RAF: The Establishment of a Peacetime Service

To understand why the fantasy figure of the airman was created, it is necessary to explore the political establishment of the airforce after the war. To guarantee its place as a permanent military body, the Royal Flying Corps began a series of reforms, under the aegis of General Smuts, in 1917–1918 that ended the division of military and naval aviation and formed the RAF.8 This unification report became one of the most important documents of the 1914–1918 war, developed because, as official naval historian Arthur Marder explained, the ‘intensified competition between the Army and Navy for aircraft’ was wasting resources. Instead the Smuts report of August 1917 ‘recommended the fusion of the RNAS and RFC … under an Air Ministry and Air General Staff.’ This did not immediately mean that the air service was better resourced, but established a system for efficiency. Most significantly, it gave overall control to an aerial ministry rather than a military or naval representative.

The Royal Air Force came into being on 1 April 1918, almost six years after the Royal Flying Corps was first formed. The significance of the Smuts Report is that it made the airmen of the First World War unique. Through their actions, aerial combat was recognized and embodied in a third service, and there would never again be division of control for aerial resources. Yet the disappointment and political manoeuvring between the Admiralty and the War Office that the report engendered had ramifications for the professional culture of the RAF for more than a decade.

Naval pilots were reluctant to accept the new regime. Major Draper of 8 Squadron (No. 208 RAF) was dismayed at the loss of naval identity. ‘I know everyone from myself down to the last man were very upset at the change,’ he complained, because they lost ‘that special distinction which had earned for Naval 8 a reputation second to none … . Unofficially we never dropped the old ways completely.’ Draper then referred to a post-war photograph clearly showing some members of the Squadron still sporting their old RNAS uniforms. ‘PIX,’ a fellow RNAS pilot, described a farewell dinner held on 31 March 1918, demonstrating the loyalty naval men felt towards their dying service. The ‘Royal Naval Air Service was passing away’, he mourned:

It was the oldest of the two British flying services having its origins in 1910 … . But the debt which the nation owes to it for the development of engines and efficient aircraft, no less than for its operations on land and sea over the whole world, had hardly been appreciated … . And now its people were asked to give up the legends about the mighty pilots who had created the service, the traditions which had accumulated so rapidly in war time, the uniform and routine which so well fitted their work, the comradeship which had permeated the personnel owing to its limited number, and the name which numberless brave men had laid down their lives to make honourable … . Below the khaki! I feel hardly human.

His epitaph for the service demonstrates the extremely strong allegiances men had formed to the notion of their flying group. The RNAS man was always naval first and pilot second. The resistance of naval pilots was only in the form of words as their duties still had to be performed. It ‘was a bitter blow to most of us to be suddenly shorn of our glories as sailors’, wrote the pilots of Portsmouth Command, ‘and to discard the Naval uniforms and customs, but again officers and men sunk their personal feelings and entered whole-heartedly into the spirit of things.’ Their words encapsulated the feeling of loyalty and duty, irrespective of service, with which veteran-pilots chose to represent their time at war.

The RFC, however, made little comment on the change; its uniform, titles and chain of command remained largely unaltered. The Smuts report, although necessary to establish the air service as a separate political institution, was not designed to win the allegiance of its pilots. It was based on operational necessities that resulted in frequent clashes between its political and organizational centres, and the needs of its pilots in the inter-war period. Once airmen had achieved their independent status, the airforce seemed at a loss, with nothing left to prove. Although the establishment of the RAF was a political and economic necessity, it did not result in a coherent purpose for the peacetime service. ‘As a result,’ historian Malcolm Cooper argued, ‘the RAF entered the post-war period poorly integrated into the defence community and quite lacking in a clearly defined strategic function.’ This shift from action to politics defined the inter-war period and explains the loss of direction sustained by the RAF at this time.

War had given the RFC both a political standing and a united purpose, but in the 1920s, the RAF found its new role difficult to sustain. First, it suffered from the necessary reduction of all services and the mass demobilization of its men. The Royal Flying Corps had relied heavily on the enthusiasm of youth and the initiative of its pilots to improve combat methods, so the return of a large proportion of these men to the civilian world was a significant blow to the drive of the new air service. The War Office estimated a total of 150,000 men were serving in the RAF by 12 March 1919, but insisted on reducing this to 79,570. The vast majority of these men were between 20 and 30 years old and had exemplified the youthful drive of the service. The RFC, unlike its fellow services, had an informal culture; developments were sustained and propelled by the men within. Without the unifying purpose of war, decline was understandable. Malcolm Cooper’s vivid description of the ‘bonfires of unwanted aircraft’ burning throughout the country could be seen as a metaphor for the shift from action to politics that left the RAF as a vulnerable veteran of war rather than the world-leading service it had been in November 1918.

To survive, the RAF had to carve a permanent role in Britain’s armoury and demonstrate its independent value in both war and peace. The new service, therefore, capitalized on the exuberance of its remaining young men and their enthusiasm for flight, focusing on the development of the new bomber aircraft. A formal Boy’s Service was created, based on a wartime precedent, to feed new recruits through the training system and ensure the RAF’s sustainability. ‘The Air Force also enlists boys between the ages of 15 and 16½, after an entrance examination conducted by the Local Education Authority,’ contemporary writer Wilkinson Sherrin explained, where they were given ‘a first-class technical training and then serve 10 years with the regular Air Force’. This was far longer than service during the war but would offer greater opportunity to train and develop men.

The University Air Squadrons (UAS) also capitalized on the growing association of youth and flight to entice the young men of Oxford and Cambridge into the air. This created and maintained a reserve of potential flyers should war recur. Most importantly, the association with Cambridge in particular allowed the RAF to exploit and promote the academic study of aeronautics at the highest level. Consequently, a Research Flight was included in the Cambridge squadron to develop and test new methods. To further emphasize the link between the study of aeronautics and the role of the pilot, Sir Bennett Melville Jones was simultaneously the university’s first Professor of Aeronautics and the leader of the Research Flight. Once established, academic study was undertaken to further embed the ‘science of flight’ into the country’s academic centres, with ‘investigations ranged from upper air microbiological experiments to the causes of aircraft accidents’. The UAS was a mutually advantageous arrangement, offering an exciting career path to educated recruits, whilst utilizing the resources of the nation’s finest research institutions to refine the processes of aviation.

The University Air Squadrons were extremely popular with Oxbridge students. The Oxford squadron easily filled the hundred student places with a large waiting list. Applications were so numerous that senior members of the institution could select only the most outstanding candidates, adding to their sense of exclusivity and privilege. The majority of men demobilized in 1920 were between 20 and 25 years old, which meant they would have been recruited during the ‘traditional’ university years. The UAS training was similar to wartime teaching, Boys’ Service veteran John Ross explained, with ‘lectures on air navigation, rigging, airmanship and engines’. The UAS offered consistent training to recruits during their time at University, slowly building their knowledge. To do this, Ross explained, each man ‘received an average of nine flights per term, totalling five hours and 45 minutes (dual and solo). Each flight was of about 35 minutes’ duration.’ Over three terms for three years, this culminated in a valuable body of experience and an instinctive knowledge of flight. After taking written and practical examinations, successful candidates were awarded the Air Ministry Proficiency Certificate and could apply to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and then for a permanent commission in the RAF. Should war return to Europe, the University pilots could be readied for active service. This strengthened the position of the RAF and ensured that flight became not only an exciting privilege, but also a serious academic pursuit. By thus exploiting the union of youth and flight, the RAF attracted considerable notice.

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Polish Submarines

WILK CLASS (1929)

Wilk (12 April 1929)

Builder: Normand

Rys (22 April 1929)

Builder: Loire

Zbik (14 June 1931)

Builder: CNF

Displacement: 980 tons (surfaced), 1250 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 257960 x 19940 x 13990

Machinery: 2 Normand-Vickers diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 1800 bhp/1200 shp = 14/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 7.5 knots surfaced, 80 nm at 4 knots submerged

Armament: 6 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 bow, 1 twin trainable external mount), total 10 torpedoes, 40 mines, 1 x 100mm gun, 1 x 40mm AA gun

Complement: 54

Notes: These submarines were larger versions of the French Saphir class. The Rys and the Zbik were interned in Sweden in September 1939, returned to Poland at the war’s end, and were scrapped in 1951 and 1954. The Wilk escaped to Britain in September 1939, became a training vessel a year later, and returned to Poland after World War II. It was scrapped in 1951.

ORZEL CLASS (1938)

Orzel (15 January 1938)

Builder: De Schelde

Sept (17 October 1938)

Builder: Rotterdamse

Displacement: 1100 tons (surfaced), 1650 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 275970 x 22900 x 13940

Machinery: 2 Sulzer diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 4740 bhp/1100 shp = 20/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 10 knots surfaced, 100 nm at 3 knots submerged

Armament: 12 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 b o w, 4 stern, 1 x quadruple external trainable mount), total 20 torpedoes, 1 x 105mm gun, 1 x twin 40mm AA gun

Complement: 60

Notes: These submarines were designed by the Nederlandsche Verenigde Scheepsbouw Bureaux in `s-Gravenhage, in cooperation with a team from the Polish Navy. They incorporated many features of the earlier Dutch O. 16, including the external trainable mount. The hulls were entirely welded, and all controls were hydraulically operated. The Orzel escaped the German invasion of Poland to the United Kingdom and was mined in the North Sea on 8 June 1940. The Sept escaped and was interned in Sweden until the war’s end, when it returned to Polish service until it decommissioned on 15 September 1969

The Polish Navy two U-class submarines:
ORP Dzik – (ex HMS P52)

ORP Dzik (Boar) was a U-class submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. She was laid down on 30 December 1941 as P-52 for the Royal Navy, but was transferred to the Polish Navy during construction. Launched on November 11, 1942, ORP Dzik was commissioned into the Polish Navy on December 12, 1942. Her name meant “Wild Boar” in Polish.
24 May 1943 Near Cape Spartivento, ORP Dzik fired a 4 torpedo salvo and damaged the Italian oil tanker Carnaro (8357 Brutto Register Tonnage). After the attack, two Italian corvettes dropped over 60 depth charges.
21 Sep 1943 ORP Dzik fired torpedoes in Bastia harbour, Corsica, France and sank the German tanker Nikolaus (6397, former Greek Nicolaou Ourania) and the German tug Kraft (333 Brutto Register Tonnage).
8 Jan 1944 ORP Dzik sank the Greek sailing vessel Elleni (200 Brutto Register Tonnage) with gunfire off Lesbos Island, Greece in position 39.37N, 25.43E.
ORP Dzik destroyed or damaged 18 surface ships both German and Italian with a total tonnage of 45,080 tons. She participated in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and also engaged enemy surface ships with her 76 mm cannon three times and the crew boarded two enemy ships. The ORP Dzik earned the Jolly Roger.
In July 1946, the Polish Navy decommissioned her and returned her to the Royal Navy.
In 1947, the ship was transferred to the Royal Danish Navy. She sailed as HDMS U-1 and was later renamed to HDMS Springeren. She was returned to the Royal Navy in April 1958 and scrapped.
ORP Sokół – (ex HMS Urchin)

ORP Sokół (Polish: Falcon) was a U-class submarine (formerly HMS Urchin) built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. Shortly after launching in September 1940 she was to be commissioned by the Royal Navy as HMS Urchin, but instead was leased to the Polish Navy due to a lack of experienced submarine crews. A sister boat to Dzik, both boats operated in the Mediterranean from Malta, where they became known as the “Terrible Twins”.

Shortly after her trials, the boat was handed to her Polish crew, in accordance with the Polish-British Military Alliance and amendments of 18 November 1939 and 3 December 1940. On 19 January 1941 the Polish banner was raised and the boat, commanded by Commander Borys Karnicki, was moved to Portsmouth. There she spent half a year patrolling the Bay of Biscay off the French port of Brest. In September she was moved to Malta, where she was attached to the 10th Submarine Flotilla. She took part in the naval runs on the Italian ports of Taranto and Naples. She also escorted numerous convoys in the Mediterranean. On 28 October of that year, Sokół achieved her first victory by heavily damaging the Italian auxiliary cruiser Città di Palermo. On 2 November in the Gulf of Naples she sank the 2,469-ton transport ship Balilla, with her sister HMS Utmost. On 19 November of the same year, she forced the anti-submarine nets and entered the port of Navarino, where she damaged the Italian destroyer Aviere. She was attacked by Italian torpedo boats and destroyers, but all of the depth charges missed and Sokół managed to escape from the harbour, sinking an additional transport steamer (5,600 tons) with three torpedoes. On 12 February 1942 she boarded and then sank the Italian wooden merchant schooner Giuseppina (362 tons) in the Gulf of Gabes.
On 17 April while in the port of Malta, she was heavily damaged by a German air raid and was forced to return to the shipyard in Blyth to receive repairs. By mid-1943 she had returned to the Mediterranean, where she continued to harass enemy shipment off the coasts of Italy, Northern Africa and in the Adriatic. On 12 September she rammed and sank the fishing vessel Meattini (36 tons). She took part in the allied blockade of the naval bases in Naples and Pula. Off the coast of the latter port, transferred by the Italians to Nazi Germany, Sokół sank a munitions transport (probably the 7,095-ton SS Eridania) and three days afterwards on 11 November the Italian schooner Argentina (64 tons). Between 4 November 1943 and 25 February 1944 she operated in the Aegean from the naval base in Beirut. Among the ships sunk in that period were two transport ships, four schooners and one cutter. In March 1944 both of the “Terrible Twins” left Malta for Great Britain where they were attached to the Dundee-based 9th submarine flotilla. After an additional four patrols off the coast of Norway, in the spring of 1945 she was designated as a training ship and was used by the Royal Air Force for training naval bomber pilots.

