SURPRISE WAS IMPOSSIBLE in the bitterly contested Gavutu-Tanambogo landings as depicted in this overprint. The photograph itself was taken by Japanese aircraft early in 1942 prior to enemy seizure of the Tulagi-Guadalcanal area.
Landings on and fighting across Tulagi.
Landings on Gavutu and Tanambogo.
The amphibious assault on Guadalcanal and Tulagi was the first U. S. ground offensive of World War II. Designated Operation Watchtower, the hastily thrown together plan called for the 1st Marine Division, about 19,000 men, supported by American and Australian warships and transport vessels, 82 ships of all types, to make the seaborne assault. The Allied armada assembled near Fiji on July 26. A poorly planned and executed rehearsal, Operation Dovetail, was held on Koro Island in the Fijis, after which the fleet sailed for its objectives on the 31st.
As the Allied fleet neared Guadalcanal, it split: the Guadalcanal Group, made up of Combat Group A composed of the 1st and 5th Marine Regiments, the divisional artillery, and support units (11,300 men), under 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, headed for Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. The Northern Group, built around four Marine infantry rifle battalions (2,400 troops), led by assistant division commander Brig. Gen. William H. Rupertus, steered for Tulagi, Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.
At 9:10 AM, August 7, 1942, the first wave of Marines of Combat Group A scrambled ashore on Guadalcanal between Koli Point and Lunga Point, quickly establishing a 2,000-yard-long, 600-yard-deep beachhead. Their surprise arrival met no organized Japanese ground resistance. Approximately 2,500 laborers, mostly Korean, of the 11th and 13th Construction Unit along with the few dozen regular Japanese soldiers melted into the island’s hinterland as the Americans came ashore. The only threats to the leathernecks that day came from a number of mostly ineffective Japanese air raids launched from Rabaul. By nightfall the Americans had carved out a mile-deep toehold on Guadalcanal. They halted for the night about 1,000 yards from the unfinished Japanese airfield near Lunga Point. The next day, August 8, the Marines, meeting only sporadic enemy resistance, advanced to the Lunga River and at 4 PM captured the airdrome.
The main Marine force that came ashore on Guadalcanal encountered more difficulty with the island’s foreboding jungle terrain, oppressively hot weather, and the confusion the inexperienced Americans had with offloading men and supplies than it did with the Japanese. It was a different and deadly story for General Rupertus’s command, which hit the beaches at Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo that same day.
At 6:52 AM on the morning of August 7, 1942, Japanese troops on Tulagi began to send a flood of radio transmissions in the clear reporting 20 enemy ships shelling the island accompanied by air attacks and seaborne forces. At 8:05 AM, Tulagi signaled that the island’s defenders were destroying their papers and equipment and signed off with the message, “Enemy troop strength is overwhelming. We pray for enduring fortunes of war,” and pledged to fight “to the last man.”
The Japanese garrison on Tulagi consisted of a 350-man detachment of the 3rd Kure SNLF under Commander Masaaki Suzuki, 536 naval members of the Yokohama Air Group, and some Japanese and Korean civilians from the 14th Construction Unit. About 900 soldiers under the supervision of Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki, commander of the seaplane-equipped Yokohama Air Group, were in residence on Gavutu and Tanambogo. Making good on their promise, the Japanese on Tulagi did fight almost to the last man while exacting a heavy price on their American opponents.
The Marines assaulting Tulagi were carried to their objective by Transport Group Yoke, consisting of three troop transports, four Navy transport-destroyers, and one cargo ship. The landing force was made up of the 1st Raider Battalion; 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment; and 1st Parachute Battalion. These were the best trained units in the division and expected a tough fight. That assumption, which proved to be spot on, was based on prebattle intelligence assessments that Tulagi and the other islands were held by several hundred elite Japanese SNLF personnel of proven fighting ability who were well dug in.
Preinvasion aerial reconnaissance revealed that the strongest defenses on Tulagi fronted the northeast and southeast shorelines. Therefore, the Marines selected a 500-yard stretch of beach (named Beach Blue) midway on the southwest side of the island for the landing. The invasion plan called for elements of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines to secure flanking positions on Florida Island followed by the 1st Raiders and then the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines going ashore on Tulagi. The idea was to make the first American amphibious assault of the war against natural obstacles instead of enemy firepower.
Four hours after American troops hit the beach on Tulagi, the parachutists were to have gained control of Gavutu and Tanambogo. Lt. Col. Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, chief of the Raider Battalion, offered to make a reconnaissance of the objectives on Tulagi prior to the operation, but the idea was rejected since it might alert the Japanese to the impending landing. As a result, the Marines would be landing with little concrete information on Japanese dispositions and strength.
At 7:40 AM, Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, under Captain Edward J. Crane, made an unopposed landing near Haleta on Florida Island guided by three Australians, all former colonial officials who were familiar with the area. The rest of Company B’s parent unit, led by Lt. Col. Robert E. Hill, waded ashore on Florida’s Halavo peninsula east of Gavutu and Tanambogo. Both parties secured the high ground overlooking Blue Beach on Tulagi, and neither encountered any opposing forces.
At 8 AM, Edson’s 1st Raider Battalion grounded on an undetected coral reef 100 yards from Tulagi’s shoreline, forcing them to wade that distance to reach the beach. No enemy resistance was met at first since the Japanese garrison on the island believed that the naval bombardment and air attacks only signaled a hit-and-run raid and took shelter in caves. A solid defense was not mounted until later on the afternoon of the 7th.
In the meantime, the battalion’s leading companies pushed across the island and crested its spine. Company B then wheeled to the right while Company D moved right of Company B. Company A soon tied in with Company B, while Company C extended the entire Marine line to the island’s southwest shore. At around noon the Raiders swept down the island to their preinvasion designated Phase Line A, where Company C met the first enemy resistance from the Japanese outpost line.
Brief firefights eliminated these pockets of resistance, but not before the death of a Marine doctor and the wounding of Company C’s commander, Major Kenneth D. Bailey. Meanwhile, at 9:16 AM, Lt. Col. Harold E. Rosecrans’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines landed at Blue Beach, relieving Edson’s Company E, which was guarding the landing zone. The newly arrived 5th Marines then combed the northwest end of the island but found no Japanese.
Close to dusk, as the Raiders attempted to move beyond Phase Line A, Company C ran into heavy Japanese machine-gun fire near Hill 208. Commander Suzuki had formed his forward tripwire line on the hill’s steep slopes, which ran down to a ravine on its western edge. Farther to the east, he had set up his main line of resistance running from Hill 281 on the northeast coast of Tulagi through flat land that had been used as a cricket field in peaceful times to the southeast tip of the island.
Cunningly constructed dugouts and tunnels carved into the hill’s limestone cliffs and covered by machine-gun pits protected by sandbags made up this strong and well-concealed Japanese defensive position. The Japanese subsequently employed tactics that became hallmarks of their savage defense of Pacific island strongholds, including ambushes, the plentiful use of snipers, savage nocturnal counterattacks, and stealthy infiltration of American lines by small groups of Japanese soldiers.
During the afternoon and evening, Marines rooted out stubborn Japanese defenders with small arms and hand grenades. The Americans at this point in the war did not possess flamethrowers or purpose-built explosive devices, so they had to improvise, and that took time and cost lives. After disposing of the enemy’s forward defense line, Companies C and A moved a little farther to the east. The gathering darkness precluded a Marine attempt to clear the apparently strong and unidentified enemy positions of the main defensive line, so the Raiders dug in for the night.
About 10 PM , the Japanese mounted a fierce counterattack, driving a wedge between Company C and Company A, almost isolating the former from the rest of the battalion. Savage assaults against Company A’s exposed flank were were fended off. A second banzai attack, which might have successfully exploited the initial thrust, fell on the front of Company A and was bloodily repulsed.
The Japanese reverted to using infiltration tactics. Throughout the remainder of the night they slipped individuals and small groups into the rear of the American lines. They attacked the aid station and the command post of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines on Blue Beach. In addition, during the early hours of the 8th, Japanese infiltrators made five separate attacks on and near Raider battalion headquarters at the governor’s residence. The attackers were wiped out in hand to hand fighting. During the desperate fighting near the battalion command post, Colonel Edson tried to summon reinforcements, but his radio communications were out.
Later that morning, reinforced by Company’s E and F, 5th Marines, which landed on the north shore above Hill 281, and by 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which reinforced the main U. S. line moving east along Tulagi, the leathernecks surrounded Hill 281 and the ravine sheltering their foe. After delivering lengthy barrages of 60mm and 81mm mortar fire, they used improvised TNT explosive devices to eliminate the numerous Japanese positions. By 3 PM, the tenacious and often suicidal Japanese resistance on Tulagi was broken. The battle had cost the Marines 45 dead and 76 wounded. The Japanese suffered 347 killed and just three captured. Japanese prisoners reported that about 40 to 70 Japanese soldiers had escaped Tulagi by swimming to Florida Island. Over the next two months, they were hunted down by Marines and native patrols.
