American Colonial Militia Systems

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This illustration depicts the first muster of Massachusetts Bay Colony militia in the spring of 1637.

In the colonial era, the militia system was linked to fundamental concepts of American citizenship; militias were considered to be one of three pillars of society, along with the church and local government. Militarily, the colonial militia was the primary instrument of defense for the American colonies. By the latter part of the 17th century, the militia had become more complex, as local militias continued to function as local defense forces, while militia volunteers and draftees made up the provincial expeditionary forces for major campaigns. The structures and functions of local militias and expeditionary forces continued to evolve through the series of imperial wars of the 18th century.

Early Colonial Militias

The first English colonists found themselves in precarious circumstances. Potential attack from Native Americans and England’s European rivals compelled the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth to immediately organize their defenses. For guidance, colonists turned to the English militia tradition, dating to the 12th-century Assize of Arms (1181), which obligated every able-bodied adult man in the community to provide military service for the common defense.

In Jamestown (settled in 1607), Capt. John Smith was one of several among the first colonists with professional military experience. Smith proved more forceful than most, however, and once he assumed responsibility for the defense of the colony he held every man responsible for militia duty. Facing the prospect of the colony’s starvation and total collapse, Smith declared martial law and organized reluctant settlers to raid corn supplies of local Native Americans. Smith’s authoritarian actions kept the colony alive without a formal militia structure. The founders of the first New England colony in Plymouth (1620) hired a military adviser, Miles Standish, to oversee the colony’s defenses. In the early years of both colonies, community defense fell to the entire male community.

After a decade of settlement, the militia structures of Virginia and New England diverged, reflecting differences in their societies and circumstances. In Virginia, the emergence of tobacco as a cash crop stimulated the entrepreneurial individualism that produced a rapid expansion of dispersed plantations. The isolated plantations, however, hindered militia organization and were vulnerable to attack; a 1622 attack by local Powhatans devastated the English colony. The royal government determined to establish an effective militia by mandating universal military service for every man between the ages of 17 and 60. Orders instructed planters to take their weapons with them to church and into the fields when they worked.

In contrast to Virginia’s dispersed settlement pattern, New Englanders settled closely around their meetinghouses, which enabled each town to maintain a militia company. In a total community effort, towns constructed fortifications that made each town an outpost and every freeman a soldier. The display of military prowess combined with competent diplomacy permitted New England to avoid major conflict during the early years of settlement.

17th-Century Militia Systems

Gradually over two decades, New England and Virginia transformed their ad hoc militias into formally structured militia systems. In New England, specialized “trained bands” received military training while the rest of the male population constituted a reserve. Between 1637 and 1676, New England’s military planners learned from repeated conflicts with Native Americans that their best chance for success depended on their ability to counterattack quickly and effectively. The Massachusetts militia adapted by creating special units of troops drawn from the trained bands based on particular skills, for example, tracking and marksmanship.

Their first major expedition during the Pequot War (1637) proved a tactical success but revealed shortcomings in command. As a remedy, New England colonies joined in a cooperative military establishment, the United Colonies of New England (1643). The confederation was formed expressly to provide mutual aid with both men and logistical support and to provide a central command. While imperfect, the New England regional coordinating council lasted for some 40 years.

By the time of King Philip’s War (1675-76), the colonial militia system had begun to take on two distinct forms: local militia and provincial expeditionary forces. After damaging surprise attacks by Native American warriors in 1675, New England towns contributed more than 1,000 militia troops for a retaliatory provincial expedition. The evolution of the militia- from a universal community obligation for local defense to a formalized military force-required provincial officials to negotiate soldiers’ pay rates and specify the destination and duration of service. Soldiers enlisted with the expectation that they were entering into a contract between equals. They insisted on electing the officers who would lead them, set the geographic limits of their service (often refusing to leave their own provinces), stipulated the rations and supplies to which they were entitled, and demanded discharge at the agreed expiration of their enlistment. As the scale and risks of expeditions grew, recruiters increasingly relied on enlistment bonuses to fill the ranks, and the social profiles of expedition soldiers shifted more toward young bachelors and the “lower sort” who were more likely to be enticed by economic incentives.

New England militias were subordinated to the selectmen of their towns; expedition forces reported to the provincial government. Operationally, local committees raised, equipped, and paid the militia, with the social composition of New England militia closely mirroring the community. In the local militia, the “better sort” of well-to-do and respectable men tended to be officers, while freeholders (property owners) filled the ranks; expeditionary forces relied more on the lower end of the social order for their rank and file.

During this same period, the evolution of the Virginia militia followed a different trajectory but arrived at a similar end. After quelling another Powhatan uprising in 1644, Virginia’s militia organization suffered from complacency and neglect. Militia duty was burdensome to busy tobacco planters. The lack of support from established planters pushed frontier settlers to organize their own vigilante militia. In 1676, they attacked bordering tribes, but then quickly turned their wrath on the colonial governor in a violent outburst known as Bacon’s Rebellion. After British regulars restored order, the royal government promptly restructured the Virginia militia, hiring professional soldiers for frontier duty and reserving future local militia service to the “better sort.”

18th-Century Militia Systems

From 1689 to 1763, the demands on the militia system shifted predominantly to providing expeditionary forces to support British wars with Spain and France. By the time of King William’s War (1689-97), provincial expeditionary forces were the primary unit for active duty, even though the militia remained the first line of defense for outlying towns. In the south at the turn of the century, the militia was only occasionally a viable force. When South Carolina experienced a Spanish attack in 1706, the militia rushed to defend the coastal capital Charleston, but during the Yamasee War (1715), militia turnout was dismal. Following the end of Queen Anne’s War in 1714, southern colonial militias declined in military readiness and became exclusively the preserve of white planters who were more worried about slave rebellion than Indian attacks.

By the time of the culminating phase of imperial wars in North America (King George’s War, 1744-48, to the French and Indian War, 1756-63), southern militias’ main function was community policing. When Britain called upon Virginia for troops to support a Caribbean expedition, the Virginia assembly hired or drafted transients, laborers, and other landless persons because propertied men refused to enlist for distant expeditions. Men of property remained active in the militia while it functioned as a policing force at home, but most landholders avoided active duty on the frontier or expeditions by paying a fine for nonservice. In contrast, New Englanders from across the entire social spectrum turned out for an offensive expedition against French Canada in 1745. The French and their Indian allies were a long-standing menace to the northern colonies, and past experiences of predations motivated some recruits. Others responded for army pay and the prospect of plunder, and still others for God and glory.

When the French and Indian War reignited hostilities, the British deployed a regular army to America and called on 30,000 colonial troops to support them. The war linked global imperial struggles to local frontier warfare, and New Englanders again joined the fray in considerable numbers. Because colonial militiamen in Massachusetts saw their military service as a contract, freely entered into and with stipulated limits, most joined voluntarily and were not disproportionately of the lower classes as was the case in Virginia.

As expeditionary forces increasingly fought the wars of empire, local militias became more important as social institutions than as military organizations. By the 18th century, militia training days were important community events in colonial society. Not only did the men come together to drill, the entire community joined in a civic holiday and a picnic, opened with a prayer by the minister of the congregation. Afterward, while the men drilled on the green, women cooked feasts and children socialized with other youngsters. Young women looked on as the young men fired their muskets and marched smartly on the training greens. Training day functioned as an initiation ritual for younger men entering into the world of adult manhood. It also was the stage upon which a community reconfirmed the ranks of citizenship and the social order. Those on the margins of the social proceedings at training days were the same people on the margins of full citizenship or prosperity-a diverse group that included servants, slaves, Native Americans, and transient laborers.

