Soviet Parachute Operations – January-March 1942

The Soviet Union was one of the first countries to realize the unique potential of parachute forces. As early as 1927 there were reports of parachute troops being used against bandits in Central Asia. Within the next two to three years Leonid G. Minov began to organize the first military parachute units. He traveled to the United States to study parachute strategy and techniques employed in air rescue missions. He returned to his country with a supply of American-made Irvin parachutes. In April 1930, Soviet industry produced its first run of domestic parachutes, not surprisingly patterned on the Irvin style.

In a parallel development, General Mikhail Tukhachevski, commander of the Leningrad Military District, began theorizing about and earnestly exploring the plausibility of using airborne troops. Tukhachevski was one of a group of farsighted Soviet military officers who developed the concept of deep battle. This military concept seemed ready made for the employment of parachute troops.

The earliest Soviet involvement with parachute operations went through several phases of development. This was especially true with air delivery techniques. As with many novel developments in military planning, airborne troop theory outpaced the practical aspects of plane design and implementation. The first paratroopers exited their transport plane by climbing through a hole in the top of the fuselage. They then had to crawl along the spine before making their way out along a wing. From the wing the paratroopers rolled off and deployed their parachutes using a rip-cord system. Later Soviet plane designers added small compartments that were constructed under each wing. Paratroopers were then transported to the target areas and dropped like bombs over their drop zones. Still later, Minov switched from the ripcord method of opening parachutes to the static line concept. This method consisted of hooking deployment lines attached to the backpack of the parachute to a fixed cable inside the airplane. The act of jumping out of the plane stretched the static line to its maximum length and the falling paratrooper’s body pulled the parachute pack opening tie loose, thus deploying the parachute.

Stalin’s military purges of the late 1930s robbed the Red Army of its top leadership. The parachute force was especially hard hit and lost virtually all of its leadership down to about the rank of major. Included in the first round of purges was Tukhachevski himself. Despite the severe impact of the purges, experimentation with unit size or mission types continued. Parallel studies were conducted as to methods of transport and coordination with other units in the Army. By June 1941 there were five airborne corps in the Red Army, each consisting of about 10,000 troopers. These corps had been built from the cadres of the five Airborne Brigades (the 201st, 204th, 211th, 212th, and 214th). These brigades had been the standard unit until changes were initiated sometime in 1940. The corps consisted of three airborne brigades, each composed of four battalions of 678 men each. The organization of airborne forces looked like this:

1st Airborne Corps(Kiev Military District)

1st, 204th, and 211th Brigades

2nd Airborne Corps(Kharkov Military District)

2nd, 3rd, and 4th Brigades

3rd Airborne Corps(Odessa Military District)

5th, 6th, and 212th Brigades

4th Airborne Corps(Western Special Military District)

7th, 8th, and 214th Brigades

5th Airborne Corps(Baltic Special Military District)

9th, 10th, and 201st Brigades

202nd Brigade(Far Eastern Military District)

The most immediate problem faced by the Soviets, which was problematic to most of the countries that employed parachute forces, was the lack of transport aircraft. Soviet production of transports had to be cut in order to satisfy a more pressing need for fighters and bombers. Among the few transport crews available most had no experience in formation flying, night navigation, or combat operations. To complicate things even more, the Lutfwaffe had maintained complete dominance in the air since the German invasion in June 1941. This air superiority severely restricted the use of Soviet airborne troops in their original capacity.

The Soviets were now confronted with the necessity of employing the deep battle concept. Soviet parachute forces, or “Locust Warriors” as they were called, were now deployed on missions that required them to link up with local partisan units in the areas where they were active. The paratroopers then became responsible for supplying, training, and leading these partisans in combat operations. All these operations were coordinated within the framework of larger army battle strategy or front missions.

Soviet airborne forces were first employed on a major scale during the defense of Moscow. In the early winter of 1941, the German Fourth Army and Fourth Panzer Army ground to a virtual halt just 25 miles from Moscow. Facing the Germans were the Russian Tenth and Thirty-third Armies. German forward advances were thwarted and the battle lines became stabilized just east of the area that included Vyazma and Yukhnov. The supply trucks, on which the Germans relied heavily, had to pass through these towns. To arrive at their forward positions, these German convoys had to pass several pockets of partisan activity. These partisan forces began to grow more active. Soon they were conducting raids to interdict supply routes in the areas west and south of Vyazma and in the area of Yukhnov.

In order to assist a counterattack forming on its left wing, the Red Army’s West Front (Army Group) ordered an airborne assault to seize key air, road, and rail transport facilities. The goal was to block any further movement of German supplies, equipment, and reserves from reaching the front. For the next two months, the Soviets began conducting airborne assaults. These were conducted mostly at night and against targets along both supply routes. Most of the airborne units involved belonged to 4th Airborne Corps. Original plans called for the entire corps to be dropped but combat developments, as they so often do, forced a change in these plans. One of these developments was weather. By early January 1942 the temperature had dropped to minus 44 degrees in the area around Vyazma.

On the evening of 2/3 January 1942, the airborne phase began when 348 men of the 1st Battalion, 201st Airborne Brigade, under the command of Captain I.A. Surzhik jumped in the vicinity of the airfield at Myatlevo. This was east of Yukhnov and along the southern supply route. The airborne unit’s mission was to clear and secure the airfield for the air-landing of the 250th Rifle Regiment. In addition, the battalion was to capture and hold the bridge over the Shanya River. Surzhik’s battalion landed successfully but then the weather quickly worsened. The next two days were spent clearing snow from the airfield while also repulsing several counterattacks by the Germans.

Eventually the Soviet high command decided not to send in the 250th. The parachute battalion was ordered to begin independent activities. For the next two weeks the battalion conducted several guerrilla-style raids, overrunning several German garrisons near Gribovo and Maslovo. Since holding the Shanya River bridge was now implausible, Surzhik and his men blew it before infiltrating back to their lines.

On the night of 3/4 January, the remnants of an improvised airborne detachment under the command of Captain I.G. Starchak was deployed. This unit, originally composed of 415 men plus 50 men from 214th Airborne Brigade, had been used in a combat jump to the northwest of Moscow in December. The current plan called for Starchak’s men to jump near the Bolshoye Fatyanova airfield. The transport, however, dropped the paratroopers over a widely scattered area due mainly to heavy German antiaircraft fire. In fact, six of the planes returned to their airfields without having dropped their paratroopers. On the evening of 7/8 January, Starchak and his unit seized the Myatlevo train station and blew up all the rolling stock to be found in the vicinity. By 20 January, Starchak was wounded and had only 87 men left under his command. Remnants of his unit finally were able to join up with elements of advancing army units near Nikolskoya.

In the early morning hours of 18 January, 1/201st and part of 2/201st Airborne Brigade jumped into a scattered area between Znamenka airfield and the village of Zhelanke. This area was about halfway between Vyazma and Yukhnov. Their mission was to seize and secure this airfield for a follow-on air-land operation that was to bring a rifle regiment into the field. The units were then to move south to Yukhnov and cut off the supply route. This action was designed to support the advance of the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps against Myatlevo. The jump operation was unopposed. Surzhik’s unit formed up first and attacked a German unit at the airfield. The Germans, however, held. Rather than suffer further casualties in an attempt to capture the airfield, Surzhik and his men created an improvised airstrip near the village of Plesnovo and radioed that they were ready to receive the air-land elements. Immediately, the remaining 200 men of 2/201st air-landed, accompanied by the control group for the overall operation. Between 20 and 22 January, the 250th Rifle Regiment also landed in force.

The Germans, noting the volume of nighttime air activity, became concerned about a railroad bridge on the Ugra River, south of Vyazma. Virtually all of their important supply trains, running south, had to use this bridge and to have it captured or destroyed would seriously interrupt this logistical flow. Therefore, four rifle companies were dispatched to secure the bridge. Their movement was essentially lateral traffic behind the German front. However, when the Germans arrived on 1 February they were immediately attacked by Surzhik’s battalion. Although they could not destroy this enemy threat, the Soviets had the Germans surrounded and railroad traffic was effectively stopped.

According to plan, 2/201st and most of the 250th Rifle Regiment units fought their way south toward Yukhnov and the supply route. The rest of the Soviet forces remained at the airfield to block the north-south road between Vyazma and Yukhnov. On 25 January, 1st Guards Cavalry Corps broke through the German lines, crossed the southern supply route, and continued north to link up with the airborne units.

Between 27 January and 4 February 1942, the three brigades of 4th Airborne Corps (7th, 8th, and 214th) were dropped piecemeal in the general vicinity of Vyazma. They landed along the northern supply route with the mission to cut the northern rollbhan that ran from Smolensk through Vyazma. Most of the drops were not very concentrated due to the inexperience of the Soviet transport pilots. During the day Luftwaffe bombers attacked airfields that were being used to drop and resupply the paratroopers. By night, the airfields were repaired and put back into use. Bad weather finally put a stop to all air operations.

On 3 February, the Soviet Thirty-third Army drove a wedge five miles deep between the two German armies. The Germans quickly regrouped, cutting this salient and sealing it off. A five-division corps was then assigned the mission of reducing this pocket and clearing the parachutists who were threatening Vyazma and the northern supply route. Despite horrid weather, some of the pockets had been eliminated and supplies were rolling into Vyazma on a regular basis by mid-month.

From 17 to 23 February, more Soviet paratroopers (2/8th Airborne Brigade, 4/204th Airborne Brigade, and all of 9th and 214th Airborne Brigades) had jumped into the general areas of Staritsa, Monchalova, Okorokova, and Zhelanye. Of the 7,373 dropped, some 5,000 paratroopers managed to quickly assemble and continued on their mission to attack toward Yukhnov. Once the drops had been completed the units moved quickly. The recently arrived airborne units linked up with the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps and the remnants of the airborne units that had parachuted in earlier. Another attack against the southern supply route was launched. The road was cut and held by the Soviets for two days. A strong German counterattack again reopened the road.

The Red Army paratroopers maintained heavy pressure on the Germans and forced them to withdraw from Yukhnov on 3 March. On 6 March, the Russian airborne and cavalry units drove to within four kilometers of the southern supply route before being stopped. At the same time, a parachute battalion of 450 men jumped near Yelnya, farther to the west. A link-up with local partisans was effected. The combined force attacked and seized a supply base in the railroad center at Yelnya. They also succeeded in surrounding the fairly small German garrison in this area.

