Storming the “Halls of Montezuma”

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After the Mexican War battle of Churubusco on August 20, 1847, Mexico’s General Santa Anna tricked U.S. General Scott into two unfavorable maneuvers. First, he agreed to declare a truce to establish peace negotiations, but this was a ruse. Even while Santa Anna sold supplies to the American invaders, he quietly reinforced his army to 18,000 men while the American force was down to 8,000 effectives.

The second trick was passing false intelligence to Gen. Scott. Santa Anna led Scott to believe that at Molino del Ray, the stronghold west of Mexico City and one mile west of the Hill of Chapultepec, housed a cannon foundry where they were melting brass church bells into heavy cannon. The Americans attacked Molino, and it turned into a costly victory where 750 Americans were killed, and every remaining wounded American was murdered by the Mexicans. After inspection, Scott discovered that there was no foundry there. The heavy losses at Molino brought the six companies of U.S. Marines into battle.

Mexico City was a formidable target. Surrounded by marshes and with approaches via eight causeways, Scott faced obstacles similar to those Cortez had experienced 329 years earlier. Since the southern approach to the capital was heavily fortified, the American plan was to attack from the west at the two garitos or gates to the city. Each garito bristled with cannon positioned to rake the roadway. Scott’s line then was Molino, then Chapultepec, then the two gates leading into the city. One causeway was the Garita de Belen, another headed north two miles to the Garita de San Cosme.

The Hill of Chapultepec, 200 feet above the surrounding plain, was 600 yards wide, surrounded by a ditch and a 12-foot wall, and topped by a palace that had been made into a military school. It was fortified into a makeshift fortress as the Americans advanced on the capital.

The castle had once been a resort of the Aztec princes. The hill was steep all around except for a slope on the west where the Marines decided to attack. It had a sand-bag barricade at the entryway, and the hillside was mined with charges that were fused to be set off from the fortress.

Generals Scott and Worth regarded the fortress as impregnable. Even though it was vulnerable to American bombardment, both officers were grim on the prospect, and Gen. Worth thought, “we shall be defeated.” The hill was a fearsome objective to assault—but if taken, the army would then be able to move onto the causeways leading into the capital.

Two storming parties of 250 men each were assembled. The Marines were assigned to the 4th Division commanded by Army Brigadier General John Quitman, a Mississippian. The Americans moved out of the tree cover and faced the mined hillside that led to the retaining wall of the castle terrace.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, September 13, the attack began. Quitman’s men attacked the southern side of Chapultepec. Captain Silas Casey led an assault party of 120 hand-picked soldiers and Marines under Marine Major Levi Twiggs, and 40 Marines commanded by Marine Captain John Reynolds. They faced 1,000 Mexican troops inside the fortress.

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U.S. Marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag.

The Halls of Montezuma

Chapultepec, also known as “the castle,” was an ancient Mexican shrine as well as a recent fortress. Three hundred years before the U.S. war, this had been the summer palace, replete with fountains, of Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor. In 1783, a Spanish viceroy built a new citadel on top of the ruins of the old palace. Surrounded by a huge retaining wall was a broad terrace that made for excellent cannon placement.

Around 1840, the Mexicans made this structure into their National Military Academy. Like at West Point, the young cadets learned military arts in their gray uniforms and tasseled blue caps. About one hundred of the cadets, though ordered to evacuate their school, stayed on and proudly fought to defend this memorial to Mexican history.

Six cadets became the boy heroes of Chapultepec. Those who died were: Vicente Suarez, age 13; Francisco Marquez, 14; Fernando Montes de Ora, 17; Agustin Melgar, 18; Juan de la Barrera, 20; and Juan Escutia, 20.

Cadet Escutia reportedly took the Academy flag from its staff, wrapped it around his body, and valiantly plunged to his death on the rocks below the castle rather than see the flag surrendered to the Americans.

 

Two of Chapultepec’s guns were soon disabled by American battery fire, and the disheartened Mexican soldiers began to desert. From the terrace came a murderous rain of grapeshot and musketry. General Pillow was struck in the ankle, but the whole American force flowed over the redoubt. The Americans were able to cut the canvas powder line that led to the mines and none exploded.

The Marines struggled up the steep southern side, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and clubbed rifles. Corporal Hugh Graham and five Marines were killed.

Casey and Twiggs fell wounded, the latter fatally, and they stopped 200 yards short of the guns. Scaling ladders finally reached the Americans. They bridged the ditch and their first wave was mowed down by the Mexicans. So many ladders rose, seemingly at once, that 50 men were up abreast. “And with a shout of victory, the great body of troops rushed over” the walls and gained the castle.

The Americans turned the Mexican guns around, relieving the pressure on Quitman’s column. The Mexicans fell back and the Americans charged the castle’s main gates. The Mexicans fled so hastily that they “jumped down the eastern side of the rock, regardless of the height.”

The young cadets who had refused to desert the school fought to the end. The six boys were killed, as an American correspondent put it, “fighting like demons.” They were to be called Los Ninos Heroicos—the heroic children.

Mexican officers watching their defeat from a distance said, “God is a Yankee,” as Americans from both sides reached the castle. At 9:30 a.m., an American flag was raised over the fortress.

Marine Captain George Terrett led First Lieutenant John Simms, Second Lieutenant Charles Henderson (son of the Commandant), and 36 men to skirt the heights and pursue the retreating enemy northeasterly towards the city itself. Terrett and his Marines raced up the road under heavy fire. Twenty infantry, led by Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, the future General and American President, joined them as they fought their way up the San Cosme causeway. They were the spearhead of the army contingent.

Casualties were severe until the Americans remembered the tactic they used at Monterey—breaking their way through the walls of buildings and hauling their guns through them. This tactic also enabled them to fire from the roofs.

General Worth’s bugles sounded recall. Terrett went back to report, but Simms and Henderson attacked with 85 men. The gate was too heavily defended to rely on a frontal assault alone, so Marine Lieutenants Simms and Jabez Rich led seven marines to attack from the left. Four were hit. Henderson, wounded in the leg, attacked from the front. Two more men were hit, but together, the two groups seized San Cosme gate as darkness fell.

Worth again sounded recall and the Marines and soldiers withdrew. Six Marines had been killed. Once Chapultepec fell, Quitman moved his division under fire east on the Belen causeway with the Marine battalion right behind a South Carolina regiment. At the Belen gate, they were stopped by enemy fire and Marine Private Tom Kelly was killed. Finally, at 1:20 p.m., the Marines and infantry carried the gate. At dawn on the 14th, Quitman and Worth prepared to assault the city through the two entrances—but Santa Anna had already pulled out.

Though Scott was angry at Quitman for the costliness of his attack on Belen, he felt the Mississippian and his Marines had earned the honor of formally taking the city. Within hours, he would appoint Quitman Mexico City’s military governor.

The Americans hardly looked the part of a conquering army. The victorious General Quitman wore only one shoe as he marched at the head of his ragged, blood-stained troops. Only about six thousand Americans remained on their feet—little more than half of those who had left Puebla.

Quitman’s men walked through the crowded streets into the Grand Plaza and took the National Plaza, where before had stood the halls of Montezuma. The Marines were stationed to guard the Palace. The U.S. Marines were now patrolling the halls of Montezuma. In the spring, the veterans were joined by a new 2nd Marine battalion of 367 men commanded by Major John Harris.