The Revolutionary Militia

The onset of the American Revolution inspired the last resurgence of colonial militia systems as effective military organizations. In 1775, the Minute Men were the American vanguard, as the larger part of the adult male population mustered for community defense. Once serious fighting began, however, the New England colonies reverted to the established model of the expeditionary forces in which recruits tended to be single young men able to handle the rigors of military life. When the war continued into another year, at Commander in Chief George Washington’s urging, the American Congress authorized establishment of a truly national army, much more similar to the European model of a professional army. The demands of a continental war required a national army that superseded the capacities of the colonial militia systems, and henceforth the militias functioned as auxiliaries and recruiting pools.

Bibliography Boucher, Ronald L. “The Colonial Militia as a Social Organization: Salem, Massachusetts, 1764-1775.” Military Affairs 37 (1973): 125-30. Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Leach, Douglas Edward. “The Military System of Plymouth Colony.” New England Quarterly (1951): 342-364. Shy, John. “A New Look at the Colonial Militia.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 175-85. Whisker, James Biser. The Rise and Decline of the American Militia System. London: Associated University Press, 1999.

Further Reading Anderson, Fred. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Gross, Robert. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill & Wang, 1976. Leach, Douglas Edward. Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Main, Jackson Turner. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.

WARRIOR WOMEN OF DAHOMEY, 1600–1900

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The warrior women of Dahomey, an ancient kingdom in West Africa and present-day Benin, first came to the attention of European travelers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A German book published in 1598, Vera Descriptio Regni Africani, describes an African royal court whose palace guard consisted of women, and similar royal formations occurred elsewhere in the world from ancient times, particularly in the East. The kings of ancient Persia had female bodyguards, as did a prince of Java.

As late as the nineteenth century, the king of Siam, now Thailand, was guarded by a battalion of four hundred women armed with spears. They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. Women in general were regarded as more loyal and trustworthy bodyguards than men, because they were less likely to be bribed or suborned; many rulers chose female bodyguards for this reason.

But the women of Dahomey outclassed them all. More than 250 years after the first reference, we catch sight of them again in the high summer of the British Empire when the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley, in a report on his successful campaign against the Ashanti (1873–74), compared his energetic and disciplined Fanti female porters to the king of Dahomey’s “corps of Amazons.”

Eighteenth-century accounts of Dahomey by European merchants and slave traders—slavery was the basis of the kingdom’s wealth—paint a picture of a colorful feudal world whose kings were surrounded by hundreds of serving girls and guarded by armed women. One of Dahomey’s kings, Bossa Ahadee, would march in ceremonial procession accompanied by several hundred wives, surrounded by female messengers and slaves, and escorted by a guard of 120 men armed with blunderbusses and 90 armed women.

The presence of the armed women was, at this stage in Dahomey’s history, more a symbol than a real threat to Dahomey’s neighbors. The tables were turned, however, when one of them, the king of Oyo, took to the field against the Dahomeans with a raiding party of eight hundred women to enforce a claim of female tribute he had leveled against King Adahoonzou. It was left to the all-male Dahomean army to defeat the Oyan Amazons.

By the time of King Ghezo (1818–58), Dahomey’s royal court consisted of some eight thousand people, the majority of them women, many of whom existed in a minutely graded pyramid of concubinage, at the top of which were the so-called Wives of the Leopard, the women who bore the ruler’s children. One of the functions of the armed female element of the court, all of whom were recruited in their early teenage years, seems to have been the capture and execution of women from rival tribes. All the “Amazons” carried giant folding razors, with blades over two feet long, which were apparently used to decapitate female enemies and castrate male foes.

From the late 1830s Ghezo seems to have used members of his predominantly female court in battle against neighboring tribes. It is possible that he deployed four thousand female warriors in an army totaling sixteen thousand. When in 1851 he laid siege to the city of Abeokuta, the siege was repulsed with losses of some three thousand, of whom two thirds were women. A French account of the engagement describes their officers standing in the front line, “recognisable by the riches of their dress” and carrying themselves with “a proud and resolute air.” Nevertheless, these women warriors occupied an inferior and ambivalent position in the hierarchy of the Dahomean court and, significantly, referred to themselves as men in their war cries and battle chants.

Far from discouraging Ghezo, this setback spurred him on to include more women in his army. They seem to have been divided into a regular corps of well-trained and highly disciplined “Amazons” armed with muskets and machete-like swords, who also formed an elite personal bodyguard, and a rather less satisfactory reserve, armed with cutlasses, clubs, and bows and arrows, who were more interested in rum than rigorous military discipline. In peacetime the “Amazon” corps was wholly segregated from men, and outside the confines of the royal palace its approach was signaled by the ringing of bells, upon which civilians had to turn their backs and males had to move away.

There were several practical reasons for Ghezo’s use of women in battle. Dahomey was exceptionally warlike, and lost many men on campaign, while simultaneously depending for its wealth on a slave trade that favored the disposal to slavers of a large proportion of its able-bodied male population. At its peak strength in the early 1860s, the Dahomean army was approximately fifty thousand strong—one-fifth the total population—of which the female element numbered ten thousand, a quarter of their number consisting of the “Amazons.”

It has been suggested that many of the women, as well as some of the men in the Dahomean army, went to war as camp followers, much in the manner of the soldaderas who marched with Mexican armies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who saw them in 1863, likewise poured derision on “the fighting Amazons.” “Mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” he ruminated with all the authority of the European white male, “the officers decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…they manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep.” But he also noted that this army, then some 2,500 strong, was well armed and effective in battle. Nor could all of them have been old and hideous, since all 2,500 were official wives of the king.

In spite of the dread in which they were held, the “Amazons” were no match for small but well-armed colonial armies. In a series of engagements in 1892, the male and female Dahomean warriors were defeated by a French army, and the kingdom became a colony of France. The victorious French commander commended the women warriors on their speed and boldness and installed a puppet ruler who was permitted a few token women in his bodyguard. A troupe of so-called Amazons from Dahomey formed part of a display at the recently erected Eiffel Tower, under which they danced and drilled.

Reference: Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, 1998.

Coldstream Guards 1940

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the 1st Coldstream was training at Pirbright, while the 2nd Battalion was at Albuhera Barracks, Aldershot. The 3rd Battalion was in Egypt, serving in the Canal Brigade, and based in Mustapha Barracks, Alexandria.

The outbreak of war was greeted (in 1st and 2nd Coldstream) by some with relief, even celebration; war, long anticipated, was now a reality and provided a degree of certainty. Some felt that it would be like the manoeuvres that the Battalions had done during the summer. A feeling of inevitability prevailed, however, among the many sons of those who had fought the Germans only twenty years before. Orders to mobilize had arrived on 1 September and, within hours, Reservists joined both Battalions.

Mechanization of the Army at home was completed in 1938 and battalions (twenty-three officers and 753 men in four Rifle Companies) had the .303” Bren light machine-gun, ten lightly armoured Bren Carriers, and a 3” Mortar Platoon. Anti-tank defence was provided by the Boys .55” anti-tank rifle, regarded as infamous for its savage kick. Battalions were expected to march (they lacked troop transport) and were equipped only to company level with radio. Tactics were based on the mobile warfare of 1918 with some emphasis on positional defence. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was partly organized for a war of manoeuvre, but it lacked armour and all arms training.

THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE, 1939–40

The 2nd Battalion was in 1st Guards Brigade (with 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Hampshire Regiment, under Brigadier Merton Beckwith-Smith) in Major General the Hon Harold Alexander’s 1st ‘Strategic Reserve’ Division (I Corps). Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, the Battalion moved to Southampton on 19 September and sailed for Cherbourg, continuing by rail (as in 1914) in ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’ trucks to Sillé-le-Guillaume (near Le Mans) then marching on pavé (cobbles) to Conlie and later Arras.