On 7 March, another German front line corps, the XLIII, was taken off the line and committed against the Soviet cavalry, airborne, and partisan forces operating in their rear. By 19 March, the Soviets were slowly, but steadily, driven into the forests around Lugi. A reinforced German company was also sent to relieve the besieged units at the Ugra River railroad bridge, but this effort failed. Then, beginning 25 March and lasting for one month, the two German armies (the Fourth and Fourth Panzer) coordinated a strong, slugging, give-no-quarter attack against the encircled Soviet units.

On 19 April, 4/23rd Airborne Brigade of the 10th Airborne Corps jumped into the area around Svintsovo. They were to reinforce what was left of the 4th Airborne Corps, which was now down to about 2,000 effectives with perhaps another 2,000 sick or wounded. By 23 May, the corps strength was 1,565 with 470 sick and wounded. A final effort to reinforce the remaining paratroopers was launched between 29 May and 3 June. The remaining battalions of 23rd Airborne Brigade and 211th Airborne Brigade were dropped into the western end of the pocket at Dorogobuzh. But this effort was mostly to no avail.

On 25 April, the Thirty-third Army surrendered. The Germans spent May and June systematically destroying the remaining airborne and cavalry units still operating in the area. It was only during this final drive against the paratroopers in Yelnya and those that had surrounded the Ugra River bridge, that the Germans could boast of finally defeating this enemy.

The German commanders who survived the war tended to minimize the role of the Soviet airborne in this battle. This was not, however, the prevailing opinion at the time of the fighting. The Germans then had admitted that the presence of the Soviet parachute units in their rear area was the chief cause of their withdrawal from Yukhnov in March. One German unit claimed the paratroopers were the very best of the Soviet infantry.


As with the Allied Market-Garden operation in 1944, military writers are split on the issue of whether using Soviet airborne units in the Vyazma-Yukhnov battles was successful. The mixed opinion regarding this subject is precisely because this military action was more a campaign than an operation. It was part of a mighty struggle to drive the Germans away from Moscow. From the Soviet perspective, this fighting in the Vyazma-Yukhnov area was an overwhelming victory in the defense of Moscow.

This campaign was justified by a political decision based almost entirely on desperation. It required that the Soviet high command use all of the capabilities at its disposal. Because it was required, the high command then employed conventional infantry, at least two corps of cavalry, and as much of its parachute forces as could be conceivably jammed into the battlefield.

To highlight this sense of desperation, there have been stories recounting the fact that the Soviets dropped paratroopers into the snow without parachutes. This is in fact known to have happened on at least two occasions. The first was in Finland. The second was during the Vyazma operation. In both cases the planes were flying low and slow, and the drops were made into deep snow drifts. In the Vyazma operation, discussed here, there is even a mention that some of the paratroopers were wrapped in burlap sacks before they were dropped. The mere existence of these stories should point out the utter desperation in which the Soviet high command found itself while defending Moscow. In a desperate situation such as this the necessity of using special operations forces, regardless of the outcome, should not be second guessed.

Employing Vandenbroucke’s criteria, there are negative observations to be made in two areas of the campaign. There was a good deal of wishful thinking on the part of the Soviet high command that the airborne portion would have great success.

The planners, however, seem to have overlooked or disregarded several things. First and foremost, was the general lack of transport aircraft available to bring in airborne forces in strength. Additionally, the pilots of what transports were available had not flown jump operations before. This prevailing negative also applied to many countries in the course of the war. Departure airfields, to be used by the paratroopers, were constantly being changed due to tactical considerations. Granted, not much could be done about this. However, moving the paratroopers from one place to another, on short notice, just delayed their arrival at their targets. Many of the transports that were available in early 1942 were also used to evacuate the wounded, thus causing scheduling nightmares. In the final analysis, wishful thinking or not, the supply routes were bona-fide military targets and the paratroopers were available.

There is at least one indication of inappropriate intervention. Once the operation started the paratroopers were virtually committed to suffer for long periods of time without hope of reinforcement or replacement. Again, however, the desperate nature of this struggle certainly justified this.

Employing the McRaven criteria, only a few problems were to be found and they were in the execution phase. These were problems with the twin issues of security and repetition. These issues only became problems once the operation began. Security was very good until the Germans discovered the presence of the paratroopers. There were only so many places for the paratroopers to be dropped, leading to the repetitious use of the same drop zone. The problem of using the same drop zones, on succeeding nights, was just inviting German initiatives and the paratroopers were hit hard once on the ground. Furthermore, German anti-aircraft units were now on the alert and positioned themselves to score several major victories. The element of speed was lost when the units and/or their drop zones were discovered. Although the fighting was tenacious and prolonged, the Germans usually destroyed the Soviet units in detail—and not just the airborne units.

One negative assessment of this campaign took issue with the fact that while the organization and planning of the parachute assaults were conducted by the staff of the airborne forces, once on the ground the paratroopers fell under the operational control of the army group, which had taken no part in the original planning. This is really petty criticism. Even though the airborne staff planned the operation the Soviet high command could and did change it to meet operational needs. To be truly effective special operations forces must fill a role in the overall theater operations plan. This means that the ground commander, who may indeed not have helped shape the original planning, must still maneuver all the forces available to him to achieve victory. That is, after all, why he is in command—to achieve victory.

In the long run, this campaign was successful. There were local victories in the German rear areas and a German plan to resume the offensive in March had to be discarded because of the imminent threat to their rear area supply routes. The final assessment as to its success lies with the fact that the Germans never again threatened Moscow.



Beaumont, Roger Α.; Military Elites—special Fighting Units in the Modern World; New York; Bobbs-Merrill; 1974

Galvin, John R.; Air Assault—The Development of Airmobile Warfare; New York; Hawthorn Books; 1969

Glantz, David M.; The Soviet Airborne Experience; Fort Leavenworth; U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; 1984

Gregory, Howard; Parachuting’s Unforgettable Jumps; La Mirada, CA; Howard Gregory Associates; 1974

MacDonald, Charles; Airborne; New York; Ballantine Books; 1970

Reinhardt, Hellmuth et al; Russian Airborne Operations; Historical Division, HQ US-AREUR;1952

Thompson, Leroy; Unfulfilled Promise—The Soviet Airborne Forces 1928—1945; Bennington, VT; Merriam Press; 1988

Tugwell, Maurice; Airborne to Battle—A History of Airborne Warfare 1918-1971; London; William Kimber; 1971

Zaloga, Steven J.; Inside the Blue Berets—A Combat History of Soviet and Russian Airborne Forces, 1930—1995; Novato, CA; Presidio Press; 1995


Dontsov, I. and P. Livotov; “Soviet Airborne Tactics”; in Military Review, October 1964

Gately, Matthew J.; “Soviet Airborne Operations in World War II”; in Military Review, January 1967

Reinhardt, Hellmuth; “Encirclement at Yukhnov: A Soviet Airborne Operation in World War II”; in Military Review, May 1963

Turbiville, Graham H.; “Soviet Airborne Troops”; in Military Review, April 1943

————; “Soviet Airborne Forces: Increasingly Powerful Factor in the Equation”; in Army, April 1976

Confederate Naval Strategy

The first plank of Confederate naval strategy was put in place by Jefferson Davis. Replying to Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers, Davis issued a call for privateers, a traditional response of weaker naval powers. Some answered Davis’s call, but the approach met with immediate problems, not the least of which being that European states had outlawed privateering in April 1856. The British Proclamation of Neutrality of May 13, 1861, effectively granted de facto recognition to the Confederate government but did not establish diplomatic ties. The French later followed suit. To the British, this meant that the Confederates had to abide by the treaty against privateering, while the Union had to construct an effective blockade. Moreover, early on, the British, French, and Spanish forbade privateers from bringing prizes into their respective ports. Meanwhile, the Union had tightened the blockade, leaving no place to sell prizes. Taken together, these factors killed Confederate privateering.

Confederate secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory had his own ideas on naval strategy, ones driven by weakness. He sought the integration of new technologies to overcome the Confederacy’s inferior naval position. The South lacked the North’s industrial capacity and skilled mechanics; they would have to develop these, often from scratch. As Alfred Thayer Mahan pointed out, the South also suffered from having an extensive and accessible coastline, with a population too small to protect it. The Union would take advantage of this.

After the Confederate Congress allocated money for a navy on March 16, 1861, Mallory began trying to buy suitable ships anywhere he could. This netted a few vessels. But Mallory believed that it would eventually be possible to construct ships in Confederate yards, and he knew what he wanted first. “I propose to adopt a class of vessels hitherto unknown to naval services,” he wrote. Mallory craved fast, steam-powered raiders with rifled cannons. “Small propeller ships with great speed, lightly armed with these guns, must soon become, as the light artillery and rifles of the deep, a most destructive element of naval warfare.” He had also already bought two steamships, Sumter and McRae, which he dispatched as raiders.

On May 8, 1861, James D. Bulloch, a former U.S. naval officer, met with Mallory in Montgomery to discuss the role of the Confederate navy. “It was thought to be of prime importance to get cruisers to sea as soon as possible,” Bulloch later said of the conversation, “to harass the enemy’s commerce, and to compel him to send his own ships-of-war in pursuit, which might otherwise be employed in blockading the Southern ports.” Mallory sent Bulloch to Europe to buy or have built six propeller-driven ships, preferring they be powered by both steam and sail, and insisting they have long endurance. He wanted speed above all and armament of only a few guns. Smaller was better because they would be cheaper and allow the South to purchase more, but would still be capable of taking on enough supplies for a six-month voyage when launched. Mallory’s approach foreshadowed the submarine commerce warfare of both world wars. Bulloch soon signed contracts for two such ships, Confederate finances having reduced the number, and despite the fact that his plans were revealed in the Northern press at about the time he arrived in Britain.

Bulloch’s deal produced the deadly Confederate raiders CSS Florida and CSS Alabama. Florida left Liverpool in March 1861 with a British crew, bound for a rendezvous in the Bahamas with a vessel carrying its weapons. Here the Confederates took over the ship and armed it, but an outbreak of yellow fever among the crew forced Captain John A. Maffit to take the Florida into Mobile for more men. They slipped through the blockade in January 1862. An eight-month cruise followed, one in which the Florida took twenty-two Union ships before finding temporary refuge in the French port of Brest for much-needed repairs. Florida sailed again on February 10, 1864, taking another thirteen Union ships on this cruise. The North finally destroyed the raider on October 7, 1864, when Napoleon Collins, the captain of USS Wachusett, rammed Florida at three o’clock in the morning in the neutral Brazilian port of Bahia, then hauled her out to sea.