Altogether, during her wartime service Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels of about 55,000 tons in total. All of the commanding officers of the boat, (Lieutenant Commander Karnicki, Lieutenant Commander Koziołkowski and Captain Bernas) were awarded the Virtuti Militari. The full patrol records of the ORP Sokół are stored at the National Record Office, Kew, England.

TYPE 207 (1962)

These boats were very slightly modified versions of the earlier Type 201 class with upgraded sensors. To protect against the corrosion problems of the earlier boats, the first five vessels hulls received a coating of special zinc paint; the next four used a different, corrosion-resistant steel; and the U-1 and U-2 were new hulls built from magnetic steel incorporating all of the original machinery and basic equipment of the original U-1 and U-2. The U-4 through the U-8 were broken up between 1975 and 1977 and the U-1 and U-2 in 1993. The U-9 and U-10 became museum ships in 1993; the U-11 was modified as a target vessel that same year and became a museum ship in 2003; and the U-12 became a sonar trials b o a t in 1993 and was stricken in 2005. The Danish boats had small changes to suit local requirements and were decommissioned in 2003-2004. The Norwegian boats were classed as Type 207 and were built of magnetic high-tensile steel to endow them with deeper diving limits, and they had other minor variations from the German boats. The Stadt was scrapped in 1989; the Kinn was sunk as a target in 1990; the Ula was renamed the Kinn in 1988 and scrapped with the Utsira in 1998; the Utstein became a museum ship the same year; the Sklinna was scrapped in 2001. The Uthaug, the Utvaer, and the Kya were transferred to Denmark between 1989 and 1991 as the Tumleren, the Saelen , and the Springeren , and Denmark also received the Kaura for spare parts. They were decommissioned in 2004. The Skolpen, the Stord, the Svenner, and the Kunna were transferred between 2002 and 2004 to Poland as the Sep, the Sokol, the Bielek , and the Kondor, and Poland also received the Kobben for spare parts. The Polish boats remain in service.

PROJECT 613 [NATO WHISKEY] (1951)

Design work on this class began immediately after World War II as a medium submarine to replace the earlier S and Shch types. Detailed examination of German Type XXI boats strongly influenced the final design, which incorporated, in a less pronounced form, the figure-eight midsection and distinctive stern contours of these boats. There were many detail variations between different series of these submarines, mainly in the exact number and disposition of the guns. Large numbers of these boats were modified for special missions or experiments. Many also went to fleets within the Soviet sphere of influence: 5 to China (in addition to the 21 assembled there from Soviet-supplied components), 8 to Egypt, 2 to Bulgaria, 14 to Indonesia, 4 to Albania, 4 to Poland, 4 to North Korea, and one each to Cuba and Syria. By the early 1980s about 60 boats of the 215 built in the Soviet Union remained in service, and 18 still existed 10 years later.

Poland (four vessels, 1962–1986, retired)
ORP Orzeł (292)
ORP Bielik (295)
ORP Sokół (293)
ORP Kondor (294) – 10 June 1965 raising of the banner, 30 October 1985 lowering of the banner.

PROJECT 641 [NATO FOXTROT] (1958)

This class of long-range submarines was developed to replace the earlier Project 611 type. Like the Project 633 type, they were equipped with a substantially more advanced sonar outfit and could dive deeper than their precursors. In addition to the 17 boats built for export, 2 submarines were transferred to Poland in 1987 and 1988 as the Wilk and the Dzik . All the boats, both Soviet and foreign, were discarded in the 1990s.
ORIGINAL KILO (PROJECT 877)

ORP Orzeł (291) is a Polish Navy ‘Project 877E’ (Kilo-class) submarine. She is the third Polish submarine to bear the name Orzeł.
The boat was built by the Shipyard Krasnoe Sormovo in Gorky and was commissioned on 29 April 1986 at Riga. On 13 June of the same year Orzeł was transferred to Gdynia where she was named on 21 June. The submarine was assigned to the 3rd Flotilla based in Gdynia.

 

Operation Shingle – The Landings I

On the evening of Friday 21 January 1944, Berthold Richter, a nineteen-year-old engineer in 29th Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote a letter to his parents. ‘I am looking forward to some leave soon and hope to see you both. I miss you terribly … I have not been able to write as often as I would have liked and fear that I am not much of a son nor a brother. Please send my love to Anna and tell her that I miss her too. I would imagine that she has grown since I last saw her.’ He signed off ‘Your loving son, Bertie’ and attached a recently taken photograph of himself in uniform posing by the Coliseum. Grenadier Richter was a good-looking young man, with a shock of black hair and bright blue eyes. He had left his family in Hamburg for basic training twelve months before and had not been home since. Had he returned, those that had known him would have noticed that he had changed – he had lost a little weight, but he also stood differendy, and there was something unfathomable about his expression. Richter had seen his officer blown up during the fighting in Sicily, cradled his dying best friend in his arms at Salerno and been wounded twice during the fighting in the mountains. His division had eventually been pulled out of the line for a refit and a time in reserve near Rome. Here Richter had briefly – but fully—sampled the pleasures of the capital city where he drank and smoked heavily, and lost his virginity to a prostitute. He had no time to waste. Now he was at Anzio, one of a 380-man unit that had only the previous day been enjoying the sea air, conducted a little training, and making preparations for the demolition of the harbour. Richter slipped the sealed letter in his breast pocket, as a comrade staggered through the door of their seafront billet with two cases of ‘liberated’ wine. With the town evacuated and offering so little to entice the men, they settled in for some drinking, singing and gambling. Berthold Richter enjoyed himself, at one point falling off a table as he danced with a wooden chair, before falling fast asleep fully clothed on a mattress on the floor. It is likely that he was awoken by the sound of the approaching Allied landing craft and had gone to investigate. The shots that killed him had propelled his comrades out of bed and into the waiting arms of the Rangers. Before being escorted into captivity, Richter’s friends saw his body curled in the foetal position surrounded by a large puddle of blood on the esplanade.

Nearly 800 5-inch Allied rockets had crashed into the buildings and along the waterfront of all the invasion beaches. The wall of explosions killed and wounded some of the sentries, dropped masonry down onto the sleeping, cut telephone lines and detonated some of the mines. But its psychological effect on the enemy was even more impressive, sending those still capable of a fight reeling into the first waves of VI Corps. Their confidence boosted by the pyrotechnics, Lucas’s assault waves stormed the beaches to the sound of their own descending might, but silence from an overawed enemy. Assisted by lights (set up on the sand by two-man teams launched from submarines) the assault craft had landed accurately and on time. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recalls:

I braced myself for the shock of the searchlights stabbing out from the shore, followed by the tracers pouring over the waters. But again a silence more intense than ever held the whole area as the assault craft crept in . . . The incredible had happened. We had got the one thing we had never bargained for, utter, complete surprise.

The Allied landings were an unexpected success. An Irish Guards officer wrote: ‘It was all very gendemanly, calm and dignified’, whilst a less restrained 3rd Division officer declared: We hit the beach and shook Hider’s breeches … It sure was a relief after Salerno and that God awful practice.’ The real thing was far more successful than the rehearsals because Lowry and Troubridge had worked tirelessly to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated, and assisted by the benign conditions, they were not. Lucas noted in his diary: ‘We achieved what is certainly one of the most complete surprises in history. The Germans were caught off base and there was practically no opposition to the landing . . . The Biscayne was anchored 3½ miles off shore, and I could not believe my eyes when I stood on the bridge and saw no machine gun or other fire on the beach.’

The landing was an important first step which had been made accurately and securely in order to provide a stable base for further phases. The next step was to push Lucas’s troops and vehicles swifdy across the beaches to instil the attack with some forward momentum. In this intense task the Military Landing Officers (MLO) played an important role. Captain Denis Healey, a future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was an MLO on the British Peter beach. A veteran of landings in North Africa and the Calabria, Healey did not take part in the Salerno landing (where his replacement was killed), but he was an expert in his field. He landed as the engineers were clearing lanes in the minefields when his job was then ‘to make sure that the troops followed the white tape through the lanes, and the vehicles were on the laid metal tracks to stop them bogging … My three days at Anzio were busy, but not dangerous.’ The beaches were extremely busy, with bulldozers creating breaches in the sand dunes, loudspeakers directing the troops, whilst vehicles and guns spilt out onto the sand. Healey and his team ensured that 1 st Division’s paralysis was kept to a minimum, although there was little that they could do when the sand bar that had concerned Penney during planning caused delays. Lucas was not happy and visited an irritated Penney to demand greater efforts as troops waded ashore or were lifted by DUKWs. Had the German defences been stronger they may have been able to exploit such difficulties, an accurate artillery barrage for example might have caused Penney serious problems, but instead the Panzer Grenadiers were rounded up within minutes of the landing. Vaughan-Thomas wrote, ‘The only Germans we saw were a forlorn group standing under guard at a farmhouse door. They had been fast asleep when we landed and clad in pyjamas had jumped into their car and driven it through the door of the barn and had been rounded up before they had gone a hundred yards.’

The three Ranger battalions and the supporting parachutists were extremely grateful for the lack of opposition on Yellow beach in Anzio. Lucas had expected a tough fight to take the harbour and the Rangers had been specially selected for this mission after their excellent performances in Tunisia and Sicily. Their commander, Colonel William O. Darby of Arkansas, ‘a broad-shouldered, thick-chested man’, who ‘moved quickly and spoke with decision’, recognised the nature of the challenge that faced his force as the beach was narrow and overlooked by buildings. He told the planners at Caserta: When I run out of the landing-craft I don’t want to have to look right or left’, and that is exactly what happened. When Darby disembarked from his landing craft he ran straight up the beach, across the road and into the Paradiso sul Mare, the large white twin-domed Art Deco casino built in the 1920s. As he set up his command post, his men, followed by 509th Parachute Battalion, fanned out and within minutes were bringing back prisoners. It was during this time that Berthold Richter had been killed. Richter’s friend Ralph Leitner recalls: ‘I was lucky not to be shot like him. These soldiers had adrenaline pumping through their veins and itchy trigger fingers. They looked fearsome. I recognised them as Rangers from their dress and the black, red and white insignia on their sleeve and knew instandy to respect them.’ The newly arrived Town Commandant also lay dead nearby. He had been driven down the coastal road from Anzio to a headquarters in Nettuno in the company of a Lieutenant to ascertain the source of a droning noise that could be heard out to sea. Minutes into their journey they were caught up in the rocket attack which forced them to take evasive action, but at its conclusion they sped on. As their vehicle entered Nettuno the Rangers ambushed them, drilling them with fire. The driver tried to barge through, but crashed into a ditch. The commandant was killed, the driver was badly wounded, but the Lieutenant cowering in the back emerged unscathed and was taken prisoner. Within minutes he was standing in Anzio harbour, watching the continued landings. He told his interrogators back in England that he had been impressed with what he saw: ‘he never heard a word of command’, they reported, ‘and yet it seemed that everything went clock-work-like’. He could appreciate the careful planning: ‘it was like a big business without confusion, disorder, or muddle.’ The speed and surprise of the attack had given the Germans no time in which to react. The Times later reported on one illustrative action: ‘At a German command post, from which the occupants fled when the Rangers landed, rooms were left in disorder, even to the remnants of a meal which had included sardines, Czech beans, and Danish bacon. Near by lay two German soldiers, shot as they ran from their machine-guns.’ Some Germans did not even have time to get dressed. One American private remembers bumping into a half-naked man in the darkness of Anzio:

As our squad entered a gloomy narrow street I could see a pair of fleshy white buttocks wobbling in the opposite direction and I shouted ‘Halt!’ as loud as I could. The man stopped, raised his hands, turned and walked towards us. We could tell that he was shocked – and perhaps a little embarrassed—because he was only dressed in a vest. At first I thought that he might be an Italian, but he found his confidence when he knew that we were not going to shoot him and started swearing at us in German. His thin legs were shivering below a great pot belly. It was my first encounter with the Master Race.

The Germans were quickly overrun, and Anzio was secured by 0800 hours, with Nettuno secured two hours later.

