Saipan Landing I

During the night, on final approach, all hands in Kelly Turner’s four transport divisions had been impressed by the flashes of bombardment silently lighting the horizon ahead. Drawing closer to Saipan, they whiffed its acrid waste, sharp on nostrils and tongues. On June 15, the eastern sky was brightening over the light southeasterly swells. Each transport division embarked a Marine regiment, approached Saipan’s hundred-fathom line, and entered the outer transport area off the western shore.

An officer in one of the transports, a veteran of Sicily and Salerno, looked at the black form of Mount Tapotchau, backlit by twilight, and said, “That silhouette is made to order for a night landing under a good moon. Every natural landmark stands out. Perfect, I say, except she’s coral-bound. That’s the gimmick.”

The Fifth Amphibious Force, having finished its oceanic transit, prepared to make its power felt on land. On board the LCI gunboats, the smallest commissioned ships in Turner’s task force, all hands turned to, unpacking and loading their abundance of rockets. Marines in the transports and amtracs and LSTs checked their weapons, breathed deeply to calm their nerves. Draper Kauffman and his UDT reviewed the results of their lagoon reconnaissance. Kelly Turner signaled to Harry Hill, “TAKE CHARGE. GOOD LUCK.” In the dawning daylight of “the other D Day,” transports began lowering boats.

The drone of radial engines manifested over Saipan before six A.M., when the commander of the Enterprise air group, Bill “Killer” Kane, arrived on station to serve as air coordinator of the day’s flying circus covering the assault. His first order of business was to direct an air strike set for H Hour, 0830. With him: a dozen Hellcats to provide combat air patrol over the landing force and eight Avengers to encourage Tojo’s submarines to keep a respectful distance.

Surveying the armada below—the transports bearing three divisions, battleships worthy of Jutland, the sheer numerosity of Turner’s tractor fleet, dropping from davits and gathering in the assembly areas—Kane had little sense that his day would come to an early end. As he flew over the transport area, the air bursts began. Anxious gunners in Turner’s invasion fleet had his range. One of the shells was close enough to fill Kane’s cowling with steel. Riddled by friendly fire, his engine began to smoke and he began spiraling down to the sea. He had enough horses to keep his nose up and manage a water landing. He would be rescued later and returned to his carrier. But his forced relief from duty by that spooked antiaircraft crew served to promote James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, skipper of Bombing Ten, to Kane’s post as air coordinator. He would look after the H Hour air strike and the subsequent close support of the troops. Circling at two thousand feet, in awe of the spectacle below, he, too, kept a respectful distance.

Though Harry Hill had immediate command of landing operations, Kelly Turner made sure to retain certain privileges of overall command. He had thought through the location of every ship in the plan. His talent, his admirers said, was a meticulous, hands-on approach to crafting a war plan; in Washington, at Main Navy, he had practiced the state of the art at the level of high strategy. The invasion of Saipan marked his return to the tactical; his talent poured forth into crafting the plan. “He carried it in his own mind,” Hogaboom said. “He rarely had to refer to the plans, although the plans were voluminous. He supervised, himself, the actual maneuver and the actual position of the ships as they approached a position at D Day. He was determined to meet his D Days. He was determined to meet his H Hours.” What followed from there would be up to the Marines.

It wasn’t yet six when Turner issued the order he always deemed his due: “Land the landing force.” The dispatch set his numerous assembly into motion. The bow ramps of LSTs swung open, releasing amtracs to roll forward. LSDs opened their stern gates and began disgorging LCMs bearing waterproofed tanks, which, tightly packed in the well deck, slid down the ramp and entered the sea, bouncing once or twice, then motoring smoothly atop the swells. After reporting to the control officer at the line of departure of their assigned beach, they would stand by until they were needed, on call, not belonging to any particular wave. The amtracs approached the transports, cargo nets draped over the side, and Marines began mounting up.

North of the main assembly area, another group of transports milled at sea. Carrying a regiment from each of the two Marine divisions, they were assigned to make a feint, a diversionary landing that Turner hoped would freeze Japanese troops in place and prevent them from moving south from Tanapag into the Charan Kanoa landing area.

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At 6:30, two hours before H Hour, the transports of the diversionary force began hoisting out their boats off Tanapag. More than a hundred LCVPs formed in the assembly area and then came alongside the transports to simulate the embarkation of troops of the Second Regiment of the Second Marine Division, and the 24th Regiment of the Fourth, as well as a battalion of the 29th Marines. For several minutes the boats remained alongside the transports, rising and falling beside the nets, then shoved off for the rendezvous area while smoke boats and control vessels took positions near a plausible line of departure. The setup consumed more than an hour, in the hope that the Japanese were watching from shore. On a signal from the commander of the control group, the charade ended. The landing boats reversed course and returned to the transports to be hauled back aboard. Generals Watson and Schmidt would use them as their floating reserve.

It was seven A.M. when the LST group carrying the two assault regiments of the Fourth Marine Division stopped outside the rendezous area and began launching amtracs. Crabbing down the nets from the transports, armed men filled the tractors. The sense of it was vivid, the feeling of starting in. Robert Graf checked his cartridge belt, heavily loaded with ammo; shifted the straps of the weighty bandoliers that pinched his shoulders; vetted his first aid kit and two canteens of water; tested his pack, loaded with items he might never use or that might save a life, one could never tell which. With all its useful things, the pack was heavy enough that, under fire, it might plausibly claim his own. On his right leg were a Ka-Bar in its sheath and a throwing knife holstered like a gun. His gas mask went over the shoulder, its bulk hanging in the way as he reached for his rifle, checking its action, and grabbed a life belt. He looked up from his kit. “Now our group was standing, waiting to start.”

Lieutenant Carl Roth came over and looked him over as his quadriceps burned, spun him around to survey his gear. Like all platoon commanders, Roth wore no insignia—it only encouraged snipers—and was underarmed, carrying a carbine instead of an M-1 Garand. Roth led his men into the hold of the LST-84, where they found their amtracs. They were Army vehicles belonging to the 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion. The tractors were ready for them, engines running, fumes fouling the air. The Marines piled in and took their places. Waiting and listening, then waiting some more, they finally heard the grinding of gears, telling them at last that they would soon be on their way. They heard the crash of the bow doors opening and the propulsive sensation of rolling forward. Down they went, out the ramp. Nosing down, the LVTs dropped into the Pacific. The coxswains raced their engines, whose whining revolutions belied their pedestrian’s speed toward the line of departure.

The Army crews were largely veteran tankers, hastily retrained as demand for amtrac personnel surged. The one hundred LVTs of their battalion had been hastily refitted, up-armored with extra steel plate at the destroyer base in San Diego—half an inch on the bow and cab, a quarter inch on the sides and the ramp. It was seven o’clock when the amtracs carrying the 25th Marines were underway to the assembly area. Ten minutes later, the LSTs embarking two regiments from the Second Marine Division dropped ramps and released their alligators.

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Looking toward shore from the line of departure, three thousand yards out from the reef, each coxswain drew a bead on the major landmarks that showed him the way. Three in particular stood out. There was Mount Tapotchau, straight ahead to the east. The pier at Garapan was up the coast to the left; the dock at Charan Kanoa jutted out between Green and Blue beaches, fronting the town and its gable-roofed buildings. As they drew closer, details came into focus. The beach, a ribbon of crushed coral just ten to fifteen yards deep. Shrubs atop the beachfront bluff. Groves of trees on higher slopes farther inland. A coastal road and a narrow-gauge rail line that connected Saipan’s west-coast towns, Charan Kanoa, Garapan, and Tanapag. The clearing behind the Green beaches held an airstrip, and three high towers of a radio station sat to its north.

The Sixth and Eighth regiments of General Watson’s Second Marine Division would go ashore on the left, north of Charan Kanoa, at Red and Green beaches. The 23rd and 25th regiments of the Fourth Division, under Schmidt, would land on the right, south of the town, on Blue and Yellow beaches. Each of the regiments’ battalion landing teams was responsible for a six-hundred-yard section of beach, this being the width deemed optimal for the delivery of a Marine battalion’s concentrated force as well as its lifeline of waterborne supply.

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The largest units of troops—divisions and regiments—were governed abstractly, maneuvered by generals on rubber topographic models and seldom seen in person unless embarked on board ship or arrayed for review. An infantry regiment had about thirty-three hundred men. Its basic unit of maneuver was the battalion. Fortified with heavy weapons companies and engineers, a battalion landing team, under the command of a lieutenant colonel, had thirty-three officers, two or three Navy surgeons, and forty corpsmen. The key line officers were the captains of the two-hundred-fifty-man companies, and their principals in turn were the lieutenants leading the forty-six-man platoons. Below them—arguably of even greater importance—were the sergeants of the thirteen-man squads and the corporals of the fire teams of four. Companies, platoons, and squads, large to small, were the units that most powerfully shaped and held the fortunes and memories of individual men.

Robert Graf ducked low while waves crested the bow of his amtrac, torrents of salty spray washing over the Marines inside. The gunner up front got the worst of the sea shower. “Being low in the water, we were unable to see much of what was going on,” Graf said. “Slowly we went forward until we were in our assigned departure area. We started our circling, waiting.” He had time to think of his parents and two sisters, and of the inferno that had nearly engulfed him at West Loch. His unit, Easy Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines, was going ashore on Blue Beach Two. He wasn’t sure it would go well.

Overhead, carrier planes were reporting on station. Turner’s plan called for a sweep against enemy positions to take place at H Hour minus 90, and now it began, a droning horde mustered not by Mitscher but by the escort carriers of the support groups. Each of the eight small flattops in the two CVE task units put up eight FM-2 Wildcats and a quartet of Avengers, wings sagging with a load of eight five-inch high-explosive rockets and a dozen hundred-pound bombs tucked in their bellies. Specialists in troop support, they bore down fast, roaring over the amtracs, the reef, and the gentle lagoon. The Wildcats strafed the beach head-on, followed at thirty-second intervals by the Avengers, which attacked in pairs, two planes to a beach. They let fly their rockets, dropped their frags, and retired across the island.

Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, was the commander of the army’s 43rd Division and the senior Japanese Army officer on Saipan. But Saito’s guns were still silent. There was nothing for his inland artillery and mortars to shoot at yet. Captain Whitehead, Turner’s commander of support aircraft, was eager to keep things that way. To stop a Japanese counterattack on the landing area, he passed what was known about the locations of Japanese gun and troop positions to Commander Ramage, the air coordinator from the Enterprise. But the carrier pilots struggled all day long to find targets through the cloak of smoke that rose after the naval bombardment. The Japanese had gone to ground under ingenious schemes of camouflage. The air strikes lacked the volume and sustenance required of an effective area bombing attack. Turner meant it more to demoralize and suppress the defenders than to wipe them out. His belief that planes could do what ships couldn’t might have been the optimism of a man who had never flown a strike aircraft under fire. If the enemy could not move beneath this storm of lead and shrapnel, they usually found the wherewithal to hunker down and endure, looking to survive until a more opportune hour.

