Army of the US

The US Army Strategy, published in late 2018, continued the army’s shift from a focus on counterinsurgency to high-intensity conflict `involving large-scale combat with Division and Corps-level maneuvers against near-peer competitors’. The strategy has four lines of effort: building readiness; modernisation; reform; and strengthening alliances and partnerships.

Building readiness for war and large-scale contingencies remains a key focus. In its posture statement in March 2019, the army reported that since 2016 it had increased the number of ready Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) from 18 to 28, while readiness was up by 11%. At the same time, US$1.7bn was budgeted in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to improve prepositioned equipment and supplies. The army also plans to staff its operational units to 105% of establishment strength by 2020 and has cut the number of non-deployable soldiers from 15% in 2015 to 6% in 2019, thereby making available thousands more personnel. Training is also receiving a boost, with more `decisive action’ rotations due at combat-training centres in fiscal year 2019. Additionally, recognising the challenges of high intensity combat, the two Infantry BCTs have been converted into Armored BCTs; for one of these, it is understood the army had to draw equipment from its Korean Enduring Equipment Set. Meanwhile, the army has increased Infantry and Armor One Station Unit Training (basic training and elements of trade training) from 14 to 22 weeks and plans to increase training periods in other branches.

However, readiness challenges remain, particularly in recruiting to the desired end-strength. A strong US economy, coupled with low unemployment, is providing tough competition – the army was 6,500 people short of its 2018 personnel goal. It has since bolstered its recruiting efforts, adding 700 recruiters, expanding its online advertising and focusing on 22 cities. This approach worked in 2019; the army exceeded its goal, enlisting more than 68,000 new active-duty soldiers.

In July 2019, Army Futures Command reached full operational capability. It is responsible for providing unity of command for the army’s modernisation efforts so that, as the Army Posture Statement has it, there is one commander for `concept development, requirements determination, organizational design, science and technology research, and solution development’. The army’s modernisation ambitions are reflected in its Army Reform Initiative. This effort reassigned funds from about 200 legacy programmes to 31 key modernisation efforts, particularly the army’s top six priorities: long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicles; future vertical lift; army network; air and missile defence; and soldier lethality. These investments are bearing fruit, with new capabilities developing more rapidly than in the past; one example is the army’s announcement that it will field a hypersonic-missile unit in 2023.

The army’s main future concept is the U. S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 (version 1.5), published in December 2018. This looks to prepare the service, as part of a joint force, for the challenges posed particularly by China and Russia, both in competition and conflict. Key to the concept is the idea of integrating service capabilities, rather than simply synchronising them. Perhaps the central challenge to realising the potential of the concept is that the other armed services (and civilian agencies) will have to contribute capabilities the army does not control, and so far there does not seem to have been strong inter-service support for the army’s efforts. There is no overarching joint concept to drive convergence, and the other services are developing their own operating approaches – for example the air force’s Multi-Domain Command and Control concept. Furthermore, since the demise of the four-star US Joint Forces Command, joint concept-development capabilities have decreased. Nevertheless, the army is moving forward and has fielded an experimental multi-domain task force for the Pacific and is organising another for Europe.

The army is also trying to reform its processes in order to achieve efficiencies and reduce procurement and acquisition times. Several examples show the breadth of these efforts: the realignment of Installation Management Command under Army Materiel Command; the reform of contracting services; the implementation of an audit system across all army accounts by fiscal year 2022; and the reorganisation of medical capabilities, as the Department of Defense transitions medical-treatment facilities from the armed services to the Defense Health Agency.

The army also remains committed to strengthening alliances and partnerships. As well as its enduring and operational deployments abroad and a full exercise programme, a Security Force Assistance Command was established to oversee the army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs). These are responsible for training, advising, assisting, enabling and accompanying allied and partner nations. The first of these, the 3rd SFAB, was formally activated in July 2019. The SFABs free other BCTs to focus on preparing for high-intensity combat, while retaining the capabilities gleaned from over a decade of counterinsurgency and irregular-warfare operations.

In summer 2019, the army saw significant leadership changes. Mark Esper became secretary of defense and General Mark Milley became the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their tenures have marked a significant shift in direction for the army towards preparing for the challenges identified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Nevertheless, continuity seems to be ensured, as Esper and Milley are both succeeded by their deputies: Ryan McCarthy as secretary of the army and General James McConville as US Army chief of staff respectively.

Service choices

The US Army continues to prioritise for modernisation the `big six’ equipment projects: long-range precision fires; armoured-vehicle replacements; future vertical lift; networking efforts; air and missile defence; and soldier lethality.

However, under the leadership of then-secretary of the army Mark Esper, the army attempted to make its modernisation plans budget-neutral by engaging in so-called `night court’ senior-level reviews of each army acquisition programme. This led to the saving of some US$25bn in five years for reinvestment in the big six priorities. The army’s most controversial decisions included the cancellation of a planned upgrade to the CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter and reduced quantities of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. As secretary of defense, Esper is expected to bring the same senior-level-review process to the entire DoD budget in the FY2021 budget request, a process he began with a review of defence-wide functions outside the military services.


Russia’s 14Ts033 Nudol ASAT capable

In 2019, a series of announcements highlighted the growing importance of space for national security and defence. At its November 2019 foreign-ministers’ meeting in Belgium, NATO declared space an `operational domain’ for the Alliance, three months after the United States activated US Space Command as a new, eleventh, combatant command. According to the US Department of Defense, the US `faces serious and growing challenges to its freedom to operate in space’. China and Russia, it said, `view counterspace capabilities as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness’.

Space is a critical aspect of everyday civilian, as well as military, activity. The technical and cost barriers to entry have reduced, enabling more countries to possess space assets. Many of these are dual use. More countries are relying on space to support and enhance their military operations, in turn providing an incentive for the development of counter-space and anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. Many of these resemble those developed by the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. One risk, some analysts argue, is that today there may be fewer deterrent effects to hold back the use of such capabilities, particularly if states look to employ these systems as part of sub-threshold activity.

This emergent acknowledgement that space is another domain of military competition and potential conflict raises numerous questions. These include how best to organise military space forces and how to protect or harden satellites against attack, while also developing the means to interfere with adversary assets. There are also questions relating to the rapid growth of private-sector space systems and how these may drive competition or be leveraged by armed forces. Another challenge is how to better integrate military space operations with operations in the air, on land, at sea and in cyberspace. Additionally, the prospect of offensive military action in space, or activity that targets uplinks, downlinks or ground stations, raises concerns about collateral damage to the global space services that underpin modern commercial and social life; how arms-control or confidence-building regimes could be used to limit the use tions or mistakes that could risk confrontation or even conflict in space or on Earth.

Cold War heritage

The Russian (then-Soviet) and US space programmes have their roots in producing delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, but this shifted, more or less contemporaneously, to include launching satellites. Increased Soviet air-defence capabilities drove the Eisenhower administration to develop satellites to bolster intelligence-collection activities. Although the Soviet Union achieved early public firsts with the Sputnik satellite (which reached orbit in October 1957 atop a modified ballistic missile) and the first human spaceflight (when Yuri Gagarin orbited on 12 April 1961 in Vostok 1), the classified US Corona reconnaissance-satellite programme first proved the national-security benefits to be had in exploiting space.

Moscow and Washington engaged in military competition in space throughout the Cold War. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the foundation of international space law, limited military space competition by outlawing the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit and the establishment of military bases on the Moon, but also allowed for a wide range of other military space activities under the euphemism `peaceful uses’. Initial ideas for crewed military space stations and orbital bombers soon gave way to more practical satellites that provided critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); communications; and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) services from space. The military utility of these services drove both the Soviet Union and the US to also develop and deploy ground- and space-based ASAT capabilities. These weapons were never used in a military conflict, largely because the use of satellites to verify arms control treaties and provide warning of nuclear attack deterred space attacks, for fear they would trigger a wider, possibly nuclear, confrontation.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the Reagan administration’s public drive for its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) spurred a new round of international concern over military competition in space. There was increased concern that the militarisation of space might turn into the weaponisation of space, potentially including space-based systems that could be used to target installations on Earth. However, capabilities envisioned for SDI were not deployed before the Cold War came to an end.

Developing competition

The US was the dominant space power after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Soviet-era Russian military space programmes faced budget cuts and, analysts understand, ASAT programmes were mothballed. For Washington, the value of space for supporting and enhancing military operations was proven in the 1990-91 First Gulf War and the 1999 bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia. These drove increased military investment in space-based services and spurred their integration into air, land and maritime forces. In the late 1990s, the US armed forces drew up plans for broader efforts to achieve full-spectrum `dominance’ in space, but these lost momentum after 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in favour of using space capabilities to support and enhance those operations.

While the US was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, China and Russia began to increase their investment in national-security space capabilities. Both countries were embarked on military modernisation programmes, learning lessons from US and Western operations as far back as the First Gulf War, and in Russia’s case also rejuvenating some hitherto dormant military space projects with renewed funding streams. Some analysts understand this included moving some counter-space and ASAT programmes out of storage or developing new versions. It has been reported that the then commander of Russia’s space forces had said in 2010 that Russia was `again developing inspection’ and `strike’ satellites. Russia also embarked on a project to restore its GLONASS satellite-navigation constellation. For its part, China embarked on a wide-ranging programme to develop its own space-based capabilities for ISR, PNT and communications to support its national-security needs (launches began in 2000 for China’s Beidou satellite-navigation system), as well as a suite of counter-space and ASAT capabilities of its own. China conducted multiple tests of ground-based ASAT weapons, including one in January 2007, using a direct-ascent missile, that destroyed one of its own weather satellites and resulted in several thousand pieces of orbital debris. (The US and Soviet Union had themselves carried out ASAT tests during the Cold War.)

During the 2010s, the US became increasingly concerned about the threats to its space capabilities. In 2013, the Obama administration compiled a National Intelligence Estimate of Russian and Chinese counter-space capabilities and reviewed the United States’ space posture. This sparked several initiatives intended to reorganise national-security space capabilities and increase the resilience of US space assets to attack, and saw the first public discussions by senior military leaders about the possibility of space becoming a future domain of conflict. The Trump administration has continued this focus, with public statements about the inevitability of space as a war-fighting domain and impetus for a major reorganisation of US military space bureaucracy.

Diffusing space competition

With space becoming integral to future military competition and conflict, and as more countries invest in space-based capabilities to enhance their national security interests, the tendency to seek counterspace and ASAT capabilities is now evident. Current conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine already feature the significant use of ground-based jamming and spoofing of satellite-navigation and satellite-communications systems as part of military operations. This has taken place elsewhere, as demonstrated by the 2016 jamming of satellite-navigation signals in South Korea, attributed to North Korea by the South, and reports in 2019 that satellite-navigation signals offshore Shanghai were being spoofed. Meanwhile, China and Russia have continued their ASAT testing and development programmes. Meanwhile, India tested its own direct-ascent ASAT weapon in March 2019 and some in the US have argued that it should also develop an offensive capability.

The types of counter-space capabilities being explored today are fundamentally the same as those developed during the Cold War. Russia’s 51T6 Gorgon missile (part of the A-135 anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system) was reported to have a latent direct-ascent ASAT capability, while it remains unclear if Russia’s 14Ts033 Nudol (which might be associated with the A-235 ABM system) has a similar capability. As well as ground-, sea- or air-launched missiles used as direct-ascent weapons to destroy satellites in low-Earth orbit, interceptors placed in orbit could be used as co-orbital weapons, manoeuvring and rendezvousing with a target satellite to try and damage or destroy it. These interceptors could include manoeuvrable satellites. High-powered lasers and other types of directed-energy weapons could also be employed to temporarily blind or otherwise interfere with satellites, although physical destruction using a laser (particularly from a ground-based location) is, specialists assert, still some way off. More immediate threats, however, are the jamming of satellite radiofrequency transmissions and cyber attacks against ground-control stations, which could disrupt the military use of satellites during a conflict.

Protection and resilience

There is a continuing debate over how best to protect satellites from attack. Russia and the US were effectively deterred from targeting early-warning satellites during the Cold War by the risk of starting a nuclear war. The lack of hostile threats for most of the period since has meant that functionality became a prime design determinant for national-security satellites. This led to a focus on large, capable and expensive national-security satellites, with long development and replacement timelines. Some analysts have argued that developing offensive capabilities to threaten adversary satellites might itself deter potential attacks. That said, if a nation with such offensive capabilities is itself heavily reliant on space-enabled systems, it may be disinclined to take action that might in turn imperil these. Instead, a key strategy has been to increase the resilience of space capabilities by moving to new constellations of numerous smaller satellites, potentially spread across multiple orbits; using commercial or allied satellites; and generating operationally responsive space capabilities, so as to quickly reconstitute those constellations. For satellite applications where this is not feasible, the focus has been on enabling satellites to defend against attacks, perhaps with additional manoeuvring capabilities or on-board systems to confuse or interfere with targeting systems, or improved protection against threats including dazzling or jamming. Analysts understand that as part of the expansion of its military space functions, and stemming from concerns about potential on-orbit vulnerability, France is considering passive and active protection for its future satellites, as well as systems that could provide warning of an impending threat, thereby allowing defensive manouevres.

At the same time, some states are preparing to operate in environments where they no longer have assured access to space or assured data reliability from their space-based systems. More exercises have been observed in which GPS signals have been deliberately degraded, while it was reported in 2016 that the US Navy was reinstating celestial-navigation training amid fears of GPS degradation or spoofing. This is also significant for guided weapons, where there is renewed attention on hardening systems against electronic attack, as well as forms of redundancy, for instance in guidance systems that may be otherwise dependent on signals from space-based systems.

One critical contemporary feature that was not present during the Cold War is the involvement of the private sector. The Apollo programme and other major Cold War space programmes were government directed and funded (although they used contracted industry support), whereas today commercial companies are often engaged in their own space activities independent of governments. States are turning to commercial companies as a source of technological innovation that could be utilised for military applications and to provide core services, with the hoped-for benefit of releasing military budgets to fund military specific capabilities.

Debates are also under way about how best to organise military space functions. While a range of countries have a military space function, these are often limited in scale, concerned with resilience or the management of space-enabled assets, and are attached or subordinate to larger organisations or services.

However, in recent years several states have moved to strengthen the integration of space and other military capabilities. In December 2015, China established its Strategic Support Force, combining electronic-warfare, space and cyber units, though analysts remain uncertain if this includes counterspace forces. Also in 2015, Russia established its Aerospace Forces, combining its previous air, air defence and space units under the same command. France announced in August 2019 that it would elevate its existing Joint Space Command to a Space Command, under the renamed French Air and Space Forces. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom unveiled its Defence Space Strategy in mid-2019, announcing investments in space systems, including small-satellite development.

