ships, but they had been jury-armed with two small 100-pound bombs each, and they could strafe the enemy decks with their .50-caliber machine guns. Those four planes flew nine consecutive sorties, attacking the retreating task force and then returning to Wake over the gradually widening range for fresh bombs and more ammunition. The squadron’s air attacks knocked out a torpedo tube on the cruiser Tenryu, wiped out the radio shack on the cruiser Tatsuta, strafed the transport Kongo Maru and set her on fire, and sank a second destroyer, the Kisaragi, by lighting up a rack of depth charges in her magazine. The planes were hit by flak and machine-gun fire, and although none was shot down, all were shot up. One Grumman’s bullet-riddled engine lost so much oil on its return leg that the pilot was forced to crash-land on the beach; he walked away, but his plane would never fly again.

The gun crews and aviators had damaged nine of the thirteen ships in Kajioka’s invasion force, sinking two. Japanese losses were never reported, but were probably in the range of 500 dead and twice that number wounded. Remarkably, only one American had been killed and only four wounded. That was the sole instance in the entire war to come in which shore batteries turned back an amphibious invasion force. The marines were exultant. “When the Japanese withdrew, you’d have thought we’d won the war,” said one Battery L gunner. It had been a remarkable victory, especially after the ruinous bombing raids of the past three days, and was the only such performance of any Allied unit during the initial Japanese offensive. “I am very certain every man on that island grew a good two inches at least,” wrote a sergeant assigned to Devereux’s staff. “Several people stopped by and congratulated Devereux. We had some kind of hope. We felt great. We were Marines, weren’t we?”

But Wake could not hold out much longer. Only two aircraft remained in service. The island was short of critical equipment, ammunition, and manpower. It needed to be reinforced, rearmed, and resupplied-or failing that, evacuated and abandoned to the enemy. “They had no illusions about the future and expected the enemy to return in greater force,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison, “but they assumed that the Navy would make an earnest attempt to relieve them.”