On February 2, 1848, the Mexicans accepted peace as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Even though the U.S. was victorious, they agreed to pay Mexico 15 million dollars in cash for the land they coveted. Mexico had lost half her territory—an area larger than France and Germany combined. The American boundary with Mexico would run from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Rio Grande, to the New Mexican border. Then it would continue west to the Pacific at a point one league, or three miles, south of San Diego.

The outspoken Duke of Wellington called Gen. Scott “the greatest living soldier.” It had been Scott’s flexibility and imagination, his attention to reconnaissance, and his tendency to strike from an unexpected side that supplied the tactics that won the war. In addition, he had the support of solid officers like Thomas (later Stonewall) Jackson, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, P.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. Only 13 years later, all of these men would become major players in the American Civil War.

With this victory, the expansion of the continental United States from coast to coast was now complete. And, in addition to Mexico, the Marines had also captured the opening words to their future Marine Hymn.

SBS in the Aegean – Late-1943

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Colonel Ian Lapraik of the SBS being welcomed on Cos.

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Greek caique Armadila leaving Co.

There is little doubt that the announcement of the Italian armistice had surprised the German Balkan Command in Salonika just as much as it had the British GHQ in Cairo, and if the latter did have a few extra hours’ notice, the former had the enormous advantage of a system of efficient military formations already developed throughout the Aegean. Moreover, the commanders of those formations had not long to wait for clear directions, for Hitler, faced with a threat to an area which provided him not only with bauxite, copper and chrome but also protection from Allied bomber attack on the Ploesti oil-fields, hardly hesitated for a moment. The whole Aegean area and especially the Dodecanese would be held, he proclaimed, either by a continuation of co-operation between the Italian and German troops in the area, or, if the Italians showed signs of obeying the orders of the renegade Badoglio government, then by German forces alone, who would not hesitate to use force to take and exert command. Within hours, German officers were interviewing their nearest Italian counterparts in the islands and requesting specific assurances of loyalty from them.

It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the Italian garrison commanders. Most of them were middle-aged or even elderly senior officers whose service careers had been rewarded during recent years by appointments to these pleasant and sometimes delicious islands, where danger had been minimal, supplies from the homeland regular and of good quality, and duties easy enough hardly to disturb the even tenor of what resembled a happy retirement.

Suddenly they were faced with real danger and the necessity to make hard choices. Many of them, given the chance, would have been only too ready to welcome the British for whom they felt regard and indeed some affection, in place of the Germans for whom they felt only respect tinged with fear — but few of them knew for certain the attitudes of their subordinates (Samos was not the only island which held a contingent of Blackshirts), and for many of them there were even more urgent reasons to temporise. The British and American armies might be ashore on the foot of Italy, but their own wives and families lived far away up in the north in such places as Bologna or Milan — and how long would the Allies take to get there?

Even more urgently, how long would it take the Allies — in this case the British alone — to arrive here in these islands in sufficient strength to beat off not only the German forces already present with their abundant transport, excellent weapons and efficient organization, but also the reinforcements which would undoubtedly arrive from Greece should German control of the area appear in doubt? Admiral Campioni’s actions might in the eyes of history appear equivocal and pusillanimous compared with those of some of his compatriots, say in Cos or Leros, but how great a distance separated them, when the choice had to be made, from the nearest German military formation?

This was the main consideration which affected control of the Aegean immediately following the Italian armistice. Those islands which previously had held only an Italian garrison — Cos, Leros, Samos, Simi, Stampalia, Icaria — fell easily under the British influence once they had been visited by men of the quality of Lassen or Lapraik; Lemnos and Mytilene to the north, Chios, Kasos, Kythira, the northern Sporades, the Cyclades except Icara and, most significantly, Crete and Rhodes remained firmly in the Axis camp under German control. And once the situation stabilized and the battle-lines could be drawn, Admiral Fricke in Athens and General Klemann on Rhodes could see quite clearly that they held the strongest cards and that if they played them well they could win the whole pack.

The first essential for them was to secure control of the air above the Aegean by occupying every island which contained a practicable airstrip. Extra Me 109 fighters and Ju 87 dive-bombers had quickly been flown into Marizza and Calato, and on September 17th the Jus had begun a programme of attack on the nearest of the airstrips, Antimachia on Cos. Cos by this time had already received substantial Allied reinforcement — more South African Spitfires, more ground crew, a large contingent of the RAF Regiment, and a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry as main garrison troops. These last had spent months in Malta and thus knew all about shelter from air-raids, and if their spirits were somewhat cast down by so rapid a reappearance of the sights and sounds of siege warfare, they nevertheless set about propping up damaged buildings with dour goodwill and efficiency, and helping the RAF ground staff to fill in craters.

Their presence had also allowed the withdrawal of the paratroop company to Cyprus, and of the SBS, some of whom had gone back to Castelorizzo, while the bulk had gone to Kalymnos in preparation for a series of raids against German-held islands, especially, as has been mentioned, the one against Rhodes.

But that enemy convoy mentioned in David Sutherland’s diary for October 2nd had not, as he and his companions had thought, been ‘Bound for Rhodes’ at all. It had been bound for Cos, and it constituted the transport for Kampfgruppe Mueller which, by 0500 on the morning of October 3rd, had put a battalion of the 65th Panzer Grenadier Regiment ashore to drive across the neck of the island and meet the 16th Panzer Grenadiers, who had been landed near Cape Foca. Then German Fallschirmjäger from the Brandenburg Regiment dropped around Anti-machia, heavy Stuka attacks blew apart the defence posts, Me 109s shot up the Spitfires while they were still on the ground or taking off — and chased away the Beaufighters which came across from Cyprus in an effort to bring succour to the hard-pressed defenders.

These by the evening had almost all been overwhelmed by Kampfgruppe Mueller in a series of brilliant but violent actions, and by midnight the Germans controlled all of Cos except the dock area, upon which they focused searchlights and sniped and bombed everything that moved. Small parties of British and Italian soldiers sneaked their way out of town to climb the hills and make for a rendezvous at Cardamena with the admirable intention of carrying out their last orders, which were to try to continue the fight in guerilla fashion — but most of them were to be rounded up after a very short time.

Meanwhile, all day long Sutherland, Milner-Barry and the men of the SBS on Kalymnos had been horrified spectators of the battle, watching its inexorable progress: the silencing of one defensive position after another, the continuous arrival by sea of German reinforcements, and the unending flights of Luftwaffe aircraft overhead, both virtually uninterrupted. During the morning they had prepared themselves and their weapons to undertake some form of interference in the onslaught taking place only a mile away across the water, but by the time orders arrived for them to land and aid the defenders of Antimachia it was quite obvious that they were already too late; and against the heavy weapons of the Panzer Grenadiers the small arms of a raiding force would in any case have been inadequate.

When the more violent sounds of battle died down and only the occasional crack of rifle shot pierced the night, Milner-Barry and his patrol put to sea aboard a caique of the Levant Schooner Flotilla. They crept around the eastern end of Cos and went ashore on the south coast in a small bay where they immediately ran into a party of RAF men from Antimachia, who told them in detail of the events of the day. After sending the RAF men away in the caique and arranging for its return on the night of 7th/8th, Milner-Barry and his men found a small wadi a little way inland and took up residence there, the rest of that night and the early hours of the morning being spent bringing up from the beach the rest of their own gear, the wireless set and its infernal batteries.