French troops wade through water during an amphibious landing. Official caption on front: “MM-44-1431.” Official caption on reverse: “Sig Corps photo-17-6-44. Elba invaded! French troops wading ashore from landing craft in the invasion of the tiny island of Elba. White smoke billowing from stern of ship caused by smoke pot.” Elba, Italy. 17 June 1944
On 18 November Auchinleck’s troops in North Africa, now designated the Eighth Army, commenced Operation Crusader, designed not only to relieve Tobruk but also to smash the Axis forces in Cyrenaica. During its advance, the Eighth Army, commanded in the early stages of the operation by Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham, the admiral’s younger brother, and later by Major-General Neil Ritchie, bypassed the fortified frontier zone of Sollum-Halfaya Pass-Bardia, and advanced on Tobruk along two separate axes; simultaneously, the Tobruk garrison commenced a break-out operation intended to effect a junction with the relief force. The battle proved to be a far tougher and more protracted struggle than anyone had imagined, so that it was not until 7 December that Rommel took the decision to abandon Cyrenaica in order to save the remnant of his army. His isolated frontier garrisons, beyond hope of relief, were then methodically crushed. Overall, Axis casualties amounted to 38,000 killed, wounded and missing as against 18,000 British and Commonwealth; some 300 German and Italian tanks were destroyed compared to 278 British, although a high proportion of the latter could be recovered and repaired.
During the battle, Aphis, now commanded by Lieutenant John Cox, shelled the Gazala airfields on the night of 24/25 November, evidently to such good effect that over the next two days Tobruk harbour was subjected to a vindictive bombardment. Secure beneath their camouflage nets in Gnat Cove, Aphis’s crew watched the shells burst among the wrecks littering the water. On the night of 1/2 December, Aphis sallied forth again, but this time set her course eastwards to Gambut, around which elements of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions were leaguered. During an hour-long shoot, eighty-four 6-inch shells slammed into these already mauled formations. The treatment was repeated on 4 December, and again three days later. Aphis supported the Eighth Army’s advance as far as Derna, ferrying stores and personnel as well as escorting smaller vessels. While so engaged, she contemptuously evaded a torpedo dropped by a Heinkel He 111, turning so quickly on to a parallel course that the pilot was mortified to see his fish miss by a good 50 yards.
By now the ship’s 6-inch guns were completely worn out. They were replaced by Cricket’s, which retained their accuracy but were so slow to run out from full recoil that they required manual assistance. On 31 December, while the 2nd South African Division was fighting its way into Bardia, Aphis, Southern Maid and the cruiser Ajax of River Plate fame provided gunfire support. As the enemy’s return fire was falling uncomfortably close, Cox led the two smaller ships out to extreme range, dropping a smoke float which effectively distracted the enemy’s gunners. The 8000-strong garrison surrendered at dawn on 2 January. The South Africans also took Sollum, although Halfaya Pass held out until 17 January, by which time many of its garrison were close to dying of thirst.
With the relief of Tobruk, the most important function of the Inshore Squadron came to an end. Three of the four gunboats to serve with the squadron had been lost and, for the moment, Aphis alone remained, her contribution eclipsed by great events on land and the epic siege of Malta.
Just as, a year earlier, Wavell had been forced to send troops to Greece, so now Auchinleck was required by Japan’s entry into the war to despatch reinforcements to the Far East, thereby weakening the Eighth Army. In the third week of January 1942, Rommel, having himself been reinforced, returned to the offensive. He did not achieve quite the same runaway success as he had the previous year, but he did recover the Benghazi Bulge. The line was stabilised at Gazala and a new front established, running south to Bir Hacheim. Both sides prepared for the next round but it was Rommel who struck first, on 26 May. During the ensuing Battle of Gazala/Knightsbridge the Eighth Army sustained the worst defeat in its history. It was during this that one of the Royal Navy’s most famous gunboat captains, Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, whom we have already met bombarding the Mahdi’s tomb and in the Baltic, went into captivity. Although long retired and in his seventies, the outbreak of World War II provided him with a chance for yet more fighting. He was absolutely adamant that he was not going to be left out and in due course he was found the task of naval liaison officer to an Indian brigade with the honorary rank of commander. His duties cannot have been exacting, for during the Gazala battle the brigade was operating 40 miles from the sea. When it was overrun, Cowan climbed stiffly from his slit trench and emptied his revolver point blank at a German tank. Gentlemanly instincts still existed on the battlefield, for the crew did not return fire and led him away with the respect due to his age and rank. The following year he was exchanged for an Italian officer of equivalent standing. On his return he swore to Admiral Cunningham that if he had been properly supported, and possessed a few more rounds of ammunition, he would have captured the tank!
In the immediate aftermath of his victory Rommel stormed Tobruk, an event which won him his field marshal’s baton. He then decided to use the huge quantities of captured fuel and stores to pursue the badly rattled British into Egypt. As his advance rolled eastwards beyond the frontier, it captured Mersa Matruh, the former base of the Inshore Squadron. Auchinleck assumed personal command of the Eighth Army and in the month-long, bitterly contested First Battle of Alamein fought the Axis army to a standstill. Despite this, Churchill felt that a change at the top was needed. General Sir Harold Alexander took over as Commander-in-Chief Middle East while Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery arrived from England to command the Eighth Army.
Across the lines, Rommel was beginning to regret his opportunism. He now lay at the end of a long and very difficult supply line, had burned most of the fuel captured at Tobruk. and was receiving barely sufficient to meet his daily requirements. At Alam Halfa on 31 August, he made one last attempt to regain the initiative but was thwarted by a rock-solid defence.
Montgomery continued to restore his own army’s morale, building up its strength until he was confident of victory. The Second Battle of Alamein, commencing on 23 October, reduced Rommel’s German divisions to skeletons and destroyed most of the Italian divisions where they stood. Rallying such survivors as he could, Rommel began his long retreat, knowing that this time there could be no halting on the Egyptian frontier or on the border of Tripolitania, for on 8 November the Anglo-American First Army had landed in French North Africa. In such circumstances the best he could hope for was to reach Tunisia, which Hitler and Mussolini had decided would become a Fascist redoubt.
During the final stages of the North African campaign, Aphis, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Frank Bethel, was based first at Tripoli and then at Sousse. On 21 March 1943, as part of a feint to distract the enemy’s attention while Montgomery outflanked the prepared defences of the Mareth Line, she carried out a bombardment of Gabes, flattening the railway station and reducing a staff officers’ accommodation block to rubble. More importantly, wild rumours circulated that the entire Mediterranean Fleet was firing the preparatory bombardment for a landing resulted in troops being withdrawn from the Mareth Line, as intended.
Following the Axis surrender in North Africa, plans were immediately made for the invasion of Sicily. Before they could be activated, however, the heavily fortified Italian island of Pantellaria, lying between Sicily and Tunisia, would have to be neutralised. On 11 June Aphis formed part of the bombardment force which softened up the defences, firing accurately at targets in the harbour area. Hardly had the assault wave gone in than the island’s commander, Admiral Pavesi, indicated that he wished to surrender because of a water shortage. This was simply an excuse, for his men were already giving up in droves, providing a clear indication that the average Italian was no longer interested in fighting for Hitler and Mussolini.
It was now apparent that impending naval operations in the Mediterranean theatre of war would again involve a considerable amount of inshore activity. Because of this two more Insect class gunboats, the Cockchafer under Lieutenant Arthur Dow, RNVR, and the Scarab under Lieutenant E. Cameron, RNZVR, were detached from their station at Basra in April 1943 and sent under tow to join the Mediterranean Fleet. They joined Aphis at Malta, where final preparations for the invasion of Sicily were under way. As a result of experience, the Insects’ light automatic anti-aircraft weapons had been augmented, most being mounted forward. In addition to her heavier weapons, Aphis now possessed an Oerlikon and two 20mm Bredas, while Cockchafer and Scarab, having disposed of their pom-poms, mounted seven Oerlikons each.
Thereafter, the Insects took part in the preliminary bombardment for the landings in Sicily, where Cockchafer’s gunners shot down an enemy aircraft off Catania, and in the toe of Italy, being joined sometimes by the monitor Erebus, sister ship to the Terror. By now, however, the elderly gunboats were beginning to show their many years of hard usage, Cockchafer’s engines in particular giving much cause for anxiety. In normal circumstances the Insects would have been scrapped long since, but the fact was they were doing a useful job and, since they could not be replaced, they were sent to Egypt for overhaul. As part of this they were each rearmed with a later and more powerful mark of 6-inch gun.
During the autumn of 1943 the French had gained control of Corsica. The following spring it was decided that this would serve as a base from which the island of Elba, lying off the west coast of Italy and dominating the coastal shipping routes between with its coastal batteries, could be captured. Elba, once the pocket kingdom of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first exile, is eighteen miles long, nine miles across at its widest point, and mountainous. Its garrison was said to consist of some 800 Poles and Czechs who had been conscripted into the German Army and whose morale was low. The truth was that there were 2600 good-quality German troops manning well-prepared defences throughout the island.
Nevertheless, nothing was left to chance. The assault force, consisting of French Commandos and the French 9th Colonial Division, would receive gunfire support from Aphis, Cockchafer and Scarab, the last now commanded by Lieutenant E. A. Hawksworth, RNVR. Having completed their refit, the gunboats sailed via Malta to Porto Vecchio in Corsica where the invasion fleet was assembling. It consisted of the headquarters ship Royal Scotsman, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Thomas Troubridge, 124 landing craft of various types and a flotilla of minesweepers, escorted by 28 British and American torpedo boats.