The 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Cazenove in 7th Guards Brigade (with 1st and 2nd Grenadiers, under Brigadier Sir John Whitaker, a Coldstreamer) was in Major General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division (II Corps) and arrived in Cherbourg on 30 September. They followed the same route, arriving near Roubaix on 12 October.

In 1938 plans had been made to deploy the BEF to Northern France which was unprotected by the much-vaunted Maginot Line. A few pillboxes and an incomplete anti-tank ditch existed along the border with neutral Belgium, and so the BEF had to construct a twenty-mile defensive line from Halluin (near Menin) to Maulde, south of Tournai.

The battalions spent the winter of 1939–40 constructing trenches, pillboxes and wire entanglements. The single battledress issued was inadequate for the cold and Guardsmen were mostly quartered in unheated barns. Little training was done in the Regular divisions, except 3rd Division where General Montgomery anticipated that battles would be fought on each river line. Bachy station platform was used for Adjutant’s Drill Parades by 2nd Coldstream, and in December His Majesty the King visited the Battalion on one of the coldest days of the winter. Efforts were made to maintain morale and concerts by George Formby, Gracie Fields and others were popular. Morale was high and the Guardsmen, despite the most arduous conditions, complained little during this ‘Phoney War’.

Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, attended the Paris conference in November at which it was decided that if Belgian neutrality was violated the Allies would move forward sixty miles from the River Escaut to the River Dyle, east of Brussels. This – Plan ‘D’ – would shorten the Allied line, preserve Brussels, deny the Channel ports to Germany and might bring the Belgian Army on to the Allied side. No reconnaissance of Belgium was allowed, however, and the wisdom of moving forward was much debated.

In February 1940 the 2nd Battalion served in the Maginot Line near Lorry-lès-Metz and the companies were, for the first time, in sight of the enemy. Useful battle lessons were learned, particularly about dominating no-man’s-land. Some Guardsmen acquired ‘On ne passe pas’ Maginot badges; after Dunkirk many Coldstreamers felt that, unlike the Maginot defences, no one had passed them!

1st Battalion

The German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May was followed by the advance into Belgium. 1st Coldstream moved to Vilvorde outside Brussels, then to Louvain and Herent, on the Mechelen-Louvain canal, where Coldstreamers first engaged German troops (14 May). An assault crossing in the Battalion area was repulsed next day, but during the action Lord Frederick Cambridge, commanding No 2 Company, was killed. The loss of this popular figure, the first Coldstream officer killed in the campaign, was a shock. The Battalion counter-attacked to the canal, but on 16 May the Germans crossed in the Belgian sector. Worse news followed; German tanks had broken through over the River Meuse eighty miles further south, outflanking the Maginot Line and threatening the BEF’s flank.

The 1st Battalion withdrew that night to the Escaut (temporarily beside the 2nd Battalion) and later into reserve. Refugees hindered movement and everyone witnessed terrible sights where civilians had been dive-bombed. On 22 May the 1st Battalion moved again to Wattrelos, east of Roubaix. The discipline and bearing of the Guardsmen on the march made a strong impression on many observers.

2nd Battalion

The 2nd Coldstream received news of the attack on 10 May at Pont-à-Marcq, south of Lille. The Battalion marched twenty-one miles to Tournai next day before being lifted to Brussels, but had to march a further twelve miles to Duisburg village, and later Leefdaal, on the Brussels-Louvain road. Similar scenes of refugees choking the roads and rumours of ‘Fifth Columnists’ were encountered. No.3 Company’s cookhouse in Leefdaal was bombed and the CQMS and a cook were killed, the first casualties suffered by the Battalion.

On 15 May, following the German crossing of the Dyle, the Battalion prepared to move amid order and counter-order. That night it withdrew, marching seventeen miles back to Zuun on the Brussels-Charleroi canal; two days later it completed another twenty miles to the Dendre at Ninove. The Commanding Officer commented that the Guardsmen marched well and were cheerful despite little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The boots stood the test, but many felt that they had ‘slept on the march’. On 19 May 2nd Coldstream had to withdraw in daylight in contact, under shellfire, from its positions forward of the Dendre.

The twenty-seven miles to Pecq on the Escaut were completed mostly on foot, fortunately without air attack, and the Battalion arrived late on 20 May. The Escaut was “as wide as the Basingstoke canal”, but shallow; it gave Lord Gort the chance to deploy the BEF in the defence of a major obstacle, although he had troops committed around Arras, thirty-five miles to the south-west. The BEF defences ran for thirty-two miles with 1st Guards Brigade in the centre.

The Guardsmen were tired – “over everybody there was a heavy air of fatigue and depression” one Company Commander wrote – but two platoons per company immediately began to dig in along an 1800 yard frontage, overlooked by the Mont St Aubert feature, 430 feet high, less than two miles away. No 3 Company guarded the bridge, demolished that night (20/21 May), while No 1 Company was behind the canal bank. During the dark night it was realized that there was a gap between the Coldstream and 3rd Grenadiers on the right, and a limited re-deployment took place. The Royal Artillery shelled movement on the far bank, but before dawn German mortaring started and heavy shellfire later hit both Battalions.

A determined river crossing by 31st Infantry Division against the Coldstream-Grenadier boundary followed. Despite heavy fire, several German companies crossed and advanced towards the Pecq-Tournai road, digging in on rising ground (‘Poplar Ridge’). Attempts by Coldstream Bren carriers to support No 1 Company, forced out of position, were only partially successful, several carriers being lost to assault guns. The attack towards Pecq was halted.

The situation was unclear; communications were difficult. Brigadier Beckwith-Smith, the Brigade Commander, ordered the Commanding Officers to restore the situation as best they could. No 3 Company of the Grenadiers counter-attacked, but, when this faltered, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls of the Grenadiers (Imperial Forces Heavyweight Boxing Champion) charged the positions on Poplar Ridge firing his Bren, destroying the machine guns and causing numerous casualties, despite several wounds. This superb act of gallantry wrested the initiative from the Germans and Lance Corporal Nicholls was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Coldstream re-established their forward positions and by nightfall reported their front clear of enemy. The Battalion had suffered thirty casualties (fifteen killed) including several officers and seniors. In 1st Guards Brigade sector a Corps river crossing had been defeated and only one small penetration had been made down the whole Escaut Line.

In the south, tanks from Panzer Gruppe von Kleist, the German main effort, reached the Channel late on 20/21 May. The BEF’s resolute defence of the Escaut caused General von Bock to switch the effort of Army Group B (a subsidiary to the attack in the south) to the Courtrai-Ypres axis, the BEF boundary with the Belgians, in order to outflank the Escaut position. A salient began to develop around Lille.

Lord Gort saw the trap and decided, despite Allied pressure, to save the BEF. After several confused meetings in Ypres on 22 May Lord Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the ‘Gort Line’ constructed during the winter. This released divisions to attack south into Panzer Gruppe von Kleist (the offensive never materialized), to secure Dunkirk and to strengthen the northern flank with the Belgians.

The Dunkirk Perimeter. 1st and 2nd Battalions

The 2nd Battalion withdrew from Pecq on 22 May to ill-prepared positions near Leers (east of Roubaix) but it was well supplied from the Lille NAAFI. On the 27th the Commanding Officer announced that 1st Division was to move to the Dunkirk perimeter. The intention “to march 55 miles back to the coast” produced misgivings!

On 26 May 1st Coldstream received orders regarding evacuation from Dunkirk, but with Army Group B attacking the BEF flank near Menin, the Battalion moved to Roncq (south of Menin). The German VI Armee broke through 5th Division at Houthem (near Ypres) and the position was only restored by a determined attack by 3rd Grenadiers, whose defence prevented Army Group B encircling the BEF. The 1st Coldstream withdrew (28 May) over Messines Ridge to Reninge, on the Yser, twelve miles from Dunkirk, down roads clogged with French, British and Belgian troops. (Belgium surrendered on 28 May). The Yser was the last significant obstacle south of the Dunkirk perimeter. The Battalion moved to Furnes, destroying its transport and keeping only the fighting vehicles. Dunkirk lay under a pall of smoke.