Soon after 3rd US Infantry Division and 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had landed on X-Ray beach, they began to push forward. ‘Once we knew that the division was going to get ashore in one piece and without any hindrance from the enemy,’ recalls Oliver P. Roach who was a Staff Sergeant with 15th Infantry Regiment headquarters, ‘our minds were on our next objective. Making a beachhead was very important, because we just didn’t know when or where the enemy would counter-attack us.’ This was a concern which was shared by the entire corps on the morning of 22 January, and in anticipation John Lucas had planned to create an initial beachhead area some two and a half to three miles deep which could be defended. To facilitate this, reconnaissance platoons were thrown forward and patrols were sent out by units in an attempt to ‘join hands’ across the front as quickly as possible. The probes forward were cautious, but firm. The Americans felt vulnerable as they moved through the open, flat, scrubby marshland on the right of the front towards the Mussolini Canal and an unmade road known as the ‘disused railway bed’ which ran across their front. The British, meanwhile, were circumspect about the prospect of traversing the dark Padiglione Woods. Leading the way on Penney’s left flank was 2nd Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment which advanced with two companies forward using a track through the Umbrella Pines that became known as Regent Street. ‘It was a little nervy being at the forefront of a corps attack striking out for Rome’, recalls an officer from battalion headquarters. ‘It was literally a shot in the dark. We didn’t know what was in front of us and had to constantly co-ordinate ourselves with the rest of the brigade. We were told to speed up then slow down, then speed up again. All we could really do was push on at a steady pace. The Colonel knew what he was doing.’ They ghosted through the darkness, their senses aching, their hearts pounding and their breath freezing at their mouths, expecting to be ambushed at any moment. But the division found no resistance in the wood and their attack developed unhindered in a breaking dawn towards the Moletta River, the Via Anziate and the flyover at Campo di Carne. The first organised German troops were encountered by the vanguard of both divisions after dawn. This weak defensive screen was established by the first German forces to be sent to the area and a number of their 88-mm guns opened fire on the beachhead and the landing vessels. It was the least that Lucas had expected and by mid-morning, as a weak sun gently warmed the embryonic beachhead, he had good reason to feel thoroughly satisfied. The landing had been a great success, and his divisions were forging a beachhead against negligible opposition.

Churchill wanted to be in London when Operation Shingle was launched and had arrived back at Downing Street on 18 January. He was still weak from illness, but his high expectations for Shingle helped sustain his morale. However, on the eve of the attack the Prime Minister was in a contrary mood, snapping at staff and colleagues alike, and clearly anxious about the operation. He found it difficult to concentrate on his work that evening, but within minutes of the first wave landing he received a message: ‘Personal and Most Secret for Prime Minister. From General Alexander. Zip repeat Zip’ – Operation Shingle had been launched. The lack of any further word on the situation at Anzio for several hours did not help the Premier’s mood. Having only slept fitfully for a couple of hours that night, he pounced on Alexander’s next communication at 0900 hours. We have made a good start’, it read. ‘We have obtained practically the whole of our bridgehead and most of the supporting weapons will be ashore tonight I hope.’ With that the Prime Minister relaxed – but he demanded frequent updates fearing German counter-attacks. Alan Brooke, meanwhile, went shooting. The newly promoted Field Marshal did not feel paternalistic towards Shingle which he viewed very much as Churchill’s baby; he allowed the Prime Minister to enjoy the ordeal of its delivery alone. ‘Very good shoot, only 4 guns: Cobbold, uncle Philip, Barney and I’, he recorded in his diary for 22 January. ‘Howling wind, almost gale force. Shot 172 pheasants. At lunch was called up by War Office and told that landing south of Rome had been a complete surprise. This was a wonderful relief!’

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring

It is not certain who raised the alarm, but by 0300 hours the news had reached Kesselring’s headquarters in Monte Sorrate. The Field Marshal had been awoken with the words: ‘Case Richard.’ As he dressed hurriedly a staff officer appraised him of the situation – there had been a landing in the Anzio—Nettuno area, but details were scant – but it could be up to four divisions. Kesselring’s mind lurched into action, running through the implications of the news and various scenarios that it could lead to. But he made no assumptions until he had the facts. There had obviously been a massive intelligence failure. Spies had failed to spot Allied preparations, and its armada had not been spotted approaching Anzio. He had been wrong-footed, and it was now his job to restore stability, and to strike back. Within minutes he was in a large briefing room with Siegfried Westphal, where a clutch of befuddled officers were talking animatedly over a map of Italy. The briefing by the intelligence officer was short and at its conclusion Kesselring launched immediately into questions. Making his apologies, an NCO bearing papers interrupted proceedings with new information. Civitavecchia, a promising invasion area sixty miles to the north of Anzio, was being bombarded. Kesselring smiled and nodded; the Allies were toying with him. Already unsure whether the landings were a raid, a feint or a full-scale attack, this complicated matters. Albert Kesselring strode over to the map table and leaned heavily over it. We have a problem,’ he announced, ‘but not an insurmountable one’, and proceeded to launch into a speech which those present later recalled as a bravura lecture on Allied intentions. The Field Marshal declared that the landing at Anzio was the opening gambit of an attempt to seize the Alban Hills, which would cut Tenth Army’s lines of communication fighting in the Gustav Line thus blocking their route of withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, even joking occasionally at the expense of his colleagues. ‘We have been caught a little off-guard,’ he explained, ‘as we are over-stretched trying to contain the fighting in the south. But we can recover. The British and American aim is to threaten Rome, have no illusions about that, but can they seize the city swiftly? Not, gendeman, if I have a say in the matter – and I intend to be very vocal.’ Pausing, he turned to Westphal and demanded to know what assets he had between Anzio and Rome. ‘Virtually nothing in the landing area,’ came the reply, ‘and perhaps another 800 men in the vicinity in total.’ Kesselring nodded again and then smiled. Throughout he exuded a confidence that infected all those who listened to him that morning. Kesselring acted as though this was merely a long expected—and eagerly anticipated – exercise. His sang-froid was securely rooted in his anticipation of Allied landings, albeit not necessarily at Anzio and at that time, and the preparations he had made for it. The terse instructions that he issued that morning were not a knee-jerk reaction to events, but had been carefully prepared for such an eventuality. The aim was to have 20,000 troops in the area by evening.

By 0430 hours the words ‘Case Richard’ had been signalled all over Italy, alerting commands that an Allied amphibious assault was under way at Anzio-Nettuno and ordering certain units and formations to move to contain it. The military commandant of Rome, Lieutenant General Kurt Mältzer, was to block routes in to the city with all available forces, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Defence District of Rome (who was also the commanding general of all Luftwaffe forces in the Mediterranean theatre), General Max Ritter von Pohl, was to move all his flak formations stationed south of Rome into defensive positions. Major General Heinrich Trettner’s 4th Parachute Division, the majority of which was still north of Rome, was to move without delay to the beachhead whilst its spearhead, Kampfgruppe Gericke, was to be sent immediately to block the Via Anziate and the secondary roads in the area. A kampfgruppe from 29th Panzer Grenadier Division stationed near Velletri, as yet uncommitted against British X Corps on the Garigliano, was sent towards Cisterna to block the only other main Allied exploitation route. Thus by the time that Adolf Hitler had been informed of the landings at around 0600 hours, a small, but highly mobile force had already been deftly despatched to contain the Allies. That morning the Führer was at his Wolfschane (Wolf’s Lair) headquarters in an East Prussian forest east of Rastenburg. Although still under development it covered an area the size of twenty-one football pitches. Only a small percentage of the Wolfschanze contained underground bunkers, but these were impressively built with a shell of reinforced concrete six feet thick. Narrow corridors connected the rooms which all had electric heating, running water, fitted furnishings, and ventilation machinery which drew fresh air through the ceiling. Hitler’s personal bunker – the Führerbunker – also boasted air conditioning. It was cramped, claustrophobic, but safe. On receiving the news of the attack Hitler had been calm but intense, for Kesselring had shrewdly forewarned him about the likelihood of just such a landing. He had watched Mark Clark’s recent offensive develop with interest, but was confident that Kesselring’s defence would hold firm. He now relied on the Field Marshal to deal a blow to the Anzio-Nettuno landings, and provide a victory that would shake Allied faith in their ability to conduct successful amphibious warfare.

Hitler’s composure allowed him to maintain his usual routine without interruption on 22 January. There was the usual pre-breakfast situation report in the Map Room at which he was given the latest news about the landings, followed by a communal breakfast with his staff. Here Hitler always sat facing a large wall map of the Soviet Union and spoke passionately about the Eastern front and the evils of Bolshevism, but the main situation conference that morning was dominated by the situation south of Rome. By this time it was clear that the attack was no feint, but a major strike, and the meeting decided to send formations from other theatres to deal with it: 715th Infantry Division was to be moved from the south of France, the 114th Jaeger Division from the Balkans, three independent regiments – including the highly regarded Infantry Lehr Demonstration Regiment – from Germany, and two heavy tank battalions from France. The meeting also gave Kesselring the authority to use any division from Fourteenth Army in northern Italy, which were under the control of the Chief of High Command of the German Armed Forces (OKW), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. As a result the larger parts of 65th Infantry Division and 362nd Infantry Division, together with elements of the newly formed 16th SS Panzer Division, were ordered south of Rome. Kesselring also ordered Tenth Army to stop counter-attacking British X Corps and go onto the defensive all along the Gustav Line in order to facilitate the release of as many units for Anzio as possible. Von Vietinghoff was displeased, arguing strongly that Mark Clark’s offensive was still a threat, but was forced to concede. Tenth Army subsequently released 26th Panzer Division and elements of 1st Parachute Division from its left, and units from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division, 71st Infantry and 3rd Panzer Grenadier Divisions from his right. The newly arrived I Parachute Corps headquarters was also returned to Fourteenth Army with Schlemm ordered to take command at the beachhead Anzio-Nettuno until General Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army headquarters could be moved from Verona. Hitler was impressed with Kesselring’s continuing sang-froid and the fact that his headquarters had not mentioned the word ‘withdrawal’. In the late afternoon, the Führer took tea with his secretaries and then sat down to dinner with Keitel and his aides where their strategy was discussed. There had been no panic at either the Wolfschanze or Monte Soratte.

The race between the belligerents to build up their forces at Anzio–Nettuno had begun. Several units had formed the defensive screen which the Allies had run into that morning. These included the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division Kampfgruppe which used its five armoured cars south of Cisterna to block the road from Nettuno. At 0715 hours it engaged an American reconnaissance force and took the first Allied prisoners of the battle. Shordy after the first troops from the Hermann Goring Panzer Division arrived at Cisterna, and the spearhead of 4th Parachute Division’s Kampfgruppe Gericke on the Via Anziate. Battalion Hauber blocked the road at Campoleone Station and sent a patrol out to Ardea where it stopped the British 1st Reconnaissance Troop as it drove up the coastal road. In a matter of hours the Germans had not only recognised Alexander’s intentions for Operation Shingle and set in motion a plan to heavily reinforce the area, they had also focused their activity on roads that Lucas would rely on to exploit the success of his initial landings. Moreover, by occupying Ardea, Campoleone Station and Cisterna, the Germans retained strong foundations for a counterattack. As if to underline Kesselring’s intent, several German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter bombers broke through to strafe the beaches, and drop light bombs on VI Corps at its most vulnerable point. Ross Carter of 2nd Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment wrote:

The deck of our LCI was crowded with troops standing around waiting to unload into the icy water and make the three hundred yards to the beach. Just as Berkely was reaching for one of Pierson’s cigarettes, a dive bomber came in and hell opened its doors. The bomb missed the bow by five feet or so, but the explosion lifted the boat clear out of the sea and blew a column of oily water into the sky which fell back on the boat and left us oil-coated for several days.

Stranded off the beach, one of the men swam ashore with a rope and tied one end to the strut of an amphibious Piper Cub, a light aircraft, sitting on the sand. Loaded up with equipment, weapons and ammunition, the men held the rope, jumped into the water and pulled themselves along. ‘The water’, the young paratrooper recalled, ‘was eight to ten feet deep and icy as a spinster’s heart.’ It was a fitting introduction to Anzio, for the men emerged from it ‘wet, cold, miserable, mad, disgusted and laughing,’ a list of adjectives that accurately reflect what troops were to feel during the coming battle. Indeed, as Carter says, he and his comrades had ‘embarked upon an adventure that staggers the mind.’ Private Robert E. Dodge, meanwhile, managed to get off his LCI safely, only to come under immediate aerial attack:

We doubled-time off the L.C.I. and kept going. We had run for quite a distance when Jerry planes came in strafing and bombing. Our anti-aircraft guns sent up such a cloud of aerial bursts, you wouldn’t think anything could fly through it. We instinctively hit the ditches. All around you could here the zap of shrapnel from our guns’ shells hitting the ground. The noise of the planes and guns was really frightening. This time no one was hurt, but now we realised it was for real. Before we could get out of the ditches, we were being urged on with shouts of ‘Move it’.