During the following day watch was kept from a high point at the end of the wadi and a dozen assorted army and RAF men were found and brought in, but during the afternoon Private Watler vanished and search parties failed to find him. Then at dusk German infantry were seen approaching in line, driving Italian troops in front, and soon the wadi was full of ‘hysterical Italians who attached themselves to us, and the Germans began to mortar the wadi at both ends.’

In desperation, Milner-Barry moved away with his own men, all the British he had collected and about fifty Italians whom he could not shake off, and a short distance along the coast he found some rafts, built apparently by either British or Italians but then abandoned. As there was no hope of a ship coming in that night to take anyone off, Milner-Barry and a dozen of the more stout-hearted boarded the rafts and for three hours paddled eastwards along the coast in the direction of Turkey; but in time the rafts became waterlogged and they had to abandon their equipment and swim for the shore.

They spent the next three days making contact with the men who had prudently elected to remain behind and collecting more refugees from Cos and Antimachia — a process made more difficult than it might have been by the fact that after the débâcle aboard the rafts, the party had only three pairs of boots between them. However, Lieutenant McLeod’s caique duly arrived on time, made two trips to the Turkish mainland and deposited most of the SBS men (who joined one of their own patrols busily setting up a clandestine raiding base in one of the bays in that deeply indented coast) and the bulk of the refugees.

But there were still British soldiers and airmen at liberty on Cos, and on the night of October 8th/9th Milner-Barry accompanied by Lance-Corporal Watson and Gunner Geddes, returned to the island in McLeod’s caique. They immediately found and sent off another batch of eighteen men who had gathered in the bay, and then began looking for yet more stragglers — a gratuitously generous action which proved very fortunate for Lieutenant-Colonel Browne and nearly forty other officers and sappers of his unit, all of whom, plus a Greek peasant whose bravery and help during this time would have placed his life in jeopardy if ever he was caught, were brought out on the night of October 12th/ 13th.

Altogether, McLeod’s crew and Milner-Barry’s patrol rescued sixteen British officers and seventy-four NCOs and men, together with a very large number of Italians and a few brave Greeks. It had been a nerve-racking operation, and at the end of it Milner-Barry was flown back to Alexandria to go into hospital suffering from exhaustion and a bad case of ‘desert sores’, while the rest of his patrol went to Castelrosso — for Kalymnos and the ‘Sponge Queen’ had been reluctantly abandoned to the Germans.

So had Private Watler — though this was not a decision which he, as a man who had already wandered about behind enemy lines in the desert for eighty days, had been prepared to accept.

Watler had been seen by two Germans during his period of guard duty at the head of the wadi, and realizing that to open fire on them would attract unwelcome attention while to return towards safety would betray the position of the rest of the patrol, he had moved away further inland. He had quickly succeeded in shaking off his pursuers but was then captured when approaching the only water-supply, and two days later he found himself with about 1,000 other British prisoners in Cos Castle, about to be shipped off to Greece — a fate he avoided by feigning the symptoms of malaria. A week later he was out of hospital and back in the castle, which now held only some forty prisoners among whom was a signals corporal who helped him obtain a long length of electric Hex, down which they both slid the following night.

They were only at liberty for five hours, but six days later they were out again — down the same length of flex, which the Germans had unaccountably failed to find — to creep through the darkness down to the sea and swim out some 200 yards. They then turned and made their way along the coast until they were beyond the outskirts of the town, whereupon they returned to land and climbed to a small Greek village where they were well looked after. From there they made short forays in search of other strays like themselves, and on one such search they found a dump containing 100-octane petrol in forty-gallon drums, one of which they pierced with nails, though in view of the uncertainty of their own future, they refrained from setting alight the resultant puddle.

They then heard that British small craft were stealing nightly into a nearby bay to find people such as themselves, and, their luck improving, they were picked up and Watler soon found himself back at Castelrosso, where, having reported the position of the petrol dump, he promptly volunteered to go back and help destroy it. But three weeks later when he and his patrol went ashore to search the area, the petrol had gone — and much else besides, for the Germans were preparing for another operation.

Gratified by their success on Cos, they had turned their main attention to the next important island still in British hands: Leros, with its naval port and fortress, long proclaimed by the Italians to be the crucial base from which naval command of approaches to Salonika and the Dardanelles could be exercised. But first, there was a flank to be cleared — a small matter of a wasps’ nest close at hand which might prove a nuisance. The island of Simi must be occupied, the threat it posed eliminated, and a radio station installed there with which to monitor and exercise control over communications in the southern area.

Fighting Pirates at Quallah Battoo

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Quallah Battoo Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

Less than ten degrees north of the equator, on the island of Sumatra, lies the rich pepper-growing region of Acheh. Beginning in the 1790s, New England trading ships would stop along the island’s western coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice, needed not only to flavor and preserve food, but for the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade with Europe.

American ships, based primarily in Salem, had made nearly a thousand voyages carrying away 370 million pounds of pepper worth 17 million dollars at wholesale—almost half the pepper produced in Acheh during this period. A pound of pepper then sold for $13.

The American ships were faster, and the Dutch and British disliked their competition in this lucrative business. They pressured the Sultan of Acheh, Muhammed Shaw, to detain American ships in violation of trading laws. The British went so far as to try to entirely exclude American trade from Acheh. It is unclear how much of the piracy on American ships was pure robbery and how much was influenced by the colonial power games of the period.

In January 1831, one of these American merchant vessels—the Friendship—dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. A band of Malay pirates in three proas, or ships, boarded the Friendship, murdered a large part of the crew, looted the cargo and drove the craft ashore. Their plunder included four chests of opium which was used in medicine, and 18,000 Spanish dollars.

The Malay pirate fleets along the Straits of Malaka were considered the “Vikings of the East.” Their proas were 50 feet long, fast, and nimble, using both oars and light sails, and were armed with swivel guns mounted on bulkheads. The pirates, dressed in scarlet and chain-mail, brandished krises—a sword with a wavy blade—two-handed swords, and flintlocks. They were famous for either murdering every soul on board, or selling the few survivors to slavery.

The Captain of the Friendship, Charles Endicott, had been ashore during the attack. When he made a complaint to the local chieftain, Mahomet, insult was added to injury for Mahomet then put a price on the head of both the Captain and his officers. With the help of a friendly native chief, Po Adam, Endicott enlisted the help of three other merchant captains who agreed to help him recover his vessel. Although the ship was recaptured and returned, her owners sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

President Jackson declared that “a daring outrage” had been committed on the seas of the East Indies involving the “plunder” of one of its merchantmen engaged in the pepper trade at a port in Sumatra. There appeared to be no room for diplomatic action, as Jackson believed that “the piratical perpetrators belonged to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations cannot be pursued. I forthwith dispatched a frigate with orders to require immediate satisfaction for the injury and indemnity to the sufferers.”