The invasion force sailed on 16 June, approaching Elba during the early hours of the following day. The gunboats commenced their bombardment and the commandos slid ashore in their assault boats to neutralise the coast defence batteries. Then, as in any military operation, unforeseen events induced a radical change of circumstances. At Marina di Campo, the principal landing area, a British naval beach commando unit stormed into the harbour to capture an armed lighter and cut the wires of the enemy’s demolition charges on the mole. Unfortunately, enemy artillery fire detonated the charges. The immediate result of the explosion was that 35 of the beach commando were killed and 18 wounded; furthermore, as the light strengthened, yet more enemy guns began concentrating on the area and the landing craft standing off the beaches. At this point the Insects, which had been engaging their designated targets, joined in the fray, systematically eliminating the enemy’s field batteries one after another under the direction of their Royal Artillery Forward Observation Officers, enabling the landing to continue. Elsewhere, although a commando attack on a coast defence battery at Cape Enfola destroyed four of its 6-inch guns, a similar battery at Cape Ripalti beat off its attackers and was only neutralised when the gunboats intervened. Throughout the day, while the French consolidated their gains ashore, the Insects continued to engage numerous targets, earning the highest praise from the FOOs for the accuracy of their shooting. By evening they had expended a total of some 500 rounds of 6-inch ammunition. Scarab, her magazine empty, returned to base to replenish, followed the next day by Aphis and the day after by Cockchafer, which at one stage had become the target of heavy coast defence guns firing from Piombino on the Italian mainland. On the morning of 19 June the remnant of the garrison surrendered, having sustained the loss of over 500 killed. French casualties amounted to 400 killed and 600 wounded, while those of the Royal Navy were 65 killed and 58 wounded. The operation had succeeded, but at such a price that it was later described as ‘a bloody little sideshow’.
In the wider sphere the Allies were now firmly ashore in Normandy, though facing a fanatical defence. The Supreme Command decided that the moment had come to activate Operation Dragoon, a landing on the French Riviera by the French First and US Seventh Armies which would effectively turn the flank of the German army groups in northern France. As Cockchafer’s engines were again giving trouble, Aphis and Scarab alone were detailed to work under American naval command as part of a group known as Task Force 80.4, the function of which was to jam the enemy’s radar and, using reflector balloons, create false radar targets with the object of confusing the Germans as to precisely where the landings would take place; once this phase had been completed, the two Insects were to close the range and bombard targets between Antibes and the River Var for an hour. Operation Dragoon took place on 15 August and was a complete success. According to German radio broadcasts seeking excuses for the invaders’ success, Antibes and Nice had been shelled by four or five battleships, a claim which gave the gunboat crews much satisfaction.
On the misty, drizzling morning of 17 August, Task Force 80.4 was approaching the main assault area when one of the American torpedo boats picked up strange contacts on her radar. When challenged, the strangers opened fire. The PT boat turned away, signalling a warning of the hostile presence to those astern.
The enemy ships were the former Italian corvette Capriola, armed with two 3.9-inch and eight 37mm guns, and an armed yacht, the Kemid Allah, both now flying the German naval ensign. Hoping to make a killing among the smaller craft, they pursued the retreating PT boat. Simultaneously, Aphis and Scarab broke out their batde ensigns, working their speed up to a rivet-rattling 15 knots for which they had not been designed. Some 20 minutes after the initial contact report they had the enemy in sight and opened fire at a range of 12,000 yards.
During the ensuing battle most of the technical advantages lay with the enemy, for although the British ships threw the heavier weight of metal, the Germans had the better fire control system and were much faster. Soon the gunboats’ decks were being lashed with spray and shell splinters. It was known that the American destroyer Endicott, with Lieutenant Commander John D. Bulkeley, Task Force 80.4’s commander, aboard, was coming up fast, and that she would soon be in a position to cut off the enemy’s retreat. To conceal the fact, the Insects made smoke. From time to time they would emerge from the screen to loose off a salvo or two, then retire into concealment. An hour after the engagement had begun, one of their shells penetrated the Capriola’s hull amidships. The corvette blew up in a tremendous eruption of flame and smoke.
Simultaneously, another 6-inch shell burst on the foredeck of the Kemid Allah. The auxiliary made off to the west as fast as she could go but she was already too late. With her ensign streaming and a bone in her teeth, the Endicott was already closing in at 36 knots. Three of her four 5-inch guns were overheated after bombarding coastal batteries at La Ciotat and the fourth could only be operated with difficulty, firing one round a minute, so Bulkeley also engaged with his 40mm anti-aircraft armament. Within an hour the gunboats and the destroyer had reduced the German ship to a burning wreck. Over 200 survivors were picked up, the older hands pleased that their war was over, the younger still sufficiently self-confident to give the Nazi salute as the Kemid Allah rolled over on her way to the bottom. It was a reaction that the gunboatmen found difficult to understand, given that the days of Adolf Hitler and his evil regime were now so obviously nearing their end. During the battle the only casualties sustained by the Allies were three of Endicott’s men wounded by shell splinters. In passing it should be mentioned that Bulkeley was a distinguished PT boat commander who, two years earlier, had rescued General Douglas MacArthur from the besieged fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay, for which feat he was awarded the Medal of Honor; also that one of the PT boats forming part of Task Force 80.4 was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, the film star.
Aphis and Scarab were rewarded with permission to splice the mainbrace, followed by a rest period in Naples. Shortly after, they moved to a new base at Ancona on the Adriatic coast of Italy. During the autumn of 1944 they provided gunfire support for the Eighth Army as it fought its way through the formidable defences of the Gothic Line. There we shall leave them to fade away, as old warriors do, for early in 1945 they were, like Cockchafer, reduced to care and maintenance status.
The Insect class, hard working and hard hitting, had served their country well throughout two world wars and the years between. Scarab was the last of them to go, being sold for scrap at Singapore in 1948.
LCVP No 22 from USS Dickman (APA-13) at Normandy. Note the safety lines hanging from the side in case someone falls overboard.
During the Second World War the LCVP was used in almost all theatres, including North Africa, Sicily, mainland Europe, the Pacific and the Far East. As a result, there are many veterans’ accounts of their experience of landing from an LCVP. Seasickness was rampant and oftentimes troops stepped off the ramp in deep water ‑ sometimes over their heads ‑ because obstructions and other debris prevented the LCVP from reaching the beach itself. Boarding an LCVP was difficult in heavy seas using the scrambling nets as ladders. One had to judge when to let go and jump into the boat at the highest point in the wave. The side armour was limited in extent so when during an opposed landing, troops had to hunker down to benefit from the armour protection. But once beached, the LCVP could be quickly unloaded, much faster than many of its competitors. When leaving the craft, troops in columns were told to jump out to one side or the other of the ramp since there was a possibility that the boat would move forward as it became lighter and the wave action pushed it in further, risking injury to any soldier directly in front of the ramp.
In preparation for an assault landing on a beachhead, a complete checkout of the boat, including installing drain plugs, was carried out, just before the LCVPs were off-loaded from the parent attack transport (APA; the largest of these carried over twenty LCVPs). Just before the LCVP was lowered into the sea, the engine was started to make sure it was running properly. Once on the water, the forward and aft falls (block and tackle) were released, and the LCVP then moved out to a holding pattern circle as shown below. The holding pattern to starboard circled clockwise; that to port, counter clockwise. Spacing between boats in a holding circle was approximately one and one half boat lengths, with speed kept to the minimum that allowed steerageway, which might vary depending on wind and sea conditions. As space became available alongside the APA, an LCVP was called in to load troops. The loading stations alongside the APA were marked with a colour code and number and had a net in position for the troops to use when climbing down into the boat. After loading, the LCVP then went back to the holding circle at the assembly area.
Assembly formation of LCVPs.
After all boats in the assembly area were loaded, the command was then given to move to the rendezvous area. The LCVPs peeled off, being led by a control boat that guided the flotilla to the rendezvous. The control boat was typically a Eureka boat modified with a cabin, communication and radar equipment. The single line ahead formation makes it easy to direct the LCVPs to the rendezvous area. However, if there were a threat of air attack, the LCVPs would scatter and follow in the general direction of the control boat. The flotilla was flanked by support boats, which might carry rockets for the assault, smoke screen equipment or heavy weapons to back-up the flotilla. The support craft might be modified Eureka boats or Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats. The two control boats that define the rendezvous area are shown at the top of the figure. The LCVPs line up in a flank or wave formation when reaching the rendezvous.
Plan of formation for moving to the rendezvous area.
Shown above is the assault wave at the line of departure, ready to hit the beach. The boats are sitting at idle and will proceed at the signal to attack. When the signal is given, the wave starts toward the beach at about 3/4 power keeping the wave lined up. After the support boats have delivered their ordinance, the command is given for full throttle and the LCVPs proceed to the beach at maximum speed.
Combat between the French frigates Juno and Gentille against the English ship Ardent and the English frigate Fox, August 17, 1779. (Château de Versailles)
Each new war expends a great deal of effort to undo the results of the previous one. D’Estaing could not return to the American coast until he had carried out orders to recover territory in the Caribbean lost by France to Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War and to acquire equivalent new territory from Great Britain. In an attempt to capture Barbados, one of the largest British wealth generators, in June 1779 d’Estaing sailed in strength, his twenty-four ships of the line incorporating the de Grasse, Vaudreuil, and La Motte-Picquet squadrons. They carried 5,500 marines; among them was Lafayette’s brother-in-law Noailles, finally getting into the action—ostensibly on behalf of America—that he, Lafayette, and Ségur had long ago imagined.
The winds were unfavorable to invading Barbados so d’Estaing went after Grenada, at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles, French until 1763. His marines stormed Grenada’s Hospital Hill, overwhelming the outnumbered locals and causing the desertion of many slaves to the French ranks. In the notice of the feat sent to Sartine, d’Estaing recommended Noailles for the Croix de Saint-Louis, one of France’s premiere medals for military valor.
Admiral Byron, upon learning of the recapture of Grenada, sailed to counter d’Estaing. A large-scale battle ensued. The British seized the weather gage, but the French, maneuvering smartly, were able to severely damage six British vessels, one limping into port with “ninety-five Holes intirely through her Sides,” as a newspaper account put it. The day’s action was later deemed the greatest setback for the Royal Navy since 1690, for d’Estaing had also taken the Grenadines, a chain of small islands between Grenada and St. Vincent.