The Luftwaffe disturbed some of the Allied new arrivals on the first day of Shingle, but caused no significant damage due to their small numbers and the success of Allied Spitfire and Kittyhawk fighter patrols which accounted for seven enemy aircraft for the loss of three Allied. Thus, although the Germans had begun to move troops into blocking positions, and the Luftwaffe had been active, by noon the assaulting forces had reached Lucas’s initial beachhead line. British 2nd and 24th Guards Brigade were firmly lodged in the Padiglione Woods and patrols had reached the Campo di Carne flyover. It was a damp and exposed spot with a few farmhouses, but little else. ‘It gave me goose bumps’, says the 5ft 2in Corporal ‘Lofty’ Lovett of the North Staffordshires, ‘and it did not help when I was told that “Campo di Carne” translated to “Field of Flesh”. Here we were in the middle of God knows where, with precious little cover, waiting for something to happen. It was as still as could be, just the occasional boom of a German gun, or the noise of an aircraft, but otherwise quite quiet.’ Meanwhile, to Lovett’s right, 2nd Special Service Brigade had taken a position astride the Via Anziate two and a half miles north of a defensive line around Anzio-Nettuno created by the Rangers and 509th Parachute Battalion. The Americans had also occupied its soggy initial beachhead area with 7th Infantry Regiment on the left, 30th in the centre and 15th on the right, with patrols pushed forward to the Mussolini Canal where they prepared bridges for demolition to secure the flank.

Included in the invasion force into Anzio were 150 Carabinieri whose job it was to maintain public order in the towns after the landings. They were understandably extremely apprehensive at being part of a dangerous amphibious assault, but were relieved to walk ashore knowing that the Americans were already in control. Setting up a headquarters in a restaurant on the seafront, this armed police force, resplendent in their black uniforms, found that they had very little to do as the populations of Anzio and Nettuno had been evacuated. However, these native Italian speakers became extremely useful when refugees from elsewhere on the battlefield started to congregate in towns during the day. The first had started to arrive mid-morning, some carrying suitcases, children, and even family heirlooms. But there were others who had only too obviously run from their homes in a hurry, some without coats, and one or two still in nightclothes. A proportion of these were injured, their bruised and bloody bodies covered in a thick layer of dust. Many spoke of the dead that they had left behind. These people had lived with the war for years, but the violence had come with appalling suddenness on 22 January. Antonia Paolo who lived with her husband and four children on the edge of the Padiglione Woods recalls the experience:

Our farmhouse was sturdy, but not strong enough to stop the rockets. Only one hit our roof, but brought it down. Luckily nobody was hurt. The children were screaming and my husband grabbed them into his arms and carried them down into the cellar. We sat in the dark listening to the bombardment. It was the worst moment of my life and we prayed together. But it ended as quickly as it had started and within what seemed like minutes, a British officer who spoke fluent Italian was standing in our parlour apologising for the damage, and promising that somebody would be along soon to help us. My husband thought that they would help rebuild the roof and our demolished wall, but what he meant was that we would be escorted down to the port.

Once down at Anzio, the Paolo family were quickly put on an LCI with around twenty other families, and by evening were being administered to by the Allies in Naples. Some families left the danger area at the first opportunity, others as the battle spread, but many had to be prised from their homes or waited until the fighting was on their doorstep before electing to leave. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas witnessed one family which only fled once their house was under direct German fire: ‘The battle was a mere few hundred yards down the road’, he wrote, ‘and the bewildered civilians, clutching their bedding and a few battered suitcases, would stumble through the darkness, the noise and the shell-bursts to the dubious safety of the rear.’ Over the coming weeks a constant trickle of civilians asked to be taken to safety and at times it was a major task feeding and sheltering several hundred often frightened refugees. A church on the outskirts of Anzio was eventually used as an embarkation centre, although it was frequently overflowing with people, a significant number of whom were very young, very old or sick. Occasionally there was panic when a shell landed close by, and sometimes the evacuees had to wait several days before a ship could be found to take them to safety, but eventually 20,000 were taken to Naples.

Operation Shingle – The Landings II

Color photograph of U.S. Army DUKW amphibious trucks on the beach at Anzio, Italy during Operation Shingle, April 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph.)

As the first refugees were being evacuated from Anzio, Generals Alexander and Clark, together with a host of other high-ranking officers, were arriving. The two men had received a positive report from Lucas at 0300 hours that the landing had been successful and good progress was being made. Thus, as soon as it was light, the party from Caserta made their way to Naples harbour and were taken by fast PT boats to visit VI Corps. The news en route continued to be heartening with Gruenther staying in close contact with Clark who was encouraged that no German armour had yet been encountered. The flotilla arrived at the Biscayne at 0900 hours, and after a detailed situation report from Lucas, the group ventured onto the beachhead. Alexander visited 1st Division and spent considerable time with 24th Guards Brigade. Lieutenant William Dugdale, commander of a Grenadier Guards Anti Tank platoon, was one of the first to encounter Alexander whilst on the beach having dealt with some local difficulties:

The naval Lieutenant who commanded our Landing Ship hit a sandbank about 200 yards off the beach and we came to a shuddering stop. The Carrier Platoon roared off and disappeared beneath the waves but by their snorkel tubes they survived by dint of much revving of the engines the carriers all got ashore. The Anti-tank Platoon was less lucky and two of the six tugs sank and stopped in the water with their guns behind. After two hours of hauling and heaving we finally got a tow line on them and pulled them through the surf. I emerged from the water soaking and cross to be confronted by an immaculate General Alexander in field boots who said, ‘You look extremely scruffy’ to which the only answer was ‘Sir’ and a salute.

Dressed in his trademark fur-lined jacket, riding breeches and peaked officer’s cap, the dapper, imperturbable Harold Alexander was instantly recognisable. A group of guardsmen were impressed that the general did not break his stride when a salvo of exploding 88-mm shells showered him with soil. ‘He brushed off the soil like he would the drops of water having been caught in a shower of rain’, one said, ‘and continued on his way chatting to his aide who looked as though he’d seen a ghost.’ Like Clark, Alexander did not lack physical courage and had been wounded and twice decorated for leadership and gallantry during the First World War. He thought that it was important to show the troops not only that he was willing to share their danger, but that it was important to be calm under pressure. His companion, Admiral Troubridge, was not afraid to show his concerns however, and as he pulled himself up from a nearby ditch was heard to complain: ‘I don’t feel safe except at sea. This is most unfair, as really I am a non-combatant on land.’ Whether the General’s tour was a boost to the troops’ morale or merely distracted them from their duties is a moot point, but it was certainly remembered. The Scots Guards official historian writes: ‘General Alexander made a tour of the beach-head that morning, wearing his red hat and riding in a jeep followed by his usual retinue. We were again reminded of the likeness of the operation to an exercise – the Chief Umpire visiting forward positions and finding things to his satisfaction.’ He seems to have found ‘satisfaction’ in most of what he saw that morning and Clark felt the same. Meeting Truscott at the 3rd Division command post, the two men discussed events over a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast prepared over an open fire by Private Hong. No sooner had they finished than Lucas and his Chief of Staff arrived and Hong had to start cooking again. Throughout the morning a succession of visitors enjoyed breakfast, but left Hong fuming ‘Goddam, General’s fresh eggs all gone to hell.’ Clark visited Lucas again before he left for Naples that afternoon and praised what had been achieved so far, but also offered the advice: ‘Don’t stick your neck out, Johnny. I did at Salerno and got into trouble.’

VI Corps had made a solid start, but even in the earliest hours it was conservative. Whilst there was ample opportunity for Lucas to push out further and faster, his innate protective mentality allowed the Germans to establish strong defensive foundations. Although the enemy were about as weak as anybody could have anticipated for much of 22 January, and in spite of the fact that VI Corps headquarters understood that the enemy would only get stronger, Lucas remained focused on fulfilling Clark’s primary aim of a secure beachhead in a methodical and workmanlike manner. Even if it was imprudent to strike out for the Alban Hills at this stage, Lucas seemed blind to the possibility of taking as much important ground as possible in order to create a launch pad for offensive action and to provide defensive anchors. There seemed to be a lack of urgency about the advance when with a little more derring-do, VI Corps could have threatened Aprilia and Cisterna. Penney in particular felt that a wonderful chance was being wasted and his respect for Lucas rapidly diminished from that moment on. In the Padiglione Woods the Guards Brigade waited for orders, but none came. They built fires, ate their stale rations, drank tea and smoked as new German arrivals seeped into defensive positions on more advantageous ground. As Vaughan-Thomas wrote of that day, We held the whole world in our hands on that clear morning of January 1944.’ But John Lucas was not the only General to reveal a lack of boldness at Anzio. Another was on his way from Verona.

Eberhard von Mackensen

Eberhard von Mackensen grumbled throughout his flight from Verona that ‘a withdrawal of Tenth Army was the only way to save the German army in Italy.’ Arriving with the Fourteenth Army headquarters advance party to take possession of a nondescript building at the heart of German-occupied Rome, the General lost his temper at the mess that had been left by its previous occupants. Von Mackensen was a deep-thinking officer, highly professional and capable, but he had a superficial side to his nature. As German forces in Italy frantically sought to respond to the gauntlet thrown down at Anzio, this austere Prussian aristocrat, whose father had been Field Marshal during the First World War, announced that he would not move into the building until it had been tidied. While cleaners swept he and the vanguard of his staff took over a local café that had just one telephone but – this being Italy – three coffee makers. Kesselring, who disliked von Mackensen’s attitude and pessimism, had given his subordinate clear orders: ‘set up a temporary headquarters in Rome, and as soon as you are ready move to the Alban Hills and establish a permanent base . . . Prepare a plan to pin the Allies in their bridgehead with a view to a counter-attack as soon as was possible.’ As his staff climbed the stairs to the newly dusted second floor ‘Map Room’ that afternoon, they were greeted by the sound of a dozen ringing telephones. Satisfied that his office was the largest and with the best view, von Mackensen got to work. As Mackensen played the prima donna, an ever-growing number of German troops were being conveyed towards the beachhead. Many did not know where they were going, why and what they would find at their destination. One officer being thrown about in the back of an aged Renault truck that afternoon was Rittmeister Edwin Wentz, the commander of a replacement company in the Hermann Goring Panzer Division. At the time of the Allied attack the fifty-year-old had been sitting in the company kitchen drinking ersatz coffee. The bitter weather had aggravated an old shoulder wound that Wentz had picked up in 1916 on the Somme, and the intense pain had woken him early that morning. As he sat rubbing the scar where the shell fragment had entered his body all those years ago, he reminded himself that battles were a young man’s game. Wentz was happy enough to provide a finishing school for young infanteers before they went into the line, but he didn’t want to fight any more. Just as he was pouring himself another coffee, a clerk burst in and breathlessly reported that a Major was on the telephone. Curtly informed about the Allied landings, Wentz received his orders: ‘You must take your company and move them towards the Anzio beachhead. You will receive further instruction later.’ He could not believe what he was hearing—his men were keen but had only the most basic military skills. But Wentz’s men were not representative of the wider Hermann Goring Panzer Division which, commanded by Generalleutnant Paul Conrath, had been hardened by its experiences in Sicily and the Gustav Line.

Everything had been loaded in under forty-five minutes and one hour later, just after noon, they left having been told to get to the battlefield before dusk, giving enough light to reconnoitre the positions they were to take up. However, Edwin Wentz worried about movement in broad daylight due to enemy aircraft. Clattering around in the back of the trucks that afternoon, these men were dazed by the speed of events. The wooden seats provided little comfort, and the soft-skinned vehicles scant shelter from the icy weather, but some managed to sleep, their heads lolling over their colleagues who tended to ignore them. Most just sat back, quietly smoking or bent forward over their packs staring out at the frozen countryside, lost in their own thoughts. There was little talk, although the inexperienced were prone to give a running commentary about the position and progress of the convoy. The veterans tended to keep their own counsel until provoked. One sergeant, who had seen action at Stalingrad, recalls: ‘The youngsters were like little children going on an adventure, excited and apprehensive in equal measure and prone to asking every fifteen minutes, “Are we there yet?” God, they were annoying, but like parents we had to remain patient and try and take their minds off the present by talking about other things. I tried not to get too close to them. Experience told me that once in battle their chances of surviving for more than a couple of days in action were extremely limited.’ At one point they were subject to a fleeting air attack and the drivers sped up and pulled off the road. ‘Dismounting, the men took cover and fired on the aircraft with machine guns and rifles. It made one run strafing the road and then departed. After that, it became quieter and we reached the objective without further incident.’ Alighting at Cisterna, the company found some units of the division had already arrived and were digging in, whilst others were being deployed further forwards. A Panzerjäger Battalion from 1st Regiment armed with towed 7.5-cm Paks, for example, was moving closer to the front line. By the time that Wentz and his men had received their orders, this battalion was fighting an American patrol which advanced to Isola Bella, just two miles south of Cisterna. Lieutenant Ernest Hermann recalls:

The 1st Platoon opened fire and stopped that movement. The enemy pulled back to Borgo Montello and the 1st Platoon pushed on close behind him as ordered. It advanced to just before Borgo Montello. The enemy had dug into the town and opened fire with machine guns, small arms, antitank guns and tanks, making a further advance unthinkable … The platoon found the best positions available and went over to the defence.

As soon as the Allied guns were able, they targeted the enemy as it endeavoured to organise its defences in the open, but the Germans returned fire just as soon as they were able. And so began the first of the deadly artillery duels which were to characterise the Battle of Anzio.