During 30 May German pressure increased north of Furnes; their 56th Division attempted to cross the Bergues-Furnes canal. 1st Coldstream was ordered to relieve a battalion on the canal, but No.1 Company, reaching the position in the dark, found Germans on the near bank. An immediate counter-attack was mounted, but the situation remained confused. The Adjutant, Captain George Burns, took over No 1 Company and the Transport Officer No 3. At first light mortars and artillery opened fire and the crossing was defeated.

Pressure on 1st Coldstream increased on 31 May; the 3rd Division was ordered to embark that night and No 4 Company formed the Battalion rearguard. By 0300 hours the Guardsmen – and thousands of other troops – were on the beach at La Panne waiting for the tide. On 1 June 1st Coldstream, each man with his rifle and equipment, returned to England.

The 2nd Coldstream had also been moving on 27 May from Roubaix, past Ploegsteert and Kemmelberg, to Locre, between Ypres and Bailleul, where it rested after marching thirty-two miles, and a thunderstorm soaked everyone. The Battalion marched a further fifteen miles, passing chaos in Poperinghe, to the Bergues-Furnes canal (with only a few miles in transport) before setting about the defence of a wide frontage astride a main route into the Dunkirk Perimeter. By late on 29 May 2nd Coldstream was dug in, but its strength was only 200 men. A detachment, 120 strong, later rejoined the Battalion from Houthem (near Hondschoote).

Troops, including wounded, straggled across the bridges all day, only ambulances being allowed to drive across. Two platoons of the Welsh Guards “marched across in formation, looking like Guardsmen and remarkably … well turned out compared with the rabble which was shuffling along the roads. It did us good to see them,” wrote the Commanding Officer. On the 30th the Coldstream was ordered to form the rearguard for the BEF, fighting until receiving orders to evacuate. Rations were scanty and ammunition short.

Shelling increased, but it was not until 1 June that the position became precarious. German tanks crossed the canal, forcing No 1 Company back onto No 3, both Company Commanders being killed; but the Battalion held on, before withdrawing to the beaches that night. The Guardsmen spent 2 June hiding from Stukas in dunes near Dunkirk until evening before leaving in various craft. Colonel Bootle-Wilbraham (now commanding the Brigade) and Major W.S. (‘Bunty’) Stewart Brown, Acting Commanding Officer, were picked up by HMS Sabre. No Coldstreamer was allowed to board without his weapon; but once aboard, cocoa was served in galvanized buckets, and most Guardsmen slept until reaching Dover.

The achievements of the Royal Navy and the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk are well known. Dispersion to Reception Areas was another feat of improvisation; 545 trains were used to move the 338,226 men evacuated. Hundreds of volunteers produced tea and sandwiches. The 1st Battalion re-assembled at Aldershot, while the 2nd collected at Walton, near Wakefield. Reorganization and training against an invasion was the priority.

The recovery of the BEF was a major success, but it was not a victory. Almost all heavy equipment was lost: over 84,400 vehicles were abandoned, including 98% of the tanks. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, inspired the nation, but stated that “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain had, however, recovered a third of a million trained Servicemen, and Dunkirk veterans went on to fight in every theatre of war. “Being evacuated,” wrote one, “was the start of the road back.”

The War Office Report later concluded that “without question the British soldier is at least as good as the German,” but it was clear how ill-equipped the BEF had been for the campaign. The BEF and RAF had gained valuable experience, but there was much to learn.

Months later the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer’s Bunting, battle-scarred and bloodied, arrived at Regimental Headquarters from HMS Winchelsea which had carried Colonel Cazenove back from the beaches. It now hangs in the 1st Battalion Sergeants’ Mess, a symbol of the Coldstreamers who maintained traditional standards and discipline under very difficult circumstances during the Dunkirk campaign.

Royal Air Force Regiment

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RAF Regiment servicemen near Khandahar Airfield, Afghanistan January 2010.

The Royal Air Force Regiment (RAF Regt) is part of the Royal Air Force and functions as a specialist airfield defence corps founded by Royal Warrant in 1942.

The RAF Regiment is trained in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) defence and equipped with advanced vehicles and detection measures. RAF Regiment instructors are responsible for training all Royal Air Force personnel in basic Force Protection, such as first aid, weapon handling, and CBRN skills.

The regiment and its members are known within the RAF as ‘The Regiment’, ‘Rock Apes’ or ‘Rocks’. After a 32 week trainee gunner course, its members are trained and equipped to prevent a successful enemy attack in the first instance; minimise the damage caused by a successful attack; and ensure that air operations can continue without delay in the aftermath of an attack. RAF Regiment squadrons use aggressive defence tactics whereby they actively seek out infiltrators in a large area surrounding airfields.

The genesis of the RAF Regiment was with the creation of No. 1 Armoured Car Company RAF in 1921 for operations in Iraq, followed shortly afterwards by No. 2 Armoured Car Company RAF and No. 3 Armoured Car Company RAF. These were equipped with Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars and were highly successful in ground combat operations throughout the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s. The RAF Regiment came into existence, in name, on 5 February 1942. From the start it had both field squadrons and light anti-aircraft squadrons, the latter originally armed with Hispano 20mm cannon and then the Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. Its role was to seize, secure and defend airfields to enable air operations to take place. Several parachute squadrons were formed to assist in the seizing of airfields and No. II Squadron retains this capability. 284 Field Squadron was the first RAF unit to arrive in West Berlin in 1945, to secure RAF Gatow.

The Regiment has a museum at RAF Honington near Bury St Edmunds. The RAF Regiment mounts annually the King’s Guard/Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, with the first occasion being on 1 April 1943.

During World War II, with its first headquarters established at RAF Alma Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire and its first depot at nearby RAF Belton Park the RAF Regiment grew to a force of over 80,000 men in 280 squadrons of 185 men each (each squadron including five officers). Squadrons usually consisted of a Headquarters Flight, three Rifle Flights, an Air-Defence Flight, and an Armoured-Car Flight. The flights were grouped together into wings as needed. It also operated six Armoured Car Squadrons to provide an area response capability to several RAF stations. Light Armoured Squadrons, equipped with FV101 Scorpion and FV107 Scimitar light Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) – (CVR(T) – continued to be operated into the 1980s. Formerly the RAF’s firefighters were also members of the RAF Regiment, although they are now independent of it.

The RAF Regiment comes under command of 2 Group, Air Command. Its members are organised into ten regular squadrons, – Nos 1, 2, 3, 15, 26, 27, 34, 51, 58 and 63/Queen’s colour Squadron – of which eitght are field squadrons and two are specialist CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear units under the umbrella of the defence CBRN Wing (No 20 Wing RAF Regiment -see note below), plus fourRoyal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) Regiment (RAuxAF Regt) squadrons. These are intended to counter ground-based threats to overseas/deployed RAF assets and, to this end, are trained as mobile infantry to move on foot, or in helicopters and protected mobility vehicles, to defend airfields and landing sites. The large area surrounding airfields (regularly up to 140 km square) means RAF Regiment rifle flights (platoons) often spend long periods of time deployed on the ground deterring and detecting potential attackers. Since 2007, some 10 RAF Regiment gunners have been killed in action, and many seriously injured, in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, over the same period, three Military Crosses have been won by RAF Regiment members for conspicuous bravery.

Members of the RAF Regiment are equipped with a range of direct and indirect fire systems and surveillance and night vision equipment. The way a field squadron operates depends upon the threat they are facing, mounting defensive positions or aggressive patrolling outside the airfield boundary. As air bases are fixed and supporting elements are unable to redeploy quickly, field squadrons must engage an attacking adversary at the earliest opportunity to prevent air operations from being disrupted.