After thirty minutes, the air strike ended and the planes returned to their carriers. Admiral Hill took over as preparatory naval gunfire resumed. The California drenched Red Beach with everything she had, but after pouring white phosphorus rounds inshore of Red Beach One, she ceased fire when some of her shells burst prematurely, casting smoky streaks of the incendiary chemical over the assembly area. There, a control boat dropped a flag, and a column of LCI gunboats motoring along the line of departure executed simultaneous ninety-degree turns and set out toward shore. With a dozen of them allocated to each beach, surging along in a single rank, they would offer the final salvo of preparatory fire before the amtracs went in. Diversely configured with 20 and 40 mm guns, rails bristling with 4.5-inch rockets, the gunboats were a mile and a half out when mortars and artillery began falling around them. The incoming fire surprised Captain Inglis in the Birmingham, on station with the Indianapolis on the division boundary line, firing at targets on Green Beach. Inglis had not expected so many Japanese guns to remain in action. The gunboat crews pulled the pins on their rockets, five hundred at a time, and threw the switches that armed the launchers.

On another signal from the control boat, the first wave of amtracs came to the line of departure. The first wave was anchored in the center by a seven-vehicle wedge of LVT(A)s. The amtanks were arrayed like an arrowhead pointed toward the enemy. Flanking the wedge to each side was a rank of six troop-carrying LVTs. Without fanfare, the coxswain in Robert Graf’s amtrac opened the throttle and his engine’s song went from gurgle to growl to roaring whine. Led by an LVT(A) serving as the wave guide, flying a numbered flag at the point of the wedge, the first assault wave, nineteen vehicles strong, followed the LCI gunboats in the Second Division landing area. From Red Beach One in the north to Green Beach Two in the south, the full two-regiment line consisted of seventy amtanks and forty-eight LVTs carrying eight Marine infantry battalions to shore. The second wave departed the line four minutes later, followed by the third wave six minutes after it. As Graf’s amtrac passed the Norman Scott, a voice on the destroyer’s PA system called out, “God bless you all!”

Inglis had not seen its like, this parade of ferocious small ships motoring toward the reef in formation, followed at close intervals by rank after rank of amtanks and amtracs. As he looked out to sea, the spectacle of the LCI gunboats in their rush, leading the first wave of troop-laden alligators, took his breath away. He had what he called a “$6.60 orchestra seat, close enough to see the anxious but determined expressions of the faces of the Marines in the landing craft.”

When the LCI gunboats were just fifty yards from the reef, the signal to fire came. Within three seconds five hundred rockets were airborne. The parade spectacle vanished in the backwash of smoke. A gray carpet covered the waters beyond the reef, and though the winds pushed it seaward, it was heavy enough to obscure the landing area from view. No targets of opportunity were apparent. All the gunboat rocketeers could do was smother their assigned sectors in high explosives. After two salvos were off the rails, five shifted from beach to bluff.

Carrier planes struck inland targets. Flying low over the first wave, fighters showered the alligator fleet with brass cartridges. When the LCIs were finished, their long single rank opened like a double pocket door, half splitting away to the left, half to the right. Through the opening came the first wave of amtracs, churning through smoke toward the reef. “As the troops came abreast and passed us,” one gunboat crewman wrote, “an eerie silence fell. All that could be heard was the whine of the amtracs.”

Lieutenant Roth told his platoon, “Lock and load your pieces. Fix bayonets.” There were crisp metallic sounds as eight-round clips went into their rifles and bolts were snapped forward, pushing the first shell into the chamber. Robert Graf turned on his safety, reached over his shoulder, took his bayonet from his pack, and fitted it on the end of his rifle, keeping the butt on the deck and muzzle skyward. As the beach drew closer, perceptions grew sharper.

In the Fourth Marine Division’s landing area, amtracs carrying the 23rd and 25th Marines moved past the Tennessee to either side. The battleship hit the sugar mill with her main battery, then enfiladed the southernmost beach, Yellow Three, concentrating on gun positions near Agingan Point. “The beaches were a mass of smoke,” Captain A. D. Mayer would write, “but the Mark Eight radar operator could effectively observe the salvo landing on the beach on his radar screen, and control same.” But pinpoint accuracy was an illusion on an A scope. Two days earlier the Indiana had put sixty-three high-capacity sixteen-inch shells into that strongpoint, but still the Japanese were in business. Tests had revealed that the burst of a sixteen-inch high-explosive projectile would shock but not destroy emplacements built from sand and coconut logs. “These bursting projectiles would have great disruptive effect but doubtful penetrating power,” Admiral Hill said. The Marines would pay the price.

To hold formation, the amtrac drivers kept an eye to their periscopes, watching ahead while also checking the line to each side. Holding steady amid the waves and slow-moving tide, worrying (but not too much) about the high-angle barrage the Japanese were sending them, the drivers consulted one another on the radio, keeping their line tight. Crawling toward Green Beach One, Marshall E. Harris was talking to his best friend from radio school, Robert B. Lewis, in an amtank nearby. He was asking him if they’d drifted too far left when Lewis’s voice vanished beneath an explosion. Harris felt a concussion, then heard another explosion. Turning his periscope to the side, he saw black smoke and fire on the water. “Flames boiled out of blackened, bent metal hatches—Bob’s tank.” His platoon commander, Lieutenant Michael, motioned to him to keep going. He never saw Lewis again.

As the cleated tracks of the amtracs mounted the reef, their hydrostatic transmissions dropped automatically into low gear, enabling the heavy vehicles to haul themselves up and over. The surf could make things dicey. Off Red Beach, large swells were crashing hard over the reef. A coxswain had to time his approach such that the wave cupped his transom and carried them onto the reef. He would have to keep moving, for the next swell would bid to roll him over or swamp his engine while he was still on the coral. As the amtracs clawed over the reef, the California, off Red Beach, and the Tennessee, off Yellow, shifted to targets farther inland, beyond the map line that Holland Smith had set as the first day’s objective for his Marines. Known as the O-1 line (for “Objective One”), it roughly paralled the beach about fifteen hundred yards inland. The Birmingham kept watch off Afetna Point while the Norman Scott, Monssen, and other destroyers moved close, released by Admiral Hill to the freelancing counterbattery missions that destroyermen relished. Two thousand yards offshore, between the boat lanes leading to Blue and Yellow beaches, the Norman Scott fired on gun positions near Blue Beach One. As her captain, Seymour D. Owens, watched the first wave of amtracs go in, an artillery shell landed close off the forecastle, wounding three men. Hammering the bluffs to keep the enemy’s heads down, the destroyers kept at it until the first amtrac wave was about three hundred yards from shore, then trained out to the flanks. Dropping into the calm lagoon waters, the amtracs began the last leg to shore.

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Saipan Landing II

The volume of incoming fire grew; neither the aircraft nor the naval fire support had an answer for what the Japanese had installed on Saipan’s reverse slopes. “There was a loud explosion to our right,” Robert Graf wrote, “and we saw one of our craft exploding, bodies flying through the air.”

Carl Roth said, “Unlock your pieces. Good luck. Keep low, and get inland as fast as you can and get off the beach. They’re zeroing in on it.” Turner had overestimated the threat of beach defenses—pillboxes with machine guns, fire trenches, antitank trenches, and the like. Artillery and mortars located inland were the problem. He had underrated them. The clouds obscuring the early reconnaissance photos hid the guns from Nimitz’s analysts. They revealed themselves against the first waves.

Control officers off Blue and Yellow beaches reported the first waves of the Fourth Marine Division ashore at 8:43. Five minutes later an air observer reported the Second Marine Division’s amtracs piling onto Red and Green beaches, though not always in the right place. Heavy fire poured into the first wave from the shrub-topped bluff behind Red Three. Heavier fire enfiladed them from Afetna Point, far to the right. The volume of it startled the drivers, and even the slightest flinch at the wheel caused them to veer left, carrying in the Sixth Marines farther north than they were supposed to be. The same problem beset the Eighth Regiment, only worse, owing to a northward-carrying tide. Both of its battalions landed on Green One, causing congestion and a dangerous massing of forces there, as well as a void on Green Two, just to the south. The architect of the Second Marine Division’s confusion was a battery of heavy machine guns and antiboat guns on Afetna Point. Having somehow survived the morning bombardment by the Birmingham and Indianapolis, it enjoyed a run of terrible glory. Head still down, filled with silent prayer, Robert Graf heard the smooth tenor of the engine change as his tracks bit into the ground. His platoon was on the beach.

As the critical hour began ashore, the naval fire support shifted inland, leaving the amtracs to their own devices. The bow gunners trained their fifties on the thin ribbon of sand and scrub ahead as the mortars and artillery continued their incessant high-angle fall. General Saito’s artillerymen and mortar teams were in impressive form given the plastering that had been leveled upon them from air and sea. Lofting shells on tall parabolas from crevices, ravines, and the back sides of hills, they began taking a toll on Turner’s force. The beach where Easy Company of the 2/23 went ashore, Blue Beach Two, took a particularly brutal deluge. “More and more shells came pounding at us and more tractors were hit,” wrote Graf. “Bodies, both whole and in pieces, were scattered about.” He saw men mortally wounded but still alive, floating with the aid of life jackets. The Marines left no man behind, except by necessity at H Hour, when the imperative to get off the beach was existential. The whole operation depended on it. Already, with the arrival of the second wave, the boat lane was a bottleneck, with a huge inflow of machines grinding through it.

Amtracs had their appeal, foremost their armor plate, which was proof against all but the closest artillery rounds. But many veteran Marines preferred the old LCVPs with their bow ramps, which when dropped allowed them to make a quick low rush forward out of the hold. Amtracs, in contrast, required them to stand up and dismount over the side, and that meant exposing themselves to enemy fire. When Donald Boots hit the beach, enemy gunners were waiting. The platoon sergeant and gunnery sergeant of his pioneer company were shot dead along with a few other men. As bullets zipped overhead, his platoon, deprived of their leadership, dropped to the beach and pressed themselves into the crushed coral for cover. Boots moved left, bounding into a large shell crater with several other men as machine gun fire whipped overhead. When the mortars came, Boots didn’t think he would survive.

“It was really tragic to watch the effect of this mortar fire on our own troops,” said Captain Inglis.

The Japanese were extremely accurate, and as they walked this shellfire up the beach, this shellfire falling at about ten yard intervals, our Marines at first stood up under the fire without flinching, continued their operations of sorting out and transporting to front lines the equipment which had been landed and which was lying on the beach. After the first two or three shells had fallen it was quite apparent to us that the Marines were beginning to flinch under the fire and at first they threw themselves on the ground and then eventually, after this fire was continued, broke and ran. Through high powered optical instruments we could almost see the whiskers on men’s faces, and the whole impression that I received was something unreal, something that you might see in the London Graphic, for instance, as sketched in the imagination of an artist. It seemed almost too dramatic and too close to be realistic.

Though the largest Japanese coastal guns had been easy for the Navy to destroy, as they were sited conspicuously in fixed emplacements vulnerable to direct fire, and beach positions evaporated quickly in the initial barrage, the inland positions were trickier even when ship commanders could see where the fire was coming from. “The mobilization of that mass of field artillery and mortars on the reverse slope of the hills back of the beaches was a complete unknown to us when we landed,” Hill said.

Captain Inglis felt a mounting frustration. “We tried our best to determine the source of this fire, but the Japanese, being past masters in the twin arts of playing possum and camouflage, had very successfully concealed their batteries from observation and the source of the fire could not be determined from observation from the ship, or from the spotters ashore, nor from observation from aircraft, nor from photographs taken by aircraft.” There were many eyes on D Day, but none were all-seeing. It remained to the assaulters to push forward and deliver themselves from death.