As Cisterna was occupied, Kampfgruppe Gericke was being strengthened on the other side of the beachhead by the arrival of Battalion Kleye. With the ability to hold more ground with two battalions, Kleye was sent to defend Ardea, whilst Hauber was to concentrate on the Via Anziate. Joachim Liebschner, an eighteen-year-old Lance-Corporal from Silesia, says that the road attracted fire from the outset:

I was a runner which meant that I had to try and keep communication between my own company and battalion headquarters. We were issued with a bicycle and it was really a great big joke because when we moved forward, the harder the artillery fire became and we were then attacked by aeroplanes. When everybody jumped into ditches to the left and right I was left with the bicycle. Eventually I went to the Sergeant Major and said look when am I going to use my bicycle here, and he said ‘You signed for it, you’re responsible for it!’ typical German kind of answer to a question … I left it against a tree and thought I could find the tree again when we get to the front line. Not only had the bicycle gone but the tree had gone as well. The artillery fire in this sector, people were saying, was of comparable strength to that in the 14-18 war.

The shells crept ever nearer, tearing up the ground with a blast of such intensity that its sound waves were soaked up by the chests of the paratroopers. But it was not the men new to battle that struggled most with the bombardment; it was the veterans and, as Liebschner says, one sergeant in particular who had been wounded and traumatised on the Eastern Front:

He lost his nerve altogether. Most of us didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for, but this fellow had been in the front line several times and the closer we got, the more he started shivering and complaining of a headache and sickness and his legs were giving out. He couldn’t move. We left him underneath a small bridge shivering and crying and he was hysterical. I never heard of him again.

That evening a strong patrol from Battalion Hauber was sent down to Aprilia. As it was such a vital town that had not defended all day, Gericke expected to hear that it was occupied. To his amazement he learned at 2030 hours that it was not and passed the information on to the recently arrived Lieutenant General Fritz-Hubert Gräser. Gräser was the commander of a 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division kampfgruppe which had been ordered to take over the defence of the Via Anziate from 4th Parachute Division thus allowing Gericke to concentrate his forces on the west side of the road. The critical road in the beachhead was to be defended by a more experienced division. Although Gräser’s force also contained some replacements, 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division was of more varied stock for, at its heart, were veterans of the Eastern Front, with a proportion having served at Stalingrad where the original division had been all but wiped out. The division had fought well at Salerno and was reaching the peak of effectiveness. Gräser immediately occupied Aprilia.

By the time that the panzer grenadiers were preparing the buildings of Aprilia for defence, Schlemm had established his I Parachute Corps headquarters in the Alban Hills and was in full command of the German forces at Anzio. Kesselring was furious with his predecessor’s efforts that day. Although the untalented Schlemmer was obviously out of his depth in such an operation, his inability to carry out simple orders was inexcusable. Monte Soratte had instructed Schlemmer ‘to push all units as they arrived as far south as possible so as to help the flak slow down or halt the enemy advance’, but instead he formed a strong ambushing force in the Alban Hills in case of a push on Rome. The 20,000 men that had made it through to the beachhead were either surplus to his requirements, had slipped through his net, or had ignored his orders. Through the incompetence of one man in a position of power, the Germans’ carefully laid plans could have failed. Had the Allies chosen to advance swiftly soon after their landing, they would at the very least have been able to seize valuable ground for an expansive beachhead. As Kesselring later wrote:

Every yard was important to me. My order, as I found out on the spot in the afternoon, had been incomprehensibly and arbitrarily altered, which upset my plan for immediate counter-attacks. Yet as I traversed the front I had the confident feeling that the Allies had missed a uniquely favourable chance of capturing Rome and of opening the door on the Garigliano front. I was certain that time was our ally.

As was the Field Marshal’s style, on the day of the invasion he had been decisive in his actions and visited the front personally. Far from doing what the Allies had wanted him to do and withdraw in a panic from the Gustav Line, Kesselring had remained unfazed by Operation Shingle. Anything else would have been distinctly out of character. In spite of von Vietinghoff’s whinging that with so many troops having been taken from him he could not hold his front, and advocating an immediate withdrawal, Kesselring literally and metaphorically held his ground. There was no need to withdraw and in any case, as he told von Senger und Etterlin ‘the present line is shorter and therefore more economical, than a line running directly in front of the gates of Rome straight across Italy.’ Kesselring was not minded to act as the Allies wanted him to and was determined to regain the initiative. First he would build up a critical mass of troops, and then he would push the Allies back into the sea. The American historian Carlo D’Este has written: ‘Kesselring symbolised the German defense of Italy, and he became the bedrock upon which it was built. Where others would have drawn the wrong conclusions and overreacted, Kesselring remained composed and was quite literally the glue that held the German Army in Italy together … Kesselring excelled in the art of improvisation, and Anzio may well have been his finest hour.’

John Lucas was feeling comfortable that evening. Reading the reports that were coming through to the Biscayne it was apparent that the divisions were secure and were not under any immediate threat. By the end of the day, as British Guards officers played bridge and slept in their pyjamas, Lucas read with quiet satisfaction that 36,000 men and 3,000 vehicles had been landed. Casualties had been very light – 13 killed, 97 wounded and 44 captured or missing, and the defending panzer grenadiers had been dealt with clinically, producing 227 prisoners. He was also pleased to hear during the afternoon that the port had been opened after the navy had pulled away the hulks of sunken vessels and swept the harbour. As a result of this unexpected speed, supplies were flowing ashore far quicker than anticipated, allowing British vessels to land in Anzio rather than having to struggle with the sand bar. The beachhead was quiet. Exhausted after a trying day, Geoffrey Dormer, a First Lieutenant on the minesweeper HMS Hornpipe, noted in his diary:

D-Day Evening. Things have been very quiet, and it has been a lovely, calm, sunny day, with almost cloudless blue skies. The multitude of ships off the beaches look more like a Review than an Invasion Fleet . . . There are a few columns of smoke rising from the shore, and now and then a dull thud. Sometimes a Cruiser does a bit of bombarding, or a few enemy planes approach.

To the troops on the ground, the beachhead had an ethereal quality to it. Lieutenant Ivor Talbot was in a foxhole close to the Mussolini Canal when he wrote in his diary that evening:

It has been a remarkable day. We landed at 0430 in the darkness and made our way inland. There were the inevitable pauses in our advance, but we were eventually told to dig in for the night. It is now 2200 and I am dog tired but must get round to the men before I sleep. All is quiet as it has been for most of the day. I was not expecting this and I think that I had expected to die. I think that we must be careful that we keep our concentration. The Germans will not allow us to remain here without a fight, but we seem to have won the first day.

Talbot was incorrect in his assessment of 22 January. The Allies had not ‘won the first day’. It had been a draw. What the young Lieutenant had not taken into account was the skilful German reaction to Operation Shingle for whilst the Allies were in an excellent position to develop and consolidate a strong beachhead in preparation for a breakout, Kesselring had successfully begun to build a counterattacking force intent on destroying it. Kesselring drew strength from the knowledge that his build up rate would increase significantly henceforward, whilst the Allies were not only dependent on supply from the sea, but were also under time pressure to link up the two disparate parts of Fifth Army. Lucas, meanwhile, felt confident that he could quickly establish an immovable force at Anzio-Nettuno and could rely on the support of powerful naval guns and airpower. By the end of the first day there were opportunities for both sides, and as such much depended on the actions over the coming days of two risk-averse commanders – John P. Lucas and Eberhard von Mackensen.

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Mexico WWII Era

Mexico organized the great 201st Fighter Squadron when it declared war on the Axis powers on June 11, 1942. The squadron was a select group of exceptional Mexican pilots with Carlos Faustinos amongst the ranks. Thirty-five officers and 300 enlisted men received extensive training in Mexico. The pilots then were sent to Pocatello Air Base in Idaho to be given additional training by the U.S. military. These pilots managed to destroy machine gun nests, drop 181 tons of bombs, and made significant progress in the war. These pilots proved themselves to be valuable assets to America with their skill and bravery. Seven of their pilots were killed in action, a sacrifice that will not go forgotten.

Opposition candidate General Juan Andreu Almazán lost the presidential election in July 1940. The inauguration of president-elect Ávila Camacho did not take place until December 1940. The interval offered the right-wing opposition forces almost five months to change the course of Mexican history. As expected in 1939, Almazán did not accept defeat in the presidential election without a serious challenge. He left for the Caribbean, as his supporters organized a publicity campaign in the United States and Central America, challenging the outcome of the election. Inside Mexico, a small number of his followers who had lost races for local and regional offices staged limited uprisings. Another group, in contact with former Mexican president-in-exile Calles, bought arms on the U.S. market to supply a larger military uprising. From Spain, Serrano Suner announced the departure of Spanish Falange agents to promote subversive activities in Mexico. Germany was approached to contribute a small number of tanks, heavy weapons, and airplanes. Delivery to the Pacific Coast of Mexico was supposed to be made via Japan.

Fortunately, this effort failed, because of unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and Mexican security forces, the reelection of President Roosevelt, and the German refusal to act at that particular moment. Presidentelect Ávila Camacho’s supporters systematically enlisted the help of the U.S., asking for early diplomatic recognition by that country and therefore giving international legitimacy to Ávila Camacho as the official winner of the 1940 presidential election. His campaign manager, Governor Miguel Alemán, succeeded in obtaining this recognition in the early fall of 1940. The White House and the State Department recognized Ávila Camacho even before the U.S. presidential elections and the Mexican inauguration.

After losing the political battle over recognition, the Almazanistas moved toward large-scale armed rebellion. These conspirators in the United States, along the U.S.–Mexican border, and inside Mexico were systematically shadowed and their preparations disrupted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. military intelligence, and agents supplied by the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Interior, and the military. The military quashed local uprisings in the north and patrolled both coasts to prevent the landing of revolutionary troops or weapons deliveries. When Almazán wanted to slip into the United States to spearhead his rebellion, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service gave him a public welcome. The White House and the State Department refused to meet with the Almazanistas, who wanted to make their case in favor of their candidate. The German Foreign Ministry decided against joining Spanish efforts opposing Mexico, because Ávila Camacho seemed to be more pro-German than the outgoing Cardenas. Hitler himself preferred a neutral Mexico over a revolutionary one at that time. Consequently, the Almazanistas never received the military hardware necessary to mount and sustain a serious military operation inside Mexico.

Finally, the reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in November 1940, guaranteed a continuation of the pro-Mexico policy in the White House over the next four years. To make this point, President Roosevelt appointed U.S. vice president-elect Henry Wallace to represent the United States at the Mexican presidential inauguration in December 1940. This was the first public demonstration of how close the Ávila Camacho and Roosevelt administrations had become during the joint U.S.–Mexican battle against profascist forces during the past five months. It also suggested a major break with the Cárdenista foreign policy that had preferred Mexican cooperation within a multilateral Latin American framework against the United States. In the end, defeated presidential candidate Almazán recognized reality, publicly admitted his defeat, and returned home to profit as a member of the economic elite. The last major regional revolutionary warlord turned entrepreneur. Revolutionary politics and development had finally completely replaced the era of violent revolution.

As early as 1936, Mexican domestic observers had suggested that during the next global war, U.S. and European military powers would be more dependent than during World War I on Latin American raw materials to sustain a long-term fight. Therefore, Mexico might find itself in the unique position of being able to sell its raw materials more expensively than in peacetime and generate new state income to finance domestic development. Petroleum sales after 1938 had confirmed the expected effect that international rearmament was having on the international oil trade. It took until the spring of 1939 for Mexico to return to more planned national industrial development. A few months later, Europe and Asia were ablaze in war. Now, the engine that would fuel the industrialization of Mexico would be the external stimulus of rearmament and wartime raw materials needs. As soon as the Roosevelt and British administrations would accept Cardenas’s offer of supplying democratic countries with petroleum, planners could use the money to acquire U.S. know-how and technology to expand the manufacturing base. If everything went according to plan, at the end of the war, new factories could satisfy the pent-up demand for consumer and durable goods, freeing foreign currency for other developmental needs.

The step from policy idea to economic reality was much more complex. Even before Ávila Camacho’s inauguration on December 5, 1940, U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and Mexican government representatives had agreed in principle to use the coming months to reach comprehensive settlements on the most critical unsolved bilateral issues. Indeed, from December 1940 on, an unprecedented degree of Mexican–U.S. diplomacy unfolded. Bilateral committees negotiated terms of cooperation in the areas of military, naval, and air defense. A planned exchange of Mexican raw materials for U.S. manufactured goods and industrial technology was organized according to Washington’s bureaucratic war economy rules. One commission resolved the continuing oil expropriation conflict with U.S. oil multinationals. Additional groups discussed bilateral water rights, agrarian expropriation, agricultural labor, revolutionary claims, the joining of U.S. armed forces by Mexican citizens, and other wartime financial issues. By November 1940, most of the major U.S.–Mexican conflicts of the previous twenty years had been resolved. War in Asia and Europe had given the U.S. government unprecedented clout to pressure unpatriotic multinationals into complying with national war needs. Exceptional diplomatic goodwill on both sides had cleared the road for even deeper bilateral cooperation in the years to come.