Fresh from a successful command of the raider CSS Sumter, during which he captured or burned eighteen Union ships, Raphael Semmes, a veteran of thirty years in the U.S. Navy, became Alabama’s commander. After sailing from Liverpool on May 15, 1862, Semmes rendezvoused in the Azores with a Confederate merchantman and took on his weapons. He spent the next two years terrorizing Union shipping, taking sixty-five ships worth $6.5 million. Alabama was sunk off Cherbourg on June 19 by Captain John Winslow’s USS Kearsarge. Winslow and Semmes had shared a cabin as young lieutenants during the Mexican War.

Mallory also wanted another type of ship for something far different from commerce raiding, one inspired by the old ship-of-the-line but possessed of some modern twists: an ironclad, steam-powered warship with rifled guns. He believed technological superiority would allow the South to overcome the disparity in numbers. “Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States,” Mallory insisted, “prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire navy.” They would allow the South to seize the naval initiative from its hidebound opponent. He eventually followed two routes to obtaining ironclads—buying them abroad and building them at home.

The Confederate Congress proved very receptive to Mallory’s ideas, voting $3 million to buy warships, including $2 million for ironclads. Mallory dispatched Lieutenant James North to Europe with instructions to try to buy a ship of the Gloire class, the innovative French ironclad commissioned in 1858. If this proved impossible, he should try to have one built. North, though, proved more interested in sightseeing than in doing his job. Mallory’s agents tried buying ironclads in Europe from May to July 1861, without success. The Confederate navy secretary decided to build them at home and signed deals for a few ships.26 Mallory also decided to build flotillas at various ports for their defense and gunboats for the Mississippi.

Building ironclads consumed most of the South’s naval effort. Mallory began studying the possibility of their construction in Southern yards in early June 1861. The first one arose from the burnt-out hulk of the USS Merrimack at Hampton Roads. The Confederacy had to do it this way because the South lacked the ability to build the ship it wanted from scratch. Mallory planned to use this new vessel, which became CSS Virginia, to clear the Union navy from Hampton Roads and Virginia’s ports. He generally believed that ironclad rams (which Virginia became) would be most useful for coastal defense. By late 1861, the Confederates had five ironclads in the works.

The Confederacy built ironclads to compensate for the enemy’s great numbers of warships. The South could not build oceangoing armored ships like Britain’s Warrior and France’s Gloire, but it could build slower, coastal ones like Virginia. These would, Mallory insisted, “enable us with a small number of vessels comparatively to keep our waters free from the enemy and ultimately to contest with them the possession of his own.” Mallory envisioned great but ultimately unrealistic achievements for Virginia. He believed that with a calm sea it could sail up the coast and attack New York City, causing such a panic that it would end the war. The Virginia’s success at Hampton Roads—ramming and sinking the USS Cumberland, then setting ablaze and driving aground the USS Congress—spurred Mallory to press the building of the CSS Louisiana in New Orleans, remarking that the “ship, if completed, would raise the blockade of every Gulf port in 10 days.”

Mallory also faced pressure to protect the Confederacy’s harbors and rivers. This intensified as the Union began launching landings in the summer of 1861 and coastal defense became a priority. The Confederate army played a key role. Robert E. Lee, a son of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a prominent American cavalry commander during the Revolutionary War, ranked second in the West Point class of 1829. He served in the Mexican War, where he was wounded, and acquired a reputation as a superb officer. Later, he was superintendent of West Point, and commanded the U.S. Marines and militia that suppressed John Brown and his raiders at Harpers Ferry in October 1859.

Lee was offered command of a Union army at the outbreak of the war but declined; he would not raise his hand against his native Virginia. After service in his home state, including an unsuccessful campaign in its western parts, he took command of a new military department covering South Carolina, Georgia, and the Atlantic side of Florida in November 1861. He realized that Confederate coastal fortifications could not stand up to Union naval bombardment, so he evacuated all of them—except those protecting major cities—and built others inland, out of the range of Union shipboard guns. He had certain waterways blocked and concentrated the troops inland so that they could be shifted to threatened areas. Historian Raimondo Luraghi assesses Lee’s system by comparing it with German defenses during World War II: “The strategic rationale upon which this defensive structure was founded was so well conceived that it did not fall until almost three years later, when it was taken from the rear by troops coming overland, whereas the so-called German Atlantic Wall, based on the idea of last-ditch defense on the seashore, fell to the first formidable blow from the sea.” This is true as far as it goes. But the Union never pushed the Confederate defensive system with a heavy hand. If it had, it probably would not have survived.

Mallory again turned to technology to provide an answer to the problem of coastal defense. The Confederacy invested heavily in what were called “torpedoes,” which today are known as mines. Mines pre-dated the Confederacy, but the South would be the first nation to make them a staple of its naval defense. The man first put in charge of mining the South’s waters was Matthew Fontaine Maury, a prickly former naval officer famous internationally for his scientific pursuits, particularly in oceanography and navigation. Others in the Confederacy also began making torpedoes in late 1861 and early 1862. Davis believed them the South’s most effectual form of naval defense. Confederate mine warfare probably sank or damaged more than fifty Union navy ships, perhaps equaling 30,000 tons.

The other technology involved submarine development. The Confederates began studying this in late 1861 and started building an unnamed submarine at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond before the year was out. It was decided to use the final product in Texas. Another such boat may have been built there and still others in Shreveport, Louisiana, though many of the details have been lost in the historical mists.

The most famous Confederate submarine was the H. L. Hunley, the product of New Orleans–based inventors funded by Horace L. Hunley, a marine engineer and former Louisiana legislator. James McClintock, a former riverboat captain, and Baxter Watson supplied the ideas. They built their first boat in the fall of 1861, but it handled so poorly they abandoned it and built a second craft, CSS Pioneer. They successfully tested it just before the North attacked New Orleans, but then scuttled it to keep it out of Union hands. They went back to work, soon producing another vessel that sank during an attempt to attack a Union ship off Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. Their fourth attempt produced the Hunley, which was 40 feet long, powered by a hand crank, and armed with a spar-mounted torpedo. Constructed in Mobile, it came to Charleston via rail, and killed most of its four crews before being lost after sinking the Housatonic on February 17, 1864, the first such submarine success.

Matthew Maury—former U.S. Navy officer and later called the “father of modern oceanography”—had other ideas as well. In October 1861 he made some proposals that laid the foundation for another plank of Confederate naval strategy. Maury urged Virginia to create its own naval force (many Confederate states did), insisting that the Davis administration did not intend to have a navy. His plan, he said, could be fulfilled for what the Union paid for one large steamer and would create a naval force “sufficient to clear him [the Union] out of the Chesapeake and its waters” and “liberate the people of Maryland.” “Big guns and little ships” were the essence of his strategy, and he sought “to construct a navy for the Chesapeake. In a few words it consists of rifled cannon of the largest caliber, mounted on launches propelled by steam, and floating just high enough to keep the water out.” Rifles would outrange most of the guns on current Union ships, and the cost of a hundred such craft would amount to $10,000 per boat. “The Potomac Fleet of the enemy would find in a fleet of 100 such launches a perfect hornet’s nest,” Maury wrote.

The proposal ended up before the Confederate Congress, and, with the help of the governor of Virginia, Maury got $2 million in December 1861. Though the plan was technically feasible, the weakness of Confederate industry made it a pipe dream. The arrival of the Union’s Monitor and the later loss of the yards also helped kill Maury’s plans.

Maury’s idea had its antecedents. Citing the European example of using gunboats and galleys in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, Thomas Jefferson had advocated for a “mosquito fleet” of approximately 200 gunboats for the defense of America’s coastline, most held in a reserve status. It was believed that small sail- and oar-powered craft armed with one or two cannon could harass larger enemy vessels, especially becalmed ones, in coastal waters, demoralizing the enemy crews with small arms and light cannon fire, while also preventing coastal descents. Nothing came of Jefferson’s idea, but steam power and better armaments made it more practical.

Maury’s idea was also ahead of its time. The French Jeune École (Young School) of the later part of the nineteenth century pushed for the adoption of small, fast warships armed with self-propelled torpedoes. But the idea remained impractical for the same reason that Maury’s proposal would have failed against Union naval power: before the advent of the steam-powered torpedo, the small ships lacked a weapon that enabled them to destroy larger armored warships. This development made small ships in littoral waters extremely dangerous threats to larger warships. Maury’s plans would never be put to the test, but had the South been able to get these boats to sea, they would have been useless, being unprotected against the Monitor and other ironclad warships of the Union. Maury assumed Confederate innovation would remain unmet.

The Roman War Machine – Fifth Century BC

Roman infantry are described by Livy as organised into centuries by class, performing manoeuvres on the battlefield and frequently pressing their officers to provide more aggressive orders rather than charging disobediently. They are therefore classed as regular and the 1st class, equipped as armoured hoplites, as superior. The 2nd and 3rd class had the oval Scutum as their shield instead of the round hoplon or aspis and had only minimal armour. The 4th class are described by Livy as having spear and javelins but no shield, but by Dionyssos as also having shields. Livy describes the 5th class as slingers, Dionysios as slingers and javelinmen.

At the end of the fifth century BC, Rome was still, like the towns around her, emerging from an agricultural society driven by an agrarian economy. Rome was different because she became increasingly larger than her enemies and she was extraordinarily receptive to outside influences – melding the best facets and successful practices from friend and foe alike. Militarily, Rome had a facility for adapting tactically and developing weaponry and armour based on extensive combat experience. Every battle fought, even those she lost, was a lesson in military science for the Romans.

In early summer each year, the army was summoned and trooped out to the latest theatre of war. Every autumn, the army, or what was left of it, was discharged until the call to arms the following year. The armies were usually led by two consuls, or by consular tribunes, or by dictators in times of tumultus, times of dire crisis. These consuls usually operated in concert with each other, not always harmoniously. They often brought no experience in leading an army or prosecuting a campaign. Time spent in the army or navy was simply another rung on the ladder of the cursus honorum, the political career path of the elite Roman. The army, and war, came with the career, and the successful execution of the military element went some way to contributing to longterm glory and success. This, in turn, fostered a belligerent attitude amongst Roman politicians-cum-commanders. Victory in war meant success in politics; success in politics was often dependent on victory on the battlefield.