At New York, the frigate Potomac, equipped with forty-two 32-pounder cannon, was rigged and ready to sail for the punitive expedition. The frigate had orders to “inflict chastisement” and carried a detachment of Marines and three detachments of seamen under Commodore Downes to punish the natives for their treachery.

Originally under orders to proceed to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific, the Potomac’s route was changed to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean as a result of the protest by the Friendship’s owners and the outcry from the general public. On Feb. 5, after sailing for five months, the Potomac, disguised as a Danish East Indiaman, anchored five miles off Quallah Battoo.

At 2 a.m. the next day, 282 Marines and sailors embarked on the ship’s boats and hit the beach for the attack. Divided into groups, the men were assigned to each of the four forts guarding the town. At dawn, the column led by Marine Lieutenants Alvin Edson and George Terrett moved forward. The Marines heading for Tuko de Lima nestled in the jungle behind the town.

Within minutes of the Marine approach, the Malays were alerted and the fighting became intense. The enemy met the Marines with cannon, muskets and blunderbusses (early shotguns). Charging forward, the Marines’ “superior discipline and ardor seemed fully to compensate for their want of numbers.” They broke through the outer walls, blew up the stockade gate, and captured the fort. Edson, with a small guard, pushed through the town to join in the attack on the remaining fort.

As smoke from the other forts drifted overhead, Edson, his Marines, and a detachment of sailors smashed through the bamboo walls of Duramond’s fort and engaged the kris-wielding Malays. Dressed in full blue uniform, Lt. Edson parried the lunge of a defender with his Mameluke sword while a Marine at his side parried with his bayonet. In this hand-to-hand combat with the Marines, the Malays fought to the death. Within minutes, the fort was taken, with only a few Malays left to flee into the jungle.

With the forts dismantled, the town ablaze, a few Malays hiding in the jungle, and the surf rising, the Marines and sailors were recalled. Over 150 Malay pirates, including Mahomet, were killed, with the Americans suffering just one sailor and two Marines killed and 11 wounded.

This successful attack would deter the Malays and others from similar aggressions for quite some time. In addition to their skill with cold steel, the Americans had emerged victorious due to their long-range, light-caliber cannon and their ability to deliver rapid rifle fire.

Under cover of a Marine guard, the boats embarked for the Potomac. Later in the day, all hands gathered on deck to witness the burial of their three shipmates killed in the attack.

Other rajas from nearby states sent delegations to the ship pleading that Downes spare them from the same fate they had suffered at Quallah Battoo. Downes informed them that if any American ships were attacked again, the same treatment would be given to the perpetrators.

The next morning, the Potomac moved within a mile of Quallah Battoo, ran out her long 32-pounder cannon and bombarded the town, killing another 300 natives before raising sail and heading for sea. This was the first-ever official U.S. military intervention in Asia. This was the second time—after Tripoli—that the Marines had been called in to protect American business and retaliate for the murder of American citizens.

It is interesting to note that 180 years later, American forces are once again engaged in similar situations with modern-day pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Heroic Stand at Bladensburg

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The Final Stand at Bladensburg Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

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The defense of Washington was a shameful affair. It was the most serious defeat of American arms ever experienced. The army had broken and fled, but Barney’s men and Marines, even though overrun, had held their ground to heroic glory. The Marines had eight killed and 14 wounded. Miller and Sevier were brevetted majors. The Americans lost 26 killed and 51 wounded. The British attackers lost 500 killed and wounded.

By June of 1814, the British had been blockading the American coast for 18 months. With 4,000 regulars, Royal Marines, and negroes bribed with promises of freedom, they were also poised to invade Washington. The British commander, Vice Admiral Cochrane, was being urged by Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, to burn the city in retaliation for the Americans’ burning of Canadian Parliament buildings in York and for the burning of Newark.

The Navy ordered Commandant Wharton to raise a battalion of Marines to help protect the Chesapeake Bay from incursion; President Madison assigned Brigadier General Winder to lead a composite force of infantry, state militia and volunteer riflemen to defend Washington and; Commandant Joshua Barney, a tough, 54-year-old Revolutionary War veteran was assigned to the naval defense.

In June, Barney found himself still blockaded after a number of skirmishes with the 21-ship British fleet up the Patuxent River. The Marines under Captain Sam Miller had cooperated with Barney, supplying artillery fire from the shore, but he was unable to break through.

The British entered the Patuxent River on August 17, and two days later landed unopposed at Benedict, Maryland. Barney, outflanked and outmaneuvered by 40 British barges, had blown up his flotilla of 13 gun barges. The British started their 40-mile march to Washington.

Barney and his flotilla men joined Winder’s men. Capt. Miller, with 110 Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, along with five artillery pieces, also joined them. The Marines now had two 18-pounders and three 12-pounders.

On Wednesday the 24th, the British approached Bladensburg four miles northeast of Washington at a bridge that crossed the eastern Potomac. Earlier, Gen. Winder had thought the British would attack Washington from the east in combination with their fleet passing Fort Washington south of the city.

Winder marched out of Washington and ordered Barney—much to Barney’s disgust—to stay behind and guard the Eastern Branch Bridge (now the Sousa Bridge). At the bridge, Barney was able to personally complain to President Madison and had his orders changed. This was the only American battle where the President and his cabinet—the Attorney General, the Secretary of War, and Secretary of State—were all on the battlefield. The bridge was blown and Barney, his sailors, and Marines with their artillery, marched to the battle.

With the temperature at 100 degrees, the Americans were drawn up in three lines on the Washington side of the Potomac. The first line to encounter the advancing British were riflemen under Major Pinkney and two companies of militia under Captains Ducher and Gorsuch, and Captains Myers and Richard Magruder with 100 artillerymen and six 6-pounders from Baltimore.

The second line was composed of Bruch’s artillery and Sterett’s 1,350 men from the 5th Baltimore Volunteer Regiment under Lieutenant Colonels Ragan and Schutz.

The 3rd line—the heaviest—was made up of 1,200 men from a regiment of Maryland militia under Colonel Beall and 300 district militia from the 12th, 36th and 38th under Colonel Magruder (not to be confused with the junior officer, Captain Magruder from Baltimore). The center was held by Barney’s flotilla men and the Marines’ battery along with Scott and Peter’s battery. Brent, with the 2nd Regt. of Smith’s brigade and Waring’s battalion of Maryland militia, were posted behind Peter’s battery. A total of 7,000 men and 26 cannon were set to receive the British attack but of these, only 900 were enlisted men; the rest were untried militia.

Barney positioned his 500 flotilla men in the center, on a rise commanding the bridge and the road along which the British would come. On his right were 114 Marines and 370 sailors, all serving as infantry. Barney commanded the guns and Marine Captains Miller and Alex Sevier supervised the infantry.

The British crossed the bridge under heavy American fire and then retreated. They attacked again and took heavy casualties from American cannon. The American riflemen with their Pennsylvania rifles poured a deadly fire—but the British were continually being reinforced by more brigades joining the fray.

The Americans fell back to the 2nd line. The Yankees charged with the bayonet and once again pushed the British back. Then another British brigade came on line, turned the American left flank and started their rocket attack on the untrained militia. Ragan and Schutz’ men were frightened by the rockets and fled. The 2nd line collapsed and now the British took on the 3rd line.