Mexican developers organized their concessions to the United States in such a way as to produce the greatest economic benefit for their developmental vision. For example, an April 1940 flight agreement opened access to U.S. Lend Lease funds and brought military planes to modernize Mexico’s air force. The seizure of German and Italian boats in Mexican harbors brought, overnight, previously unavailable, nationalized tanker space to export Mexican oil to the United States and earn foreign currency. The enactment of the Allied Blacklists in July 1940 provided a powerful legal smokescreen to move Germany’s chemical and pharmaceuticals industrial facilities and patents into national guardianship and to prepare for the later final expropriation of the German monopoly after the war. On July 15, 1940, Ávila Camacho’s negotiators signed an all-encompassing U.S.–Mexican commercial treaty guaranteeing Mexican goods a U.S. market at protected prices for the surplus production of strategic materials. From the beginning of the depression, Mexico had not enjoyed a similar preferential situation. In addition, Mexico reached special silver purchase agreements and gained access to U.S. currency stabilization funds. The agreement over the nationalization of the oil industry in November 1940 made the Mexican action legally irrevocable. More important, it further isolated the British oil claims and confirmed Cárdenas’s idea that the expropriation had been a sound risk. War had forced the multinational corporations to give in to economic nationalism. Critical petroleum technology and expertise were again allowed to enter Mexico, helping with the development of the nationalized property. The Roosevelt administration also provided Ávila Camacho with a much-needed overhaul of the expropriated railway system, as well as financing for the continuation of the Pan American Highway, Baja California road projects, and harbor modernization.

Most important, from a long-term perspective, the national foreign debt was reduced by almost 90 percent. Minister of Finance Suárez decided that Hitler’s complete control over Europe warranted the cancelation of most of Mexico’s European debt. As expected, the external stimulus of the war was providing financing for vital national infrastructure projects and the equivalent of Works Progress Administration job programs. If Mexico could escape the war without experiencing fighting on its own territory, it would emerge with a strong national infrastructure and an attractive financial position vis-à-vis international investors and banks. Brilliant negotiators were repositioning Mexico’s international macroeconomic position to accelerate development with foreign loans after the end of the war.

The creation of advantageous macroeconomic features did not translate into improvement for workers and peasants. On the contrary, in some agricultural sectors the United States requested crop changes that caused famine and regional economic dislocations lasting for years in previously functioning local markets. Only the determined personal intervention of U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith avoided a more serious hunger disaster and a public relations nightmare. A torrent of financial flight from the United States and Europe, as well as massive financial reimbursements for raw materials, created an expanding inflation that ate away at the already meager purchasing power of workers. Labor rights were even more restricted, and many of the political freedoms that union members had gained in the 1930s were repressed. In short, the war became a pretext to attack the political left. U.S. government bureaucrats were far less demonstrative in their support of Mexico than were the White House and the U.S. ambassador. The relocation or construction of manufacturing plants and sophisticated technology failed to materialize. U.S. war needs remained more important than Mexican development. Few U.S. planners acknowledged that Mexico’s raw-materials deliveries fueled 40 percent of the U.S. war industry. It was the most significant Latin American contribution to the fight against the Axis powers. Finally, U.S. military support for financing projects in Mexico ended overnight when victory in the Battle of Midway made a landing of Japanese troops on Mexico’s Pacific Coast unlikely.

By 1943, experienced economists recognized that the enthusiastic U.S.–Mexican wartime economic cooperation of the last three years was becoming less and less justified. Minister of Hacienda Suárez reminded the cabinet that bilateral wartime cooperation had been a temporary exception, not the beginning of a long-term U.S.–Mexican relationship. To the political left, former Cárdenistas and more radical politicians resumed their criticism that U.S.–Mexican wartime cooperation was little else than a simple pretext for U.S. imperialists to establish a lasting hegemony over Latin America. As early as the course of the war allowed, Minister Suárez and the head of the Bank of Mexico, Eduardo Villaseñior, resumed their prewar outreach toward their European, Asian, and Soviet economic partners, exploring alternatives to U.S.–Mexican economic exchanges. The traditional Mexican diplomatic stance between the United States and Europe was being reconstructed, only now within the context of the expected winners of World War II: Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the soon-to-be-reconstituted countries of France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia.

Reacting to the growing nationalist frustrations in Mexico, Presidents Roosevelt and Ávila Camacho made determined personal efforts to continue the early positive wartime cooperation into the postwar era. During a presidential exchange visit in 1943, a special bilateral study commission was created that sought solutions to the problems that came with uneven wartime development. The bilateral bureaucratic rules and inertia were more powerful. Still, Mexico was the only Latin American country that received such special attention and genuine U.S. goodwill from the White House.

With the majority of Mexicans continuing to be apprehensive about wartime cooperation, President Ávila Camacho and Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla could not push openly for a declaration of war against the Axis powers. In the fall of 1941, the German decision to close Latin American consulates in occupied Europe had given the National Palace the opportunity to close Axis consulates in Mexico. This step eliminated many clandestine bases for Axis subversive operations. Following the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the German declaration of war against the United States later in the same month, the Ávila Camacho administration broke diplomatic relations, but did not declare war against Germany. The smaller Latin American countries did declare war against all the Axis powers; it took repeated German submarine attacks against Mexican ships in the Gulf of Mexico after February 1942 to create a strong enough case for Padilla and Ávila Camacho to overcome popular reservations and convince Congress to enter the war, formally, on the side of the Allied powers.

Ávila Camacho strengthened this fragile domestic front by inviting former president Plutarco Elías Calles to return from exile in California, by naming the nationalist former president Lázaro Cárdenas as minister of war, and by entrusting the defense of the Gulf of Mexico to conservative former president Abelardo Rodriguez. The labor union caudillo Vicente Lombardo Toledano was further constrained through restrictive labor-government agreements that forced him to become active outside Mexico, certainly a project doomed to fail, in light of the continuing political conservatism of the rest of Latin America.

By then, popular cultural exchanges, nurtured by a relentless Allied propaganda in the media—print, radio, movies, even postage stamps—brought some sense of wartime emergency to the small but important Mexican urban middle class. U.S., British, and French propaganda machines took over the reporting of all foreign affairs. Those who could not read learned about the war in public spectacles, such as dramas performed in the Zócalo (central plaza) in Mexico City following the sinking of the Mexican tanker Potrero de Llano by a German submarine. Special propaganda aimed at priests enlisted the small number of pro-Allied priests to influence their local parishes. Almost surreal civil defense “emergencies” and real-life military war games engaged Mexicans against the Axis powers long after the Axis forces had the resources to launch a sustained attack against Latin America. Never before had the revolutionary elite and its foreign supporters enjoyed so much influence over the political opinions of its citizens. The threat of an Axis invasion gave the Ávila Camacho administration the opportunity to promote a new conservative national consensus that tried to bridge serious divisions of geography, race, and class.

The administration feared a possible German or Japanese landing on Mexican soil, a surprise act that would have been answered immediately with an invasion by Allied forces and that would have turned the country into a battlefield. To ensure that the Axis powers would stay away from Mexico’s shores, Ávila Camacho allowed extensive operation by U.S. secret forces. Under the leadership of FBI agent Gus Jones, U.S. advisors trained and cooperated with Mexico’s counterintelligence forces. These advisors also helped in writing Mexico’s first law against espionage, subversion, and sabotage. In addition, a stream of U.S. undercover agents from naval military intelligence and the Office of Strategic Services toured every bay along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, investigating rumors of German and Japanese landing preparations. None of these searches found foreign troops on the beaches.

Nevertheless, U.S. secret forces and representatives of the Mexican ministries of government and Treasury, the military, and the presidential security service unmasked Germany, Italy, and Spain’s sophisticated network of agents and saboteurs north of the Panama Canal before Hitler could change his mind and order large-scale sabotage operations in the Americas in 1941 or cooperate in a Pearl Harbor-like attack on the Americas. Because Axis subversion systematically exploited ethnic groups’ discontent to prepare military invasions, the Mexican government removed the Japanese, Germans, and Italians from Mexico’s coastal zones. As long as Spain remained neutral, the presence of pro-Franco Spaniards along the coasts had to be tolerated. Following the arrest in 1942 of the Japanese naval attaché and German spies, U.S. and Mexican investigators learned of contingency plans to attack and conquer the port of Acapulco, damage U.S. airplane production in San Diego, and attack the Panama Canal. Indeed, after the 1942 Mexican declaration of war, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop angrily suggested sabotaging the oil fields. After 1942, Mexican vigilance kept the remaining Axis amateurs from trying to inflict serious harm on the country. Just as Venustiano Carranza had protected Mexico from the dangerous consequences of German subversion and sabotage during World War I, Ávila Camacho’s cooperation with U.S. and British secret forces protected the nation and everyday Mexicans from German designs for the second time in this century.

The declaration of war in June 1942, following the sinking of the Potrero de Llano, embarrassed U.S. military leaders in Washington into taking Mexico’s military dedication more seriously and to admit at least a symbolic fighting force to a European or Asian war theater. The development of a modern Mexican air force emerged as a compromise that accommodated continued popular hesitation to fight abroad and promised respect and legitimacy to all of Mexico’s professionalized armed forces. At a time when Brazilian forces were preparing for deployment in Italy and the Mexican military’s official role in politics was being eliminated, World War II offered high Mexican officers much-desired glory. President Ávila Camacho himself expressed a personal wish to fight abroad, saying that only the presidency was keeping him from action.

Mexican air force pilots received training in the United States during 1944 and fought valiantly in Pacific air battles in 1945. The pilots who died in the campaign and the air force squadron itself came to personify Mexico’s unwavering commitment to the cause of the Allies during World War II, and, just as important, Mexico’s rightful claim to sit at the side of the victors. In the United States, the bad memories of Carranza’s World War I policy were being replaced by a recognition that without Mexican raw materials in U.S. factories, Foreign Minister Padilla’s Latin American diplomacy, Mexican bracero workers in U.S. agriculture and industry, and Mexican soldiers, as well as Mexican–American volunteers in all branches of the U.S. armed forces, the war effort of the United States against the Axis would have been less strong and self-assured. Most likely, a politically weaker Mexico would have been tolerant of German anti-American activities carried out from its territory. In Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Ávila Camacho administration’s relentless prodemocracy action justified Foreign Minister Padilla’s demand to act as mediator between the United States and Latin America, but also came as a distinctly Latin American voice within the newly formed United Nations. Mexico’s experiences and lessons from the Pan American Union of the 1920s and the League of Nations in the 1930s were now translated into the United Nations.

Then, the sudden retirement of Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and the death of President Roosevelt removed the staunchest pro-Mexico advocates from Washington. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the U.S. State Department resumed the Cold War against the Soviet Union within the Western Hemisphere as early as 1943. They revived unilateral pressure politics that failed to comprehend the particularities of Mexico’s leftist political culture. The departure of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Messersmith removed the last remaining pillar of the special U.S.–Mexican wartime relationship. Ezequiel Padilla continued his tenure as Mexican foreign minister and represented Mexico with distinction during the creation of the United Nations at the conference in San Francisco in 1942. His lone determination was not enough to avoid negative change.

Those in the United States who preferred to see the Western Hemisphere as one regional block, not as a set of discrete political entities with their own unique political agendas, were gaining ground in Washington. In the Western Hemisphere, World War II evolved into the Cold War. Miguel Alemán defeated Padilla easily in the 1946 presidential election and established his own relationship with the Truman administration.

Fueling the popular Mexican love–hate relationship with its neighbor to the north, the war had given new proof of the financial possibilities of mass tourism. The closure of the Pacific and Atlantic, the overhauling of the railway system, and the opening of the Pan American Highway had brought an unprecedented number of U.S. tourists south of the border. The penetration of Mexican movie houses by Hollywood films also continued after 1945. There was no alternative. Great Britain was bankrupt. The economies of Germany, France, Italy, and Japan were destroyed, and the Soviet Union was not interested in industrializing Mexico. Raw materials from other Latin American countries continued to compete with those from Mexico. More so than after World War I and the Revolution, the United States was the focus of Mexican foreign relations. From then on, the new context of the cold war produced a new variation on an all-too-familiar theme.

Mexican War I

Clockwise from top left: Winfield Scott entering Plaza de la Constitución after the Fall of Mexico City, U.S. soldiers engaging the retreating Mexican force during the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, American victory at Churubusco outside Mexico City, U.S. marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag, Battle of Cerro Gordo

The United States had conquered California once before. In 1842, American Navy Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones sailed to Monterey and demanded surrender from the Mexican governor. He did so under the mistaken impression that Mexico and the United States were imminently to be at war. When he was assured this was not the case, he returned the Mexican governor to the seat of power and sailed away.

This interesting precedent did not do much to encourage pro-American feeling in the Mexican government, and the Mexicans spurned President Polk’s attempts to buy California. But it would appear that affronted pride rather than practicality guided Mexican policy, for if Commodore Jones could sail into Monterey once, he could do it again. California was sparsely populated with Mexicans and pacific Indians. More important, it already had a few American settlers—and Mexico should have known what that meant.

Polk certainly did. In 1845, he was encouraging the Americans in California to emulate their cousins in Texas and shake the sleepy territory with calls for liberty and annexation by the United States. Urgency was required not so much because of any aspect of Mexican policy, but because Polk feared the intentions of Britain—the Royal Navy appraisingly eyed the California coastline—and the Russian bear, who had established trading posts in California.

