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.”


Heinz Linge, Hitler’s Valet, Flees the Reich Chancellery: Russian Captivity

Heinz Linge

Heinz Linge

‘The preparations now began for the break-out by night from the Citadel, the rather obvious cover-name for the New Reich Chancellery. Bormann told Mohnke that, as the most senior in rank, he (Bormann) should take command. The SS general, who did not think much of Bormann and had been extremely firm with him over the telephone cable affair accepted the claim but made arrangements first for generals Krebs and Burgdorf to shoot themselves, which they did after downing a few bottles of alcohol for Dutch courage.

In ten mixed groups consisting of soldiers, women and other civilians, we were to attempt to flee the Citadel and head for the Berlin city boundary in a northerly direction (and using as far as possible the underground railway tunnels). Mohnke suggested to Bormann that they should set out together, but the Reichsleiter, now ‘Party minister’ clearly lacked the spirit for it. He sent his secretary Else Krüger with the Mohnke group and decided: ‘I am going with the third troop to which Stumpfegger, Baur and Naumann are attached.’ Thus he wanted to break through the Russian lines with Hitler’s doctor, his flight captain and state secretary Werner Naumann, who had military experience and was listed as troop leader. In his decision to go with Naumann, Bormann was probably taking into account that Naumann had been appointed Propaganda Minister in the new Reich cabinet in Hitler’s Will. In a future meeting with Reich president Dönitz, whom Bormann despised, Naumann could therefore be very useful for Bormann.

I teamed up with SS-Obersturmbannführer Erich Kempka. In full uniform we climbed through a window of the New Reich Chancellery cellar. Under a hail of shell and mortar fire we crossed Friedrich-Strasse to the railway station where a couple of our panzers were standing and still offering the Russians battle. Towards midnight on the Weidendamm Bridge we came upon Stumpfegger, Baur and Bormann who had lost their bearings, arrived by a roundabout route and were now separated from the Russians by an anti-tank barrier. As three of our panzers and three armoured vehicles rolled up, Bormann decided to break through the Russian lines using a panzer. Kempka jumped up, stopped the vehicles and told the leading panzer commander what was required. Under the protection of this panzer heading for the tank barrier, Bormann, Naumann and Stumpfegger doubled forward while I watched. The panzer was hit by a projectile from a Panzerfaust. The people alongside it were tossed into the air like dolls by the explosion. I could no longer see Stumpfegger nor Bormann. I presumed they were dead, as I told the Russians repeatedly in numerous interrogations later.

Now fifteen to twenty strong, once we realised we could not save our skins in this manner, we decided to go through the tramway tunnel. We reached See-Strasse, but only with great effort, losing people on the way. For a moment or so I had been alone with a member of the SS bodyguard when I heard the sound of tanks and voices through a shaft leading up to the street. I stopped and listened. From above I heard the call: ‘German panzers are advancing. Come up, comrades!’ I leaned out of the shaft and saw a German soldier, He looked towards me and beckoned. Scarcely had I left our hiding place than I saw all the Soviet tanks around me. The German soldier belonged to the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland formed after the Battle of Stalingrad to work for the communists. I was captured, but that was all. Although in full ‘war paint’ and not resembling a warworn soldier, nobody was interested in me. German civilians passed by and talked to us, so far as was possible under the circumstances. I smuggled a gold watch which Hitler had given me with a personal inscription to a woman who spoke to me. She promised that since she had my name, which was also engraved on the watch, she would return it as soon as it was all over. An illusion. I never saw her again. A Russian sergeant approached me and said: ‘Nichts gut, kamarad, uniform carry bird on arm. Nichts gut. Take off.’ I understood: the silver eagle and swastika on the left upper sleeve of my uniform indicated that I was SS. I took his advice and ripped off the rank insignia and the offending ‘bird on my arm’, and tossed them away. The Führer always portrayed the Russians as bad, I thought, but they do not seem to be. On the contrary they offered me cigarettes and tobacco and even let me retain my two pistols, something that I found remarkable, since I was carrying one openly in my SS belt.

Under guard we walked for some days until we reached Posen. On the way we rested up once in an open field and on another occasion in a ruined church, and were treated as ‘a classless society’. Everybody was equal to everybody else. Nobody enjoyed any advantage, nobody any unnecessary or unjustified disadvantage. That changed at Posen. Without warning I was locked in a potato cellar. The Russians had noticed the good-quality uniform I wore, as they told me later. In their opinion I must be somebody from Hitler’s immediate staff. I was interrogated and had to write out who I was, my rank and what military posts I had had, and where I had served. I put down that I had been with an army unit in charge of catering. My real identity and what I had actually been doing since 1933 I kept secret, but it did not help me much, for one day I was brought back for interrogation and confronted with my past. Hans Baur, who had been in the military hospital and had stated truthfully that although a Luftwaffe general he had been Hitler’s personal pilot, which the Russians refused to believe, had named me as a witness, and said I was in the camp. My disguise was blown. I had to write down the answers to all their questions which I had answered falsely before, but this time honestly.

The result was that one day two Russian officers appeared and escorted me by train to Moscow where I was thrown into the notorious Lubljanka Prison.

There in a filthy bug-infested cell I waited, expecting the worst. It came in the form of a large GPU lieutenant-colonel who spoke good, cultivated German. He interrogated me with a monotonous patience which brought me to a state of sheer despair. Over and over he asked the same questions, trying to extract from me an admission that Hitler had survived. My unemotional assertion that I had carried Hitler’s corpse from his room, had poured petrol over it and set it alight in front of the bunker was considered a cover story. In order to lull me into a false sense of security, he occasionally told me that before the war he had been in Germany, and he chatted with me as though he were an old war comrade. I remained as alert as I could, no easy task for the bedbugs gave me no respite and only rarely did I sleep. Finally the bugs were even too much for the officer who had to watch me constantly. ‘Tell the commissar’, he advised me. When I replied with a cynical grin that if I did that they would increase the bug population, he countered: ‘Tell him!’ I did so, and could scarcely believe the result. I was moved to a ‘lavish cell’ with parquet flooring. Slowly it dawned on me why. It had been expected that I would complain.

Now came the carrot-and-stick treatment. Since I would not confirm what the commissar wanted to hear I had to strip naked and bend over a trestle after being warned that I would be thrashed if I did not finally ‘cough up’. Naked and humiliated I persisted with my account: ‘Adolf Hitler shot himself on 30 April 1945. I burned his body!’ The commissar ordered a powerfully built lieutenant holding a whip with several thongs: ‘Give it to him.’ As I cried out like a stuck pig, he observed cynically: ‘You ought to know about this treatment better than us. We learned it from your SS and Gestapo.’