The lower ranks of the army, the heavily armed infantrymen known as classis, were self-financing and recruited from farmers. Below the classis was the infra classem, skirmishers with less and lighter armour which required a smaller financial outlay. Above the classes were the equites, patricians with some wealth who made up the majority of the cavalry, officers and staff. Their money often came from land ownership. Soldiers were unpaid in the early days, providing their own rations, arms and armour.

War was not kind to the classes. It usually meant that they were away from their lands, forced to neglect their very livelihood for increasingly long stretches of military service. Moreover, they suffered virtual ruin when their farms were depradated by enemy action. The longer they served, the greater the chance of being killed or badly wounded and disabled, rendering them unfit to work on their lands. A ready supply of slaves to work on the lands of the wealthy was fuelled by prisoners of war, reducing the Roman or Italian agricultural worker’s value in the job market to little better than slaves themselves. Military duty plunged some classes into debt and led to virtual bondage to patricians – an ignominious semi-servile arrangement, nexum, which forced a farmer or farm worker to provide labour on the security of his person. Defaulting led to enslavement. Richer landowners could bear losses better as they were the beneficiaries of this bond-debt process, which allowed them to procure yet more land and cheap labour at the expense of the classes and infra classes. In short, the rich just got richer, a process helped also by their favourable share of increasing amounts of booty. Once Rome had conquered the Italian peninsula, the poorer workers could not even be helped out by land distribution; after 170 BC, land distribution stopped altogether. This, of course, led to resentment, which was only assuaged by personal allocations from tribunes and generals. Land allocations overseas were not considered an option until the time of Julius Caesar.

Oakley has tabulated the number of prisoners of war captured and subsequently enslaved by Rome in the nineteen battles between 297 and 293 BC, and recorded in Livy: approximately 70,000. Even allowing for some exaggeration, this clearly illustrates the impact conquest had on the careers and employment prospects of many agricultural workers. It did not stop there, of course: when Agrigentum was captured in 262 BC, no less than 25,000 prisoners were reportedly taken, all swelling the already competitive job market.

Roman warfare was then inseparable from Roman politics and from Roman economics; land questions and the Conflict of the Orders provided a constant soundtrack to the early wars.

The soldier depended on the value of and income from his land for financial clout, the ability to qualify for service and pay for his armour and weapons. The Conflict of the Orders ran from 494 BC to 287 BC and was a 200-year battle fought by the plebeians to win political equality. The secessio plebis was the powerful bargaining tool with which the plebeians effectively brought Rome grinding to a halt and left the patricians and aristocrats to get on with running the city and the economy themselves – the Roman equivalent to a general strike. The first secessio, in 494 BC, saw the plebeians down weapons and withdraw military support during the wars with the Aequi, Sabines and Volsci. That year marked the first real breakthrough between the people and the patricians, when some plebeian debts were cancelled. The patricians yielded more power when the office of Tribune of the Plebeians was created. This was the first government position to be held by the plebeians, and plebeian tribunes were sacrosanct during their time in office.

Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king, may have gone some way to militarizing Rome when he divided the population into wealth groups – their rank in the army determined by what weapons and armour they could afford to buy, with the wealthiest serving in the cavalry due in part to the cost of horses. Servius was certainly responsible for changes in the organization of the Roman army: he shifted the emphasis from cavalry to infantry and with it the inevitable modification in battlefield tactics. Before Servius, the army comprised 600 or so horse reinforced by heavily-armed infantry and lightly-armed skirmishers; it was little more than a militia of landowning infantry wielding pilum, shield and sword (gladius), operating like Greek hoplites in phalanx formation. The rest were composed of eighteen centuries of equites and thirty-two centuries of slingers. (A century was made up of ten conturbenia, amounting to eighty or so men.) The Etruscans, and then the Romans, absorbed Greek influences when they adopted full body armour, the hoplite shield and a thrusting spear – essential for phalanx-style close combat warfare.

Men without property, assessed by headcount, capite censi, were not welcome in the army, in much the same way that debtors, convicted criminals, women and slaves were excluded. However, slaves were recruited in exceptional circumstances, notably after the calamitous battle of Cannae and the manpower shortage it caused. Servius also reorganized the army into centuries and formed the parallel political assemblies, reinforcing the inextricable connection between Roman politics and Roman military. His ground-breaking census established who was fit – physically and financially – to serve in the Roman army. Recruitment extended from between age 17 and 46 (iuniores), and between 47 and 60 (seniores), the more elderly constituting a kind of home guard. The lower classes were not required to report with full body armour; this led to the use of the long body shield, the scutum, for protection, instead of the circular hoplite shield.

Operation Masterdom

French forces arrived in Indochina with British weapons, including the Bren gun.

British-supplied Spitfires were deployed to Indochina by the French air force.

The French navy’s first aircraft in Indochina were American-supplied Catalinas in late October 1945.

At the end of the Second World War, and despite everything going on in Paris and across the rest of the country, Charles de Gaulle never forgot about Indochina. Nor did he forget his pledge to reclaim it for France. Thanks to the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945, it would be an incredibly difficult task. Nonetheless, he had just the man for the job: Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, who was one of his most trusted Gaullist generals.

To protect his family while serving with the Free French, the Comte de Hauteclocque assumed the name Jacques Leclerc. He became a national hero. In November 1945, Leclerc was formally added to his family’s name. During the closing months of the Second World War, General Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division had helped with General de Lattre’s destruction of the Colmar pocket, before making a dramatic dash to Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgaden. Afterwards, Leclerc led his division as the vanguard of the victory parade in Paris. Not one to be idle, he requested that de Gaulle send him to Morocco.

Instead, de Gaulle informed Leclerc that he proposed to redesignate the wartime French III Corps to become the headquarters for an expeditionary force destined for Indochina. This would be created using the 3rd and 9th colonial infantry divisions. Leclerc would be commander-in-chief of this force, answering to Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, the newly appointed High Commissioner for Indochina.

De Gaulle told d’Argenlieu that his incredibly complex mission was to recover Indochina from the British, Chinese, Japanese and the Viet Minh, and to re-establish French sovereignty in the region. D’Argenlieu and Leclerc were to make no concessions to the Vietnamese nationalists. All they were to offer, once firmly in control, was limited internal autonomy to each of the states of Indochina within a French Union. Leclerc would be in charge of all foreign affairs, defence policy and internal politics.

While de Gaulle and his supporters were determined that Indochina should be returned to French authority, Ho Chi Minh aspired to full independence for his country. Ho and his supporters saw the impending post-war vacuum as their best chance to attain this. However, before he could even contend with the French, Ho was to find himself caught between the British and the Nationalist Chinese.

During the Potsdam Conference, at which the French were not represented, it was agreed that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese would accept the Japanese surrender in northern Indochina, while the British would accept it in the south. The 16th Parallel was to form the dividing line. The defeated Japanese had two armies in Indochina and Thailand. British intelligence assessed them to number about 70,000, but this was actually too high. About 28,500 men of the Japanese Thirty-eighth Army were deployed in northern Indochina and Thailand. The Japanese Army of the South in southern Indochina, under Lieutenant General Yuitsu Tsuchihashi, numbered about 30,000, including air force and naval personnel.

De Gaulle knew that Washington, with its anti-colonial polices, was behind this deliberate snub, which immediately served to undermine French colonial authority in the region. In practical terms, though, the French were not in a position to accept the Japanese surrender. They did not have the resources to swiftly send large numbers of troops to Indochina to disarm the Japanese army. Leclerc’s men would not reach Indochina until October/November 1945. In contrast, the British and Chinese were much closer to hand.

Such niceties mattered little to the Japanese, who simply wanted to be repatriated as soon as possible. In the north, perhaps in the name of mischief-making, they were more inclined to hand authority over to Ho Chi Minh, and many of their weapons were passed to his Viet Minh guerrillas. Anything that inconvenienced the Chinese was seen as a good thing. Ho certainly had no love for the Chinese nationalists as they had imprisoned him in 1942 and established the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Dong Minh Hoi) as an anti-communist counter to his party. He was only released after he convinced them he was a nationalist first and a communist second, and that they had a common enemy in the Japanese.

At the end of the war, it was not long before a large Chinese army of ‘liberation’, numbering some 150,000 under General Lu Han, pillaged its way over the border. It was formed of units whose loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek was suspect, so he was probably glad to have them out of the way and preoccupied. Certainly, Lu Han’s ultimate sympathies lay with Mao. He was to defect in 1949. It was not long before these Chinese troops had alienated the Vietnamese, French and Japanese in Tonkin and north Annam.

France’s initial attempt to reassert sovereignty lacked power, having the air of a comic opera. In late August 1945, two teams, led by colonels who were to act as the administrators for the north and the south, were parachuted in. To the north, Colonel Messmer was immediately arrested by the Viet Minh and forced to flee to China. Colonel Cédile, sent to the south, was ignored by the Viet Min and was left at liberty to liaise with the local French authorities.

Ho Chi Minh moved from his stronghold into Hanoi, hoping to pre-empt the Chinese as much as the French. On 2 September 1945, he declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Emperor Bao Dai, after abdicating, became chief counsellor to the new government. The communist-dominated Provisional Executive Committee of South Vietnam, led by Tran Van Giau in Saigon, acknowledged the authority of Ho’s northern government. Ho, however, was in a very weak position and had to agree with General Lu to dissolve the Vietnamese Communist Party and hold elections to create a broad coalition government.

In France, after his appointment, Leclerc recruited some of his former officers from the 2nd Armoured Division, including his intelligence chief, Colonel Paul Repiton-Préneuf. He also quickly set about familiarizing himself with the region and its culture. Aware that the dark-skinned Cambodians were the mortal foes of the Vietnamese, he forbade the deployment of his colonial divisions’ West African units to Indochina. This instruction was not strictly adhered to, nor did it deter the deployment of Algerian and Moroccan troops. During September 1945, en route to Indochina, Leclerc stopped off in Ceylon to consult Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia. He also spent time in India, Malaya, Japan and Singapore where he held briefings.