In the US, however, both Congress and the Trump administration have called for space to be separated out from the air force and put into a new military service. President Trump has insisted this be a separate `Department of the Space Force’, while the Pentagon and Congress seem to favour a semi-separate Space Force within the Department of the Air Force, similar to the relationship between the US Marine Corps and the US Navy. In 2018, Congress directed the re-establishment of US Space Command (USSPACECOM) to reassume the space-war-fighting function that had been carried out by US Strategic Command since the demise of the original USSPACECOM in 2002. In its new role, USSPACECOM will serve as a geographic combatant command, responsible for all military operations above 100 kilometres altitude and integrating military space capabilities into the planning and operations of other combatant commands. In December 2019, it was reported that (as part of the negotiations over the 2020 defence budget) US legislators agreed to establish a US Space Force as a separate military branch.

Unresolved issues

The increasing focus on space as a potential domain of military confrontation is also driving an awareness of the need to limit the effect that this could have on non-military space activities, as is the case with military activities in other domains. Analysts studying this challenge have posited a number of steps that could be considered, including the development of transparency and confidence-building measures that could help reduce the chances of accidents, mistakes or misperceptions that could trigger a confrontation, or worse, in space. Such measures could also be useful in helping to identify unusual actions or activities that could be, or could be a precursor to, a hostile attack against a satellite. Whether or not such an attack would amount to a use of force, possibly leading a state to invoke the right of self-defence, is a question being debated by military lawyers and academics, as are questions relating to the application of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict to military space operations. These debates become more complex if states look to employ military space capabilities that are below the threshold of conventional military activity.

There is also renewed interest in arms-control measures to mitigate the disastrous effect conflict in space could have on the civilian use of space services. In late 2018, the United Nations’ First Committee continued its long-standing discussions regarding the potential for a rules-based order `to securely govern’ space. Russia and China highlighted their draft treaty (presented in 2008 and 2014), which is aimed at preventing the placement of weapons in space. The US position on China and Russia’s proposals, as elaborated in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, is that they `do not cover multiple issues connected to the ASAT weapons they are developing and deploying’. These shortcomings, according to the US, have allowed China and Russia to `pursue space warfare capabilities while maintaining the position that space must remain weapons free’.

Space has become a critical part of the global economy and everyday life. It is essential to weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and maintaining global communications and transportation infrastructure. The widespread use of destructive space weapons that create persistent orbital debris or the indiscriminate jamming of civilian PNT signals could have consequences beyond their military purpose. As such, there are questions as to what potentially destructive space capabilities should be off limits, similar to discussions relating to cluster bombs, landmines, cyber warfare and similar capabilities in other domains.

A key difficulty is that many of these space capabilities are now generated not solely by and for governments but also by the private sector, with the same holding true of space-related research and development. Developing and maintaining a competitive advantage in space will in future likely involve greater cooperation between the public and private sectors. It will also mean generating more competition within the private sector to spur innovation and cost-effectiveness. Dependencies have also developed since the end of the Cold War – the US, for instance, is currently reliant on Russian engines and space launch facilities for some of its major space requirements. If anything, the use of space-based assets has become so routine that reawakening their national security relevance, or indeed informing populations of the extent of their dependence on space, is now a growing challenge for governments.

‘Second Front Now’

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45 (H 18957) Men of No. 4 Commando after returning from a raid on the French coast near Boulogne, 22 April 1942. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Within hours of having delivered himself of the British determination to stand by all who opposed Hitler, regardless of race or creed, Churchill addressed his mind to practical means of diverting German forces from their Eastern enterprise. A minute to the Chiefs of Staff on 23 June urged upon them the need to step up air attacks by day as well as by night and also to concentrate attention upon surface raids:

I have in mind something on the scale of 25,000–30,000 men – perhaps the Commandos plus one of the Canadian divisions… As long as we can keep air domination over the Channel and the Pas de Calais it ought to be possible to achieve a considerable result.

Among the other objectives, the destruction of the guns and batteries, of all shipping, of all stores, and the killing and capturing of a large number of Germans present themselves. The blocking of the harbours of Calais and Boulogne might also be attempted… Now the enemy is busy in Russia is the time to ‘Make hell while the sun shines’.

Coming after the cancellation of Barbaric these contradictions were confusing and so the Chiefs of Staff took them with a pinch of salt and told the planners to concentrate their energies on small raids across the narrow waters. Captain G. A. French, RN, who chaired an important meeting of the Executive Planning Staff to consider the ‘runners’ a few days later, said in an interview that they usually had before them scores of ideas from which to select a manageable handful.

First choice fell on a reconnaissance patrol named Chess which the War Cabinet Defence Committee adopted on 7 July and Keyes passed to Vice-Admiral Dover for action against Ambleteuse. Another small operation, Acid Drop, was to follow in August, followed by a third, Chopper, in September. Representing the Naval Intelligence Department at that meeting was Lieutenant-Commander G. Gonin, who took the opportunity of a lull in the formal discussions to mention to French an idea he and his colleagues had had for a raid on the very large dry dock at St Nazaire, for which the German battleship Bismarck had been making before she had been caught and sunk the previous month and which, any day, might be the destination of Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz. It is not often one can identify exactly who generated an operational scheme but this one was of particular importance, and for a great many reasons which will appear in due course. For now it was merely referred for consideration and found a place in DCO’s diary later in July under the name Operation Chariot.

The idea, however, so stimulated Churchill’s imagination that he expanded it at once into a concept aimed at ‘nipping out the Brest peninsula’. This unrealistic scheme led the Chiefs of Staff into a desperate rearguard action to convince the Prime Minister that a project that would demand six divisions and which, from shortage of shipping, let alone of trained troops, would stretch their resources to the limit, was impossible. One fancies here that, however impractical Churchill seemed (and it is worth recalling that he avoided mention of these follies in his Memoirs), his goadings were the products of political expediency as well as sticks to whip the Chiefs and planners, whose caution he saw as obstructiveness. Already Communist voices which, prior to 22 June, had stood against the ‘capitalist and imperialist war’, were beginning to agitate for a Second Front now, and were painting the demand on walls and publishing it in the papers. Churchill may have later written that ‘we did not allow these sorry and ignominious facts to disturb our thoughts’, and he did, on 20 July, answer Stalin’s demand for a major diversion of Lend Lease Aid from Britain to Russia and his request for vigorous action across the Channel with a well-reasoned paper pointing out how impossible it was, due to lack of shipping and almost everything else.

The fact remains that serious study was made of several ambitious projects in the medium-to-large-raid category in order to satisfy Stalin:

1. Operation Ransack – a tip-and-run raid of Brigade strength ‘to kill Germans and do as much damage as possible’ (preferably against a German Security HQ at Le Touquet) without interfering with Pilgrim. The JPS rejected it because only six LTCs (enough to land a single squadron of tanks) were available, and only 600 semi-equipped parachutists. Remorselessly the tyranny of chronic shortages trimmed down the force to a couple of troops from 5 Commando and a company of line infantry, carried in eight Eurekas, tasked to raid an undisclosed airfield in the Pas de Calais. Like similar designs, including one called Irrigate, it was squashed by the Prime Minister for the same reason he had squashed Barbaric – lack of effect for too much risk.

2. A joint operation suggested by the Russians, which, Churchill reasoned, had to be taken very seriously – an invasion of Northern Norway to clear the country southward and free the sea route to Murmansk along which convoys would soon be taking supplies from the West to the Russians. This was discarded by the planners as being beyond the means available, but it stimulated Churchill’s insistent and very unpopular proposals to raid Trondheim or Stavanger in the autumn when the nights were longer.

3. Operation Gauntlet, again at Russia’s suggestion, to seize Bear Island and Spitzbergen with a view to liberating the Norwegians and Russians there, destroying the mines and the coal stocks upon which the Germans were drawing, and eliminating German weather stations which were being secretly inserted.

Of the three only Gauntlet was adopted as a joint British, Canadian and Norwegian venture with the Russians collaborating for the evacuation of their civilians. A force, originally set at two infantry battalions, was whittled down to one (Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) supplemented by 17 British officers and 101 men from the Sappers and several different Commandos. Hit-and-run raid that it was in military terms, the whole thing had about it the air of a peacetime policing operation, with the troops sailing in the comparative luxury of the liner Empress of Canada and the escort of two cruisers and three destroyers not being called upon to take offensive action. ‘So for better or worse ran Gauntlet’, wrote the Force Commander, Rear-Admiral P. Vian, as the soldiers went ashore on 25 August and began the work of assembling the Norwegian and Russian civilians for evacuation, preparing the Russian-run mines for demolition and the burning of 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel, and arguing hotly with the mine manager who resisted as staunchly as he could the destruction of his life’s work and the future economic well-being of the island. It was a model exercise in peripheral raiding against an undefended target in the absence of enemy detection, a security which was assured by the local Norwegian radio operators who continued to broadcast as if nothing was happening, and totally fooled the Germans as to what was going on.

But not by any stretch of imagination could Gauntlet be rated as a substitute for a Second Front, even if it did help Russia and harm the German economy. Nor were the pinprick raids of July and the months to come any substitute. What impact could a few dozen men, spending a few minutes ashore, have on the 30 German divisions in France which were not in the least stretched by occupation of a secure coast line and controlling a population 99 per cent of whom were peaceful, even if secretly hostile? Of course the ineffectuality of very small raids was well understood. Indeed, on 1 July, Keyes had tried to revive the Barbaric scheme with parachutists and added a few tanks, but this foundered on the same rocks that Ransack would strike.

So, after all the puff and blow, there emerged Operation Chess, a raid by 16 men from 12 Commando, led by an officer who was to become one of the stars of raiding – 2nd Lieutenant P. Pinckney of the Berkshire Yeomanry. Chess was important, not because of what was achieved by a landing at Ambleteuse on the night 27/28 July, but for the precedent it set. For the Prime Minister, having, for the moment, been convinced that the large raids he preferred were impossible, reluctantly agreed to small ones ‘of the order of ten men’, and this, having been formally adopted, became the model for many such to come.

Chess, like all of its kind, was inhibited by weather, by the phases of the moon and the tide quite as much as by enemy resistance. Wind and surf could arise unexpectedly at any time and hamper landing and re-embarkation; tides and moon tended to restrict raiding to one short, dark period of only a few days each month – and in summer a mere four hours’ darkness increased the risks of detection on approach and withdrawal and limited the time which could be spent ashore. Putting a raid together also caused complex problems and included the training and rehearsal of the sailors and troops, the provision and briefing by the Royal Navy of an escort and of motor launchers (MLs) to tow the LCAs to the cast-off point, the arrangement of communications and the notification, without breaching security, of all those who needed to know, to prevent, for example, attack by friendly ships or aircraft. Generals who, by the existing rules, held ‘the licence to raid enemy sectors opposite their piece of coast’ tended to think of each foray as ‘trench raiding across a watery no-man’s land’, and often had no conception of all that was entailed, which was why Admirals attempted to exclude them from the planning process.

There was a sense of occasion on the evening Pinckney’s force embarked in the MLs at Dover. Conditions were good and the approach to the cast-off point and transfer to the LCAs went without a hitch. However, the noise of engines alerted the Germans, and when 250 yards offshore they must have been seen as whistles were heard from various places ashore. A lesser man than Pinckney might have abandoned Chess there and then, but he was determined to capture a prisoner and was never the sort to give in.

The LCA’s ramp was lowered before beaching was made successfully despite the surf… Some 200 yards down the beach a spot to climb the cliff was discovered. Men and myself climbed up with difficulty and found wire. At this moment a star shell was fired and firing broke out. There was no time to get the others up. An MG was firing from the cliff directly above the boat. We got beneath this and threw up grenades. This silenced the MG. I then re-embarked my party.

Pinckney made it sound all very simple, but the enemy had scored hits on the other LCA, the tracer snaking across the water to the light of the star shells and killing a naval officer and rating. It was touch and go that they managed to escape and Pinckney was to return with a profound respect for the alertness and competence of the enemy whose reception certainly bore out the Prime Minister’s ingrained fear of beach assaults.

Nevertheless Chess was considered encouraging enough to warrant staging a double event a month later – that being the length of time needed to ‘lay on’ such raids. Acid Drop and Cartoon were also to be cautious ventures, confined to reconnaissance with no attempt at combat. In the event Cartoon was abandoned at a later stage, leaving Acid Drop to go it alone in two parties of 30 and 20 men to tackle, respectively, beaches at Hardelot and Merlimont on either side of Le Touquet. Acid Drop turned sour from the start. To the men of 5 Commando the LCA crews appeared slap-happy and deficient in training. Officers in white flannels may look engaging on a yacht but do not inspire confidence on a night operation. Then a misinformed naval officer condemned the soldiers to a voyage in the LCAs, squatting in water instead of in the dry of the MLs. In any case they were destined to land wet since the LCAs stayed too far out for fear of stranding and the Commandos were compelled to wade ashore. Fortunately the enemy here were not as aggressive as those at Ambleteuse. There were no obstacles, no mines and no opposition, despite indications that the Germans were aware of a hostile presence when they began whistling warnings to each other among the dunes. But there was no contact, and so no prisoners. It all went to show how easy Barbaric might have been.

Operation Chopper on 27 September was quite another story. The Royal Navy had taken the lessons of Acid Drop to heart. Not only were the LCA crews well trained but everybody, from top to bottom in the chain of command, was keen to go. One RN officer asked, ‘Why can’t we increase the frequency of these things?’ – a very reasonable request which pointed to indifferent organization and lack of enthusiasm in higher places. No lack of aggression infected 1 Commando on this occasion, although a mistake in navigation took the two LCAs in Force B 3 miles off-course from the objective of Courseulles and landed them in front of alerted defences, illuminated by flares and raked by fire. Two men were killed, one badly wounded and an LCA holed so badly that the men had to bail out to stay afloat. The Commandos were filled with praise for the sailors on this occasion – their determination to get them out under fire, the way they made their way home despite losing contact with the supporting motor gun boats (MGBs) and the care they took with the wounded; in his report, the skipper of LCA 26 said he was ‘regretting having to chop up my centre seat to provide splints for a severely wounded man’.