Barney’s fire had a terrible effect on the redcoats. When the British moved to hit their right flank, they met Miller’s Marine fire from the 12-pounders. The U.S. Marines were well trained in handling the great guns and wreaked havoc upon the enemy. The British were cut up, losing several officers including Colonel Thorton, who was severely wounded, and General Ross, who had his horse shot from under him. The Marines were obstinate and maintained their position against fearful odds.

Because they were heavily outnumbered, the Americans charged Navy-style. With the shout, “Repel boarders,” the Marines attacked with bayonets and the Navy with cutlasses. The charge broke two British regiments, but the British light infantry took both of the Marines’ flanks, wounding Barney severely and killing his horse. Miller was down, badly wounded in the arm and out of action. The British flanked wide, forded the river, cut through the militia and overran the Americans. The American militia had failed to stand their ground because of a rumor launched by the British that the negroes had risen up on the day of the battle to fight for their freedom—the additional worry that their homes and families were in danger being more than they could bear. The Navy flotilla men stood their ground, retired in order, and left their dead and wounded. Both Barney and Miller were captured. The battle was over in four hours, and Gen. Winder was forced to order a general retreat.

The American lines with their troop dispositions would almost certainly have been competent to roll back the invasion except for the interference of the President and his cabinet. James Monroe, the Secretary of State, was credited with the American defeat after he moved the 2nd line a quarter-mile to the rear against Gen. Winder’s wishes. This movement caused the 1st line to be unsupported, and exposed the 2nd line to rocket fire. This fickle civilian interference with Army decisions was seen again in Vietnam 152 years later.

The defense of Washington was a shameful affair. It was the most serious defeat of American arms ever experienced. The army had broken and fled, but Barney’s men and Marines, even though overrun, had held their ground to heroic glory. The Marines had eight killed and 14 wounded. Miller and Sevier were brevetted majors. The Americans lost 26 killed and 51 wounded. The British attackers lost 500 killed and wounded.

Word got out to the Washington city inhabitants that “the British were coming,” and 8,500 citizens began a sudden and confused exodus. The government, the Army, and even the Commandant of the Marine Corps fled the city. The national records and Army records were put in linen bags and taken to Leesburg, Virginia. Commandant Wharton took Captain Crabb and the Marine Barracks guard to Frederick, Maryland. The Marines guarded the paymaster whose flight from Washington scandalized the Corps.

That evening, the British marched six miles into Washington. Reduced to a pillaging party of 200 torch bearers, they entered the city of 900 buildings like barbarians. Admiral Sir George Cochrane delighted in torching cities and thirsted for plunder but thought Washington would pay a ransom to save the city from destruction. Ross sent an agent to discuss the ransom, but no one was there to negotiate with him. So the torches were lit.

The British burned some private buildings: The National Intelligencer, an anti-British newspaper; a rope-walk; and a tavern among them. Any house that fired a shot at the column was destroyed, just as had been done by Napoleon in Moscow. Ross’ horse was killed in one such attack. After two nights in Washington, the British burned most of the public buildings: the unfinished Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Treasury buildings, the Arsenal, the barracks for 3,000 troops, and the President’s house. The White House got its title later when the blackened building was whitewashed to cover up the scorch marks. In all, a total of two million dollars worth of property had been destroyed. Only the Patent Office was spared. Also burned were national shipping stores and buildings at the Navy Yard totaling one million dollars.

The British enacted martial law over the Washingtonians who had to remain indoors from sunset to sunrise under pain of death. At the Navy Yard, the Americans hid a quantity of powder and shot in a well. One British soldier peeking in the well with a match blew the place up, along with an adjacent powder magazine, killing 12 British and wounding 30. The light of the fired city was seen 40 miles away in Baltimore.

Supposedly, the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I Street was spared by the British because of the heroic U.S. Marine stand at Bladensburg, though some historians dispute this account.

The British would have burned more of the city save for a tornado and lightning storm that actually killed British soldiers and drove them off to their ships. Many believed this was divine intervention. It did seem as though God wanted democracy to prevail.

Houses were unroofed and the enemy left they way they had come, through Bladensburg. They left their dead on the battlefield and gave 90 of their wounded to Barney’s men for care. They embarked at Benedict and three days later attacked Alexandria, Virginia.

The British had no intention of holding Washington. Their reason for staying in the U.S. was to invade Louisiana and take possession of the Mississippi valley. England and Spain both intensely disapproved of the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S. From Napoleon—so when the British attacked New Orleans, a cadre of civil servants came along with the British army to rule over the coveted territory.

The Battle of Bladensburg left little to celebrate—but Dolly Madison, the First Lady, did manage to save some of America’s national treasures, most notably George Washington’s famous portrait. The heroic stand of the Marines and Navy had allowed precious time for the removal of American documents to safety, including the Declaration of Independence.

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese

"Junio Valerio Borghese in the guise of officer of Regia Marina; member of the noble Borghese family, he got on during World War II. Italy. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)"

“Junio Valerio Borghese in the guise of officer of Regia Marina; member of the noble Borghese family, he got on during World War II. Italy. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)”

(1906–1974) naval officer and political figure

This member of the BORGHESE FAMILY carried on the family military tradition. His personal charisma, independence of mind, military professionalism, and ability to inspire loyalty suggest similarities with the Renaissance CONDOTTIERI of his ancestry. His well-planned attacks on ships supplying the anti-Franco forces during the Spanish civil war could not be publicized at the time because Italy was not officially at war, but they caught the attention of BENITO MUSSOLINI and gave Borghese access to Italy’s highest military and political circles. He developed new techniques of naval attack using small submarines, torpedo boats (MAS), and human-guided torpedoes. During WORLD WAR II he led successful attacks with human-guided torpedoes against British ships in Gibraltar and Alexandria. After Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943, Borghese was among the few naval officers who sided with Mussolini and continued to fight against the Allies. As commander of the battalion Decima Mas he fought against Italian and Yugoslav partisans. His insistence on independent action led to his temporary arrest for insubordination, but he was too popular with the troops to be detained. The slogan of his corps was Tutti per Junio, Junio per tutti (All for Junio, Junio for all). His troops attempted to keep Tito’s Yugoslav forces out of Italian territory. A tribunal sentenced him to 12 years in jail after the war, but he was released almost immediately. In post- war politics he was active in the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement ( MSI ). In March 1971 he staged a coup against the government with a ragtag band of followers that was quickly dispersed. He fled to Spain to avoid arrest. His funeral in Rome brought out large numbers of personal admirers and political sympathizers. His book of memoirs covering the years 1935–43 was published in English under the title Sea Devils (1952).

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Decima Mas

The most innovative naval arm was the “ X ” MAS (Decima Mas). This unit was made up of (1) midget submarines; (2) underwater swimmers trained in sabotage; (3) surface speedboats filled with explosives and piloted by crewmen who jumped off shortly before the vessels hit their targets; and (4) the slow-moving torpedo, or SLC, which was ridden by two men under water into enemy harbors. The most successful of these weapons was the SLC, directly developed from a World War I weapon that was employed against Austria-Hungary with good results; it was usually launched from a submarine. The most spectacular success for the SLCs occurred on 18 December 1941, when three of them entered Alexandria harbour and crippled the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant. With the exception of the midget submarines, the naval High Command ignored these weapons until 1935 and then only grudgingly supported junior officers involved in innovative development. A more forceful development program begun after World War I might well have made an important difference in World War II.