Field Squadrons are divided into flights, which are equivalent in size to an army platoon. Each squadron contains several rifle flights, whose task is to engage the enemy at close range, and a support weapons flight, which provides fire support to the rifle flights using machine guns, mortars, and snipers.

The field squadrons are 171 strong making them larger than an infantry company in the British Army although not all personnel on an RAF Regiment squadron are trained gunners, rather specialist support services such as administrators and drivers etc. A typical RAF Regiment squadron has support elements from the RAF but these personnel are not able to deploy on patrols etc. All regular RAF Regiment personnel are male although the Auxiliary Squadrons do recruit women, it is British Government policy that women cannot serve in close combat units. There are approximately 2,000 regular airmen (i.e. Other Ranks), 300 regular officers, and 500 reservists.

Since 1990, the RAF Regiment has conducted operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Falkland Islands, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Northern Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone. Some RAF Regiment officers and Senior Non Commissioned Officers have been seconded to the Army in roles such as Forward Air Controlers with some Tactical Air Control Parties (TACPs) that co-ordinate Close Air Support for the ground forces. The Regiment provide staff for the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterborne Gunner which trains personnel from all three Services and the civilian police in CBRN defence skills; a flight of some 40 RAF Regiment personnel forms part of the tri-service Special Forces Support Group.

In 2011, as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, it was announced that from December 2011, the CBRN role undertaken by the Joint CBRN Regiment, a combined Army/RAF unit, would be transferred to the RAF Regiment (as lead service) under the new Defence CBRN Wing, formed from 26 Squadron, 27 Squadron and 2623 (Auxiliary) Squadron. The army retains involvement through the continued use of the Royal Yeomanry to provide trained battlefield casualty replacements.

The RAF Regiment’s basic training increased to 32 weeks to incorporate the specialist training centred on air-aware soldiering.

The RAF Regiment have recently begun a large reservist recruitment drive for their reserve field squadrons calling for civilians with and without military experience.

LINK

Soviet Paratroopers (VDV)

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The origins of the VDV stem from an organization called OSOAVIAHIM, a voluntary society which developed military and semi-military sporting games. Although not specifically a military unit, it was supportive of the army, airforce and navy. The membership subs for joining were very small since its goal was preparing a pool of reserves for the existing armed forces.

Very soon it became a powerful militarised organization, with its own aerodromes, radio clubs, parachute towers and firing ranges. It became extremely prestigious to earn badges such as Voroshilov marksman, Voroshilov horseman, and parachute jump badges.

Gradually, OSOAVIAHIM became a kind of training for the army reserves, with its courses including such advanced disciplines as tactics, map-reading and weapons handling. A person could join OSOAVIAHIM as early as at the age of 14, and by 1941, OSOAVIAHIM was estimated as having around 13 million members.

Needless to say, the parachute training offered by OSOAVIAHIM was extremely popular, and there were clubs across the Union where one could participate in jumps, and earn their sports wings.

This, served a dual purpose, and enabled the armed forces to have at their disposal men and women who had at the very minimum the basics in parachute training.

Parachute units were originally formed in the Soviet Union during the mid-1930s, and were massively expanded during World War II, where they formed up to ten Airborne Corps with numerous Independent Airborne Brigades, with most or all achieving the elite “Guards” status after 1942.

During the Soviet counter-offensive for the Defence of Moscow at Vyazma, 27th January 1942, the Soviet 4th Airborne Corps began a series of night drops of paratroopers in the German rear. Forty civilian and twenty-two military aircraft, escorted by limited numbers of fighters and ground attack aviation, supported the landings. From the beginning, the operation did not go well.

After, six nights, only 2,100 men from the 10,000-man airborne corps had been dropped in. Because of bad weather and the pilots’ inexperience with night navigation, most of these troops landed twenty kilometers south of the intended drop zone. Plans for five to six sorties each night did not take into account adverse weather conditions, aircraft failures, or combat losses. Also, the failure to conceal the buildup of troops at the airborne fields led to the closing of one of them by German bombers. The remaining two fields provided only two to three sorties per night.

The paratroops that landed, however, did succeed in interdicting lines of communication in the German rear area for almost three weeks, in part because of their linkup with the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps on 6 February.

A second series of night landings occurred near Yukhnov between 17 and 23 February. The paratroops were again spread out over a large area because of inaccurate drops, and many supplies were lost. Some of the paratroops eventually joined partisan groups in the area, while the main body restricted itself to night operations because of its lack of artillery and air support. A planned two- to three-day operation extended to almost five months, but despite incredible problems, the remnant of the 4th Airborne Corps managed to break through two encirclements (with the help of a battalion of reinforcements dropped into the area on 15-16 April) and to reach friendly lines by late May. Although it had created considerable havoc in the German rear, the corps was decimated. It had not accomplished its mission of preventing a German withdrawal to the west, because German counterblows had halted the main Russian advance.

Later on in the war the Soviet Union again used Desaniki in the summer of 1943 during a massive offensive in the Ukraine.

Despite the problems encountered in the paratroop operation at Vyazma in 1942, the Soviets attempted a second night drop of an entire airborne corps on 24-25 September 1943 to seize a bridgehead at the Bukrin Bend on the Dnieper. Although the concept was excellent, the planning, timing, and execution of the operation produced results similar to those in 1942. The landing of the first two brigades, scheduled for the night of the twenty-third, had to be delayed a full day because of bad weather and the failure of all military transports to arrive at the three designated airfields. Although 4,575 paratroops were airborne the next night, a full 30 percent of the two brigades remained behind because of aircraft that never arrived, refueling problems, and the insistence of the pilots on carrying smaller lifts than the corps staff had planned. The pilots were inadequately trained, despite exercises held late that summer along the Moskva River, on terrain similar to the Dnieper. Nor were the pilots prepared for the strong antiaircraft resistance they encountered once the operation began. As a result, the two brigades (minus) were spread over – a much wider zone than intended, landing between Rzishchev and Cherkassy. Some landed over friendly positions on the Russian-held side of the river; some landed in the river itself; worse, the main body landed on the positions of three German divisions moving through the area. The Germans shot at the parachutists while they were still in the air, thus forcing them to begin fighting before they hit the ground.

Once on the ground, the paratroops (and what equipment they had not left behind) were so scattered that they were forced to operate in approximately thirty-five small groups. Their mission of seizing a bridgehead and holding a line 110 kilometers long and about twenty-six kilometers deep was no longer feasible, if indeed it ever had been. Instead, Soviet airborne troops once again assumed the role of guerrillas, hiding in forests by day and moving and fighting with partisan groups in the area by night. Because their radio gear was scattered over a wide area, they could not communicate with other Soviet forces. Plans to drop a third brigade were cancelled long before communications were reestablished on 6 October. Gradually, small groups of paratroops began to merge into a corps unit, and an estimated 1,000 or more finally linked up with the advancing forces of the Second Ukrainian Front in mid-November. The Soviets had gambled in conducting this operation at a time when bad weather precluded aerial reconnaissance of the target area. The result was a fiasco, which led Stalin to prohibit similar night operations.

Without question the Soviet Arnhem, they sustained 60% casualties in the battle, and saw some of the most ferocious fighting of any Airborne Troops of all theatres during WWII.

Those are the two main occasions where the Soviets conducted airborne operations; however the Desantniki also fought as regular infantry in all the major battles of the Great Patriotic War.