Force A fared better after it landed correctly at Point de Saire on the Cherbourg peninsula. A party from 5 Troop under Captain G. A. Scaramanga penetrated inland, got no answer when they knocked on the door of a shuttered house and then, as their scouts reached a bend in the road:

A German cyclists’ patrol came round the bend going a good speed on low handle-bar bicycles. There were three in a row in front and one behind. Our leading tommy gunners opened fire immediately. I saw the two leading cyclists on my side of the road crumple up and fall on the road. I ordered the bodies of the two Germans to be taken to the LCA; the other carrying party was slow in coming to the fact that one of the men detailed to carry it had been slightly wounded. Time was pressing, being already 35 minutes after the scheduled time of departure. As the two Germans appeared identical, I ordered one body to be left, and everybody embarked. Two men were slightly wounded, possibly by ricochets from our own tommy guns. Afterward one of my men told me that he had seen the body of a third German dead in the hedge. After re-embarking … fire was opened upon us with one MG firing tracer… No beach obstacles or wire were encountered. No searchlights or Verey lights were seen. No enemy aircraft were seen.

It was only a pin-prick to the Germans who at that moment seemed well on the way to overrunning Russia and then planned to be able to turn back on Britain in 1942. The raids did not receive strong publicity in Britain and only passing mention by the German Propaganda Ministry, which had its attention held elsewhere. But changes were on the way, and the time was not far removed when the Germans would be compelled to take a lot more notice. Before then, however, the Combined Operations organization in Britain had to be taken in hand.

Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War I

In classical Stalinist historiography, the entire Russian Civil War was reduced to the Red Army’s successful repulsion of the “three Entente campaigns,” in which the White and other nationalist armies (Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, etc.) were merely puppets of the Allied leaders. That was a gross exaggeration—indeed, there is a case to be made for ranking the Austro-German intervention as the more consequential foreign involvement in the conflict—but the Allied intervention was not insignificant. The British, French, Japanese, Czechoslovak, and other Allied forces that were sent to Russia, and the matériel and logistical support their governments supplied to the Whites and other forces, may not have been sufficient to enable them to defeat the Bolsheviks, but it can be argued that they were sufficient to have driven the Red Army to the point of exhaustion by 1920 and to have denied Soviet Russia victory in the Soviet–Polish War, which would have enabled it to export the revolution into central Europe.

Although it was to assume a counterrevolutionary guise, Allied intervention in the “Russian” Civil Wars had its roots in the various military missions that were dispatched to the Eastern Front during the First World War to offer advice to and to liaise with the tsarist army, as well as to conduct pro-war propaganda. (Attached to Allied missions and embassies, it is worth noting, were men who would play an important role in the intervention, such as Generals Maurice Janin and Alfred Knox. It is also significant that even in July–August 1917, the latter proved very willing to intervene in Russian politics and to offer his support to those who promised to restore “order” in Russia during the Kornilov affair.) One of the least remembered but most effective elements of the intervention, John F. Steven’s Russian Railway Service Corps, was also a product of negotiations that predated the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Of interest too is that some of the personnel and armored cars employed by Dunsterforce in 1918 had previously been attached to the British Armored Car Expeditionary Force (or the Russian Armored Car Division), commanded on the Eastern Front by Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson in 1916–1917. Conversely, it is also worth remembering that one of the first post-revolutionary landings of Allied forces in Russia—the disembarkation at Murmansk of British marines on 6–8 March 1918—occurred at the invitation of the local soviet and with the blessing of L. D. Trotsky, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. At that point it was far from clear that the Soviet government would sign a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers, and Allied agents such as Robert Bruce Lockhart were hopeful that the Bolsheviks could be persuaded to accept Allied assistance to oppose the Germans and the Austrians (thereby keeping the Eastern Front active and preventing the Central Powers from transferring troops to the Western Front to face the newly arrived American armies), although that did not prevent Lockhart and other Allied agents from simultaneously offering financial support to clandestine anti-Bolshevik organizations such as the Union for the Regeneration of Russia and B. V. Savinkov’s Union for the Defense of Fatherland and Freedom.

At the very least, London and Paris wished to deny the Central Powers (via their White Finnish allies) access to the thousands of tons of military supplies that had built up at Murmansk and Arkhangel′sk, as did the Bolsheviks. Similarly, British and Japanese vessels had been docked at Vladivostok since December 1917, seeking to forestall an anticipated move against the port and its stockpiles from the hundreds of thousands of Austrian and German POWs expected to be released from camps in Siberia if Soviet Russia unilaterally withdrew from the war. Meanwhile, from January 1918 a column of British and Commonwealth soldiers, Dunsterforce, was formed in Persia and then sent to Baku to attempt to deny its oil supplies to the advancing Army of Islam and the German Caucasus Mission. Once the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) had been ratified, however, there was no doubt that the intervention, though still formally described as being anti-German, was anti-Bolshevik in effect—although some Allied leaders, notably the British prime minister, David Lloyd George (unlike his war minister, Winston Churchill), were never convinced that the Soviet government could be ousted by foreign forces.

As tensions between Moscow and the Allies built up over the course of 1918—over the peace treaty, Sovnarkom’s renunciation of tsarist debts and its confiscation of property within Russia, the execution of the Romanov family, the onset of the Red Terror, and the arrest of Allied citizens (including those diplomats implicated in the Lockhart Plot)—increasing numbers of Allied forces were landed in Russia (at Vladivostok from April and at Arkhangel′sk from August 1918), often on the grounds of providing assistance to the newly established regimes associated with the Democratic Counter-Revolution. Such an intervention had, in fact, been requested by moderate socialist leaders in Russia since the spring of 1918, and the call would be repeated at the Jassy Conference in November of that year. Also cited, notably by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (who reluctantly agreed to join the intervention on 17 July 1918, after months of fending off requests from the British and the French), was the desire to assist in the evacuation from Russia of the Czechoslovak Legion. Of course, few Allied leaders were motivated solely by altruism—it is notable, for example, that the British and the Canadians both sent extensive economic missions to Siberia in 1918–1919 to survey the postwar opportunities for boosting their trade in northern Asia—but it was only the Japanese who seemed unconcerned with hiding the naked self-interest that led them to flood the Russian Maritime Province and the Russian railway zone through Manchuria with tens of thousands of troops (followed by hundreds of merchants) over the summer of 1918, while deliberately nurturing the atamanshchina (in the shape of G. M. Semenov and I. M. Kalmykov) that was so damaging to the anti-Bolshevik cause. Indeed, a deciding factor in initiating American intervention in Siberia may have been President Wilson’s concern to prevent the Japanese from closing the “Open Door” for trade in China that was so advantageous to the U.S. economy.

The Allied victory in the First World War in November 1918 facilitated access to Russia and, specifically, to centers of anti-Bolshevik activity in the emerging Baltic States, South Russia, and the North Caucasus, as, following the armistice, the previously closed Baltic and Black Seas were reopened. Consequently, a royal naval squadron was immediately sent into the Baltic in November 1918 to assist and supply arms to the nationalist forces in the Estonian War of Independence and the Latvian War of Independence, while on 18 December 1918, French and Greek forces landed at Odessa and began to move into Ukraine. The situation in South Russia was politically complicated for the Allies, however, as some of the major anti-Bolshevik polities had, in the eyes of London, Paris, and Washington, compromised themselves by their previous dealings with the Germans; this included the Ukrainian National Republic, the Don Cossack Host, and the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Consequently, Allied support went primarily to the Whites, in the shape of the Volunteer Army, as it emerged from the Second Kuban March in November 1918.

Not all Allied leaders found the Whites’ politics palatable, but at least General A. I. Denikin (like his predecessors Generals M. V. Alekseev and L. G. Kornilov) had shunned all approaches from Berlin. Moreover, the Allied leaders were not unattracted to the Whites’ commitment to reestablish a “Russia, One and Indivisible,” fearing that if the Russian Empire disintegrated into a group of smaller polities, there would be no counterweight to German influence in eastern Europe. Besides, there seemed to be no viable moderate alternative: center-left and liberal anti-Bolshevik regimes all across Russia were tumbling as right-wing White authorities established themselves in Siberia (the Omsk government), at Arkhangel′sk (the Provisional Government of the Northern Region), and in South Russia (Denikin’s Special Council). (Although critics of the intervention could quite properly point out that British officers had actively encouraged the makers of the Omsk coup that brought Admiral A. V. Kolchak to power on 18 November 1918, just as they had encouraged the coup launched by Captain G. E. Chaplin at Arkhangel′sk in September 1918, which had undermined the moderate regime of N. V. Chaikovskii.)

Consequently, by early 1919 there were approximately 4,500 U.S. and 8,000 British forces in North Russia, together with smaller contingents of British colonial forces (including Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians), Serbs, Italians, and others, while in Siberia, in addition to 40,000 men of the Czechoslovak Legion, 9,000 men of the American Expeditionary Force (Siberia), commanded by General William S. Graves, were disembarked, together with 4,000 Canadians; 1,500 British and colonial troops; and several thousand diverse French, Polish, Chinese, and other Allied forces (including the Italian Legion), all of them dwarfed by the 70,000-strong Japanese force. In South Russia, nearly 60,000 French forces (most of them Senegalese or Algerian) were based at Odessa, with a smaller contingent of Greeks. British and American forces saw action in North Russia in 1919 in advances down the Northern Dvina and along the Arkhangel′sk–Vologda and Murmansk–St. Petersburg railways, while Franco-Greek forces moving north from Odessa also engaged with elements of the Red Army. In the Baltic, Allied forces did not land in any numbers, but offered important naval and logistical support to anti-Bolshevik forces; Agustus Agar also masterminded two audacious attacks on the Red Baltic Fleet; and Allied military missions sought to curb the ambitions of the Baltische Landeswehr and other Freikorps elements. In Siberia, though, apart from the Czechoslovak Legion (which withdrew to the rear in January 1919, to be replaced by domestic forces of the Russian Army along the Eastern Front), Allied forces remained chiefly in the rear; indeed, the overwhelming majority of them remained in or around Vladivostok, while General Graves was operating under orders from President Wilson to the effect that the AEF should avoid at all cost becoming involved in any military campaign.

As might be expected, the possibility or actuality of having to continue fighting after the armistice was far from universally popular among Allied soldiers sent to Russia, and there were several notable mutinies: among Canadian forces at Victoria on 21 December 1918, on the point of their being dispatched to Vladivostok; among French soldiers on board vessels in the Black Sea in late April 1919; and among British and American units in North Russia on a number of occasions. Military reverses also took their toll: by April 1918, the French had been forced out of Odessa, while in North Russia, after initially pushing the Bolsheviks’ Northern Front south by 70 miles, Anglo-American forces had been forced to withdraw to within 35 miles of Arkhangel′sk. “Hands Off Russia” campaigns, protesting against the intervention, were also organized in Britain, France, and the United States by leftist parties and by the families of those men who had been sent to Russia. All of this, together with growing concerns about the reactionary policies of the Whites—news of the Omsk massacre and other examples of White terror was received with alarm in London, Paris, and Washington—might have been sufficient to persuade Allied leaders that the intervention was unsustainable, even without the fact that from January 1919 they were preoccupied with the refashioning of postwar Europe at the Paris Peace Conference. Thus, as early as 16 February 1919 President Wilson directed his War Department to begin planning the withdrawal of American forces in North Russia. A series of similar decisions was taken over the next few months (beginning with London’s resolution in March 1919 to withdraw its forces from North Russia and Transcaucasia by September of that year), while with the Prinkipo Proposal and the Bullitt Mission the Allies sought a negotiated ending to the conflict in Russia, and the intervention petered out as Allied forces were withdrawn. The Allied blockade of Soviet Russia was lifted from 16 January 1920; prisoners began to be exchanged following the Copenhagen Agreement of 12 February 1920; and the last British and American troops left North Russia on 19 February 1920 and Vladivostok on 1 April 1920 (although most had left months earlier). The Japanese, on the other hand, remained in occupation of northern Sakhalin until 1925.

Far more important than manpower, however, were the supplies of uniforms and weaponry sent to the Whites by the Allies: Britain alone gifted Kolchak and Denikin arms and clothing (worth £100,000,000) to equip forces numbering 200,000 men in 1919, while the numerous tanks and aircraft sent to Russia (as well as the instructors to train their crews and technicians to maintain the machines) were invaluable to the Bolsheviks’ enemies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury allowed B. A. Bakhmetev to utilize credits extended to the Provisional Government to send $50,000,000 worth of supplies to White forces in Siberia and South Russia. On the other hand, the presence of “rapacious foreign imperialists” on Russian soil undoubtedly supplied the Soviet government with a propaganda theme that was useful in motivating its own forces and in winning political sympathy, both at home and abroad (and even from elements that would not normally have been attracted to Bolshevism). Finally, it is arguable that in creating a morale-sapping climate of dependency, in deflecting White leaders from the task of building popular support, and in encouraging anti-Bolshevik forces into launching advances (in the hope of securing more assistance and official recognition) before their armies were ready, Allied intervention may have had some negative impacts on the Whites’ efforts.


Just like its similarly alien but pro-Bolshevik counterpart in the Red Army, the Latvian Riflemen, this non-Russian, anti-Bolshevik force played a part in the “Russian” Civil Wars that was very disproportionate to its size. Although generally treated (especially in Soviet histories) as part of the Allied intervention in Russia (and routinely and misleadingly referred to in Soviet-era books as an organization of “White Czechs”), the legion’s history was specific, although it was echoed (on a smaller scale) by the experience of the Polish Legion and smaller units of Serbian and other volunteers from Allied countries who had happened to find themselves stranded in revolutionary Russia. It should also be noted that Czechoslovak volunteer units fought on the Allied side in the First World War not only in Russia but also in France, Italy, and Serbia.

From the opening days of the First World War, émigré Czech and Slovak politicians and soldiers, such as Tomáš Masaryk and Milan Štefánik, propagated the idea that Czechoslovak units should be formed to fight on the Allied side in the name of an independent “Czechoslovakia” to be carved out from lands at that time included in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These units were initially comprised of émigrés, but their ranks were swelled, as the war progressed, by deserters and prisoners of war taken from the Austrian Army. On the Western Front, in Italy, and in the Balkans, these units were incorporated into their “parent” armies and deployed against the enemy with some fanfare. In the multinational Russian Empire, however, where in previous decades the tsarist regime had embarked upon a doomed effort to homogenize its diverse subjects through a process of Russification, such tactics were regarded with suspicion (in view of the hopes they might arouse among Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.). Thus, although a “Czech Detachment” (Česká družina) was established in Russia on 14 August 1914, with a muster roll of almost 10,000 by early 1917 (approximately 10 percent of the Czechs and Slovaks then resident in Russia, most of them living in Volynia guberniia), its feats were not loudly trumpeted, and its numbers were restricted. It consisted of the 1st (Jan Hus) Rifle Regiment, the 2nd (Jiří z Poděbrad, “George of Poděbrad”) Rifle Regiment, and the 3rd (Jan Žižka) Rifle Regiment, all named after heroes of the Hussite struggles of the 15th century. They marched under a flag that had the Russian tricolor on one side and the crown of St. Wenceslas in the center of the other side, superimposed on fields of white over red. The družina was originally attached to Russia’s 3rd Army, and its men were deployed in demi-platoons as scouts and propagandists, targeting Czech and Slovak regiments in the Austrian Army. They had some success: the 28th (Prague) Infantry Regiment went over to the Russians almost in its entirety on 2 April 1915, followed by the 8th Infantry Regiment in May of that year.