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Post 1943 the “ X ” MAS (Decima Mas) unit was an autonomous force organized by Prince Julio Valerio Borghese. Composed of 25,000 volunteers, it gained a reputation for effective and hard fighting against the partisans, primarily Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans in Istria. It also included a women’s unit. In addition, the Germans recruited Italian volunteers into the Waffen-SS. These units had both Italian and German names and usually were commanded by German officers. They performed well on the Anzio Front and against partisans.

Borghese family

This family of the Roman aristocracy traces its origins back to 13th-century Siena. They moved to Rome in the 16th century, gaining influence in the Catholic Church and the court of Spain. Camillo Borghese became Pope PAUL V ; other family members were cardinals, senators, and soldiers. Marcantonio Borghese (1598–1658), nephew of Pope Paul V and the largest Roman landowner, received from the Spanish king the titles of prince and grandee of Spain. Breaking with the family tradition of loyalty to papacy and monarchy, Prince Camillo Borghese (1775–1832) sided with the JACOBINS in 1798 and supported the Napoleonic regime. He married Pauline Bonaparte (1780–1825), a sister of NAPOLEON I , at the emperor’s request, became a general in the French army, and governor of Napoleon’s Italian possessions. The Borghese did not support the movement for Italian unification and remained loyal to the PAPACY . They belonged to the so-called Black Aristocracy of Rome that made peace with the Italian state slowly and grudgingly. The family’s monumental Palazzo Borghese, a splendid example of aristocratic architecture, was an exclusive meeting place for national and international celebrities. The Borghese Museum and Gallery, open to the public, house the extensive art collections of the family.

82nd Airborne Division and the Hürtgen Forest

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The 82nd Airborne Division was about to enter the Hürtgen Forest—the meat grinder that had chewed up so many US Army divisions during the previous fall. By this time virtually the entire area was one of almost complete devastation, reminiscent of the battlefields of the First World War. The towns were ruins, the trees were stumps, and the ground was churned up with countless craters from the terrific number of artillery and mortar rounds fired by both sides during the earlier fighting.

The remainder of the division moved by truck to the area on February 8. That same day the 505th jumped off from positions southeast of Vossenack. The regiment advanced twenty-five hundred yards to the southeast to the town of Kommerscheidt against almost no opposition, except for sporadic artillery firing from the east side of the Roer River and minefields, which caused a few casualties. This movement took the 505th through the Kall River valley, named “Death Valley” by GIs that had fought there earlier. It was the scene of the destruction of most of the 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, the previous November.

It was an unforgettable experience for Christensen, who had seen just about everything during his time with Company G, 505th. “As soon as it got light the next morning we moved out. Most of the snow had melted and we were now plowing through a muddy mess. We were entering an area where some terrific fighting had taken place. The first indication of this was when we noticed the shell holes, plus the havoc the artillery had done to the trees. These in places looked as if someone had taken a giant scythe and mowed them down.

“Proceeding farther down the trail, things got progressively worse. The trees here had been destroyed with a vengeance. Most had been blown to ribbons. Also, scattered among this debris were countless bodies or parts of [bodies]. By their shoulder patch, ‘The Red Keystone,’ you knew they were the remnants of the 28th Infantry Division. The sickening part was they had lain there all winter covered in a blanket of snow. Just a short distance farther in, we came to what had been an aid station. Hundreds of bodies stacked like cordwood along with heaps of amputated arms and legs. Many of the bodies were still lying on litters. These were probably being attended to when Jerry unleashed this massive barrage wiping out this aid station. By the amount of shell holes and destruction centered in this one area, this was no accident. Jerry must have had direct observation. Some of these bodies were just beginning to appear through the melting snow, and a more gruesome sight you wouldn’t believe.

“On the trail until now, we had been enclosed in the forest on both sides. All at once we approached a break in the trees on the left side. Here we had a good view of the valley floor below, which was loaded with wrecks of burned out US tanks. I would say there were well over a hundred in this small area. I couldn’t say a tank battle had taken place there, as I did not see one destroyed Kraut tank. The Krauts were probably sitting back with their 88s and artillery, and annihilated them. Just about all of these tanks had burned, so it would be safe to assume the charred bodies of the crews were still inside.”

As Lieutenant Joe Meyers, with Company D, 505th, moved down the trail with his company, the sights that they witnessed made many of the troopers physically ill. “There was a considerable amount of retching and vomiting going on in [Lieutenant John] Cobb’s platoon.”

The following day, February 9, the division began an attack at 10:30 a.m., in conjunction with the 78th Infantry Division on the left, which had the objective of capturing the huge Schwammenauel Dam, which controlled water flow of the Roer River. River crossings north of this point on the Cologne Plain could not take place until the dam was captured, because water released from the dam could flood the plains to the north. The objective of the 82nd Airborne Division was to reach the western shore of the Roer River, where an assault river crossing upstream from the dam would take place.

The 505th moved out toward the Roer River against only occasional artillery fire meant to harass their movement. Upon reaching the town of Schmidt, Sergeant Christensen found another scene of unbelievable devastation, almost as appalling as the previous day. “What I really saw was just a pile of rubble. The town had been flattened. Here a terrific battle must have taken place. There were bodies strewn everywhere. Some of these, tanks had run over and flattened.

“Charred bodies were hanging out of turrets where the crews had tried to bail out of these burning hulls. You could see an arm or leg lying around, but no body [that] it had been attached to. Had some wild animal been dragging this off to feast on later? You shook your head and wondered, ‘Is this Armageddon? Has the civilized world gone mad?’

“What I had witnessed in the Hürtgen would leave a lasting impression. This place must have been the closest to hell one could get without entering the gates.”

On the left flank, the 2nd Battalion, 508th, moved out from Bergstein, attacking east fourteen hundred yards through extensive minefields, with German artillery firing from across the river and from high ground to the south. The battalion was held up and ordered to dig in, while the 505th awaited ammunition in order to continue its assault and knock out a German artillery piece firing on the 2nd Battalion, 508th, from the high ground to their south.

The division attacked at 2:00 a.m. on the morning of the 10th of February to take the high ground up to the west bank of the Roer. The 1st Battalion, 508th, had as its objective Hill 400. This piece of high ground had been fought over and had changed hands many times during the past three months. Company C led the assault up the hill, but ran into heavy enemy machine gun fire, which was somewhat inaccurate due to the darkness, but it held them up, nevertheless. They attempted to call in artillery, but couldn’t register it accurately, also because of the darkness. The 1st Battalion then deployed Companies A and B on the right flank to envelop the hill from the south. As T/5 William Windom moved around the base of the hill in the Company B column, he heard an explosion. “[Private First Class Joseph G.] Joe Wise, ten yards in front of me, stepped on the first Schu [mine], jumped, hit another, fell, and rolled screaming into more. There was silence, we waited, and at dawn we found we’d been marched through an American minefield as well.

“I found Lieutenant Jones, a new replacement of two days, a West Pointer, with an enlisted man on flank duty, both missing a foot. I got the medics.”