Mountbatten, facing his own problems, warned Leclerc in no uncertain terms that postwar Asia was now a completely different place to pre-war Asia. Both were fully aware that the major colonial powers had been humiliated in the region, and that this was something from which the nationalists had taken heart. Mountbatten said there could be no going back, to which Leclerc responded pragmatically, ‘What you say makes sense but is not French policy.’

He then represented France during the Japanese surrender on board an American battleship in Tokyo Bay, and again at the Japanese surrender in Singapore.

Mountbatten had discussed British plans, known as Operation Masterdom, to deal with southern Indochina. This envisaged the movement by air to Saigon, via Bangkok, of the 80th Infantry Brigade, part of Major General Douglas Gracey’s 20th Indian Division, plus elements of two RAF squadrons and an Allied Control Commission. The latter was to assist Allied prisoners of war and oversee the repatriation of the Japanese. They would be followed by the rest of Gracey’s division, comprising the 32nd and 100th brigades, which would be shipped by sea. In total, almost 26,000 men and 2,400 vehicles were to be deployed to Saigon to maintain law and order. Once in place, Gracey was to wait until the French were in a position to reassert themselves. His task was simply to take control of the large Japanese garrison, which was to be achieved with the cooperation of Tsuchihashi.

The British began arriving in Saigon on 12 September 1945, with a force consisting of Indian Army as well as British units under General Gracey. The 80th Brigade first flew to Bangkok from Burma, and then on to Saigon. It had been almost four weeks since the Japanese emperor announced his country would accept the terms of the Potsdam declaration, and over a week since the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur. In that time, law and order in Indochina had broken down in many areas, and Viet Minh nationalists had seized power in Saigon. Ironically, the Japanese army, once an occupying force, now found itself acting as policeman.

Colonel Cédile and his supporters quickly persuaded Gracey to rearm the local French colonial infantry regiments, which had been held by the Japanese. Much to Mountbatten’s displeasure, on 21 September, Gracey declared martial law throughout Indochina south of the 16th Parallel. Two days later, he agreed to the takeover of the government by Cédile.

Although Mountbatten felt that Gracey had overstepped his remit, London supported his actions. This was, after all, a French problem.

Also on 23 September, a mixed force of French Gaullists, former Vichy troops and armed French colonists, stormed the Viet Minh headquarters in the Saigon town hall, where they arrested members of the Provisional Executive Committee. The Tricolore was hoisted, but most of the committee members escaped. The Viet Minh now knew that a smooth political transition of power was not going to happen.

Gracey quietly ejected the Viet Min from the city and handed it over to the French. However, when the French 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment attempted to remove the last of the Viet Minh guards, they resisted, resulting in two French soldiers being killed. This sparked a riot on the night of 24–25 September, during which a mob ran amok, slaughtering French civilians. The following day, the Viet Minh set fire to the central market and attacked Tan Son Nhut airfield. Repelling this assault, the British lost a soldier, but killed half a dozen Viet Minh.

Gracey now had a war on his hands, which was something Mountbatten had hoped to avoid. Nonetheless, their troops were hardened Burma veterans and highly experienced in fighting both jungle and irregular warfare. They were more than capable of facing down the ill-trained and ill-equipped Viet Minh. In early October, Gracey secured a ceasefire. At that point, Leclerc arrived in Saigon. Hostilities resumed on the 10th, when the Viet Minh set about a British engineering party near Tan Son Nhut, killing or wounding most of them. Once Brigadier Woodford’s 32nd Brigade landed as welcome reinforcements, they were sent into Saigon’s troublesome northern suburbs.

When the Viet Minh attacked Tan Son Nhut again, they were once more repelled by Indian and Japanese soldiers. By mid-October, British forces had killed over 300 Viet Minh, while the rearmed Japanese accounted for another 225. Nevertheless, the Viet Minh stepped up their attacks across Saigon and attempted to lay siege to it. In response, at the end of the month Gracey launched an operation to drive the Viet Minh away from the city. Conducted by ‘Gateforce’ this included a full battalion of Japanese infantry who had little love for the Vietnamese. The latter killed fifty Viet Minh east of Saigon. When the mission was complete, almost 200 insurgents had been eliminated by the British task force. Ironically, the Japanese did not formally surrender to Lord Mountbatten in Saigon until 30 November 1945.

Trouble was brewing elsewhere in Indochina. The Japanese had imposed a prime minister, Son Ngoe Thanh, on the pro-French Cambodian king. The former had broken all ties with France and sought to oust the monarchy. This made Cambodia highly vulnerable to the Viet Minh’s Cambodian communist allies. Leclerc quickly flew to Phnom Penh from where he ordered Thanh to attend the British military representative. When he did, the French arrested him and flew him to France.

Having stabilized the situation in neighbouring Cambodia, Leclerc then turned his attentions to the countryside of Cochinchina and southern Vietnam beyond the confines of Saigon. Once the insurgents’ stranglehold on the city had been broken, Leclerc’s columns fanned out. The Viet Minh and other nationalist groups were poorly armed. They could not match French firepower, so they set about blowing up roads and bridges. Ambushes and snipers also served to hamper the French patrols.

Leclerc relied on speed and surprise as much as firepower. He moved his men up the roads and waterways, often in the dark, to suddenly materialize in the towns and villages of Cochinchina. Infantry sweeps, backed by artillery and aircraft, then ousted the stubborn resistance. Leclerc also conducted a hearts-and-minds campaign by ordering his men to treat the locals with respect. There was to be no breakdown of military discipline with brutality or looting. Leclerc knew that this had to be enforced because many of his reinforcements were former French resistance fighters who were used to doing things their own way.

To the relief of French colonists and plantation owners, much of the region was successfully reoccupied and a network of military outposts established by the end of November 1945. Units were also sent into Cambodia and southern Laos to reassert French authority. Regaining northern Laos was more difficult because of the presence of the antagonistic Chinese, but a small contingent was deployed against local guerrillas. By this point, High Commissioner d’Argenlieu had arrived to take charge of Leclerc.

Gracey happily handed over Saigon’s northern suburbs to General Valluy’s 9th Colonial Infantry Division in early December. The British 32nd Brigade was then redeployed to Borneo. The last major engagement involving the British occurred on 3 January 1946, when 900 Viet Minh attacked Bien Hoa. The defenders fought throughout the night without losing a single British or Indian soldier, whereas the attackers suffered 100 dead.

That month, French troops, landing from the sea, entered south Amman to take control. Also at the close of January 1946, the British 80th Brigade relinquished its area of responsibility to the French and the 100th Brigade was withdrawn to Saigon. Gracey handed back southern Vietnam to Leclerc, and by the end of March, Britain had all but ended its seven-month operation. A few troops remained to guard the Allied Control Mission, which was wound up in mid-May. An estimated 2,700 Viet Minh were killed during Operation Masterdom. British fatalities amounted to 40 men. In pacifying Cochinchina, Leclerc lost around 630 dead and 1,000 wounded from a force of 50,000 men.

Although French colonial authority had been successfully restored in the four regions south of the dividing 16th Parallel, the Viet Minh were far from defeated. Leclerc and d’Argenlieu hoped that everyday life could now be resumed, but they underestimated the growing strength of the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh’s determination to be rid of the French. The initial fighting had just been a taste of things to come.


The Swiss Air Force in World War II

Note that three Ju 52/3mg4e aircraft were delivered to the Swiss air force for transport work, and two of these were still on active strength in 1983, with the third preserved for a museum.

When the Swiss federal government formally recognized the existence of an air force in 1925. Over the following 15 years, air force officers (lobbying through their association, AVIA), convinced the Swiss parliament to approve a budget to buy the necessary aircraft to renew the fleet. By 1933, 40 Fokker CVs and 65 Dewoitine D-27s were in service. The air force’s strategy, however, remained focused on reconnaissance, thereby hindering the use of the new weapon as a guardian of Swiss neutrality. Thus, when Germany began sending troops and aircraft to Spain to fight in the civil war, no interceptions of the machines over Swiss airspace ever took place. No plans were made, however, to supply Switzerland with fighters until 1938, when the government acquired a license to manufacture Morane-Saulnier 406 aircraft. In addition, Messerschmitt Bf 109Ds and -Es were ordered.

In World War II, the Swiss air force used its meager resources to guard national airspace, intercepting and shooting down several German aircraft. However, Switzerland’s awkward position of economic dependency on Nazi Germany led some Swiss officials to condemn these actions and to end air patrols against any incursions of fewer than three aircraft. Confrontations with Allied aircraft also occurred, leading to the interception and capture of lost bombers (more than 100 B-17s and B-24s).

The Luftwaffe had 946 operational Me-109s when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In addition, some 300 Me-109Es were exported to Switzerland, Yugoslavia, Romania and Spain between April 1939 and April 1940. Three Me-109E-3s were also shipped to Japan for evaluation early in 1941. The Japanese soon abandoned the idea of producing Emils under license, but the Allies took the possibility seriously enough to give the “Japanese Me-109” the code name “Mike.”

Two of the export orders were to cause some embarrassment later. In May 1940, three Heinkel He-111s that had strayed into Swiss airspace were shot down by Swiss-flown Me-109Es. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring reacted by deliberately sending France-bound bomber formations over Switzerland with an escort of Me-110s. The clashes that ensued resulted in the loss of seven more German and three Swiss aircraft, after which Göring prudently relented.

Neutral Switzerland acquired 12 Me-109G-6s as part of a deal for destroying an Me-110G-4/R7 equipped with the latest Liechtenstein SN-2 radar and oblique-firing Schräge-Musik 20mm cannons, after the night fighter had accidentally landed at spy-infested Dübendorf on April 28, 1944. The Gustavs, and two other Me-109Gs that were interned after straying into Swiss airspace, were assigned to Fliegerkompagnie 7, but they were unreliable due to deteriorating German production standards at that point in the war, and saw little use.

Switzerland purchased both Doras and Emils before the outbreak of war, and used them in several furious dogfights with the Luftwaffe over incursions during the invasion of France, with the Luftwaffe losing a handful of He 111s and Bf 110s to the loss of a few Swiss Bf 109s.

Despite these incidents, the Swiss obtained a number of Gustavs late in the war. An Me 110 night fighter, carrying sophisticated electronics and armament, strayed into Swiss airspace in late April, 1944, and landed near Zurich due to engine trouble. The Germans bargained with the Swiss to sell them twelve Bf 109Gs under the condition that they burn the Me 110.