Nevertheless I kept to the facts. He changed the procedure only inasmuch as he had me brought to a sound-proofed room – dressed again – where seven or eight commissars were waiting. The ceremony began once more. While somebody roared monotonously: ‘Hitler is alive, Hitler is alive, tell the truth!’ I was whipped until I bled. Near madness I yelled until my voice failed. Still bellowing the torturers in officers’ uniform stopped for a rest. I was allowed to dress and returned to my cell where I collapsed. That was the beginning of an intensive interrogation strategy which even today gives me nightmares.

About a year after the end of the war I was thrust into a barred railway wagon and transported like some wild animal back to Berlin. My daily rations were a salted herring, 450 grams of damp bread and two cubes of sugar. In Berlin I was put into a jail. What the Russians wanted was to be shown was where – according to me – Hitler had shot himself. I was taken to the ruins of the New Reich Chancellery where a number of commissars and Marshal Sokolovski awaited. I showed them the sofa on which Hitler had shot himself, still where we had left it, but meanwhile ripped by ‘souvenir hunters’. After this local visit, for which the Russians seemed to have little enthusiasm, I was returned to the prison for more interrogations.

These Berlin interrogations were carried out in a different way to those in Moscow. A female interpreter asked politely, I responded in like manner. The only thing certain was that the Russians did not believe me. In 1950 they were still doubtful that Hitler was dead. Accordingly the question-and-answer game in Berlin went round in monotonous circles. ‘How much blood sprayed on the carpet?’ ‘How far from Hitler’s foot did the pool of blood extend?’ ‘Where was his pistol exactly?’ ‘Which pistol did he use?’ and ‘How and where was he sitting exactly?’ These were some of the stereotype, endlessly repeated questions I was obliged to answer. The interpreter was hearing these details for the first time and they interested her, but even so it was not hard to see that she would have preferred to be doing something else. The questioning usually went on without interruption until the bread trolley was heard.

One day when I had had just about enough of the same stupid questions I reacted stubbornly as the trolley passed. ‘That is the end of it’, I said, ‘I am hungry and cannot go on.’ The interpreter reacted with a friendly smile and the observation that she was from Leningrad and knew ‘what hunger really was’. ‘When you tried to starve us out’, she went on with a blush, ‘we ate mice and rats.’ I was ashamed of my outburst and fell silent. The interrogation ended.

Measured by the term of my imprisonment, Berlin was only a flying visit. Soon I was back in the Moscow prison where, a long time later, I met Otto Günsche again. In the prison hospital we were treated with kid gloves in order to show us how good things could get. One day it was revealed to us that we were to have the opportunity to write our ‘memoirs’. We were released from hospital and given rooms in a Moscow villa in which the widow of a general lived. After she had got to know and trust us, she told me that her son had often been seen in public with Stalin. Under guard we now set down on paper, day in, day out, our experience of Hitler. Then before we had really got used to the house and surroundings, it was time to move on. We arrived at a villa outside Moscow. German soldiers served us as they had General Seidlitz, captured at Stalingrad, and who had been our predecessor in this dacha. It was not a bad life. The food was good and we were decently treated. Suddenly it was not so important to the Russians where Hitler might have gone. They wanted manuscripts which proved that his main aim had been to play the Russians for fools – if necessary with the Western Powers. According to the Soviets we knew more about this than was in the official documents.

Our career as historians came to an end when the Russians realised that we were not prepared to portray Molotov’s negotiations with Hitler falsely. Without blinking an eye they denied that for a period Stalin and Hitler had made common cause and shared out Poland between them. Our ‘memoirs’ were archived. We became normal PoWs and were put into a camp for generals. It contained forty-two generals and three staff officers. Although we lived well there, the other inhabitants made us sick. Looking at these idlers, pedlars swapping little boxes and other nonsense, I asked myself how the ‘Boss’ could have expected to win the war with them. Most of the gentlemen complained about the rations prescribed by the Russians for the other ranks service personnel, comprised of German PoWs, demanding that cigarettes and sugar be excluded. As Günsche and I were on the side of the men in this quarrel, eventually the generals refused to return our salutes. Although there were exceptions, they could not wash away the negative impression. The generals went home to Germany. We, the two ‘Hitler people’, were put on trial in 1950 and received twenty-five years’ hard labour in the Soviet Union.

When Red Army soldiers fetched us from the now empty camp and brought us to the prison where we were to be tried, I thought I would never see Germany again. At first we asked ourselves if it was to be a military or civilian trial. In vain. There was no clue. The judges wore robes, and there were uniformed officers sitting around, but this told us nothing, for men in officers’ uniform also worked parttime in factories, as carpenters and at work benches. Scarcely had I become accustomed to the dim courtroom, which reminded me of a school hall with its red curtains, than I heard the charges against me from the lips of the interpreter. I had ‘helped Hitler to power’, had known his ‘criminal plans’ and supported him ‘with conspiratorial intent’. My speechlessness at these charges was apparently accepted as a guilty plea. Within ten minutes the pompous theatre was ended. Each of us got twenty-five years. A Russian tried to console me. He gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder and said: ‘Comrade, twenty-five years is not so much. It could have been more. You will soon be home.’ I did not believe him.

Five years later, I was in a railway coach on my way to West Germany. I had served Hitler to the end, and in the opinion of the Russians by 1955 I had paid the price.’

Operation Enduring Freedom – Liberation of Kabul


Northern Alliance T-55 tanks rolling into Kabul during mid-November 2001. The Taliban proved incapable of holding any of Afghanistan’s key cities. Even a last stand in their spiritual homeland in Kandahar failed to materialise.

The key to OEF was driving the Taliban from Kabul – only this would truly herald their defeat. This meant that everywhere they went the Taliban were attacked across the country. The world watched in awe as American air power first chewed up the Taliban’s air force, its air defences and then its armour during the campaign.

Although in the wake of 9/11 the US rapidly came to the decision that it wanted the Taliban government and al-Qaeda terrorists ousted, it did not want to do it at the cost of thousands of American troops on the ground. The solution was to use six-man Close Air Support (CAS) Special Forces A-Teams operating alongside the Taliban’s nemesis, the Northern Alliance. The special forces, equipped with laser designators, would pinpoint enemy targets for American air strikes.