The Germans pulled out before dawn, and the 1st Battalion was on Hill 400 before 9:00 a.m. The 2nd Battalion moved through enemy minefields, but otherwise there was no opposition, and they occupied the ridge to the south of Hill 400 before dawn.

The 505th had received information from patrols the previous night that there was no enemy to its front and moved out to take the high ground west of the river before first light. The 78th Infantry Division was able to secure the massive Schwammenauel Dam, although the Germans had disabled the floodgate valves, causing a steady flow of water to flow north, inundating the Cologne Plain.

Outpost lines were established along the low ground on the west bank to prevent enemy infiltration across the river. The outposts were relieved during darkness every night. The division remained in these positions, with individual units being rotated to allow men to get a hot meal and clean up. On February 15, the 1st Battalion, 325th, moved to a forward assembly area and began practicing along the fast flowing Kall River with tethered boats for an assault crossing of the Roer River. This crossing would be followed by an attack up a 300-foot slope that the Germans had fully prepared for defense, with bunkers, minefields, trenches, and artillery that had pre-registered coordinates for supporting fires.

On the night of February 17, a patrol crossed the Roer River and returned having encountered no opposition. As the 325th prepared for the river crossing, they received their best news in months: it was cancelled.

On February 18, the division was notified that it was being relieved by the 9th Infantry Division, which did so over the next three days. Except for organic transportation units, the division was put on trains and moved mostly in 40 and 8 boxcars, first to Aachen and then to its base camps in the Rheims, France area. The Sissone and Suippes base camps had been taken over by hospitals, and the 325th, 505th, and 508th were billeted in tents around the main posts, while the 504th was moved to accommodations at nearby Laon.

The skeleton force that was the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in France in terrible need of rest, new equipment, and replacements. When Sergeant Paul Nunan returned from a thirty day furlough to the United States, he found the Company D, 505th tents. “I walked around the company area for ten or fifteen minutes before I saw anybody I knew.”

The officers and men were given passes and a few days to rest, while replacements were brought in, many directly from the United States, where they had just graduated from jump school. Other replacements came from the disbanded 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry, and 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion. These veterans were divided among the units, further embittering these fine combat veterans, who retained loyalties with their former units.

Men and officers wounded in Holland and Belgium and those fortunate enough to have been in the Unites States on thirty-day furloughs when the division was fighting in Belgium and Germany returned to the division and helped bring unit cohesion back to their respective outfits.

However, the personnel makeup of most of the rifle companies was almost unrecognizable from those who had jumped in Holland less than six months earlier. Most companies had new officers; many had enlisted men who were now non-coms, having assumed those responsibilities during the fighting of the last two months. Over the next several weeks, numerous promotions and changes in command took place. One example of this was the replacement of Lieutenant Colonel Krause, the 505th executive officer, who was rotated home. Major Talton Long succeeded him as executive officer, while Captain James T. Maness was promoted to major and took over command of the 1st Battalion, 505th.

Parades and reviews were held, where the decorations for individual and unit valor were awarded. General Gavin spoke to the assembled division and told them that they would be getting in on the fighting to finish the war in Europe.

The division began more training, working to rebuild teamwork in the units decimated in the earlier fighting. The veterans were tired of the repetitious training they knew by heart. But the young replacements had to learn the tricks and techniques that would not only keep them alive, but would help insure the success of the unit in combat.

Rumors swirled that the division would jump across the Rhine River to open the way into the heart of Germany and that the division would jump into Berlin to grab it before the Russians. The first rumor was dispelled on March 7, when the First Army seized the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River.

During the next month there were several alerts for possible missions, and a couple of practice jumps were held. On March 14, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 508th made a practice jump to maintain their jump status. A tragic accident occurred that morning when the 1st Battalion jumped. As the troopers began jumping, one of the C-47s in the rear of the serial lost a propeller and began to lose altitude, flying down through the helpless paratroopers, catching the chutes of some of the troopers on its wings and tail. It crashed, bursting into flames upon impact. Seven paratroopers were killed, along with four members of the plane’s crew.

When Private First Class Lane Lewis, with Company G, heard about this disaster, he couldn’t help but be nervous when his battalion jumped the following day. “Everyone in our battalion had heard about what had happened yesterday. As I jumped out, I looked back at the planes that were in the rear of the formation. I was not anxious to have a repeat performance from yesterday’s jump. We all made it to the ground safely. It was so very sad, that this close to the end of the war, eleven men lost their lives to an accident.” It was particularly haunting for those who had made it through all of the combat and had to wonder if they might too die in a training accident.

On the morning of March 24, Private First Class Lewis looked up when he heard the sound of hundreds of planes. “A large formation of C-47s towing gliders was seen as they flew overhead. We wondered where they were headed. We later learned that [the 17th Airborne Division was] making a combat jump into Germany to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine River [Operation Varsity]. This river was the last major barrier to the interior of Germany. We were only too happy not to be going along. The war against Germany was coming to a close. The Russians were advancing to the city of Berlin. The British had crossed the Rhine River.”

The second rumor of a combat jump into Berlin was put to rest when, on April 2, the division was loaded on 40 and 8 boxcars once again for a combat operation somewhere in Germany. On March 30, General Gavin had been called to XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters where he received orders to move the division to a location southwest of Bonn, Germany. The following day the division was attached to the Fifteenth US Army and ordered to patrol the west bank of the Rhine River, across from a huge pocket of trapped German forces in the Ruhr industrial area.

However, the division would make the trip without the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was detached when division strength was reduced to the TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment) level, which only authorized one glider regiment (the 325th) and two parachute regiments (the 504th and 505th). The 508th, as an attached regiment, had been a valuable asset of the 82nd Airborne Division, and they were missed. After everything the regiment had done as part of the division, the troopers of the 508th considered themselves to be an integral part of the 82nd and hated ending their association with the All Americans.

The 508th was detached for a potential special mission. On April 4, Private First Class Lewis boarded a truck that was part of a convoy that trucked the 508th to airfields near Chartres, southwest of Paris. “We were prepared to jump on as little as forty-eight hours’ notice to liberate any prisoner of war camps, should the Germans resort to atrocities.”

On the evening of April 2, the trains carrying the division began unloading at a single rail siding at Stolberg, Germany. It took all of the following day for the division to fully debark from the trains, but this was completed shortly before midnight on April 3–4.

OPERATION VARSITY

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Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders. Comment : This was Operation Varsity, part of Operation Plunder.

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By March 1945 the Allies had advanced up to the River Rhine, the last great defensive barrier against the western armies. The Canadians had fought through the Reichswald whilst the British had assisted in the restoring of the lines in the northern sector of the Ardennes following the Battle of the Bulge. Further to the south Hodge’s US 1st Army was at Koblenz on the Rhine and Patton’s 3rd Army was opposite Mainz. Montgomery, seeing a chance to cross the Rhine in the area of Wesel utilising his 21st Army Group put forward the plan for Operation Plunder. This would incorporate 1st Canadian, 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Crossing the Rhine they could then advance into the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr and on to the North German Plain, which was ideal ground for a rapid armoured advance. Montgomery would also include airborne forces in his plan. Dropping just behind the river crossings to secure towns on the intended route of advance as well as disrupting the German reaction to the crossings and halting reinforcements into the area. Learning lessons from the Market Garden debacle, the airborne troops would expect to link up with the ground forces within 24 hours.