Later in the war Swiss Bf 109s were to intercept Allied bombers that strayed into their airspace, forcing them to land and be interned. There were rarely problems, but while escorting a B-24, a USAAF P-51D shot down one Swiss Bf 109 and damaged another. The Swiss tried painting their Bf 109s with loud red and white stripes to emphasize the Swiss cross markings, but this was discontinued because then the Luftwaffe mistook them as Allied aircraft painted in invasion stripes.

The Swiss Bf 109s were to serve after the war, only being scrapped in 1949.


Here is a list out of a report of the Swiss air force about German planes, landing or crashing on Swiss territory from December of 1944:

17th of December 1944, Me109G, 1 pilot, landing at Affeltrangen /

26th of March 1945, Me109G, 1 pilot, crashed at Farnern /

12th of April 1945, Bь181, 1 pilot, landing at Buerglen /

18th of April 1945, Bь181, 1 pilot and 1 male passenger, landing at Duebendorf /

20th of April 1945, Me108, 1 pilot, 1 male and 1 female passenger, landing at Payerne /

25th of April 1945, Me262, 1 pilot, landing at Duebendorf /

26th of April 1945, Fw44f, 1 pilot, landing at Duebendorf /

26th of April 1945, Bь181, 1 pilot, landing at Oberriet /

26th of April 1945, Bь181, 1 pilot and 1 male passenger, landing at Oberriet /

27th of April 1945, Me108, 1 pilot and 3 passengers, landing at Emmen /

30th of April 1945, Ju88, 1 pilot, 2 male and 3 female passengers, landing at Duebendorf/

2nd of May 1945, Siebel 204, 2 pilots and 3 passengers, landing at Belp /One of the passengers of that Siebel 204 was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, if I recall it right

8th of May 1945, Fieseler-Storch, 1 pilot and 2 passengers, landing at Chur /

Some Details about the landing of the Ju88 on the 30th of April: The plane, a night-fighter version of the Junkers 88, number 623 211, started at 01.30 CET at Lubeck/Northern Germany, with the intention to reach Switzerland. It was landing on the Dubendorf military airfield at 05.15 CET with 6 people aboard (1 Captain, 2 second lieutenants, 1 woman, 1 pregnant woman, 1 six years old girl). The male passengers were arrested by a section of Swiss infantry, the female passengers were handed over to the Swiss Red Cross.

The Falklands: The Air Threat to the British Task Force

Much has been written about the overwhelming preponderance of Argentine air power over the British Task Force. At the start of the campaign it seemed to the services and commentators involved that Argentina’s air assets were fearsomely large. Yet in the `true’ light of battle their much vaunted strength now seems somewhat illusory.

Argentina’s aircraft did indeed pose the greatest threat to British ambitions in the war. The numbers contained within the ranks of the Argentine air services dwarfed those in the Task Force, and the Argentine pilots were just as accomplished and well-motivated as their British counterparts. However, less well known to the British were the problems the South American nation faced with its air services. Initially, much of the knowledge of the air threat to the RN came from shipboard sources, secondhand information and weapons suppliers. Accurate intelligence was in fact woefully lacking in the Task Force, forcing the realisation amongst many that Britain’s air strength faced a serious uphill struggle in all respects. At the outbreak of hostilities Argentina possessed the combat aircraft, but as can be seen, far from all would be operational.

Aircraft at the start of the campaign ranged from being in active squadron service to undergoing long-term maintenance or being used as a source of spares for other machines. Besides availability issues, Argentina had other problems. The Daggers of the FAA, for instance, had been only recently delivered from Israel and pilots were still `working up’ on the air-craft, resulting in the Dagger’s potential not being fully realised or understood. The same was true for the CANA with their Super Etendards and AM339s, both of which had been delivered only the year before. Impressive as the size of the force might be compared to Britain’s seagoing combat strength, there were other important shortfalls. Argentina’s true air defence capability rested with only a dozen or so Mirage 3 fighters. Aircraft that would be required not only to engage and defeat the Sea Harrier for air control but also defend Argentina’s air space from possible British or even Chilean incursions. Thus the RN with its initial 20 Sea Harriers actually had more dedicated fighters in theatre than Argentina, and this was a position which would not alter for the duration of the war.

In fact, the bulk of Argentine air power was concerned with the delivery of ordnance, although there were limitations here as well. One happened to be the inexperience of attacking ships by the FAA pilots. CANA pilots were obviously well versed in anti-shipping strikes but their land-based counterparts were not. To compensate for this an intensive crash course run by CANA personnel was given to AA pilots at the start of the campaign and ultimately proved to be very successful. Notwithstanding attack problems, range was perhaps the most important problem. Argentina’s long-range bombing force consisted of some ten operational Canberras. The majority of their aircraft were shortrange machines and during the campaign these would be operating at the limit of their endurance. The range of quite a few aircraft types, but not all, could be extended by AAR using a pair of Hercules tankers, but in the end just two tankers would be of limited use. Consequently, the bulk of the Argentine aircraft had very little time on station over the Falkland Islands. This would force Argentina’s pilots into using some very unfortunate tactics.

In the battle for air superiority the Mirage 3 was forced by lack of fuel to engage the Sea Harriers at high altitude, an altitude where the Sea Harriers were simply not going to roam. Without large-scale air-to-air engagements between the two main air defence assets the Argentinians effectively gave an element of air control directly to the British at the start of the campaign, without even a shot being fired. In the anti-shipping role, Argentine pilots were obliged to attack the first ships they encountered. They had very little choice as loiter time and slow selection of targets was not an option, owing to British air defences and lack of fuel, forcing them to attack British warships rather than the more valuable amphibious ships and STUFT. There were deficiencies in other areas as well, most notably in maritime reconnaissance and AEW. However, the FAA and CANA adopted ingenious solutions to these problems such as using transports, propeller and jetliner, to shadow the Task Force.

But one area where the Argentine air services proved more than capable was the air-bridge between the contested islands and the mainland. Argentina quickly exploited the use of aircraft for transport in the early days of occupation. In April alone military and civilian aircraft carried into Stanley more than 5,000 tons of cargo and almost 11,000 personnel. This air-bridge was maintained, albeit at a much lower intensity, until the surrender of the Argentine garrison on 14 June.

If the mainland air forces were experiencing a number of problems, what of the Argentine air garrison on the Falklands? Here too, Argentina’s numerical strength was not going to pay dividends. The climate and conditions in the Falklands did not suit many of the aircraft and their serviceability began to suffer as the campaign drew on. Argentine aircraft were not used to operating in these conditions nor in fact from their southernmost bases for extended periods during winter months. They were normally based further north in milder conditions. Perhaps of more danger to the garrison’s aircraft was British offensive activity, which took its toll on many of the aircraft. Special forces raids, such as the attack against Argentine aircraft at Pebble Island on the night of 14 May, naval gunfire against Goose Green and Stanley, and British air attacks on the capital’s airfield all combined to reduce severely the number of available Argentine machines. Additionally, a number of garrison machines fell victim to air-to-air engagements, accidents, British surface-to-air missiles and Argentine friendly ground fire.

On the whole Argentina’s Falklands air garrison did not pose a significant threat, although it certainly had the potential. Stocks of air weaponry were large, the pilots’ training was generally high and at times the weather perfect and yet very few missions were launched against the ships in San Carlos and the land forces. Any major attacks would have augmented the mainland assault and split British defences, increasing Argentine success and damaging further British efforts. The reasons for this must, for now, be left to speculation. On the other hand, the mobility afforded by a not insubstantial force of helicopters was put to good use in re-supply and general support, particularly towards the end of the campaign, with their remaining helicopters often flying in conditions for which neither their equipment nor training could have prepared them.

At the start of the occupation the Argentinians had considered basing more capable machines in the Falklands. However, following tests with a CANA Skyhawk at Stanley airfield, it was demonstrated that the existing runway was impractical and unsafe for heavily laden modern attack aircraft until adequately extended. This left the combat element of the Falklands garrison as 25 Pucaras of the FAA and ten AM339s and Mentors of the CANA.


The British did not have the same worries concerning the length of their runways. The pitching, heaving and almost continual sea spray covering them seemed of more importance. The overwhelming bulk of Britain’s air missions were flown from the decks of the Task Force, and principally the two carriers, Invincible and Hermes. The conflict demonstrated the inherent characteristics of aircraft carriers and their vital role in supporting foreign policy beyond a nation’s coastline. However, other flight decks would also be utilised on a variety of naval vessels, improvised merchantmen and also from a forward operating strip overlooking San Carlos, HMS Sheathbill, which was in operation towards the end of the campaign.

The centrepiece of the Task Force’s defensive and offensive capability centred on the Sea Harrier. Harrier aviation was not new. Both the RAF and United States Marine Corps (USMC) had been successfully operating the Harrier for over a decade. What was new was the situation. No Harrier had ever gone to war before, certainly and not least gone to war on the back of ships, and certainly not in the role of fighter, ground attack and reconnaissance platform. Outnumbered, although perhaps not as greatly as many have believed, the Harrier was to be the key to retaking the Falklands. This novel British aircraft would lead the vanguard of Britain’s air strength in the South Atlantic.

One of the major problems affecting the Sea Harrier, and all aspects of the British air war, was quantity. Only 20 examples would sail to begin with and, though they would be joined by further Sea Harriers during the campaign and an additional 14 Harrier GR3s of the RAF, lack of numbers continued to be a key aspect in the effort. Yet the RN Sea Harriers were to perform over 1,200 sorties and the RAF machines a further 150. Losses were remarkably few with only six Sea Harriers and four RAF Harriers being lost, of which two Sea Harriers and three Harrier GR3s were victims of Argentine ground fire. The other machines were lost through accidents and weather-related incidents. None of the Harriers was lost in air-to-air engagements. Sea Harriers accounted for 23 enemy aircraft, 20 resulting from the use of Sidewinders. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of these were `tailpipe’ shots thus not exploiting the better engagement capabilities of the improved Sidewinders delivered from the Americans, and far superior to those of the Argentines or even existing British missiles.