The US began secretly to insert its CAS teams twelve days after the air campaign opened. The six men of Tiger 01 were infiltrated into northern Afghanistan on 19 October 2001 by two MH-53J Pavelow helicopters of the 160th Special Operations Aviation regiment. In the next few days, liaising with General Fahim’s opposition forces, they were involved in efforts to capture Bagram airfield, 45km north of Kabul. This they found defended by some fifty armoured vehicles including tanks, APCs and ZSU-23 Shilka self-propelled Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA).

Heavy strikes, including B-52 carpet-bombing, were conducted on 31 October against Taliban forces near Bagram. Airstrikes called in by Tiger 01 obliterated everything over a period of 6 hours. The following day the strategic Taliban garrison at Kala Ata, guarding the approaches to Taloqan, was also attacked. The raids lasted for over 4 hours.

Attacks also continued in the south in the Kandahar area and in the north in the Mazar-e-Sharif area. Within a week of this intense bombing the Taliban crumbled first at Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul and Jalalabad, and as a result they were in headlong flight to their stronghold at Kandahar. Team Tiger 02 helped General Dostrum capture Mazar-e-Sharif on 9 November 2001, seizing the vital airfield and opening the supply route to Uzebekistan. The team called in strikes directing US Marine Corps FA/-18 and AC-130 Spectre gunships to silence the deadly ZSU-23-4 and T-55s accounting for at least fifty vehicles.

In just a few days during early November the Taliban lost control of much of the country in the face of the Northern Alliance’s rapid ground offensive. Also in the prelude to the Northern Alliance’s advance, their old enemies the Russians shipped in several hundred tanks and APCs to help them. The dramatic collapse of the Taliban army was due to a combination of American air attacks, defections and an unprecedented level of cooperation between rival anti-Taliban factions. The Northern Alliance quickly gained control of most of the cities north of a line extending from Herat in the far north-west to Kabul in the east.

During the attack on Kabul on 11 November, Tiger 01 team accounted for twenty-nine tanks plus numerous vehicles and artillery pieces. Just three days later it was all over, Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance. Tiger 03 directed to help capture the city of Kunduz and destroyed fifty tanks, APCs, AAA and artillery.

Texas 11 helped General Daoud’s forces liberate Taloqan, the Northern Alliance’s former HQ, and capture Kunduz. On 17 November they called in airstrikes which claimed 5 tanks, 9 BRDM, 1 BTR-70 and 4 trucks. Between 14 and 29 November 2001, their battle-damage assessment included 12 Taliban tanks, 5 ZPU/ZSUs, 3 BMP/BM-2ls, 3 BTR-70/BRDMs and 51 lorries. Texas 12, assigned to Hamid Karzi, future interim president, at the town of Tarin Kowt, north of Kandahar, stopped a Taliban counter-attack involving over 80 vehicles including BRDM, and 35 to 45 of these were destroyed.

Within just three months of the air campaign commencing the Taliban government had been routed. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda suffered notable losses, particularly at Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz. The Taliban troops trapped in Kunduz surrendered, abandoning some 2,000-5,000 foreign supporters to flee or capitulate. After the fall of Kabul the Taliban retired to prepared positions in and around Kandahar, their spiritual heartland in the south. By the end of November, with the collapse of the Taliban field forces, the focus of the air campaign switched to the Kandahar area and Tora Bora near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

American air attacks were then directed against al-Qaeda terrorist camps in the south of Helmand province. Kandahar surrendered to opposition forces on 7 December 2001, without a fight. The al-Qaeda fighters trapped there, by the peaks and valleys of the 15,400ft White Mountains, had lost most of their heavy equipment. They had nothing with which to shoot back at the opposition forces’ exposed tanks perched on the foothills.

Despite the success of the CAS teams, the use of special forces in Afghanistan came in for some criticism. A former Green Beret said, ‘All special operations troops depend too much on technology and aerial support . . . The entire campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are flawed. Heavy handed and misuse of special operations troops — thus no relationships with locals and no real intelligence.’ In reality prior to the arrival of the American special forces much of the Taliban armour and aircraft had already been smashed at the Afghan storage depots and barracks. Nonetheless, the combination of these teams and American air power sealed the fate of the Taliban.

The stunned survivors from the Taliban’s armed forces and al-Qaeda fighters, perhaps over 1,000 men, fled to the Tora Bora stronghold high in the White Mountains late in 2001. Their intention was to use the base to conduct hit and run attacks on the Northern Alliance supporting the Coalition or make a last stand if necessary. Moscow’s advice to the Coalition was that this complex could prove to be impregnable if the defenders resisted to the last.

It was anticipated that the Tora Bora stronghold would be protected by minefields, ingenious booby traps and defended by Islamic fanatics prepared to resist to the last. The core of the defenders were thought to number 300, of whom half were Arabs and the rest Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Afghans. However, other estimates put them as strong as 1,500.

Washington decided that it would not deploy its 500 US Marines on standby at Kandahar, but leave it to its special forces and the Eastern Council to clear the caves. On the Pakistani side of the border Pakistan’s military kept the Khyber and Bati passes closed to try and prevent any terrorists slipping through undetected and then up into the unruly North West Frontier Province. As many as 2,000 al-Qaeda fighters were thought to have fled towards Pakistan.

British and American special forces were concentrated on suspected terrorist strongholds, particularly Tora Bora, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Babrak Khan, a Jalalabad resident who worked as a guard at an Arab base during the 1990s, said, ‘I saw Osama in the sixth or seventh truck and behind him were from 100 to 200 vehicles. At the end of the convoy were five armoured vehicles. Arabs from across the city were gathering here, coming from all directions.’ it was claimed bin Laden had helped the city’s former governor strike a deal with city elders so they could take control until the formation of an interim government. Having done that, he escaped to Tora Bora.

Meanwhile, Taliban leader Mohammed Omar and 500 of his supporters were thought to be besieged in the rugged mountains of the Bagran area, in northern Helmand. While the Tora Bora region was heavily bombed Afghan opposition forces under the Eastern Council started to advance into the area. These troops blocked off all escape routes prior to launching a major offensive on the region following the fall of Kandahar.

Operation Enduring Freedom – The Air War


A British military GR-9 Harrier aircraft conducts a combat patrol over Afghanistan. As the insurgency mounted these aircraft along with RAF Tornados and Army Air Corps Apaches provided valuable close air support for British ground troops.