He then headed to defend Guadeloupe, French since 1763. Byron’s fleet had already occupied that island’s harbor and could not be easily dislodged or lured out to fight by the French insultingly parading their ships just outside the anchorage, all flags flying. D’Estaing shifted to another of his missions, to ferry convoys of merchantmen to a point in the Atlantic from which they could cross to Europe untroubled by privateers. This duty, too, Versailles had dubbed essential, since the merchantmen’s cargoes would translate into the most important annual infusion of treasure to the treasury.
Only after shepherding those convoys could d’Estaing set sail for America. He was returning to the United States because he felt morally obligated to do so, not because of orders, since Sartine had directed him to come back to Europe, if possible conquering along the way Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. D’Estaing interpreted his instructions to mean that he could voyage near the coastal United States, where he knew he might bump into the enemy and aid the ally. D’Estaing tried to excuse in advance, to Sartine, a dalliance in America by suggesting that “if we only go [to Savannah and Charleston] and show ourselves, this will produce an effect which I believe will be of the greatest importance.”
But he thought he could do more. “There is every reason to believe,” Washington had written Gérard in a letter for forwarding to d’Estaing, that in Georgia the admiral “would with great facility capture & destroy the enemy’s fleet & Army.” And d’Estaing was also influenced by a missive from a former musketeer who was now the leader of his paid troop in South Carolina: “It is necessary to defend [this area] against its enemies and against itself. All is in lamentable condition, few regular troops, no assistance from the North, a feeble and ill-disciplined militia, and a great lack of harmony among the leaders.” Thus summoned and enticed, d’Estaing departed on August 16, 1779, for Savannah, with twenty ships of the line, seven frigates, other troop transport ships, and 3,500 troops.
Just then, a potential invasion of Great Britain’s home islands was taking shape in the English Channel. It had been awhile in coming. Lafayette had learned of an invasion in the late winter, at Versailles, perhaps from Louis XVI as the returned prodigal and his king hunted together, or from Marie Antoinette, who was quite taken with the marquis and liked to trade in secret information. But the precise plans for the grand invasion were taking so much time to come to fruition that Lafayette suggested to Maurepas he first attempt small-scale raids of England with a highly trained force of fifteen hundred. Lafayette’s model, then the talk of Versailles, was a similar-size French force known as Lauzun’s Legion—for its leader, a nobleman of equally distinguished lineage, the Duc de Lauzun—which had just wrested Senegal from British control.
Franklin, not privy to the grand invasion plans, was enthusiastic about the modest Lafayette caper, and added a most important element: “Much will depend, on a prudent & brave Sea Commander who knows the Coasts, and on a Leader of the Troops, who has the Affair at Heart,” he wrote to Lafayette as prelude to recommending John Paul Jones, then upgrading the old ship that Jones had renamed in Franklin’s honor the Bonhomme Richard. Jones told Lafayette: “I shall expect you to point out my Errors when we are together alone with perfect freedom. Where men of fine feeling are concerned there is seldom misunderstanding.” It was in regard to this mission that Jones had recently boasted to Chaumont, “I wish to have no connection to any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way,” a sentiment likely to flutter the heart of a Lafayette. The marquis wanted Pierre Landais to accompany them, having developed a high respect for the captain when together they had quelled the mutiny aboard the Alliance, and he also wanted the fast-sailing Alliance. The French navy lent an additional complement of ships. But Chaumont warned Jones, “You shall not require from [these extra] vessels any services but such as will be comfortable with the orders that [their captains] shall have,” which included making no changes to the French vessels’ crews or armaments, since those captains must be fully “answerable to those who have armed them.”
On May 22, Lafayette’s part of the adventure ended, and for the best reasons. As he explained to Jones, the king had reassigned him to a larger command in a full-scale invasion of Great Britain, scheduled for summer. Jones quickly redefined his mission and on June 19 departed Lorient in the Bonhomme Richard with the Alliance and the rest of his train. Problems began immediately, as Landais steered his ship into Jones’s, and more arose when it became apparent that the Bonhomme Richard was too slow. Changes at sea to the rigging and ballast added a half knot to its speed, but not enough to allow Jones to give proper chase to two British convoy escorts. As he wrote to Franklin, the British “courage failed, and they fled with precipitation, and to my mortification outsailed the Bonhomme Richard and got clear.”
The much larger invasion mission was experiencing even greater difficulties in getting to the point of weighing anchors. Even before the signing of the Aranjuez treaty, Vergennes had tried to hurry military preparations for the grand armada and the invasion of Great Britain, despite not wanting such an attack. It became an essential part of the deal with Spain, and so after the signing he redoubled his efforts, keenly aware that for the invasion to succeed it must take advantage of two rapidly closing windows: The combined Bourbon fleets’ superiority over the British navy, which would be eclipsed within six months by the frenetic pace of British capital shipbuilding, and the six weeks of relative calm weather that the English Channel experienced in the early summer, which would dissipate with the onset of an annual series of harsh storms on August 1.
Initial plans called for the French to sail first, from Brest, in early May, to meet up in Spanish waters with the Spanish fleets by midmonth, and then to spend a couple of weeks perfecting joint maneuvers before in June all moved toward the English Channel and from there made a rapid strike; the expedition was not a “question of a guerre de campagne [an extended campaign] but only of a coup de main [a surprise attack].”
Among the many factors affecting the attack’s potential success was the presumed willingness of the Irish to throw off the British yoke and join with the invaders. Bancroft, sent to assess that possibility, returned with the disappointing news that the prospect of a Franco-Spanish invasion had driven the Irish back into the embrace of Great Britain. No help could be counted on from that quarter.
Naval delays of the armada were initially due to Carlos III’s insistence that military officers in both realms not be made aware of negotiations before the treaty was signed. Additional delays resulted from the Spanish admirals’ resistance to having the French fleet guide their actions, and from Spain’s ships being far less ready for battle than those of France. A military aide to Montmorin toured the ports where the Spanish ships were being readied, and his assessment was dismal: crews recruited from convicts; old Scottish cannons that few knew how to maintain; poor-quality supplies from Russia; flimsy hemp from the Netherlands; and admirals either over the hill or known to be irresolute.
Delays mounted when Spain categorically refused to sail until war had been declared, something that could not occur prior to the completion of the time-honored sequence of delivering an ultimatum, having it rejected, and then withdrawing ambassadors. The Madrid government wasted time accumulating a list of grievances for the British to reject and then dallied in its deliverance. Finally Vergennes realized that Madrid would not hand over that list unless and until the French fleet had left Brest.
Then it was the French fleet causing the delays: D’Orvilliers told Versailles that he was unable to sail in May because of an incomplete upgrade to the Ville de Paris, from ninety guns on two decks to one hundred ten on three, necessary to counter the largest British ships. On June 4 the French fleet finally sailed, and six days later reached the rendezvous off Spain’s Atlantic Coast, but during the next six weeks the Spanish fleets did not join them. The discouraging delay was attributed partly to the weather but more to the Spanish admirals’ distaste for the French. Then, too, Spain decreed it necessary to wait not merely for the list of grievances to be delivered and rejected in London but for the news of the rejection to travel to Madrid and then to the port and the ships. Moreover, Spain’s prime target for invasion had shifted: It was much more interested in a joint Franco-Spanish attempt on the island of Gibraltar. That action began on July 11 and involved fourteen thousand Spanish troops and fifteen warships.
On d’Orvilliers’s ships, during six weeks under the broiling sun off Spain’s western coast, pestilence broke out—smallpox, dysentery, and scurvy, made worse because there were no surgeons; in the haste to depart Brest they had been left behind. Some 12,000 of the 23,750 men aboard became seriously ill, and there were many deaths. Then d’Orvilliers discovered that the Spanish ships did not have the agreed-upon signals to enable him to direct them during a battle.
As for the army of invasion, by July its 31,000 French soldiers had been distributed into dozens of camps in Normandy, with embarkation positions at Le Havre and Saint-Malo. De Broglie did not like the altered invasion plans and had refused to lead it. After his departure that army, nominally under the command of a seventy-four-year-old marshal, was actually led by Rochambeau, whose warrior single-mindedness provoked Lauzun to write that he “talked only of feats of arms, and demonstrated positions and executed movements out-of-doors, indoors, on the table, or on your snuff-box if you took it out of your pocket; without an idea outside of his profession, he had a marvelous grasp of that.”
Everyone in the nobility wanted in on the invasion, even the Chevalier d’Éon, who offered to ditch his petticoats and again don a military uniform—a violation of the conditions that had let him return to France as a female. That request was denied, just as his earlier one, to serve in America, had been. Lafayette advised Vergennes that he was providing “twenty million to support the paper currency, ten million to pay for an expedition, and ten to pay the interest on a general repayment” of the loan floated to buy supplies for the invasion.
Near the end of July a series of gales blew sails to shreds and kept the fleets from the Channel. Vergennes wrote to Montmorin: “Blackness overwhelms me.… What a wonderful opportunity is slipping from our grasp, without anyone being to blame! England, without resources or allies, was on the point of being taught a lesson; success seemed within our grasp … but the elements are arming themselves against us and staying the stroke of our vengeance.”