The Harriers also carried out anti-shipping strikes and combat air support (CAS). Initially the CAS role carried out by Sea Harriers but during the conflict the RAF Harrier GR3, specialised in ground attack, would replace the Sea Harriers in the `mud-moving’ capacity, freeing up valuable air defence aircraft for protection of the fleet. However, there were other problems. The lack of range of the Harriers would impact on transit and on-station times, as the British carrier group was forced to remain at a distance from potential air attack. This was made dramatically worse by the lack of a crucial element in any modern air war – AEW. This forced a higher number of Sea Harrier sorties for air defence of the fleet, gave less warning time and saw a number of ships hit by Argentinian aircraft which might otherwise have evaded damage.

Nonetheless, the Sea Harriers performed beyond the expectations of all bar those who really knew the aircraft, even in the area of availability. This was extremely high and amazingly only one sortie was cancelled through unavailability. This is all the more remarkable considering the conditions in which the aircraft were being operated and maintained. It can be seen that the combination of the Sea Harrier’s presence and Argentina’s own problems with providing air defence assets over the Falklands enabled the air umbrella to be much stronger than many expected.

However, the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR3s, although vital in the successful prosecution of the war, were only one part of the in-theatre aviation assets available to the Task Force. This can be seen where the Harriers formed part of a much bigger air fleet composed mostly of helicopters with over 150 from all services.

Naval Demolition Units WWII Part I

NCDU-45, December 1943, prior to shipping out for England, left to right, front to back: Conrad C. Millis, Corona, Calif., killed in action; Lawrence S. Karnowski, Tampa, Kan.; Gale B. Fant, Minter City, Miss., wounded in action; Lester J. Meyers, Freeport, Ill., wounded in action; Robert L. Svendsen, Long Island, New York; and Clarence J. Hopper, Osseo, Minn.

In January of 1943, the army had begun to experiment with clearing man-made beach obstacles at Fort Pierce. On 6 June, Adm. Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations, gave the order for the training of Naval Demolition Units. By coincidence, his order was issued exactly a year before the Allied forces landed at Normandy against the most formidable array of beach defenses ever erected. This was also five months before Tarawa, and Washington’s concern seemed to be focused more on the problem of dealing with the obstacles Hitler might place along the French coast than with the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.

Picked to lead this new effort was a young naval reserve officer named Draper L. Kauffman, one of the most colorful figures in the history of naval special warfare. A very slender man who stood just about six feet tall, Kauffman had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933. In those depression years, the navy seized on any excuse to deny commissions to those completing the course at Annapolis. Of the 432 graduates in Kauffman’s class, only 216 received commissions. Even though Kauffman’s father was a senior officer, he was screened out because of his poor eyesight. But by the time of Pearl Harbor, Kauffman had managed to see more of war through his thick Coke-bottle glasses than his classmates who had been granted commissions.

Using his naval background, he went to work for a steamship line and was assigned to work in Europe early in 1939. He spent two months in the company’s offices in England, two in France and two in Germany. He twice attended speeches by Adolf Hitler and, even though he couldn’t understand German, found him thoroughly frightening. In mid-1939, he returned home convinced not only that war was imminent, but that the West would lose. Shortly after war broke out in September, he signed up as a member of an American volunteer ambulance corps. When the Germans attacked France on 10 May 1940, he was attached as an ambulance driver to an elite French unit operating in the no-man’s-land between the Maginot and Siegfried lines.

The next two weeks were filled with horror. Kauffman learned three lessons from that experience: he gained a great and lasting respect for the infantry; he understood how a man can throw down his rifle and run away; and he vowed that if he ever got into combat again, he would again want to be in a volunteer outfit.

As the German juggernaut rolled westward, the French hospital closest to the front lines was overrun, leaving the French wounded without adequate care. A French general asked Kauffman if he would drive his ambulance back through both French and German lines and try to get the most seriously wounded to the hospital. Kauffman and a German-speaking lieutenant set off, ringing the bell on the ambulance frantically. The scene was like a pastoral painting, with cows grazing peacefully in the fields. Suddenly they saw a movement at the side of the road up ahead. Kauffman and his aide jumped out with hands over their heads, shouting “Kamerad!” When he thought about it later, the scene seemed like something out of a grade-B movie. But at the time, it was deadly serious. The German soldiers permitted them to continue on to the hospital, from which they had helped evacuate the wounded only three days before. But then they were made prisoners.

Because he was an American, Kauffman was eventually released and worked his way, over a period of a month and a half, down to Lisbon, across the South Atlantic to Brazil, up to Boston—and back to Scotland as a volunteer in the British navy. This was nearly a year and a half before the United States entered the war.

In a sense, Kauffman seemed to go out of his way to look for trouble. But trouble also came looking for him. While he was in a British naval school, a German bomb fell nearby and British army experts moved in to disarm it. As they worked, the bomb went off, killing the army crew. The next morning, a call went out for volunteers for bomb disposal. It was only after Kauffman had volunteered that he went out and took a sobering look at the hole in the ground where the army experts had been atomized.

Kauffman worked throughout the German blitz against Britain in the winter of 1940–41 and into the spring of 1941. Much of the work was unglamorous manual labor—digging as deep as thirty feet in the ground and shoring up the earth around the bomb before beginning the delicate business of disarming it.

The British quickly learned that the German bomb fuzes were numbered and that the numbers told what kind of fuze it was. A number ending in 1 was an antidisturbance fuze. A 7 meant a time fuze. A 4 was antiwithdrawal, and 5 was a straightforward arming fuze. The numbers remained a reliable guide because the Germans needed them to disarm bombs when their planes crashed at home.

But two other devices seriously complicated the task of the disarmament experts.

One was a two-thousand-pound mine dropped by parachute. If the mine came down on land instead of water, it was supposed to go off seventeen seconds later. But sometimes the fuzes jammed and the experts were called in. If in tinkering with the mine, the bomb-disposal man started it ticking again, he had something less than seventeen seconds to get away. The first mine Kauffman saw and successfully disarmed came down in Liverpool about Christmas time. He found it in a house of ill repute, sitting in an overstuffed chair draped in Christmas streamers.

The other threat was the German acoustic fuze. It was designed to react to any noise and begin ticking. The rule the bomb disposal crews worked out was to wait ten to twelve seconds after making any sound lasting more than half a second. Thus, if a man was trying to remove a screw, he would turn it a quarter turn, check his watch, turn it another quarter turn, and so on. On 2 January 1941, Kauffman was working on an acoustic fuze when his hand slipped and he heard the fuze begin to tick. He ran and was far enough away to survive, although the blast of the bomb hurled him through the air. His British commander awarded him a certificate for setting a new record in the one-hundred-meter dash.

After the blitz ended in May 1941, Kauffman returned to the United States and finally received his navy commission. His eyesight had not improved, but his experience was too valuable to waste. He was assigned to set up an American bomb-disposal school. But before he could get the school organized, the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. A week later, he was in Hawaii disposing of unexploded bombs. One bomb had landed just outside an ammunition depot at Schofield Barracks. Kauffman, with no experience with Japanese ordnance, approached it with extreme care, fearful of an ingenious device that might quickly take his life.

“It turned out that I couldn’t have set that bomb off if I’d had a sledge hammer,” he later recalled. “There was no way. The fuze was completely faulty. So the risk was absolutely zero.…”

In spite of Kauffman’s modest appraisal of the danger, he was awarded the Navy Cross for his work at Pearl Harbor.

Kauffman finally organized his bomb-disposal school at the Washington Navy Yard in January 1942. Except for Kauffman, who had been assigned to set up the school, the class was made up entirely of volunteers, all of them bachelors. For the next year and a half, Kauffman turned out bomb-disposal experts, first at the navy yard and then at American University, in northwest Washington. Much of the training involved digging deep holes. The final exam required nearly thirty hours of hard work, a foolproof way to find out if a man would become careless with fatigue.

This reliance on physical stress as a way of testing a man’s capability and screening out those who don’t measure up remains an important part of the training of the navy’s SEALs to this day. Today’s SEALs are also experts on using explosives and, if need be, disarming enemy munitions. So there is a direct link back to the bomb-disposal experts Kauffman trained half a century ago.

In May of 1943, Kauffman was called back from his honeymoon to set up a school to train the first Naval Combat Demolition Units, generally considered the direct ancestors of the SEALs. In a hurried meeting in Washington, he was shown pictures of obstacles being built on the beaches of France and told to “put a stop to that.” With his orders came a document permitting him to travel wherever he had to and to assemble the men and equipment he needed.

On 6 June 1943, the same day that Admiral King issued his authorizing order, Kauffman set up shop at Fort Pierce, a short distance from the old casino occupied by the Scouts and Raiders. The first volunteers came mostly from the Seabees, the legendary navy construction battalions, with officers raided from the bomb-disposal school.

Training began with a one-week ordeal that is still known as Hell Week and that quickly eliminated 40 percent of the class. The survivors were proud of their accomplishment, but they joked that “Hell Week separated the men from the boys; the men had sense enough to quit and left us with the boys.” That humorous assessment reflected a more serious concern, one that has continued to nag at those responsible for selecting members of the Underwater Demolition Teams and the SEALs. Since no one knows just what it takes for a man to excel as a SEAL, how can one be sure that men who might make superior SEALs are not being screened out by the contrived hardships of Hell Week?

The trainees at Fort Pierce spent much of their time in rubber boats and in the mud, and they ran miles every day. But surprisingly, little attention was paid to swimming. The assumption was that they would paddle ashore as part of an amphibious operation and do their demolition work in relatively shallow water while army demolition experts took over at the high-water mark.

Although men of the Underwater Demolition Teams later prided themselves on their nickname of the Naked Warriors, the trainees at Fort Pierce were anything but naked. They did their work dressed in soggy fatigues, with heavy boondocker shoes on their feet and awkward metal helmets on their heads. Much of their training was done at night.

The men quickly became adept at handling high explosives. Those who couldn’t overcome their fear of being blown to kingdom come were sent off to other assignments. They were probably the smart ones. As the UDT men later realized, they and their explosives-filled rubber boats were disasters waiting to happen.

Although Kauffman was probably the nation’s expert at disarming bombs and mines, the demolition men had a good deal to learn about handling explosives safely, placing them on obstacles at the edge of the sea, wiring the whole complex together, and making it all blow up at the same moment.

One breakthrough was the brainchild of a man named George Kistiakowsky, an irrepressible scientist who loved to careen around the compound at the controls of a tank and who quickly earned the nickname of the Mad Russian. It was his idea to stuff blocks of tetryl, a powerful explosive that comes in the form of a yellow powder, into floatable rubber tubes. Packing eight two-and-a-half-pound packages of tetryl into a section of tube created a twenty-pound length of explosive hose that could be towed by a swimmer, manipulated in the water, and wrapped around an obstacle. Later, much longer explosive-filled tubes, based on Kistiakowsky’s original concept, were used for clearing obstacles and blasting trenches on the ocean floor.