Following the February Revolution of 1917, both Masaryk and Štefánik visited Russia to negotiate with the Provisional Government regarding the possibility of supplementing the force with prisoners of war and having it placed under the control of the Czechoslovak National Council, either as an independent Czechoslovak army or as part of the French Army. (The force was vaguely conceived as being akin to the French Foreign Legion, hence the nomenclature.) Their intervention was successful (not least because the Czechs fought with distinction during the Russian Army’s offensive of June 1917, notably at the Battle of Zborov), and the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia was formally created by order of General N. N. Dukhonin on 26 September 1917. Having absorbed many freed POWs, it expanded to a strength of two divisions (the 1st and 2nd Hussite Rifles), numbering some 45,000 men, by that October and was concentrated in bases across right-bank Ukraine.

Following the October Revolution, the new Soviet government, wary of this potent Allied force in its midst (the legion had been formally designated as part of the French Army on 15 January 1918), agreed on 26 March 1918 to permit it to be evacuated from Russia, via Vladivostok, with the implication that it would then fight on the Western Front. Such a possibility was hardly welcomed by the Bolsheviks’ German and Austro-Hungarian co-signatories of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918), which had stipulated (under its Article VIII) that “the prisoners of war of both parties will be released to return to their homeland.” The Legionnaires, however, certainly did not wish to be repatriated to Austria-Hungary, where they faced execution as traitors, and engaged in rearguard battles against the forces of the Austro-German intervention when the latter entered Ukraine in March–April 1918 (notably at the Battle of Bachmach, 4–13 March 1918). They then moved toward Penza and entrained for the east, but progress on the railways was slow—not least because hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian and German POWs were being shipped westward, having been released from camps in Siberia and Central Asia, thereby monopolizing the railway.

Also during March and April 1918, relations between the legion and the Soviet government became fatally strained. The Legionnaires feared that their progress was being deliberately delayed by the Bolsheviks, as a prelude to their being handed over to the Central Powers; the Bolsheviks (following Allied landings in North Russia and at Vladivostok) were coming to regard the Czechoslovaks as a fifth column of the Entente and viewed with considerable trepidation their passage into regions where Red forces were already engaged in battle with the Orenburg Cossack Host (in the Dutov Uprising) and the Special Manchurian Detachment of Ataman G. M. Semenov. Czechoslovak accounts of this period often add that Soviet war commissar L. D. Trotsky’s decision, in the light of these considerations, to order the partial disarmament of the legion (each train, containing 600 men, was permitted to carry just 168 rifles and one machine gun) was a fulfillment of instructions from Berlin. Soviet sources, on the other hand, made much of the contacts between the Czechoslovak National Council and Allied agents in Moscow (including Robert Bruce Lockhart) and, in the regions traversed by the Czech echelons, around Penza and Samara, between officers of the legion (such as Generals M. K. Diterikhs and Stanislav Čeček) and representatives of the Union for the Regeneration of Russia and other underground anti-Bolshevik organizations.

The actual cause of the final breach between the Soviet government and the legion, however, appears to have been sparked by a spontaneous fight between eastbound Czechs and westbound Magyars in the railway station at Cheliabinsk, in western Siberia, on 14 May 1918, when a Czech was injured by something thrown from a Hungarian train, and in retaliation, the Czechs lynched the man responsible (who, according to some accounts, was not a Hungarian at all but an ethnic Czech called Malik). Red Guards then arrested the Czech executioners, inspiring their brethren to surround the local soviet demanding their release. Matters got out of hand, and soon the legion was in possession of the town. It is more than possible that agents provocateur on both sides took advantage of the “Cheliabinsk incident” to open a final breach between the Legion and Moscow. That breach was formalized on 25 May 1918, when Trotsky ordered: “Every armed Czech found on the [Trans-Siberian] Railway is to be shot on the spot.” The weak local Red forces in western Siberia, however, had no means of enforcing such a decree and were rapidly quashed by the Legionnaires.

Over the following weeks, in what is generally termed the “revolt of the Czechoslovak Legion,” Czechoslovak forces (often in collaboration with anti-Bolshevik organizations of Cossacks and Russian officers who emerged from the underground) captured the entire Trans-Siberian Railway, from the Volga to the Pacific, with Vladivostok invested by units under General Diterikhs on 29 June 1918. (One operation involved a waterborne attack on Baikal station, which has been described as the first and only victory of the Czechoslovak Navy.) In their wake were established the various governments of the Democratic Counter-Revolution in the east: Komuch at Samara, the Provisional Oblast′ Government of the Urals at Ekaterinburg, the Provisional Government of Siberia at Omsk, the Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia at Vladivostok, etc. Such was the influence of the legion that, in September 1918, the Omsk regime gave serious thought to naming one of the most successful and flamboyant Czech commanders, Radola Gajda, supreme commander of its nascent Siberian Army.

Meanwhile, during June 1918 the legion’s command made the crucial decision to jettison efforts to leave Russia and instead to remain and fight the Red Army (and thereafter the Germans) on a new Eastern Front. (By this point, an inrush of volunteers had facilitated the formation of a 3rd Division of the legion and had swelled the muster roll to nearly 70,000.) The Legionnaires’ leaders viewed the option of remaining in Russia as the best means of proving their worth to the Allies, in the hope that the latter would commit themselves to the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia, while it suited well the plans of the most pro-interventionist of the Allied leaders. (It was rather odd, then, that in July 1918, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, who was very skeptical of the efficacy of intervention in Russia, cited the need to assist in extraditing the Czechoslovaks from Siberia as the central plank in his argument for joining the Allied intervention.)

The legion remained in action for the rest of the summer and autumn of 1918, fighting the Bolsheviks alongside the People’s Army on the Volga, where General Jan Syrový was given overall command of the anti-Bolshevik front, and assisting in the capture of Ufa (5 July), Simbirsk (22 July), and Kazan′ (where they captured the Imperial Russian Gold Reserve on 7 August), and alongside the Siberian Army in the northern Urals (entering Ekaterinburg on 25 July 1918). However, the legion’s soldiery were generally socialistic in political leanings and viewed with deep distaste rightward-moving political developments in the autumn of 1918 in Siberia, such as the demise of Komuch, the disbanding of the Siberian Regional Duma, the Novoselsov affair, and the Omsk coup and the Omsk Massacre, while the declaration of Czechoslovak independence on 28 October 1918 and the armistice of 11 November 1918 seemed to obviate their reasons for fighting in Russia at all. Consequently, the Legionnaires began to demand to be withdrawn from the front. (In the words of Winston Churchill, they had “wearied somewhat of their well-doing.”) Thereafter, in January 1919, under the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement, the legion was withdrawn from the Urals and assigned a new task in policing stretches of the Trans-Siberian Railway (chiefly in Eniseisk guberniia). It subsequently played a crucial role in fending off attacks on the line by Red partisans and engaged in the pursuit of the latter deep into the Siberian hinterland. However, its relations with the White regime of Admiral A. V. Kolchak deteriorated rapidly, with open revolts breaking out among some units around Irkutsk by the summer. In September 1919, the Czechoslovak government successfully petitioned the Allies to agree that the legion should be repatriated, but quarrels over who would provide the shipping and who would pay for it meant that most Legionnaires were still in eastern Siberia (west of Lake Baikal) during the winter of 1919–1920, as the White regime collapsed.

Although discontented, the legion remained relatively united and would play an extraordinary role in the fate of Admiral Kolchak. On 7 January 1920, having already (since 10 December 1919) assigned the supreme ruler’s train to the slow line, as anti-Bolshevik forces and a flood of refugees poured east from Omsk, and then (on 27 December 1919) having had Kolchak’s train detained altogether at Nizhneudinsk, the legion’s commander, General Syrový, formally took charge of Kolchak’s echelon, with instructions from the Allies to afford him (and his accompanying gold reserve) safe passage to the Far East. The legion’s 6th Rifle Regiment was assigned to guard the White leader’s train. Meanwhile, however, the coalition-socialist Political Center had seized power at Irkutsk and demanded the surrender of Kolchak and the gold to them, in return for an unhindered passage through Irkutsk for the legion. Fearing that if they did not evacuate immediately they would be trapped—rumors were rife that Ataman Semenov was about to dynamite the tunnels that carried the railway around the southern shore of Lake Baikal—and cognizant of the fact that their nominal supreme commander, the French general Maurice Janin, appeared to be encouraging such a transaction, the legion complied. Thus, on 15 January 1920, the Czechs handed Kolchak, his entourage, and the gold over to the revolutionaries at Innoken′tevskaia Station, near Irkutsk, before establishing a formal truce with the pursuing forces of the 5th Red Army (the Kuitun Agreement) and pushing on for Vladivostok.

By 2 September 1920, when the last member of the legion had been evacuated from Vladivostok, it is reckoned that 67,739 of its complement (swelled by 1,600 Russian women who had married Legionnaires and some 10,000 civilians) had been dispatched from the Pacific port, bound for Trieste, Marseille, Le Havre, Bremen, and other points of entry into Europe. Some 4,112 Legionnaires had died in Russia. Back in the new Czechoslovakia, the returning Legionnaires would form the backbone of the army of the First Republic, while the men’s savings and pensions (supplemented, according to as yet unfounded charges, by gold bullion pilfered from the Russian reserves) helped establish the powerful Legion Bank (Legiobanka) in Prague. The bank’s headquarters building (which is one of the jewels in the crown of Prague’s architecture), situated on Na Poříčí Street, features a glorious art nouveau-cum-folk-Bohemian façade, bearing scenes of the legion’s celebrated “anabasis” through Siberia (although katabasis is the correct term for a march toward the sea), with sculptures of Legionnaires atop its extravagant pillars. Prague’s Legion Bridge (Most Legii) is also named in the legion’s honor, and a large monument to it stands in the capital’s Palacký Square. The highest point in the Carpathians was also for some time renamed Štít Legionárov (Legionnaire Peak), although that did not survive the Communist coup of 1948, and it now retains its title of Gerlachovský Štít. A memorial to the Legionnaires who fell at the Battle of Zborov in July 1917 stands in the Kalinivka cemetery in Ukraine, and another can be seen at Blansko in the Czech Republic. The legion’s exploits were also widely commemorated in Czech fiction, notably in the novels, plays, and poetry of Rudolf Medek and in his screenplay for the feature film Zborov (dir. J. A. Holman and Jirí Slavícek, 1938). The last surviving Legionnaire, Alois Vocasek, died on 9 August 2003 at the age of 107. At the time of his death, Vocasek was attempting to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that in 1946 he had been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for nine years for collaborating with the Nazis during the Second World War.

Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War II


Chiefly active in Siberia during the “Russian” Civil Wars, but also a participant in the Soviet–Polish War, this force had its origins in the formation at Samara, from 1 July 1918, of a Polish volunteer unit (formally, the 5th Polish Rifle Division) under Walerian Czuma (1890–1962), a veteran of the Polish Legions (formed by Józef Piłsudski in Austrian Galicia from 1914 to fight against Imperial Russia). The majority of the volunteers were, like Czuma, prisoners of war, but as the legion retreated into Siberia, its ranks were swelled by local Poles, many of them descendants of men exiled following the Polish uprisings against Russia of 1831 and 1863, thereby glossing the legion’s activities with a sense of historic destiny. At its peak, the legion numbered some 16,000 men.

Following the Omsk coup, the Polish Legion, like the Czechoslovak Legion, withdrew from the front and, under the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement, was later assigned to guard the Trans-Siberian Railway (in the Poles’ case, in the Novonikolaevsk region). When the Russian Army of Admiral A. V. Kolchak collapsed and Omsk fell to the Red Army in November 1919, the Polish Legion joined the scramble eastward along the railway as part of the Great Siberian (Ice) March, but found itself in the rear of the retreating Czechs. On 22 December 1919, Red forces caught up with the Polish Legion and inflicted a heavy defeat on it in a battle at Taiga. The Poles lost many of their trains to the Reds, and many more broke down, lacking spares and engineers, in the Siberian winter.

Consequently, the legion disintegrated: some 1,000 men forced their way eastward, eventually reaching Vladivostok and being shipped back to Poland by the Allies, arriving there in June 1920; some mutinied and joined the Reds; and others (some 5,000) formally surrendered to the Soviet authorities at Krasnoiarsk on 8 January 1920. Those who surrendered were subsequently interned, for the most part, in the primitive Voina Gorodok prisoner of war camp, near Krasnoiarsk, where many soon succumbed to typhus and other diseases. The survivors were eventually repatriated to Poland under Article IX of the Treaty of Riga (18 March 1921).

Many of those Russian- or Siberian-born Poles shipped home by the Allies and those repatriated by the Soviet authorities had never before set foot on Polish soil. Those shipped home, under Colonel Kazimierz Rumsza, became the core of the Siberian Brigade of the 5th Polish Army (formed on 12 July 1920) and joined the defense of the Modlin Fortress from 13 August 1920, at the height of the Soviet–Polish War. Following the Battle of Warsaw, the brigade engaged the Soviet 3rd Cavalry Corps of G. D. Gai, then helped pursue Red forces back across the Neman and participated also in the Polish–Lithuanian War, combating Lithuanian forces around Suwałki.


This conflict, from 1 September to 7 October 1920, was focused on control of the city of Vil′na (Wilno to the Poles and Vilnius to the Lithuanians), which the new Lithuanian Republic claimed as its capital, but which was mostly populated by Poles and Jews. When Polish forces invaded Soviet territory at the beginning of the Soviet–Polish War, the Soviet government, seeking an ally, hurried to recognize Lithuanian independence and the new state’s claim to Vil′na and other territories to the southeast of the city (including Grodno, Oshmiany, and Lida). This was formalized in the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty of Moscow (12 July 1920). Forces of the 3rd Cavalry Corps of the Red Army, under G. D. Gai, then occupied Vil′na (14 July 1920) and Grodno (19 July 1920) on Lithuania’s behalf, but they were driven from the region by the Poles on 26 August 1920, two days before the arrival in Vil′na of Lithuanian forces. On 22 September 1920, Polish forces staged a new offensive, capturing Grodno three days later. Polish–Lithuanian fighting was formally brought to an end by a cease-fire, the Suwałki Agreement (7 October 1920), negotiated by the Military Control Commission of the League of Nations. The agreement delineated a demarcation line that would have left most of the disputed region in Lithuanian hands.