The plan was for the Canadian 1st Army to hold the left flank of the assault whilst also making feint attacks across the river to draw the defenders’ attention from the main assault. The British 2nd Army was to make an assault crossing opposite Rees with the 1st Commando Brigade crossing just north of Wesel itself. The US 9th Army would cross further to the south with the aim of advancing on Munster whilst protecting the right flank. The airborne element would utilise the 17th US and 6th British Airborne Divisions. The 6th, made up of 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill, 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett and 6th Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy would drop around the towns of Hamminkeln and Schnappenberg and the Diersfordter Wald, a forested area east of the Rhine, secure the towns and the surrounding area and await for the arrival of the ground forces. They would also capture several crossings over the smaller Issel river to the east of the Rhine. The 17th, made up of 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, 513th PIR commanded by Colonel James Coutts and 194th Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Pierce would drop just south of the 6th but north of Wesel, again securing areas of the Diersfordter Wald and disrupt any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the battle zone. The plan was also made to include the 13th US Airborne Division but due to a lack of transport aircraft this division was left behind.

Preparations for the crossing commenced on 16 March with the laying of a massive smoke screen to cover the Allied build up and deployment of the supporting artillery, which would total over 5,000 guns. Facing the upcoming assault were elements of the German 86th Corps and 2nd Parachute Corps, with the brunt of the attack been taken by 7th Parachute Division and the 84th Infantry Division. Further to the rear on the east side of the Issel river were the severely depleted but still threatening 116th Panzer Division, with a total of some seventy tanks. The area surrounding Wesel was also thick with anti-aircraft batteries.

During the afternoon of the 23 March 1945 a massive air raid on Wesel was followed by a four hour bombardment from the allied artillery covering the entire 21st Army Group front but concentrating on the town of Wesel. Late that evening the first elements of 2nd Army, the 51st Highland Division made its crossing in amphibious Buffalo vehicles, the crossing taking less than three minutes. The path was laid by an array of searchlights and tracer fire firing from the west to the east bank. Just after midnight the 15th (Scottish) Division would land on the east bank too. The 1st Commando Brigade would do the same landing just north of Wesel. No. 46 (RM) Commando were in the lead and managed to create a bridgehead, despite tough resistance. No. 6 Commando then passed through their positions and began entering the outskirts of the town before they were met by local counter-attacks. The Germans, alerted for days by the smoke screen and the preliminary bombardment were dazed, but soon began to put up a solid defence all along the eastern bank of the Rhine, the 51st Division did not manage to capture the northern town of Rees by the end of the first day, whilst the 15th Division was facing Fallschirmjaeger well emplaced with machine guns and numerous anti-tank ditches.

To the south the Americans were meeting less stubborn resistance but were still taking casualties. The lead unit, 30th Infantry Division managed to gain a strong foothold on the eastern bank whilst the 79th Division did the same to their south.

On the morning of 24 March 1,600 transports, mostly C-47 Dakotas but with some newly arrived C-46 Commando and C-54 transports, began to form up above Belgium. Being towed by these aircraft were a total of 1,300 gliders, made up of Horsa, Waco and the heavy lift Hamilcar. The vast armada stretched for some 200 miles and was heavily protected by fighter aircraft. This was to be the largest airborne drop in military history.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first over their drop zone, DZ ‘A’, and were met with ferocious anit-aircraft fire. The unit did however manage to land as a cohesive unit on the drop zone ten minutes before their H-Hour of 10.00. Once on the ground they held off local counter-attacks and went about clearing their area of the Diersfordter as well as moving on the village of Schnappenberg, which was captured by 14.00.

Closely following the 3rd were the men of 5th Parachute Brigade, landing on DZ ‘B’. Here the men again landed within their designated area but were met with intense artillery fire onto the drop zone. This had to be neutralised before the Brigade could then go about its tasks.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade was separated into companys for its assault. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry landed to the north on LZ ‘O’. Their task being to secure the two bridges over the River Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed just south on LZ ‘U’ to secure the main road bridge whilst 12th Battalion of Devonshire Regiment landed LZ ‘P’ tasked with the capture of Hamminkeln. By now the German defenders were fully alerted and the slow moving gliders, along with the towing aircraft were met with heavy flak. This took an extreme toll on the glidermen with many casualties from aircraft crashing or making emergency landings. These same flak cannons were then lowered to the horizontal where they engaged the brigade as they formed up on their respective landing zones. 2 Ox and Bucks captured the two bridges and established footholds on the eastern bank of the Issel. 1 RUR also captured their bridge. 12 Devons took the most casualties on landing but despite this moved on Hamminkeln and took it with the aid of the misdropped men of 513th PIR. As the glidermen dug in to defend their positions local counter-attacks by the Germans, supported by armour were made, these being fought off. However the area around 2 Ox and Bucks positions at the road bridge was severely threatened and they were pushed from the east bank. This was taken with an immediate counter-attack, but when enemy armour approached the bridge it was decided to blow it.

First of the American units to drop was the 507th PIR. They were to drop on DZ ‘W’ but due to a thick haze low to the ground half of the regiment landed further north of the town of Diersfordt. Nevertheless the men made their way to the rest of the regiment, engaging any enemy they saw on their way, again all the regiments tanks were fulfilled by the early afternoon.

Next to drop were the 517th PIR. En route to the drop their aircraft hit a particularly bad belt of flak, taking a huge toll on the transports, especially the C-46 Commando aircraft. The C-47s with which the paras were familiar with had been fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks, however the C-46s did not have this facility and were very susceptible to explode due to the high volume of flak. General Matthew Ridgway would later forbid the use of the type in future operations. To add to the drama the ground haze caused the 507th to be misdropped on the 6th Airlanding Brigades area. Typically of paratroopers they dealt with the problem quickly and adapted their plans accordingly. They joined forces with their British counterparts and aided in the capture of Hamminkeln.

West of the 507th the 194th GIR came down on LZ ‘S’. Again the gliders and transports took heavy casualties, the glidermen actually landing amongst an artillery emplacement engaging targets on the western bank of the Rhine. This was duly silenced by the glidermen.

As 24 March came to a close all the tasks given to the men of the various airborne units had been accomplished. The German rear had been thrown into disarray and allowed for the consolidation of the bridgehead over the Rhine by the land forces. The routes taken by any potential counter-attack from the German panzer units stationed further to the rear were held and the town of Hamminkeln had been captured. By midnight of 24 March the 15th Division had made contact with the 6th Airborne and armour was starting to come across the river to further reinforce the bridgehead. By the following day twelve pontoon bridges were laid across the Rhine to aid the stream of Allied forces east of the river. The attack had been costly on the airborne forces, with the 6th Airborne suffering 1,300 casualties and the 17th Airborne suffering a similar amount. However the lessons learned from Market Garden had proved to be fruitful, with an airborne army landing in the enemy’s direct rear area a swift victory could be achieved. The German defences in the west had been cracked and now the road was open for 21st Army Group to exploit the gap and continue on to the Elbe river, swinging south to join with the American counterparts, who had forced various crossings along the southern part of the Rhine. Within six weeks the war in Europe would come to an end.