“The disunion of the two parties who divide the Congress increases and exasperates each other more and more. They lose on both sides the points of view of discretion and moderation,” Gérard was writing to Vergennes just then from Philadelphia. He had been recalled, but before returning home the emissary was determined to settle America’s peace terms. The Lee-Adams faction continued to insist on Newfoundland’s fisheries being included on the list, and to threaten that the New England states would leave the confederacy if they were not. Gérard cautioned Congress that the fisheries were not a part of the Franco-American pacts. When he queried Vergennes on the matter, the foreign minister’s response was quite tough:
1) that the King is actually the only guarantee of the Independence of the thirteen United States; 2) that this guarantee is only eventual as regards their possessions; 3) that the United States have no actual right to the fisheries; 4) that the King neither explicitly nor implicitly contracted an obligation to let them participate in them; 5) that they can have a share in them only insofar as they assure themselves of them by arms, or through a future truce or peace.
On July 24, after both Samuel Adams and R. H. Lee had left the deliberative body, Congress voted to omit the fisheries from the list of conditions for peace but, as Henry Laurens suggested, to make them essential in postarmistice discussions.
In mid-August the sizable Franco-Spanish armada entered the western end of the English Channel, expecting to engage and conquer the British Home Fleet and clear the way for the invasion. D’Orvilliers wrote to the ministry: “The combined [fleet] is at present anchored in calm waters within sight of the tower of Plymouth.… It is most important to hasten the battle, particularly as the condition of the French ships is worsening daily, as regards both the disease running rampant in them and the small quantity of water and rations they possess.”
While the land troops waited for the armada to do its work, Franklin dispatched to Le Havre his seventeen-year-old grandson, William Temple Franklin, bearing the ceremonial sword commissioned by Congress for Lafayette; Temple wanted some military glory for himself, and Lafayette obliged, attempting to obtain Franklin’s consent for the boy to be his aide-de-camp during the invasion. In another letter Lafayette advised, regarding a feeler Franklin had received to go to London to negotiate a peace, that the offer would result in nothing because “whatever is prudent for [the British] to do, they will omit; and what is most imprudent to be done, they will do it.” He could have cited as the latest evidence of this that the British had passed over experienced, aggressive commanders to appoint as the new head of the Home Fleet Admiral Charles Hardy, sixty-five, who had not been to sea in twenty years.
And that, despite London having been aware of French and Spanish invasion designs since early spring and having obtained such specific information as the names of troop unit commanders, the number of troopships, the quantity of stores aboard them, and the main targets, Portsmouth and Plymouth.
The British preparations were almost as inept as the French and Spanish. Lord North had sent the information about the French-Spanish plans to George III in a locked box; the king had lost the box’s only key, and a locksmith had to be summoned to break it open. Once the king read the materials in the box and understood the danger from the combined fleets of France and Spain, he offered to take active command of the British forces on land during the invasion.
That proved unnecessary. No large-scale invasion of the British Isles took place. Nor did any climactic sea battle, although the combined French and Spanish fleets did get into the Channel and sail about in late August and part of September, when, infrequently, they could best the wind. Fogs contributed to the absence of action. On several occasions, the Franco-Spanish fleet and the British one narrowly missed each other. As significant a contributing factor was the commanders’ timidity. A tough observer aboard Hardy’s flagship wrote of him, in words that could also be applied to the French and Spanish admirals in this endeavor, “He means to take as small a share of responsibility upon himself as possible … to procrastinate as long as he can and when he is obliged to act he will make Ministers responsible for the consequence if he fails.”
The largest armada assembled since 1588 for invading Britain came to naught—at a cost to France of one hundred million livres, much more than had been expended to aid the American rebels. Lafayette, summing it up in a letter to Congress, acknowledged that the Franco-Spanish invasion of Great Britain had failed, but at least it had “exhausted England and detain’d at home forces which would have done much mischief in other parts of the world.”
The big invasion produced nothing, but John Paul Jones’s was still in the offing, though it had been delayed. In June and July, while the Bonhomme Richard was being repaired in Lorient, Jones had taken on additional hands, including former British sailors, and had to put down a potential mutiny by some of them. He also became ill. In early August, Sartine had dispatched Chaumont to the port to hasten Jones’s departure—and to meddle in the captains’ willingness to obey Jones’s commands. On August 9 Jones quickly left dockside and on August 14 passed the outer anchorage with the Bonhomme Richard, the Alliance, two French privateers, and three other French warships.
Once the small squadron was out of the harbor, one French privateer decided not to continue. Jones was powerless to halt his defection. The remaining six ships proceeded toward the Irish coast, taking several merchantmen. Problems cropped up everywhere, from Landais, whose ship fired at Jones’s, from the polyglot crew—the Irish members stole the flagship’s barge and rowed themselves ashore—from the desertion of another French naval vessel, and from the veering off of the second French privateer after capturing a prize and wanting to get it into port.
Jones, at odds with Landais, nonetheless continued to take merchantmen and menace the coast. “Not a day passed but we are receiving accounts of the depredations committed by Paul Jones and his squadron,” according to a letter that soon appeared in the London Evening Post. Jones then landed at Leith, Edinburgh’s seaport, aiming to exact a two-hundred-thousand-pound ransom in exchange for not burning the town, which was defenseless; but when the wind died suddenly Jones and his captains decided to return aboard and row themselves away, lest they be caught by the Royal Navy. Similar attempted raids and narrow escapes followed until September 22, when off the Yorkshire coast Jones spotted a fine target, a convoy of forty merchantmen. Able to seize some of them immediately, Jones learned that they were being guarded by two Royal Navy vessels, the larger being the Serapis, listed as forty-four guns but that Jones believed had between forty-six and fifty, mounted on two decks. In the ensuing fight off Flamborough Head, Serapis’s cannons ripped through the Bonhomme Richard so thoroughly that it was close to foundering, causing the British captain to ask Jones if he had struck his colors; he famously replied: “I have not yet begun to fight.” Ramming his ship into the Serapis, Jones then had his men grapple on, and they fought the British hand to hand in one of the most sanguinary close encounters of the war, which left nearly three hundred of the six hundred men dead. An exploding American grenade ignited gunpowder kegs and put Serapis’s cannon out of action. Its captain surrendered just in time for Jones to transfer into it with what remained of his crew and their prisoners, which he did because the Bonhomme Richard had become unstable.
A painting by William Gilkerson of the battle between the Continental Navy frigate Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, Beverley R. Robinson Collection, US Naval Academy Museum.
An isolated victory, Jones’s feat was militarily insignificant, but in a season in which the larger invasion of Great Britain and the Franco-Spanish armada had come to such utter failure it was a notable success. The feat transformed John Paul Jones into a hero and it justly celebrated his crew, which included many French sailors as well as those of a dozen other nationalities.
Among the British reactions to the Franco-Spanish near-invasion were doubling the size of the militias, eliminating many loopholes through which young Britons had been able to avoid military service, and making conciliatory overtures to Ireland to abate rebellion, including the easing of exclusionary practices against Catholics. In France the combination of Franklin, Adams, and finance minister Necker—Protestants all—began to advocate for similar elimination of second-class treatment of Protestants, and progress was made on that front.
Liberalizing in France had repercussions in America. It assisted congressional supporters of the Franco-American alliance by stripping from the anti-Gallicians the use of the canard that they intended to take over America and force Catholicism on its citizens. The anti-Gallicians found another opening when it became necessary to dispatch a plenipotentiary to Madrid. Jay was nominated, but the antis kept bringing up various objections that became confabulated with the Silas Deane/Arthur Lee impasse and took time to resolve. Finally Jay was approved, Lee was dismissed from his previous post, and Deane was offered a payment of $10,500, which he rejected as an attempt to buy him off for a few cents on the dollar.
In October 1779 Jay and his wife embarked for Spain on the same ship returning Gérard to France. Jay had decided that because of Lee’s poor reception by Madrid he must now approach Spain gingerly, going first to Paris and from there applying for entry. Once at sea, a storm necessitated changing course; in the argument over whether to head for the Caribbean or reattempt a more direct crossing, Gérard and Jay disagreed, and finished the voyage as less than friends.
“I don’t know what can be done regarding America,” Vergennes wrote Lafayette in the fall of 1779 at Le Havre, where the marquis had remained. “Our plans can no longer be unilateral; they require a preliminary agreement. It is obvious that the concern for America’s welfare requires that troops be sent, but that alone would not be doing enough.” He added a complaint about the Americans: “We hope they will have exerted themselves more than they have done up to now.” He excepted from this complaint the John Paul Jones victory, and the one at Stony Point that, he noted with pride, had been led by Lafayette’s colleague and friend Fleury.
Shortly Fleury returned to France and at Lafayette’s urging completed a memo of his time with the Continental forces, to which he appended comments on what should be done next. It echoed Vergennes in contending: “America is in a state of crisis that is alarming but not hopeless,” and went beyond the minister in its insistence that France could best prevent the states’ reconciling with Great Britain by “sending arms, clothing, money, or more assistance.”
At the end of 1943 an Anvil planning group known as Force 163, headed by Brigadier-General Garrison H. Davidson, the US 7th Army Engineer, was established at the école Normal at Bouzareah just outside Algiers. Force 163 included a French component under Colonel Jean L. Petit. Toulon became their focus, along with the coast to the east of the port. The Alps Maritimes presented a challenge, though the valley of the Argens river formed a path through the mountains between the Massif de Maures and the Provence Alps. Allied headquarters sent a message to the US 7th Army’s headquarters at Palermo, which showed that Eisenhower was determined to go through with Anvil. The telegram stated: ‘An estimate is required as a matter of some urgency as to the accommodations which you would require for your planning staffs should you be asked to undertake the planning of an operation of similar size to Husky …’.