The great wild goose chase for the al-Qaeda leadership. An American Blackhawk helicopter picks up men from 45 Commando during Operation Buzzard in the summer of 2002. Those Taliban not killed or captured scattered into the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even before Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan was a very troubled land having endured decades of war. After the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, its puppet regime eventually collapsed and the country was ruled by a loose confederation of constantly warring Mujahideen factions. They in turn were ousted in 1996 by the devoutly Islamic Taliban movement originating in the city of Kandahar. The former government forces, known as the Northern Alliance (or United Front – representing Afghanistan’s Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnic minorities), were largely pushed back to an enclave in the north-east of the country protected by the Hindu Kush.

Aiming to punish those responsible for 9/11, President Bush decided to use his air power and special forces to assist the Afghan Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban from Kabul and destroy al-Qaeda’s presence once and for all under OEF. This was to involve air strikes, using US Navy (USN) and strategic air assets as well as ship and submarine-launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), to hit terrorist-related facilities, the Taliban’s military infrastructure and their field forces.

OEF was directed by US Central Command (CENTCOM) from McDill Air Force Base, Florida. USN aircraft deployed to the region included F-14 Tomcat and F/A-1 8E/F Super Hornet fighter-bombers and global assets included heavy long-range B-IB, B-2A and B-52H strategic bombers. The US was not able to conduct any regional land-based fighter missions using USAF F-16, as crucially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan refused to allow any attacks to be conducted from their soil. Pakistan’s government, with its Pashtun population, brothers of the Pashtun Taliban, had to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

At least 50 per cent of the targets to be bombed were terrorist related. These included training camps, stores, safe houses and mountain hideouts. The camps were used to train Chechens, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Saudis, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and Yemenis. Their services were then exported back to their home countries. The bulk of the terrorist facilities was in the Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad areas and belonged to al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In particular Kandahar and Jalalabad were the favoured targets, as these locations were where Osama bin Laden and his cronies were most likely to have gone to ground. Kandahar was the stronghold of Bin Laden’s one-time ally, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Since its foundation the Taliban Air Force had been active and had flown over 150 sorties during the campaigns to capture the Northern Alliance’s capital at Taloqan. However, with the loss of Bagram air base in 1998 it was forced to destroy or disable many of its aircraft during its retreat from the Shomali plain. Against the Coalition air campaign the Taliban Air Force initially had about eight MiG-2 1, eight Su-22 and about four L-39 light jets plus a few Mi-8/17 helicopters. Most were simply destroyed on the ground in the opening hours of the air attacks.

It is almost impossible to get a consensus on the Taliban and Northern Alliance’s tank fleets. However, it would be fair to say that at the time of the American led offensive the Taliban had roughly about 300 tanks, mostly old Soviet-built T-55s and some T-62s, perhaps several hundred tracked BMP-1/2 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 500 wheeled BTR APCs and some BRDM scout cars. Taliban mobile rocket launchers included some Soviet BM-21 and BM-14, while there were probably no more than a handful of mobile surface-to-surface missile launchers of the Scud and FROG-7a/b variety. The biggest threat to US Air Force emanated from the Taliban’s SA-13 mobile surface-to-air missiles. The serviceability of all these vehicles was chronic and it is doubtful that even half were operational.

The goal of the air attacks was to enable the complete destruction of the Taliban regime and the creation of a broad-based successor government under UN auspices. Otherwise drugs, war and terrorism would remain a way of life for another twenty years. In light of their victories over the Northern Alliance and previous experience against the Soviets, the Taliban was not expected to crumble easily. Well before the air strikes started the Afghan economy was already in tatters, and the continuing civil war had prevented any recovery.

The UN identified intensified drug production with the economic, social and political collapse in Afghanistan caused by over two decades of civil war Afghanistan, a long-established centre of opiate production, after the Taliban’s seizure of power in 1996 emerged as the main global supplier of opium. By the late 1990s it accounted for some 75 per cent of the world’s opium. It is probable that the trafficking impacted on the Taliban war effort against the Northern Alliance and other factions, as well as its support for regional Islamic guerrilla movements.

Under the Taliban, taxation ceased, foreign investment dried up and there was rampant inflation. The situation was exacerbated in 1998 when Saudi Arabia withdrew essential financial support to the Taliban for harbouring bin Laden. By then he was wanted for various attacks on American interests in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Yemen.

It was unclear just how far the Taliban relied on these drug revenues to maintain the tempo of their military operations and support for international terrorism. However, it was self-evident from the level of anti-narcotics activity that neighbouring states, such as Iran, were forced to undertake that Afghanistan’s narcotics trafficking was a major problem. To the west and east, Iran and Pakistan previously attempted to crack down on drug smuggling across their borders. Ironically, Pakistan’s success simply resulted in pushing heroin manufacturing into Afghanistan. Iran in turn expended considerable resources trying to control the well-armed drug warlords.

Profits generated from narcotic exports helped to fund the Afghan civil war. Nevertheless, it remained unclear what percentage of revenues actually reached central Taliban coffers; local Taliban probably benefited the most from drug taxes. The production and smuggling of drugs across Asia also became a vital source of revenue for terrorist and international criminal organisations. This endangered the security and stability of a region threatened by further upheaval.

Beyond Afghanistan’s borders to the north, in the Central Asian states, Afghan drug money and organised crime assisted pro-Taliban opposition groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the former United Tajik Opposition. Also ethnic Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang province (bordering Afghanistan and Tajikistan) were known to have trained in Afghanistan with the IMU. The Uighurs had been agitating against central Chinese authority for years, necessitating a number of large Chinese military operations against them. The IMU was particularly troublesome in the Fergana Valley straddling Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, American bombing was to target the 3,000 IMU fighters supporting the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

Bush’s air war opened on 7 October 2001, with B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and B-2s flying from Whitman Air Force Base, Missouri. The latter flew on to Diego Garcia after a record 44 hours in the air and six air-to-air refuellings. These bombers were joined by carrier based F-14 and F/A-1 8 fighter-bombers operating from the aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, while some fifty Tomahawks were also launched. The Royal Navy fired two small batches of TLAMs, and the RAF contributed several hundred reconnaissance and tanker refuelling sorties in support. British air support, although small, was significant compared with that of other nations. France’s contribution consisted of reconnaissance flights using Mirage IVP and C.160G ELINT (Electronic intelligence) aircraft and an intelligence-gathering ship. Italy volunteered tactical reconnaissance, air-to-air refuelling, transport aircraft and a naval group. In addition, Turkey announced it would send special forces to train the Northern Alliance.