The Second Armored Amphibian Battalion, a Marine outfit, hit Red Beach One promptly at H Hour. General Watson, who hadn’t wanted to use his regular amtracs as fighting vehicles on land, had his men debark from the troop-carrying LVTs immediately, to begin the fight in the footprint of the tides. As LVTs unloaded elements of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, high on the beach, the unit’s seventeen LVT(A)-4 amtanks sought routes inland, to serve as a sort of mobile amphibious armored striking force. Their crews were freelancers as soon as they went ashore, and thus they acquired a fearsome responsibility: to use their thin-skinned “armored pigs” to hold the exposed far left flank of the entire two-division landing beach. This meant facing off against anything the Japanese might send them from the north. Turner had anticipated this; the whole purpose of the feint he had carried out off Garapan was to let the first two battalions of the Sixth Marine Regiment get ashore and dig in before a counterattack came.

“I never will forget the concussion of the battleships’ guns and the power and compression that blew over us,” remembered R. J. Lee. The driver of his amtank was looking to push inland off the beach, but with a deep trench just behind the shrub line there was no way forward. He threw the pig into reverse and backed out to the water’s edge, where he unlimbered the 75 mm cannon and began blasting to cut a navigable lane. The Japanese had built only the simplest of defensive works, thanks to the efforts of U.S. submarines to strangle their source of supply. But their trenches, foxholes, and log obstacles near the beach were made reasonably effective by the pressure of artillery and mortar fire coming from the highlands far away. Marine amtanks on Red Beach struggled to get over the bluffs behind the beaches. Lee had gotten off perhaps four shots when Japanese artillery found his range. The open turret took a direct hit. Before the smoke washed everything black, Lee saw his platoon leader and two of his sergeants dead.

“Let’s get the hell out of here before she blows up,” another sergeant said to the five survivors. The amtank’s seven-cylinder radial aircraft engine, owing to the aviation gasoline that fed it, was always a fire hazard. They shimmied through the escape hatch into the water and turned and charged the beach, weapons held high. Lee looked to his right and saw one of his crew, Gus Evans, rifle raised over his head, take a bullet to the face and go down. He was reaching for him when he, too, was hit. Two head shots—one a ricochet, the other penetrating the helmet but somehow retaining only enough force to knock him cold. “Lights out for me,” Lee said. “I heard my four-year-old son calling, ‘Get up, Daddy, get up, Daddy,’ and by the grace of God and my son I made it back to the beach.”

On Red Three, a trio of amtanks under the command of Lieutenant Philo Pease found a path through a grove of trees and made it up onto the bluff. Crossing a narrow road, they approached a trenchworks. The lead vehicle tried to cross it but came to grief, stuck fast, treads clawing the air. According to the driver, S. A. Balsano, Japanese soldiers were “on us like flies.” There was no way forward, or back, either, for the rear amtank was stuck, too. Lieutenant Pease realized their only hope was to get moving again, or artillery would surely find them. He saw that the second amtank in his column, the one right behind him, might be able to pull the third one free of its snag. He ordered his crew to stay with their stranded lead vehicle and try to break it free while he ran outside, exposing himself in order to help the commander behind him to rig a tow cable. As a cluster of enemy troops approached, one of Pease’s crew, Leroy Clobes, stuck a light machine gun through the side hatch and leaned into the trigger, scattering them. Balsano, the driver, jammed his Thompson through the front hatch and jackhammered away. Then they realized that the foreign voices they had heard were coming from the trench beneath them.

Pease reached the amtank behind him only to find himself going to the assistance of a dead man. A Japanese soldier had drawn a bead on the other commander and shot him dead where he stood. Ducking low under fire, Pease inherited the job of attaching the cable. The enemy rifleman chambered another round and took him down next. A corporal in Pease’s amtank, Paul Durand, took command, shouting, “Shoot all the sons of bitches you can!” Nearby he spotted a straw house that seemed to harbor an enemy squad. Traversing the 75 mm gun onto it, he blew it right down. At that point a Japanese light tank appeared and put a 37 mm round through the hull of the third amtank in line, killing the driver. Marine bazookamen put the enemy armored vehicle out of business in turn, but here, exposed under merciless direct fire, was the root of General Watson’s worry all along: Amtracs were sitting ducks. Lieutenant Pease’s surviving crew were lucky. Inspecting their stranded amphibian later, one of them found a magnetic mine fastened to the undercarriage. Somehow it had failed to explode.

South of them, Green Beach One was chaos, its six-hundred-yard frontage hopelessly congested after the arrival of two full battalions. The commanders of the first wave’s amtanks tried to deepen the beachhead by driving inland. Their advance was conspicuous to the well-spotted mortarmen and artillery gunners in the hills. Coming under heavy plunging fire, several of the amtanks became bogged down in a rice paddy. Two others, driven by Sergeant Benjamin R. Livesey and Sergeant Onel W. Dickens, pushed on. Crossing the end of the single runway paralleling Green Beach, they turned up a dirt road leading north past the Japanese radio station. The road was little more than a cart path, barely wide enough for two-way traffic. Along it they clattered, fortunate to evade the incoming fire. A Japanese machine gun nest, then another, revealed themselves with spitting tracers. The armored amphibians turned the fury of their 75 mm howitzers and .50- and .30-caliber machine guns onto them, to overwhelming effect. Passing through a banana grove, Livesey realized its value as cover and stopped there as the mortars continued to fall. As the crew crouched low, they heard the chatter of small arms fire as Japanese soldiers opened up on them from down the road. “We scrambled back into our tank,” Livesey said, “and scanned ahead into the grove of trees, using our gun sight and binoculars to spot a building with some Japs moving around inside it. We opened fire with everything we had.”

Their 75 mm main gun was loaded with high-explosive and incendiary rounds. Several hits produced larger explosions followed climactic ally by a mushrooming fireball that marked the demise of a Japanese fuel dump. Livesey ordered his driver forward and shot up the area for effect. About a hundred yards on, he came upon a clearing and stopped again, breaking out water for his crew. As Dickens’s amtank rolled up alongside, Livesey and his men dismounted to talk with them. No other Marines had yet made it that far inland. “We were alone and isolated,” Livesey said, “but enjoying our success.” They were picking through the wooden crates that constituted their magazines, counting their remaining shells, when, down the road, four behemoths of foreign origin loomed into view.

The Japanese medium tanks were in a single column, moving toward the landing beach. They did not seem to see the Americans hustling to remount. Once buttoned in, Livesey and Dickens turned out after them, unlimbering their 75 mm guns and opening fire. His ammunition passers were scrambling to find armor-piercing shells when the enemy column turned and came directly at the Marines. “It was us or them,” Livesey said.

Neither side’s vehicle was a match for the other’s main gun. Livesey’s vehicle shook from a hit to its engine compartment, but June 15 was his day; the shell was a dud. Gales of machine gun fire washed over them. Though the 75s liked to jam and did, the gunners and loaders kept their breech blocks smoking, and Marine Corps marksmanship was equal to the moment. Destroying three of the enemy tanks in succession, they stopped the Japanese armor just fifty to seventy yards away. Livesey watched one of the enemy tankers pile out of his hatch and start running for the hills, a good thing given that Livesey’s ammunition passers were nearly down to smoke shells. He threw a few rounds after the enemy squirter, but as artillery and mortars in the hills began bracketing them again, he and Dickens and their crews opted to bail out. As they set out on foot to the beach, mortar shrapnel killed one of Dickens’s men, Private Leo Pletcher. The freelancing foray by Livesey and Dickens would earn each of them a Navy Cross. More important, it relieved pressure on the vulnerable Second Marine Division foothold by blunting an armored assault that might have fallen upon the beach.

The fighting on the left flank continued stiff and sharp. The Sixth Marines were able to force a shallow beachhead no more than a hundred yards deep, as far as the coastal road behind Red Beach. But pillboxes and machine gun positions checked their progress. An enemy tank on the beach that everyone had thought was disabled opened fire with its 37 mm gun on the LVTs that were bringing in the Sixth Marines’ reserve unit, the First Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones. One of the vehicles that got hit was carrying the staff of Jones’s boss, the regimental commander, Colonel James P. Riseley. Many of them were badly wounded. Soon after landing, Riseley learned that the commander of his Third Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Easley, had been hit, too.

As Riseley was setting up his regimental command post near the center of Red Beach Two, as many as two dozen Japanese troops charged down the beach from the north. They reached the rear area of the regiment’s Second Battalion, where wounded Americans were laid out in stretchers under tents near the beach. The Marines rallied, established a firing line, and annihilated the Japanese force. But the close-run assault proved that no one was safe in a battle of infiltration. On the day, the commanders of all four of the Second Marine Division’s assault battalions were wounded in action: Raymond L. Murray of the 2/6 (hit along with his executive officer), Henry P. Crowe of the 2/8, John C. Miller of the 3/8, and Easley of the 3/6. After nightfall, the task of closing the gaps in their lines would be a matter of life and death.

To break the pressure of the counterattack, Riseley ordered the First Battalion to pass through the Third Battalion area and renew the push toward the O-1 line. Riseley would have given the job to no one other than the 1/6’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jones. He would call him “the best damn battalion commander in this division, or any other division.” At the moment, Jones was the only officer of his rank physically able to lead an assault on that high ground. The 1/6 had taken a hundred casualties on the way to the beach. Coming ashore, the survivors had replaced their soaked equipment and gear by harvesting from those who had fallen ahead of them. Jones rallied them forward.

With units scattered and intermingled thanks to the whirligig movements of amtracs in surf and tide, and with the heavy fire urging survival ahead of record keeping, it was difficult to count the wounded. The first casualties were brought to the beach for loading onto LVTs at about 10:40. The total number of killed and wounded that day would total more than two thousand, most of the casualties inflicted by artillery and mortar fire. But an untold multitude emblematized by Lieutenant Colonel Easley refused to report to triage for fear of being removed from the company of their men at the front.

“River Raid on Korea”

Map of the American Naval Operations in Korea, 1871.

The largest-scale combat in which Leathernecks participated in the three decades following the Civil War was the Korean Expedition of 1871. On 23 May of that year, five vessels of Rear Admiral John Rodgers’s Asiatic Fleet—the frigate Colorado, sloops Alaska and Benicia, and gunboats Monocacy and Palos—entered Roze Roads on the west coast of Korea not far from Chemulpo (modern-day Inchon). Aboard Admiral Rodgers’s flagship, the Colorado, was Frederick F. Low, the U.S. minister to China, who had been sent to open diplomatic relations with the hermit kingdom of Korea. Contact was made with the local inhabitants, and on the 31st a small delegation of third- and fifth-rank Korean officials appeared. Low refused to receive them, directing his secretary to explain that the presence of first-rank officials qualified to conduct negotiations was required. In the meantime, the Koreans were informed, the Americans desired to chart the Salee River, as the channel of the Han River between Kanghwa-do (island) and the Kumpo Peninsula was then called. As the Han leads to the capital city of Seoul, the Koreans might have been expected to consider such an act provocative, American assurances of goodwill notwithstanding, but they raised no objections. Twenty-four hours were allotted for them to notify the appropriate authorities.

Accordingly, at noon on 1 June, four steam launches followed by the Monocacy and Palos set out to begin the survey. As they came abreast of the fortifications on the heights of Kanghwa-do, the Koreans opened fire. The surveying party replied with gusto, shelling the forts into silence, and returned to the fleet’s anchorage. American casualties were two men wounded.

Admiral Rodgers waited nine days for an apology or better tides. The former was not forthcoming, and on 10 June a punitive expedition entered the river with the mission of capturing and destroying the errant forts. The landing force numbered 686 officers and men, including 109 Marines organized into two little companies and a naval battery of seven 12-pounder howitzers. Fire support would be provided by the gunboats and four steam launches mounting 12-pounders in their bows. Commander L. A. Kimberly was placed in command of the landing force; Captain McLane Tilton led its Leathernecks. Tilton was one of those unconventional characters for whom the Corps has always seemed to exercise an attraction. (Writing his wife from a Mediterranean deployment, he reported that when he first went on deck each day, “If anyone asks me how are you old fellow, I reply, ‘I don’t feel very well; no gentleman is ever well in the morning.’”)