Following the Sicilian campaign, the US 7th Army had shrunk from six divisions to little more than the headquarters staff. They were now instructed that landings were to take place in the south of France in conjunction with Overlord, with early objectives of Lyons and Vichy, the location of the French government, and that the assault would be conducted by American and Free French Forces.
Patch takes over
The planning gathered pace in early January 1944 when Lieutenant-General Mark W. Clark replaced General Patton as the 7th Army’s commander. While Overlord continued to slip behind schedule, owing to the enormous shipping requirements, and the fighting dragged on in Italy following Anzio, it became apparent that Clark could not cope with controlling the US 5th Army as well as directing Anvil. On 2 March Lieutenant-General Alexander M. Patch, a veteran of the Pacific campaign and Guadalcanal, took over the 7th Army.
The planning staff moved to Naples to work with the 7th Army and General Lucian Truscott’s US VI Corps. Truscott understandably wanted reassurances that there would be no repeat of Anzio. A daylight attack was agreed upon, as the value of an accurate preliminary bombardment far outweighed the need for surprise. However, Patch could immediately see that conducting Anvil in early June alongside Overlord was a tall order. With Overlord soaking up all the landing craft and the fighting on the Italian front tying down Patch’s assault forces, the proposed date for Anvil began to slip towards late July.
General Wilson, the Allied Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean Theatre, was presented with the outline plans on 29 April. These envisaged a three-battalion parachute drop to support an opening two-division assault, with Commandos and Rangers securing offshore islands and the flanks. Given that Toulon was the immediate goal, a landing area to the east of the port between Cape Cavalaire and the Bay of Agay was selected. To confuse the Germans about the exact location of the landings a preliminary bombing campaign would be conducted along the entire French coast from Spain to Italy.
General de Lattre had initially proposed landing on either side of Toulon, but he did not get his way. Not unreasonably, he also wanted French troops to be the first ashore, but their lack of experience counted against them and de Gaulle refused to commit the French parachute unit. De Lattre later fell out with his deputy, General de Larminat, when the latter refused to relinquish tactical control of his forward units. De Lattre also wanted his II Corps to move swiftly to trap the Germans, whereas Patch saw this as an excuse for French troops not to have to reduce the German garrisons in Toulon and Marseilles.
Two weeks later three other options were drawn up depending on the German response to the invasion; the first foresaw a partial German withdrawal, the second a complete German withdrawal and the third a complete German surrender, bringing a halt to all organised resistance. It was obvious that the most likely was the first option. The planners assessed that it was unlikely that the Germans would be able to hold the invaders on the beaches, so would offer a token resistance before abandoning the coastal zone and conducting a fighting withdrawal in the lower Rhône region.
Plans went ahead for a two-division landing east of Toulon, with a target date of early August. The key objectives remained Toulon and Marseilles, followed by Lyons and Vichy. In light of the fact that there would be no Sledgehammer, on 1 August Anvil officially became Operation Dragoon. It has been said that this change was due to a breach in security about the Anvil codename, but others claimed the new name was chosen because Churchill had been ‘dragooned’ into the operation. After all the frustrations over Anvil and the many false starts, Eisenhower recommended it should be conducted no later than 30 August, with a target date of the 15th.
There were to be six invasion beaches. From north to south they were: Rosie (north of San Raphael), Camel (around San Raphael and Fréjus), Delta (around Ste-Maxime and St-Tropez), Alpha (at Cavalaire-sur-Mer), Garbo and Romeo (between Cavalaire-sur-Mer and Le Lavandou). Islands south-east of Le Lavandou were codenamed Sitka, while the invasion fleet assembly area was dubbed Kodak. The airborne drop zone south-east of Draguignan was codenamed Rugby.
Enemy defences on the islands of Port Cros and Levant were to be neutralised under the cover of darkness by Sitka Force, consisting of the 1st Special Service Force. Once this task had been achieved, it would secure the island of Porquerolles under the codename of Satan Force. Similarly, French special forces, notably the French Groupe de Commandos, dubbed Romeo Force, would neutralise German forces on the Cap Nègre, and were also to block the coastal highway and take the high ground 3 km to the north. Once this had been completed, they would be in a position to protect the left flank of the landings, and once a beachhead was established, the special forces would fall under US VI Corps control. Another French unit, the French Naval Assault Group known as Rosie Force, was to land the night before near Pointe de Trayas with the aim of disrupting the Cannes–San Raphael and Cannes–Fréjus highways before joining the right flank.
Kodak Force consisted of Truscott’s US VI Corps’ headquarters plus the US 3rd, 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions, supported by General du Vigier’s 1st Combat Command from the French 1st Armoured Division. Sudre’s Combat Command was to get ashore between Cape Cavalaire and Agay and link up with the airborne task force. Once de Lattre’s French II Corps had come ashore, all French forces would be placed under his command. The first echelon, consisting of General Brosset’s 1st Motorised Infantry Division and de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Division, were to land within the first 24 hours, followed four to eight days later by General de Vernejoul’s 9th Colonial Infantry Division.
The planners decided to commit an airborne force of divisional size, but no such force was available in the Mediterranean so a unit of comparable size was improvised from the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team (RCT), the 509th and 551st Parachute Battalions and the 550th Airborne Battalion. Other units in Italy were designated glider-borne and received instruction from the 550th and the Airborne Training Centre. By early July the concentration of airborne forces in the Rome area was almost complete and aircraft providing two troop carrier wings were en route from England. The 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team came into being as part of the 17th Airborne Division on 15 March 1943, with the division’s parachute units comprising the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the 460th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and Company C, 139th Airborne Engineer Battalion, which was later redesignated the 596th Airborne (Parachute) Engineer Company.
During the fighting in Italy the 517th had been assigned to Major-General Fred L. Walker’s 36th Infantry Division, which under the US IV Corps was operating on the left flank of the US 5th Army. On 17 June 1944 they had deployed south of Grosseto. After the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued a directive on 2 July to General Wilson to proceed with Anvil on 15 August, the 517th RCT was released from IV Corps and moved to join the gathering First Airborne Task Force in the Rome area.
The provisional troop carrier division was to lift the air assault with a total of 415 transport aircraft protected by Spitfires and Beaufighters all operating from bases in Italy. The first drops would take place just before dawn with the first resupply mission scheduled for the late afternoon.
On 19 and 20 July, in preparation for the invasion, forty-nine aircraft and crews comprising detachments from each of the 79th, 80th, 81st and 82nd Troop Carrier Squadrons, part of the 436th Troop Carrier Group based at RAF Membury, were dispatched to Votone Air Base in Italy. They returned to Membury on 23 and 24 August, by which time the 6th Tactical Air Depot units had moved to France.
By the end of July Patch’s invasion force numbered 155,419 men with 20,031 vehicles. It was intended by D-Day plus 30 to have 366,833 men and 56,051 vehicles ashore, and by D-Day plus 65 some 576,833 men and 91,341 vehicles.
Truscott’s US VI Corps
After the liberation of Rome the US VI Corps was pulled out of the line to prepare for its third and last amphibious assault of the war. Its three divisions had ample experience of such operations, having been blooded during the Italian campaign. However, the 36th and 45th Divisions received amphibious assault refresher courses at the Invasion Training Centre at Salerno, and the 3rd Division at Pozzuoli; once this was complete they were to move to Naples. It was not until 24 June that the 36th Infantry Division was finally allocated a role within Operation Dragoon. In the meantime the French forces were to embark at Taranto, Corsica and Oran, in a slightly unwieldy arrangement.
The US 3rd Infantry Division had had a distinguished career, having come into being during the First World War at Camp Green in North Carolina in November 1917. Eight months later it was committed to the war in France with the American Expeditionary Force to Europe. After seeing action during the Aisne-Marne offensive, the division was assigned to defend Paris and then deployed to the Marne. While other units fell back, the men of the 3rd Infantry Division held their ground, gaining the nickname the ‘Rock of the Marne’ for their unit. More recently it had seen combat in the Second World War, having landed at Felada under General Jonathan Anderson on 8 November 1942 to help secure French Morocco. Brigadier-General Truscott took command of the 3rd Infantry Division in April 1943 and it was subsequently involved in the assault on Sicily on 10 July 1943, dramatically beating the armour to Palermo and racing on to Messina. Just nine days after the invasion of the Italian mainland, on the 18th the 3rd Division took part in the Salerno landings, driving on to the Volturno and to Cassino. Following the initial assault at Salerno, the commander of the US VI Corps, Major-General Ernest J. Dawley, was replaced by General John P. Lucas. Unfortunately, Lucas’s determination to consolidate his beachhead before breaking out gave the Germans enough time to reinforce, resulting in a bloody stalemate. After a brief recuperation the division next landed on the Anzio beaches on 22 January 1944 as part of the US VI Corps. Allied forces were hemmed in for four months by German counter-attacks, and at this time Truscott replaced Lucas as commander.
That summer the 36th ‘Texas’ Infantry Division likewise was struggling up the Italian coast towards the Germans’ Pisa-Rimini defensive line. This division was originally established as a National Guard unit from Texas and Oklahoma in July 1917. It was sent to Europe in July 1918 and was involved in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Although disbanded at the end of the war, it was reactivated on 25 November 1940. Commanded by Major-General Fred Walker, the division had deployed overseas on 2 April 1943 and first saw combat on 9 September 1943 during the landing on the Gulf of Salerno at Paestum. Following its efforts against Cassino with the US 34th Infantry Division, the 36th Division held the Rapido river and was finally withdrawn on 12 March 1944 for rest and recuperation. It also took part in the Anzio landings, subsequently pushing north to take Velletri on 1 June; four days later its troops entered Rome.