However, on 9 October 1920, 24 hours before the agreement was scheduled to come into force, the 1st Lithuanian-Belorussian Division of the Polish Army seized Vil′na, and its commander, Lucjan Żeligowski, declared himself “supreme ruler” of what he termed the Republic of Central Lithuania. Following a number of delays and a disputed election, this new “state,” created by the Żeligowski mutiny, was formally united with Poland (as the Wilno Voivodship) on 22 March 1922. The Allies’ Conference of Ambassadors at Paris accepted the status quo in 1923, but in 1931 the International Court at The Hague determined that Polish actions had been in violation of international law. However, no effective action was taken, and the region was only returned to Lithuania following the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the USSR in 1939. A common assertion in Western historiography is that had both Soviet Russia and Lithuania not been defeated in the summer and autumn of 1920, then Red Army troops would have remained in the region, and Lithuania would not have had independence between the wars.


The Soviet–Polish War was just one—albeit the most prolonged, geographically extensive, studied, and perhaps internationally significant—of a series of conflicts that erupted in Eastern Europe as German forces withdrew from the region in the aftermath of the First World War. The retreat of Ober Ost and the collapse of the territorial settlement brokered through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) left a power vacuum that was contested by local nationalist forces and Soviet Russia, although the nationalists also often fought among themselves, such as in the Ukrainian–Polish War and the Polish–Lithuanian War. (Other related conflicts were the Soviet–Ukrainian War, the Estonian War of Independence, the Latvian War of Independence, the Lithuanian Wars of Independence, and the Kinship Wars.) Polish aims, broadly speaking, as articulated by the preeminent Polish leader of the era, Józef Piłsudski, were to recapture territories lost during the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century and to create a Polish-led federation, the Międzymorze (or Intermarum, “the land between the seas”) of several East-Central European states, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, as a bulwark against the reemergence of both German and Russian imperialisms. (The two aims, it is worth noting, were to some extent conflicting, because if Poland recovered the lands lost in all three partitions, it would be in possession of territories claimed by its desired allies in Ukraine, Belarussia, and Lithuania.) Soviet aims were to repulse any Polish advance (which they regarded as a branch of the Allied intervention in Russia) and, potentially, to carry the revolution west through Poland to Central Europe.

Skirmishes began soon after the armistice of 11 November 1918 (although a case could be made for citing the Dowbor-Muśnicki uprising of January–February 1918 as the beginning of the conflict), but escalated rapidly following the Red Army’s capture of Minsk on 5 January 1919, as Belarussian, Lithuanian, and Polish self-defense forces began to organize for the defense of “their” homelands in what was an ethnically mixed region of intractable complexity. Hostilities remained at a relatively low level for most of 1919, however, as the Soviet government prioritized its campaigns against the Whites and Warsaw calculated that it was to its advantage to grant the Red Army a free hand to crush forces that were unabashedly committed to the reestablishment of a “Russia, One and Indivisible.” Moreover, this breathing spce merely granted the newly created Second Polish Republic the opportunity to begin concentrating forces along its still undemarcated eastern border; by September 1919, the Polish Army numbered 540,000 men, of whom 230,000 were deployed in the east. As the Whites fell back in the autumn of 1919, these forces began to engage with Red forces with increasing frequency, contesting the claims to sovereignty over the disputed border regions voiced by the newly created Litbel (the Lithuanian–Belorussian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 27 February 1919), for example.

For its part, the Soviet government was seeking to preempt the imposition of a border such as that suggested by the Allies at Paris (the Curzon line), which it regarded as too generous to Poland. However, with the Red Army forced to concentrate its resources on the Eastern Front and the advance of the Russian Army of Admiral A. V. Kolchak, the Poles gradually gained the initiative during the spring of 1919. Forces under General Stanisław Szeptycki captured Słonim (2 March 1919) and crossed the River Neman; forces under General Antonu Listowski took Pinsk (5 March 1919) and crossed the Jasiolda (Iasel′da) River and the Oginski Canal; and other units entered the outskirts of Lida. (Although Poland also, it should be recalled, was distracted by its border disputes with Czechoslovakia over Cieszyn Silesia, Orava Territory, and Spiš and by the risings of Poles in Silesia against German rule.) The situation was then further complicated, during the summer of 1919, by the northward advance of the White Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR), whose leadership appeared disinclined to recognize Polish independence, never mind negotiate about borders (despite the fact that the AFSR’s main commander, General A. I. Denikin, was half Polish). In the light of this, Piłsudski determined in April 1919 that, although his army should counter any Red incursions into territory held by Poland, it should avoid challenging the Red Army to a degree that might grant respite or succor to the Russian Whites. Nevertheless, the Poles not only pushed Soviet forces out of the recently captured centers of Grodno and Vil′na (19 April 1919), but launched a counteroffensive that led to the capture of Mołodeczno (4 July 1919), the Polesie region (10 July 1919), Minsk (8 August 1919), and Dubno (9 August 1919). Further advances were made in the northwest, with territory from the Dvina to near Daugavpils secured by early October 1919. Thus, by early January 1920, Polish forces had reached the line of Uszyca–Płoskirów–Starokonstantynów–Szepietówka–Zwiahel–Olewsk–Uborć–Bobrujsk–Berezyna–Dyneburg (Daugavpils).

In this period, Polish relations with the Lithuanian government were reaching crisis point over border issues (particularly their rival claims to Vilnius/Wilno), but Warsaw’s negotiations with the Latvian government at this time had some success, and by early 1920, Polish and Latvian forces were conducting joint operations against the Red Army (notably in the capture of Dyneburg/Daugavpils, 3–21 January 1920). In spring 1920, the Polish–Ukrainian War also drew to a close with the Treaty of Warsaw (21–24 April 1920), and thereafter Poland enjoyed a military alliance with the Ukrainian Army of the Ukrainian National Republic. This emboldened the Poles, as did the defeat of Denikin and Kolchak’s forces over the winter of 1919–1920, which had neutralized any threat of the establishment of a White government in Russia. Likewise, with the last significant White force (General P. N. Wrangel’s Russian Army) confined to Crimea, a peace settlement having been negotiated with Estonia (the Treaty of Tartu, 2 February 1920), and a cease-fire in operation on the front with Latvia, the Bolsheviks felt that their hands were now free to deal with Poland and potentially, to export the revolution to Europe.

What had essentially been, throughout 1919, a low-level border conflict, was thus primed to erupt into full-scale war. By April 1920, the Red Army had over 700,000 troops concentrated on its Western Front and South-West Front facing Poland; the Poles could draw on an army of approximately the same number. Anticipating a Soviet offensive, Piłsudski launched his own (“Operation Kiev”) on 24 April 1920. This was a joint operation, with the Polish 3rd Army (under General Edward Rydz-Śmigły), 6th Army (under General Wacław Iwaszkiewicz), and 2nd Army (under General Listowski) advancing into Ukraine alongside the two remaining divisions (around 15,000–30,000 men) of S. V. Petliura’s Ukrainian Army. It was initially a remarkable success; Kiev was captured on 7 May 1920. Preparations were then made for an offensive against Żłobin, to secure the most direct rail route between Kiev and Minsk (then in Polish hands). However, the Polish and Ukrainian attackers had failed in their objective to entrap defending Soviet forces, and the 12th Red Army and 14th Red Army had both retreated beyond the Dnepr in good order. On 15 May 1920, a Red counteroffensive was duly launched on the South-West Front (commanded by A. I. Egorov), with S. M. Budennyi’s 1st Cavalry Army joining the fray. Bolstered by over 100,000 new volunteers (responding to a flood of Soviet agitprop directed toward rousing anti-Polish feeling) and some 14,000 new officer volunteers (answering a call by the former tsarist commander General A. N. Brusilov urging fellow officers to join the Red Army), by 10 June 1920 the Red Army had Polish forces in retreat along the entire front and on 13 June 1920 recaptured Kiev. Over the following weeks, the Poles attempted a series of counterattacks (at Usza on 19 June, at Horyń on 1 July, and at Równe on 8 July), but Egorov and Budennyi’s men pressed on.

Meanwhile, an offensive was launched, on 4 July 1920, by Soviet forces to the north, commanded by M. N. Tukhachevskii and comprising an army group made up of the 3rd Cavalry Corps, the 4th Red Army, the 15th Red Army, the 3rd Red Army, and the 16th Red Army (a total of some 108,000 infantry and 11,000 cavalry, backed by 722 artillery pieces and almost 3,000 machine guns). Facing them were around 120,000 troops of the 1st and 4th Polish Armies and Group Polesie, backed by some 460 artillery pieces. Again the Reds were successful, capturing Wilno/Vil′na on 14 July and Grodno on 19 July 1920 (and thereby sealing the secret military alliance with Lithuania that was an annex to the Soviet–Lithuanian Treaty of Moscow of 12 July 1920). On 1 August 1920, Brest-Litovsk fell, and that same day Red forces crossed the Narew and Western Bug Rivers, while in the south Polish forces had been pushed entirely out of Ukraine, and Budennyi was closing on Zamość and Lwów (now defended by the Polish 6th Army under General Władysław Jędrzejewski). At this point, however, the situation in the south improved for Poland, as the Polish 2nd Army recaptured Brody (2 August). Polish spirits were also lifted by the supportive activities of a strong French military mission in Warsaw (which included Marshal Foch’s chief of staff, Maxime Weygand, and a young Charles de Gaulle); by the activities of the Kościuszko Squadron of the Polish air force, which was manned by Polish American volunteers; and by the arrival of shipments of military supplies from Hungary, although the labor movements in France, Britain, and elsewhere (united in the “Hands Off Russia” campaign) were mostly critical of the Polish invasion of Ukraine. This sentiment struck something of a chord with Lloyd George, whose government had just entered negotiations with the Soviet government that would eventually lead to the Anglo–Soviet Trade Agreement. Poles have consequently always insisted (probably justly) that they alone were responsible for what then ensued.

Another key to the outcome of the war, however, was that rather than follow the orders of the Soviet commander in chief, S. S. Kamenev (and the pleas of Tukhachevskii) that his forces should push northward against Warsaw, Egorov (encouraged by his military commissar on the South-West Front, J. V. Stalin) continued to push westward, hoping (but failing) to capture Lwów and Lublin. (Stalin’s motives in this affair are obscure, but may have involved his known distaste for military specialists of the type of Kamenev and Tukhachevskii.) The consequence was that, although Red Cossacks of the 3rd Cavalry Corps under G. D. Gai crossed the Vistula as early as 10 August 1920 and threatened to attack Warsaw from the west, the Polish 1st Army (under General Franciszek Latinik) was able to resist Tukhachevskii’s assault on the capital from the east, stopping Soviet forces at Radzymin on 13 August, while a countereattack by the heavily armored Polish 5th Army (under General Władysław Sikorski) halted the 3rd and 15th Red Armies around Nasielsk on 14–15 August 1920. Further Polish forces, among them the Reserve Army, then joined the battle, pushing northward through the gap between the two Soviet fronts and encircling Tukhachevskii’s armies. The Poles’ thereafter legendary “Miracle on the Vistula” was complete, while the puppet governments that the Bolsheviks had prepared to install in a Soviet Western Ukraine and a Soviet Poland (the Galrevkom and Polrevkom, respectively) proved to be redundant.

On 18 August 1920, Tukhachevskii ordered a general withdrawal toward the Bug River, but by then he had lost contact with most of his forces, which fled in disarray—some of the 4th and 15th Red Armies into East Prussia, where they were disarmed by the Germans. Most of the 3rd Red Army extracted itself from Poland intact, but the 16th Red Army disintegrated at Białystok, and most of its men were taken prisoner. Freed from commitments before Warsaw, Polish forces then headed south to confront Budennyi. The 1st Cavalry Army was forced to abandon its siege of Lwów on 31 August 1920 and was that same day defeated by Polish cavalry at the Battle of Komarów—the greatest cavalry battle since the Napoleonic era and the last significant cavalry battle of the 20th century. Another defeat followed at the Battle of Hrubieszów (6 September 1920), as what remained of the 1st Cavalry Army limped eastward.

With Red Army forces in retreat from Lithuania to Ukraine throughout September 1920, the Soviet government was eventually forced to sue for peace (with offers made on 21 and 28 September 1920); a cease-fire was signed on 12 October and went into effect on 18 October 1920. Following protracted negotiations, a full peace treaty, the Treaty of Riga, was signed on 18 March 1921. Under its terms, Poland made substantial territorial and other gains from Soviet Russia. At the same time, Warsaw was left free to force a successful outcome to the Polish–Lithuanian War (1 September to 7 October 1920), thereby capturing Wilno/Vilnius.

In the course of the Soviet–Polish War, the Red Army suffered casualties of over 100,000 and the Polish Army almost 50,000 men. The number of civilians killed remains unknown, but among the many controversial aspects of the conflict are charges that all contending armies engaged in terror against the civilian population—particularly the many Jews in the region, who were subjected to a wave of pogroms that resulted in the deaths of up to 100,000 people, according to some estimates. (Attacks on Jewish communities during the conflict form a central motif of Isaak Babel’s collection of short stories, Red Cavalry, which was based on his own experiences in Poland in 1920.) Moreover, after the Treaty of Riga, more than 80,000 Red soldiers remained in Polish prisoner of war camps, of whom around 20,000 would perish; a similar number of Polish prisoners (out of around 51,000 in captivity) died in Soviet and Lithuanian camps. Prisoner exchanges began only in 1922. Apart from Babel’s aforementioned work, the Soviet–Polish War has been portrayed in myriad literary and filmic accounts, notably the feature film Bitwa warzawska (“Battle of Warsaw, 1920,” dir. Jerzy Hoffman, 2011), which was shot in 3D and was one of the most expensive films ever made in Poland.