Three forts, each with a walled water-battery, overlooked the shore of Kanghwa-do. In the course of the operation, the Americans christened them the Marine Redoubt, Fort Monocacy, and The Citadel. The Monocacy took the first two under fire shortly after noon. Both had been silenced by the time the Palos appeared with the landing party’s boats in tow about an hour later. The boats cast off half a mile below the nearest fort, and at 1345 that afternoon the Bluejackets and Marines began struggling ashore across a broad, knee-deep mudflat “crossed by deep sluices,” a disgusted Tilton noted, “filled with softer and still deeper mud.” Some men left their shoes, socks, leggings, and even trouser legs behind, and the howitzers bogged down to their barrels. Fortunately, the Koreans did not attempt to oppose the landing.

The Leathernecks had been selected to serve as the expedition’s advance guard. Tilton deployed them into a skirmish line as soon as they left the boats. Once both companies reached firm ground, Commander Kimberly ordered Tilton to lead his Marines toward the fort, an elliptical stone redoubt with 12-foot walls. Most of the sailors remained behind to manhandle the guns out of the muck. On the Marines’ approach, the fort’s white-robed defenders fled, firing a few parting shots. The work mounted 54 guns, but all except two were insignificant brass breechloaders. Tilton halted his men until the main body came up, “when we were again ordered to push forward,” he wrote, “which we did, scouring the fields as far as practicable from the left of the line of march, the river being on our right, and took a position on a wooded knoll . . . commanding a fine view of the beautiful hills and inundated rice fields immediately around us.” At this point he received orders to hold for the night. It was 1630 before the guns had been dragged ashore, and too few hours of daylight remained to demolish the captured fort and tackle the next. The seamen bivouacked half a mile to the rear.

The landing force moved out at 0530 the next morning. Its fire support had been reduced by the withdrawal of the Palos, which had hurt herself on an uncharted rock while the landing was in progress, but that available from the Monocacy and the launches would prove more than sufficient. The second fort, a chipped granite structure about 90 feet square, stood on a bluff a mile upstream. Tilton’s men found it deserted. While a Marine bugler amused himself by rolling 33 little brass cannon over the bluff into the river, other members of the expedition spiked the fort’s four big guns and tore down two of its walls. The march was then resumed.

The track between the first two forts had been relatively easy going, but beyond the second it became extremely difficult, “the topography of the country being indescribable,” Tilton reported, “resembling a sort of ‘chopped sea’ of immense hills and deep ravines lying in every conceivable position.” Presently the column came under long-range musket fire from a Korean force estimated to number from 2,000 to 5,000 among some hills beyond the Americans’ left flank. Five guns supported by three companies of seamen were deployed to hold this body in check, and the remainder of the party continued its advance. On two occasions the Koreans made a rush toward the detachment, but a few artillery shells turned them back each time.

The last and strongest of the Korean fortifications, The Citadel, was a stone redoubt crowning a steep, conical hill on a peninsula some two miles upstream from its neighbor. The Monocacy and the steam launches opened fire on the Citadel at about 1100. At noon, Commander Kimberly halted his command 600 yards from the fort to give the men a breather. By that time, the parties of Koreans seen falling back on The Citadel and the forest of flags in and around it left no doubt that the position would be defended.

After signaling the Monocacy to cease fire, the storming party, 350 seamen and Marines with fixed bayonets, dashed forward to occupy a ridgeline only 120 yards from the fort. Although Tilton’s men were still armed with the model 1861 muzzle-loading Springfield rifle musket (in his words “a blasted old ‘Muzzle-Fuzzel’”), they quickly established fire superiority over the fort’s defenders, who were armed with matchlocks, a firearm that had disappeared from Western arsenals 200 years before. “The firing continued for only a few minutes, say four,” Tilton wrote, “amidst the melancholy songs of the enemy, their bearing being courageous in the extreme.”

At 1230 Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey, commanding the Bluejacket battalion, gave the order to charge. “[A]nd as little parties of our forces advanced closer and closer down the deep ravine between us,” Tilton continued, “some of [the Koreans] mounted the parapet and threw stones etc., at us, uttering the while exclamations seemingly of defiance.” The first American into The Citadel, Navy Lieutenant Hugh W. McKee, fell mortally wounded by a musket ball in the groin and a spear thrust in the side. The spearman also stabbed at Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who had followed close behind McKee. The point passed between Schley’s left arm and his chest, pinning his sleeve to his coat, and he shot the man dead.

Tilton was among half a dozen officers who led their men into the fort moments later. The Koreans stood their ground, and the fighting became hand to hand. Clambering over the parapet, Private Michael McNamara encountered an enemy soldier pointing a matchlock at him. He wrenched the gun from the Korean’s hands and clubbed him to death with it. Private James Dougherty closed with and killed the man the Americans identified as the commander of the Korean forces. Tilton, Private Hugh Purvis, and Corporal Charles Brown converged on The Citadel’s principal standard, a 12-foot-square yellow cotton banner emblazoned with black characters signifying “commanding general.” For five minutes the fort’s interior was a scene of desperate combat. Then the remaining defenders fled downhill toward the river, under fire from the Marines, a company of seamen, and the two howitzers that had accompanied the attackers.

A total of 143 Korean dead and wounded were counted in and around the Citadel, and Lieutenant Commander Schley, the landing force’s adjutant, estimated that another 100 had been killed in flight. Forty-seven flags and 481 pieces of ordnance, most quite small but including 27 sizable pieces—20-pounders and upward—were captured. The storming party lost three men killed and ten wounded, with a Marine private in each category. Captain Tilton was pleasantly surprised by his survival. In a letter home a few days later, he wrote, “I never expected to see my wife and baby any more, and if it hadn’t been that the Coreans [sic] can’t shoot true, I never should.” He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1897. Nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. Among the latter were Corporal Brown and Private Purvis, who had rendezvoused with Tilton at the Citadel’s flagstaff.

The landing force reembarked early the next morning, leaving The Citadel in ruins. “Thus,” wrote Admiral Rodgers, “was a treacherous attack upon our people and an insult to our flag redressed.” Successful as it had been from a military standpoint, however, the operation was not a masterstroke of diplomacy. Subsequent communications with Korean authorities, conducted by messages tied to a pole on an island near the anchorage, were entirely unproductive, and on 3 July the fleet withdrew. A treaty with Korea was not negotiated until 1882.

Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871

 

American LVTs

The LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked), better known as the Alligator. It was a modification of the original Alligator, a swamp rescue vehicle developed in 1935. The Alligator was an amphibious tank and the star of many U. S. Marine Corps landings in the Pacific. It was propelled by scores of small paddles on it tractor treads. Alligators performed a variety of chores. Some carried infantry, some carried supplies, some acted as light tanks, and others as self-propelled guns. Some were armored, some were equipped with turrets and the 37 mm gun of the M 3 light tank (Stuart tank to the British) , and others carried a 75 mm howitzer. All of them, in spite of the guns and armor, were light enough to float and seaworthy enough to make a sometimes lengthy trip from an anchored troop ship to the beach of a Pacific atoll.

 

There were two types of amphibious vehicles developed by the Americans in WWII to cross the shoals and beaches in the Pacific theater. One was the personnel carrier, or LVT (landing vehicle, tracked), generally equipped with a ramp in the rear which allowed troops to debark quickly under some cover; and the LVT(A), or armored amphibian, which was actually an amphibious tank. Although their names are similar, the LVT(A)4 was an entirely different machine from the LVT-4 vehicle. The LVT(A)4 was derived from the earlier LVT-2 Amtracs. Production for the new “Amtank” vehicles began in 1944, the LVT(A)4 being born from the US Marines’ urgent request for increased turret firepower from the earlier (A)1’s high velocity 37mm weapon (mounted in a M3 type turret). The result was the substitution of a 75mm howitzer (mounted in a M8 type turret) which considerably improved the potential for enemy bunker busting. But, in order to mount the M8 style turret on the roof of the (A)1, it was necessary to make some modification to the upper hull. These included increasing the size of the turret ring and lengthening the hull rear to provide space for the cramped engine compartment.

The LVT-4 was a natural continuation of the unique US Amtrac series of vehicles that were initially developed down in the Okeechobee marsh area of Florida back in the 1930s by a gentleman by the name of Donald Roebling. Originally built from light-weight aluminum, Mr. Roebling’s Alligator/ Crocodile tracked vehicles could travel equally well on land and water, and therefore caught the attention of the US Navy/Marine Corps as a potential rescue vehicle for downed pilots. After the start of WWII, a contract was awarded to Roebling to build 200 of his vehicles, but this time they were made from steel instead of aluminum. Originally designed to carry cargo, the Army vehicles gradually evolved into an armored fighting vehicle with some of the various types covered over and fitted with gun turrets. Generally called “Amtrac” (armored tractor)- or on occasion “Water Buffalo”- the LVT series of vehicles became very important assault and transport carriers during the island hopping campaigns of the Pacific theater in WWII, and to a lesser extent in Europe. Identifying the vehicles in the LVT series is sometimes difficult, as there were a couple of manufacturers and models of each type. It was the LVT-4 that was the first of the series to have an open cargo bay and a rear ramp for loading/unloading.

 

The LVT-4 differed from the LVT-2 in having a loading ramp at the rear, which enabled it to carry large loads such as Jeeps and some light weapons. It carried machine-guns on pintles at the front and sides.

These vehicles were very much a compromise design to obtain the best possible performances overland and on water. The two are disparate requirements, but the LVTs achieved a good working compromise and were thus able to carry amphibious warfare from the Rhine to the islands of the Pacific.

LVT-2 and LVT-4

Developed from a civil design intended for use in the Florida swamps, the LVT-1 was not really suited for combat, being intended solely as a supply vehicle. The Pacific war was to prove the need for a more capable amphibious assault vehicle. This emerged as the LVT-2, which used a better all-round shape to improve water performance, though it was still a high and bulky vehicle. Another improvement was a new suspension and the track grousers were made better by the use of aluminium W-shaped shoes that were bolted onto the track and could thus be easily changed when worn or damaged. A definite logistic improvement was introduced by use of the engine, final drive and transmission from the M3 light tank. At the time the LVT-2 was being developed these components were readily available and made spare-part supply that much easier.

The steering system of the LVT-2 gave considerable trouble at first, for the brake drums operated in oil and prolonged use of the steering bars could result in the brakes seizing up on one side. Training and experience solved that problem.

On the LVT-2 the engine was mounted at the rear, which restricted the size of the cargo compartment. This was relatively easily designed out of the overall layout by moving the engine forward and mounting a ramp at the rear to ease loading and unloading. Thus the LVT-2 became the LVT-4, which was otherwise generally similar. Of all the LVT series the LVT-4 was produced in the largest numbers: 8,348 produced on five production lines; in contrast 2,963 LVT-2s were produced on six lines. There were some design differences between the LVT-2 and LVT-4: for instance, the driver’s controls were rearranged on the LVT-4, but the main improvement was that all manner of loads could be carried on the LVT-4, ranging from a Jeep to a 105-mm (4.13-in) field howitzer.