Minutemen

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The last of the French and Indian Wars, 1754 – 63, opened with attempts first by Virginia volunteers (raised outside the militia system) commanded by George Washington, then by British regulars commanded by Edward Braddock to seize control of the forks of the Ohio River from France. Though not used to raise men until 1757, the militia system proved efficient enough to muster men from New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts for John Bradstreet ‘ s 1758 expedition that captured Fort Frontenac on the St. Lawrence River in 1758. William Byrd II commanded the Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and North Carolina militiamen who accompanied the British regulars who drove the French from Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio (Selesky 1990, Titus 1991, Ward 2003). Though they worked together colonial militiamen and British regulars did not get along and this experience reinforced American distrust of standing armies of professional soldiers (Leach 1986, Johnson 1992).

The French and Indian War resuscitated the militia system and gave colonial leaders experience in working together on military matters, but, in general, militia did not perform well on extended campaigns away from their immediate homelands, indeed many deserted. On the eve of the American Revolution the 13 colonies had a total of 500,000 men enrolled in the militias, one – third of the entire population of those colonies. As tensions between Americans and the mother country escalated, leaders of what would become the Patriot cause gained control of most militia units purging officers loyal to Britain (Shy 1975). Militia officers often assumed leadership roles in committees of correspondence, Sons of Liberty, and committees of public safety that organized opposition to British policies and enforced non – importation, non – consumption agreements. In 1774 and 1775 the Continental Congress instructed colonial governments to reorganize their militias and gather arms and ammunition. The revolutionary government in Massachusetts ordered all commanders to designate a portion of those under their command to be ready for instant service. Thus were born the Minutemen who opposed British regulars at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill and laid siege to the British in Boston (Fischer 2004).

Those units were subsequently formed into the Continental Army during 1776. From 1777 to the end of the war the “American army ” would consist of Continental Army ” regulars ” who were organized as state ” lines, ” whose ranks state governments were responsible for filling with volunteers or conscripts; by state troops which were raised in a variety of ways, and local militia units that were usually called to serve for short periods of time when their state was threatened (Alexander 1945, 1947 , Murphy 1959 – 60 , Royster 1979 , Buel 1980 , Kestnbaum 2000 ). Mark Kwasny (1998) traces the evolution of the militia and George Washington’s employment of militia units as the war progressed concluding that they came to form an important component of his campaigns. In 1776 Charleston was defended by a force of 900 Continentals, 2,000 state troops, and 2,700 local militia. The August 16, 1777 defeat of a force of 1,250 British troops by 2,000 New Hampshire and Massachusetts militia at Bennington, Vermont, laid the basis for Major General John Burgoyne ‘ s surrender at Saratoga two months later. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan made effective use of militia units at Cowpens, South Carolina, in January 1781, and George Washington had three brigades of Virginia militia at Yorktown. In addition to providing a system through which governors could raise state armies for operations such as the Virginian campaign that captured British posts in the Old Northwest or the Massachusetts – organized debacle at Penobscot, militia conducted most operations against Britain’s Indian allies and kept in check Loyalists away from the main theaters of operations (Higginbotham 1971, Ferguson 1978, Galvin 1989, Clements and Wright 1989, Resch and Sargent 2007). Patriot militiamen inflicted significant defeats on Loyalist American militiamen at Moore’s Creek Bridge, North Carolina, in February 1776 and at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in October 1780. Militia successes were balanced by failures, for example, at Groton Heights in Connecticut in 1781 and at Blue Licks in Kentucky in 1782, and many commanders, with reason, considered militiamen unreliable. Dissatisfied with the performance of Virginia ‘ s militia during the war, governor Patrick Henry sought to reorganize it during the 1780s and met resistance from local governmental officials (Ethridge 1977 , Waghelstein 1995 ).

During the late 1780s insurrections occurred in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts where militia units from the eastern portion of the state subdued Shay ‘ s Rebellion in the west (Szatmary 1980 ). When these were followed by the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries Rebellion during the 1790s it appeared for a while that domestic civil unrest might pose a greater threat to American society than any foreign enemy.

Nonetheless, always warned to fear a standing army, Americans relied, at least in theory, on militia as their first line of defense against enemies domestic and foreign for the half century of their independence (Cunliffe 1968, Crackel 1987). Richard Kohn (1975) shows that during the 1790s the Federalists created and stationed a standing force of army regulars on the frontier, and Lawrence Cress (1981) argues convincingly that within a decade, despite Republican rhetoric, most American leaders accepted, at least tacitly, a force structure in which regulars formed the core around which militia would build in time of danger.

American Civil War – Sharpshooters

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Berdan’s SharpShooter

The introduction of rifled barrels and breech-loaded weapons led to another development in the Civil War: the use of sharpshooters. Many people considered sharpshooting, or sniping, to be beneath the dignity of a civilized society. The harsh conditions of war soon removed that stigma. Almost immediately, sharpshooters became important members of every Union army in the Eastern Theater of Operations. The psychological impact on the Confederate troops was powerful. No longer was it safe for a soldier to expose himself to the enemy, even at a distance of several hundred yards. Sharpshooters changed war for the soldier on the line.

The 1st and 2nd United States Volunteer Sharpshooter Regiments or USSS (U. S. Sharps Shooters) became the best known sharpshooter units of the war. Hiram Berdan, reportedly the most accurate amateur shooter of his day, formed and trained the USSS. Qualifying recruits had to fire from 200 yards (183 meters) and place 10 consecutive shots within a 10-inch (25-centimeter) bulls-eye. Unlike other Northern units, Berdan’s men came from all across the Union. Although some Federal sharpshooters used their own weapons or other preferred gun, most usually carried Sharps rifles, breechloaders designed by a man named Christian Sharps. The success of these men in the field led to the term sharpshooter, an adaptation of “Sharps shooters.” Confederate sharpshooters usually carried British made Whitworth rifles, earning them the nickname Whitworth’s sharpshooters.

Well equipped and superbly trained, these units served as scouts at the front of advancing columns. Union sharpshooters wore green uniforms and nonreflective hard rubber buttons made by Charles Goodyear. Sharpshooters usually were the first to engage the enemy, acting as skirmishers rather than as snipers. Commanders usually tried to minimize the losses to this group of specially trained soldiers. Thus, sharpshooters performed scout and skirmishing duties but rarely participated in the large-scale assaults of defensive positions in which casualty rates usually were high.

The Confederates formed their own unit of sharpshooters in 1862. Over time, both sides eventually found that regiments of sharpshooters were too large to use effectively. Instead, sharpshooters were organized into companies. Commanders assigned these specialized companies to regiments, to serve at the will of the field general. This allowed battlefield commanders to make the best use of their sharpshooters. Commanders usually protected their sharpshooter companies by relieving them of all picket (guard) duty as well as by holding them in reserve during frontal assaults.

In 1862 Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia ran a series of tests on all the arms in general issue in the ANV. They were tested for accuracy at all ranges out to 1,000 yards. What was learned that out to approximately 500 yards all rifles and rifle-muskets were more or less equally accurate. Past 500 yards their accuracy dropped off. However, they found that the P-58 Enfield Naval Rifle and the P-60 Army Short Rifle-when fired with British made Enfield ammo was accurate out to 900/1,000 yards.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia organized “Sharpshooter Battalions.” These men were much more than just “sharpshooters,” but in effect, specialized (and for the Civil War) highly trained troops. They received advanced instruction in marksmanship, estimating range, Skirmish tactics and many other skills.

They remained assigned to their regular units, but when the call went out, they dropped out of their regular units and formed into their Sharpshooter Battalions. When the army was advancing, they led the advance and protected the flanks. When the army retreated, they served as the Rear Guard. They served as Skirmishers and Pickets and issued Sharpshooter badges that were sewn to their jackets that allowed them free passage inside, around and outside of the ANV at any time. When their services were no longer needed, they fell out and returned to their regular units.