Kistiakowsky was a favorite in the training compound until he disappeared one night. Shortly after the war ended, Kauffman saw a picture of Kistiakowsky with Robert Oppenheimer and learned he had been spirited away to work on the first atom bomb. Kistiakowsky later went on to serve as science adviser to President Eisenhower.

Kauffman and his men worked hard not only at training but at developing workable tactics. Still Kauffman couldn’t rid himself of a nagging worry. He couldn’t picture his men paddling ashore in their explosives-laden rubber boats, groping around in the dark, and successfully destroying the enemy’s beach defenses. He had the uneasy feeling that they were really trying to prepare for an impossible mission.

Despite his misgivings, the first six men of the Eleventh Naval Combat Demolition Unit were sent to England early in November 1943 to begin preparing for the Normandy invasion.

Naval Demolition Units WWII Part II

A few weeks later, Bucklew and four members of the Scouts and Raiders, still a separate unit, also arrived in England and began stealthy reconnaissance operations along the Normandy coast. In what was quickly recognized as a classic breach of the most basic security rules, an admiral thoughtlessly permitted Bucklew and his men to see the plans for Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of France. When it was realized that these men would actually be crawling up on the enemy’s beaches months before the invasion and were therefore in serious danger of capture, they were sent to a special school to teach them how to resist interrogation and to escape, if captured.

Operating from small rubber boats at night, Bucklew and his men took soundings of the water depth all along the planned invasion beaches. Bucklew even crawled ashore one night and brought back a bucketful of sand so army experts could test it to determine how well it would support tanks and other heavy vehicles as they came ashore. Perhaps more important, Bucklew also studied the nighttime silhouette of the French coast so he would be able to guide the invading force as it approached the Normandy beaches for one of the most crucial battles of the European war.

The six graduates of Kauffman’s academy who arrived in England early in November of 1943 made up a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. These units were later enlarged into thirteen-man gap-assault teams. In contrast, the Underwater Demolition Teams being formed in the Pacific were much larger, consisting of about eighty enlisted men and sixteen officers—smaller than, but roughly comparable to, an army infantry company.

Those first demolitioneers were among the initial victims of the great secrecy surrounding plans for the invasion. No one knew who they were, what they were supposed to do, or even where they were expected to eat and sleep. This was in contrast to the situation in the Pacific, where Admiral Turner gave his personal high-level attention to the welfare of the Underwater Demolition Teams. Not until early April, just two months before the Normandy invasion, did the navy men get together with the army engineers to plan the clearance of beach obstacles. And it was well into May before two lieutenant commanders—with no experience in demolition work, but enough rank to gain access to needed intelligence—were sent to England to take command of the units assigned to clear the obstacles at the two American beaches, Omaha and Utah.

The intelligence was ominous.

Field Marshal Rommel himself had visited the potential invasion beaches and sketched out formidable defenses in which steel posts were driven deep into the sand, connected with barbed wire, and reinforced by mortar and machine-gun emplacements. To further strengthen the defenses, the posts were topped by platter-shaped teller mines that would go off on contact.

Even more worrisome were the huge metal structures that had been spotted hidden near beaches all along the French coast. These so-called Belgian gates were steel latticework barriers, ten feet square and propped up by heavy steel braces. Although they weighed three tons, they were designed to be manhandled far out onto the sand at low tide to block access to a beach.

Word of these formidable defenses worked its way down to the navy demolition teams early enough for them to build their own Belgian gates and then try to destroy them. The trick was not only to blow up the structure but to prevent littering the beach with a tangle of steel that would remain as much a problem as the original obstacle. A young lieutenant named Carl P. Hagensen came up with the solution: a waterproof canvas bag filled with plastic explosive and fitted with a cord at one end and a hook at the other so that it could be quickly attached to an obstacle.

Bucklew, who did not like loud noises, was impressed by the practice explosions conducted in a sandy area near Plymouth on the south coast of England. In the States, training usually involved a charge of half a pound, on rare occasions a full pound. In England, the demolition men used twenty-pound charges, enough to “blow that steel for half a mile.” In those tests, the sausage-shaped packages of explosives designed by Hagensen worked perfectly. Attached to the braces of a Belgian gate, they caused the big frontal latticework to fall flat on the beach. By the time of the invasion, ten thousand Hagensen packs were ready for use, and they soon became popular with the Underwater Demolition Teams in the Pacific.

In the weeks before the invasion, every available man was flown from Fort Pierce to England, while other sailors were simply drafted into the demolition teams and hastily trained. As the training ended in late May, the men were organized into thirteen-man gap-assault teams, one for each of the eight gaps planned for the beach code-named Utah and one for each of the eight gaps in the two halves of Omaha Beach. Working in tandem with them were twenty-six-man teams of army engineers whose job was to take care of the obstacles above the high-water mark while the navy worked on those closer to the water or actually submerged.

Long before dawn on 6 June, Bucklew was in a big landing craft in the van of the armada churning across the channel. About fifteen miles off the French coast, his small boat was launched, and he set off on a now-familiar assignment—to lead the troops to the proper landing zone on Omaha Beach. With his little boat stripped of most of its armament, his gasoline engine pushed him along at about fifteen knots, which meant a run of an hour or a little less.

Bucklew had gone only about three miles when war suddenly erupted far down the coast to his right, about ten miles away. The sound of powerful explosions echoed across the choppy seas, and flares lighted up the sky. Bucklew had a terrible feeling that he had missed the time and the place of the landing and that the troops had gone in at the wrong spot on their own. But that was impossible. If he had gone only three of the fifteen miles to the beach, he couldn’t be that far off course. Then he recalled that army Rangers were scheduled to scale a cliff some distance away from the actual site of the landing, and he recognized the sounds of conflict as part of that diversionary operation.

Still he did not feel really comfortable that he was heading for the right spot until he saw the steeple of the church at the French town of Vierville, centered behind Omaha Beach. Not only had the steeple been pointed out in intelligence briefings, but Bucklew had seen it himself in his earlier visits to the landing beaches.

Everything seemed to be going precisely according to plan. In the hours before the landing, waves of bombers swept over the Nazi defenses, dropping thousands of pounds of explosives. Then navy guns took up the task of paving the way for the landing force. Bucklew watched in awe as the salvos from the battleships, looking like huge balls of fire, passed overhead three at a time. The gap-assault teams approached the beaches in one-hundred-foot-long tank landing craft, each carrying a thirteen-man navy unit, a twenty-six-man army team, two tanks, and a tank fitted with a bulldozer blade. Each landing craft towed behind it a fifty-foot boat filled with explosives and other equipment. Watching the gunfire display, it was easy to believe the assurance many of the men had received that they would find nothing alive on the invasion beaches.

The demolition men also had the added comfort, under the plan, of forming the second wave of the assault rather than going in first to take out the obstacles. First would come Sherman tanks that had been fitted with large, waterproof canvas girdles which permitted them to swim ashore. With the tanks would come infantrymen to clean out the few snipers who might survive the ferocious bombardment. Two minutes later, just as the low tide turned, the gap-assault teams would step ashore. They would race the incoming tide up the beach, doing most of their work on sand not yet covered by water.

The plan and the reality turned out to be two quite different things. The bomber crews, anxious not to hit the Americans, dropped their bombs slightly inland. Many of the navy shells also passed over the positions commanding the beaches and plowed the French farmland, digging long furrows eight feet deep and ten feet wide. The result was that many of the German guns, carefully positioned and sighted to cover the approaches to the beaches from the most advantageous angles, survived and greeted the approaching landing craft with withering fire.

The current along the coast also played havoc with the plan. Many of the gap-assault teams drifted off course and landed in the wrong places, finding themselves the first on the beach rather than following tanks and infantry ashore. Many of the men were killed or wounded before they ever set foot on French soil, either cut down by machine-gun bullets or swallowed up in the blast when their own landing craft were hit by enemy shellfire.

A few of the teams were able to work their way among the obstacles, placing their explosives and linking them together with primacord, a thin, explosive-filled cord that served a dual purpose. It carried the fire to the charge, much like the fuze on a firecracker. And it also gave an extra bang, to set off the explosive. Quickly the men ran for shelter, popped off a purple flare to warn of the impending blast, and then set off the explosion. In some cases, the explosions had to be delayed because infantry had taken shelter among the obstacles, too frightened to move on up the beach. The sailors ran among them, urging them to move, and setting fuzes timed to go off in two minutes. The GIs moved.

According to plan, the gap-assault teams were to land on Omaha Beach at 6:33 A.M. They had twenty-seven minutes to clear sixteen fifty-foot-wide gaps to permit the bulk of the D-day assault force to come ashore. But by noon, only five of the gaps had been successfully opened, and several of them had been partially blocked again by sunken landing craft and shattered tanks.

All through the afternoon, the demolition men followed the retreating tide, fighting to open the remaining gaps. Often, they were handicapped by lack of explosives because of the loss of some of their landing craft. The small mines that the Germans had attached to the obstacles were salvaged to eke out enough explosive power to blast the remaining barriers. At several points, the defenders seemed to hold their fire until a series of obstacles was almost ready to blow. Then they would set it off prematurely with gunfire. In one crew, five men were killed and six more were wounded by such a tactic.

By evening, when the tide turned once more, thirteen of the planned sixteen gaps had been cleared and marked, and the Americans had a firm foothold on Hitler’s “Fortress Europa.” But the cost had been hideous. 6 June 1944 is remembered as by far the worst single day in the history of naval special warfare. Of the 175 navy men involved in the assault on Omaha Beach, 31 died and 60 more were wounded, a casualty rate of 52 percent.

Twelve miles to the northwest, the remaining gap-assault teams came ashore with the second American landing force on Utah Beach. Here the line of obstacles along the beach was incomplete, a much less formidable gauntlet than that arrayed at Omaha Beach. Within an hour and a half, the demolition men cleared seven hundred yards of beach. Then they waited for the tide to recede and opened up another nine-hundred-yard gap. Four of the sailors were killed and eleven wounded when an 88mm shell fell among them, a much smaller casualty toll than that suffered by their colleagues a few miles away.