The key achievement of the intense air attacks was the swift acquisition of air superiority through the destruction of the Taliban’s rudimentary air force, air defences and early warning systems. Only isolated SA-I 3 and man-portable surface-to-air missiles were believed to pose a low-altitude threat. As well as attacking the Taliban’s infrastructure, Coalition assets also struck vulnerable dispersal areas, catching exposed Taliban armour in the hills outside Herat. The US Department of Defense released imagery of the air strikes on airfields at Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, vehicle depots at Kandahar and Pol-e-Charkhi, Herat army barracks and a Kabul radio station, to name but a few targets.

Ironically, initially the air campaign did not greatly affect the Taliban’s rudimentary infrastructure or ability to wage war against the Northern Alliance, only its ability to resist Coalition air attack. The Northern Alliance had little in the way of an air force that posed a threat to the Taliban air defences. Until the concentrated attacks on the Taliban’s field forces, the degradation of the Taliban’s communications was the greatest hindrance to their conduct of the civil war against the Northern Alliance. The American special forces’ raids on 19 October 2001 against a command and control facility and an airfield near Kandahar illustrated the Coalition’s freedom of operations on the ground. However, it was B-52 carpet-bombing, coupled with Taliban defections and withdrawals, which produced dramatic results and hastened the end of organised resistance. By the close of October air strikes began to shift away from high-profile urban targets toward Taliban front-line positions.

Heavy strikes, including carpet-bombing, were conducted on 31 October against Taliban forces near Bagram, 30 miles north of Kabul. These attacks lasting several hours were the most intense against Taliban front-line positions since the air campaign began. The following day the strategic Taliban garrison at Kala Ata, guarding the approaches to Taloqan, was also attacked. The raid lasted for over 4 hours and windows were allegedly broken up to 15 miles away as a consequence. Attacks also continued in the Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif areas. Within a week of this intense bombing the Taliban crumbled first at Mazar-e-Sharif, then Kabul and Jalalabad, their forces in headlong retreat to Kandahar.

US air strikes continued against regrouping Taliban/al-Qaeda forces and their facilities in eastern Afghanistan. These were concentrated in Paktia province against Zhawar Kili, site of the Soviet-backed offensive in 1987. The facility first suffered American air strikes in 1998, in retaliation for the attacks on American embassies in East Africa. According to the US, on 28 December 2001 they bombed a walled compound and bunker associated with the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in Paktia province. The media subsequently claimed the attack killed up to 100 innocent civilians.

Sustained raids were conducted on both Zhawar Kili and anti-aircraft defences near the town of Khost. The US feared that Zhawar Kili was going to be another Tora Bora. General Richard Myers of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said, ‘We have found this complex to be very, very extensive. It covers a large area. When we ask people how large they often describe it as huge.’ The camp was composed of three separate training areas and two cave complexes. US Marines and special forces moved into the areas after an initial wave of strikes by B-1 and B-52 bombers and carrier-based Navy fighters. They then piled up unexploded ammunition and heavy weapons, which were destroyed by a second series of air attacks.

Despite three attacks on the complex over a four-day period by US aircraft, surviving al-Qaeda leaders repeatedly tried to regroup at a warren of caves and bunkers. One strike on the Zhawar Kili training camp hit tanks and artillery, but it was feared the terrorists remained. The pressure on the Taliban was unrelenting. On 6 January 2002 strikes on Khost and the Zhawar Kili training camp were among 118 sorties flown by American air assets over Afghanistan.

US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations I


Organizational change and doctrinal definition did not adequately prepare independent tank battalions for actual combat conditions. The first encounter with German forces occurred in December 1942 during combat in Tunisia. A company of the 70th Tank Battalion was roughly handled and suffered extensive losses. The effectiveness of independent tank battalions tended to improve over time, but they could not always secure their own materiel and personnel requirements. Replacements and parts proved difficult to obtain since the independent tank battalions belonged to no division. As attachments, their needs often received a low priority from senior commanders more concerned with permanently assigned organizations.

The independent tank battalions also gained a reputation for ineffectiveness. Consequently, infantry divisions preferred to seek armored support from armored divisions whose tank battalions they considered better led and combat worthy. In some instances, infantry commanders requested armored division support, deliberately ignoring the presence of separate tank units already assigned. Avoidance of the independent tank battalions reflected the higher profile of the armored divisions and the attention given these formations. The second-string status afforded the independent tank battalions by the Armored Force did little to ensure they received the best personnel.

In North Africa and Italy, the 1st Armored Division tried to improve the leadership and effectiveness of several independent tank battalions. It did so by replacing the battalion commanders with officers from its own ranks. Later, preparing to breakout from the Anzio beachhead, the 1st Armored Division grouped all independent tank battalions under its supervision. The formation then assumed responsibility for meeting all training, supply, and maintenance requirements.

Despite these improvements, combat operations in 1944 continued to reflect difficulties in tank-infantry coordination. Combined operations by tanks and dismounted forces received insufficient emphasis in stateside training programs. Proposed solutions included pairing a tank battalion and an infantry division for combined training and employing them in combat as a team. Field commanders recommended a more permanent alignment of tank units and infantry formations, stimulated by their own combat experience and the German Army’s embodiment of this concept in its panzer grenadier divisions.

Tank battalions were intended for temporary attachment to infantry divisions. The effectiveness of their support increased with the length of attachment. Longer assignments improved teamwork and cohesion. Hence, where possible, corps and army headquarters in the European Theater of Operations sought to keep the same tank battalions and infantry divisions together. Regular attachment to the same infantry formation helped eliminate the perception among infantry commanders that the tank battalions were not part of the division team.

Routine attachments between specific tank battalions and infantry divisions never became universal. While semipermanent attachments predominated in Third Army, some tank units experienced nearly continuous reattachment, which precluded the establishment of tactical cohesion. In Italy, for example, one tank battalion underwent eleven different reattachments in a thirty-one-day period. An additional four reassignments were planned but subsequently aborted. The same unit had already logged six hundred miles during the months of May and June 1944 alone. This mileage reflected continuous operations that generated vehicle maintenance and crew fatigue problems. Unfortunately, the actual combat status of the vehicles remained largely invisible. Designated a corps asset, the unit remained on standby status until a subordinate division requested tank support. The tank battalion was dispatched, the operation conducted, and the battalion made available for a new assignment. Each new division assumed the tank unit was fresh and employed it accordingly. Consequently, the unit drifted from one mission to the next until its combat effectiveness evaporated.