(Summer 2008)

As the surge ended in mid-2008, with the last of the five additional combat brigades heading home, Baghdad felt distinctly better. Kebab stands and coffee shops had reopened across the city, and many ordinary Iraqis felt safe enough to venture out of their homes at night, in part because stores were remaining open to evening shoppers. Some women discarded the head scarves that Islamic extremists had insisted they wear, with violators being attacked. Even as Iraq’s factions remained murderously divided, violence was at its lowest level of the entire war, with only a dozen American soldiers dying in July 2008. Contrary to expectation, the holy month of Ramadan didn’t bring a major spike in violence, as it had in the previous five years. Some 39,000 displaced families safely returned to Baghdad.

Some optimists, such as Fred Kagan, pronounced that Iraqi politics were moving forward smartly and that the war was all but over. But that assessment confused starting to win with having won. There was no question that under Petraeus, the U.S. military had regained the strategic initiative, an extraordinary achievement. “He has pulled off something that is unparalleled, really, and without much support from Washington or Centcom, and with active hampering from the Joint Chiefs,” said David Kilcullen. Yet most of the basic questions about the long-term direction of Iraq remained unanswered. It is striking that of the predictions General Fastabend made in his 2007 essay written for Petraeus about “How All This Ends,” many of the military ones came true while the political ones didn’t. As Fastabend had urged, the U.S. government was indeed able to arrive at cease-fires with tribes, to turn former insurgents and put them on the payroll, and even to chip away at the power of Sadr’s militia. But on the political side, Fastabend had predicted that Maliki would be ousted from power by January 2008 and then disappear a few months later while traveling in Iran. He saw provincial elections rolling across Iraq in 2008, another event that didn’t happen. (He did make one good call on the political side: foreseeing that the Republicans would lose the White House in the November 2008 elections.)

Iraqi politics felt stuck, and American officials were beginning to fear that an entire generation of embittered, distrustful former exiles would have to pass from the scene before genuine and lasting progress could occur. This struck me especially one day late in 2008, when Maj. Gen. Guy Swan, Odierno’s director of strategic operations, told me in his Green Zone office that “with the security gains, there is a window of opportunity. . . . Only they can do it. We have set the conditions for them. They have an opportunity to pursue their own destiny.” Almost exactly a year earlier, Gen. Odierno had said almost exactly the same thing to me. A window of opportunity had opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, he had explained then, but said “it’s unclear how long that window is going to be open.”

Analyzing the lack of progress in Iraqi politics one day late in 2008, Emma Sky recalled Petraeus’s image of “the Mesopotamian Stampede.” “We’ve stopped the stallion from running off the cliff, but then it runs off in another direction,” she said. “Right now it is frantically running around in circles.” By that she meant that the existential questions that faced the country before the surge—and indeed since the day the Americans invaded—were still hanging out there.

What, then, had the surge accomplished?


The surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war. Petraeus’s final letter to his troops, dated September 15, 2008, stated that “your great work, sacrifice, courage and skill have helped reverse a downward spiral toward civil war and wrest the initiative from the enemies of the new Iraq.” That assessment captured what the surge and associated moves did, but not what they didn’t do.

The surge campaign was effective in many ways, but the best grade it can be given is a solid incomplete. It succeeded tactically but fell short strategically. There is no question that the surge was an important contributor to the reduction in violence in Iraq and perhaps the main cause of that improvement. But its larger purpose had been to create a breathing space that would then enable Iraqi politicians to find a way forward and that hadn’t happened. As 2008 proceeded, not only were some top Iraqi officials not seizing the opportunity, some were regressing, Odierno worried one day as he sat in the Green Zone office he recently had inherited from Petraeus. Iraqi politicians had found that they didn’t necessarily have to move forward, he said. “What we’re finding is that as Iraq has become more secure, they’ve . . . moved backwards, in some cases, to their hard-line positions, whether it be a Kurdish position, an Arab position, a Sunni position, a Shi’a position, a Da’wa position, an ISCI position”—these last two being the two major Shiia parties.

Odierno argued that progress was being made politically. But the analysis he then offered of Iraqi politics seemed instead to support the argument that the breathing space given Iraqi leaders had enabled them to retreat from reconciliation and dodge tough problems. “Security is good enough where I worry about them going back,” he explained. “They’re not going back to solve the old problems which we’ve pushed. They’ve continued to delay the tough ones, like the problem with land up in the north with the Kurds, the problems with the Peshmerga, oil, Kirkuk.” Nor had international actors, most notably Iran, agreed to back off and let Iraq solve its problems by itself. Indeed, a senior U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq told a reporter that there were four locations in Iran at which Iraqi Shiites were being trained to assassinate Iraqi judges and other officials.

Marine Col. Tom Greenwood, who had been a member of the critical “council of colonels” that in the fall of 2006 had pushed the Pentagon toward recognizing some hard truths about Iraq, said the surge essentially had papered over the problems of Iraq without solving them. “I still think that the Maliki government is riddled with sectarianism and is dysfunctional,” he said in mid-2008, and “that we have de facto partition between the Kurds, Shia and Sunni, that Iraq is little more than an Iranian proxy, that we have destabilized the region worse than Saddam Hussein ever did, that the downward trend in U.S. casualties will be short-lived.”

What’s more, some of the country’s political tensions were worsening, most notably between Arabs and Kurds over oil and the status of Kirkuk. “As Nouri al-Maliki has become more capable and more confident, he’s actually become less inclined to reach out to those he most needs to reconcile with,” said Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, charged the Baghdad government with forgetting its commitments and acting like “a totalitarian regime.”

Violence had declined much less in Kirkuk than in Baghdad, added Michael Knights, an expert on Middle East defense issues, who dubbed the disputed city “the land the surge forgot.”

One White House official worried aloud that there were signs that the axis of the Iraq war was shifting from Sunnis versus Shiites to Arabs versus Kurds. After visiting Iraq in late 2008, Gen. Barry McCaffrey agreed, saying that “the war waiting in the wings is the war of the Kurds and the Arabs.” The Kurds also were causing friction in Mosul, where much of the Iraqi army is Kurdish but the majority of the population is Arabic. Significantly, that city, the largest in the north, was the last redoubt of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was able to play on anti-Kurdish feeling with the locals.

Judging by the frustrated mood of officials in Baghdad, it wouldn’t be surprising in an Arab-Kurd showdown to see an American “tilt” in favor of the Arabs. “The Kurds have gotten away with everything for the last five years, taking more than they should,” Emma Sky, Odierno’s political adviser, said that same month. “I think the Kurds overplayed their hand, and we helped them do it.”

In August, Maliki seemed to redirect an offensive in Diyala Province, making it less against Sunni insurgents and more against the Kurds. Iraqi troops pushed Kurdish military units northward, provoking the Kurds’ Barzani to issue an ultimatum that the Kurds would never give up Kirkuk. “The Iraqi army’s campaign in Diyala, ostensibly directed against al Qaeda in Iraq, has turned against Maliki’s’s ruling coalition partner, the Kurds,” reported one veteran observer, Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group. Baghdad’s forces also raided government offices in Diyala, arresting a provincial council member and a university president, a Shiite who was led away in a hood and handcuffs.

The lack of a breakthrough meant that after the last of the surge troops went home, the U.S. military faced essentially the same set of missions, but had fewer troops to carry them out. Some analysts worried that the first task to be curtailed would be the most important one: protecting the population, which also required the greatest use of troops. “I can’t see them having all the same missions with less people,” said Joel Armstrong, the retired Army officer who helped plan the surge. “All the training and security missions are still there.” So, he worried, Iraq would backslide into “a downward spiral.” American officials insisted that Iraqi forces could step into the void. That assertion will be tested in 2009, as American troop numbers begin to fall below pre-surge levels.

The surge, while making short-term security gains, also may have carried hidden long-term costs that will only become fully apparent when Obama is president. “The surge may have bought transitory successes . . . but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism,” argued Steven Simon, a Council of Foreign Relations expert on the Middle East. If continued, he predicted, the U.S. support for tribes, local militias, and other centrifugal forces will undermine central authority and lead to a divided, dysfunctional sate “that suffers from the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan.”


He arrived in late July, escorted by two senators who are Army veterans, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He flew from Kuwait to Basra, where he met with British and American generals. Then it was on to Baghdad.

When Obama walked into the U.S. embassy, Petraeus and Crocker had him where they wanted him: on their turf. This was their chance to answer all the questions he had posed so well during the hearings and not given them a chance to answer. They assembled a huge, extremely detailed briefing and walked the candidate through the Iraq they knew, one where some progress had been made but where it could all fall apart. The meeting went nearly two hours, half an hour longer than scheduled.

“We noted that we didn’t have the opportunity to answer [his question] . . . in the dialogue that we had in the hearings,” Petraeus said later. The issue for Obama, he said, was “We sought to . . . provide an answer to that question. And to do that we basically had an executive overview of the joint campaign plan, laid out the lines of operations, supporting activities.”

The senators were a bit surprised to be given such a formal briefing, rather than a candid informal conversation. “This was a rare opportunity to have a discussion, not a step-by-step presentation that you would give to a committee or large audience,” said one participant who termed the meeting “serious but civil.”

It was an oddly contentious encounter, in part because the two men are essentially similar—more cerebral and reserved than their peers, but also lean, focused, ambitious, and extraordinarily successful in their chosen fields. One is a paratrooper who went to graduate school at Princeton, the other a community activist who went to law school at Harvard. Most important, their vision of what America can and should do in Iraq is fundamentally fairly close, with both inclined toward what Petraeus has called a “minimalist” position, a polite way of rejecting the grandiose Bush vision and instead acknowledging that Iraq isn’t going to be a stable, quiet, peace-loving democracy anytime soon.

Yet in this meeting, according to two participants, they tended to concentrate on their differences—at least when Obama was permitted to interrupt the lecture. Petraeus made it clear that he strongly opposed Obama’s notion of getting all the combat troops out by mid-2010, especially because security conditions in Iraq are always changing. Obama made it clear that his job as president would be to look at the larger picture—an assertion that likely insulted Petraeus, who justly prides himself on his ability to do just that. This is far from over, Petraeus said. Obama responded that it’s on the mend, and it’s time to divert resources elsewhere.

“We are coming down, but I need the flexibility of not having a timetable,” Petraeus responded. The three senators observed that the Iraqis wanted a timetable—and so did they. At that point, Petraeus just looked at them. Some officers around Petraeus found Obama to be so self-confident that they privately referred to him as the “presumptuous nominee.”

Obama left the meeting unswayed. Later that day, he said that he understood that Petraeus had “deep concerns,” especially about a timetable, but that “my job is to think about the national security interests as a whole and to weigh and balance risks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their job is to get the job done here.”

He also said he wouldn’t be “boxed” into either “rubber-stamping” the advice of generals or rigidly following a time line. At a press conference the next day, Obama elaborated on that apparent flexibility, saying that even after combat forces were pulled out, he expected a substantial military presence to remain.

The senators spent the night in VIP trailers behind the embassy. The next day they boarded a Marine V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter but then tilts its rotors to fly like an airplane, and headed west to Ramadi, where they met with Marine officers and then with the brother of Sheikh Sittar, the tribal chief who had worked so effectively with Col. Sean MacFarland in Ramadi in 2006. Also attending were about 30 other sheikhs, clad in white robes with gold and black trim, as well as some Iraqi officials. “He came to us,” Mamoun Sami Rasheed, the governor of al Anbar Province, later said. This was about as big as wasta gets—having the future president of the United States haul out to the bank of the Euphrates to explain his views. “He asked many questions,” Rasheed continued. “We asked him not to pull out of Iraq.” Obama told him that he wanted to get the American combat forces out of Iraq in about 16 months. Rasheed replied that the U.S. military would need to stay at least three more years, because the Iraqi military isn’t ready to take over the mission. To that, he said, Obama promised, “The United States will not abandon Iraq.”

That last promise may prove decisive in shaping the future of the U.S. effort in Iraq. If Obama keeps it, he almost certainly will have to break his vow to get all U.S. combat units out of Iraq by mid-2010. On the other hand, there is less to that promise than meets the eye. The phrase “combat units” is really meaningless in the context of the Iraq war, where there is no front and where all troops, front line or not, are vulnerable. What the American people care about is whether U.S. troops of any sort are getting killed. Most deaths in the war have been caused by roadside bombs, which don’t distinguish between front-line infantry and support units. Indeed, a transport soldier whose mission is to conduct convoys is more likely to get bombed than an infantryman who mainly operates on foot.

Gen. Austin, the number two commander in Iraq, said that his impression was that Obama “really took to heart some of the things we told him.” Obama left people in Iraq with the sense he would be flexible and consider conditions on the ground and would be able to adjust his 16-month timetable if he saw the need. In sum, Obama, Bush, Maliki, and Petraeus all seemed to be saying more or less the same thing: We all want the U.S. military out of Iraq eventually, but want to do it in a way that doesn’t push the country over a cliff. The long war view appeared to have won.


It has happened to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Leaving Iraq is a moment of ambivalence. One is pleased to be going home and anticipating a reunion with one’s family, but is also conflicted by the nagging sense of leaving in the middle of the fight, with much unfinished business. There is a sense of lightness, of a weight being lifted, followed by a recognition of how much a mental and physical strain it has been to fight in Iraq. When Petraeus got on the airplane to leave Iraq in mid-September 2008, he experienced all these mixed emotions. He and others felt “a quiet pride,” he said, “that we helped Iraq step back from the brink of civil war and to essentially go . . . from the brink to the mend.” But in his case, the sense of relief didn’t last long. “I think there might have been a lifting of the weight for five minutes and then someone started talking about Centcom.”

At his new assignment at Central Command, Petraeus would face a new round of troubles, and also would be dealing with a new president who had made it clear that he has strong strategic views of his own. Looming largest before Petraeus was the war in Afghanistan, which is really a war in both that country and Pakistan, with Pakistan the more important part of it, because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and remains a hotbed of Islamic extremism. On top of that, the world financial crisis was already beginning to hit Pakistan and threatened to put a new crimp in the U.S. military as America was forced to tighten its belt. In addition, the American face-off with Iran over that country’s nuclear ambitions continued to threaten to escalate into a crisis that could change the region. Nor was Iraq going to be resolved anytime soon.

Even before yielding command in Iraq, Petraeus flew to Lebanon. The trip suggested that if no one else had heeded Crocker’s concerns about the possible “Lebanonization” of Iraq, he had. He entered Beirut just after a new government was created that gave Hezbollah—an armed militia independent of government control—and its allies 11 of 30 seats in the new cabinet. The visit came as American intelligence analysts in Baghdad were suggesting that the Sadr organization’s future course would be to try to become the Hezbollah of Iraq, an armed force outside the government that provides services and also holds great influence over the actions of the government. A major difference between Sadr and Hezbollah is that thus far, Iran has not provided Sadr’s militia with Kornet anti-tank laser-guided missiles and the other sophisticated weaponry it is said to have shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah used that matériel to great effect in its 2006 war with Israel, fighting the Israeli military to a standstill and gaining wasta across the Arab world. If Iran provided such weaponry to its allies in Iraq, it would be escalating the war there significantly, and likely would require the U.S. government to reevaluate its approach to the war and even consider actions inside Iran.