Most LVT-2s and LVT-4s were armed with 12.7- or 7.62-mm (0.5- or 0.3-in) machine-guns on rails or pintles, but there were two versions of the LVT-2 that had heavier weapons. The LVT(A) 1 was an LVT with an M3 light tank turret mounting a 37-mm gun; this was intended to supply fire support during the early phases of an amphibious landing during the interval immediately after reaching the beaches. The gun proved to be too light for this role, so it was later supplanted by the short 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer mounted in the turret of the M8 Howitzer Motor Carriage to produce the LVT(A) 4. On both of these gun vehicles the turrets were mounted towards the rear of the cargo area, which was covered in by armoured plate.

The ordinary LVT-2s and LVT-4s became the main load carriers of the early Pacific operations. The first LVTs were used in action at Guadalcanal, and thereafter every island-hopping operation involved them. Some were used in Europe during the Scheldt and Rhine operations of 1944-5 and there were numerous odd ‘one-off attempts to mount various types of weapon in them, ranging from rocket batteries to light cannon. Flamethrowers were fitted in some numbers, but all these types of armament should not disguise the fact that the LVT-2 and LVT-4 were most often used to carry ashore the first waves of US Marines.

The Tarawa landings on November 20, 1943, used landing vehicles, tracked (LVTs) for the first time in amphibious warfare. These were true armored amphibians, which could be deployed from landing ships into the water, then driven directly up to the beach and driven well inland, so that troops did not have to wade or walk ashore. Unfortunately, a shortage of LVTs meant that second- wave assault troops had to be carried in conventionally on landing craft. Worse because of faulty calculation of tides, many of the landing craft ran up on coral reefs, obliging the marines to wade long distances ashore. This exposed them to enemy fire and created heavy casualties that greatly imperiled the landings on the first day. Nevertheless, under Maj. Gen. Julian Smith, the 2nd Marine Division managed to occupy positions on the southern shore of the island as well as on the western end, thereby forcing the Japanese garrison to divide. This ultimately proved fatal to the defenders, and although the enemy counterattacked with suicidal banzai charges, the marines held their positions and, by November 23, had overrun the small island.

Specification LVT-2

Crew: 2+7

Powerplant: one Continental W970-9A petrol engine developing186.4KW (250hp)

Weights: unloaded 11000 kg (24,250 lb); loaded 13721 kg (30,250 lb)

Dimensions: length 7.975m(21 ft 6 in); width 3.25m(10ft8in); height 2.5m(8 ft 2.5 in)

Performance: maximum land speed 32km/h(20mph); maximum water speed 12 km/h (7.5 mph); road radius 241 km (150miles); maximum water radius 161km(100miles)

Armament: one 12.7-mm (0.5-in) and one 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns

NEPTUNE’S INVASION FLEET

Bangor-Class Minesweeper (reciprocating engine): A wide minesweeper class-it formed a large part of the Neptune minesweeper strength of 287. Bangor-class ‘sweepers were built in three versions-diesel, turbine, and reciprocating engines. Displacement: 672 tons. Crew: 60. Speed: 16 knots. Armament: 1 x 3-in, 1 x 40-mm, 4 x .303-in mg

RAF Air/Sea Rescue Launch: These boats saved about 13,000 airmen during the war, and were the natural seaborne counterpart to the huge Allied air umbrella which would cover the Neptune operations. Length: 68 feet. Speed: 38 knots. Armament: 3 x .303 Lewis mg

Armed Salvage Tug: Quite apart from the job of moving the huge Mulberry units to the Normandy coast, the fleets of tug-boats had to cope with about half the landing-craft -those unable to cross the Channel under their own power, and which could not be carried on the decks of transports. Displacement: 700 tons. Speed: 13 knots. Crew: 30. Armament: 1 x 3-in, 2 x 20-mm, 2 x .303-in mg

Armed Trawler: Trawlers-with the minesweepers and other light flotilla craft-were to perform invaluable services as convoy escorts shepherding and marshalling the transports. Hundreds of them were pressed into service for this role. Typical specifications were: Displacement: 378 tons. Speed: 11 1/2 knots. Crew: 30. Armament: 1 x 4-in, 3 x 20-mm, 2 x .303 mg; about 20 depth-charges

 

The ‘Mulberry Harbours’ was a WW2 civil engineering project of immense size and complexity. The floating harbours provided port facilities during the invasion of Normandy from June 1944 until French ports like Cherbourg were captured.

To carry the overall total of 40-50,000 men with their vehicles and equipment, an armada of over 4,000 landing ships, landing-craft, and barges of varying types was required; only about half of these were capable of crossing the Channel under their own power, the remainder having either to be towed or carried aboard the larger ships. When it is remembered that every man and every vehicle had -to be allotted to a specific ship or landing-craft, that every vehicle before embarkation had to be waterproofed, that men and vehicles had to arrive at the right time at the ‘hards’ (improvised landing places) at which their particular landing-craft was beached – the complications of planning and organisation can easily be imagined. Only when all this had been done, did the huge task of the Royal Navy in assembling, marshalling, and shepherding this heterogeneous collection of vessels across the Channel into paths swept through the enemy minefields, in landing them on the correct beaches, and providing the necessary fire support begin.

Apart from the non-combatant ships and landing-craft carrying men, vehicles, and stores, the US Navy and Royal Navy assembled for the escort and support of the operation a fleet of over 1,500 vessels, ranging from battleships to armed landing-craft. They were divided into two ‘task forces’, the Western Task Force from the US Navy supporting the US landing, and the Eastern Task Force, provided primarily by the Royal Navy, supporting the British/ Canadian landing. Each task force was further sub-divided into ‘forces’, one to each beach, responsible for escorting the assaulting force concerned, positioning it correctly, and providing fire support for the landing. The assault looked primarily to naval gunfire to silence the German coastal batteries and strongpoints.

The magnitude of the naval effort can be judged by the fact that the forces included seven battleships, 23 cruisers, 148 destroyers, as well as a swarm of smaller vessels -sloops, frigates, trawlers, corvettes, patrol craft and minesweepers. In addition, a fleet of 350 specially designed landing-craft carrying guns, rockets, anti-aircraft guns, and machine-guns was assembled for the close support of the actual assault.

The air effort in direct support of the assault was on a similar immense scale. It comprised the most modern types of aircraft available at the period, primarily the Spitfire, Mustang, Typhoon, Lightning, and Thunderbolt.

The exact timing of the assault proved a most complex problem which had its repercussions upon the dates on which the operation could be launched.

Although from the point of view of the assaulting troops there was much to be said for an assault in darkness, both the navies and air forces had to have daylight to carry out their bombardment tasks, and darkness would dangerously increase the likelihood of troops being landed in the wrong place. To assist navigation and for the airborne landings, moonlight was essential. Finally, the German underwater beach obstacles meant that landing must begin three to four hours before high tide. The only suitable periods for the operation therefore were those when there was four to five hours’ daylight between dawn and high tide and at the same time good moonlight was available. All these conditions could only be satisfied on approximately three days in each lunar month.

However powerful and successful the assault, it would clearly be valueless unless the forces ashore could be built up more rapidly than those of the enemy and properly maintained when there. This involved three problems: the planning, escorting, and routing of the follow-up convoys; ensuring that those convoys contained the right personnel, vehicles, and equipment arriving in the right order; and finally ensuring that they could be rapidly unloaded on arrival.

Fifteen personnel ships, 74 ocean-going merchant ships, and more than 200 coasters were loaded before D-Day and these were to form the first wave of the build-up; the requirement thereafter was for eight convoys a day. Once having got the assault force across, however, movement of these convoys was not likely to present any particular problem for the Allied navies.

The question of what they should contain after the initial preplanned flight was more difficult, and a special organisation known as ‘Build-Up Control'(BUCO) was set up in Southampton to ensure that what was shipped across the Channel was geared to the requirements of the battle.

The question of rapid unloading initially appeared the most difficult of all; it could clearly not be done across the beaches as a long-term measure and the likelihood of capturing port facilities intact appeared small, at any rate in the early stages. The problem was solved by perhaps the most famous devices of the entire operation-the artificial harbours known as ‘Mulberries’. They owed their existence primarily to the foresight of Churchill himself, who had directed their development as early as 1942, with his oft-quoted minute: ‘They must float up and down with the tide. . . . Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ They consisted of an outer breakwater formed partly of sunken blockships and partly of concrete ‘caissons’, 200 feet long, which had to be towed across the Channel; in the area of sheltered water so created were floating piers adapted to take coasters, landing ships or barges; unloading was further assisted by a fleet of amphibious lorries known as DUKWs. The success of the system may be judged by the fact that shortly after the assault, an average of 6,500 vehicles and nearly 40,000 tons of stores was being landed weekly.

The supply of motor and aircraft fuel presented a particular problem. Initially tankers were moored offshore and the fuel fed by buoyed pipeline into depots on land. Preparations were made, however, for an underwater pipeline direct from England to the French coast-PLUTO, or ‘Pipe-Line-Under-the-Ocean’-and eventually, though not in the early stages, fuel supply was in effect drawn direct from England.

The impression so far given may well be that this was an exclusively British/American/Canadian operation, but the contributions of the other Allies must not be forgotten. The French, for instance, provided two cruisers, one destroyer, one armoured division, and four squadrons of aircraft; the Belgians one brigade and two squadrons; the Dutch two gunboats, one brigade, and two squadrons; the Poles one cruiser, two destroyers, one armoured division, and nine squadrons; the Norwegians three destroyers and four squadrons; the Czechs three squadrons; the Australians five squadrons; and the New Zealanders five squadrons. Practically every occupied country of Europe was represented in one way or another.

Finally, it must not be forgotten that the invading forces could expect assistance from an ally inside France. In this context the French resisters deserve to be included in the catalogue of forces available to the Allies. SOE had been its best to organise and arm them and from early 1943 German demands for labour had assisted recruiting; by 1944 some 100,000 young men had taken to the ‘Maquis’. The vast majority of the resisters’ plans were, of course, geared to the great day when the Allies would land in France once more; in 1943 they had put forward a series of seven ambitious plans to deal with railways, road movement, telecommunications, ammunition dumps, oil fuel installations, headquarters, and railway turntables. By the beginning of 1944, however, many resistance networks had been broken up by the Gestapo and only the railway demolition plan appeared to be capable of any certain implementation. Nevertheless both numbers available and arms supplied were considerable: by May 1944 80,000 Sten-guns, 30,000 pistols, 17,000 rifles, and nearly 3,500 Bren-guns had been parachuted into France; overall there were probably some 100,000 men plus another 35- 40,000 in the Maquis who had a weapon of some sort.

To assist the Resistance and ensure that as far as possible its operations were co-ordinated with those of the Allies, SOE prepared a number of three-man teams (American/British/French) to be parachuted-in uniform -into areas where resistance was expected to flourish, so as to act as liaison between the resisters and the regular forces. In addition the British Special Air Service and the American Operational Groups were entrusted with various raiding and harassing operations for which it was hoped that they could obtain the assistance and support of the Resistance.

Finally, preparations had to be made to take over and run civil affairs in the liberated areas of France pending recognition of a French government. Here also assistance from the Resistance organisation was hoped for.

So the balance sheet of this immense operation shows the following staggering figures:

  • 50,000 men in the assault drawn from five divisions;
  • Over 2,000,000 men to be shipped to France overall, comprising’ a total of 39 divisions;
  • 138 major warships used in the assault, together with 221 smaller combat vessels (destroyer category and below);
  • Over 1,000 minesweepers and auxiliary vessels;
  • 4,000 landing ships or craft;
  • 805 merchant ships;
  • 59 blockships;
  • 300 miscellaneous small craft;
  • 11,000 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, transports, and gliders;
  • Over 100,000 partially armed men of the Resistance ready to lend such support as they could.