Poor planning and coordination only compounded the problem of continuous reattachment. Each support assignment necessitated shifting armored liaison teams, obtaining new information on friendly force plans, and developing a fresh situational analysis to guide the manner in which tanks would enter combat. These actions required time that often was not available, and they simply were not conducted. Tank battalion commanders in Italy often entered combat with little situational awareness other than what they could observe themselves. To overcome this problem, they created their own liaison officers to coordinate operations with infantry divisions, regwiments, and battalions. Even this solution was nullified by the all-too-often receipt of vague, last-minute orders. Liaison aircraft, when available, offered better results. They were employed to identify friendly force dispositions, targets, and potential ambush locations.

Even stabilized attachments did not ensure harmony between the tank battalion and supported infantry. Because infantry units did not routinely train with tanks, infantry officers often had little knowledge of tank capabilities or requirements. Consequently, they employed tank support without respect to their special needs and planning requirements.

Infantry officers at the battalion, regiment, and division staff levels all required better education in tank operations. Tank battalion commanders sought to improvise their own solutions. The 743d Tank Battalion, for example, divided its staff into three sections and assigned each to an infantry regiment in the division supported. These sections provided information and advice concerning armored operations. Still better results were obtained when an infantry formation undertook training with tank units. Some formations established their own training lanes and worked through tactical exercises with attached tank units. In this manner the 29th Infantry Division achieved considerable cohesion with the 747th Tank Battalion.

Similarly, tank-infantry teams in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations did not always work well together, resulting in separation and combat losses. Sixth Army had several instances of tank units advancing and seizing an objective only to retreat because of the absence of supporting infantry to secure the position. Ineffective engineer support resulted in significant numbers of tanks becoming immobilized during stream crossings or destroyed by mines. Too often tanks found themselves isolated without any dismounted support. They quickly became the targets of Japanese close-assault tactics.

Although tanks and tank destroyers proved effective in reducing strong points and fortified positions, infantry commanders either distrusted the weapon, as in the case of the tank destroyer, or did not understand how best to employ it. On Okinawa, the lack of confidence expressed by infantry commanders toward supporting armor undermined effective cooperation. Efforts to micromanage tank usage without regard to the recommendations of armored personnel generated friction and reduced combat effectiveness. As the island battle continued, greater cohesion began to emerge and more latitude was granted to tank commanders in the conduct of their assigned operations. Teamwork began to characterize tank-infantry action. Tanks blasted caves and ridgelines immediately before the advance of riflemen. Flamethrower tanks then followed to eliminate all vestiges of resistance.

Regardless of the level of teamwork, tank-infantry teams suffered from poor communications on the battlefield. This problem became particularly acute during operations in the Normandy bocage in June and July 1944. For six weeks Allied forces struggled through several hundred square miles of fields bordered by thick hedges sunk into high embankments. These hedgerows impeded both infantry and vehicular movement, requiring ground forces to develop ad hoc techniques to breach them. The Germans became adept at organizing integrated defenses in these hedgerows that transformed the enclosed farmlands into killing fields for Allied forces.

The Normandy hedgerows limited tank employment to platoon and section elements. Tanks provided close fire support to advancing infantry, but the tank radios did not work on the same frequency as the handsets used by the infantry. Too often planned attacks disintegrated under enemy fire. The infantry became pinned while the tanks drove off unaware of the plight of the riflemen. The inability of the infantry to communicate with the armor via radio resulted in desperate attempts to recall the tanks. Infantry climbed on the tanks and banged on the hatches, threw rocks at the vehicles, and even fired short machine-gun bursts at the turrets. None of these measures produced the desired result, particularly in the close, complex terrain of the hedgerows, where the wary tankers were more likely to consider all such activity hostile.

Issuing infantry handsets to tank commanders proved more effective, but the riflemen possessed only limited numbers of such radios. Those ones lent to the tankers tended to suffer high loss rates. Some units therefore mounted on the back of the tanks field phones that linked into the vehicles’ intercom systems. This setup permitted the infantry company or platoon commander to talk directly to the armored leader. The simple solution worked in combat, and it became a trademark of American tanks in the postwar years. Although common in the First and Ninth Armies, this solution to battlefield communications never became universal and problems of tank-infantry coordination plagued the Army to the war’s end. Even where the field phones were available, infantry personnel were not always trained in their use. Tank crews also found that field-phone use increased the rate of radiotube burnout and drained the vehicle’s batteries. It also lowered the volume of the tank’s internal communication system-a potentially serious problem in combat. In the Pacific Theater, soldiers using the field phone became sniper targets.


US Army Independent Tank Battalion Combat Operations II


Tank battalion combat effectiveness also depended on vehicle maintenance. These units included only limited maintenance assets. Generally, maintenance suffered from deficiencies in spare parts and tank transporters and many personnel lacked training in tank maintenance skills. The transient status of the tank battalions often resulted in minimal support from the heavy ordnance companies assigned to parent corps and division formations. Continuous reattachment precluded the establishment of a steady source of parts and maintenance support. Consequently, the tank battalions faced a burgeoning maintenance problem during the course of sustained combat activity.

The 746th Tank Battalion remained in continuous operations from June through November 1944, during a period when no extensive maintenance occurred. The state of the vehicles suffered accordingly. Even when sufficient spare parts were obtained, the battalion had insufficient transport for them. In combat, its recovery vehicles proved less than useful. When advanced to extract knocked-out or disabled tanks, their unique look quickly drew enemy fire. Consequently, the battalion resorted to using tanks to tow tanks. This practice saved recovery vehicles but increased the automotive wear on the combat vehicles.

Many of these maintenance problems could and were overcome when a division or corps headquarters deliberately sought to alleviate them. In the XX Corps, an ordnance company was designated to serve all attached tank battalions. This arrangement resulted in excellent maintenance support. Indeed, the level of support was considered the best in the European Theater. In Italy, the 1st Armored Division made similar provisions to sustain separate tank battalions with equally positive results. Some commanders sought a simpler solution by trying to obtain tanks with Ford engines, which were believed to require less maintenance.

The problems associated with the separate tank battalions led to recommendations for their elimination in the postwar era. In lieu of a pool of battalions for attachment, the wartime experience encouraged a desire to make tank battalions organic to the infantry division. Infantry and armored leaders believed that such an arrangement would eliminate the cohesion, coordination, and attachment problems experienced during combat operations. Other recommendations included the removal of the light-tank and mortar companies and the addition of a properly equipped and trained ordnance company.