The 45th Infantry Division, nicknamed the ‘Thunderbird Division’ after its insignia, was activated on 16 September 1940. It also saw action on Sicily, at Naples-Foggia, and during the Anzio and Rome-Arno operations. During the invasion of Sicily it became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Biscari Massacre, during which seventy-six German and Italian prisoners of war were executed; as a result an officer and an NCO were court-martialled. Major-General William W. Eagles commanded the 45th Division from December 1943 until December the following year. Interestingly, its original divisional insignia had been a yellow swastika on a red diamond, but this had been changed to the Indian thunderbird on a red triangle, for obvious reasons.
While preparing for Dragoon, Truscott soon became a victim of French military pride when he fell foul of de Lattre. An agreement had been reached that Combat Command Sudre would be assigned to his corps after Brigadier Aime Sudre, of the French 1st Armoured Division, had visited him in July. With the approval of his superior, Sudre then suggested that Truscott visit them in Oran. When de Lattre heard of this meeting he was furious; he summoned Truscott to lunch and then proceeded to launch a tirade against him. The French general was clearly still smarting at the fact that his troops would not be the first ashore. Protocol had been violated and honour besmirched, and de Lattre now demanded prior sight of all orders to Sudre. Truscott, of course, could not agree to this.
Task Force Butler was created shortly before Dragoon on Truscott’s orders, as he suspected that the on-going political squabbling with de Lattre would cost him control of Combat Command Sudre, the US 7th Army’s only armoured force. Major-General Fred Butler was placed in charge of a hastily gathered ad hoc force consisting of a tank battalion, a tank destroyer company, a cavalry and reconnaissance squadron and an armoured field artillery battalion. Patch tried to reassure Truscott that he would have a free hand with Sudre’s forces, but Truscott suspected they would revert to French command once ashore in the Riviera and he would lose them.
Patch, Truscott and de Lattre were also expecting support from the French Resistance. Before the German occupation of the southern Free Zone, Lyons in particular was a key centre for the Resistance organisations, hosting the Brutus network set up by de Gaulle. Marseilles similarly played host to two major resistance movements, the noncommunist coalition known as Mouvements Unis de Résistance (MUR) and the French Communist Party’s irregular partisan riflemen known as the Franc-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP). Of the two, the FTP was the stronger with up to 2,000 men, while the MUR had fewer than 800. Socialist Party members in the city made up an important component of the MUR, and lawyer Gaston Defferre was in command of the Socialist militia as well as head of the local Allied intelligence network. He was also a member of the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO – the French Section of the Workers’ International) Socialist Party and a leading figure in the Brutus network.
A number of the city’s Corsican crime syndicates also became central to the non-communist underground, which lacked the experience to carry out effective resistance work. Due to their anticommunist activities in Marseilles before the war, few of the resistance-minded Corsicans were accepted into the maligned communist underground.
Unfortunately, since the MUR supported the Allies’ policy of denying the Communists arms, this stopped any meaningful cooperation between the various groups in Marseilles. While the communist and non-communist forces were superficially merged with the creation of the FFI in February 1944, the reality was that they remained at loggerheads until the FFI was absorbed into the regular French Army. An agreement was reached in the western Alps between the Head of Region 2 (Marseilles) of the MUR and the Italian Resistenza in Piedmont in May 1944, and a declaration of military and political solidarity made.
Corsica – an unnecessary diversion
After liberating Corsica, the French proposed an invasion of the island of Elba (Operation Brassard), using the 9th Colonial Infantry Division (9e DIC), two battalions of French commandos (Commandos d’Afrique and Commandos de Choc), a battalion and supplementary battery of the Colonial Artillery Regiment of Morocco (RACM) and the 2nd Group of Moroccan Tabors (2e GTM). Taking Elba would permit the Allies to dominate not only the Piombino Channel but also the coastal road used by German transport on the Italian peninsula, both of which were vital transportation arteries for the supply of German forces in western Italy. The garrison on Elba was made up of just two infantry battalions manning the fortified coastal areas, as well as several coastal artillery batteries totalling some sixty guns of medium and heavy calibre.
Initially Eisenhower was not keen on the idea, viewing it as an unnecessary diversion of resources while preparations for Anzio were under way. But once the British general Sir Henry Maitland Wilson took over in the Mediterranean Theatre, attitudes at Allied headquarters changed and the operation was approved. By this time, though, the Germans had strongly fortified Elba, an island dominated by rugged terrain, making the assault considerably more difficult.
Nevertheless, at 0400 hours on 17 June 1944 the French I Corps commenced its assault with support from forty-eight Royal Navy commandos. The lightly equipped French Choc landed at multiple points before the main landing force and neutralised the coastal artillery batteries. The French initially encountered problems in the Gulf of Campo on the south coast because of the German fortifications and the extremely rugged terrain. Opting for an alternative plan, the landing beach was shifted to the east, near Nercio, and the 9th Colonial Infantry gained a beachhead there. The crest of the 400-metre Monte Tambone Ridge overlooking the landing areas was secured by French commandos within two hours.
The Royal Navy commandos boarded and seized the German Flak ship Köln and also landed to guide in other troops heading for the beaches. Tragically a German demolition charge killed thirty-eight of them. Portoferraio was taken by the 9th Division on the 18th and the island was largely secured by the following day. Vicious fighting in the hills continued between the Germans and the Senegalese colonial infantry, with the latter employing flamethrowers. Of the garrison, 1,995 were captured and 500 killed. French losses were 252 killed and missing, and 635 men wounded. British fatalities were 38 of the 48 commandos committed, with 9 others wounded.
The 8th Fleet was responsible for putting the Riviera assault force ashore and maintaining it there until such time as the French ports were secured. The Control Force was to look after supporting maritime operations while the Alpha, Delta and Camel attack forces were responsible for landing the 3rd, 45th and 36th US Infantry Divisions respectively. Vice-Admiral H. Kent Hewitt was to command the Western Task Force, consisting of some 505 US ships, 252 British, 19 French, 6 Greek and 263 merchantmen. The warships (5 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 18 light cruisers, 9 aircraft carriers and 85 destroyers) were to protect the 370 large landing ships and 1,267 small landing craft. They were allocated across the four attack forces, Task Force 84 Alpha, 85 Delta, 86 Sitka and 87 Camel.
The USS Biscayne was the flagship of Rear Admiral Bertram J. Rodgers USN, Delta Task Force Commander, while on Bayleaf was Rear Admiral Spencer S. Lewis in charge of Camel Force, supported by Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo with responsibility for the bombardment warships. Rear Admiral Lyal A. Davidson on the USS Augusta was in overall command of Task Force Sitka.
The USS Duane served as the flagship for the commander of the 8th Amphibious Force. This had six flotillas of landing craft, each consisting of twelve craft divided into two squadrons, B and C, making a total of seventy-two tank landing craft. Each flotilla had a sick berth attendant (medic) attached and each squadron had a medical officer. In addition, the Americans proposed to employ the Sherman Duplex Drive (DD) amphibious tank that had been developed for Overlord. The 191st, 753rd and 756th Tank Battalions were trained in the Bay of Naples for their assault role.
Task Force 84 was overseen by a Coastguard cutter and a fighter control ship, while its assault group included two attack transports each capable of carrying almost 1,600 troops and a variety of landing craft, and three attack cargo ships. The landing ships, which had been wrangled over for so long, numbered 25 LSTs supported by almost 150 various types of smaller landing craft. Task Force 85 was directed by a destroyer and a fighter direction tender; its assault group included 6 troop transports, 24 LCT/LSIs and about 110 other landing craft. Task Force 87 had 6 transport/cargo ships plus 24 LSI/LSTs supported by about 90 landing craft. Lastly Task Force 86, which was to deliver the French special forces, was the smallest, with 5 destroyer/transports, 5 LSIs and 17 other vessels.
Hewitt was reliant on the aircraft carriers for his tactical air support. These were under the overall control of Rear Admiral Thomas Troubridge RN, with the American carriers commanded by Rear Admiral Calvin T. Durgin USN, who had commanded the USS Ranger in action during the North African landings. Troubridge’s escort carrier Task Force 88 (TF88) comprised two groups. The first, Task Group 88.1, was made up entirely of British carriers and consisted of HMS Attacker (879 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) equipped with Seafires), HMS Emperor (800 NAS equipped with F6F Hellcats), HMS Khedive (899 NAS equipped with Seafires), HMS Pursuer (881 NAS equipped with F4F Wildcats), and HMS Searcher (882 NAS equipped with F4F Wildcats). This task group was protected by the cruisers HMS Delhi and HMS Royalist (flagship), plus five British destroyers and a Greek destroyer.
Task Group 88.2 comprised HMS Hunter (807 NAS equipped with Seafires), HMS Stalker (809 NAS equipped with Seafires), and two American carriers, USS Tulagi (VOF-01 equipped with F6F Hellcats) and USS Kasaan Bay (VF-74 equipped with F6F Hellcats). They were defended by the light cruisers HMS Colombo and HMS Caledon and six US destroyers. All the British carriers were by courtesy of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease and American shipyards, having mostly been handed over in 1943.
Brigadier-General Gordon P. Saville of the USAAF’s 12th Air Force was appointed Air Task Commander, with the XII Tactical Air Command. The medium bomber and fighter elements of Saville’s force were provided by Seafires from the seven British carriers and Grumman Hellcats from the USS Kasaan Bay and USS Tulagi. Hewitt, Saville, Patch and Truscott travelled together from Naples on the amphibious assault ship USS Catoctin. They were joined by Admiral André Lemonnier, Chief of Staff of the French Navy.