With such a weight of numbers and material it might well be thought that the assault would be practically irresistible, but two factors must be remembered: first, the hazards and extreme complexity of an amphibious operation of this magnitude, for which there was no precedent; all the most meticulous arrangements could be upset and the utmost confusion caused by some chance occurrence or unpredicted change in the weather: second, the great inherent superiority of the defence over the attack in an amphibious operation, especially against prepared coastal defences; however great the Allied superiority, there could be no certainty that the force would succeed even in securing a foothold. Surprise and deception were the essence of the operation-and complete surprise there could not be, for the Germans knew that the invasion was coming; all they did not know was when and where.

Finally, it was clear to both sides that this was the decisive operation of the war. If the landing succeeded, Germany must eventually be crushed sooner or later between the advancing forces of the Russians and the Allies. Should the landing fail, the Allies might well take years to recover from their losses in men, material, and morale; the peoples of Occupied Europe would give up hope and Germany would be left free to turn and square the account with the Russians.

The broad shoulders of General Eisenhower carried an immense burden.

‘X Lighters’

A number [100] of large purpose-built `X Lighters’ had been developed by the Navy in the First World War and these contributed to the landings at Suvla Bay in 1915.

Although something of a military sideshow, the campaign at Gallipoli also made a contribution to the acceptance of the internal combustion engine for marine use. Anticipating the need to land troops and equipment on beaches here and elsewhere, the British Admiralty ordered large numbers of small landing craft. To ensure a shallow draught, these X-lighters were fitted with lightweight motors, many being hot-bulb engines. After the war, these X-lighters were sold off and many were converted for commercial use, giving some British coastal shipowners their first experience of the motor vessel.

The search for a more suitable landing craft continued after the war and this requirement was consistently emphasised in exercise reports. In the 1920s an inter-service Landing Craft Committee was established to study the design and number of craft required to conduct a landing on a hostile shore. Their first attempt at a landing craft was the Motor Landing Craft (MLC(1)) completed in 1926. This craft was not a success and was followed in 1928 by the MLC(10). The MLC(10) was a flat-bottomed craft powered by a water jet. It could embark 100 troops or a 12-ton tank, discharging them directly onto the beach via a steep bow ramp. The water jet gave it a relatively slow speed of only 5 knots and the boat’s flat bottom and bow ramp made it rather unseaworthy, handicaps that are common in modern amphibious craft. By 1934 the MLC had been thoroughly tested in a series of exercises and the design proved satisfactory. Two more vessels were procured and these were joined by six more, ordered as a result of the 1936 Abyssinian crisis.

X-Lighters in WWI and at Gallipoli

X Lighters

Displacement 200 tons
 Dimensions  105ft 6″ x 21 x 7ft 6″
 Guns Unarmed (The crew may have had side arms for self-defence or covering fire on the beaches)
 Machinery  steam or diesel engines, speed 8 kts
 Crew  4
 Builders  various
 Laid Down  1915
 Completed  1915- 18

The Bombing of the Sir Galahad


The arrival of the new British brigade and its subsequent move up to the front led to the worst British setback of the war. A series of night transfers by sea caused two British ships – the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram — to be left exposed in daylight in an undefended inlet on the south coast of the Falklands on the morning of 7 June. The place was Port Pleasant, ‘Bahía Agradable’ to the Argentines. The persistent low cloud of the last few days had cleared, and it was a bright day of good visibility. The Sir Tristram was almost empty, but the newly arrived Sir Galahad was packed with troops, ammunition, fuel and vehicles. The arrangements for disembarking the troops and removing them from the danger of air attack failed, and most of them remained on board all through the morning.

The Sir Tristram had been observed from Argentine positions on Mount Harriet, 10 miles away, on the previous day, and now, on this morning, the second ship was also seen. The report reached the mainland, and a sizeable air effort was ordered. Eight Skyhawks and six Daggers of the 5th and 6th Fighter Groups were loaded with bombs and sent by a southerly route to attack the anchorage. A Learjet would lead in the attack flights and provide accurate navigation almost as far as the islands. Preceding the arrival of all these aircraft by a few minutes would be four Mirages of the 8th Fighter Group, which would be making their first appearance in the combat area since 1 May. They were to simulate a low-level attack along the north coast of the islands; but this was a decoy flight, and they were to turn away and return to base as soon as they attracted the attention of the Sea Harrier patrols. Vice-Admiral Lombardo mentions a further small element in the Argentine plans. He states that the Type 42 destroyer Santísima Trinidad was off the Argentine coast that day carrying out radio interference operations on the frequencies used by the British air controllers.

The Argentine aircraft took off in the late morning, but three Skyhawks – including both flight leaders – and a Dagger turned back because of various problems. The Mirage decoy flight was successful and temporarily attracted the attention of the Sea Harrier patrols. The five Daggers were the first of the attack aircraft to reach the islands, but their eastward flight to Port Pleasant was abandoned when one member of the flight spotted a solitary warship in Falkland Sound. The Daggers turned and made a very good attack on that ship – the frigate Plymouth — and hit it with four bombs. But once again none of these exploded, although the ship was damaged, and four of her crew were injured. Only one Dagger was slightly damaged by the ship’s defensive fire, and they all returned safely to the mainland.

This left five Skyhawks to carry on and look for the two landing ships at Port Pleasant. The Mirage decoy flight and then the Dagger attack on the Plymouth left no Sea Harrier patrols available to intercept this raid, and the two ships they were seeking were almost defenceless. The earlier turning back of the two flight leaders left First Lieutenant Cachón, flying only his third war mission, to lead the now combined flight of five Skyhawks. Cachón provides an account which shows how the Skyhawks nearly missed their targets by being told that the ships were in Port Fitzroy, which was just north of Port Pleasant. Cachón’s account starts with his taking over the leadership of the flight when his own leader had to turn back: 27

I became flight leader. I had never had that responsibility before but now, suddenly and by chance, I found myself in charge not only of one flight but of two. Before he left, the Captain told me: ‘Attack at one minute intervals, three aircraft ahead and two behind…. Take them to glory!’ A very simple request, wasn’t it? I felt a chill run up my spine but then I felt calmer, because the men who were following me were perfectly qualified for that kind of operation and the success of the mission depended on my command.

The succession of checkpoints forced me to concentrate on the flight. Over Cabo Belgrano [the southern tip of West Falkland] we went through a rainy area for a few seconds. Then we crossed over the southern part of Falkland Sound. The sea was full of gulls floating calmly. We passed another checkpoint at Aquila Island [Speedwell Island] and then met a second area of rain, but we flew on heading straight towards Fitzroy. It poured with rain again for thirty seconds; during that time you can cover a distance of around eight kilometres. I was about to return, because I was afraid that the rain would cover all the islands, but fortunately we managed to see a clearance behind the curtain of water, and this encouraged me to continue with the planned course. As we got nearer to the target I ordered the flight to accelerate to 900 kph and stay right down on the sea.

Forty seconds before the target we saw a Sea Lynx helicopter, so I hid behind a hill to avoid being detected. Twenty seconds later we found a Sea King on the ground; we performed the same manoeuvre and then reached Fitzroy Bay. There was nothing to be seen! I decided to fly on for another thirty seconds, but after that we turned right to start the return flight. Down on the ground we could see many British soldiers, who began shooting at us. A missile crossed behind our flight line from right to left at an angle of about 30 degrees. Just as we were completing the turn, ‘Diablo’ shouted: ‘There are the ships!’ Two grey silhouettes could be seen near the coast. I straightened up and banked to the left. Here we go again!

I released my bombs, which scored direct hits on the Sir Galahad. Number Two’s bombs went long but luckily they hit a vehicle, overturned it and then they exploded. Ensign Carmona also hit the target. The section coming behind us saw that the ship had been hit so they attacked the Sir Tristram; ‘Chango’ and ‘Diablo’ did not waste their bombs. There was a long pipe on the deck where many life-jackets were tidily placed. Little men – little when seen from the distance – ran towards them, took one each and, one after the other, jumped into the cold sea.

I escaped by hugging the water. I checked to see if we were all there. We were. We looked at each other’s damage; the ‘Chango’ and the ‘Diablo’ had been hit but not seriously. The enemy had been greatly hurt that day, and I had carried out what my flight leader had asked me to do: ‘Take them to glory.’

Cachón and the other four pilots had made one of the best-executed Argentine air attacks of the war. The small amount of defensive fire had enabled them to come in at sufficient height to allow most of their bombs enough time in flight to become live, and the pilots’ aim had been good. The three bombs which struck the Sir Galahad exploded and started a fierce fire. Forty-eight men died here, and the ship was completely gutted. One of the two bombs which hit the Sir Tristram exploded, causing less serious damage and killing two Hong Kong Chinese seamen. This was all a considerable setback to the British preparations for the attack on Stanley and was a clear success for the Argentines.

When the Skyhawks returned to their base and reported the success, it was decided to send out two more formations of four Skyhawks to continue the attacks in an attempt to add to the damage already caused to the British. Four aircraft of the 4th Fighter Group made the first attack, roaring in over the British units deployed around Fitzroy. But this area was well defended, and the units there greeted the Skyhawks with a hail of fire from every type of infantry weapon and from Rapier missile launchers. This attack caused no casualties to the British troops. The four Argentine aircraft were all damaged, and, if the Sir Galahad attack was one of the best Argentine air attacks of the war, this was one of the most fortunate for the Argentines because the damaged planes only managed to return to San Julián by the narrowest of margins.

The last Argentine air operation of that memorable day scored a minor success but then ran out of luck. Four Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group found a lone British landing craft in the Choiseul Sound. The first two Skyhawks attacked, and a bomb and some cannon fire all but destroyed the small craft, killing six of the men on board. But a pair of Sea Harriers saw the attack and swiftly disposed of three of the four Skyhawks, a Sidewinder missile causing the first one to explode in a fireball, another Sidewinder cutting the second aircraft in half and the third aircraft crashing into the shore, its pilot trying to outrun and evade the Sidewinder chasing it. All three pilots were killed. The very shaken fourth pilot only just made it to a Hercules tanker which helped him home. Some Mirages flying as escort at 35,000 feet were unable to intervene in the action.

The Argentine troops on Mount Harriet observed the attack on the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram and saw the smoke from the Galahad’s fierce fire. News of the serious British casualties also reached Stanley, and some consideration was given to moving out a force of troops and attempting an attack on the British in the Fitzroy area while they were still unbalanced and recovering from the aftereffects of the blow. But to make such an attack would have meant leaving the artillery cover of the prepared defences and moving into an area under direct observation by the British, with all the response from British artillery and air attack which that would entail. It was decided not to make any move.

San Carlos Waters I


The air units on the mainland had been standing by for action for many days, conserving their strength since the false start on 1 May and absorbing the lessons learnt on that day. Some changes in policy had been made, and the full strength of the units available would not be committed in this new phase. The Canberras of the 2nd Bomber Group were now considered to be too vulnerable in daylight operations and were kept back for night work. The 8th Fighter Group, which only had eight Mirages left after the combats with Sea Harriers on 1 May, would also be kept back to defend the mainland air bases; their all-weather capability would enable them to intercept British air raids if these were mounted against mainland targets.