Charles Older

The focus of action then shifted to Burma, where the Hell’s Angels were operating in defence of Rangoon. On 23 December a force of some 70 JAAF aircraft, Ki 21 bombers escorted by Nakajima Ki 27 Nate and Nakajima Ki 43 Oscar fighters, raided Rangoon from their bases in Thailand. The AVG P-40s scrambled with the RAF’s Buffaloes to intercept but were too late to prevent the bombing. However, the AVG pilots claimed six bombers and four fighters destroyed (although only six of these could be confirmed), in return for the loss of three P-40s and two pilots. Charles Older, a former Marine Corps pilot, claimed two victories in this fight.

Like many soldiers from World War II, pilot Charles Older seemed to be born under a lucky star of prominence. You might not know his name, but I am sure you have seen his aircraft as it is one of the most recognized and reproduced aircraft markings of WWII.

Older was a veteran of the Chinese based American Volunteer Group during the opening days of World War II, which predated America’s official entry into WWII. AVG pilots were given America’s modern front line fighter, the Curtiss P-40B, to engage the occupying Imperial Japanese Army in China. The pointy nose of the early P-40 “B” model lent AVG pilots to paint shark mouths on their aircraft. Older’s P-40B is usually the aircraft mostly produced by tattoo artists, aircraft restorers and modelers alike as it also includes the Hells Angels motif of 3rd Pursuit Squadron and an original cartoon tiger artwork designed and drawn by a Walt Disney artist. With the Hell’s Angels logo, original Walt Disney art and leering shark mouth markings, Older’s aircraft has endeared, endured and embedded itself in our subconscious and pop culture for young and old alike. He is credited with 10 victories, making him a double ace.

American Volunteer Group (AVG).

During the early months of the war in the Pacific, American and Allied fighter pilots found themselves completely outclassed by the exceptionally maneuverable and well flown fighters of the Japanese Army Air Force (JAAF) and Japanese Navy Air Force (JNAF). As a consequence, they suffered serious defeats, and the myth of Japanese invincibility in the air was established. One of the first Allied fighter units to demonstrate that the Japanese fighters had weaknesses that could be exploited by skillful tactics were the pilots of the American Volunteer Group (AVG). nicknamed the ‘Flying Tigers’, who flew with the Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF). During some 30 weeks of combat in 1941 and 1942, the AVG was credited with 297 confirmed victories for the loss of 80 fighters and 25 pilots killed or made prisoner of war. These considerable successes were largely due to the effective leadership and tactical skills of Colonel Claire L. Chennault, the AVG’s commander.

Shortly after leaving the United States Army Air Corps in 1937, Chennault was invited to China as air adviser to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. On arriving, he found the CNAF in a poor state, with fewer than 100 effective combat aircraft out of a nominal strength of 500, and an inadequate number of trained pilots. Therefore, when the Japanese engineered Marco Polo Bridge Incident precipitated a full-scale Sino Japanese War in July 1937, the CNAF was unable to put up anything more than a token defence against the invaders.

In the short term, China was able to negotiate a Non Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union in August 1937, which resulted m an infusion of Soviet combat aircraft and ‘volunteer’ airmen. For the following three years this was sufficient to stave off the complete collapse of Chinese air power, but by the end of 1940 Soviet aid had dried up and the Japanese air Forces were operating virtually at will over China. It was under these circumstances that Chennault accompanied a CNAF mission to the United States in order to acquire a force of modern fighters and recruit American pilots to fly them.

Operating under the cover of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (CAMCO), Chennault succeeded in obtaining 100 Curtiss Tomahawk Mk II fighters (generally referred to as P-40s by the AVG). These Tomahawks had been ordered by the RAF before the Battle of Britain, but, as the pressure on the British air defences had eased by early 1941, the fighters were released to China. Recruiting suitably qualified pilots was a more difficult matter and it was necessary to obtain President Roosevelt’s permission to seek volunteers from the US armed forces.

Eventually, a total of 109 pilots was signed up by CAMCO, about half of them coming from the US Navy and Marine Corps, a third from the Army Air Corps and the remainder from civilian flying organisations. Their one year contracts provided a monthly pay 600 US dollars for pilots, 675 dollars for flight leaders and 750 dollars for squadron commanders A further Incentive to recruitment was the Chinese government merit’s offer of a 500 dollar bonus for every Japanese aircraft confirmed as destroyed The ground-crews numbering about 150 men, were mostly recruited from the United States forces and were paid between 150 and 400 dollars a month. Pay was an important factor in attracting personnel to the AVG, but the spirit of adventure   a wish to see active military service and to escape from the constraints of a peacetime routine was an equally strong attraction.

The aircraft and their pilots were dispatched by sea to Rangoon in Burma, where they assembled in late July 1941. After the P-40s had been uncrated and assembled, training began at the airfield at Kyedaw, near Toungoo. This had been made available to the AVG by the RAF authorities, as the Flying Tigers’ main base at Kunming in western China was still under construction.

Chennault set to work training AVG pilots according to his tactical doctrines. A network of ground observers had already been established in China at his suggestion and so the chances of receiving sufficient early warning of an incoming raid were good. However, Chennault realised from his study of Japanese aircraft and tactics that special procedures would be needed to deal with the enemy’s fighters. The manoeuvrable Japanese aircraft would win a traditional turning dogfight every time and Chennault stressed that this type of combat had to be avoided at all costs, He proposed that the P-40’s high diving speed and comparatively heavy firepower should be exploited:

‘You must use your superior speed to climb above them before you commit yourselves. And you then can use your greater diving speed to make a pass at them. Get in short bursts and get away. Break off and climb back for the advantage of altitude after you have gotten away safely. In such combat, and only in that kind, you have the edge.’

Once the AVG fighters had achieved an advantageous firing position, accurate gunnery was sure to achieve good results. The Japanese aircraft were both lightly constructed and poorly armoured and tended to burn or break up easily.

By the time that the Flying Tigers had completed their training in December 1941, the United States was at war with Japan. Nonetheless, the AVG retained its volunteer status. The group was organised into three squadrons, each made up of three flights of six fighters. The 1st Pursuit Squadron adopted an ‘Adam and Eve’ insignia as a pun on then designation. The squadron was commanded by Robert J. Sandell until he was killed in a flying accident on 7 February 1942, and then Robert H. Neale took over. The 2nd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Panda Bears’, was led by John V. Newkirk and the 3rd Pursuit Squadron, the ‘Hell’s Angels’, by Arvid Olsen. Apart from their individual squadron insignia, the AVG P-40s were painted with a distinctive shark mouth marking, copied from No. 112 Squadron RAF which flew similarly decorated Tomahawks in North Africa, and this embellishment became as much the group’s identifying marking as the Chinese national insignia on the wings. Some aircraft also carried the Flying Tiger emblem designed for the AVG by the Walt Disney studios.

Deploying for Combat

By the second week of December the Flying Tigers were deploying for combat. The 1st and 2nd Squadrons deployed to Kunming, while the Hell’s Angels moved to Mingaladon, joining the Brewster Buffaloes of No. 67 Squadron RAF in the air defence of Burma The Kunming squadrons were the first to see action. On 20 December an unescorted formation of 10 JAAF Mitsubishi Ki 21 Sally bombers was picked up by the raid reporting network en route from Hanoi to Kunming. Chennault scrambled four P-40s of the Panda Bear Squadron, led by Newkirk, to intercept. A further sir, of the squadron’s fighters were reserved to cover Kunming, while Sandell’s 1st Pursuit Squadron flew to an auxiliary airfield to the southeast, from where they later scrambled to cut off the bombers’ retreat.

Newkirk’s section met the Japanese bombers some 30 miles short of Kunming and in their initial attack Ed Rector gained his first victory. However, Newkirk’s P-40 then suffered a gun and radio failure and was forced to break off the combat. He was followed by the other three pilots, who in the absence of any instructions from their leader, were reluctant to contravene the AVG’s strict formation discipline. The Adam and Eve Squadron then intervened, forcing the Ki 21s to jettison their bombs and turn away from their target. The most successful pilot during this combat was former US Navy dive-bomber pilot Fritz Wolf, who reported.