Meanwhile, Polk moved Zachary Taylor and the United States Army to protect Texas’s southwestern border with Mexico. Mexico had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States because of the annexation of Texas. Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico anyway demanding that Mexico pay off its debts (from bonds and other obligations) owed to the United States. But, of course, Slidell—rather the perfect name for a diplomat—had a deal. The debts could be cancelled if Mexico would affirm the Rio Grande as the Texas-Mexico border. In addition, if Mexico ceded the territories of New Mexico and California to the United States, the American government was willing to pay five million dollars for the former and many more millions of dollars—Mexico could set the price—for the latter.

The Mexican president José Joaquin de Herrera huffily refused to see Slidell, but was swiftly overthrown by General Mariano Paredes. General Paredes was adamant: any more yanqui talk about debts and purchases and annexations meant war. Polk’s response was: don’t mind if I do. He ordered Zachary Taylor across the Mexican-established Texas border (along the Nueces River) to a position 150 miles south along the Rio Grande (the border claimed by Texas). Taylor trained his guns on Matamoras, Mexico, which he blockaded. The American challenge was clear: come and get me. The Mexican army took the bait, ambushing a detachment of American dragoons, killing eleven of them. Polk now had the casus belli he wanted. The president, who noted in his diary that he regretted disturbing his Sabbath reflections working out the proper response, announced that Mexico had precipitated a war against the United States. This was truer than Polk knew, because the war was already under way. Neither the Mexican army nor Zachary Taylor waited for official word from Washington. President Polk requested a congressional declaration of war on 11 May 1846—after two major battles: Palo Alto (8 May) and Resaca de la Palma (9 May).

Much of America—especially the North—was skeptical. Polk, they thought, had manufactured an unnecessary war; it was an act of aggression to add more slave states to the Union. A young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was one of the doubters. In the event, congressional authorization for the war passed overwhelmingly in both houses. But it was the southern states closest to Texas that were full of enthusiasts and volunteers. They remembered the heroism of the Alamo, the outrage at Goliad, and the victory at San Jacinto. They brought down their muskets, kissed their sweethearts good-bye (or, if more rustic, packed up a big supply of chewing tobaccy), and mustered themselves into militias or volunteer units. Equally enthusiastic were the generals of the Mexican army, who hankered to repel Zachary Taylor, regain Texas, and even attack Louisiana.

The Mexican army numbered more than 30,000 men, while the American regular army was less than one-fourth that size. But what the Americans lacked in numbers, they made up for in the quality of their units and in the tens of thousands of volunteers who already knew how to handle a gun and weren’t afraid of nothin’—neither Indians, nor bears, nor Mexicans—and in fact rather enjoyed the idea of fighting and conquering for the United States. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant—who would become no small judge of soldiers—wrote home proudly that “a better army, man for man,” than Zachary Taylor’s 2,300 men, “probably never faced an enemy.”

The Mexican army, on the other hand, though impressive in numbers, was ill-trained (for one thing, the soldiers nervously fired from the hip) and top-heavy. It had more officers than enlisted men, and its officers stood on their authority while their peon-class troops stood only until it became obvious that survival recommended fleeing in another direction. The best soldiers in the Mexican army were a special class of mercenaries the Mexicans acquired just before and during the hostilities: American deserters, specifically, Catholics—many of them Irishmen, who made up a quarter of the American enlisted ranks—who chafed under the harsh discipline of their commanders and felt drawn to their coreligionists (the Irish Catholic soldiers had no chaplains of their own in the U.S. Army). The Catholic deserters—whom the Mexicans actively recruited with claims that the United States acted as a Protestant power seeking to exterminate the Catholic Church in Mexico—formed the Batallón de San Patricio (Saint Patrick Battalion) under the command of an Irish-born private named John O’Reilly. The fighting Irish, like the tenacious Scotch, are natural-born soldiers; and so it proved here.

Meanwhile, Old Rough and Ready Zachary Taylor lived up to his name by playing rough and ready with martial law, executing a couple of foreign-born rankers (a Frenchman and a Swiss), before the official onset of hostilities, in order to discourage further desertions. In those days, admirable men like Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor treated “legality” with the proper respect it deserved: damn little. Practicality before pettifoggery is the law of reasonable men.

Such practicality also induced President Polk to refute the Mexican charge that the United States was fighting a religious war. The president asked American Catholic bishops for help, and two priests were dispatched to provide the sacraments for Catholic soldiers. The priests were officially civilians—there were no chaplain billets open to them—but they shared the hardships of the men. Mexican bandits murdered one of the priests and the other eventually fell prey to sickness and had to be sent home. From Washington, Zachary Taylor received a proclamation to be delivered to the Mexican people: “Your religion, your altars, and churches, the property of your churches and citizens, the emblems of your faith and its ministers shall be protected and remain inviolate…. Hundreds of our army, and hundreds of thousands of our people are members of the Catholic Church….” Whether this did much good is open to question. Mexican priests bemoaned the fact that the barbarian American volunteers were “Vandals vomited from Hell.” The American regular officers who had to deal with these violent, recalcitrant, and unwieldy Kentuckian, Tennessean, and Texan frontiersmen—about whom they themselves complained—no doubt sympathized. But focused on their task, the “Vandals vomited from Hell” made excellent soldiers.

The first major engagement was the Battle of Palo Alto (8 May 1846), where Mexican General Mariano Arista, having crossed the Rio Grande and failed to take Fort Texas, drew up his artillery, lancers, and infantry to confront Zachary Taylor’s army. In the ensuing artillery duel the American gunners—with the accuracy that was their trademark—got much the better of the Mexicans, and General Arista withdrew his men. At that night’s council of war Zachary Taylor seconded the opinion of Captain James Duncan: “We whipped ’em today and we can whip ’em tomorrow.” So the Americans pursued General Arista’s army and whipped ’em again, despite the Mexicans having well-laid battle lines at Resaca de la Palma and despite the Mexicans outnumbering the Americans by 4,000 men. The Americans whipped the Mexicans all the way back across the Rio Grande. In their flight, the Mexicans left their border town of Matamoros undefended.

In Old California things went even better. The American settlers declared their independence, and the California Bear Flag Republic was born. There was no California Alamo because when the California rowdies knocked on the door of California’s Commandante-General Mariano G. Vallejo and arrested him, they discovered he was actually on their side: he favored American annexation. California’s status as a great independent republic, a historical memory some of us still honor, lasted all of twenty-four days before Commodore John Sloat repeated Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones’s deft, if premature, capture of California by sailing into Monterey on 9 July 1846 and declaring that California was hereby annexed to the United States.

To the east, Colonel Stephen Kearny marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to New Mexico and took the territory without firing a shot, entering Albuquerque on 18 August 1846. Like the Californians, the New Mexicans welcomed annexation. When Kearny received news of action in California, he decided to rush his troopers across the desert to help the American cause.

He left a detachment of men in Santa Fe to take care of a few troublemaking Indians and Mexicans. He sent another unit south to assist in the invasion of central Mexico and link up with Zachary Taylor’s army. Kearny himself took a party of dragoons and, using Kit Carson as his scout, raced across the sands of Arizona and California. His men, hungry and haggard, were met not by California senoritas bearing margaritas (which, alas, had not been invented yet) but by Californio lancers at San Pasqual about forty miles northeast of San Diego. The lancers bloodied Kearny’s men in an engagement on 6 December 1846. Three officers were killed, and Kearny himself was among the wounded. But the Americans kept the field through the strength of their artillery. Kearny then withdrew his men to San Diego where the American Navy was already established. In league with Commodore Robert Stockton, Kearny rested, refitted, and reinforced his troops and marched them north, besting the Californios in two consecutive engagements—the Battle of the San Gabriel River (8 January 1847) and the Battle of La Mesa (9 January 1847). That was enough. California was won.

In Texas, fighting continued, and with equal ease Zachary Taylor’s men took Matamoros in May and Camargo in July 1846. And there, in what proved to be a pestilential location—full of scorpions, tarantulas, and disease that claimed the lives of one of every eight encamped soldiers, including a disproportionate number of volunteers—Taylor prepared his army for what would be its first testing encounter, at Monterrey.

The city’s geography, on high ground backed by the Santa Catarina River to the south, made it easily defended. The city itself was built like a fortress. The streets were blockaded. And the stone houses of the city were mini-blockhouses. A thousand yards north of the city was the Citadel, a real fortress that the Americans called the “Black Fort” for its dominating position on the field and the danger it posed to any American attack. In addition, the Mexicans had built two new forts—Fort Tenería and Fort Diablo—to defend the city’s eastern flank. To the west, the two hills that straddled the Saltillo Road leading into the city were well defended. Indepedencia Hill had Fort Libertad with 50 men and a couple of guns as well as the fortified ruins of a bishop’s palace held by another 200 men and four guns. On Federación Hill was Fort Soldado on its eastern side and a small gun emplacement on its western side. The Mexicans had more than 7,000 regular soldiers and forty-two guns at Monterrey. Against them, Taylor had 6,000 men.

Zachary Taylor faced a daunting military task, but he quickly discerned the hidden weakness of the Mexican position. Fort Tenería, Fort Diablo, the Citadel, the hill forts, and the city itself were so positioned that each could be isolated and unable to support the other. Unless the Mexicans massed to meet him on open ground, the fortifications could be tackled individually. Taylor, a strong believer in directly storming positions with bayonets—it worked against Seminoles, after all—authorized a more creative, if potentially dangerous, plan at Monterrey. He divided his troops for separate simultaneous assaults. The advantage lay in bypassing the Citadel. General William Worth’s division would strike the hill forts to the west while the rest of the army hit the newly constructed forts in the east and break into the city. The danger lay in dividing his forces and in trying to coordinate the assaults.

On the morning of 21 September 1846, the attack began. Worth’s men advanced on the Saltillo Road, hurling back charging Mexican cavalry and inflicting heavy Mexican losses. By nightfall they had seized—and were celebrating the capture of—Federación Hill. Zachary Taylor, meanwhile, tried to keep the defenders of the Citadel pinned down with artillery fire, while he gave Lieutenant Colonel John Garland ambiguous orders about striking from the east. Taylor had meant Garland’s to be a diversionary attack. Garland took it to be the lead of the main attack, and quickly got into trouble. His men got stuck in the sweet spot for the Mexican defenders where he was open to fire from the Citadel, the two eastern forts, and the city. More American units charged in to support him. Mexican fire stubbornly cut them down, but when the Americans didn’t withdraw, the Mexicans panicked. The commander at Fort Tenería and half his men ran away.

Colonel Jefferson Davis of the Mississippi Rifles saw his moment: “Now is the time! Great God! If I had 30 men with knives I could take the fort!” Even without those men, he and the other charging volunteers took it. But the reduction of Fort Tenería had taken until noon, and though artilleryman Braxton Bragg had managed to bring artillery up to the very streets of Monterrey, the rest of the day was a stalemate. Four hundred Americans, a quarter of them Tennesseans, were dead or wounded: a high price to pay for the capture of a single supporting fort.

On 22 September, Worth again took the lead, spending the day clearing the defenders from Independencia Hill—a job made easier by the Mexicans in the bishop’s palace choosing to charge the Americans rather than sit tight behind their defenses. On the other side of Monterrey, the Americans were disinclined to do anything but reorganize themselves for another try the next day. This was just as well, as the Mexican commander, General Pedro de Ampudia, abandoned Fort Diablo and his other outlying positions and concentrated his defenders in the city and at the Citadel.

The third day of battle did not look auspicious for the Americans. Worth’s men, though victors, had spent two nights in drenching rains, had scaled two hills, and had two full days of fighting—all without food. Their one great incentive to assault the city was to hit the larders. At the other end of Monterrey, the Americans began a reconnaissance in force that penetrated the city with minimal opposition. The Americans then cleared the defenders house by house, with tactics very similar to those that would be used today: breaking down doors (or walls), tossing in grenades, and then clearing the rooftops. From there, they provided covering fire for troops attacking the next house. Thus, the Americans methodically and efficiently advanced, with light artillery support, clearing blockaded streets. Worth never received orders, but at the sound of firing led his men into the battle and advanced house by house from the west.

The Americans did not press into the center plaza—where the civilians huddled in the cathedral, which General Ampudia was also using as an ammunition dump—but pulled back and dropped mortar rounds into it. As the shelling came closer to the cathedral, General Ampudia came closer to losing his nerve. Well before dawn, General Ampudia opened communications with Taylor that over the course of the next twenty-four hours led to the surrender of Monterrey. Taylor eventually conceded—under hard Mexican negotiating—extremely generous terms that allowed the Mexican army to evacuate the city with its arms and under cover of an eight-week armistice.

President Polk, when he learned of the terms, privately denounced Taylor for a lack of aggression. The Democrat Polk already suspected Taylor of Whiggish presidential ambitions—a military hero on a literal white horse (Old Whitey). Now he suspected him of being soft on Mexicans, too. It did not help that General Winfield Scott (a Whig) cheered Taylor’s “three glorious days,” which was how the battle appeared in the popular press. Taylor appointed Worth governor of Monterrey and set about using the armistice to patch up and rebuild his army.