These changes left the Argentine Air Force with an estimated 62 available strike aircraft — 39 Skyhawks of the 4th and 5th Fighter Groups and 23 Daggers of the 6th Fighter Group. A small reinforcement of eight Skyhawks had arrived at Rio Grande in the form of the 3rd Naval Fighter and Attack Squadron, which had been disembarked from the aircraft-carrier Veinticinco de Mayo now that the Argentine fleet was confined to coastal waters. The pilots of this unit were well trained in ship-attack tactics. The Super Étendard unit at Rio Grande still had three Exocets remaining but this unit was only suitable for open sea work and it would not be used in the coming offensive against the landing area. The Argentine pilots destined for that battle would have to operate under most unfavourable conditions. They would have to carry out low-level bomb and cannon attacks, which would have to be pressed right home to be effective. They would have to operate over the sea, at maximum range from their own bases, without fighter escort and having to run the gauntlet of the Sea Harriers, which had already proved their effectiveness in combat, as well as the mass of missiles and gunfire put up by the British ships and ground forces. It would be a daunting task.

The attacks carried out by those Argentine pilots during the San Carlos landing period have been subjected to intense analysis – though not always with conclusive results — and have been described in detail several times. I do not intend to republish yet another step-by-step account but will confine my contribution to giving an overall view and providing personal accounts from some of the Argentine pilots who survived. In doing this, I would like to acknowledge the hard work done by specialist aviation writers on whose work I have drawn.

The main air attacks were spread over a period lasting nearly five hours, from about 10.30 a.m. until nearly 3.30 p.m. There were three distinct waves, each containing between fourteen and seventeen aircraft. The first wave consisted of eight Daggers from the 6th Fighter Group flying from San Julián and Rio Grande and six Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group from Rio Gallegos. A personal account from this phase is available from First Lieutenant Filippini, who was leading a combined Skyhawk flight of five aircraft after his fellow flight leader had to turn back with technical trouble. Filippini describes his attack on the frigate Argonaut in the northern entrance to Falkland Sound, just under Fanning Head:

When the Falkland Sound was in sight, one of my wingmen shouted over the radio: ‘To the right!’ It sounded like an order to me, so I banked and caught sight of a frigate. The ship detected us at the same time and headed rapidly towards a high cliff, looking for shelter, hoping to force us to climb to avoid crashing into the headland. Then we began to attract their anti-aircraft fire, which we could distinguish as a curtain of small red light beams formed by their tracer ammunition. The quiet island soon became hell. As we got nearer we could see this fire in the air in front of us and then passing over our cockpits, so we were forced to descend even lower to get into their blind cannon area, where we aimed to drop our bombs a little before reaching the target.

We concentrated on aiming. The ship, protected by the cliff 200 metres high, was in my sight, so I dropped one of the bombs which would cause its destruction. I felt like destroying the enemy, thinking of my comrades shot down by them on 12 May. I pulled my control stick backwards in a climbing turn, trying to pull over the headland. I felt a violent blow under my plane; an auxiliary fuel tank hanging under one of the wings had crashed against the mast of the frigate. Then I dived to escape by staying as close to the ground as possible and eventually I took refuge behind some hills. We reached the sea and then headed to our base at low altitude. As we flew past the northern mouth of the Sound, we could see the frigate we had attacked. A dense column of black smoke was coming out of its side; our bombs had hit it, and we saw the colour of the ship’s structure starting to change from light grey to reddish brown.

Very excited at this victory over our enemies, we broke radio silence with joyful shouts. Once the euphoria was over, I checked my wingmen apprehensively to make sure they were all there and safe. That was the happiest moment after the attack; thank God, the five planes which had entered the target area were all present.

Two bombs had hit Argonaut, but neither exploded because the Skyhawks were flying too low and this did not give the bomb fuses time to arm themselves after leaving the aircraft. But one of the bombs set off an explosion in the Sea Cat magazine, and it was the smoke from this which Filippini saw as he passed the entrance to Falkland Sound after the attack. Two seamen were killed in the ship.

The Daggers operating at this time caused cannon-fire damage to various ships and also put a bomb into the destroyer Antrim; but this bomb did not explode, and one Dagger was shot down, probably by a Sea Wolf fired by HMS Broadsword. Its pilot was killed.

The next wave of attacks came in two and a half hours later. Fourteen Skyhawks from three units were dispatched, but the six naval Skyhawks flying from Rio Grande met difficult weather conditions, had their orders altered in mid-flight and were forced to turn back before reaching the islands. One of the other formations also suffered two early returns, leaving just four aircraft of the 4th Fighter Group and two of the 5th Fighter Group to carry on. The attacks were not successful. Sea Harriers caught the 4th Fighter Group flight, shooting down two Skyhawks and damaging a third and preventing any of these aircraft from reaching the landing area. The two shot-down pilots were both killed. The pair of Skyhawks of the 5th Fighter Group, led by Captain Pablo Carballo, flew up Falkland Sound from the south-west and observed what they believed to be one of the British landing ships. Carballo’s wingman dropped his bombs on the ship, but Carballo held his back at the last moment because he thought something was wrong. He was correct; this was the abandoned Argentine ship Rio Carcaraña. Carballo then pressed on alone towards the landing area and finally encountered the Ardent, which was still in its solitary bombardment position north of Goose Green. Carballo describes his attack:

The effect produced by the compression of the air between my plane and the sea caused a constant beating on the bottom of the plane when flying so low, almost skimming the waves. It was much the same as the vibration one feels when driving a car over a cattle grid or a level crossing. In those endless two or three minutes leading up to the attack, I heard something on the radio that froze my blood. It sounded like the breathing of a person in agony, and I wondered how this mournful breathing could have entered my VHF until I suddenly realized that it was my own breathing. I looked at my chest, expecting to see it heaving up and down, but it looked quite normal.

Soon I entered a quiet area where I was no longer being fired at and I concentrated on the gunsight. When I saw the huge steel structure of the ship filling the sight, I pressed the trigger and felt the plane climb a few metres when the bomb released. I was kind of stupefied and dizzy, and this could have cost me my life. Suddenly, right in front of me, I saw the two pillars of the pointed masts against which I was about to crash. Instinctively hitting my control stick, I banked the plane and dived in between them, seeing one of them flash past my cockpit. Then I recovered my balance and started a slight turn left, mentally counting the seconds for the bomb to explode. When time was up and nothing happened, just as I was saying ‘I have failed’, I saw a dark cloud of smoke rising up to the height of the masts of the ship and pieces falling into the sea. I can’t really say for sure whether the smoke was caused by an explosion or by the launching of a missile, but I believe that kind of frigate doesn’t carry missiles.

I began to shout happily and levelled off. I had a very unpleasant surprise when I met another frigate, but it didn’t open fire. Only God knows why.

Then I made for the ‘sun route’ as we called it in our squadron, leaving the islands behind, heading west, with the tremendous satisfaction of being able to say we had fulfilled our duty and were still alive. I felt really well; I had fought against a fearful enemy with my veteran plane under the protection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. On landing, I was surprised to meet my supreme chief, Brigadier-General Lami Dozo, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, who had come to the south to see how we were doing. I remember he told me that we had to grit our teeth, as there was still a long way to go. How right he was!

Pablo Carballo had made a brave, solo attack but he was not successful. The evidence from Ardent is quite clear that his bomb fell into the sea alongside the ship. The second round of attacks thus ended with only this one Skyhawk reaching the British ships out of fourteen aircraft dispatched and at a cost of two Argentine aircraft lost.

The final burst of action, starting one and a half hours later, was the most effective of the day. Seventeen aircraft burst through to the landing area between 2.30 and 3.15 p.m. and in the savage action which followed, both sides suffered severely. Eleven Daggers and six naval Skyhawks had taken off, and all but one reached the landing area, flying in small tactical groups of three or two aircraft. Captain Robles was leading one of the Dagger pairs. Passing over West Falkland, he was unaware that his wingman was shot down by a Sea Harrier; he thought that the pilot — First Lieutenant Luna – had flown into a hill. Robles now joined another pair of Daggers and soon sighted the still solitary Ardent:

We carried on, swallowing our sadness at ‘Negro’ Luna’s accident. On the other side of Falkland Sound, over Grantham Sound, we saw a frigate close to the coast. As we started the attack we thought: ‘This will be for Luna.’ They started firing at us as we skimmed over the water. Captain Mir González bravely flew straight towards the masts of the ship, a path forming in front of his plane from his cannon shells. His bomb struck ten metres short, and up flew a mass of water which practically covered the ship; the bomb then bounced off the water and I believe it entered the hull.

Then Lieutenant Bernhardt dropped his bomb, which hit the upper and front part of the ship. When I was within range I dropped my bomb and, while passing over the ship, I saw a large piece of the rectangular antenna (which had been constantly rotating when we started the attack) go past my cockpit, whirling in the air. A missile aimed at one of the other planes went past on my right. I shouted at him to make an abrupt turn; he did so, very near me, and disappeared in the sky. As we were leaving, banking away to the right, the frigate was enveloped in an enormous cloud of smoke. That burning ship was worth far more than the plane and pilot we had lost. We didn’t know if Lieutenant Luna was alive, but I’m sure he would have exchanged his life for the success of our mission.

One of the bombs – the one dropped by Lieutenant Bernhardt — had struck the stern of the ship, not the forepart; the ‘rotating antenna’ blown into the air which Captain Robles nearly hit was probably Ardent’s Sea Cat launcher, which was blown into the air by Bernhardt’s bomb.

The six other Daggers in action at this time suffered contrasting fortunes. One flight of three aircraft attacked various British ships, though without inflicting serious damage, and returned safely to their base. But the final formation of three Daggers was wiped out, all shot down by Sea Harriers, though all three pilots ejected and survived.

The very last attacks of the day were carried out by six naval Skyhawk pilots, flying in two formations of three aircraft. Both formations flew up Falkland Sound from the south; both were ordered to attack the solitary British ship reported north of Goose Green – Ardent again, though that damaged ship was now nearing the protection of the main group of British ships further up Falkland Sound. Lieutenant-Commander Alberto Philippi was leading the first flight:

Our primary duty was to get that picket ship; if we could hit that, it would enable other aircraft to come in and attack the landing area. Our navigation was good, and we came in and made a good landfall. We descended from 27,000 feet down to 100 feet, closing up the formation because the weather was deteriorating, with low cloud and rain; the ceiling was 500 feet, and visibility was one mile. That was very dangerous for us, because if there was a picket ship at the southern end of Falkland Sound it would have picked us up by radar at fifteen to twenty miles’ range and launch missiles at five miles. Those missiles would have been in the air for four miles before we could see them. We had no radar; the Skyhawk was a very simple, old aircraft.

There was supposed to be one of our Tracker reconnaissance aircraft in the area. We were supposed to call him, and he should have told us where the ship was and directed us in. I called him twice but got no reply. The Tracker pilot told me afterwards that he was there but he couldn’t make contact. We went up the eastern side of the Sound – over lots of islands and bays. We ran into some clearer weather, and both myself and Lieutenant Area saw two masts behind some rocks about eighteen kilometres ahead.

I told the flight to commence the attack, but the ship started to move, quite fast, from behind the rocks; I assume that he was getting away from the coast to gain sea room and be able to manoeuvre at speed. This move meant that we lost the chance to be covered by the rocks in our approach. So I swung right in order to follow the coast, hoping that his radar would lose me in the echoes of the land behind us. If I had been on a freelance mission I could have jumped over that narrow neck of land and attacked the large ships in San Carlos Water, but I had been ordered to go for that picket ship, and we carried on. I could see that it was a Type 21.