It was a high-profile trip for Petraeus to take as his first move as the incoming chief of Centcom. He insisted it wasn’t the harbinger of a more aggressive stance. “This is not a provocative-type initiative,” he said, but rather “to get a sense of the situation in a country where Iran has been asserting substantial influence.”

The biggest change Petraeus is apt to bring to Centcom is in the handling of Afghanistan, where he likely will reach out to “reconcilable” enemies while trying to isolate and kill those deemed “irreconcilable.” The best indication of this isn’t anything he has said, but his pick for his deputy at Centcom: John Allen, the Marine general who loved Gertrude Bell, and also had become the de facto American ambassador to Anbar’s sheikhs, playing a major role in the turning of the Sunni insurgency in that province.

I’d be surprised if Petraeus remains at Centcom for more than two years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at some point in the Obama administration, picked to be national security adviser or for another senior national security position. Petraeus wouldn’t have to leave the military to move to the White House. For example, Colin Powell did it as an active-duty officer late in the Reagan administration. He said he wasn’t interested in writing a memoir. “I am not interested in a sort of rehashing.” He cited Gen. George Marshall’s refusal after World War II to write an autobiography, even when doing so would have made him a wealthy man. “It would cause some discomfort and I don’t have any desire to do that,” Petraeus said. Crocker had a similarly clear response: “absolutely not.” If they stick to that, one of many oddities of the Iraq war will be that the officials who failed—L. Paul Bremer, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, even Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman—will leave behind memoirs while those who were more successful remain officially silent.

“Ernie King’s beloved ocean”

In 1921 a Marine staff officer by the name of Major Earl “Pete” Ellis made an ominous forecast: the assignment of Germany’s former island colonies in the Central Pacific to Japan under the League of Nations mandate would one day make war in the Pacific inevitable. Over two decades later Ellis’s prediction came true.

Ellis, however, was not just a doomsayer. After studying islands and distances, he expanded on a plan by the Naval War College (War Plan Orange) and established a groundbreaking blueprint-Operation Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia-for defeating Japan. Twenty-three years later the Navy’s drive across the Central Pacific followed the essential details of his plan.

Despite Ellis’s prescription for success, the invasion of the Central Pacific never would have happened without the persistence and vision of Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations. The Central Pacific, the blue-water highway to Tokyo, was his baby.

The centerpiece of Admiral King’s plan was the Mariana Islands, a chain of fourteen volcanic islands, including Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, most of which were uninhabited, situated north of the island of New Guinea and south of Japan in the Philippine Sea. Ellis had excluded the Marianas from his proposal, but King believed that they were the key to ultimate victory in the Central Pacific. Other islands would come first, but upon seizing the Marianas, the United States could either starve Japan by isolating it from its resource base in the Southwest Pacific or threaten Japan directly with aircraft carriers, long-range submarines, and bombers. With a range of 3,500 miles, and a bomb capacity in excess of four tons, the heavily armed B-29 was America’s newest and mightiest weapon. By turning the Marianas into giant air bases, the U. S. could send bomber crews to the home islands of Japan, only 1300 miles away, and possibly put a quick end to the war.

Admiral Ernest King’s year-long campaign to get the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recognize the strategic validity of the Central Pacific campaign began in Morocco in early 1943. The first of many top-secret conferences, during what journalists called the “Year of the Conference,” this one took place in the French colonial city of Casablanca. For King and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their British counterparts, Casablanca kicked off a year of horse-trading, arm-twisting, and compromise in which tempers frequently spilled out of the well-appointed meeting rooms.

In the conference room, King warned against allowing Japan to consolidate its conquests. Using rough graphs to show that the Allies had directed only 15 percent of all resources in money, manpower, and weapons to the Pacific war, he lobbied for greater resources. He proposed a 15-percent increase, which, though modest, would support a series of campaigns designed to illustrate Allied resolve in the Pacific.

King irked the Brits. They found him hot-tempered and singularly absorbed with war against Japan. British general Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and the top military man in England, insisted that for King “the European war was just a great nuisance that kept him from waging his Pacific war undisturbed.” Prime Minister Churchill called the Central Pacific “Ernie King’s beloved ocean.”

President Roosevelt, however, regarded King as the “shrewdest of strategists,” and a man of extreme competence. After the debacle at Pearl Harbor, he knew that the admiral was the only person who could rebuild the Navy. Secretary Frank Knox agreed. Giving him powers that no other chief of naval operations had ever enjoyed-King was the most powerful naval officer in the history of the country-the executive order that Roosevelt issued made King responsible only to the president.

Reluctantly the British delegates listened to King, though Churchill and his advisers had no intention of giving much ground. Ultimately, however, they made a small though ambiguous concession to the admiral. They prepared a brief compromise document, which the Brits hoped might temporarily placate King. “Operations in the Pacific and Far East,” the document said, “shall continue with the forces allocated, with the objective of maintaining pressure on Japan, retaining the initiative and attaining a position of readiness for a full-scale offensive against Japan by the United Nations as soon as Germany is defeated.”

In early February 1943, King flew west to San Francisco to meet with Admiral Nimitz, the commander of his Pacific Fleet. Satisfied with his minor victory at Casablanca, King and Nimitz sat down to fashion a plan for the Central Pacific. Nimitz, too, had good news to share. Intelligence reports indicated that the Japanese had abandoned the southern Solomons, and after a battle as savage as the one fought by the Marines at Guadalcanal, MacArthur’s troops had defeated Japanese Imperial forces on New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula. Both leaders knew, though, that the Japanese would not rest. Nimitz suspected that already they were planning another attack-on Samoa, perhaps-in order to sever the Allied supply line to the South Pacific. It was not hard to convince King; he had been warning against this threat since the early days of 1941. Though King, as always, wanted to “keep pressure on the Japs,” Nimitz cautioned him. A Central Pacific push was ill-advised until war production was at full capacity and they had the ships-and forces-to pull if off.

Several weeks after returning from California, King penned a letter to Roosevelt. King’s memorandum to the president again emphasized the importance of securing the lines of communication between the West Coast of the United States and Australia by way of Samoa, Fiji, and New Caledonia. King added that it was essential to protect Australia and New Zealand because they were “white man’s countries.” Losing them would provide the “non-white races of the world” enormous encouragement. King concluded his “integrated, general plan of operations” with three directives: “Hold Hawaii; support Australasia; drive northwestward from New Hebrides.”

Not long after Roosevelt received the admiral’s memo, Churchill and more than one hundred advisers and staff members arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary for a series of meetings to be held in Washington. Hard-nosed bargaining marked the conference.

On May 21, 1943, more than a week into the Washington conference, dubbed “Trident,” King announced his plan to split the Japanese line of communications, separating the home islands from Japan’s southern resource colonies. He proposed to starve the Japanese into submission. The key to doing this, he informed the Brits, were the Marianas. By capturing the islands, especially Saipan, the Allies could cut off Japan’s access to its raw materials in the Southwest Pacific and isolate the Carolines and the great base at Truk. They could then move forces westward into the Philippines and China or northwestward into Japan. The offensive, King speculated, might even compel the Japanese navy to challenge the Allies to the decisive naval battle that he wanted. His ideas, King explained, were not novel. The Naval War College had developed them decades earlier, and most naval officers regarded them as articles of faith.

Predictably, the Brits balked at committing to anything that authorized in writing an offensive campaign in the Central Pacific. King’s temper flared more than usual when American general Richard Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief of staff, seemed to have persuaded the Combined Chiefs that King’s plan would constitute a series of “hazardous amphibious frontal attacks against islands of limited value,” and that its reliance on carrier-based aircraft operating far from their sources of fuel and ammunition made it unworkable. Seizing the opportunity, Sutherland again argued that the best line of approach, which could make use of Australia as a war base and could be supported by a large reserve of land-based aircraft, was from New Guinea to Mindanao. However, when the Combined Chiefs took the time to study the Army plan in detail, realizing that it would require thirteen new combat divisions and nearly two thousand planes along with landing craft and naval support ships, a colossal undertaking, they cooled. Sutherland’s request far exceeded American capacity.

In the end, Trident gave formal agreement to a series of compromises whereby Roosevelt and his commanders agreed to eliminate Italy from the war in return for a firm date-spring 1944-on Marshall’s coveted cross-Channel invasion. The other British concession, “Strategic Plan for the Defeat of Japan,” formalized the Allied commitment to the Pacific, giving King the green light for his long-sought invasion of the Central Pacific. The caveat? The Combined Chiefs would have final say over the offensive, and King would have to agree to seize the Gilberts before the Marshalls. Nevertheless, King emerged victorious. He had come to the conference intent on establishing the necessity of a “master plan” for the Pacific, and the British had conceded.

In August 1943, five months after Trident, the Combined Chiefs assembled again for the year’s third major conference-Quadrant-held in Quebec. Much had transpired during the months leading up to Quadrant. The Allies had captured Sicily, the Italian government had overthrown Mussolini and was threatening to leave the Axis, the Red Army had crushed Germany’s last strategic offensive in the east at Kursk, American offensives in New Guinea and the Solomons had gained considerable momentum, and the 7th Infantry Division had recaptured Attu in the Aleutian islands of Alaska. Little, though, had changed between King and the British. King hammered at old themes-more resources for the Pacific theater and the need for a broad strategy-and the British, again, resisted. Undeterred, King reiterated his plan for the Central Pacific, underlining the importance of the Marianas. Its loss, King said, would constitute an enormous strategic and psychic blow for Japan. For the second time, King outlined a scenario in which the Japanese Combined Fleet would be compelled to challenge the U. S. Navy, which with its new Essex-class carriers and F6F Hellcats, would have the chance to administer what might be the final blow to the Japanese.

What also emerged at Quadrant was King’s growing support for MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific initiative. King explained that he now saw the wisdom of a dual offensive, stretching Japan’s defenses and its fuel-starved Imperial Navy to the breaking point. By virtue of their stunning early war victories and an empire that now stretched over one sixth of the earth’s surface, the Japanese were especially vulnerable to this two-pronged strategy. King called it the “whipsaw plan,” and was convinced that it would keep enemy intelligence wondering where the next American blow would come. MacArthur, however, opposed King throughout the second half of 1943 (and the early months of 1944), and continued to try to make the case for supreme command of the Pacific theater and a single offensive led by the Army.

Ultimately it was President Roosevelt, in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who declared that the offensive would be two-pronged and simultaneous, with two separate commanders: MacArthur would fight his way across New Guinea and toward the Philippines while Admiral Chester Nimitz, King’s commander-in-chief for Allied air, land, and sea forces in the Pacific Ocean, slashed and pounded across the Central Pacific, capturing tactically important islands, en route to the innermost reaches of the Japanese empire. At the Cairo-Teheran conferences in late November and early December 1943, the Combined Chiefs gave formal approval to the two routes in a master plan titled “Specific Operations for the Defeat of Japan, 1944.”

MacArthur, who did not attend the conference, electing instead to send Sutherland, was furious at the outcome. The Central Pacific, Sutherland had argued, should be abandoned for three reasons: it could be carried out only by massive and costly amphibious operations; it relied too much on carrier-based aviation; and finally, because of the distances involved, the Central Pacific offensive would involve an agonizingly slow series of stops and starts. MacArthur’s proposal called instead for Nimitz, after taking the Marshalls, to assist the general’s forces in pushing on to Mindanao.

In another blow to MacArthur, the Combined Chiefs not only gave their approval to the Central Pacific offensive, but gave seizure of the Marshalls, Carolines, Palaus, and Marianas priority in scheduling and resources. “Due weight,” the Chiefs said, “should be accorded to the fact that operations in the Central Pacific promise a more rapid advance toward Japan and her vital lines of communication, the earlier acquisition of strategic air bases closer to the Japanese homeland and are more likely to precipitate a decisive engagement with the Japanese fleet.” Based on this decision Nimitz sketched out a tentative timetable for the drive across the Central Pacific: Kwajalein would be invaded on January 31, 1944, Eniwetok on May 1, Truk on August 15, and Saipan, Tinian, and Guam on November 15.

By committing U. S. forces to a two-pronged war in the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz knew that he would be placing enormous pressure on American industry. To outproduce Japan (and Germany, too), the country’s war effort would have to reach unprecedented new heights. Dockyards, working round the clock, would be called upon to assemble a steady stream of submarines; amphibious vehicles; large new destroyers; Independence-class light carriers; fast, well-armed Essex-class carriers, capable of hauling eighty to one hundred aircraft and over three thousand men; and cargo ships. Factories would be ordered to churn out planes and tanks. Arsenals would have to produce huge amounts of ordnance, which West Coast ammunition depots, like Port Chicago, would have to load onto Liberty, Victory, and Navy ships speeding for the Pacific.

1942: Japanese Options

Hitler’s blitz swept through Poland, the low countries, and France from September 1939 to June 1940, but it paled in comparison to the military feat accomplished by the Japanese in an even shorter period of time. Adolph’s European conquest geographically would not even cover the Japanese home islands, yet Japan extended its power and control 4,000 miles east toward Hawaii, 4,000 miles south toward Australia, and 4,000 miles west into the Indian Ocean. Admiral Nagumo’s fleet alone had swept almost 50,000 miles across the high seas from Japan to Hawaii and back, to New Britain, to Truk, to Java, to the Celebes, toward Australia, toward Ceylon and back to Japan. The triumphant Japanese had lost but 23 war-fighting vessels, none larger than a destroyer. Though 300,000 tons of Japanese merchant shipping went to the bottom, what they captured in Allied harbors more than exceeded their losses.

On the surface, it all seemed to come easily for the Japanese. In a mere five months, every objective of the imperial grand scheme had been achieved. Across 10,000 miles of ocean from Hawaii to Australia to India, the Combined Fleet reigned supreme. The Allies had been routed out of the Southwest Pacific with the exception of New Guinea. No one on the imperial staff doubted Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast would soon capitulate, just as the other Allied bastions had. Once Japan moved east into the Bismark Archipelago and finished securing the Solomon Islands, Australia would be dealt with next.