These proposals aimed at improving tank-infantry coordination within the infantry division rather than the elimination of the tank support. By war’s end the independent tank battalions had evolved into important assets. They had demonstrated their worth in hedgerow, wooded, and urban terrain-areas previously considered off-limits to tanks. The principal wartime difficulties included lack of combined-arms training, ineffective communications, and a doctrine that reflected prewar notions of tank massing rather than the actual needs of infantry formations. Once independent tank battalions overcame these difficulties, their effectiveness increased.

Rejection of Independent Tank Battalion Doctrine

Imbued with the doctrine of mass, the independent tank battalions deployed to theaters of operation. The notion of employing tanks in battalion or multibattalion concentrations, however, did not survive contact with infantry division commanders. Once attached to a division, the medium tanks were broken into company and platoon increments and given support missions with different infantry battalions. The most common distribution was one medium tank platoon per infantry battalion, but no universal standard applied. Within the 12th Army Group, for example, tanks were sometimes assigned to support infantry on the basis of one company per regiment. However allocated, the mission of the tanks remained the same: support the main effort as indicated by the infantry division, regiment, or battalion commander.

The de facto breakup of the tank battalions into platoon parcels nullified the rationale behind the battalion’s self-contained organization. The medium tank companies constituted the principal combat power of the battalion. Scattered among different infantry regiments and battalions, the tank battalion remnant possessed little intrinsic value as a combat unit. It too was split among different functions. The light tank company found employment conducting special operations for the supported division or providing an additional reconnaissance asset. Alternatively, some divisions used light-tank platoons to reinforce the medium-tank companies. However, the weak armor and armament of the light tanks limited their use in this capacity. The battalion’s mortar platoon was either not employed, or it reinforced the infantry division’s mortars. The reconnaissance platoon performed route and bivouac reconnaissance or liaison functions. The assault gun platoon often was organized into three sections, each assigned to a medium tank company for additional firepower.

Without a unit to command, the battalion headquarters lost much of its purpose. The battalion commander served as an armored adviser to the division commander, whereas the battalion’s staff continued to provide administrative support to the scattered tank units. Maintenance and supply functions became problematical, because no direct conduit existed between the battalion headquarters and the tanks. Arguably, the most effective use of the battalion staff lay in the role of liaison officers. In this capacity, they could at least participate-albeit indirectly-in the combat employment of the tank companies and platoons.

Assignment of the battalion’s single artillery forward observer constituted another problem. Most tank companies had no designated forward observer. Instead they relied on tank platoon leaders to call for fire missions. However, these commanders lacked training in this task, and their effectiveness varied. Recommendations to cross-train tank and field artillery officers soon resulted. In any event, the availability of artillery support could not be guaranteed, even when a trained observer was present. In the Ninth Army, for example, artillery support became a rarity after an attached observer was nearly killed on two different occasions.

The dispersal of tank assets reduced the level of armored support from an entire battalion to companies and platoons. Against fortified positions, in urban settings, and in the Normandy hedgerows, tank sections constituted the principal form of tank support. Leading assaults, providing support by fire and bunker busting, and sometimes acting as reinforcing artillery were all common missions. The tanks generally moved with the infantry and engaged targets that threatened or obstructed the latter. Against fortifications they provided suppressive fire that permitted engineers to close with and destroy the defensive works. On the defensive, tanks were often assigned a sector to support and tank platoon leaders prepared contingency plans for a counterattack. Foreshadowing the Korean War experience, tanks sometimes were used as static pillboxes.

In the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations, tank battalions faced a different type of threat. The Japanese Army did not possess a strong tank force; its tanks were usually used in small numbers to support infantry actions. However, Japanese infantry employed a variety of techniques to destroy or immobilize American tanks. Mines were used extensively along trails used by tanks; infantry frequently attacked tanks, using surrounding jungle terrain to get close to the vehicles; ambushes staged near knocked-out vehicles targeted recovery teams. In defensive engagements with American forces, Japanese soldiers employed extensive fortifications and natural terrain obstacles, forcing attackers to expend time and casualties to remove them.

American tank battalions thus found themselves employed in companies and platoons against local objectives not unlike their counterparts in Europe. They spearheaded infantry attacks, provided fire support, and used their weapons to suppress or eliminate specific positions. They also served in an artillery role, providing fire support directed by a spotter. To thwart Japanese night attacks, tank spotlights were used to highlight targets for supporting infantry to engage. Tank mobility proved sufficient to keep pace with the infantry, but the rugged terrain in the jungles and on some of the Pacific islands often resulted in mired tanks.

Wesley Merritt


During the Spanish-American War, U.S. Army major general Wesley Merritt  commanded VIII Corps, the expeditionary force sent to the Philippines.

Wesley Merritt

Birth Date: June 16, 1836

Death Date: December 10, 1910

U. S. Army officer.

Wesley Merritt was born in New York City on June 16, 1836. He attended the United States Military Academy, West Point, graduating in the middle of his class in 1860. Following graduation, he served in Utah with the 2nd Dragoons. The American Civil War brought Lieutenant Merritt’s transfer to the East. There he turned out to be a superb cavalry officer. As a captain, he distinguished himself in the Gettysburg Campaign in the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863), the largest cavalry engagement in the history of North America. Receiving further notice, he was breveted brigadier general of volunteers and commanded the reserve cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.

Assigned temporary command of a division in May 1864, Merritt again fought with distinction in the Battle of Todd’s Tavern on May 7, the largest dismounted cavalry engagement of the war. Following further distinguished service, especially the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, he received permanent command of the 1st Cavalry Division of Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, leading it in a number of important Union victories. During the Appomattox Campaign of April 1865, Merritt commanded the Cavalry Corps as a brevet major general of Volunteers.

Following the Civil War, Merritt remained with the regular army as a lieutenant colonel and commander of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, one of two African American regiments in the army. This began 17 years of service on the frontier and extensive fighting against hostile Native Americans in the West. In 1876, he received promotion to colonel and took command of the 5th Cavalry Regiment, fighting in the Great Sioux War of 1876, the pursuit of the Nez Perce and in the Bannock War (1877-1878), and the Ute War (1879).