We turned and, by the time we were ready to attack, we were in a good position because he was crossing in front of us and I could come in from his port quarter. I dropped my four 500-lb bombs – Mark 82 Snakeyes, each with metal plates to retard them. My number Three shouted out: ‘Bien, señor!’ — ‘Well done, sir!’ Then, a little later, he said: ‘Otra en la popa’ – ‘Another hit on the stern’; that told me that another bomb had hit, one of Area’s. We could not tell whether Márquez was successful; there was no one behind to report his attack.

The second naval Skyhawk flight was led by Lieutenant Benito Rotolo:

Our orders to get the picket ship were changed during the flight, and we were told to go for San Carlos Water; a Tracker aircraft had said that there was no ship in the south end of the Sound now. We went on in radio silence, listening to the conversations in Philippi’s flight; we were very interested in what they were saying about the islands, seeing them for the first time. We were still at high level; we couldn’t hear it all but we could follow their route. I heard them saying they had found a ship and were attacking. Then I heard them talking about Sea Harrier action. I heard Philippi say: ‘I’m OK. I am ejecting.’

Then we made our descent and started our approach. After hearing about the Sea Harriers, I went further inland over East Falkland to get among more hilly ground, intending to go over the Sussex Mountains into the anchorage at San Carlos. But I found that I was having to cross an open bay and was too far to the west. I couldn’t go to my right now, because of our air defences at Goose Green, so I broke radio silence and told my wingmen to be prepared to attack the first ship we met. They acknowledged.

Then we saw two or three ships and prepared to attack. I banked left to approach one of them from the starboard side. The two wingmen checked that they could also see it; it was about four miles away and it seemed to me that it was a Type 21; the other pilots say the same. It opened fire with its guns; I didn’t see any missiles. Its fire was opened very early; I saw the shots falling in the water in front of me. It also increased speed. So I used the tactics we had practised with our Type 42s — continually banking during the final stages of the attack. I was not hit. Then I climbed up to 250 feet and dropped my bombs. As I passed over the ship, I saw men running on the deck; others were firing with machine-guns lashed to the ship, not part of its proper equipment.

I went down fast – 250 feet was very high for that day; you feel very exposed. Our plan was to escape south down Falkland Sound, but I saw a County Class ship right in front of me, shooting off everything he had. We came upon it suddenly when we broke out into a clear patch, and it was all lit up by the sun. I veered sharply away to the right, then had to climb hard to get over the hills in the west island. I alerted the others, and fortunately they understood my short message and were able to turn away as well. So we all escaped, flying low level through the mountains all the way across the island. It was bad weather, but it was good to get away from the ships and all that fire. We were lucky.

Rotolo and his wingmen all returned safely, though the wingmen’s aircraft were both damaged by the blast of bomb explosions. These pilots had at least, like well-trained naval pilots, attacked from sufficient altitude to enable their bombs to explode, even if they had not allowed the recommended twenty-seconds interval between aircraft in order to escape the bomb blast damage to their aircraft.

One aspect of many of the accounts by Argentine pilots is a desire to be associated with attacks on the Ardent, the only ship to sink on that day. There was also an element of inter-service rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy to secure the credit for the sinking. The attack of Rotolo’s flight was squeezed out in the crush of these claims. Some accounts say that he attacked before Philippi and that his bombs all missed or that he attacked another ship, not Ardent. But Rotolo’s evidence is quite clear. He heard Philippi’s flight attacking on the radio and then being intercepted by Sea Harriers. He identified his target as a Type 21 frigate; Ardent was the only such ship in the landing area that day. He describes his attack as coming in from the ship’s starboard side. The captain of the Ardent described one attack from astern (I believe Philippi’s) which scored two hits and then a final attack being made by three light-coloured Skyhawks coming in one after the other from the starboard side, with bombs from the first and second of these aircraft scoring direct hits. I believe that Rotolo’s flight scored these final hits on Ardent and sealed the fate of the ship, which was soon abandoned and sank that night.

But these last successful attacks by the naval pilots were not achieved without serious loss. Rotolo’s flight returned safely to the mainland, but Philippi’s were all lost. That made seven aircraft destroyed out of the sixteen which reached the operational area in that final phase of the day’s action. One of Philippi’s flight – Sub-Lieutenant Marcelo Márquez — was killed when his Skyhawk was shot down by a Sea Harrier. A second aircraft, that of Lieutenant José Area, came to a bizarre end. After being damaged by a Sea Harrier it was still flyable but would not be able to reach the mainland. Area flew to Stanley and reported his difficulty. Major Iannariello, an air force officer there, describes what happened:

A Skyhawk approached the base with some damage to the hydraulic system which feeds such things as the controls, the landing gear, the flaps and the hook, and its fuselage was riddled with holes. We analysed the damage and decided that it would be too dangerous for him to land; the plane would break up and the pilot be killed. So we ordered him to eject over the sea and not on the land where there might be some minefields. We saw him go out, tumbling around in the air like a little puppet until his parachute opened.

To our surprise, the plane seemed to become alive and ready to play a nasty joke on us. For some moments it flew towards the pilot, as if to crash into him, then towards the town, then to the airfield in a lively and playful flight. It looked as if it were happy to be free from its master. Considering the damage it might cause, we ordered our guns to destroy it, but surprisingly enough and in spite of the aim of our gunners, it went on flying without being touched, as if the shells refused to hit a friendly plane. Finally it landed by itself on the beach and was smashed against the rocks with all the dignity of an A-4 Skyhawk. Its pilot was rescued.

Lieutenant-Commander Philippi describes what happened to him:

We tried to escape by flying back down Falkland Sound, weaving a little, hoping to avoid any missiles fired at us from behind, knowing that there were no English ships in front of us. Then, maybe one or two minutes later, I started to relax, engine still at full throttle, thinking that we were clear, when I heard Márquez shouting: ‘Harrier! Harrier!’

My first reaction was to order tanks and bomb racks to be jettisoned and to start evasive action at high G, trying to see where they were. While doing that, while only in the second or third turn, I felt a violent explosion in the tail. The whole plane shuddered and started to climb. I pushed on the stick with both hands but could not get the nose down; there was no response. I looked around, and the Harrier appeared on my right side about 150 to 200 metres away; I think he was coming in for the kill. So I told my wingmen that I was hit, but I was OK and must eject. I tried to shut down the engine, but it did not respond. I opened the air-brakes, but they did not work. I pulled the ejection handle between my legs with my left hand; I didn’t use my right hand to pull the hood release because, as aircraft-carrier pilots, we always keep lateral control; that is why I kept my right hand on the stick. If you lose the stick, the plane may start to turn, and if you eject when banking you go straight into the sea when you are low – so a naval pilot never leaves go of the stick. There was a huge explosion, and I was thrown out at 500 knots. I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes I was falling near the edge of Falkland Sound, quite close to where the abandoned Rio Carcaraña was. I saw a splash – either my own or Márquez’s aircraft going in. I swam the 200 metres to land but was so tired that I could only crawl up the beach.

I was out there for four days, the first night in the open, the second and third in a building called Congo House. On the fourth day I was walking to Wreck House when I saw some men working near the coast. They had a Land-Rover. I thought they were Argentine troops and I signalled with a mirror, but it was Mr Tony Blake from North Arm Settlement. He was very polite, introduced himself and gave me my first food – sandwiches, cakes and chocolate. We went to North Arm, where I met the family and had a bath. He was a very nice person, one hundred per cent. We informed Puerto Argentino next day, and I was taken by helicopter to Goose Green.

The last personal account of this day’s action comes from First Lieutenant Luna, the Dagger pilot whose friends thought he had flown into a hill. But Luna had been shot down by a Sea Harrier when the flight of four aircraft flew in single file through a valley when forced down by low cloud. Luna was in the last aircraft:

On entering the valley, I saw a shadow passing over me to my left. Almost simultaneously there was a flash in the mirrors and the impact of a missile on my plane; it became uncontrollable. I tried to gain altitude, but the plane was nose down and inverted. I thought I was going to die. Releasing the stick, I desperately searched for the upper ejection handle. That is when I found that I was right side upward again, because the ejection was normal. I heard the explosion, felt a jerk, and the parachute opened almost at the same time as I hit the ground. I broke a bone in my shoulder and dislocated an arm and a knee.

It was getting dark, and I knew I wouldn’t be found just yet, so I fixed my knee and gathered together all the means of survival. After inflating the dinghy, I dragged it towards me with the aid of its retaining rope, got myself inside it and prepared a bed with part of my equipment and the parachute. Then I drank a litre of water from a plastic container and swallowed seven analgesic pills one by one to soothe the terrible pain I was in. During that terrible night, half awake, I heard the noise of an engine so I fired a flare, but this brought no response. Clenching my teeth, for it was really cold, I fell asleep until about nine the following morning.

When I woke up I found myself in a valley surrounded by mountains, about 20 kilometres west of Port Howard. I looked for useful pieces of my plane and with the aid of my knife turned them into a metal splint for my leg; I must have looked like a modern pirate. Putting all the useful things into the dinghy, which I dragged with a rope, I set off. I can only imagine my odd appearance with my metal leg and my load behind. By 12.30 I could drag the dinghy no further so I abandoned it. I kept on walking, with great difficulty because of my leg, following the direction of the noise I had heard during the night. About 15.15 I came across a man and a woman in a Land-Rover followed by three more people riding motor cycles. I signalled to them desperately, but they continued on their way without a word, leaving me alone. My leg hurt terribly, and my shoulder was numb. Hobbling along with my metal leg, I followed the vehicle tracks. It became more and more difficult, but coming round a hill I came across a house with the vehicles parked in front of it. The people watched my approach. I thought they might kill me or hand me over to the enemy, yet I was aware that I would not be able to get anywhere in the wretched condition I was in. They came to me in the Land-Rover when I was about 400 metres from the house. At first they were unwilling to help me; one of them in particular objected vehemently.

I realized they were anxiously looking at my survival equipment, so I gave them my knife, the flight gloves and the torch. This obviously had a calming effect on them, and they agreed to carry me to the house of a man with a radio. This man turned out to be a true ‘English gentleman’; he looked after me and said he would help me to get back to my people. We contacted Puerto Argentino. After this he provided me with pain-killing tablets every three hours for two days until our people came to get me.

So ended the 21 May air attacks. The number of aircraft dispatched from the mainland totalled 45 — 26 Skyhawks and 19 Daggers ; 36 of these reached the Falklands and 26 carried out attacks on British ships. The Ardent was sinking; Antrim and Argonaut were temporarily out of action with unexploded bombs inside them; Brilliant and Broadsword had been damaged by cannon fire. Thirty-two British sailors were dead and more than twenty others were injured. The Argentine pilots had pressed home their attacks with great courage, but two important mistakes had been made. The emphasis on attacking the warships in Falkland Sound allowed the landing ships in San Carlos Water to carry on discharging troops, guns and stores in relative safety at a time when the ground missile defences were not yet established. The importance of this error cannot be overemphasized; the Argentine pilots would never again find the transport ships in San Carlos Water so vulnerable to air attack. The second mistake was that most of the air force pilots flew too low, with the result that their bombs did not explode. This is only a muted comment because attacks at altitudes any higher than the ‘on the deck’ approaches made by so many Argentine pilots would have brought them a higher casualty rate – but more success. The cost had been grievous enough. Ten Argentine aircraft – five Daggers and five Skyhawks – failed to return to the mainland, all but one shot down or hit by Sea Harriers; this was more than a quarter of the Argentine aircraft which reached the scene of action.