I attacked the outside bomber in the Vee. Diving down below him, I came up underneath, guns ready for the minute I could get in range. At 500yds I let go with a quick burst from all my guns. I could see my bullets rip into the rear gunner. My plane bore in closer. At 100yds I let go with a long burst that tore into the bomber’s gas tanks and engine. A wing folded and the motor tore loose. Then the bomber exploded. I yanked back on the stick to get out of the way and went upstairs.

‘There, I went after the inside man of the Japanese bomber formation. I came out of a dive and pulled up level with the bomber, just behind his tail. I could see the rear gunner blazing away at me, but none of his bullets were hitting my plane At 50yds I let go with a long burst, concentrating on one motor The same thing happened and I got number two. The bomber burned and then blew up.’

In all, six bombers were confirmed as destroyed and the Flying Tigers lost only Ed Rector’s P-40, which force landed after running out of fuel.

Defence of Rangoon

The focus of action then shifted to Burma, where the Hell’s Angels were operating in defence of Rangoon. On 23 December a force of some 70 JAAF aircraft, Ki 21 bombers escorted by Nakajima Ki 27 Nate and Nakajima Ki 43 Oscar fighters, raided Rangoon from their bases in Thailand. The AVG P-40s scrambled with the RAF’s Buffaloes to intercept but were too late to prevent the bombing. However, the AVG pilots claimed six bombers and four fighters destroyed (although only six of these could be confirmed), in return for the loss of three P-40s and two pilots. Charles Older, a former Marine Corps pilot, claimed two victories in this fight.

Two days later the JAAF returned in even greater force, and 12 AVG P-40s and 18 RAF Buffaloes were scrambled to meet a force of over 100 enemy aircraft. The Allied fighters made their interception over the Gulf of Martaban and, with the advantage of superior altitude, tore into the Japanese formation. The outcome was a complete vindication of Chennault’s tactical theories. For the loss of two P-40s, the Flying Tigers had downed 28 enemy aircraft Japanese tactics were equal to the challenge. However, on 28 December the Hell’s Angels were decoyed into pursuing a small formation of JAAF aircraft and, when on the ground refuelling after this mission, were attacked by a second JAAF formation. Only four P-40s were scrambled to meet the attack and they were unable to prevent Mingaladon from being heavily bombed.

Relief for the hard pressed Hell’s Angels came on 30 December, when Newkirk’s Panda Bears flew in from Kunming to relieve them The new unit soon took the fight to the enemy’s camp On 3 January 1942 Newkirk led a strafing attack by three P-40s on the Japanese airfield at Meshed in Thailand, claiming five enemy aircraft destroyed or. the ground and a further three in air combat. Japanese retribution was swift on 4 January six P-40s on patrol were bounced by about 30 Ki 27s and became ensnared in just such a turning dogfight which Chennault had counselled his pilots to avoid. Three kills were claimed, but for the loss of three AVG P-40s and the combat led one pilot, Gregory Boyington, wryly to reflect that the peacetime training which the Marine Corps gave its fighter pilots was completely worthless as a preparation for fighting the Japanese

Heavy fighting in January took its toll of the AVG’s P-40s, and early in February the 1st Pursuit Squadron relieved the Panda Bears in Burma By the end of that month, the Japanese advance forced the evacuation of Mingaladon During 10 weeks of combat in defence of Rangoon, the AVG and RAF fighters had claimed a total of 291 enemy aircraft destroyed.

The fight was continued from Magwe, 200 miles to the north of Mingaladon. Before Japanese air attacks forced this base to be evacuated late in March, two AVG pilots carried out a highly successful strafing attack on a newly occupied Japanese airstrip near Moulmein Bill Reed and Ken Jernstedt were flying an armed reconnaissance mission in the area on 19 March, when they spotted a lineup of Japanese Ki 27 fighters on the ground and destroyed 15 of them in a series of firing passes.

The AVG then withdrew to Loiwing across the Chinese border but remained within range of Japanese forces. On 24 March Robert Neale led a six aircraft strafing mission against the JAAF airfield at Chieng mai in Thailand, leaving more than two score Ki 27 and Ki 43 fighters as blazing wrecks. Yet whatever successes were gained in the air, the advance of the Japanese armies was inexorable and on 1 May the AVG was forced to evacuate Loiwing, destroying 22 unserviceable P-40s.

Western China

With the approach of the monsoon season on the Burma front. Chennault’s attention shifted to the defence of the cities of western China from bombing attack. This necessitated the dispersal of his slender resources, the depleted Hell’s Angels providing cover for the AVG’s main base at Kunming, the Panda Bears defending Chunking and Hengyang, and the Adam and Eves protecting Kweilin. The latter squadron was first to see action, intercepting a force of 20 JAAF aircraft over Kweilm on 13 June, accounting for 11 of them for the loss of only two P-40s and no pilot casualties.

Poor weather then enforced a lull in operations, and during this period the AVG was transformed from a volunteer unit of the CNAF into the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). However, the transition was mishandled by regular USAAF officers responsible, with the result that only five pilots agreed to transfer to the new unit. Urgent entreaties from Chennault, who had been given command of the USAAF’s new China Air Task Force with the rank of Brigadier-General, persuaded a further 19 pilots to stay on for a further two weeks after the AVG’s official disbandment. This led to the curious anomaly that ex-Navy pilot Neale (the AVG’s top scoring pilot), who was then technically a civilian, often led the USAAF’s 23rd Fighter Group during its first two weeks of existence. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that the 23rd Fighter Group was but a poor shadow of its predecessor. Indeed, the new unit’s pilots were able to carry on the traditions of the Flying Tiger with distinction. Foremost among them was the group’s new CO, Colonel Robert L. Scott, who led his new command in the interception of JAAF raiders over Kweilin. With the advantage of superior altitude, the P-40s dived onto the enemy formation Scott recalled:

‘Their formation was so perfect and so close we couldn’t miss. Even the new kids remembered not to shoot at the whole formation but to concentrate on one ship at a time, with short bursts, then skid to another. Hang on, aim, then fire – always short bursts. They didn’t see us until it was too late. Twenty or more of them were already going down and those we didn’t burn on the first pass broke and ran m all directions. After the first dive, when we’d climbed back into the sun for altitude, we broke, too, and took out after the stragglers. I followed one with my wingman all the way to Canton, 200 miles southeastward, and shot it down when the pilot lowered his landing gear preparatory to landing,’

After the results of this combat had been properly assessed, the American pilots were credited with 13 enemy aircraft destroyed for no loss to themselves. It was an auspicious start for the new Flying Tigers of the 23rd Fighter Group.

A particularly noteworthy combat was fought later that month, when, early to the morning of 30 July, Major John R Alison and Major A. J. ‘Ajax’ Baumler intercepted six JAAF night bombers over Hengyana and destroyed four of them. Alison ended the war with 10 victories and Baumler, who had gamed eight kills flying with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, added a further five to his score in China. Another distinguished newcomer to the Flying Tigers was Scott’s successor as commanding officer, Colonel Bruce K Holloway, who finished the war with 13 victories and went on to become general commanding the USAF’s Strategic Air Command. Three of the original Flying Tigers later returned to the 23rd Fighter Group, Colonel David L. ‘Tex’ Hill and Colonel Edward F. Rector as commanding officers, and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Older as a squadron commander.

The 23rd Fighter Group remained in China until the end of the war against Japan, latterly replacing its P-40s with North American P 51 Mustangs. From its formation on 4 July 1942 until the end of the fighting, the group was credited with 621 enemy aircraft shot down plus a further 320 destroyed on the ground.