In 1882, Merritt became superintendent of West Point, serving in that position until his promotion to brigadier general in 1887. He then assumed command of the Department of the Missouri at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. From 1895 to 1897, he commanded the Department of the Missouri, the Department of Dakota, and Department of the East, respectively. In 1893, he wrote a book, The Armies of Today. In the book and in articles, he advocated a large and modern regular U. S. Army. He also supported U. S. imperial expansion.

Nearing retirement age at the beginning of the Spanish- American War, Major General Merritt was the second-ranking officer in the army. On the outbreak of war, he asked for command of VIII Corps. Appointed to that position on May 12, he was informed that the corps would be headed to the Philippines. On May 19, he received his instructions to defeat the Spanish, pacify the islands, and hold them for the United States but not to ally his forces with those of Filipino insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy. Although the instructions left vague the future of the islands, Merritt assumed that they would be annexed by the United States.

Merritt did what he could to organize his corps prior to departure, making it a point to secure suitable tropical uniforms and supplies for the soldiers, which may have reduced deaths from heat-related illness and disease. He sailed for the Philippines in the Newport, departing San Francisco on June 29 and arriving at Manila in late July.

Styling Aguinaldo a “Chinese half-breed adventurer,” Merritt followed his instructions of operating independently of the insurgent forces, which had surrounded Manila. Rear Admiral George Dewey negotiated with the Spanish commander, General Fermin Jaudenes y Alvarez, agreeing to stage a small symbolic battle on August 13 to satisfy Spanish honor while at the same time excluding the Filipino revolutionaries. The occupation of Manila on August 14 proceeded smoothly, and Merritt’s troops quickly established order in the city. He issued a proclamation promising support and protection to all those cooperating with the U. S. troops.

On August 30, Merritt transferred command of VIII Corps to Major General Elwell S. Otis and departed the islands for Paris to brief the U. S. peace commissioners meeting with their Spanish counterparts in Paris. There, Merritt told the commissioners that it was his opinion that the United States should annex the Philippines and that the majority of Filipinos would welcome American rule.

In December 1898, Merritt assumed command of the Department of the East. He retired from the army in 1900 and died in Natural Bridge, Virginia, on December 10, 1910.

Further Reading Alberts, Don E. Brandy Station to Manila Bay: A Biography of General Wesley Merritt. Austin, TX: Presidial, 1980. Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994. Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 1899-1902. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. Feuer, A. B. America at War: The Philippines, 1898-1913. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Philippine Expeditionary Force

Pasig US soldiers behind wall March 15-16 1899

Soldiers of the Philippine Expeditionary Force stand behind a cemetery wall waiting for an insurgent attack in 1899 during the Philippine-American War.

As a follow-up to Commodore George Dewey’s naval victory over the Spanish squadron in the Philippines in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, President William McKinley directed that an expeditionary force be sent to the islands. On May 3, commanding general of the army Major General Nelson A. Miles initially recommended to Secretary of War Russell A. Alger the dispatch there of a mixed force of regulars and volunteers, composed of some 5,000 infantry, cavalry, and artillery troops.

Major General Wesley Merritt, veteran of the American Civil War and the Indian Wars and the second-ranking general in the army, was appointed to command the expeditionary force, which was designated VIII Corps. Major General Elwell S. Otis, like Merritt another veteran of the Civil War and Indian Wars, was named its second-in-command. Although the War Department subsequently increased the strength of the expeditionary force to 20,000 men, Merritt argued for a stronger representation of regulars in this force than Miles was willing to allot. Furthermore, Merritt believed that his assignment embraced the entire Philippine archipelago, whereas Miles saw only the city of Manila and its port facilities as the objective. The fact that the army’s two ranking soldiers differed to such an extent with regard to the expedition’s role underscores the ambiguity surrounding the U. S. mission in the Philippines, about which President McKinley had been vague at best. In any event, a mixed force of 5,000 regulars and 15,000 volunteers was earmarked for VIII Corps.

San Francisco was the VIII Corps assembly and embarkation point. The troops were assigned to Camp Merritt, near Golden Gate Park. Because Merritt was busy in Washington, D. C., Otis had charge of preparing the expeditionary corps for departure. As the various regiments arrived there, they were issued weapons and supplies and given training in simulated battle exercises. In contrast to the confusion experienced by V Corps at Tampa, Florida, which was then sent to Cuba, preparations at San Francisco proceeded relatively smoothly.

Troops being sent to the Philippines knew little or nothing about the islands. It took several months for the Office of Military Information to distribute its sourcebook, Military Notes on the Philippines. In the meantime, the War Department provided such information as was available, including at least one encyclopedia article.

Because the U. S. Navy had bought up most of the available shipping and because the Cuban theater of war had priority, there were insufficient numbers of transports available to accommodate Merritt’s entire command in one lift, so VIII Corps had to be divided into three contingents. The first, consisting of 115 officers and 2,386 enlisted men under Brigadier General Thomas M. Anderson, sailed on May 25, 1898. After more than a month at sea, they arrived in Manila Bay on June 30. They were immediately put to work unloading supplies at Cavite and establishing camps. A second group, consisting of 158 officers and 3,404 enlisted men under Brigadier General Francis V. Greene, departed on June 15 and arrived in the Philippines on July 17. The third and largest contingent, 198 officers and 4,642 enlisted men under Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur and accompanied by Merritt, sailed on June 27 and arrived at its destination on July 25. The total of these three forces was 10,946 officers and men, all members of VIII Corps, arrived in the Philippines before the capture of Manila.

Merritt’s first task was to secure Manila. This First Battle of Manila occurred on August 13, although Merritt was unaware that Spain and the United States had agreed to the Protocol of Peace the previous day. At his own request, Merritt was relieved of command in the autumn of 1898 because of ill health, and command of the Philippine Expeditionary Force devolved to Otis. Initially, Otis was faced with the difficult task of maintaining peace and order among recalcitrant Filipino revolutionaries who resented the U. S. presence in their islands.

When war broke out between the United States and the Filipino Republican Army, headed by Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy, in February 1899, Otis had to deal not only with Aguinaldo but also increasingly disgruntled U. S. volunteers. Once the war with Spain ended, these volunteers, who had been mustered into federal service to fight Spain, saw no reason to remain in the Philippines and fight a war against Filipino insurgents. Eventually, the volunteers were shipped back to the United States and replaced with U. S. volunteer regiments recruited specifically for the Philippine fighting. The Philippine Expeditionary Force that sailed from San Francisco in the early summer of 1898 had undergone an almost complete transformation by early 1900.