Mexican War II

TO THE HALLS OF MONTEZUMA

The United States had secured for Texas the border it wanted. It had seized the territories of California and New Mexico (which included the future states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and part of Colorado). So now what was the objective: to hold what had been taken, to demand—again—Mexico’s payment of debts, or to march into Mexico City and take over the government of Mexico?

The Mexican government had fallen into the hands of Santa Anna. At the outset of the war he had been in exile in Cuba. The United States connived in smuggling him back into Mexico on the understanding that he would broker a peace. Instead, he saw himself returning from exile, like his hero Napoleon from Elba, to grasp a second chance at glory. Ten years had passed since the Alamo. He was fifty-two years old, and short one leg—blown off by the French when they employed gunboat diplomacy to force Mexico to repay its debts. He did, however, have a seventeen-year-old second wife, which surely made the loss of a limb and the bruising of his ego easier to assuage. And now he had his great chance to defeat the yanquis who had wrested Texas from Mexico. He raised an army of 20,000 men and led them on a forced march north. Their goal: crush Zachary Taylor.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna was a military hero who became president of Mexico on multiple occasions. The Mexican Army’s intervention in politics was an ongoing issue during much of the mid-nineteenth century.

Generalissimo Santa Anna had to hurry, because the United States Navy was probing the Gulf of Mexico. In November 1846, the Navy plucked the Mexican port city of Tampico, and Santa Anna knew that the Americans’ ultimate goal was taking Vera Cruz and then Mexico City. But he assumed that if he defeated Taylor, he would give strength to antiwar critics in the United States, who derided the American invasion as “Mr. Polk’s War.” The peace party included such strange bedfellows as Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the war on moral and legal grounds; John C. Calhoun, who opposed it on constitutional ones and because he worried it would exacerbate conflict between the slave and free states; and such elder statesmen as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. Most Americans, however, took a more robust view, as captured in this little ditty:

Old Zack’s at Monterey,

Bring out your Santa Anner:

For every time we raise a gun,

Down goes a Mexicaner.

General Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers” and the most educated soldier in the Army, led the Vera Cruz expedition. He had the honor to inform Zachary Taylor (via letter) that he was taking 9,000 of his men—half of them regulars—plus two batteries of light field artillery, for his campaign. “Providence may defeat me,” wrote Scott, “but I do not believe the Mexicans can.”

Zachary Taylor’s leathery face turned the color of oxblood when he learned Scott intended to steal his men. He consoled himself by preparing to fight Santa Anna. “Let them come,” Taylor growled of the Mexican army. “Damned if they don’t go back a good deal faster than they came.” Brigadier General John E. Wool spotted the advancing Mexicans. With Taylor’s approval, he prepared positions eight miles south of Saltillo near the Hacienda Buena Vista on ground cut by ravines that favored the defense and limited the mobility of Santa Anna’s cavalry. On 2 February 1847, Santa Anna sent a messenger to Taylor informing him that he was surrounded and outnumbered, and requesting his surrender. Taylor replied true to form: “Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!”

That first day of battle was taken up with inconsequential skirmishing. The second day, however, was a decisive clash between 15,000 Mexican effectives and 5,000 Americans. Santa Anna made the most of his massed force, drawing them up in sight of the Americans, expecting the ruffians led by Old Rough and Ready to be awed by the Mexicans’ numbers, their European-style uniforms, the musical splendor of their bands, and the solemn dignity of the priests who passed through the ranks giving their blessings to the soldiers. But to the American volunteer regiments in particular this was all flummery. They licked their thumbs and moistened their musket sights for good luck, and settled down to do what they had come to do: kill Mexicans.

In the initial fighting, American artillery put a full stop to the Mexican advance on the narrow road to Buena Vista, but in the center-left of the American line on a plateau along the high ground, the Mexicans burst through with such vigor—if confused vigor—that General Wool moaned to Zachary Taylor: “General, we are whipped.” To which Taylor responded: “That is for me to determine.” He determined, rightly, that Wool was wrong, and he rushed the Mississippi Rifles under Jefferson Davis to plug the line. They did that—and drove the Mexicans back.

Santa Anna threw his lancers around the American left flank, charging to take Buena Vista. But Taylor was ready for that gambit and put his dragoons on the chase. They cut the lancers off and turned them away. Santa Anna thought he saw a new way around the Americans. He hurled another attack against Taylor’s left flank, this time farther out. But the Americans repelled it and inflicted heavy losses on the Mexicans.

The Americans, however, were also badly battered. Every American unit, save for the Mississippians, had at one point been forced to give ground. And the Americans had suffered heavy losses—including the desertion of 30 percent of their number when things got hot. Among the dead was a young officer, Henry Clay Jr., son of the antiwar politician who had campaigned against Polk for the presidency. Clay, cut off, wounded, and surrounded by Mexicans, fired his pistol until it was exhausted and the Mexicans killed him.

Taylor reinforced his lines, and as dawn broke, the Americans made an astonishing discovery: Santa Anna had withdrawn. The Americans were jubilant—and prudent. They returned to Monterrey and safety. Santa Anna, after a decent interval of pretending to wait for Taylor’s advance, raced back to Mexico City. By the time he got there, his army—bedraggled by casualties, forced marches, and no supplies—was reduced to 10,500 men.

Meanwhile, to the north, at Chihuahua, an army of Missouri volunteers led by the giant Colonel Alexander Doniphan had marched, and occasionally fought, all the way from Missouri through Santa Fe and El Paso, to prosecute the war across the Rio Grande. Doniphan had fewer than 1,000 fighting men. Drawn up ahead of him, north of the Sacramento River on the road to Chihuahua, was an army of 3,000 Mexican soldiers under the command of General García Condé and 1,000 Mexican volunteers. The Mexicans held the plateaus that stood on either side of the road. But, alerted by his scouts, Doniphan did the unexpected and swung his column wide to the right, unseen by the Mexicans, and came in behind the Mexican lines. Defeating Mexican cavalry that finally found them, Doniphan’s men then attacked the Mexican positions from the rear with artillery, cavalry, and infantry that closed to hand-to-hand combat. The American casualties were extraordinary: two killed, seven wounded. The Mexicans lost 300 dead, 300 wounded, and all their artillery pieces. The Battle of Sacramento (28 February 1847) was a triumph, leaving the capture of Chihuahua, fifteen miles south, a mere matter of marching. And after 2,000 miles, Doniphan’s men were well practiced at marching.

With Taylor retired to Monterrey and Doniphan set to join him, the focus of operations shifted south to where General Winfield Scott was preparing an unprecedented amphibious operation for the American Army and Navy—one that would not be equaled until the Second World War: the capture of Vera Cruz. The island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa guarded the coastal approach to the city, but Scott located an unguarded beach to the south and, in an operation remarkable not only for its size and complexity but for its lack of mishap, landed 10,000 men on 9 March 1847 at Collada Beach.

The next two weeks were spent throwing out a line of troops isolating Vera Cruz, skirmishing with the enemy, establishing artillery positions (this was done by Captain Robert E. Lee), and preparing the siege. On the late afternoon of 22 March, after General Juan Morales rejected Scott’s call to surrender, the bombardment began from Scott’s initial gun emplacements. The next day, American naval batteries opened up on the city. Two days later, all of Scott’s land-based batteries joined in. The pounding had its effect on the European consuls in the city. They demanded that General Morales stop risking civilian lives and surrender. Morales replied that he felt terribly unwell. He transferred command to his deputy, Brigadier General José Juan Landero, who sent a messenger to Scott requesting a parley. The Americans ceased fire and the Mexican negotiators began haggling. When Scott threatened to open up his guns again, it concentrated Mexican minds on the essentials, and on the evening of 27 March 1847, the City of the True Cross was surrendered to the Americans.

General Scott endeavored to treat it well. Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers went out of his way to conciliate the clergy, as a means to reconcile the Mexican people to American rule. With his love of pomp and ceremony, he encouraged his officers to attend the city cathedral in their dress uniforms, where he led a candle-lit procession. If his diplomacy paid him dividends in Heaven, it was certain that it paid dividends in the field, for the Church tilted in favor of the Americans and against Santa Anna. Santa Anna was not a strident anticlerical—in fact, his vice president, who led that faction, had just been deposed in a civil war in Mexico City—but like any dictator he saw the wealth of the Church as a tap house for the state. Given a choice, the Church preferred Old Fuss ’n’ Feathers.

Scott did not neglect strictly military matters. He was eager to be on the move, to escape the coastal region of Mexico before the yellow fever season. Santa Anna was just as eager to pen him in there and planned to do so fifty miles inland at Cerro Gordo, blocking one of two main roads that led to Puebla, the key point on the way to Mexico City. Mountains straddled the road, and on them Santa Anna assembled an army of 12,000 men. His position was well chosen, but he had made a fateful mistake. He had assumed that the rocky, mountainous terrain to the Mexican left was impenetrable. But Captain Robert E. Lee penetrated it and directed the carving of a trail behind Santa Anna’s batteries, with Cerro Gordo dead ahead.

General David Twiggs led his division along Lee’s road with orders to take a position on the plateau of La Atalaya, in preparation for the main assault on Cerro Gordo the next day. But after the tough march and skirmish to dislodge the Mexican pickets, Twiggs’s blood was up. “Charge ’em to hell,” he ordered his troops, and the Americans charged halfway to Cerro Gordo, where they were finally pinned down by Mexican fire, until they were recovered and brought back to Atalaya. The withdrawn lunge had the drawback of alerting Santa Anna to the American presence, but it had the benefit, for the Americans, of wrongly convincing Santa Anna that he’d just won the battle.

He had not. Winfield Scott was already making plans for the morrow to rout Santa Anna from Cerro Gordo and press on to Jalapa. If the battle did not go entirely to plan—General Gideon Pillow mismanaged his attack on the Mexican right—it went well enough. The main attack—and the only one that mattered—came from Twiggs, whose men charged into Cerro Gordo and spread panic in the Mexican ranks. Cut off from retreat, the Mexicans, including peg-legged Santa Anna, fled down any footpath they could find. An untold number of Mexicans were killed and 3,000 were captured and subsequently paroled by Scott, who could not hold so many prisoners. The next day, 19 April 1847, Scott’s army of 8,500 men rested in the city of Jalapa.

Here and at Puebla, Scott’s army paused. Some of his volunteers had their enlistments running out—fewer than one in ten re-upped for the duration of the war—and Scott let them go so that they could reach transports at Vera Cruz before the yellow fever season. He waited for new volunteer units to arrive, but he did not wait patiently. Politics, he feared, might do him in. He was traveling the national highway to Mexico City, a road built by Cortez and his conquistadors, and he felt himself a similarly embattled conqueror. “Like Cortez, finding myself isolated and abandoned, and again like him, always afraid that the next ship or messenger might recall or further cripple me, I resolved no longer to depend on Vera Cruz, or home, but to render my little army a self-sustaining machine.” Scientific soldier that he was, he could do it.

 

On 7 August 1847, he was on the march again, looking to close on Mexico City. In England, the Duke of Wellington followed the press accounts and took a keen interest in the campaign, charting Scott’s maneuvers on a map. The Iron Duke was pessimistic. “Scott is lost! He has been carried away by his successes! He can’t take the city, and he can’t fall back on his bases.” That was one point of view. But Captain Kirby Smith of Scott’s 3rd Infantry undoubtedly put the American soldiers’ view about their Mexican opponents: “What a stupid people they are! They can do nothing and their continued defeats should convince them of it. They have lost six great battles; we have captured six hundred and eighty cannon, nearly one hundred thousand stand of arms, made twenty thousand prisoners, have the greatest portion of their country and are fast advancing on their Capital which must be ours,—yet they refuse to treat!” From the infantryman’s point of view, there was fighting to be done, but the outcome was inevitable.

Scott’s “self-sustaining machine” of an army had restored itself to nearly 11,000 effectives, while Santa Anna’s Napoleonic gift for raising armies put more than 25,000 Mexicans in uniform and under arms for the defense of Mexico City. Once again, the Mexicans had the advantage of a solid defensive position: a marshy plain (some of it flooded) before the city, stout defenses around it, and the city itself resting on high ground.

Using Robert E. Lee again as a scout, Scott decided to leave the national highway—and thereby avoid the Mexican defenses at El Peñón—and approach Mexico City from the south on roads that straddled the Pedregal, an allegedly impassable volcanic waste that was five miles wide and three miles deep. On either side of that lava bed, the battles of Contreras and Churubusco were fought. And once again, Captain Robert E. Lee would find a path—this time through the Pedregal—where no path was supposed to be found.

The road on the eastern side of the Pedregal was the San Antonio Road; on the western side was the San Angel Road. The San Antonio Road was the more direct, but the Mexicans had a well-fortified position at San Antonio and not far behind it was Santa Anna’s main position along the Churubusco River. On the San Angel Road, the Mexican General Gabriel Valencia was supposed to be defending San Angel, where Santa Anna could easily reinforce him. Instead, Valencia—an officer of dubious reputation and on bad terms with Santa Anna—took up a position farther forward, and off the San Angel Road, across from the southwestern base of the Pedregal.