Employing over 880 ships, Dragoon was the largest amphibious operation ever conducted in the Mediterranean; in the Pacific only three operations were bigger, out of the forty amphibious assaults conducted there. During the Allied naval build-up the Luftwaffe kept General Wiese appraised of developments, though neither he nor Blaskowitz knew exactly where the blow would fall; in any case, they had insufficient forces to defend the entire coastline.
Allied operations in the Mediterranean did not go unhindered by the Luftwaffe. On 20 April 1944 bombers attacked the ships of Task Force 66, escorting the convoy UGS-38 bound for the Mediterranean, soon after the vessels cleared Gibraltar. The convoy’s flagship was the US Coastguard cutter USS Duane, which was shortly to play a role in Dragoon on her first assignment since being converted to a command and control vessel. Three ships from the convoy were lost, including the SS Paul Hamilton, which sank with 580 people aboard, and the destroyer USS Landsdale.
As the numbers of Allied escort vessels increased, and the threat from German U-boats decreased, the US Navy had decided that cutters like the Duane would better serve national security needs as command and control vessels for amphibious landings. The USS Duane had been assigned to the 8th Fleet in mid-1943 and had escorted convoys to the Mediterranean and back and also through the Caribbean before being converted to an amphibious force flagship by the Norfolk Navy Yard in early 1944. The conversion included the removal of most of the heavy armament, the addition of more anti-aircraft weaponry, and the construction of enclosed rooms for thirty-five radio receivers and twenty-five radio transmitters.
The air war hots up
Supporting the preparations for Dragoon were the 42nd Bomb Wing (Medium) and the 17th Bomb Group. The former first saw action during the invasion of Italy, where its units flew close support missions to stop the German counter-attack on the beachhead at Salerno. As the Allied forces progressed, the 42nd took a leading part in interdicting Axis road and rail transport, and later in the attacks against the monastery at Cassino.
The 17th Bomb Group, comprising the 34th, 37th, 432nd and 9th Squadrons, was involved in the reduction of Pantelleria and Lampedusa in June 1943, participated in the invasions of Sicily in July and of Italy in September, and took part in the drive towards Rome. Because of its renowned bombing accuracy, the group was selected to bomb targets in Florence, but with strict orders to avoid the art treasures there. The 17th also took part in the assault on Monte Cassino.
In 1943 a heavy bomb group had a total complement of 294 officers and 1,487 enlisted men to fly and support 48 heavy bombers, while a medium bomb group had 294 officers and 1,297 enlisted men for 63 medium bombers.
Air operations for Dragoon were to consist of four phases:
I – operations taking place before D-Day minus 5;
II – operations taking place between D-Day minus 5 and 0350 hours on D-Day (Operation Nutmeg);
III – operations between 0350 on D-Day and H-Hour at 0800 (Operation Yokum); and
IV – all subsequent operations (Operation Ducrot).
In Phase I, from 28 April to 10 August 1944, the Allied air forces unloaded 12,500 tons of bombs on the region. Nutmeg began on the 10th, and while concentrating on coastal defences and radar stations, encompassed the whole of the French coast in order to throw the Germans off the scent. On 7 August Army Group G reported that the ‘systematic, especially heavy air attacks on the transportation links over the Rhône and Var rivers … point to a landing between these two rivers’, and ‘statements from agents confirm this suspicion’.
The following day Wiese conducted a map exercise at the garrison headquarters at Draguignan for all his generals. It soon became clear that the army was on its own and could expect no help from the Luftwaffe or navy. Wiese’s reserves consisted of a single regiment from the 148th Division, and all he could do to strengthen his defences was to move an anti-tank gun battalion to San Raphael.
On the 11th, as the Dragoon assault force began to move from the Naples area towards the south of France, the USAAF 12th Air Force sent B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder twin-engined bombers and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters to strike at German gun positions along the French and Italian coasts west of Genoa. The following day almost 550 fighter-escorted B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator fourengined bombers attacked targets in France and Italy, the B-24s striking gun positions in the Genoa, Marseilles, Toulon and Sete areas, while the B-17s bombed gun positions in the Savona area in Italy. At the same time more than a hundred P-51s strafed radar installations and other coast-watching facilities along the southern French coast.
During the night of 12/13 August twin-engined A-20 Douglas Bostons attacked targets along the Monaco-Toulon road, and fighter-bombers hit guns and barracks in the area; fighters strafed airfields at Les Chanoines, Montreal, Avignon, La Jasse, Istres-Le-Tube, Valence and Bergamo. On 13 August the 17th Bomb Group attacked the Toulon harbour gun complex twice, both times encountering intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire, which damaged a number of the attacking B-26 Marauders. The heavy Allied bombing of Toulon and other targets in the days before the landing alerted Blaskowitz to the fact that something was likely to happen in this area. Indeed, suspecting an imminent attack in the Marseilles-Toulon region, by the 14th Blaskowitz had moved the 11th Panzer Division and two infantry divisions to new positions east of the Rhône, just in case.
On the 14th nearly 500 B-17s and B-24s of the 15th Air Force bombed gun positions around Genoa, Toulon and Sete, and struck the bridges at Pont-St-Esprit, Avignon, Orange and Crest in France. In addition, thirty-one P-38 Lightnings dive-bombed Montélimar airfield, while other fighters flew over 180 sorties in support of the bombers. Also on the same day medium bombers blasted coastal defence guns in the Marseilles area. The Toulon-Nice area also came under attack, with American medium bombers hitting coastal defences and fighter-bombers pounding various gun positions, tracks, enemy headquarters and targets of opportunity; fighters also strafed radar installations and targets of opportunity along the southern coast as the Dragoon assault forces approached.
The final build-up
On the night of 10 August Churchill flew via Algiers to Italy to see General Alexander to discuss the on-going operations and his loss of resources. In Algiers Churchill saw his son Randolph, who was recovering from injuries received in a plane crash that happened while he was visiting partisan-held Yugoslavia. Almost inevitably, de Gaulle came up in their conversation and Randolph pressed his father to change his mind about his recent decision not to see the French leader. ‘After all,’ said Randolph, ‘he is a frustrated man representing a defeated country.
You, as the unchallenged leader of England and the main architect of victory, can afford to be magnanimous without fear of being misunderstood.’
Churchill arrived in Naples on the 12th and stayed with General Wilson at the Villa Rivalta. While there he received a plea from the Polish Home Army, which was struggling desperately for survival in Warsaw; it urgently needed weapons to fight the Germans. Stalin, however, considered the rising in the Polish capital an irrelevance and refused to lend it his support, apparently believing that the Red Army and its Polish allies had done all they could to reach the city. So the RAF had to make a 2,250 km round trip from southern Italy to Warsaw to drop supplies and weapons although the Red Air Force was less than 80 km away.
After a visit from the partisan leader Tito, Churchill went by barge to bathe in the hot springs at a nearby beach. On the way he passed two convoys massing for Dragoon, and the troops recognised him and cheered. In return, he sent them a note wishing them good luck. Later he wrote, ‘They did not know that if I had had my way they would have been sailing in a different direction.’
That night Roosevelt, perhaps trying to placate the British Prime Minister and with an eye to the future, sent him an invitation for a meeting in September in Quebec without Stalin. Churchill agreed. The following day he went to Capri and swam in the sea, guarded by American military police. On the 14th he went for a swim beyond Cumae, and after lunch in Naples flew to Corsica. In Ajaccio harbour he went aboard the Royal Scotsman, an old merchantman bearing six assault craft ready for Dragoon.
On 12 August, due south of Ajaccio, the Luftwaffe picked up two large convoys, each of about 75 to 100 merchant vessels and warships, including two aircraft carriers, heading north-east towards the harbour; already present in the harbour were another 20 vessels. As if to confirm that an invasion build-up was taking place, on the airfield were sighted 8 gliders and 5 multi-engine aircraft. Luftflotte 3 immediately ordered that reconnaissance efforts over these convoys be stepped up day and night.
Two days later an Fw 190 fighter of 2/NAG 13 and four Bf 109s were on convoy patrol in the area to the south of Marseilles-Toulon-Golfe du Lion, but no sightings were made. Subsequently, at 1915 hours, pilots of 2/NAG 13 reported numbers of landing craft stretching some 80 km west from Ajaccio Roads and at 2035 two convoys were sighted 160 km south of Menton, numbering over 100 landing craft as well as surface and air escorts.
In the meantime twelve P-38s of the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group dive-bombed the headquarters of Jagdfliegerführer Süd at La Nerthe. At 1900 hours the base reported that its command post had been destroyed and that three personnel had been killed, three badly wounded and three slightly injured. The phone lines were down, rendering the base inoperable as a headquarters, and the base commander decided to set up an aircraft reporting centre in Courthezon (10 km south-east of Orange) the following day.
At noon on 13 August the main invasion convoy sailed from Naples through the Sardinia-Corsica Straits and deployed off the Riviera beaches at dawn on the 15th. The destroyer USS Rodman, assigned to protect part of the invasion convoy, sailed from Taranto on 11 August. Two days later French warships joined them, and the force arrived off the Delta assault area in the Baie de Bougnon also on the 15th. The naval guns and bombers bombarded the coastline as the landing craft were lowered and the first waves of troops were ferried towards the assault beaches. In Italy on the 13th Alexander’s troops entered Florence, though their offensive strength was now exhausted and the Germans had been given time to entrench themselves more firmly in the Gothic Line. Indeed, the Allies were still stuck south of the Gothic Line ten days after the launch of Dragoon.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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