Japanese military doctrine stressed offense. Their fighting ships, aircraft, submarines, and ground forces were designed for and functioned well when on the attack. Little consideration was given to defense. When attacked, the Japanese soldier, sailor, airman, flag officer, or even emperor had difficulty reacting properly. Poorly considered attempts at swift vengeance were the typical response: the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid a prime example. The imperial staff planning focused on continuing the offensive, since reverting to a hold-and-consolidate posture might indicate temerity and yield the initiative to the Allies.

The Battle of Coral Sea by Robert Taylor

As the lights were going out in the Philippines in late April and early May, American listening posts picked up message traffic indicating a Japanese invasion force was proceeding around the northern side of New Guinea, intent on seizing Port Moresby. This outpost was the last remaining Allied base of any size north of Australia. An Allied loss here would put Japan’s air power well within reach of the southern continent’s northern extremities and provide jumping off points should invasion of Eastern Australia be in the offing.

Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii and General MacArthur in Australia recognized the extreme threat to Australia that this Japanese gambit represented. To ambush the invasion, Nimitz ordered into action both the Lexington under Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch and Yorktown under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the overall commander of the task forces that included escorting cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and tankers.

En route to the battle for Port Moresby, the 4th Japanese fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye included two carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, along with one light carrier, Shoho, four heavy cruisers, submarine-hunting destroyers, and 14 troop/supply transports. The Japanese task force swung east for a stop on May 3 at Tulagi. The Japanese were lucky; the Australians had abandoned their outpost on this small island three days prior. Without opposition, a garrison made up of troops, seaplanes, destroyers, minesweepers, and support equipment disembarked and occupied the small island and its harbor located just north of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Then the main force continued on toward Port Moresby.

Upon learning of the Tulagi landings while at sea, Fletcher launched an air strike on May 4, from 100 miles south. Three waves of planes struck the island’s new tenants. One Japanese destroyer had to be beached, and five seaplanes were sunk, as were four barges and three minesweepers. But Fletcher had given himself away. He withdrew his force south, then swung west, hoping to surprise the Port Moresby-bound transports, which his intelligence estimated were about to appear rounding the eastern tip of New Guinea on the sixth.

But Admiral Inouye instructed his invasion transports to remain at sea while he detached his striking force to take up hot pursuit of the maneuvering American carriers. On the night of May 6, the two fleets passed 60 miles abeam each other going in opposite directions. A Japanese scout plane, flying well to the south of the two American carriers, spotted the U.S. oiler Neosho and her escort, the destroyer USS Sims, before 8 a.m. on the 7th, yet the Japanese crew reported these ships as a “carrier and cruiser.”

Later that morning, a U.S. scout plane alerted Fletcher that two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers were headed his way from the northwest. It, too, was mistaken. The carriers were now southeast. Based on these botched reports, both sides felt pressed to act. Thus began what would come to be known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese launched two strikes in the direction of their sighting. Both found the ships, but the first strike employed level bombing from altitude. All bombs missed. This was not the case for the second attempt by dive bombers. Shortly after noon, the Sims went to the bottom and the Neosho was reduced to a drifting wreck that was scuttled four days later.

Fletcher’s strike involved 93 aircraft. They found the wrong ships just before noon. Lieutenant Commander Weldon L. Hamilton in an SBD Dauntless dive bomber spotted the light carrier Shoho and decided that, light or not, it was a carrier and needed to be sent to the bottom. All 93 aircraft took part in one continuous, chaotic, attack lasting 26 minutes.

At the Combat Information Centers aboard both American carriers, little of the garbled radio transmissions made much sense. Suddenly, Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, Lexington’s second SBD flight leader, transmitted clearly and loudly, “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to Carrier, scratch one flattop!” The tension on the carriers exploded as men cheered in jubilation.

It was, in retrospect, a hollow rejoicing. That same day, May 7, some 2,700 miles to the northwest, General Wainwright formally surrendered the Philippines to the Japanese.

On May 8, Japanese and American scout planes out over the Coral Sea located each other’s main fleets east of New Guinea. Every available aircraft was launched by both sides. Yorktown was hit by one delay-action bomb that penetrated four decks and exploded, killing 64 sailors. The Lexington was hit by at least two torpedoes and two bombs but kept up steam even though on fire. She began to list, but the crew counter-flooded compartments with oil ballast to stabilize her while they fought the fires.

Lexington’s airborne planes along with those from the Yorktown spotted the carrier Shokaku turning into the wind to launch aircraft. The attack was on. American torpedo bombers launched at too great a distance and missed, but the dive bombers had better luck. One bomb struck near the bow and one aft. A third later smashed into her deck. The now heavily damaged Shokaku limped away, her decks of steel and planks mangled and burning.

The American planes headed home, with Lexington’s aircraft recovering aboard in spite of her heavy damage. Just after one in the afternoon, a smoldering fire aboard the Lexington, caused by a motor generator left running, spread to high-octane fuel, touching off a succession of explosions. Seven hours later she went to the bottom. Fletcher then reversed course for Hawaii with his remaining carrier and supporting ships.

Though the Japanese suffered less damage and loss, the invasion of Port Moresby was turned away, since Inouye withdrew his fleet to Japan for repairs. The engagement was the first carrier versus carrier engagement and the first between naval forces that never came within sight of each other. This was the second time a Japanese invasion had been turned back, the first being the initial Wake Island attack in early December 1941.


The battle of the Coral Sea was the third naval probe by the American fleet, and Admiral Yamamoto’s concern regarding maintaining the initiative now peaked. Though the first two U.S. forays involved the Gilbert and Marshal Islands in February and the Marcus Islands in March, the Coral Sea operation was a deep Pacific probe. Early on, Yamamoto became fully aware that air power was making the difference in virtually every operation the Japanese were conducting, and that the proper application of that arm would determine the outcome of the war. In that light, he felt the aircraft carrier, not the battleship, determined fleet strength, and as such the Allied carriers needed to be dealt with promptly while the Japanese Navy had numerical superiority. Early in Yamamoto’s career, the Russian fleet had been surprised at Port Arthur, then drawn into battle at Tsushima Strait where they were soundly defeated. What works, works, was Yamamoto’s creed, and he intended to repeat the performance. A strike at Midway, two small islands (Sand and Eastern) located 1,150 miles northwest of Hawaii, would be the setting, an operation that was sure to draw the American carriers into battle. Only this time, instead of being an ordinary seaman fighting the battle, he would be the commander who devised and orchestrated Japan’s most decisive victory.

In preparation, an odd exercise had been tested. Called Operation K, two H8K1 Emily flying boats took off from Wotje Island in the Marshalls on March 4. They set down at French Frigate Shoals, a reef 487 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. Refueled by submarines, they then launched on a night reconnaissance and bombing mission over Pearl Harbor, Oahu. U.S. Army radars detected the Japanese planes while they were some 200 miles from Oahu. Fighters were launched to intercept, but were unable to obtain visual contact in the dark. The two Emily seaplanes arrived over Oahu just after two in the morning, but the island was shrouded in clouds. Both planes released their bombs above what they thought was Ford Island and subsequently reported success. One stick of bombs actually struck harmlessly on Mount Tantalus above Waikiki. The other string splashed into the sea at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. In view of the reported results, Yamamoto incorporated a similar mission into his maturing Midway Plan, which had been forwarded to the imperial staff in April.

The generals and admirals in Tokyo had other ideas. Being debated were three options: thrusts toward either Australia, India, or Hawaii. The “Australia first” group considered the continent a grave threat, an eventual springboard for an Allied counteroffensive. As such, Australia needed to be under Japanese control or its sea lanes closed to U.S. shipping. But the Army generals vigorously opposed the idea of invading Australia. The China problem had given them no illusions regarding the task being suggested. The Army staff concluded it could not assemble the 10 or more divisions needed for such an operation. Navy staff officers bristled, suspecting the Army was holding back its divisions, counting on the success of Hitler’s upcoming Caucasus offensive in the spring to allow Japan to initiate a ground offensive against the Russians in the vulnerable Soviet Far East. The Army was also opposed to extending control westward into the Indian Ocean. A proposed amphibious assault on Ceylon would again pull divisions from China and make things there vulnerable to a Soviet counter.

The Hawaii option envisioned occupation of Midway, Johnston and Palmyra Islands from which air power could be brought to bear on Hawaii to support amphibious landings there. Once Hawaii was under Japanese control, the U.S. would effectively be shut out of the Central and Western Pacific. But surprise would no longer be available, and the amount of airspace over the Hawaiian Islands was considered too extensive for medium bombers and long-range fighters to adequately cover.

While the fractured staff worked toward a solution that all could agree upon, plans had gone forward to at least isolate Australia by extending control east beyond New Guinea into the Solomon Islands, plus the New Caledonia, Fiji Islands, and Samoa area.

Yamamoto’s scheme at Midway, though complex, seemed more manageable than the other three options the staff was deliberating. More importantly, the Army had no objections, their contribution to the effort being minimal.

Yamamoto wanted to draw out the American carriers via a feint at the Aleutians immediately prior to the assault on Midway. The plan would require the largest Japanese naval commitment to date. Within the Combined Fleet, the only outspoken opposition against the plan came from Vice Admiral Inouye and his 4th Fleet staff. Inouye had presided over the debacle on the first attempt to invade Wake Island. It was one of his destroyers that was among the largest Japanese war ships lost during the first four months of the war. Yamamoto, not altogether thrilled with the 4th Fleet performance to date, ignored Inouye’s rebuff. But the admiralty staff in Tokyo also had misgivings about the value of Midway, and in particular the heavy logistic requirement needed to supply both it and the Aleutian Islands once occupied. After successfully invading Midway, long-range bombers from Hawaii could attack the island, while Japanese land-based medium bombers on Midway would be limited in their ability to respond in kind. Due to its size, Midway offered little hope for dispersal and concealment of aircraft, fuel, and munitions, while the Hawaiian Islands had ample locations to disperse everything. Continuous day and night air patrols would be required around Midway to minimize losses from these expected forays.

The admiralty staff eventually leaned toward the isolation of Australia. They believed that severing the sea lanes would be the best way to draw out the American carriers. In doing so, the decisive battle would occur much farther from Hawaii such that logistics issues for both sides would be equalized.

Yamamoto threw aside these objections, claiming the most direct way to isolate Australia was to “destroy the enemy’s carrier forces, without which the supply line could not in any case be maintained.” Japan’s superiority over the U.S. Pacific Fleet in carriers alone at that time was nearly three to one, with Japan possessing seven large and four light carriers against America’s four large carriers. The admiral also pointed out that even if the four U.S. carriers could not be drawn to battle, “we shall still realize an important gain by advancing our defensive perimeter to Midway and the Western Aleutians without obstruction.”

In the months following the opening of the Pacific War, Yamamoto’s efforts in protecting of Tokyo and the Imperial Palace became close to an obsession. He had established the picket boat line, yet the U.S. Navy incursion at Marcus Islands in March made him nervous. But all the arguments against Yamamoto’s Midway plan paled when the unthinkable did happen.

Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo on April 18 ended the wrangling. The admiralty staff threw in the towel and signed off on the Yamamoto venture. Key to its success was timing. Yamamoto wanted the mission launched in early June when the moon was full. Complex maneuvers would be conducted at night, and the fleet’s lack of radar once again was having a direct impact in strategic decisions. A delay until July’s full moon was considered unacceptable by Yamamoto.

A mission rehearsal, or rather a table-top war game, was scheduled by Yamamoto on the Yamato during the first week in May. The exercise went smoothly. It did so because chief of staff Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki canceled or revised the adverse rulings of the game’s umpires at every negative outcome. In one reported instance of what would become supreme irony, the Japanese officer acting as the American player rolled his dice the first time and sank four of Yamamoto’s carriers. The Japanese side complained that it was not possible for this to happen and had him re-roll. This attempt resulted in one carrier sunk and two damaged.

That same week, the New Guinea part of the headquarters plan to isolate Australia hit a snag as a consequence of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Once again Vice Admiral Inouye had failed to deliver on time. The Japanese staff, now with increased urgency, sought a means to prevent the U.S. fleet from establishing a secure sea lane to and from Australia. How to go about it was what had them stymied. Yamamoto with his Midway plan offered a solution.

Two fleet commanders who would find themselves in leading roles at Midway, Vice Admirals Kondo (Second Fleet) and Nagumo (First Air Fleet), were engaged in battle operations during the planning cycle. By the time they learned of the proposed operation, it was no longer being argued, but had been locked in. Thus the Japanese Combined Fleet began assembling for the largest naval operation in history.

The plan called for over 200 ships and submarines including 8 carriers bearing over 700 planes, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines, plus 80 transports and auxiliary support ships, all arranged in 16 different fleets. The required fuel alone exceeded that needed for a full year of peacetime operations.


At naval headquarters on Oahu, Admiral Nimitz had an element that most wartime commanders could only dream about. Designated Station Hypo, it was the admiral’s code-breaking team led by Commander Joe Rochefort. The commander was regarded by some as brilliant but eccentric, often wearing a red smoking jacket and carpet slippers at work. He assembled a group of similarly minded code breakers whose work would ultimately change the outcome of the war. By the first week in May, Station Hypo had already discovered that Yamamoto had a grand scheme in the works. What they did not yet know was the where and when. The Japanese began referring to the next battle as occurring at point AF. But where was AF? Rochefort thought it was Midway, but had to prove it. He got the nod from Admiral Nimitz to send a message to Midway via secure underwater cable asking them to transmit in the clear that their fresh-water distilling plant was out of service. The hope was that the Japanese would intercept the transmission and comment on it. They did. On May 20, code breaker Tommy Dyer working in Station Hypo decoded a message sent to Tokyo from the Japanese listening station now on Wake Island. The message alerted Yamamoto regarding a water emergency at point AF. Bingo!

Nimitz now had enough deciphered message traffic from Japan to convince him that the next push by the Japanese was toward Midway and the Aleutians. This was no gambit aimed at an Australian outpost on a backwater island thousands of miles away. This was aimed at American soil, and there would be no thought of anything but a maximum response.

Nimitz had already visited Midway on May 2, ordering an increase in the garrison force and aircraft needed to defend the island. Nineteen Marine Corps SBD-2 Dauntless dive bombers, seven F4F Wildcat fighters, 30 PBY flying boats, plus 18 B-17 and four B-26 bombers were added to the air power on station, bringing the total to 119 aircraft. The admiral also stationed 20 submarines in three patrol arcs around the island at 100, 150, and 200 miles out. All were in place as the Nagumo force closed the distance to Midway.

Nimitz did not ignore Alaska. The command arrangement there was a merger of U.S. Army, Navy, and Canadian forces, with the U.S. Navy as the senior service.